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Archive for May, 2012

Ah Amercia, Land of the Free.


It amazes me just how effective a vector the Internet is for a) identifying interesting (and sometimes unintentionally hilarious) language faux pas and b) for taking such faux pas and just running with them. The latest example is Mitt Romney’s campaign ‘Make Amercia Better‘ which instantly spawned not only a dedicated hash tag (#amercia, generating a veritable hosepipe of tweets), but also a ‘With Mitt‘ app where users could change the background photo and overlay it with a photo of their own choosing (which ultimately led to a dedicated Tumblr blog where like-minded Amercians could show their commitment to Matt Romney’s cause).

And here’s the Google trend analytics for the word ‘Amercia’. Note the big blue spike on the far right of the graph? Yeah, that’s Romney’s doing.

– The Social Linguist

Fat, obese or overweight? Has there been a change?


The BBC just put out an article covering a recent MP report about the use of ‘weight neutral language‘ which advises doctors and other public health workers to stop using the words fat, obese or overweight. Rather, doctors should instead use more ‘positive language’, including encouraging people to ‘get to a healthy weight’ and so on. While I think that words like fat can be hurtful, I’m less convinced that obese and overweight are, particularly since they’re part of the vocabulary of health professionals, but then, so was spastic once upon a time (which Lynn Murphy has written about here), so it’s entirely possible that it is offensive to people (as was suggested by a University of Pennsylvania research project in the journal Obesity which reported that people found the term obesity offensive. I think I found the article here,but the Nature website is being all screwy and I can’t check it to make sure it’s the right one or not).

Overlooking the issue of whether this recommendation will have any actual impact on weight issues in the UK, I noticed that there was a comment by Ian Brookes (a consultant editor at the Collins dictionary) which said:

“Statistically, there are no signs people are using words like fat, obese and overweight less frequently. There is a relative increase in their use, but that could be because there is a more general awareness of obesity and the dangers of it. There is no evidence of any change in the use of offensive synonyms like chubby, lardy and podgy. There is an increase in vocabulary relating to the whole commercial and medical side of obesity, with new words such as bariatric, gastric band and stomach stapling. But a number of facetious terms have also come up more. We’ve recently added the phrase generation XL – which leads on from generation X. There is not much evidence weight-neutral terms are being used, but then it is relatively new. Fattist first comes up in 1974, peaks around 1992 and then goes into decline.”

Now, I’ve got no idea whether this is true or not, so I decided to check it using Google Ngram (caveat – I’ve never done any sort of corpus linguistic work so I’m not sure if this is even the right way to go about it. Feel free to post in the comments if it’s not. And I’m acutely aware that this really isn’t ‘corpus linguistics’). Searching the English corpus between 1800 – 2008 with a smoothing factor of five, the results were as follows.

For the ‘neutral words’ obese and overweight, there appears to be a slight rise over time, with obese dipping between 1980 and 2000 before rallying up until 2008. 

Fat, on the other hand, seems to be relatively stable over the last twenty or so years, with a slight rise between 2000 and 2008. 

Gastric band and bariatric surgery have, unsurprisingly, been on the increase since about 1995, with stomach stapling (one of earliest surgeries for encouraging weight loss) increasing in use from 1980 onwards, which is when it was invented.

Lastly, chubby has been on the rise since about 1980, although it does go back all the way to 1800s (I’m not sure of its earliest attestation, but it’s late and I can’t be bothered checking the etymological dictionaries). 

Interestingly, NGram doesn’t give any results for Generation XL, although this is most likely to do with the fact that it’s really really new. Webcorp does better much here, although I’ve not quite figured out how to get it to spit out descriptive statistics.

So what does all of this tell us? Well, for words like fat, it does appear to be the case that its rate of use is slowing down, countering (at least to some extent) the claim made by Ian Brookes. The other, more neutral, words do appear to be increasing in use, but whether that’s because of more awareness of the issues or because there’s more media chatter about it is debatable. More offensive words like chubby do seem to be used more, which is interesting given that Brookes says there hasn’t been a change in use of these kinds of words. Whether he means that its meaning hasn’t changed or whether people aren’t using it less is unclear, but there is some evidence at least to suggest that it’s being used more often.

– The Social Linguist

Birmingham English and the attribution of guilt


Although most of my research is on Glaswegian and Scottish English, I’m starting to move my focus towards Birmingham English, if only by virtue of the fact that I live here now. What was really surprising to me was just how negatively evaluated Birmingham English actually is (it was rated last in the recent BBC Voices survey). I mean, I know that it’s often put forward as a bit of an ‘uneducated’ accent, but it seems that I underestimated just how deeply rooted these stereotypes are. For example, there was a bit of a media uproar in Birmingham about the Colman’s baked potatoes advert where the pig in it spoke in a Birmingham accent, and more recently, some research from Bath Spa university found that when judges had to evaluate a speaker’s level of intelligence by listening to short extracts of speech and looking at random pictures of models they were led to believe matched the voice. The accents varied from RP to Scottish to Cockney to Birmingham and so on. The experiment also included one speaker who said nothing at all. Bizarrely, the picture of a speaker + no voice was rated as more intelligent that the picture of a speaker + Birmingham English. So people who didn’t say anything were viewed as more intelligent than people from Birmingham. It kind  of reminds me of the quote – “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”.

