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Linguistic variation among urban adolescent males in Glasgow: Some results


I’ve been blogging for about two months now, and although I’ve touched a little bit on my research here, I’ve not really said much about what dominated my life between 2004 – 2009. During this time, I was fortunate enough to be awarded an ESRC post-graduate scholarship which put me through my M.A. and my PhD at the University of Glasgow (under the careful supervision of Dr Jane Stuart-Smith). Throughout my undergraduate, I was quite good at two subjects: history of Scots, and sociolinguistics. The first one I loved because it was great learning more about where Scots came from and how it got to where it is today, particularly all the social, historical and economic factors that led to this. The second one I loved was because it was the first time I had really seen just how key language was to us as humans, and how variable and rich it was. When I was thinking about potential topic areas for my post-graduate work (partially motivated by other factors which I’ll talk about another day), I decided to stick with these two areas, but to focus more on contemporary Scots rather than historical Scots.

One day, I was in my supervisor’s office talking about different topics that I could pursue as a dissertation, and we started talking about teenagers in Glasgow, and specifically about how ‘neds‘ in Glasgow were assumed to have a particular way of talking (as demonstrated herehere and here). What was also interesting to me was that when people performed this kind of ‘ned speak’, they weren’t just using a specific constellation of linguistic features (like high pitch and nasality), they were also drawing on ideologies of anti-social behaviour, criminality and physical aggression. While all of these ideas were bound up in specific performances of this group, we had no idea if young people in Glasgow who might identify (or be identified) as a ‘ned’ actually spoke in the way people assumed they did. Moreover, we had no idea if other adolescent males in Glasgow who might not identify as a ‘ned’ might have other kinds of ways of constructing their social identity. And lastly, we had no idea exactly what kinds of social practices urban adolescent males (‘ned’ or ‘non-ned’) might orientate towards. What we needed (inspired in large part by the work of Penny Eckert and Norma Mendoza-Denton in the US and Emma Moore in the UK), was some sort of locally-grounded, ‘bottom-up’ research which gave us a better understanding of the lived experiences of urban adolescent males from their own perspective, rather than from a ‘top-down’ researcher-inspired perspective. As so, a research project was born.

In early 2005 (I think!), I started fieldwork in a high school in the south side of Glasgow using a qualitative research method known as ethnography. Although widely established in anthropological linguistics and US sociolinguistics, it hadn’t really taken off in the UK at this point, primarily because the UK had been dominated by work which saw linguistic variation as reflective of social differences rather than as a constituent part of social difference (so, I speak like a middle-class lecturer because I am a middle-class lecturer, rather than, I speak in the way I do so as to perform ‘middle-class lecturer’). The kind of work pioneered by Eckert and her colleagues set a new paradigm for variationist studies and broke tradition with more established quantitative sociolinguistic approaches, but this approach hadn’t really settled down in the UK, and definitely not in Scotland. I’m pretty sure I was the first person to bring both together in Scottish sociolinguistic research (of course, my supervisor had nothing to do with this decision…).

Over the next three years in Banister Academy (the name I gave to the high school), I was able to learn more about how the participants in my study constructed their social identities and this provided me with a more nuanced perspective of urban adolescent identities more generally. One significant advantage of my approach was that I was able to see the speakers as heterogenous rather than as one big group of ‘working-class male speakers’, and this afforded a level of analytical insight that would have otherwise been missed had I adopted more traditional sociolinguistic approaches. For example, instead of there just being one category of ‘male speakers’, what I actually had were four distinct groups (the Alternatives, the Sports, the Schoolies and the ‘Neds’) which differentiated themselves from one another along all sorts of axes, including dress, behaviour, speech, attitudes, beliefs and so on (these are generally known as ‘social practices’). What was massively interesting was that when their linguistic variation was analysed (I was particularly interested in the vowel sound of words like cat, man, and grab), the speakers showed quite different patterns.

The first graph shows the results of the analysis in Year 2 (so, the second year of fieldwork) for three groups (Alternative, Sports and ‘Neds’). For those unfamiliar with reading these kinds of graphs, x-axis is the horizontal axis of inside of the vowel space and the y-axis is the vertical axis of inside the vowel space. Essentially, the graph is meant to (roughly) represent where the vowel sounds would be produced (the scores are averages).

As you can see, the three ‘ned’ members (Danny, Max and Noah) are more fronted and lowered than the other six speakers in the Alternative and Sports groups (and this was statistically significant), which shows that this vowel is somehow involved in marking speakers out as ‘different’ from other speakers. And this kind of pattern more or less repeats itself when we look at the data from Year 3 (which also includes the Schoolie group).

The ‘ned’ speakers are still quite lowered and fronted, but this time, the Schoolies are raised quite a bit from the ‘ned’ speakers (again, a statistically significant difference). So not only are speakers differentiating themselves through what they do (their non-linguistic social practices), but they’re also differentiating themselves through how they speak.

The fact that the ‘neds’ and the Schoolies are at the extremes of social behaviour in the school (e.g. they both have radically different orientations towards the school) seems to also show up in their linguistic variation, and this was something I hadn’t expected to find. This kind of work gives us a lot more information on how speakers are able to make such fine-grained sociolinguistic alterations which align with particular social identities, and how variation maps on to social group membership.

