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RIP Iain Banks


A few weeks ago, Iain (Menzies) Banks passed away at the age of 59 after succumbing to gall bladder cancer, having only been diagnosed with it in March of this year. A man of tremendous intelligence and wit, Banks’ ‘mainstream’ fiction writing was an insightful combination of social commentary and dark humour, from the weird and wonderful The Wasp Factory to the grizzly and disturbing Complicity, while his ‘sci-fi’ fiction (written under the moniker ‘Iain M Banks’) ran the gamut from inter-stellar espionage in Consider Phlebas to mind-uploading and virtual hells in Surface Detail.

It’s difficult to put into words exactly what Banks and his work meant to me, but I’ll try. I came across Banks’ writing fairly late on. His first book, The Wasp Factory, was published in 1984 (I was two at the time), so I never read anything until I was in my late-teens. In quick succession, I read Canal Dreams, The Wasp Factory and Espedair Street, all borrowed from a friend of mine. I thought they were funny, interesting and quirky books, but it wasn’t until I was at university when I was ‘forced’ to read The Bridge for my undergraduate class in Scottish Literature. And that was the book that changed it all for me. It’s one of those books that you get a little bit more out of it every time you read it, and it’s probably my favourite of all of Banks’ books.

Written in three ‘arcs’, The Bridge follows 1) an unnamed protagonist who wakes up on a mysterious bridge, 2) an love-struck engineer and 3) a Barbarian who speaks in a broad Glaswegian accent. So as not to waste your experience of reading this book for the first time, I won’t say much more about the plot, but suffice to say, as soon as I finished it, I went straight back to the start and went through it again. It was The Bridge that opened up the canon of Scottish Literature to me as an impressionable undergraduate, and Banks acquired another fan for life. And over the years, I developed a wee routine where I would buy a Banks book every time I flew abroad, and up there in the confines of my cattle-class seat, I would have hours to sit undisturbed, engrossed in the worlds Banks built. Banks’ books will always be linked to the various trips I’ve taken, with the people I met, and the places I visited. They set the scene for a new set of experiences, a primer that I was heading off to explore something different.

I avoided his sci-fi fiction for the longest time, but eventually, I ran out of his mainstream fiction and my hand was forced. So at the airport in Glasgow on the way to Pittsburgh last year, I bought Consider Phlebas. And from then on, I have chewed my way through almost every single Iain M Banks I could get my hands on, too impatient to wait until my next far-flung plane journey.

I had the pleasure of meeting him (and shaking his hand!) a couple of years ago at the Glasgow Aye Write festival, where he signed a few of his books I brought along. I also asked a question during the Q&A session, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what it was… Maybe something about why games were so important in his work? All I remember is being in awe of the man who had filled my days and nights with unimaginable worlds and whose work had variously made me feel thrilled, annoyed, sick, happy, sad, angry, curious, inspired, and confused.

Of course, I am desperately sad that he has gone, but my main feeling is one of thankfulness. Thankful that someone had his gift, thankful that he decided to write, thankful that he wrote such wonderful books, and thankful that his work moved me so much that not a day goes by where I don’t think of at least something written by him. The world is a far better place for having had Banks on it, and I doubt we will see someone of his ilk again.

So here’s to Sun-Earther Iain El-Bonko Banks of North Queensferry. You are missed.

– The Social Linguist

Scrabble vs. Spell Tower


Over the past few months, I’ve got quite into both Scrabble and Spell Tower. I got into the first because when Rebecca and I moved to Pittsburgh, we didn’t (and still don’t) have an active television, so in our desperation to fill our evenings with something other than spending money eating at Pittsburgh’s variety of restaurants, we decided that we’d play Scrabble, one of the few boardgames that was in the house we’d moved to. Roll on several months later, we’re still playing it, albeit upgraded slightly to the iPad version.

Now, one of the great things about the iPad version is that it has a built-in dictionary, along with a cheat-sheet of all the legal two word letters as well. It was once we figured that the two letter words were the key to success (there’s a nice story about this here) that we saw our scores ratchet up into the 300+ range (on the iPad, we usually play together against the computer). 300+ isn’t amazing, but still, it’s better than the ~200 we were getting playing on the regular hardcopy of the game (although it’s nowhere near the almost unbelievable 830 points scored in this game...). Normally the computer will play words that have us scratching our heads asking ‘is that really a word?’, but there are a couple of the two letter words which also make us go ‘huh?’. Words like AA, ZA, UT, PE and so on, but they’re all legitimate words and if you can get something like XU or XI on a triple letter word square, you can quite easily rack up around about 50 points. Weirdly, though, you can’t play DA (colloquial for ‘father’, but also a heavy Burmese knife, apparently) in the US edition of Scrabble, but it’s acceptable in the UK version.

