Friday 23 December 2011

Season's Greetings to all our readers. We look forward to your continued interest in 2012. Best wishes from the Linguistics Research Digest team.

Monday 19 December 2011

How insults can shape identity

Insults can create a feeling of belonging and shared identity

   - hey fat emo, what’s going on?
- hey old fag, where is Jossi?

This is how two young men were heard greeting each other in a youth centre in Germany. It may seem a strange way for friends to behave, but it turns out to be quite frequent behaviour amongst the young men of immigrant background that Susanne Günthner studied in Germany. Günthner and her research team recorded the informal interactions of 18 young men aged between 15 and 23 in youth centres in Münster, Rheine, Solingen and Hamm. The families of the young men had migrated from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Morocco.

It used to be thought, Günthner points out, that the children and grandchildren of migrants would adopt the local majority language as their mother tongue. Instead, studies throughout Europe have shown that young people tend to create new forms of language (such as the Multicultural London English covered in previous posts on this blog) as well as new kinds of communicative practice. Using insults to construct friendship is one example of these communicative practices.

It seems that the insults create a feeling of belonging and shared identity among the speakers who use them, by breaking the conventional norms of how to address someone. The insults revolve around topics that relate to concepts of masculinity within the group, including manliness and sexuality, sexual subordination and homosexuality. Emo in the example above comes from the hardcore punk scene, where it refers to ‘emotionally unstable teenagers and outsiders’. Although young Germans who are not from an immigrant background also make insulting remarks to each other, the young men in Günthner’s study saw this as their own special way of speaking, claiming when interviewed that someone who wasn’t “one of us” would misunderstand the intended playfulness of the insults.

Günthner also describes how the young men in her study skilfully blend different varieties of German while speaking, to stage different social characters. This too is a way of constructing a shared identity for the group. As an example she quotes from a follow-up interview with two young men, Enis and Robbie, whose families are from the former Yugoslavia. The young speakers were explaining that it is difficult to be friends with some of the ethnically German boys at school because there are so many differences between them: for example, the German boys work too hard, don’t understand their jokes, and are brought up differently. When reporting some of the things the German boys say to them, Robbie spoke very slowly, with an exaggerated standard German pronunciation. In this way he brought to life what he considered to be a typical German – the majority group in society– but his caricature of the way that a typical German speaks presented it as pedantic and ridiculous. Although Enis and Robbie spoke throughout the interview in a way that was very close to standard German, when Robbie reports something he himself might say to a German classmate he switches into the ‘polyethnic’ or ‘multicultural’ style that is typical of the neighbourhood. Enis shows his awareness of social attitudes towards the polyethnic style in Germany by saying “you’ll never get a job like that, dude” (so kriegste nie ne arbeit, alder). Günthner claims that by animating characters in their stories with specific linguistic varieties, and by contrasting stylised and even parodied ways of speaking with their own, the young men perform “acts of identity” that create a feeling of inclusion for them within their own group versus a feeling of “otherness” for other groups in German society.

Günthner reminds us that in the modern world globalisation and widespread immigration mean that it is not only people who are moving: languages, she says, are also “on the move”, and so are communicative practices. Analysing the development and dynamics of communicative practices such as the two she focussed on helps us to understand not only the language diversity of modern societies but also the dynamics of social and cultural identities.

Günthner, Susanne 2011. The dynamics of communicative practices in transmigrational contexts: “insulting remarks” and “stylized category animations” in everyday interactions among male youth in Germany. Text and Talk 31/4: 447-473.
doi 1860-7330/11/0031-0447

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Thursday 15 December 2011

When, how and why do gender differences in language begin?

Could children’s segregated friendship groups account for the development of gender differences in language use?

It’s well known than women, on balance, use more standard forms than men do. They are more likely, for instance, to say I’m walking to school these days than I’m walkin’ to work.  What is not so well known is how, when and why children acquire these kinds of gender differences in language use.

Richard Cameron set out to find some answers in a Chicago elementary school. He recorded pairs of children in relaxed interviews with a friend, and analysed their use of two pronunciation features: -ing versus –in, as in the walking example, and the standard th pronunciation versus d in words like this or brother. His results come from 10 girls and 7 boys in 5th grade (aged 10-11) and 7 girls and 6 boys in 2nd grade (aged 7-8). In each age group there were children of both European American and African American descent.

