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Dae ye hink yer hard pal?

October 6, 2012 1 comment

I’m putting the finishing touches to an article I’ve been working on over the past few months on phonetic variation in Glasgow, focusing specifically on TH-fronting and its intersection with social identity (TH-fronting is where words like think are pronounced with [f] rather than [th]). Why this particular variable is interesting is because it’s not a traditional Scottish or Glaswegian variant and it seems to have arrived through various points (possibly television, possibly dialect contact, possibly a combination). Its use is being led mainly by working-class adolescent males rather than loosely tied middle-class speakers, again, something which is quite unusual.

Part of the argument I’m drawing on builds on work by Jane Stuart-Smith and Lynn Clark, both of whom argue that the variant [f] indexes something like ‘rough’, ‘tough’, ‘anti-establishment’ and so on. I’m interested in why and how this variant acquires this kind of meaning, since a variant usually acquires its meaning through who uses it (this has been covered in detail in Penny Eckert’s work). But [f] is only one choice for the variable (th) and it has to operate alongside the more established variant of [h]. So while I don’t doubt that [f] can index ‘tough’ and so on, I think that there’s something else going on with other variants as well.

Specifically, because [h] is closely associated with working-class Glaswegian culture (that is, a ‘hard man’ culture, as I’ve explored elsewhere), it makes more sense to me that [h] indexes ‘tough’ while [f] indexes something like ‘anti-establishment’ or ‘counter-culture’ (I’m still working on my thinking on this point here!). Part of motivating this is that one of my least ‘hard man’ and ‘tough’ groups still use [f], but not at the same rate as other groups in Banister Academy. I don’t think they’re trying to be ‘tough’, but they might be indexing something like ‘not following the mainstream’ or something along these lines. But I also hit upon a cracking example of [h] in the following tweet which might lend some credence to my claim:

If that’s not indexing ‘toughness’, I don’t know what it is doing!

The Social Linguist

How I got into sociolinguistics: A story (part 2)

April 21, 2012 1 comment

So we left the last part of this story when I joined Glasgow Uni after not being allowed to join the RAF. Since the only thing I was really good at in high school was English, I decided that going to university to study English Literature was as good a route as any. My expectation was that I would finish up university and probably become a teacher, and I was ok with that. In September 2000, I joined as a dewy-eyed fresher in one of the most stunning university settings in Scotland (check out pictures if you don’t believe me) and started my undergraduate degree in literature.

Now, in order to be able to graduate with honours in English Literature at Glasgow, students also had to do a year of English Language. But my only experience of language studies at this point had been doing Latin grammar and I wasn’t particularly psyched at doing a whole year of grammar-type work… I remember bitching and moaning to my English teacher about having to do linguistics and he assured me that it would involve a lot more than just amoamasamat type declensions.

Anyway, I girded my loins and signed up for a first year of English Literature, English Language and Scottish Literature (mainly because I didn’t like the look of any of the other modules…), and by about week three of the course I found out that I. Hated. Literature. And I was completely unprepared for it. I don’t quite know what it was, but I hated the navel gazing, the whole I wandered lonely as a cloud schtick that was going on, the self-satisfied smugness of the lecturers, the…. pretentiousness of it all. It all just killed literature stone dead and as the year wore on, I couldn’t buoy myself up to be enthusiastic about it. Don’t get me wrong, I had some interesting conversations, read some great books I would never have read otherwise, and developed some important analytical skills, but it seemed to me that so long as you could argue your point convincingly, your points didn’t need to necessarily have… a point.

But in linguistics, I had a subject that inspired and interested me. I remember one of our first Old English lectures with Professor Jeremy Smith (who is brilliant). He started talking about noun paradigms and things like accusative case, nominative case and so on and I realised that I KNEW WHAT HE WAS TALKING ABOUT. This was the same kind of stuff I had done in Latin and it all made sense. Unfortunately, the only thing I remember of OE noun paradigms now is ‘-um on the end of nouns, dative plural. Dative plural, -um on the end of nouns’. Anybody who did OE lectures with Professor Smith at Glasgow University is bound together by that phrase. The rest of the course, sociolinguistics, phonetics, child language acquisition etc etc were all brilliant, and it made the next choice pretty straightforward.

So after my first year of university, I decided to ditch English Literature and concentrate on Scottish Literature and English Language. But I still had to take one more module, so I took… French, primarily under the pretense that it would help me with my linguistics. But the less said about that part of my degree, the better.

In my third year, my focus was purely on English Language and I took a combination of historical and contemporary modules, including History of English, Sociolinguistics, Grammar, Pragmatics, and Contemporary Scottish Fiction (I still loved Scottish Literature bizarrely enough…). The lightbulb moment where I realised that I wanted to become a lecturer was during my sociolinguistics class. We had been given a topic to present to the rest of the class and I had been given Wallace Lambert’s work on matched guise tests in Canada. I thought that the results were fascinating and put a ton of effort into my presentation, including dressing up in a suit and tie, PowerPoint slides and a handout. The works.

When I had finished the presentation and answered a few questions, I remember walking back to my seat thinking ‘this is what I want to do with myself’, and I think it’s at that point I finally had a path that I wanted to pursue. All I had to do was finish up my degree and then do a post-grad course.

Of course, the future is anything but smooth sailing…

The Social Linguist

The Early History of Sociolinguistics in Glasgow

October 11, 2011 3 comments

The field of sociolinguistics is relatively new (at least in the ‘quantitative sociolinguistic’ format that William Labov developed through his work on Martha’s Vineyard), and Glasgow was one of the first places outside of the United States where Labov’s techniques and methods were applied in a large-scale sociolinguistic investigation (the other was Norwich in an influential study carried out by Peter Trudgill). The man who was key in developing the field of sociolinguistic enquiry in Glasgow was a researcher named Ronald Macaulay, and his book Language, Social Class and Education: A Glasgow Study (1977) was a milestone in sociolinguistic research in Scotland. Given that the tools and techniques of phonological analysis which we take for granted in contemporary sociolinguistic research (stuff like PRAAT, for example) were unavailable to Macaulay, the robustness of his findings are perhaps all the more remarkable, and his work really was a pioneering study in sociolinguistics. The work was based on preliminary research Macaulay had carried out with Gavin Trevelyan for a Social Science Research Council report on language, education and employment in Glasgow, working with teachers, employers and communities across the city. This report formed the basis of Language, Social Class and Education: A Glasgow Study, which also introduced more qualitative analysis of attitudes towards Glaswegian.

In terms of his analysis, Macaulay was interested primarily in how linguistic variation correlated with social class. With Glasgow being such a class-conscious city, the idea that how you spoke depended on which class you were in (marked through things like where you were from and what you did for a job) was an accepted social ideology, but it had never been tested empirically before Macaulay’s work. The study focused on five main phonological variables (Macaulay 1977: 27):

  1. The vowel in words like hit, kill, and risk
  2. The vowel in words like school, book, full, and fool (yup, Scottish English doesn’t contrast the final two words)
  3. The vowel in words like hat, sad, and back 
  4. The diphthong in words like now, down, and house
  5. The glottal plosive as an alternative to /t/ in words like butter and get

Now, obviously Macaulay’s work came out well before John Wells’ work on lexical sets, so he didn’t use them as a descriptor for the variables he was looking at. It was also before we knew more about the phonological structure of Scottish English (Macaulay 1977: 29), so in his analysis of the TRAP/BATH/PALM set¹, he only included those words which belonged to the TRAP set, rather than the BATH/PALM set. Through an auditory analysis of these variables (using a point-scale format and giving points to variants depending on whether they were ‘more’ or ‘less’ Glaswegian), and by categorising his speakers according to the Registrar-General’s classification of occupations (Macaulay 1977: 18), he was able to show how different social classes used different forms of the variable. For example, for variable 1 (the vowel sounds in hill), the highest rated variant was [ʌ] (scored at 5 points) and the lowest rated variant was [ɪ] (scored at 1 point), with a number of intermediary variants. So, the higher the mean index, the more likely speakers were to produce  [ʌ]-like tokens, and the lower the mean index, the more likely speakers were to produce [ɪ]-like tokens. The analysis showed that ‘speakers from the lower social classes were more likely to use a vowel that is more retracted and lowered than speakers from the higher social class groups’ (Macaulay 1977: 31). A relationship between linguistic variation and social class was found for the rest of the variables, ultimately giving a stronger empirical basis to folk-ideologies about language use in Glasgow.