While this is all kind of ‘quirky’ research and could be seen as a bit of a laugh. At least, until I read this article (thanks to Lesley Gabriel for putting me onto it!). The premise of the article is ‘how far does your accent affect people’s perception of your guilt?’ and it tests it by adopting what’s known as a ‘matched guise test’ technique. The idea of a MGT is that you get a bi-dialectal speaker and record them in both guises – guise A (which might be a non-regional variety of English) and guise B (which might be a regional variety). For example, I can speak both Glaswegian Vernacular (guise A) and Scottish Standard English (guise B). You then play each of these guises to a set of judges (not actual judge judges, just people who listen to the stimuli and rate it), but the judges don’t know that each of the voices they hear are from the same speaker. Because the speaker is the same in each case (and thus, things like their honesty, intelligence, trustworthiness etc don’t change), we can get evidence about how far a speaker’s accent can influence how people view them.

This was the basic approach of Dixon et al’s research, but they went a bit further and wanted to see whether someone’s accent influenced whether a listener would think a speaker was more or less guilty of a crime they had been accused of. In particular, they hypothesised that ‘a Brummie-accented suspect would elicit stronger attributions of guilt than a standard-accented suspect’ (Dixon et al. 2002: 164). They also complicated things by having the suspect accused of different types of crime which could be roughly characterised as ‘blue collar’ (armed robbery) or ‘white collar’ (cheque fraud), and included a description of the suspect which was then matched across the different experimental contexts.

Of all the factors that Dixon et al. built into the experiment, the only significant predictive factor which emerged was speaker accent, and unsurprisingly, the ‘Brummie’ speaker was rated as more guilty than the speakers in standard guises. The effect size wasn’t a small one either, but a reasonably moderate one, and the significant three way effect between speaker accent, speaker ethnicity and speaker crime suggests that these factors are all strongly correlated. Indeed, the Brummie accent/Black suspect/blue collar crime cell had significantly higher guilt ratings than the other five cells (e.g. Brummie accent/White suspect/white collar crime etc). Of course, it’s impossible to know from the experiment exactly which ‘Brummie’ features the judges were responding to and whether there were patterns of higher guilt ratings when the stimulus covered the physical description of the suspect, but the overall findings are persuasive.

All of this research taken together underlines some quite serious issues regarding the social prestige of Birmingham English, but it also highlights the real-world ramifications speaking a particular accent might have. What’s more concerning is what do we actually do with this research? I have no idea whether Dixon and his colleagues went to, for example, West Midlands police and told them about this research, or whether steps were taken to train police officers up on the implications of the findings, but it seems like a pretty obvious step.

The Social Linguist

Tim Visser – Has his accent changed?


The Dutch rugby player Tim Visser has just been announced as part of the Scottish rugby squad for their summer tour against Australia, Samoa and Fiji. This has been heralded as a great boon for Scotland as they look to arrest a losing streak of seven loses on the trot, and Visser’s try scoring potency is hoped to carry over onto the international stage. Of course, Visser being eligible to play for Scotland has only been possible due to the IRB’s residency rules which allow an internationally uncapped player to play for any country where they satisfy a three year residency rule.

Visser joined Edinburgh in June 2009, so in June 2012 he becomes eligible to play for Scotland since he hasn’t played for any other union at international level. Unfortunately, he’ll miss the Australia game (where we’ll be humped anyway), but he’ll make it to the Samoa and Fiji games, so we’ll get to see what he’s made of on the international stage.

Anyway, when I listened to an interview last week where he talked about being selected as part of the Scotland squad, and I was struck by how, well, Scottish he sounded, which was surprising because… he’s Dutch. Of course, I’ve got no idea what his target variety was when he was learning English, or even how long he’s been speaking English, so to check whether he’s always spoken with a ‘Scottish’ accent, I looked around for earlier interviews and found this one from when he moved to Edinburgh from Newcastle Falcons.

Now, the subject of how far people can change their accent in adulthood has long been contested within sociolinguistics, but it seems that while a speaker might not be able to pass as a ‘native’, they can adjust certain elements (this is nicely demonstrated in Jonathan Harrington’s research on the Queen). Generally speaking, it sounds to me as though Visser’s accent has changed across the two time periods, where he sounds more ‘English’ in 2009 and more ‘Scottish’ in 2012 (points below discuss Visser in 2009)

  • His DRESS vowel is a bit more fronted (for the word Edinburgh, F2 was 1600Hz in 2009 and 1560Hz in 2012).
  • His TRAP/BATH/PALM set is more fronted and lowered (his F1/F2 values for can in 2009 came out at 820Hz and 1440hz while for dad they came out at 709Hz and 1395Hz. Of course, following phonetic context of nasal versus plosive will likely play a part here).
  • And his FACE vowel is more diphthongal.
  • Curiously, his FOOT vowel is merged with GOOSE (in fact, it’s really rounded and fronted which is more like Scottish English).
  • There are a few features he’s not acquired completely in either period, including the devoicing of normally voiced fricatives and plosives (in words like was and squad).

I should add the caveat that one measurement per vowel is really not a good way to make claims about whether someone’s accent is changing or not and is not recommended practice, but there’s not really that much data to go on and unfortunately there’s no reading lists of him in 2009 and 2012, but it sounds to my ear that something there.

What’s also interesting is thinking about whether Visser’s accent has changed purely through prolonged contact with other Scottish English speakers (they do exist in Edinburgh, or so I’ve been told), or whether he now identifies with Scotland more because he’s now Scottish-qualified and that’s supposed to bring with it an element of sporting pride, or if it’s some sort of combination of these. My own take on it is that despite Visser qualifying for Scotland, he wouldn’t view himself as a Scotsman, so the ‘identifying with Scotland’ angle carries a bit less weight, suggesting that any changes are predicated on acquisition of Scottish English features through contact, rather than through any sort of identity politics, perhaps lending more weight to Trudgill’s point that ‘identity doesn’t matter‘.

– The Social Linguist