The overall figures show small differences between boys and girls in the younger age group, with girls using slightly more of the standard pronunciations of both features. The differences increase dramatically for the older age group. Cameron explains the increase as reflecting the girls’ and boys’ friendship patterns. When the boys talked about their friends, they talked about boys, whereas when the girls talked about their friends the talk was about girls. This conforms to a wide range of previous work that shows that children tend to socialise in single sex groups. Gender segregation in friendship groups means that as children grow older their language use becomes increasingly divergent.

When Cameron looked at the results in more detail, though, he found that things were more complex. For th versus d the change between the older boys and the younger boys was in a different direction to the change for girls: older boys used more of the nonstandard d forms whereas older girls used more of the standard th forms. Cameron refers to this pattern as ‘dual polarization’.

For –ing versus –in, though, there was a split along ethnic lines. African American children showed a tendency towards dual polarization for -ing versus -in, but less so than for th versus d. However, European American children did not share this pattern at all. Instead, although the older girls used more standard pronunciations than the younger girls, the frequencies of the nonstandard forms for the older boys and the younger boys stayed the same. In other words, the girls seemed to change their behaviour as they grew older, but the boys didn’t.

Cameron admits to being puzzled by these findings. One possible explanation, he suggests, reflects children’s early exposure to gendered variation in the home. He cites previous research that shows mothers using more standard pronunciations to their young daughters than to their young sons. The younger children in his study, then, may reflect this kind of early input from their mothers. As children move through different stages of childhood, he suggests, they begin to associate social meanings with the different pronunciations. The social meanings of –ing may be different to the social meanings for th, and since social meanings are acquired in friendship groups which tend to be segregated by gender, they may differ for boys and for girls. The social meanings may develop as children grow older. The differences between the European Americans and the African Americans may also reflect friendship patterns. It is still not clear, though, why –ing versus -in should have a different social meaning to th versus d. A further puzzle is why boys prefer nonstandard pronunciations overall, while girls prefer standard pronunciations. Linguists do not agree on any explanation for this common finding.

What is clear from this study, though, is that gender differences in pronunciation are found in children as young as 7, and that these gender differences increase as children grow older, in different ways for different features. It is also clear that intriguing differences can emerge when we look beyond overall patterns of gender differences in language.
Cameron, Richard 2010. Growing up and apart: Gender divergences in a Chicagoland elementary school. Language Variation and Change 22 (2): 279-319.
doi: 10.1017/S0954394510000074

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Monday 12 December 2011

“Can’t talk now”: gender and mobile phones

Is talking on a mobile in this situation acceptable? What's your view?

How do you feel when you’re eating dinner at home with the family and one of the people at the table starts to talk on their mobile? A recent study by Naomi Baron and Elise Campbell suggests that if you don’t feel upset, the chances are you’re male, or perhaps from Korea. Baron and Campbell investigated gender differences in the way people use their mobile phones and in their attitudes towards mobiles. They asked 2001 university students aged between 18 and 24 a series of questions including how acceptable it is to use a mobile at family dinner, with friends in a café, and at a supermarket checkout, as well as in public situations like walking and being in a bus. By collecting data from 5 different countries (Sweden, the US, Italy, Japan and Korea), they were able to compare the role of gender versus culture (admitting that this can only be to the extent that culture corresponds with nationhood).

In all three personal situations, men were more likely than women to find talking on their mobiles acceptable – except in Korea, where there were no gender differences. As many as 41 per cent of the Korean students found it “always” or “usually” acceptable to talk on their phones during family dinners, compared to 14 per cent of the Swedish students and only 3 per cent of the Italians. Everyone was more tolerant of texting during family dinners, though here too more men than women found this acceptable behaviour. By contrast, only the Japanese found it unacceptable to speak on their phones in a bus, presumably showing that having prominent signs on public transport reminding passengers not to use their phones, as happens in Japan, really does have an effect.

Overall, more women than men claimed to prefer talking on the phone to texting because they “wanted to hear the voice of their interlocutor”. The researchers suggest that this reflects the importance of social connection for women. Equally, though, more women than men claimed to choose texting because “talking takes too long”. These two findings seem contradictory, but Baron and Campbell point out that women may prefer to avoid making a curt phone call because this may seem impolite.