But where Macaulay’s work really shines is in his discussion of the qualitative data, particularly the interviews with the teachers and employers. It is in this section of his book where interviewees make clear their attitudes and ideologies about Glaswegian and Glasgow. It was perhaps the following quote (Macaulay 1977: 94) which helped me pursue my own line of research:

“The accent of the lowest state of Glaswegian is the ugliest one can encounter, but that is partly because it is associated with the unwashed and the violent.”

It’s important to say that this isn’t Macaulay’s opinion on Glaswegian, but rather that of a university lecturer (quell surprise!), and when I read it, it hit home just how deeply-entrenched the negative stereotypes of Glasgow as a criminal, dirty and violent city are and how influential this image can be on people’s perception of Glaswegians.

Macaulay’s work was a massive inspiration to me during my own research, and I was lucky enough to meet him a few times at various conferences over the years, and it was this book in particular which was one catalyst to me pursuing my PhD thesis topic. I’m also hugely chuffed that he’ll be contributing a chapter on the history of sociolinguistic research in Scotland to an edited volume I’m currently working on, so watch this space!

The Social Linguist

1. Paul Johnston argues in his chapter ‘Regional Variation’ (in Edinburgh History of the Scots Language), the lexical sets which are used for English English don’t work for Scottish English because the distribution is different. For example, while TRAP, BATH and PALM are the lexical sets for American English and English English, these lexical sets all have the same vowel in Scottish English /a/. Johnston’s keyword for this vowel is CAT instead. Obviously, Paul’s work wasn’t around when Macaulay was doing his research, so he had to make do with what was available.

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

On writing (or ‘on not writing’)


Yesterday, I had an unfortunate episode of writer’s block, probably the first time since I submitted my PhD that I’ve properly struck by it. This was particularly frustrating because I’ve felt in quite good form recently with my writing in that I’ve managed to put in a couple of funding applications, a conference abstract, a book proposal, a chapter abstract and all of my blogs posts (all… six of ’em) over the past six months or so. So yeah, things were going quite well and then Friday came along and… nothing… My mind was just completely frozen up and every time I looked at the screen I just couldn’t find the words. At all. Maybe it’s a bit of a mental hangover from finishing my competitive co-operation paper I submitted on Sunday (in which I used the very attractive term ‘co-opetition’. It just trips off the tongue, doesn’t it?), or maybe it’s just changing gear to something completely different. Whatever it is, I hope it runs its course sometime soon and let me get back on it, especially since I just recently found out that I won’t be returned as an Early Career Researcher for REF2014, meaning that instead of submitting two ‘pieces of assessment’, I now need to submit four. Not a big deal and I would have had the four by the end of 2013 anyway, but now that it’s ‘mandated’ by my department, I feel a little bit of pressure on to get it done.

So this current article I’m working on is about orientations towards violence among working-class adolescent males and the most I was able to do was take a conference paper I’d done on it from about 10 months ago and reorganise it into something resembling an article (if only in terms of section headings rather than actual content). I had originally planned to submit it to the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, a very highly respected publication edited by a colleague of mine at Birmingham City University (Professor David Wilson), but since the majority of their publications are focused on the penal industry (stop snickering), I didn’t think that my article was a particularly good fit. So, I’ve decided to submit it instead to the British Journal of Criminology where it seems to fit a bit better. I did get massively excited when I stumbled upon this research centre at the University of Glasgow and was particularly taken by the following quote:

“The tradition of the hard man has tremendous currency in contemporary Scottish popular commentary and in literature but there has been little serious discussion of his antecedents or of the constituents of manliness that have seemingly prevailed in Scottish society.”

