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It’s been a long year…


And it’s only February! I know that I usually start these posts with ‘I can’t believe it’s been so long since I last posted’, but genuinely, I can’t believe I last posted in October last year! Part of this is still to do with the fact that I’m struggling to find a balance between teaching, admin, research and finding time to blog.

And it’s not like there’s not been interesting stuff to discuss, from the article on New York English, to a new blog I found (Lexical Valley), stuff on pronoun usage on Google, gender neutrality in children’s books, linguistic discrimination in the trial about Trayvon Martin’s shooting, Danny Dyer and Game of Thrones and loads more besides. So there’s been loads of stuff going on that would have been interesting to have spent a bit more time on, so over the next few months I hope to go back to some of these stories and have a bit of a think about what they tell us about language.

But alas, my focus has been primarily on course directing, marking, doing my external examiner duties, wedding planning (!), a bit of writing and assorted other work-related responsibilities. One of the things that is coming to an end (ok, in the next 10 months) is the impact volume that I’m working on with Dave Sayers (Sheffield Hallam). We even have our own entry in the Routledge catalogue, so it’s all systems go as far as that’s concerned. All the chapters are in (I finished my chapter last Sunday), the introduction is still to be finished, and then it’s just the wee bits and pieces of indexing etc that’ll be left to do around about June or so. I’m really looking forward to this coming out, and it’ll be the end of a long process going back to 2012. These projects take far too long to do, and that’s one of the things that I talk about in my chapter!

Anyway, I had a quick 30 minutes tonight to get this post done. Apologies it’s not exactly high on quality content, but I kind of guilt tripped myself into writing something down!

The Social Linguist

Time flies!


As the end of summer fast approaches, it’s a nice time to take stock of just how quickly this year has gone and what I’ve done in academic year 2013/14. Right now, I’ve been back in the UK for more than a year, I’ve been engaged for eight months, it’s been more than four months since my knee surgery, it’s been about six weeks from us moving into our first house, and it’s been about two weeks since I started my latest health kick and trying to get back to BMF.

And despite the fact that this year has been full of lots of stuff, I’ve managed to carve out some time for writing, which has included a big step towards finishing the Mock the Week paper I’ve been working on with a colleague for about the past three years (!) and my chapter for the impact volume is nearing the stage where I can send it out for review. I’ve also done a few conferences, a couple of reviews and some other bits and pieces, so all in all, 2013/14 has been relatively productive, with a variety of highs and lows.

But probably one of the academic highlights of this past 12 months has to be the Sociolinguistics Summer School, held for the first time outside of the UK in the sunny environs of UCD in Dublin. The Sociolinguistics Summer School has been running since 2009 and was first held at the University of Edinburgh. Since then, it’s been held in 2010 (Edinburgh), 2011 (Glasgow), 2012 (Newcastle) and 2014 (Dublin). I was lucky enough to go along to the one in either 2009 or 2010 (I forget which…), the one in Glasgow in 2011 and then the most recent one in Dublin, and it’s wonderful to see it grow from strength to strength. What was really crazy for me was attending in 2009/10 as a recently-completed PhD student and then being invited in 2014 as one of the plenary speakers (my first major plenary session as well). If someone had said in 2009/10 that I’d be back giving a plenary talk, I’d have thought you mental, but it happened! Alongside Daniel Ezra Johnson, Helen Kelly-Holmes and Diarmait Mac Giolla Chriost, I was certainly in esteemed company, although it’s debatable how much I felt I belonged there!

For those of you who haven’t been to a Summer School, it generally follows the pattern of a plenary talk in the morning, followed by a two-hour workshop for students (led by the plenary speaker), then lunch, then student presentations. Oh, and then the pub. I ran out of time a bit during my presentation and had to rush through the last 10/15 minutes, and it certainly made me realise I have to think through some of the issues a bit more before I commit them to paper, and my workshop session seemed to get people talking, so generally speaking, I think I can count the whole day as a success.

But what’s really great about the Summer School is that it’s a wonderful venue for postgraduate students to meet and discuss their work in a relatively low-pressure and supportive environment. There’s less worry about being asked that really horrible question from a member of the audience and people seem to be more open to discussing the trials and tribulations of the research process and working on research problem. It was also good to see the depth and breadth of work postgraduate students are undertaking, from the increase of Irish language provision in Northern Ireland to the coverage of the horse meat scandal of last year. I’m always impressed by the confidence and poise demonstrated by postgraduate researchers (qualities I most certainly didn’t possess as a postgrad!), and the presentations I saw this year were no exception.