A few months after playing hardcopy Scrabble, it started to get a bit stale, so I downloaded the game Spell Tower for the iPad. Spell Tower is slightly different to Scrabble in that instead of placing tiles on the board, you trace a line across letters on the board, and once you make a word, the letters around it are deleted. A minimum of three letters is required to make a word, and the longer the word, the more points scored (my personal best is INSULATORS for 940 points, but it’s not at all transparent how the words are scored).

Spell tower gameplay

So in the screenshot above, the word created is SERPENTINE, and that then deletes all the letters in pink around the line. In Spell Tower, there’s a few different modes, with the two main ones being 1) to score the highest number of points from a full board and 2) to stop the board from filling up (kind of like a tetris for words). Both are good fun, but the more I played it, the more I realised that the underlying dictionary is very different to that of Scrabble. For example, the following words are all acceptable words in Spell Tower, but not for Scrabble: SLOOMED, FIEST, TINTY, and TILERY. Conversely, almost none of the plural two letter Scrabble words are accepted in Spell Tower, so you can’t have AAS, ZAS, QIS, or KIS. I’m not sure why it’s been designed in this way, since words like BET, ADD, SIT and so on are all fine, but at least with Scrabble you have an official dictionary, which isn’t the case with Spell Tower. This kind of put me off Spell Tower a bit, because it eventually became a game of trial and error to see what words worked and which didn’t, and in a game where you can actually lose, that got quite annoying. And in Scrabble, you can play things like the following (EVICTION for 194) and feel quite smart and smug for having spotted it (credit to Rebecca for playing this word, not me!).

EVICTION for 194

The Social Linguist

Ya big feartie!


The following story which just recently came through my inbox (thanks to Dave Sayers for noticing it) made me chuckle, mainly because I didn’t realise that fearties was an especially Scottish term (although I only just found out yesterday that the phrase to clap the dog is also a Scottish term, whereas English English would use pet…). Anyway, feartie derives from the Scottish term feart, an adjective meaning, perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘afraid’, and feartie is simply the nominal form of the adjective (I’m not sure whether there are any English English terms which follow a similar pattern?).

I don’t have access to the actual recordings, but I think it’s fair to assume that the speaker here would have have produced a glottal plosive, resulting in something like [ˈfiɹʔˌiz]. I’d then guess that the Hansard transcriber heard [ˈfiɹʔˌiz], thought that the glottal plosive was unnecessary, resulting in [ˈfiɹˌiz]. It’s not a huge gamble to assume that since the transcriber would a) not having any immediate lexical corollary to the word fearties and b) had a different phonological system to the speaker, they would have resolved the confusion by choosing a word with a similar phonological and syllabic structure; hence fairies.

The story also made me think of a situation a few weeks ago when we were out having lunch with some friends, complete with make-your-own Bloody Marys. The conversation turned to the different neighbourhoods in Pittsburgh (there are over fifty!), and one of these neighbourhoods is called ‘Fairywood’. Now, Scottish English has contrastive vowels before /r/, so words like ‘merry’, ‘marry’ and ‘Mary’ are distinct. Other varieties, however, have these some or all of these vowels merged (or neutralised, a nice discussion of which can be found here), so these words sound the same. Since ‘fairy’ and ‘ferry’ were homophonous in my interlocutor’s speech, I struggled for about a minute as I tried to map their pronunciation onto my own phonological system to determine whether it was ‘fairy’ or ‘ferry’ (I had to give up and just ask them to clarify which it was). And no, the Bloody Marys weren’t a factor.

From the back of a monster the cheery driver calls out.

“Haud oan man, nae need tae be feart! I’ll gie ye a lift.”

The Social Linguist

2012 in review


So 2012 is done and 2013 is shaping up to be a busy but interesting year. Here are some of the stats highlights from the past 12 months. Additionally, this is the 100th post for the blog (although I should have hit this landmark much earlier!).

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 13,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 3 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

The Social Linguist

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

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