Archive for October, 2012

A New Scotland: Who Should Get to Vote?

Normally, I avoid political rambling on the blog for several reasons. First, I’m not especially politically minded. Second, politics and sociolinguistics are uncommon bed-fellows. And third, there are a ton of politics-orientated blogs out there, so I don’t see the point in adding to them. But I’d be lying if I said that the question of Scottish independence didn’t have me intrigued, given that it’s quite possibly the biggest question the people of Scotland will ever have to answer in the history of the country.

And in that previous sentence is a key phrase: the people of Scotland. Not ‘Scottish people’, not ‘the Scots’, but ‘the people of Scotland’. And it’s important since how voting rights are being determined is by residency, not by ancestry or any other rubric. Which, as a fully paid up member of the Scottish Vowel Length Rule (where words like greed and agreed are contrastive by the length of the vowel /i/, unlike in English English where the vowels are the same length), I find pretty disappointing. I grew up in Scotland, studied in Scotland, lived, worked and contributed to Scotland’s economy. From the ages of -9 months to 26 1/2 years old, I lived in Scotland. And then I had to move, mainly because there were no jobs in Scotland in sociolinguistics (who’da thunk it? It’s such a growth industry!). And now that I’m living in England, I’m ineligible to vote in one of the biggest decisions ever to affect my country.

This blog post is inspired in part by the fact that right now, I’m giving a talk at the Scottish Leadership Conference in Troy, MI (just outside Detroit) about the Scottish Studies Fulbright Award (which, if you’re thinking about applying, you should do now! There’s only about a month left to go until the deadline!), and I know that there will be a lot of people there talking about Scottish independence and so on. It was also inspired by this post here, but what jumped out at me was the following quote:

By any measure, my accent, vocabulary and appetite for cholesterol-rich foodstuffs still mark me out as a Scot. I think “glaikit” is a superior term to “stupid”, “messages” preferable to “groceries” and “shoogly” more mellifluous than “unstable”.

So for the writer, the biggest determinant of Scottish identity is language use (and therein, we get to the confluence of sociolinguistics and politics!). And there’s been lots written about identity and nationality (one I’m making my way through just now is Monica Heller’s recent book on the topic), so it’s no surprise that language use should be invoked here as a key marker of ‘Scottishness’. Language is, after all, how we show the world who we are and where we come from, and language is, for me, one of the most important ways I construct my identity as Scottish. And being in America right now, my Scottishness is perhaps even more explicitly foregrounded (especially when I switch into my faux-American accent and realise that I sound like an eejit).

Now, what the practical ramifications of independence will be are unclear, particularly relating to things like passports and border control (I’m guessing that nothing much would change here, but I could be wrong), but if independence does go through, at least I won’t have to feel that twinge of uncomfortableness when filling in Government forms that ask for your country of birth (for me, it’s Scotland, not the UK).

Incidentally, while I’m annoyed that I can’t vote on the independence question, and would welcome any movement which would allow Scots abroad to vote (like this chap is trying to do), I understand the complications on drawing a line between who should and who shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Indeed, the SNP has now publicly disavowed Scots abroad and won’t let them vote. But supposing it was to happen, would the best way to determine Scottishness be  a linguistic test (sample questions below)?:

  1. What’s do you call the smallest finger on your hand?
  2. (Fill in the blank) A migraine is a kind of severe ______.
  3. Spot the odd one out: loch, burn, stream.
  4. (Fill in the blank) The car is dirty. It needs ______.
  5. (Speak into the microphone clearly and read the following passage aloud): Wash those grass stains off your knees!
  6. (Translation): Here hen, ur ye gaunae go up the toon the morra night or no?

A workable proposal? I think so.

The Scottish Linguist

Talking Whales?? Wha’?

Now when I saw the headline to this story (full link to article here), I was expecting something more like Darwin from seaQuestDSV. The story concerns the apparent human-like vocalisations of a Beluga white whale called ‘NOC‘ who was recorded almost thirty years ago while he was in captivity. The bulk of the evidence that the sounds NOC produced comes from a diver who believed he heard the word ‘out’ during a dive, the fact that the whale’s fundamental frequency during these vocalisations was around 200-300Hz, and that the rhythm of the sounds was similar to that of human speech. All of this certainly suggests that NOC was imitating sounds heard during his captivity, particularly as he was apparently quite a well-trained whale, which would have obviously required a good amount of human contact.

One of the authors, however, says the following comment in the abstract of the paper:

“We report here sound recordings and analysis which demonstrate spontaneous mimicry of the human voice, presumably a result of vocal learning, by a white whale.”