In my article, this is more or less what I’m investigating: what is it to be a ‘man’ in contemporary Glasgow today, what role does violence play in the construction of ‘tough’ masculinity in the city, and how far do adolescent males resist, contest and challenge dominant ideologies of ‘tough’ masculinity? I’m especially interested in the impact of violence on adolescent male constructions of masculinity because the image of the ‘hard man’ is such a dominant cultural touchstone for young men (promoted in large part by parents and caregivers). I’m analysing narratives (again) to see how the participants in my ethnography talk about their experiences of violence and what it means to them to be a ‘man’. My biggest argument is that violence really is a part of the lives of many adolescent males in Glasgow, but not in the ways we might stereotypically think (especially because I problematise how far violence can be considered the preserve of only ‘neds’. And yes, I know the term is an issue, which is why it’s in scare quotes).

Maybe, just maybe, by the beginning of the week the fog will have lifted (metaphorically speaking) and I’ll be able to make some headway on this article before I have to start thinking about putting together yet another funding application…

Sociolinguistics Summer School 3


I didn’t have time during it, but now that my holiday is almost over, I reckoned I should try and write down my thoughts on the Sociolinguistics Summer School in Glasgow from a few weeks ago. First thing to say is that the week was an inspiring and intellectually satisfying time (I’m not sure why, but I always feel really pretentious using words like ‘intellectually’…). The guest speakers (Devyani Sharma, Jane Stuart-Smith, Daniel Johnston, Erez Levon and Lauren Hall-Lew) all offered insightful and thought-provoking seminar sessions which not only show-cased their own research, but suggested a myriad of future directions for sociolinguistic theory and methodology. I don’t have space to go through everything all the speakers covered throughout the week, but I will try and give at least a general outline of the kinds of things they were talking about and

Devyani Sharma kicked the week off on Monday morning by talking about her work on language and ethnicity. Drawing on recent research she’s been conducting at Queen Mary, Devyani outlined some of the ways in which ethnicity has been operationalised in the literature over the past 20 or so years, and the way different authors view the influence of ethnicity on language variation and change (e.g. whether it’s psychological, identity-focused, and so on). The thing that excited me the most, though, was her attempts at showing how variation unfolds over time (something that’s becoming increasingly more important over the past five years or so). Rather than analysing a single variable (or even two or three variables) at the aggregate level (i.e. taking every token of a variable and charting how that variable patterns at a general level), Devyani showed how a range of variables changed between Indian English, Southern Standard British English and Cockney English by using colour-coded lines which showed the increase and decrease of the concentration of that specific varieties variants. Essentially, what Devyani is doing is moving away from a static picture of variation to something more dynamic, and it clearly demonstrated how variables act in concert with one another (or ‘clustering’) rather than in isolation.

On Tuesday, Jane Stuart-Smith talked about the Glasgow Media Project. This is an on-going ESRC-funded project which aims to understand why Glaswegian (and Scottish English more generally) appears to have ‘English’ features such as TH-fronting ([tuf] instead of [tuθ]), R-vocalisation ([bʌd] instead of [bɪɹd]) and L-vocalisation ([pipo] instead of [pipəl]). Those uninitiated to the ways of the IPA, that’s tooth, bird and people respectively. Generally, Scottish English shouldn’t have these kinds of features, but it does (or at least, Glaswegian does, other parts of Scotland are lagging behind somewhat). Traditional ways of modelling how a sound change spreads (such as the wave model and the gravity model) don’t work, primarily because these models rely on people moving to a particular area and acquiring a feature (thus it spreads via face-to-face communication), or through some sort of ‘locale strength’ with larger cities demonstrating more of an influence on smaller cities (the Gravity Model is one explanation as to why London is so linguistically and socially influential). But in Glasgow, these models are flawed because they people who are leading these changes (working-class adolescents) don’t move, and they don’t particularly recognise London (or other large English cities) as sites of influence. Jane’s work offers an alternative explanation based on the influence of the media, in particular, broadcast media, because it’s one thing that working-class Glaswegians (especially those who are the most advanced innovators) actually watch (and one important programme is EastEnders). But Jane’s argument is that it’s not simply passive viewing that causes someone to acquire a feature, but rather it’s active engagement with the programme (almost to the point of treating the programme and its characters as ‘real’). Moreover, if a speaker does acquire a feature a character uses on the programme (whether it’s TH-fronting or whatever), then that speaker has to integrate this feature within their already existing linguistic system. It’s not enough for me to watch EastEnders, hear an instance of TH-fronting, and then all of a sudden I’ll use that feature all the time. Instead, I have to have an active engagement with the show, and then that feature has to be integrated into my existing system. Jane’s work is really important primarily because it challenges existing sociolinguistic theories on how a sound change spreads, and it has important implications for how we understand the influence and effects of media on language variation and change.

