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Archive for July, 2012

Crowd-sourcing a title


For the past six months or so, I’ve been working on an edited volume with Dave Sayers, a sociolinguist at Swansea University, on sociolinguistics beyond academia. We’ve got all our contributors lined up, the proposal is more or less finished, and we’re ready to send it to the publishers. But we’re stuck on one slight issue, and that’s where you come in.

We have two very similar titles, but we’re not sure which one is better. This is your chance to help shape the title that we’ll (probably!) end up using (usual disclaimers apply!). Granted, the difference between the two is minimal, but we’re interested in seeing which one ‘flows’ better.

Alternatively, if you have another suggestion, add it to the comments!

The Social Linguist

Statistical analysis of linguistic data using aRgh!


When I did my PhD, I analysed all of my data in SPSS, simply because it was the only statistical package that I knew about at the time. Later on in my PhD, I was introduced to Goldvarb, but unfortunately, that was pretty hopeless for me because I was analysing continuous data (vowel measurements) and Goldvarb could only be used to analyse categorical (either/or) data, so things like the presence or absence of /r/ for example. So Goldvarb sat on my computer, unexplored for the duration of my PhD.

Towards the end of my PhD (i.e. as I finished most of my analysis), I started hearing about this new-kid-on-the-block piece of software called R. I loaded it up and almost as quickly, shut it straight back down again. Although R is incredibly powerful, it is driven purely by command line interface. This is in stark contrast to something like SPSS which is primarily menu-driven (you can use command-line in SPSS, but I didn’t). And if you’ve ever used a command-line interface, you’ll know just how ridiculously non-intuitive such a system is and how hair-tearingly frustrating it is to get the software to do something simple like, oh I don’t know, open a data file… I tried it, hated it and eventually gave up on it.

Once I had finished my PhD, in the hubbub of sociolinguistic chatter, I started hearing that R was ‘the next big thing’ and that it could do far more than SPSS ever could. One of the big advantages R had over SPSS was the fact that it could do mixed-effects model regression rather than just fixed-effects model regression. Importantly, mixed-effects models are a lot more powerful and accurate than fixed-effect models since (as I understand it) it weights the linguistic results against the number of speakers (Daniel Johnson has written an excellent paper on why m-e models are better here).

Or imagine that we have transcribed 1,000 tokens of words with a  historical post-vocalic /r/; half the tokens come from men, and half from  women. Suppose that 60% of the men’s tokens are /r/-less, compared with 40% of those from women. Given such a distribution, GoldVarb would identify gender as a highly significant factor group. And that conclusion would be perfectly justified if the data came from 40 speakers, 20 men ranging between 45% and 75% /r/-lessness, and 20 women ranging between 25% and 55%. Here, while men and women both show considerable diversity, and some women are even more /r/-less than some men, the men are more /r/-less overall. And with so many speakers in each group, the difference is very unlikely to be due to chance. But if the same 1,000 tokens had come from only eight speakers – four men with 45%, 55%, 65% and 75% /r/-lessness, and four women with 25%, 35%, 45% and 55% – we would not have sufficient evidence for a gender effect. Here, too, the average man is more /r/-less than the average woman, but the number of speakers is small enough that the difference could have arisen by chance (Johnson 2009: 364).

Daniel is one of the champions of using R in sociolinguistics analysis, and I was further convinced by the usefulness of R during the Sociolinguistic Summer School in Glasgow last year. Again, though, I never really had an opportunity to use it since I was up to my eye-balls in discourse analysis, so my quantitative side kind of slipped away a little bit.

But now I’m working on a paper looking at my TH-fronting data in more detail, trying to see whether Community of Practice is a significant predictor over other linguistic constraints in determining whether a speaker would use [th], [f] or [h] in word initial position, and I’ve now bitten the bullet and started trying to learn R properly. I can now (kind of), open a dataset, adjust the dataset, and do a basic m-e linear regression analysis. Part of the problem is, however, that Rbrul (the marriage of Goldvarb and R if you like) can’t deal with a categorical variable with more than two levels, and my variable has three, so now I’m trying to puzzle this out and see whether I can turn it into a continuous variable with three points.

Anyway, the take-home message is R IS HARD (for me at least. Other people have an almost supernatural affinity with it…). What resources have been good for people learning it? Or alternatively, who wants to take my data off my hands and run R on it and let me know the results 😉

The Social Linguist

Categories: Research Tags: , , ,

Japanese people visiting Scotland: this information could save your life!


I read this article in The Guardian last week about this, a Japanese guidebook to Scotland. Now obviously, I can’t read Japanese, but if The Guardian article is anything to go by, I’m kind of glad I can’t, because I think I’d probably end up a) laughing too much or b) get too annoyed, both of which would result in me not finishing it. For those of you who might have missed the story, it’s basically a guidebook for Japanese visitors heading to Scotland, what to expect, what to call things, how to interact with the locals and so on.

What I can’t figure out is just how much of it is tongue-in-cheek and how much of it is ‘serious advice for the world traveller’. Taking just the first sentence of The Guardian article, Japanese tourists are advised to ‘Avoid football supporters and “flat sausage”, and never, ever, refer to a Scottish person as English’. As a Scottish person, I feel qualified to talk about this advice.

