Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Logos and language

Do we associate a logo with a particular type of social identity?
And with a particular way of speaking?

We all make social judgements about people based on the way they speak. But what kinds of social differences do we pick up on, and can we really relate social judgements to very small differences in pronunciation? Andrew MacFarlane and Jane Stuart-Smith’s research in Glasgow used an innovative method to investigate these questions. They found that listeners were very sensitive indeed to phonetic variation and that they used it to recognise social stereotypes that were meaningful in their local community.

The two researchers devised an experiment where they told 31 judges that they would hear pairs of words pronounced by two men, ‘Lee’ and ‘Phil’, from Greater Glasgow. The judges were shown 4 brand logos for Lee and 4 brand logos for Phil. These two young men, the researchers said, had named four brands that best summarised their lifestyle choices about where they liked to drink (two Glasgow bars), what they wore (the logos shown were Adidas and Gant), what sports they enjoyed (Scotland Rugby League or the Scottish Football Association) and where they went to buy a quick lunch (Marks and Spencer, or the local Greggs bakers shop). On their own, none of these choices are particularly meaningful: Adidas, for example, is worn by all sections of society but, like most aspects of social identity, these choices become meaningful when contrasted with something else. In the researchers’ view, the logos associated with Phil were stereotypes of a regular working class Glaswegian man, while those associated with Lee were stereotypes of an upwardly mobile ‘new’ middle class Glaswegian, the type of person who might speak with an accent that has only recently been recognised in Glasgow and that local people associate with Glasgow University and the Art School (not always favourably, as MacFarlane and Stuart-Smith point out: see

What the judges didn’t know was that in fact the pairs of words were all read by the same man – Andrew MacFarlane. Of course, several pairs of words were there to distract the listeners, but included in the list were three pairs where one word was read with a pronunciation typical of the new Glasgow-Uni style and the other with the regular Glaswegian pronunciation.

The results showed that the listeners believed they were listening to two speakers, and that they were able to use the brand logos to construct two stereotypical speakers to whom they then assigned different pronunciations. Some phonetic features turned out to have strong social associations: for example, a word like people, when pronounced with a vocalised /l/, was strongly linked with ‘Lee’, the character with the regular Glaswegian persona, while a lengthened –er syllable in a word such as number was very strongly linked to ‘Phil’. Unexpectedly, though, one of the variants thought to be typical of the new Glasgow-Uni accent, the pronunciation of initial /r/, was not associated with either of the persona, suggesting that people do not yet associate this feature with any particular accent.

What was important was that although the researchers felt that Lee and Phil could be construed as working class or middle class, none of the judges used these labels when they described the men. Instead, local categories worked more readily for them: one listener volunteered, for example, “Lee sounded more Glaswegian” and another ‘one of them sounds sort of Glasgow Uni-ish”. The researchers suggest that brand logos and other kinds of visual ways of creating social identities can be used more widely to explore how people perceive language variation, and how this kind of perception relates to language change.
MacFarlane, Andrew E. and Stuart-Smith, Jane 2012. ‘One of them sounds sort of Glasgow Uni-ish’. Social judgements and fine phonetic variation in Glasgow. Lingua 122: 764-778.

doi. 10.1016/j.lingua.2012.01.007

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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