Tuesday 28 August 2012

Life chang(ing)

Do you say life changin’ or life changing? The chances are that you say both, perhaps without realising it. English speakers all around the world vary their pronunciation of (ing) in words like changing, and as far as we know they always have done. Researchers have found, though, that younger speakers generally pronounce (ing) more often as –in than adults do. Then, as they grow older, they begin to use more –ing. In old age people seem to go back to saying –in more often.

There is a lot of research on the pronunciation of –ing! For some summaries of recent studies, you could look at:

In a study of 13 American girls from Philadelphia, Suzanne Evans Wagner looked at how their speech altered over the course of what is a highly significant transitional period – the change from high school to university or college.  For young people this can be a time of social and developmental upheaval: at school they spend much of their day with the same groups of friends, but once they leave school the groups split up, as friends go off to different colleges or workplaces. Wagner argues that this could represent a point in time where young people start to take a turn towards using –ing pronunciations more often, as they have to establish their identity in relation to new acquaintances and become more aware of sociolinguistic variation.

The girls who took part in this study were interviewed in 2005, when they were at high school, and again in 2006 after they had started at university or college. Only verbs were analysed (not nouns, then, such as ceiling).  The social factors that Wagner identified as likely to influence variation were socio-economic status, ethnicity (the area was populated by people with Irish or Italian backgrounds), post-high school transition and style of speaking (e.g. casual or careful). 

The results from both sets of recordings showed that, in line with other (ing) studies, casual speech styles prompted more –in pronunciations (81% in total) compared to careful styles (58%).  However, even though the results from the earlier recordings showed all the social factors (with the exception of social class) to affect variation to roughly the same extent, this was not the case in the later recordings.  In the later recordings, post-high school transition was calculated as having the most significant influence on the variation.  Those girls who went to more nationally-orientated institutions after high school (research universities or highly selective liberal arts colleges) reduced their use of–in more than girls who went to more local institutions.  Indeed, where the girls went after high school was found to have a stronger influence on their pronunciation of (ing) than their social class, showing, Wagner suggests, that at this life stage where you are going can have more influence on your speech than where you come from (at least for features like (ing) that have always been variable and so are not involved in language change).

In addition to this, the girls’ ethnicity was found to correlate with the variants they used. Using –in was treated as a feature of Irish identity within the high school and the girls who had the strongest links to that identity (through where they lived, worked, and socialised) showed the highest levels of –in pronunciation.  In addition, those speakers who had the least change from –in to –ing the year after high school graduation were those girls with the strong Irish ties.

Taking the data as a whole, Evans Wagner concludes that young people did indeed begin to use more –ing pronunciations as they approached adulthood, but that even so a minority did not. To understand why, it was important to examine the social meanings of the variation in the local community.

One of the questions that future research might investigate, she suggests, is whether the individuals who make big changes to their linguistic behaviour between school and university do so over the rest of their adult life span. 

Evans Wagner, S. (2012) Real-time evidence for age grad(ing) in late adolescence. Language Variation and Change 24:179-202

doi: 10.1017/S0954394512000099

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

Monday 20 August 2012

‘Now’, a little word that matters…..

What does now mean? Often its meaning is ‘at this moment’, (as in we’re going now) but it can also be a discourse-pragmatic marker – words like okay, right, like, well, mm, oh, I mean, you know that do not add to the content of an utterance but instead perform very important functions in interaction in spoken language (click on Discourse Markers in the left-hand category bar for some summaries of recent research on discourse-pragmatic particles). Researcher Deborah Schiffrin suggests that now is often used at the start of an utterance to focus attention on the speaker and the upcoming talk, as in ‘Now, let’s begin’ or it can often be used to evaluate one’s own or someone else’s talk, such as ‘Now that’s a good idea.’

Another function, however, has been highlighted by researcher Hansun Zhang Waring whose study shows that now-prefaced utterances (NPU) can be used to mark disaffiliation in social interaction and that they can either be directed towards one’s self or towards others. Waring collected over 100 NPUs from a variety of audio or video-recorded sources in American English, which included ordinary conversations as well as institutional talk such as second language classroom interactions. She excluded the type of NPU that usually marks a boundary or a switch from one activity to another (All right uhm let’s see, now we’re going to do something fun) as she states that the function of this type is relatively obvious and was not the focus of the study. As well as transcribing the data, Waring also used software to analyse the pitch contours at which now occurred.

