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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

Language, Community and Identity Event


Last Friday, I popped down to London for the Language, Community and Identity event at the British Academy. There was a very good line up of speakers, including Professor Wendy BennettProfessor Jenny Cheshire, Professor Dennis Preston, and Dr Devyani Sharma. It was a packed house with nary a free seat in the room, not surprising given the academic pedigree of the speakers, all of whom have done fantastic work in the field of language and gender, perceptual dialectology, historical sociolinguistics and so on.

Perhaps the most surprising thing, though, was that it was chaired by Professor Peter Trudgill, someone who hasn’t really popped up on my radar as a ‘language and identity’ research. Indeed, as he acknowledged in his opening address, he has in the past been accused of being a bit of an anti-identity campaigner. He took some time, however, to say that he has never doubted the importance of identity in terms of language variation, but rather that he couldn’t see how identity could be the principal reason why a particular linguistic variable would change over time and that other forces must be in action. In any event, he didn’t spend a great deal of time on this point and instead the event was focused on dealing with three main questions:

  1. How do we research identity and community through language?
  2. What role do identity and community play in language change?
  3. How do different parts of language construct identities?

For each question, each of the four panel members gave a short overview of their thoughts on the topic, before the floor was opened up to the audience and questions were taken. Because of lack of space, I’m not going to go over everything that was said (and I’ve surely forgotten stuff…), but there were some interesting things brought up, including the issue of bringing together the perception/production cycle. Related to this point, Preston made a really good observation along the lines of ‘what’s the point of doing identity if there’s no-one there to hear you talk?’. Researchers in the UK and the US have been making strides in dealing with how production and perception are linked, and recently there’s been work that’s integrated identity within this framework (like Erez Levon’s work I’ve discussed elsewhere on the blog), but it’s a slow process and I think that more work can be done here, especially within work that adopts a more ethnographic approach (mine included).

The other part that was interesting was how different levels of language contributed to identity construction. Most sociolinguistic research focuses on phonetic/phonological variation, but the interface between syntax/phonology/discourse is still a really under-investigated area of work (Katie Drager’s work on discourse marker ‘like’ is a good example of what can be done). I would have liked the panel to have spent a bit more time on this area since it’s an interesting one and it was good to get viewpoints from different people working within syntax, discourse, and phonetics. I think that speakers and listeners are perhaps more attuned to changes in syntax (since it can be so marked) than they are for variation in discourse or phonology, although that raises a whole bunch of other questions on what makes a variant ‘noticeable’. It is frequency of use, recency of use, salience of use (and how does a variant become salient) or some sort of combination of these (thanks to Norma Mendoza-Denton for these points!)?

Beyond the event itself, it was great to catch up with colleagues I hadn’t seen in a while. Working in an English Department, it gets a bit lonely not having other sociolinguists to talk to and I always like seeing how people are getting on. It also cheered me up before I got back on the train to do another batch of marking…

– The Social Linguist