1) Avoid football supporters

Ok, I can perhaps understand this, but where tourists will be visiting (major sites, tourist hotspots etc) will likely not include the major football areas of either Glasgow or Edinburgh. Even further afield (Dundee, Aberdeen etc), as far as I’m aware, the football grounds and associated supporters’ bars are nowhere the tourist trail, so the likelihood of a tourist meeting a football fan is already pretty low. And anyway, unless said tourist was to go up to said football fan and say something like ‘your football team’s rubbish by the way’ (cause they’ve already acquired some Scottish English discourse markers), then football fans are likely to take no notice of tourists. So this piece of advice is close to scaremongering in my view.

2) Avoid ‘flat’ sausage

Those of you who live south of the border might wonder what on earth this might be, but no-one in Scotland actually calls it this. Instead, it’s known as lorne sausage or more usually square sausage and it’s probably one of the best inventions to come out of Scotland, particularly since it fits so well in a roll (or bun, bap, hob, barm or whatever your vernacular word of choice is). Square sausage means your meal is more stable (no sausages rolling out), and your sauce is more easily distributed across the sausage. All in all, it’s one of those foods that all tourists to Scotland should try, along with black pudding, whiskey and clootie dumpling.

3) Don’t call a Scottish person English

This is set out as though the mistake will cost the tourist their life, but seriously, people who are unfamiliar with Scotland and the Scottish accent think we’re from all over the place, including Ireland, Australia, Canada and England (I’ve been asked at one time or another if I’m from each of these countries), so  it’s often really not a big deal. Moreover, Scottish people would probably be quite forgiving of someone who has never been to Scotland before and would likely try and explain politely that they’re not English (I expect, without any violence).

I also took exception to the following piece of advice: ‘Please do not expect to have the same quick, polite and accurate service here to compare with Japanese service at shops, restaurants and hotels. Be patient anywhere in Scotland, it is not Japan’.

Actually, people who work in the service sector in Scotland are incredibly polite, quick and accurate, more so if they work in a tourist spot, so I really don’t know what this advice is based on. I worked in the Glasgow Science Centre for years when I was a student and I was always proud of the high standards of service we gave to our visitors (gosh, I feel like I’m recounting our trainee handbook!), and most places I’ve visited in Glasgow, Edinburgh or further afield have never made me think that customer service in Scotland is found wanting.

Maybe there’s nuggets of wisdom in the book that haven’t been included in the review, so perhaps I’m being a little unfair, but even if these few pieces of advice I’ve discussed above are taken as representative of Japanese worries about Scottish culture, then I’m a bit surprised Luath decided to publish it at all…

The Social Linguist

Robert Lawson: Academic, lecturer, Fulbright scholar


After 10 long long months of waiting to get the go-ahead to publicise this, I’m pleased to be able to share that I am now the Fulbright Scottish Studies Scholar! This announcement is the culmination of nearly 18 months of blood, sweat and tears, with application deadlines, interview stress, visa worries, and a whole host of other unmentionables. Yesterday, I returned from a three-day orientation in London where our status as Fulbrighters was confirmed and we were told that we could share the news with all and sundry. I’ve wanted to blog about this for ages but because there were so many steps where we could fall down and the award be retracted (for various reasons, including not being approved by the Washington D.C. Fulbright Board, not getting approved for a visa, etc etc), we were told to hold fast and announce it once all the paperwork was signed off.

So, from September 2012, I’ll be heading off to the exotic climes of the University of Pittsburgh, PA where I’ll be working on turning the thesis into a book (or as I’m calling it, thesis 2.0), and the edited volume on sociolinguistics in Scotland. And brilliantly, UoP is where Scott Kiesling (my external examiner for my thesis) works, so I’ll be able to pick his brains about issues to do with language and masculinity, which is very exciting.

I have plans to write up a bunch of stuff over the next year or so, including application and interview process, what to expect at orientation, visa issues, culture shock, the book writing process, and the Fulbright experience more generally, some of which I wasn’t able to find out about elsewhere on the internet. I’ll try and keep a focus on the ‘sociolinguistics’ side of the blog, but there will also be a fair smattering of other stuff going in as well.

While what I’m about to say is normally reserved for the acknowledgements page, I’d just like to take this opportunity to publicly thank a few people who helped out with putting together the application form, preparing for the interview and generally keeping me on the straight and narrow as I went through the Fulbright process.

First off, Professor Fiona Robertson helped out with reading a draft of my application and offered some important guidance on writing for a non-specialised audience. This made me refine my thoughts and work on how to communicate my ideas to people outside sociolinguistics, and her guidance definitely helped me get past the first round.

Second, Mel Moore was key in helping me put together the teaching side of my application. He also did a bunch of mock interviews with me (and was very professional in doing so!), read my application more times than he probably would have liked to, and generally cajoled, encouraged and motivated me to keep on going. The application was definitely stronger for his input and I am immeasurably grateful for both his help and his friendship.

I don’t think that words will suffice to thank the last person on this list, my girlfriend, Rebecca Hering. From persuading me to apply in the first place, to being by my side every step of the way, to patiently listening to me go through (for the umpteenth time) my mock interview answers, to keeping me smiling when I thought that my chances were hopeless, she has been an inspiration and a constant source of love and support. This award is as much hers as it is mine.

– The Social Linguist