There’s a lot more I could say about all of this, and I’ve not even began to cover my interest in the relationship between language and violence (which made up a significant part of my research), but hopefully this gives you an idea of how I’ve spent the last six years of my (research) life!

– The Social Linguist

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First foray into the world of blogging


*cough*

/taps heads thinking of a first witty blog post topic

/fails to think of a first witty blog post topic

/just type and see what happens

/fingers crossed

Ok, so first thing’s first. My name’s Rob and I’m a linguist. And a social one at that. Now, that’s not to say that all linguists are necessarily anti-social and I’m somehow the exception to the rule. Instead, it’s more a (poor) play on words. You see, not only am I a social linguist, but I’m also a sociolinguist. Of course, now you’re probably thinking to yourself ‘what’s a sociolinguist?’ and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s one of the less likely encountered job roles in modern day society, much like chimney-sweeps or candle-stick makers or competent call-centre workers.

Well, a sociolinguist is (generally) interested in the relationship between language and society. This is a bit of a cop-out all-encompassing term which covers a whole bunch of things. To give you a full picture of what sociolinguistics involves would take a lot more typing effort than I’m perhaps capable of in a first post, but I can at least give you a bit of a flavour of what kinds of things the field focuses on. For example, there are sociolinguists who are interested in language and gender (e.g. Deborah Cameron and Jennifer Coates), there are sociolinguists who are interested in political discourse (e.g. Ruth Wodak), there are sociolinguists who are interested in statistical analysis of speech data (e.g. William Labov) and there are sociolinguists who are interested in bilingualism and ethnicity (e.g. Carmen Fought). This is to say nothing about those researchers who focus on particular geographical areas, particular socio-demographic categories, particular levels of language (grammar, lexis, phonology, discourse) and particular types of data (written/spoken/computer mediated). So yeah, sociolinguistics is a pretty large field, but it’s also a relatively new one, especially compared to other fields of linguistics like grammar. Indeed, William Labov was the first researcher to conduct the first ‘proper’ sociolinguistic study out in Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts in the 1960s (I should say that I’m using quote marks here not because the study wasn’t actually a proper one, but mainly that although there are earlier studies which might fall under the term ‘sociolinguistic research’, it’s from Labov’s study that the term ‘sociolinguistic’ enters usage in mainstream linguistics terminology). What Labov found in Martha’s Vineyard was massively important in understanding how language and social issues were inextricably linked, but the whole story will have to wait until a future post.

So yeah, I’m a sociolinguist. As I said, it’s not a particularly common job designation and definitely not the kind of job I thought I’d end up doing when I was 16 years old (I wanted to join the RAF, but that’s also another story).

Well, that’s some of my academic background, but I probably should tell you a little bit more about who I am and what I’m doing infiltrating the blogosphere with my writing.

We’ve covered the fact that I’m a sociolinguist, but I’m also a university lecturer (most linguists are also academics. It’s the curse of the specialised job market we occupy. Linguistics isn’t usually something people take up as a hobby). I lecture at Birmingham City University and I’m not at all scared of putting that out into the public domain (honest!). One of the things I’ve been wrestling with over the past couple of years is the fact that academics are becoming more and more removed from the people and the things we’re supposed to be interested in (cities, people, art, literature, the public etc etc). We go away and we do this (occasionally very interesting) research. But then once the research is done, we seem to have a bad habit of keeping it all to ourselves and not sending it out into the ‘real world’ where it might actually have a demonstrable impact (I’ve been reliably informed the ‘real world’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This might have been one influencing factor on me staying in academia). And this idea of impact is something that the Research Councils UK (RCUK) are having a bit debate about at the moment: how far should research have ‘impact’ (another important question is; ‘what is impact?’).

This is my small attempt at establishing a ‘web presence’ and about trying to engage with those from outside academia (i.e. to do ‘impact’). After all, as academics, we have a responsibility to get our research out there into the public eye and to showcase the kind of cutting edge research that’s happening in universities. Unfortunately, UK academics have only really just started to hop on the blogging bandwagon and perhaps for good reason. It’s time-consuming, it’s an effort, and a blogger perhaps can’t put certain things out into the public domain since they’ve (willingly) divested their right to anonymity (at least if it’s a professional blog). Consequently, this isn’t (and can’t be) a blog about how much I hate my work, how awful the students are, and how much I can’t wait to leave (for the sake of clarity, I love my work, my students are awesome, and I really don’t want to leave). Instead, this blog is a place where I can talk about my research, about being an academic, a lecturer and a scholar, about the random and not-so-random going ons in my life, and really about whatever floats my boat.

I’m sure it will take a while to get a decent readership going (but really, who doesn’t want to read about F1 and F2 measurements of Glaswegian adolescent males??), and I’m sure I’ll learn loads as I go along. I want to do this properly and not ditch it in six months with four blog-posts, so I’m going to update regularly (plans are for every week at the moment) and I’ll try and talk about some of the interesting things I’m working on.

I’ve got a twitter-feed (@Dr_Bob82), so add me 🙂

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