By self-directed NPUs, Waring refers to those cases which communicate disaffiliation through revising, retracting or rejecting one’s own prior talk when engaging in such activities as giving opinions, correcting errors and seeking compliance. She provides the following example:

Libby: but I think our tendency to- to- when it comes to our phonetic language reading my 13 year old who’s reading The Jungle. He said oh the introduction is so difficult there’re all these little names and I said to hm w- you don’t have to pronounce them. Just look at them as a unit and move on. Now – but the tendency is that we’re trained to read phonetically, and then he was being dragged down by distractors he felt he should attack them sometime.

In this example, the speaker is talking about her son’s difficulty of reading foreign names and Waring suggests that the NPU in this case is used to reject the speaker’s earlier solution to ‘just look at them as a unit and move on’, perhaps realizing that this explanation may be too simplistic.

Other-directed NPUs are perhaps more common and are used to disaffiliate by correcting, rejecting or disagreeing with another’s talk. Waring provides the following example:

Virginia: I know she’s your favorite child. You [always (     )]
Mom:                                                       [O::::h! Now l]ets not get on to that. Now that is ridiculou[s
Virginia:                                     [Wull it’s the truth

This example occurs at the dinner table during a family dispute in which Virginia accuses her mother of favoring her sister. The NPUs occur emphatically and immediately and serve to dis-align with Virginia’s accusation.

Interestingly, the analysis in this study shows that in cases of NPUs that are used for disaffiliation purposes, the pitch of now tends to be delivered in a relatively flat tone. This is in contrast to NPUs in the boundary-marking cases, where now tends to rise sharply in pitch. The researcher concludes by suggesting further research on the way that now functions differently from other disaffiliative markers such as well.
Waring, Hansun Zhang (2012). Doing disaffiliation with now-prefaced utterances. Language and Communication 32: 265-275.

doi: 10.1016/j.langcom.2012.01.001

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Monday 13 August 2012

Fitting in to a new home – with a Bri’ish accent?

Whose English accent will this little girl grow up to use? Her parents’, or her local friends'?

It’s often thought that as they grow up, the children of immigrants begin to sound like their locally-born friends rather than their parents. Devyani Sharma and Lavanya Sankaran, though, found that things are more complex than this – language change between different generations is more gradual than might be expected, and it’s also more complex.

Sharma and Sankaran worked in the Punjabi community in Southall, London, where, over the course of the last 60 years, South Asians have shifted from being a minority group to a majority one which now makes up more than 60 per cent of the local population. The researchers analysed the English of three groups of South Asians, totalling 42 individuals. One group consisted of first generation immigrants who had migrated from India as adults, and the two other groups were locally-born second generation South Asians, one older (aged between 35 and 60) and one younger (aged between 18 and 35). The older second generation group had grown up in Southall at a time when South Asians were still a minority group there and when race relations in the area were hostile. By the time the second, younger, group (aged 18-35) was growing up, South Asians were no longer such a minority in Southall and, perhaps as a result, race relations had shifted to a cooperative coexistence. 

The researchers focussed on the pronunciation of /t/, which has a distinctive local pronunciation as well as a South Asian pronunciation. The local London pronunciation of /t/ is glottalised (with the pronunciation of words like water or feet sometimes represented in popular writing as wa’er and fee’). As you might expect, the first generation South Asian speakers had almost no glottalised pronunciations of /t/. By contrast, both second generation groups used glottalised /t/; furthermore, they followed the same pattern, using this pronunciation more often at the end of a word than the middle of a word (so, more often in feet than water). In their use of glottalised /t/, then, the second generation were speaking more like locally-born people of their age than their parents – just as we might expect.

However, the South Asian speakers sometimes pronounced /t/ as a retracted or retroflex consonant, as in Punjabi, the Indian language that they also spoke. Here the tip of the tongue is curled back to touch the ridge just behind the top teeth (or close to the ridge). You can hear this pronunciation in the stereotyped English of Apu, the Indian immigrant in The Simpsons. The first generation immigrant group used retroflex /t/ 35 per cent of the time. The second generation groups also used this pronunciation, albeit less often: 16 per cent of the /t/’s in the English of the older second generation were retroflex, and 8 per cent in the English of the younger speakers. The second generation, then, had not altogether abandoned the pronunciation of their parents: although language change was taking place across the generations in these immigrant families, it was a more gradual process than is often supposed.

