Archive for December, 2012

Weetos Faux Pas

December 22, 2012 1 comment

A few days ago, Weetabix decided to release updated packaging for their Weetos cereal. What they ended up doing verged on (apparently unintended) comedy gold …


As you can see, the idea Weetabix was going for was to use cartoon characters to embody a range of positive qualities that the characters got by eating Weetos. So we have Buck Wild, Jean Pa Pow and… Big Baws. Now, this might not have caused a fuss in most places in the UK, but it did in Scotland because ‘baws’ means ‘testicles’ (colloquially, ‘balls’). It’s ‘baws’ because of a historical process of what’s known as L-vocalisation led to the /l/ being weakened and ultimately elided. It appears in a bunch of Scots words like fu’ (‘full’), wa’ (‘wall’) and ca’ (call), and it’s generally a very distinctive Scots feature (if you read Oor Wullie, you’ll see lots of it. Here, for example, he says ‘forgotten a’ aboot this’ in the seventh panel.). L-vocalisation tends to appear with back vowels rather than front vowels (although it does seem to be spreading in words like milk and bible).

Now Weetabix’s defence was that ‘Big Baws’ was supposed to be read as ‘Big Boss’, but I don’t think that explanation holds much water, for the following reason. Generally, the pronunciation of plural nouns marked with <s> varies depending on whether the segment preceding -s is voiced or voiceless. For example, the -s at the end of claps is pronounced [s] but it’s pronounced [z] at the end of clubs. Same with flags and flaps or capes and cabs. This is because the <s> ‘takes on’ the voicing of the preceding segement. If the segment is voiceless, the <s> will be voiceless as well. With words that end in <s> that are not plurals (like boss, floss, moss etc), however, generally these have [s], not [z].

In a word like ‘baws’, we have [w] (a voiced labio-velar approximant), which would suggest that the following <s> should also be voiced (going by the above reasoning). In that case, the pronunciation should be [bɔz], not [bɔs]. But <w> only appears in the orthography, not in the pronunciation, so then maybe Weetabix thought that since ‘baws’ ends in <s> but is preceded like a vowel (like moss and floss etc), it should be voiceless [s] (as you can see, I’m giving Weetabix a lot of credit for their phonological theory work here). In that case, ‘baws’ would be pronounced [bɔs], and the ‘baws~boss’ link becomes clear, despite the differences in orthography.

But alas, we have words like caws and saws and gnaws and yaws and draws and, well, you get the idea. All of these words have [z] at the end. Going by simple analogy, then, someone at Weetabix should have realised that the <s> in baws should be pronounced [z] and not [s] and that they could never get to [bɔs] by spelling it <baws>.

My theory is that they knew what ‘baws’ meant in Scotland and just decided to run with it, in the hope that the amount of publicity they would receive from the fallout would be worth the short term disadvantages (and to date, ‘weetos big baws’ yields over 40,000 hits on Google. Not a great amount, but when that’s nearly 25% of the hits for just ‘weetos’, it’s a sizable amount).

You’d have to say that Weetabix has big baws indeed….

– The Social Linguist

Categories: Uncategorized

Fulbright advice (Part II)

Ok, so this is the second part of my Fulbright advice (if you missed it, Part I is here).

6. Know your audience

If you want the panel/reviewers to want to give you the award, you need your application to be memorable. Vague and uninformed proposals stand a lower chance of being selected, so it’s particularly important to make sure that your project is clear and understandable to people outside your field. This means avoiding jargon, specialist terms, and technical vocabulary. This is one easy way of alienating the very people you want to impress.

7. Why the USA?

You also need to make a strong case for ‘why do you need to go to the States?’. Saying that you want to work on your tan in the Arizona desert is unlikely to garner support, so be clear on who you want to work with and why. What will the benefits be to you and your career if you go to the States as opposed to anywhere else? And what do you hope to bring back to the UK? The Fulbright is an exchange programme, so it’s important to flag up how the UK will benefit from this exchange.