Interestingly, overall about 30 per cent of the students reported pretending to talk on their phones “at least occasionally” to avoid conversation with an acquaintance. Women, overall, were more likely to pretend to be talking on their phones in order to avoid talking to strangers – hardly surprising, the authors point out, since women are more physically vulnerable in this type of situation. More surprising is the stark cultural difference between Americans and Italians: nearly 13 per cent of the American students claimed to avoid acquaintances at least once a month by pretending to talk on their phones, compared to just over 2 per cent of the Italian students. This finding, when seen together with the very small proportion of Italian students who found it appropriate to talk on their phones during a family dinner, supports previous research showing that Italians strongly value face to face communication with friends and family.

The researchers conclude that gender is just one factor influencing how young people use mobile phones. Sometimes culture seems to be a more critical factor. They also point out that digital technology changes rapidly, so that studies carried out even just a year or so after theirs may well yield different results, perhaps especially in terms of reported frequency of use of mobiles. Even so, they predict that gender distinctions and some culturally-driven differences are likely to persist.
Baron, Naomi S. and Campbell, Elise M. 2012. Gender and mobile phones in cross-national context. Language Sciences 34: 13-27.

doi: 10.1016/j.langsci.2011.06.018

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Thursday 8 December 2011

Multicultural London English - part 4

A apple, a orange and a change of rule

Researchers Jenny Cheshire, Paul Kerswill, Sue Fox and Eivind Torgersen report on the use of the indefinite article (a/an) and the definite article (the) before words beginning with a vowel. In standard English the forms are roughly a and thuh before a consonant e.g. a pear, ‘thuh’ pear, and an and thee before a vowel e.g. an apple, ‘thee’ apple. Older speakers in London conform to this standard English pattern. However, some recent studies have shown that young people in London are not varying their use of the article forms but are using the pre-consonant forms in both contexts i.e. a pear but also a apple and ‘thuh’ pear but also ‘thuh’ apple.

The results from the Multicultural London English study confirm this trend. There are, however, interesting differences between the ‘Anglo’ speakers (the term used for speakers of British origin whose families had lived in the area for two or more generations and roughly equivalent to ‘white British’) and ‘non-Anglo’ speakers (speakers whose families were of more recent immigrant background). For the Anglos there is a decrease in frequency of the new forms as they get older and the researchers say that this is due to them being exposed to more competition from the input they receive – the newer forms used by their non-Anglo peers against the standard forms of their caregivers (the Anglo caregivers hardly ever used the new forms). On the other hand, the non-Anglos of all ages have very high frequency rates for the new forms and this is consistent with other studies of contact varieties of English around the world, e.g. South African English, Singapore English and African American Vernacular English.

The researchers state that this is another feature of language change which has probably come about due to the language contact situation in London. The clear patterns shown by the results of this study suggest that the dominant variants in the ‘feature pool’ (see previous post Multicultural London English - part 1) are a and thuh which are used by the majority of the non-Anglo speakers. The evidence that these forms are influencing the speech of the Anglos is shown in the fact that  the young Anglos use the new forms much more than their caregivers.
Cheshire, J., Kerswill, P., Fox, S. and Torgersen, E. 2011. Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: the Emergence of Multicultural London English. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15/2: 151-196.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2011.00478.x

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Monday 5 December 2011

Multicultural London English - part 3

I was, you was, they was, we was .…….. wasn’t we?

Researchers Jenny Cheshire, Paul Kerswill, Sue Fox and Eivind Torgersen report on the use of past BE forms (i.e. was/were) in London. Although the standard English forms are was with first and third singular subjects (I was, he/she was, negative wasn’t) and were with all other subjects (you were, we were, they were, negative weren’t), it is well known that the pattern varies considerably around the English-speaking world. There are predominantly two patterns which involve non-standard forms. These patterns are both variable i.e. the non-standard forms occur alongside the standard forms:

1. Variable use of was with all subjects in positive contexts (e.g. I was but also we was, you was) and wasn’t with all subjects in negative contexts (e.g. I wasn’t but also they wasn’t, you wasn’t)