I also have to say a brief word about the organising team, who I thought did a brilliant job in putting together such a great event. Having organised the Birmingham Cityscapes symposium a few years back, I know how difficult it is to head up an academic event; it really is like herding cats. But Jennifer, Chloe, John and Hema put so much time and effort into making the event a success, and even though I told them this countless times during the week (probably at my most ebullient following a couple pints of Guinness…), it’s worthwhile repeating!

The Social Linguist

P.S. The last I knew, no-one had volunteered to organise Summer School 6, so if you’re keen on hosting the event at your institution, get in touch with the committee from UCD and they’ll point you in the right direction of how to go about it.

Corby: The most Scottish town in England?


The BBC just published an interesting article on Corby, a town in England located near Kettering and Northampton (so East Midlands). Corby is a really interesting wee town because a whole bunch of Glaswegian and Central Belt steel workers moved there from the 1930 onwards when the Glasgow based company Stewarts & Lloyds built a huge steelworks in the town. Naturally, when a population moves to a new location, especially in some sort of critical mass, they take their cultural practices with them. Corby is now one of the few places in England where you can buy Irn Bru, square sausage and haggis with pretty much no problems at all. The town has its own pipe band, several Highland dancing clubs, a Rangers football supporters club (at least up until 2013), an annual Highland games and other notably Scottish activities and organisations. But one thing that sets Corby apart from other locations in the East Midlands is its associated accent (here’s a nice British Library clip of people discussing the Corby accent):

The most striking is the Corby accent, or mixture of accents. Some sound Glaswegian. Others seem to have a slight Scottish twang. And there are those that speak with a broad Scottish accent (BBC article).

When the Clyde Valley workers moved to Corby, they brought with them their accent, an accent which 2nd and 3rd generation family members also adopted (or at least certain features of it). The BBC article even goes so far as to suggest that people in Corby still feel Scottish, despite the fact that many of them are born and bred in England:

However, when it came to how the population described its national identity, 5,585 people in Corby said “Scottish only”. By comparison, 33,018 people described themselves as “English only” and 10,299 people said they were “British only”.

But the census doesn’t necessarily tally with local perceptions.

Steve Ireland, 64, who used to work in a whisky factory and the RAF in Scotland, but is English and now lives in Corby, maintains the town is very much still a “mini-Scotland.

Steve Noble, whose parents moved down from Glasgow in 1970 to work on the steelworks when he was 10 and is the landlord of the White Hart pub, agrees many families in Corby still feel Scottish.”

Now, the point of today’s blog isn’t to get into an argument about what does or doesn’t constitute Scottishness, but rather to suggest that this reading of families in Corby is really quite different to sociolinguistic work which looks at these issues. Of particular note is the work of Judy Dyer who conducted a really nice piece of sociolinguistic research on Corby back in the early 2000s (‘We all speak the same around here: Dialect levelling in a Scottish-English community‘).

Examining the LOT/THOUGHT merger and the GOAT vowel, Dyer shows that LOT/THOUGHT patterns much like other Anglo-English varieties (that is, two vowel phonemes here instead of just one as most Scots varieties do), but GOAT seems to be slightly different, with men favouring the monophthongal variant (that is, a variant similar to the Scots variant) while women favour the Anglo-English variant which is more diphthongal. Dyer asks why ‘historically Scottish features have been adopted at all, given the stigma associated with them (Dyer 2002: 109), and points out that a traditional variationist account would suggest that the male speakers in Corby are indexing some sort of Scottishness through their use of the monophthongal GOAT, and this is a reading which certainly fits in with the narrative outlined in the BBC article. But what’s especially interesting is that;

the third generation men interviewed, even those producing the highest percentages of historically Scottish variants, did not identify themselves as Scottish in any way. This is manifest both anecdotally in their support for the English (rather than Scottish) team in the Football World Cup (1998), and in their own self identifications. RD, one of the third generation male speakers with the highest use of historically Scottish variants, describes celebrating New Year with Scottish friends as an entirely new cultural experience, and ClT, another third generation man refers to the Cockney slang for Scots (‘sweaty socks’) and jokingly calls the Scots ‘sweaty jocks,’ clearly constructing them as ‘the other’ in his discourse (Dyer 2002: 110). 

Dyer goes into a good amount of detail concerning the kinds of social discourses surrounds Scots and Scotland, using data from 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation families in Corby and comes to the conclusion that it’s not Scotland the speakers indexing through their use of monopthongal GOAT, but rather it’s simply to display an orientation towards local identity. This perhaps isn’t surprising, and similar findings are reported in Scotland for young people’s use of TH-fronting in Glasgow (i.e. it’s not that they’re trying to identify as English or Londoner, but rather orientation towards and constructing a specific local identity).

It’s unlikely that the BBC would reach this kind of depth in their analysis, especially since the Scottish accent in Corby can be fitted into such a neat nationalistic narrative (alliteration ftw), but it does raise the point that how linguists and how journalists approach complex language situations can be really quite different.

The Social Linguist

Some research stuff!


Ok, so I know it’s been ages since I last posted, something which is particularly embarrassing given the fact that my last post mentioned that I would be updating more regularly. And that hasn’t happened. Ugh. Part of the reason for this is because I’ve been settling back into my life in Birmingham after my Fulbright life in Pittsburgh came to an end, and to be totally honest, I’m still kind of finding my feet. It’s amazing how despite living in a city for years, even a short time away can make everything seem so new again. I mean, I spent nearly 10 years in Glasgow and now when I visit there, I hardly recognise the place, and the same happened a wee bit with coming back to Brum.

But after a few months back, things are slowly coming together. I’m back teaching, I’m back sitting in meetings, I’m back driving back and forth to work, and I’m gradually getting to grips with this UK life, but I think it’ll take another few months before I can honestly say things are back to the way they were before I left. What’s a bit worrisome is that I still find myself pining for Pittsburgh, about the places and people I met there, and while I had that a bit with Tucson, it’s more pronounced this time. I’m sure it will pass, but being melancholy about it certainly won’t help!

In other news, there’s been quite a lot happening in the world of sociolinguistics recently. For example, we had Lindsay Johns banging on about the power of the spoken word and how we should all be speaking Standard English. We had the banning of slang words in a high school in south London. There was the story about declining literacy rates in the UK and the slump in foreign language learning at university level. Oh, and there was also the story that ‘huh’ might be a linguistic universal. All of this, and more, continues to show how language is still very much front and centre on the national and international stage, although bizarrely, there’s not much in the way of input of actual linguists… That’s probably a story for another post, particularly as it relates to my own research on social media and the reporting of sociolinguistic research (I gave a talk about this at the recent Language in the Media conference in London).

Lastly, I’m happy to announce that I’ve had a flurry of things getting published recently, including an article on TH-fronting in Glasgow, which will be in English World-Wide and my own chapter on what ethnography can tell us about sociolinguistic variation over time, which will be in my edited volume Sociolinguistics in Scotland (and you can now buy it on Amazon!). Both of these pieces of work have been a wee while in the making, so as you can imagine, I’m pretty chuffed to have them done and dusted (especially the edited volume!). /blatentselfpromotion (!)

So yeah, I’ll try try try to start updating this more regularly, especially because it is quite good fun and it’s something a bit different from the usual academic-y kind of writing that I have to do. If only I could use some of my blog posts as REF outputs…

The Social Linguist

Edited volumes: Worth it in the long run?


So, I eventually managed to finish off the edited volume I’ve been working on for over two years now, and with that, I can rest easy that my REF return is all done. It was a real relief to send the final version off, and all that’s left is the proofs and the cover-art, although I’m sure that I’ll find out even more horrors are in store for me when I get to that stage! In any event, it’s been a massively beneficial experience for me and I’ve learnt loads about managing expectations, dealing with peer reviewers, trying to tie all the chapters together, structure, content, word limits etc etc, but I still have this nagging feeling at the back of my head of ‘was it worth it?’. Now, this mainly comes about because edited volumes are, for better or worse, not as highly regarded as that peak of academic achievement, the all-glorious journal article. This is primarily because a) chapters are (usually) solicited by the editor rather than submitted by authors, b) the peer-review process tends to be somewhat less rigorous than that for journals and c) chapters for edited volumes tend not to be rejected regardless of peer-review comments (the line of thinking is, I suppose, that if the editor solicited the chapter, then it should be accepted).