Daniel Johnson on Wednesday changed the pace a little bit by focusing on methodology, primarily the use of statistical analysis in sociolinguistics. He did amazing work with the stats programme R. Now, I’ve never used R before (I’m an SPSS person myself), but after seeing Dan’s plenary, I’m more and more convinced that it’s what I should be using. The main thrust of his argument was that we shouldn’t be using fixed effects modelling for analysing sociolinguistic data, primarily because fixed effects models give too much weight to individual token counts and speakers. So, you might end up having 10 speakers (5 males and 5 females) and 100 tokens, but those 100 tokens are spread unevenly across your sample (so it could be something like 3 7 12 8 4 6 25 5 15 15). Using fixed effects models might give you a statistically significant result of gender, but it could also be because your data is skewed towards the male speakers. Mixed effects models, on the other hand, attempt to balance this skew out and give you a more realistic picture of how the data is behaving. To drive home his point, he took a bunch of data and analysed it first using F.E. models and then M.E. models which showed just how much can be hidden using F.E. models. Really fantastic stuff and very good methodological issues were raised throughout his talk. Basically, though, we should all be using M.E. models if we want a truly accurate picture of our data, but F.E. models are also good so long as you know what the limitations of the approach are.

Ok, this is getting a bit long, so I’ll save Lauren Hall-Lew and Erez Levon’s work till Tuesday, but I should wrap with a quick word on the post-graduate student presentations. In a nutshell, they were fantastic. Clear, concise, professional, and high-quality, and all confidently delivered with style and panache. And seriously, that’s not hyperbole, they were all really brilliant, and it assured me that the future of sociolinguistics is bright and sunny.

P.S. Oh, and I gave a talk as well on getting a career in academia which is here. Thanks again to Lynn Clark for helping me figure out what to talk about!

Competitive co-operation


The intrepid explorer....

So week 1 of annual leave is done and dusted (Wales is an amazing country and well worth a visit by the way). This week, I tackle the second half of my annual leave wherein I’ll be stuck in Birmingham for the whole week. Alas, I’ve now come to terms with my current urban abode and I’m actually quite looking forward to mooching around the city and ‘chilling out’ (I think I’m now too old to be using this phrase…).

It’ll also give me a little bit of time to focus on getting some writing done, and I thought that since there’s been little in the way of ‘sociolinguistic’ chat thus far on the blog, I should try and remedy that somewhat (otherwise I should rename the blog to something like ‘doesnttalkmuchaboutlinguisticslinguist.com’.

One of my areas of research is urban adolescent male language use, specifically Glasgow (although I do have plans to move my research to Birmingham adolescent male speech). The bulk of my PhD thesis centered on providing an acoustic analysis of speech data and relating differential patterns of variation to particular group membership. I collected all my conversational data during a three-year ethnography of a high school in the south side of Glasgow and it was on this data I did the acoustic analysis. Since the data was conversational, though, the adolescents I recorded talked about a variety of things, including their home life, what they wanted to do when they finished school, what they thought about the local area and so on. One day we were talking about fights that had happened between them and whether it had affected their friendships or not. As we were talking, there was a fascinating exchange between two of the participants. I’ve included part of the excerpt below (‘translated’ into Standard English):

  1. Phil:               So I- I really really wasn’t crying.
  2. Nathan:        Aye, I wasn’t saying you were crying,
  3.                         but it did look like you were crying.
  4. Phil:               No, it’s think it’s just cause my eyes,
  5.                          it looks like I’m crying.
  6.                         Do I look as if I’m crying now?
  7. Nathan:        No, but I did see something.