2. Variable use of was with all subjects in positive contexts (e.g. I was but also we was, you was) but weren’t with all subjects in negative contexts (e.g. we weren’t but also I weren’t, she/he weren’t)

Although the first pattern is the most common throughout the English-speaking world, it is the second pattern (i.e. was/weren’t) which is the most common in Britain (note, though, another pattern in north-west England) so that many people in Britain today will say things like we was busy; she weren’t at home; he was angry, weren’t he? (You might remember the FT article on Lord Alan Sugar’s use of you was)

In their first study of London English Linguistic Innovators: the English of Adolescents in London the researchers found that adolescents in outer London (the borough of Havering) conformed to the expected non-standard British was/weren’t pattern but in inner London (the borough of Hackney) they found that the use of was in positive contexts was increasing but that there was competition between the two non-standard negative forms of wasn’t and weren’t. The researchers give the language contact situation in London as a likely explanation for this competition. Many speakers in London come from linguistic backgrounds where the dominant pattern is was/wasn’t e.g. English Creole-influenced varieties, second-language varieties such as African and Indian English as well as interlanguage (or learner) varieties and this competes with the local vernacular variety which tended to favour a was/weren’t pattern. In the second study Multicultural London English: the emergence, acquisition and diffusion of a new variety the researchers looked to see whether one of these patterns was winning out among younger children but it seems that, for the time being at least, the two patterns exist alongside each other.

The researchers focus on a newcomer to London to try to predict future trends in the use of this feature. They examine the speech of a 12 year-old Albanian girl who lived in London between the ages of 4 and 7, then returned to Albania until she was 11, after which she returned to live permanently in London.  She uses non-standard was in positive contexts almost all of the time and her few instances of negative past tense forms are all non-standard wasn’t. Perhaps this suggests that the trend is moving towards a was/wasn’t pattern in the multiethnic areas of inner London but we will have to wait and see.
Cheshire, J., Kerswill, P., Fox, S. and Torgersen, E. 2011. Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: the Emergence of Multicultural London English. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15/2: 151-196.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2011.00478.x

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Thursday 1 December 2011

Multicultural London English - part 2

This is me ‘I’m from Hackney’

Researchers Jenny Cheshire, Paul Kerswill, Sue Fox and Eivind Torgersen report the use of a new quotative expression to introduce reported speech in spoken discourse. Of course, speakers use a variety of forms to introduce dialogue; the verbs SAY (e.g. she said ‘let’s go to the cinema’), GO (e.g. he went ‘let’s go to the cinema’) and THINK (e.g. I thought ‘Oh no, not the cinema again’) are among the most common introducers. In recent years there has also been an explosion in English varieties around the world in the use of BE LIKE (e.g. they were like ‘Oh, we love the cinema’). However, in inner London, the researchers have also discovered the use of the expression this is + speaker such as those given in the examples below.

this is them ‘what area are you from?’ this is me ‘I’m from Hackney’

this is my mum ‘what are you doing?’

Although the new form only accounts for a small number of the quotatives found in the London data it is nevertheless used frequently enough in young people’s speech generally for it to have been noticed by non-linguists. For example, you can hear it being used in this comedy sketch from the Armstrong and Miller show. The researchers found that the expression this is + speaker is used by adolescents and also by children as young as eight years old but none of the adults in their study used it. This points to the feature as being a fairly recent innovation but in fact there is some evidence to suggest that it has existed in the ‘feature pool’ (see our previous post) for some time; Mark Sebba found three examples in his recordings of London Jamaicans made in the 1980s and there are also examples in the Corpus of London Teenage Speech (COLT) recorded in the 1990s. The researchers say that in language contact situations such as that which exists in London, features which have been in existence for some time (but have perhaps been used infrequently) may get picked up from the feature pool causing the frequency of its use to increase. This seems to be a possibility for the increase in the use of this is + speaker.

Another interesting finding is that there is a difference in the way that the different age groups use this feature. The 12-13 year-olds and the 16-19 year-olds use this is + speaker almost exclusively to introduce reported direct speech (e.g. this is her ‘that was my sister’). However, the 8-9 year-olds use it to introduce both direct speech and non-lexicalised sound and gesture (e.g. this is me <followed by an action>). This function allows the young children to ‘perform’ the actions in the way in which they actually occurred. Furthermore, the 8-9 year-olds also use this is + speaker with non-quotative functions (e.g. he’s sitting on a chair this is him like he’s drunk or something) to describe someone’s state, feeling, action, gesture or expression.