8. Leading from the front

The Fulbright is also about developing the leaders of the future, people who will move fields forward, who will inspire and help people. As such, Fulbrighters  are generally excellent ambassadors, not only for their country, but for the Fulbright Commission as well. People who are interested in the world around them, who are curious about new cultures and excited about meeting new people have the kinds of qualities the Fulbright represents. Your application and the interview are both avenues where you can showcase these qualities to the reviewing panel, so don’t be backwards in going forwards on the kinds of things you’ve achieved. Additionally, even once your Fulbright year is done, it’s a lifetime commitment of representing the Fulbright ethos. Once a Fulbrighter, always a Fulbrighter!

9. The interpersonal stuff

The Fulbright is a commitment. It took me almost two years from start to finish, and for me, having support from friends and family was really important in getting through the process. But additionally, if you’re in a relationship, moving abroad for anywhere between three months to three years is a big ask. Unless you’re happy to spend some of that time apart (since if you travel on the visa waiver program, visits to the US can only be a maximum of 90 days), it’s important to make sure your significant other is on board. If you’re married, you have a better deal in that Fulbright will sponsor J2 visas for dependents (for your spouse and kids), but if you’re in a relationship and not married, things get a bit more complicated, since unmarried partners can’t be sponsored for J2 visas. In this situation, B2 visas for cohabiting partners are usually the solution, although you’re always advised to seek independent visa advice on this (don’t phone the US embassy though, they’re generally not able to advise on these kinds of things). Seriously, I could write a whole blog post just about visas…

10. Do it

The process is long, arduous, and difficult, and even if you get awarded it, there are another bunch of hoops that need to be cleared (visas, medical, more paperwork). Saying that though, it is probably one of the most worthwhile things I have ever done (or rather, am doing) and I wouldn’t change anything. I have met some incredibly interesting people, I get to experience a whole different culture, and I get to bring all of these experiences back with me and share them with friends, family, and colleagues in the UK. I’m a big believer in cultural exchange, and I think it’s one of the most powerful ways we can get to appreciate each others’ points of view and see where other people are coming from. The Fulbright is a wonderful opportunity, so go for it!

The Social Linguist

Three months already??

December 11, 2012 1 comment

I can barely believe it, but it’s already been three months since we landed in Pittsburgh, so nearly a quarter of my Fulbright year has passed (some Fulbrighters are even getting ready to fly back home now!). I’m not sure quite where the time is going, but it seems to be some sinister plan to motivate me to get some work done before I head back to Birmingham. The quicker time passes, the harder I (‘m supposed to) work. Or something like that.

In any event, I figured that it would be helpful to make a post on what to expect when applying for a Fulbright, some hints and tips that I found helpful, and to pass on some of my ‘wisdom’ (such as it is) to anyone embarking on this road (you can also check out Mutual Understanding for the collective wisdom of this year’s Fulbright cohort).

1. Plan ahead

When I decided to start applying for the Fulbright, the deadline was in May and I found out about it in March. Not a great amount of time to get going with it, especially in the middle of teaching. So learn from my mistake and plan well in advance of the deadline. A good application can take several months to decide where you want to go, read through all the documentation, write out a proposal, pull together all the documentation you need, get feedback (more on this later), chase up references and so on. To maximise your chances, you really need to be thinking long-term, as in six months before the deadline. It sounds like a long time (it is), but it’s not something you can rush in an afternoon or over a weekend.

2. Plan ahead

In fact, this point is so important, it’s worth repeating twice. Plan ahead. You’ll thank me for it.

3. Make sure you know what is required of the application

I almost got lost in the amount of paperwork required in the application, so make sure you spend time going through the instructions and make a list of all the documentation and paperwork that you need to submit. This will include references, project plan, teaching plan (if your award is a mix of teaching and research), bibliography, passport picture, etc etc etc. You don’t want your application thrown out because you’ve forgotten item 1b)…

4. Have a clear plan of what it is you want to do

I can only speak for the Scholars Award (so for post-doctoral awards), but I’m sure it also applies to the post-grad awards as well: know what it is you want to do during your time in the States. Your proposal needs to be clear, concise, interesting, inspiring, and all those other buzzwords that people get excited about. What is it you hope to achieve during your time there. A timetable of intended work is really helpful to give you an idea of how your time will be spent, even if it doesn’t make it into your application pack.