At the time of writing my thesis (in 2009), this section of data formed about three pages of my ethnographic discussion, but it always stuck in my head because of its inherent contradictibility. In line 2, Nathan says ‘I wasn’t saying you were crying’ and then IN HIS NEXT TURN says the complete opposite thing (‘It did look like you were crying)! While we can argue as to whether there is an internal inconsistency here or not (in formal logic terms), I would argue that Nathan’s second turn here does something interesting in the context of the conversation which requires further investigation. This excerpt had always puzzled me and even though I wrote about it in my thesis, I didn’t have time to give it the attention it deserved. After I submitted, I put together a conference paper for a conference in Helsinki last year and over the past six months or so, I’ve been working this conference paper up into an article.

Basically, my argument (so far) goes like this:

In general folk-linguistic ideology, men’s speech is considered competitive and women’s speech co-operative (see Jennifer Coates’ work in this area for substantiation of this claim). Over the last 15 years or so, however, this dichotomy has come under increasing scrutiny for its lack of sophistication in accounting for the complexity of situated language use. Importantly, work from Penelope EckertJacqueline Guendouzi and Deborah Tannen has argued that speakers don’t simply draw on resources from one pole or another, but that utterances can be orientated simultaneously towards both (cf. co-operative competition in Eckert’s article). Much of the work in this area has been on female speakers, but very little attention has been paid to how male speakers might exploit strategies which cannot be easily correlated with competitive or cooperative.

If we take the data excerpt from above, it is very difficult to pin-point whether Nathan is being competitive or co-operative. On the one hand, he is offering a face-threatening act which calls into question Phil’s emotional fragility (cf. ‘crying’), but on the other, he immediately mitigates (and in some senses withdraws) his accusation. Before we get into why this particular pattern might exist, we have to take a slight detour through some background info.

One over-riding tendency in language and gender research is that the gender of the speaker tends to influence the kinds of interpretations offered on the data by the researcher. It’s often something (generally) unconscious, but researchers are only human and are influenced by their own assumptions and preconceptions of the world in which they live. Being aware of this goes some way towards reducing the impact of this, and an article by Deborah Tannen on gossip among male university undergraduates is an excellent example of the kind of analysis which can be done when ‘another set of eyes’ looks at the data (in this article, Tannen reanalyses some data originally collected and analysed by one of her students). With this in mind, we might be tempted to see Nathan’s contributions here as wholly competitive and face-threatening since this fits in with general ideologies surround male language use. He’s trying to get one up on Phil by calling into question his sense of ‘tough’ masculinity and his turns seem to suggest a rather competitive stance. The other alternative is that the turn is fully co-operative, but then why would Nathan say that it did look like Phil was crying? Surely if it was co-operative, Nathan would have framed this exchange differently? This is all fine and dandy, except that I don’t think that this is the full story.

The other other alternative is that (like the work of Eckert and Guendouzi), it is reductive to think of language use in terms of ‘competitive’ or ‘co-operative’ (why should it only be one or the other?). Instead, we should think of Nathan’s turns here as ‘polysemous’ (that is, meaning one thing and another simultaneously) in that it is ‘competitively-co-operative’. By doing so, Nathan achieves two aims at the same time: 1) challenge Phil’s claim to ‘tough’ masculinity and 2) mitigate his contribution in order to maintain the friendship. In some senses, the participants here are ‘playing a game’ and both are aware of it. We have to take into account the fact that the participants are friends and are unlikely to go the full way of competitive dialogue (it’s risky, it could escalate etc etc), and the exchange here is testament to this fact.

Competition works (on some level) by the individuals involved in the competition co-operating in the endeavour. If I’m playing a game of football or rugby with people (competitive) and I decide I don’t want to play or be involved any more (co-operative), then the game ceases to be (or at least, I stop being a part of that particular interaction). I reckon that something similar is happening in this excerpt.

My thinking still needs a bit of refinement before I hit the ‘submit to journal’ button, but I think I’m on the right track here. Now I just need to drag myself out of my post-Wales bliss and get cracking on trying to finish it this week!