The researchers state that the use of this is + speaker is in its early stages and that, so far, it is confined to inner London. Whether it is a short-lived phenomenon or whether it will continue to increase in frequency and spread to other regions remains to be seen. Comments welcome on the use of or further development of this fascinating language feature!
Cheshire, J., Kerswill, P., Fox, S. and Torgersen, E. 2011. Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: the Emergence of Multicultural London English. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15/2: 151-196.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2011.00478.x

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Monday 28 November 2011

Multicultural London English – part 1

The term Multicultural London English (MLE) has emerged in recent years and is used to describe the distinctive range of language features used in multiethnic areas of London. Researchers Jenny Cheshire, Paul Kerswill, Sue Fox and Eivind Torgersen link the emergence of MLE with large-scale post-war immigration from developing countries. In this situation children of immigrants often shift rapidly to the majority language (in this case London English). However, majority-language speakers may be in the minority (for example, many inner London Cockney speakers moved to outer London areas in the post-war period) or there may not be much social integration between immigrant and indigenous populations (also the case in London during the first waves of immigration) and so the availability of local, native models of the majority language to the second-language learners is weakened. This means that the majority language may be acquired from other second-language speakers in what is known as a ‘group second language acquisition’ setting. In London, the researchers argue that many immigrants and subsequently their children may have acquired their London English in an unguided and informal way, mainly through friendship or kinship groups of other second-language learners.

The researchers therefore see language contact (where two or more languages come together) as an important determining factor in the emergence of MLE. They do not claim that there is direct transfer from any one language in particular but rather that it is the language contact situation itself that has led to linguistic innovations. The way that they conceptualise this is by reference to a language ‘feature pool’ which is produced from the range of different input varieties and from which speakers select different combinations of features, sometimes modifying them into new structures in the process. In the inner London area investigated in the MLE studies the input varieties consist (among others) of African Englishes, Afro-Caribbean English, Indian English and a range of interlanguage varieties which are spoken alongside traditional London English. The range of features in the pool therefore allows a great deal of scope for innovation and restructuring in inner London.

The researchers draw on two large-scale sociolinguistic studies in their report. In the first project Linguistic Innovators: the English of Adolescents in London an area of inner London (the borough of Hackney) was compared to an area of outer London (the borough of Havering) and focused primarily on adolescents aged 17-19, although elderly speakers aged 70-86 were also recorded. The second project Multicultural London English: the emergence, acquisition and diffusion of a new variety focused on Hackney again but also areas close by in the boroughs of Islington and Haringey (collectively referred to as ‘north London’). The age range for this study was much wider and consisted of recordings from speakers aged 4-5, 8-9, 12-13, 16-19, c.25 as well as some of the children’s caregivers. Each project recorded approximately between 120 -130 individuals. The adolescents (16-19 year-olds) were recorded in the Further Education colleges that they attended while the younger children were recorded in their schools or youth clubs (and sometimes at home). The caregivers and the elderly participants were mainly recorded in their homes.

Keep an eye on the next few postings – we’ll be taking a look at some of the main findings of these projects!
Cheshire, J., Kerswill, P., Fox, S. and Torgersen, E. 2011. Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: the Emergence of Multicultural London English. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15/2: 151-196.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2011.00478.x

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Friday 25 November 2011

Resources on spoken language

The Talk of the Toon

An archive of local language and stories

The memories, thoughts and opinions of the people of Tyneside, past and present, in their own words

Thursday 24 November 2011

Sugar and spice? What compliments reveal about women’s and men’s cultural values

Great playing today, Tom!

Men and women may be more equal today, but recent research on compliments suggests that their cultural values are as different today as they were 30 or 40 years ago.

Wow! Your hair looks great!
Research carried out in the late 1970s and early 1980s by researchers like Janet Holmes in New Zealand found that women friends gave more compliments to each other (and to men) than men, and that most of their compliments were about appearance, especially hair style and clothes. Janie Rees-Miller’s recent research found that women friends still gave and received many more compliments than men, and that these were still mainly about appearance. In fact what women valued most seemed to be the effort expended on their everyday appearance: they were more likely to tell a friend I like the way you’ve styled your hair than I like your lovely thick hair. The men in Rees-Miller’s study, on the other hand, gave fewer compliments than women, and the topic was mainly performance, especially performance at sports (for example, you were great in the game last night). Again, there is little change here from the results of the earlier studies.