With all the above in mind, then, you’d think that no right minded academic would think about doing an edited volume, especially an academic at the early part of their career (like me!). I mean, I spent over two years working on this, time which might have been better spent doing peer-reviewed articles (which I did during that time anyway), or working more on the book. But of course, edited volumes come out all the time, usually done by well-known and established academics, so they can’t be *that* bad of an investment?

I think there’s two sides to this really. The first is that yes, you probably shouldn’t invest too much time doing an edited volume at the beginning of your career. The time spent between soliciting chapters (or doing a call for papers), sorting out and deciding which chapters to accept, sending out rejection letters to those you didn’t want, preparing the proposal for consideration by a publisher, doing the response to the reviewers, having the proposal rejected anyway, doing the proposal all over again, liaising with contributors to keep them up to date with what’s happening, eventually having the proposal accepted, setting out deadlines for authors, finding peer-reviewers to read chapters, liaising with reviewers and authors, reading and commenting on all the chapters, writing your own chapter, finding someone to do the foreword, reading peer-reviewer comments and deciding what the authors need to address, writing your own chapter, re-reading re-submissions, re-doing *more* comments, finishing your own chapter, finding a map for the book, getting copy-right permissions to use the map, cross-checking all the bibliography entries, proof-reading everything, doing the introduction, finding a reviewer for the introduction, dealing with their comments, re-doing the introduction, paginating everything, doing the pre-publication checklist, writing the table of contents, the table of figures *and* the table of tables (all with the right page numbers), finding out that you missed a page number out and having to the that all over again, deciding that you don’t like the order of the chapters and having to change pagination again, doing contributor biographies, writing the catalog description (50 words), the website description (150 words) and the blurb (200 words), getting contributor agreements, sending all the paperwork to the publisher, and deciding that you just don’t have enough time to do the index so you’re going to outsource it to a professional indexer (fully recommend this btw), I could have written another two journal articles on top of the ones I *did* write while doing all of the above.

At this stage of my career, more publications is always a good thing, but the other side of it is that I have gained an incredible number of skills I otherwise wouldn’t have had I decided not to do the edited volume. Not least among these was learning to co-ordinate a group of highly-skilled academic researchers from around the world in producing a fairly substantial piece of work which will (hopefully!) be a major contribution to work on sociolinguistics in Scotland.

I would say, though, that doing an edited volume wouldn’t be high priority on my ‘to-do’ list post-PhD, and I’d always recommend targeting peer-review publications first and foremost. But once you’ve got a few of them under your belt, I think that there are worse ways to spend your time in academia than doing an edited volume (although I’d probably advise against this if if you’re on a US-based tenure-track position, since journal articles will likely count for far more in your tenure bid than edited volumes would. My guess is that’s why most edited volumes in the US come from already-tenured professors, whereas in the UK, early career researchers publish edited volumes as well as journal articles).

So yeah; edited volumes – more work than I realised, but worth 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)

How to take the fun out of comedy…


I’ve been working on a project with a few colleague for the past year or so looking at gender and interruption in Mock the Week. We presented the first tranche of results back at the International Language and Gender Conference in Brazil (which uncovered the small fact that we had to do more work to do on it…), but basically, we’re trying to figure out whether male panelists interrupt more frequently than female panelists, or if it is more to do with how often a panelist is on the show (unfortunately, this is complicated by the fact that the panelists who are on most often are male…). We’ve then got plans to tie this to issues of conversational dominance and so on, seeing whether we can support Jo Brand‘s comments about the show on an empirical level.

Rather than using more traditional CA approaches to transcribe the data, we’re leveraging the department’s skills in corpus linguistics, so we’ve marked up all the data in XML format, which means that, in theory, it’ll be easier to extract the features we decide to look at, provided these features have their own XML tag. As someone who is mainly used to a CA approach, this is new territory for me, and looking at an XML editor is kind of scary. But I’ve been assured that this is the best way to tackle this.

We were lucky enough that we managed to get some students to do the first pass of transcription in Word, and then these were fed into some infernal machine which spat out workable XML transcripts. These were then edited by one of my colleagues, and now I’m going through them for the second time cross-checking them.

Now to the point of my post: the most sure fire way of sucking the fun out of anything ‘humorous’ is to start transcribing it. I’m only on my fifth episode (of ten), but seriously, I’m kind of losing the will here…

– The Social Linguist