Posts Tagged ‘sociolinguistics’

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

How do you use social media in your research?

April 29, 2014 2 comments


So…. This blog thing… Um… Wow, has it really been four months since I last updated? Eek. That’s eh… that’s not so good. Wow.

I know I keep on saying that I should get back on the wagon with the blog, and I have had a few bits and pieces I’ve wanted to write about, but it’s been hard finding time, especially during the semester. Beyond teaching (oh, and a recent promotion!), there’s also been lots of upheaval outside of university (getting engaged, buying a house, having knee surgery etc etc), all of which has been a bit of a major distraction from regular updates.

In any event, I do actually have something I wanted to write about today and I figured that while I’m laid up at home recovering from my op (nothing serious; a torn meniscus and chrodroplasty, taken care of in day surgery), I could use the time productively in my research. Hurrah!

I think I’ve said before on the blog that I’m currently working on a volume (with Dave Sayers, Sheffield Hallam University) about the application of sociolinguistic research outside of academia. We think it’s a pretty big area of research that’s not really been talked about too much over the years, and with the importance of ‘impact’ ever rising within funding councils, we’re looking to show how sociolinguistics can be leveraged and applied beyond the immediate university context.

My chapter focuses on the use of social and traditional media in the reporting of sociolinguistic research and the advantages and disadvantaged each method has. But I’m also interested in finding out about how sociolinguists have used social media in their research. So if you’re a (ir)regular user of Facebook, Twitter, forums, personal research blogs, research blogs you’ve made for a funder, or any other form of social media, I’m hoping you might be able to take the time to answer a few questions:

  1. What forms of social media do you use in your research (Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc)?
  2. How useful has social media been to you?
  3. What have been the primary functions you’ve used social media for (research findings, general language discussion etc)?
  4. How have funders responded to your use of social media?
  5. How effective has social media been in facilitating knowledge dissemination?
  6. How effective has social media been in developing stakeholder/end user/general public engagement?
  7. Anything else you’d like to add about social media?

Ideally, I’d like to examine in my chapter not only the pros and cons of traditional/social media, but also how it’s actually been used by sociolinguists, as a kind of ‘how to’. Feel free to put your comments down below, or alternatively, fire off an email to robert.lawson AT

The Social Linguist

Some thoughts on Duels and Duets (and why John Locke is wrong)… (part 3)

November 12, 2011 3 comments

This post is the last installment of my review of John Locke’s recent book Duels and Duets (if you want to catch up on part 1 and part 2)

Before the book even gets into its stride, Locke has already made his mind up about his subject matter: men and women do talk differently. It’s something which isn’t up for debate, and its intellectual veracity is established by the fact ‘we hear [men and women] conversing and may have witnessed failures to connect – or experienced these difficulties in our own relationships’ (Locke 2011: 1). Of course, observation is certainly part of any scientific endeavour, but the part which is (crucially) missing is analysis. Locke starts from the perspective that differences exist because he’s heard men and women talk, but this is purely circumstantial evidence and doesn’t fulfil the rigorous demands set up by sociolinguistic researchers who investigate male and female speech. Moreover, he is very selective of the work he chooses to support his case, ignoring research that, for example, argues that women can be competitive in conversation (Eckert 1993, Guendouzi 2001), or that men can be co-operative and ‘gossip’ (Cameron 1997). He also doesn’t provide much in the way of actual linguistic evidence, preferring instead to let work from other fields form much of his discussion.

For example, Locke draws much of his argument via research conducted in the field of primatology. The idea is that with primates being our closest evolutionary partner, analysis of how apes and chimpanzees behave should offer us more of an insight into how humans behave. With no ‘culture’ to speak of, then any differences between male and female primate behaviour can only arise from biology. This is taken as an evidence of undercutting the impact of culture within human societies: if primates don’t have culture and they behave in this way, then surely the same must apply to humans since they’re our closest neighbour on the evolutionary ladder? Of course, the fact is that humans do have culture and we have a history of culturally-mandated (not biologically-determined) systems of oppression and exclusion (for example, in 1878 the University of London was one of the first universities to allow women were allowed to attend, but the University of Cambridge did not award degrees to female students until 1948). To argue that these systems of exclusion are based on biology is folly at best and wilful ignorance at worst, but that’s exactly what Locke does when he argues that the reason there are more male debaters, politicians and public speakers is because men are genetically and biologically predisposed to duelling-type behaviour which characterises these arenas. Women, on the other hand, do not participate in these kinds of activities because they are more biologically predisposed towards co-operative and facilitative communicative behaviour (re: duetting). Locke argues that such realities have nothing to do with the historical processes of exclusion and marginalisation (cf. cultural issues) of women from these activities, but that it’s all to do with biology.

Lastly, Locke has a particularly homogenous view of men and women (and completely ignores individuals who might not fit into this neat categorisation). All men and women are (more or less) the same, so issues of race, sexuality, age, ethnicity, nationality and so on, don’t impact on linguistic behaviour (they do, but Locke ignores much of the research on such issues). Why should they when human society is derived from the same basic prehistoric blueprint? Ignoring these issues overlooks a whole host of factors which impact on speech behaviour, and as such is a major drawback of Locke’s work.

Duels and Duets has certainly stirred up a not insignificant amount of attention within the media, the general public and the academy, but I would argue that Locke’s conclusions are based on flawed logic and questionable data and is almost wholly ignorant of current theoretical advances in language and gender research. Because his arguments are couched within the science of evolutionary biology, however, many will assume his work to have the intellectual rigour and academic standards which typifies such ‘hard’ sciences. Locke’s work falls short when evaluated against the standards set by linguistics and gender studies and as such cannot be taken seriously as a proper description regarding the basis of male and female speech styles.

Now, this obviously isn’t a comprehensive treatment of Locke’s book, and it would take another book to offer a full critique of his work, but I hope that these last three posts at least offer some background information on how Duels and Duets fits into sociolinguistic research on language and gender, and why we need to be very cautious when a book like this appears on the market.

– The Social Linguist