However Rees-Miller’s research reveals a further aspect of women’s and men’s complimenting behaviour. The compliments that she analysed were collected by university students in the US Midwest, in two different types of setting. The results just mentioned concern compliments overheard in ‘unstructured’ settings, like the student snack bar or the lobby of the student dormitory, where people are free to choose what they talk about.  A second set of compliments was overheard in more goal-oriented settings, such as a sports practice or sports training. Here not only were roughly the same number of compliments heard from women and men, but both women and men gave more compliments about their friend’s performance than about anything else. 

Rees-Miller concludes that in goal-oriented activities men and women are indeed equal in that good performance in reaching the goal is valued no matter who makes it. In unstructured settings, though, compliments function as small talk, expressing approval and friendliness and often providing an opening for further conversation. They also reinforce shared values. The fact that men’s compliments in unstructured settings are still about sporting performance indicates, she argues, that sport embodies heterosexual bonding and strength for men. Women who are good at sports, on the other hand, face a tension between participating in sporting activities and taking part in more stereotypically feminine concerns. This explains why there are no examples of women complimenting other women on sporting performance in unstructured settings.

The difference in the number of compliments given by men and women in the two types of setting is equally revealing. Since it is only in unstructured settings that women give more compliments than men, men must have different ways of expressing friendship and opening conversations through small talk. One suggestion is that friendly insults may serve the same purpose for men as compliments do for women. A challenge for future researchers is to see whether there is any evidence to support this idea.

For English Language teaching resources and for a suggested English A level language investigation related to this topic click here.
Rees-Miller, Janie (2011). Compliments revisited: Contemporary compliments and gender. Journal of Pragmatics 43: 2673-2688.

doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2011.04.014

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Monday 21 November 2011

It’s like “Oooh, no!”

A closing statement such as It's like 'mmm' often acts as an evaluative comment towards someone or something 

Most people reading this will be familiar with the use of I’m like, he’s like or even constructions such as my brother’s like to introduce reported speech, as in expressions such as I’m like ‘wow, I didn’t know that’ or my brother was like ‘don’t touch my DVDs’. The use of the verb be + like is prevalent, particularly among young people, in spoken language and has been studied extensively by linguists. However, it has been common practice in these studies to exclude instances of be like when it occurs with the neuter pronoun it. The reason for its exclusion is that it does not generally occur with other forms of reported speech introducers (or ‘quotatives’ as linguists call them) such as say or think. There is therefore no basis for comparison and researchers consider that it’s like should be treated separately.

That is exactly what Barbara Fox and Jessica Robles have done. They report solely on what they call the ‘nearly’ quotative use of be like with the non-human subject it and refer to these uses as ‘it’s like-enactments’. They examined over 10 hours of naturally occurring American English speech recorded since the mid-1980s and extracted all instances of it’s like which reported thoughts, feelings and attitudes. They found 22 examples of it’s like-enactments and examined the functions which they performed in the interaction. They found several recurrent patterns.

Firstly, they found that the function of utterances framed by it’s like are what they refer to as ‘affect-laden assessments’; they arise as a responsive attitude, thought or feeling to what has just been said previously and so they often occur at the end of a story as a closing assessment. For instance, the researchers provide an example in which a mother talks about a situation in her home town and closes with it’s like ‘mmm’ as a final closing negative assessment of that situation. The researchers also note that affect is demonstrated by changes in pitch and bodily reactions such as smiles and head movements when uttering it’s like-enactments.

Secondly, they found that the form of many (though not all) of the it’s like- framed utterances tended to be response cries such as oh no, wow, mmm and oh, expressions that generally have very little semantic content but which express feeling. Fox and Robles suggest that these response cries are the prototypical form for it’s like-enactments.

The third pattern which the researchers refer to is the syntax of it’s like-enactments. They argue that the use of the impersonal it pronoun allows for ascribing the response not just to the person speaking but to anyone in that particular situation.