5. Get feedback

You’re going to be spending a lot of time with this application. As such, your objectivity will fade and you won’t be able to see the wood for the trees. Having someone to proof-read your work, ask you questions about it and give you feedback on your application is really important. I know that part of my success in getting the Fulbright was down to having a friend read through and critique almost everything in my application before I submitted it. Things like spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, sentence fragments and so on are much easier for someone else spot, so take the time to find someone to help you out with this. Beer, dinner and other gifts are all appropriate ways of thanking your ‘reviewer’.

Tune in on Saturday for Part II, where I’ll talk about knowing your audience, ambassadorial skills and other important stuff!

The Social Linguist

(As ever, this is not an official Fulbright/US State Department blog)

Joey Barton puts on an… um… accent?

December 1, 2012 1 comment

Last week, footballer Joey Barton, who plays for Marseilles, gave an interview for the French media. The results were… surprising, to say the least. Barton grew up in Merseyside, so he has a noticeable Liverpudlian accent, as is clear in this interview. In terms of specific features, he has fricated plosives in words like Newcastle and get, monophongisation of /ai/ in time , fronted /u/ in afternoon, T-R conversion in lot of and so on, all of which are very salient Liverpudlian features.

In August 2012, Barton was loaned by Queens Park Rangers to Marseille for the season, and so he moved to France for the year. Part of this would undoubtedly involve him learning French in order to be able to speak with other players, staff, management, as well as the day-to-day stuff that comes up with living in any new country. Of course, living in any new country involves acquiring, to some extent, the accent associated with that country, and this is usually observable in a native English speaker moving to another English-speaking country, or for a non-native English speaker moving to a country where English is the first language (I’ve written previously about Tim Visser acquiring something of a Scottish accent during his time playing with Edinburgh). If you’ve ever spent some time in a new country, you’ll have most likely ended up sounding a little bit like the locals after a few months. Usually  vocabulary items are acquired first, since these are normally the easiest feature to acquire in a new setting, but occasionally, speakers will also pick up phonological and grammatical features as well. I sometimes adopt an ‘American’ accent in certain situations in Pittsburgh, normally ordering something over the phone (pizza, taxis etc), since the lack of fidelity in telecommunications means it’s just easier for me to do a bad American accent than to try and struggle through a communicative impasse with my Scottish accent.

But what’s more unusual is for a native English speaker to move to a country where English is not the first language and acquire a non-native English accent. For example, Steve McClaren has apparently been speaking in a Dutch accent while he manages FC Twente (although personally, beyond a few words, he sounds very much English to me), but Barton’s interview knocks McClaren’s attempts at accent impersonation out of the water in that he addresses the media by speaking English but in a French accent.

Barton defended his decision by saying that ‘iI is very difficult to do a press conference in Scouse for a room full of French journalists. The alternative is to speak like an ‘Allo Allo!’ character. It’s simply a case of you had to be there.” I’m not sure that’s the only choice, mainly because he could have gone for a more Southern British Standard English accent than his native Scouse accent, so it’s confusing to me why he opted for a stereotypical French accent. What’s intriguing though is that in the process of adopting this French accent, Barton duplicates a number of errors we would normally associate with someone who is not a native English speaker (or at least to my ears, some of his constructions sound rather clumsy/awkward):

  1. All everybody speak about is this one tackle
  2. It causes a red card for him…
  3. Nobody talk about the shot that…
  4. They are so competitive to win a game.
  5. Maybe after I stop to play it gives me a good education...
  6. We have a very blinkered approach to the football

This is perhaps nit-picking a little bit, and I get that Barton’s main intention is to be better understood by adopting something of a French accent, but I have to say that I’m still really surprised that this his is first strategy’. Maybe it is also a genuine attempt to ingratiate himself with the French media, and apparently, there has been less commentary of his accent in the French media than there has been in the British, so perhaps it’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

– The Social Linguist