A few things. The first is that this wasn’t (at least for the bulk of the article) ‘spontaneous mimicry’. It certainly might have started out that way, but as the authors point out, NOC was then trained to perform these vocalisations and rewarded accordingly. The second is that ‘vocal learning’ might be overstating the point somewhat. All he seemed to learn was to mimic a very small subset of ‘speech’ (if we want to call it that), since listening to the clips provided on the main paper and the BBC article, it sounds more like scat-singing than actual speech. Third, no other explanation is put forward for how NOC might have learned to produce these sounds (ringers, buzzers, bells, whistles etc, all of which would presumably be part of the acoustic landscape of his environment). And lastly, while it’s reasonably well argued how NOC could produce clicks and so on, it’s not all clear how he would have the physiological ability to produce the kinds of complex articulations which would be needed for a word like out (apparently heard by the diver). There seems to be an element of listener-interpretation going on here.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s very cool that NOC produced sounds that were intelligible to his trainers, but I have to say, it would have been much cooler to have had something like this (skip ahead to the four minute mark).

The Social Linguist

Life in Pittsburgh and the random car ride…

October 16, 2012 2 comments

Although I’ve done a fair amount of travelling in the States, Pittsburgh was a town I’d never visited before. I’d been to Philadelphia and other part of the Eastern seaboard, but Pittsburgh had never really registered on my list of places to visit in America. I’m not sure why this is, but I think that it’s got a lot to do with the fact that it’s not a ‘tourist town’ in the way that NYC or Boston or Philadelphia are. Now, that’s not to say that there’s nothing to do in Pittsburgh, far from it, but rather, it doesn’t market itself as a city for tourists to visit. As such, it seems more representative of ‘real’ America, rather than the kind of package-deal America you might get at Disneyland or something. And for me, the former is far more interesting and attractive a proposition than the latter.

Anyway, suffice to say that I had absolutely no preconceptions about what life would be like over here, and what I’ve seen thus far has been pleasantly surprising. Perhaps one of the most surprising things to happen to me since, well, almost ever (?), was one of the first social interactions we had in Pittsburgh. We arrived in Pittsburgh on the 12th September and on the 13th, we decided to scout around some of the local neighbourhoods to get an idea of where things were, important orientating points and so on. So we knew where we were starting from and where we had gone, we headed to Giant Eagle to buy a street map. Unfortunately, Giant Eagle didn’t have any, but during the conversation with one of the members of staff, one of the women in front of us in the queue mentioned that we should try either the nearby gas station or Barnes and Noble. We thanked her and she left the store. As we came out of Giant Eagle, we saw her standing near the entrance on her phone, and as we walked past her, she stopped us and said that she was speakeing to her mechanic who was just around the corner to see if he had a map we could borrow. Again, we thanked her and said that we were going to get the bus to the Barnes and Noble at the Waterfront to buy one instead. What happened next literally made my jaw drop…

Her: ‘Barnes and Noble? The one down at the Waterfront? No worries. Jump in the car and I’ll take you guys there.’
Me: ‘What? No no no, don’t worry about it, we’ll just take the bus!’
Her: ‘It’s fine, I’m headed that way, so it’s not a big deal.’

So despite having never met us before, she was willing to give two perfect strangers a helping hand and make their day a little bit easier. We jumped in the car and she drove us to Barnes and Noble. Just to be extra awesome, as we were driving there, she phoned the store to see if they had any Pittsburgh street maps for sale (they did, thankfully!). After some nice chat about the city and what we were doing in Pittsburgh, we arrived at the shopping centre and she dropped us off right at the door. After us tripping over ourselves trying to thank her, she wished us a pleasant stay and drove off. Even four weeks later, I’m still kind of stunned that even in a big city, people can still be caring and helpful and kind to complete strangers and be willing to go out of their way, if only a little bit, to help someone out. This might be a minor story, but I really can’t imagine that happening in London or Birmingham or NYC or Chicago. Maybe out in the sticks where things are a little bit harder to get to, but in a city, you kind of feel as though you’re left to your own devices for the most part.

So to the woman who drove us to Barnes and Noble, thank you for the lift! You made our day.

– The Social Linguist

The problem with modifiers…

October 9, 2012 6 comments

Sometimes, it’s not clear in a sentence which head nouns an adjective is modifying, as in the well-used example of ‘fresh fruit and veg’. Does the word ‘fresh’ modify ‘fruit and veg’ or does it just modify ‘fruit’? Anyway, last week, I was scouring the internet during my morning orange juice when I came across the following tidbit.


Of course, the issue here is whether the sentence should be parsed:

AdjP (100% natural) GP (kids NP (bean bag chair))

In this case, the adjective phrase ‘100% natural’ premodifies the genitive phrase ‘kids bean bag chair’, with an embedded noun phrase ‘bean bag chair’. Reading it in this way, the sentence could be interpreted as ‘a 100% natural bean bag chair for kids’.

Or whether the sentence should be parsed as:

NP (100% natural kids) NP (bean bag chair)

Here, the noun phrase ‘100% natural kids’ (with premodifying adjective ‘natural’) premodifies the following noun phrase ‘bean bag chair’, leading to a far more sinister interpretation of ‘a bean bag chair filled with 100% natural kids’.

Beware ambiguous modifiers!

The Social Linguist

N.B. I’m not a syntactian by any means, so if my analysis is out here, please let me know and I’ll update!

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