Although the researchers examine only a small number of cases, they provide a first step in understanding why speakers produce a thought, feeling or attitude without actually attributing it to a particular source. Their central finding is that it’s like-enactments are affect-laden responses to an event, action or previous utterance which could be understood as a response which ‘anyone in this situation’ would give.
Fox, B and Robles, J. 2010. It’s like mmm: Enactments with it’s like. Discourse Studies 12(6): 715-738.

DOI: 10.1177/1461445610381862

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Thursday 17 November 2011

Words and the wheel of time

Words fall in and out of favour over time

‘Times may change, but the word times is not changing that much.’ The opening sentence of the researcher Paul Baker’s article invites us to consider how the frequencies of particular words in the English language rise and fall over time. For example, the word change is more than twice as frequent in 2006 as it was in 1931. Some, but certainly not all of this increase can be ascribed to the fact that it occurs in the phrase climate change, which is a recent coinage reflecting a contemporary concern. Baker investigates changes in word frequency in published, written British English sampled from texts in different genres covering the press, general prose, learned articles and fiction. So far, there are four sampling dates: 1931, 1961, 1991 and 2006 – with an earlier date of 1901 in preparation. Baker kicks off his presentation by reporting some intriguing earlier findings, and asks the question ‘Does cultural change lead to linguistic change?’ The clearest examples are in the area of gender and language. For example, the suffixes –ess (e.g. actress) and –ette (e.g. usherette) are used much less now, and there is a marked, but still slow uptake of forms such as spokesperson and chair (for spokesman and chairman). Interestingly, the term Ms is hardly taken up at all, though people do increasingly avoid marking gender in address terms, and this is reflected in a sharp decline in the use of Mr.

What of Baker’s results in this recent study? He finds the greatest increases in the following words: around, health, information, it’s, didn’t, says, social, family, children and need. At first blush, there is no particular pattern here: these words don’t seem to be connected in any way. Baker is able to link this result with previous research, however. For example, need is widely used in sentences such as ‘she needs to finish her essay’, in which need is increasingly used in place of must or has (got) to – a change which has been in progress throughout the 20th century. The appearance of the two forms with apostrophes – it’s and didn’t – is part and parcel of the widespread colloquialisation of formal styles and registers. Baker goes on to explain that the increases in the frequencies of children, family, social and health reflect a cultural shift, with a greater focus on these areas of life than before – without necessarily implying that British society is more family-friendly or healthier now than in the past.

But the data shows other interesting patterns which are not linked to cultural change. Baker focuses on the words round and around, which of course are semantically and functionally closely related. The basic pattern is that around is rapidly gaining ground, at the expense of round. While around shows a sharp increase in use between 1931 and 2006, round shows a steady decline between the same dates.

We might speculate about the reasons for this shift (an Americanism perhaps), but Baker shows that the process is actually quite complex. The two words do not have exactly the same grammatical functions (that is, they don’t behave linguistically in the same way), as the following examples show:

·        Both around and round:
o       Preposition: around the room vs round the room
o       Prepositional adverb: turn around vs turn round

·        around only:
o       Gradable adverb: around a million

·        round only:
o       Noun: round of drinks
o       Adjective: round table

Around appears to be displacing round in the functions where both can occur, i.e. in prepositional functions, but round remains as a noun and an adjective.

Baker’s study shows that the investigation of vocabulary change by means of carefully matched corpora yields results both for the understanding of cultural change (e.g. the reduction in ‘linguistic sexism’ and the growing interest in relationships and social issues), as well as for linguistic change as such, in a way that is not obviously connected to social issues (exemplified by the intriguing changes in around and round).
Baker, P. (2011) 'Times may change but we'll always have money: a corpus driven examination of vocabulary change in four diachronic corpora.' Journal of English Linguistics 39: 65-88.

This summary was written by Paul Kerswill

Monday 14 November 2011

Giving directions: do women do this differently to men?

Previous research has found many differences in the way that men and women give directions when stopped and asked the way. Women tend to refer to landmarks such as particular buildings that will be passed, while men tend to orient people in terms of ‘North, South’ and so on. Men tend to estimate the number of miles to the destination, and to make fewer mistakes than women when describing the way to the destination.  However this research has almost always been based on role plays or imaginary scenarios. Jennifer D. Ewald gathered data from a more natural context, by driving alongside a customer in a petrol station, winding down her window and asking the person for directions. She did this 60 times, asking 30 men and 30 women. Ewald found no differences in the directions that she received, with the single exception that men tended to estimate how far away the destination was more often than women did. However the men’s estimates were more likely to be wrong than the women’s!

