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

Monday 7 November 2011

“I’m geet excited”

The north-eastern England region where 'geet' is a dialect feature

If the expression in today’s title is something that you would say or at least sounds familiar to you, then the chances are that you are from or live in the north-east of England.

Michael Pearce has been looking at the use of the regional dialect feature geet (possibly pronounced more like git in some parts of the north-east) and the range of functions it performs in discourse among users of social websites. Although geet is usually a feature of spoken language, it is well known that the informal written language used on social networking sites often draws on aspects of spoken discourse. 

In 2010, Pearce looked at all the publicly available web pages from the sites MySpace and Bebo which contained the terms geet or git and which occurred together with a reference to one of four places in the north-east: Sunderland, Newcastle, Durham or South Shields. He collected 150 examples of geet/git and found that it is used in four main ways; to intensify an adverb, to intensify an adjective, as a discourse marker or as a quotative.

Speakers use intensifiers to boost the force of adjectives or adverbs and Pearce found that these uses accounted for about 50 per cent of the total uses of geet/git. When boosting the intensity of an adjective or adverb, geet/git has a similar meaning to really or very. He finds examples such as ‘your songs on here are geet good’ (adjective intensifier) and ‘I know her bf (initials used to mean ‘boyfriend’) geet well and that so it’s canny’ (adverb intensifier).

Geet/git can also be used as a discourse marker, much as in the same way that many people today use like. Pearce gives examples such as ‘haven’t see you in geet ages’, ‘I was geet working it out in my head’ and ‘no, but honestly, I wasn’t meaning it git nastily’ where the use of geet/git could easily be replaced by like. In fact, Pearce shows that geet/git and like often occur together as in uses such as ‘they were like asking for a spliff and they were all geet freaks haha’ and ‘been geet ages like’. The only exception is that geet/git does not seem to be able to interchange with like when like occurs clause-finally – clause-final position is not occupied by geet/git in the corpus.

Finally, geet/git is shown to function as a quotative or an introducer of reported speech in the corpus, as in the examples ‘I was geet ‘ahh’ and ‘stacey was git ‘where’s me burger then’. Pearce states that again geet/git has similar uses and fulfils the same functions as the quotative be like e.g. she’s like ‘oh my god’.

Pearce emphasises that the use of geet/git is not a new phenomenon in the north-east; it’s been around as an intensifier at least since the 1960s. However, what is new is the way that people are now using geet/git as a discourse marker and quotative and he suggests that these uses are innovations which have arisen in the last ten years or so. Please comment below if you can provide any further insights on the history or geographical spread of this dialect feature or if you would like to add any further examples of its use.
Pearce, M. 2011. ‘It isn’t geet good, like, but it’s canny’: a new(ish) dialect feature in North East England. English Today 27/3: 3-9.

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Thursday 3 November 2011

Really,very/dead/so interesting? How to intensify in Tyneside

                                                      dead cool frog!

We all use adjectives to describe things (lovely in it’s a lovely day, for instance), but often this is not enough for us: for as long as we have records, speakers of English have been boosting the force of their adjectives with intensifiers such as really (it’s a (really lovely day).  The words we choose as intensifiers, though, fall in and out of favour. The examples in the box illustrate favourite forms from the time of Chaucer and Shakespeare as well as our own lifetime.

He was a well good wight, a carpenter (Chaucer, Prologue, Canterbury Tales, c. 1390)
The better angel is a man right fair (W. Shakespeare. sonnet 144, c. 1596)
Some people in the office were very broad (Tyneside speaker, 1960)
It’s really bad (Tyneside speaker, c. 2008)
This is dead embarrassing (Glasgow teenager 1997)

Kate Barnfield and Isabelle Buchstaller’s research on the changing use of intensifiers by four generations of speakers over the last 60 years in Tyneside, north-east England, reveals the different processes at work as intensifiers wax and wane over time.

One process is a steady long-term gradual replacement of one form by another. This is the case of the on-going replacement of very by really. Barnfield and Buchstaller show that back in the 1960s people in Tyneside used really only with two kinds of adjective: those describing human characteristics (like kind or posh) and those describing a value (such as good or bad). Gradually, though, people began to use really with other kinds of adjectives, so that by the 1990s it was occurring with any type. Then, once fully established in this way, really became more specialised. In the most recent Tyneside data the overall frequencies of really have not changed, but it is heard more often with adjectives referring to age (new, young), measurement (big, thick) and speed (fast, slow).

This gradual process contrasts with the more explosive introduction of dead in Tyneside, which burst into use across almost all categories of adjective simultaneously. Dead did not occur at all in the 1960s Tyneside data, but by 1994 it had soared in frequency to become the most popular form for younger speakers (aged between 18 and 40). Interestingly, dead seems to be a case of “linguistic recycling”. It is attested in the Oxford English Dictionary as far back as 1589, but then fell from popularity until its recent resurgence. The return to favour has not lasted long, though. By 2007 dead had become the least frequently used intensifier for young people rather than the most frequent one – a complete reversal of fortune. As Barnfield and Buchstaller point out, this type of change represents a linguistic fad: young people see a particular form as trendy for a while but the next generation then spurns it and finds new ways to boost the force of their adjectives. Unlike steady long-term changes such as the introduction of really, which has been taken up by young people right across the UK, linguistic fads tend to vary from one region to another. The signs in Tyneside are that the next local fad will be pure, a form that may have been imported from Glasgow, though canny and proper are also beginning to be used.

A final pattern of change revealed by the Tyneside data is slow-motion and gradual. So (it’s so lovely) has gently increased in frequency over the last few decades, representing just 7.5 per cent of all intensifiers used in 1990 and still only 9.1 per cent in 2007. The slow rise in frequency of so goes hand in hand with a gradual expansion of the types of adjective with which it is used. The modest increases in frequency seem to have prevented it becoming associated with any particular age group and, as a result, younger speakers do not replace it with other forms, leaving it free to continue a slow expansion across adjective type and across the generations.

Although different types of intensifiers arrive in people’s speech in distinct ways (linguistic fads with all types of adjective, long-term replacements more gradually), there seems to be only one way for them to decline. In the 2007 data, both very and dead still occur in young people’s speech, albeit with low frequencies. Both, though, still occur with all types of adjective. As intensifiers fall out of use, then, it is only the absolute frequencies that decrease ­– the distribution across different categories of adjective stays the same.

Barnfield and Buchstaller’s research reveals that not only do younger generations of speakers in Tyneside use different intensifiers from previous generations, they also use more of them overall. There are, of course, other ways of intensifying the force of an adjective, such as simply choosing a more dramatic word (saying for example, that’s a wonderful idea rather than simply that’s a good idea), but the fact that speakers of English are choosing to use intensifiers more often that before is intriguing. In any event, the Tyneside research confirms that this is an area of English grammar where there is constant change and renewal, and it reveals the orderly systematic processes by which change and renewal take place.

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

Barnfield, Kate and Buchstaller, Isabelle 2010 Intensifiers in Tyneside: Longitudinal developments and new trends. English World-Wide 31 (3): 252-287.

doi 10.1075/eww.31.3.02bar

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire