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Language, Community and Identity Event

Last Friday, I popped down to London for the Language, Community and Identity event at the British Academy. There was a very good line up of speakers, including Professor Wendy BennettProfessor Jenny Cheshire, Professor Dennis Preston, and Dr Devyani Sharma. It was a packed house with nary a free seat in the room, not surprising given the academic pedigree of the speakers, all of whom have done fantastic work in the field of language and gender, perceptual dialectology, historical sociolinguistics and so on.

Perhaps the most surprising thing, though, was that it was chaired by Professor Peter Trudgill, someone who hasn’t really popped up on my radar as a ‘language and identity’ research. Indeed, as he acknowledged in his opening address, he has in the past been accused of being a bit of an anti-identity campaigner. He took some time, however, to say that he has never doubted the importance of identity in terms of language variation, but rather that he couldn’t see how identity could be the principal reason why a particular linguistic variable would change over time and that other forces must be in action. In any event, he didn’t spend a great deal of time on this point and instead the event was focused on dealing with three main questions:

  1. How do we research identity and community through language?
  2. What role do identity and community play in language change?
  3. How do different parts of language construct identities?

For each question, each of the four panel members gave a short overview of their thoughts on the topic, before the floor was opened up to the audience and questions were taken. Because of lack of space, I’m not going to go over everything that was said (and I’ve surely forgotten stuff…), but there were some interesting things brought up, including the issue of bringing together the perception/production cycle. Related to this point, Preston made a really good observation along the lines of ‘what’s the point of doing identity if there’s no-one there to hear you talk?’. Researchers in the UK and the US have been making strides in dealing with how production and perception are linked, and recently there’s been work that’s integrated identity within this framework (like Erez Levon’s work I’ve discussed elsewhere on the blog), but it’s a slow process and I think that more work can be done here, especially within work that adopts a more ethnographic approach (mine included).

The other part that was interesting was how different levels of language contributed to identity construction. Most sociolinguistic research focuses on phonetic/phonological variation, but the interface between syntax/phonology/discourse is still a really under-investigated area of work (Katie Drager’s work on discourse marker ‘like’ is a good example of what can be done). I would have liked the panel to have spent a bit more time on this area since it’s an interesting one and it was good to get viewpoints from different people working within syntax, discourse, and phonetics. I think that speakers and listeners are perhaps more attuned to changes in syntax (since it can be so marked) than they are for variation in discourse or phonology, although that raises a whole bunch of other questions on what makes a variant ‘noticeable’. It is frequency of use, recency of use, salience of use (and how does a variant become salient) or some sort of combination of these (thanks to Norma Mendoza-Denton for these points!)?

Beyond the event itself, it was great to catch up with colleagues I hadn’t seen in a while. Working in an English Department, it gets a bit lonely not having other sociolinguists to talk to and I always like seeing how people are getting on. It also cheered me up before I got back on the train to do another batch of marking…

– The Social Linguist

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