Ewald’s research also revealed some interesting points about direction-giving as a pragmatic act. Learners of English are usually taught to ask for directions using a direct request such as “excuse me, please, can you tell me how I can get to X?” but Ewald found that indirect requests were just as useful. Her question to the 60 men and women was “excuse me, are you from around here?” and then, to those who said “yes” she asked “do you know where X is?” It seems that the context of the petrol station and a person driving a car is enough to trigger the understanding that the question is a request for driving directions and not, for example, some kind of introduction to a market research survey.

Ewald concludes that learners of English should be exposed to authentic examples drawn from natural contexts so that they can understand how native speakers perform routine speech acts such as asking for directions. Perhaps they should also be taught that, contrary to popular belief, women are just as likely to give them accurate directions as men are!

For English Language teaching resources and a suggested English A level language investigation related to this topic click here.


Jennifer D. Ewald (2010) “Do you know where X is?” Direction-giving and male/female direction givers. Journal of Pragmatics 42: 2549-2562.

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Thursday 10 November 2011

‘I’m after giving her some flowers’

The following article comes from a special issue of English Today which focuses on Irish English in Today’s World.

Map of counties in Northern Ireland and Eire

The expression in today’s title might not make sense to a lot of readers but if you’re from Ireland then the likelihood is that it sounds very familiar and you’ll know that it means that the speaker has probably given somebody some flowers quite recently to the time of speaking.

Researcher Karen Corrigan is an expert on Irish English and she explains some of the variety’s grammatical features and how they have arisen. She emphasises the fact that Irish English emerged as a result of historical contact between Irish speakers and settlers of regional Scots and English vernaculars. This contact situation makes it difficult to determine whether the resulting grammatical structure a) has been influenced by the indigenous Irish language, b) derives from features that were in the English varieties spoken by the Scots and English settlers or c) whether innovations emerge as a result of the contact situation itself. Corrigan discusses three features of grammatical variation in Irish English and illustrates that all three processes are likely to have been involved.

The first feature is referred to as the ‘After Perfect’, like the example in the heading. It is sometimes also called the ‘Hot News Perfect’ and this is because it can be used to describe a recent event but one that has nevertheless been completed. The structure is formed by combining a form of the verb be with the preposition after followed by the continuous form of a verb e.g. he’s after breaking the window which has the same meaning as he’s just broken the window in standard English. The origin of this feature has been subject to considerable debate but the evidence points to it being a ‘calque’ or ‘loan translation’ because it is a literal translation from the same structure that exists in Irish.

The second feature is the use of double modal verbs e.g. I might could do that (to mean ‘I might be able to do that’). This structure does not occur in Irish and does not therefore derive from this source. It did, however, occur in Northern and Scottish varieties of English at the time when large numbers of these settlers arrived in Ireland and it is considered that this is how it came to be part of Irish English. Furthermore, it is only in those regions of Ireland where large numbers of Scottish and Northern English migrants settled that this feature exists today, namely the Ulster Scots areas of Counties Down and Antrim.

Finally, Corrigan talks about two special types of relative clause found in Irish English. The first is seen in ‘I’ve a cousin a nurse, she lives in Ederney’ where the word ‘she’ refers back to ‘cousin’ and seems to be used instead of a relative pronoun such as ‘who’. The second type is demonstrated by the example ‘you’ll see a wee clock in the window and it goin’ yet’ which has the meaning of ‘you’ll see a wee clock in the window which is still going’. She argues that these two strategies are generally used in more complex relative clauses and that there are parallel uses in both Irish and earlier forms of English. She also finds examples of such constructions in other contact varieties of English and in other languages such as French and Brazilian Portuguese. On this basis, she argues that the structures cannot simply be traced to either Irish or earlier English sources but have emerged in line with linguistic universal principles.
Corrigan, K. 2011. Grammatical variation in Irish English. English Today 106. Vol.27/2: 39-46.

This summary was written by Sue Fox