The change was also more complex than expected. Unlike both their parents and the older second generation group, the younger speakers used retroflex /t/ more often at the beginning of a word, where it is more noticeable (for example, in tea or toffee). They also pronounced it with a “fortis” (more energetic) phonetic quality.

In interviews with the researchers younger second generation male speakers used retroflex /t/ more often than younger female speakers Even here, though, the picture is more complicated than this gender difference suggests. Female speakers used a surprisingly high number of pronunciation features influenced by Punjabi, including retroflex /t/, when they were speaking English at home. For female speakers, then, there seems to be a sharper compartmentalisation of styles across their repertoire.

Sharma and Sankaran point out that other pronunciation features pattern in a similar way in the English of these three groups of speakers. They explain that for the older second generation group, surviving at school and in public meant they had to downplay Indianness and pass as British, so they acquired local pronunciations and weakened their use of South Asian ones. Many individuals in this group then went into their fathers’ businesses and had continuing ties with India. Depending on where they were and who they were talking to, they needed to signal that they belonged either to a British or an Indian group. As a result, they were able to control two distinct pronunciations of English. The younger generation not only had less regular contact with India, but by the time they were growing up race relations in the area were less hostile, so they did not need to try to pass as British. Instead, using a focused, Punjabi-inflected speech style allows them to signal their allegiance to the now sizeable local British Asian community.

Sharma and Sankaran note that in immigrant communities elsewhere – in North America, for example – there may be more rapid assimilation to local patterns of pronunciation since, as they have shown, linguistic assimilation depends in part on social factors such as community relations and the size of the migrant community.  

Devyani Sharma and Lavanya Sankaran (2011) Cognitive and social forces in dialect shift: Gradual change in London South Asian speech. Language Variation and Change 23: 399-428.

doi: 10.1017/S0954394511000159

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Thursday 9 August 2012

Displaying Rejection

No, we can't!

In a previous summary, we looked at how people make requests, but what happens when you reject a request?  How does the person on the receiving end of the rejection deal with your response?

This is what Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen wanted to investigate. For her analysis she looked at a range of interactions, mainly telephone conversations made by a British English family. She explains that rejections are generally made to speech acts such as a request, a proposal or an invitation, where the addressee has two options: they can respond in a positive way by accepting, granting or doing what was asked; or they can respond in a negative way by refusing, declining or rejecting. Focussing particularly on negative responses, Couper-Kuhlen explains that there are a number of ‘affective displays’ which are common to how someone reacts in these situations and which allow them to make a particular attitude or stance visible or audible to others. For example, a display of disappointment may include a sagging of the shoulders, a quiet response and a generally withdrawn air.  In contrast, a display of irritation may take the form of a lraising of the voice,  confrontational gestures and subsequent challenges to the reasons behind the rejection.

The characteristics of these displays can, initially, be channelled through what she terms ‘rejection finalisers’.  These are words and phrases such as okay then, alright, oh well and never mind.  Imagine the difference in interpretation between the following responses (the last line in (1) and (2):
            (1) Disappointment           
A)  Am I allowed to come to the party tonight?
                   B)  Well, not really, it’s actually more of a work thing
                   A)  <subdued> Oh, okay then

            (2) Irritation
C)  There are still some tickets available for that play                      tomorrow, can we go?
                   D)  I’m working late tomorrow
                   C)  <sharply> Oh  (pause) well I didn’t know that

The use of rejection finalisers show how A and C acknowledge the rejection, and it is how they are used with linguistic factors such as different voice qualities (e.g. a breathy voice like a sigh of disappointment) as well as pitch and volume changes, that carry the affective meaning.  However, while responses of disappointment and irritation are marked displays following rejection, Couper-Kuhlen highlighted a further type of reaction – that is, not to acknowledge the rejection and, therefore, not produce a rejection finaliser.  This can happen in contexts such as negotiations, for example:

(3)      A) I know I said I would drop those papers around to you     tomorrow morning, but, unfortunately, I’ve been asked     to work instead. Can I bring them round in the
B) That’s not so good as I have to take the kids to 
    swimming practice
A) Umm, I could just drop them through your letterbox
    then and we can chat about them once you’ve had a 
B) Okay, let’s do that
A) Great

In this example, A doesn’t produce a rejection finaliser or a specific affective display to convey her attitude to B’s initial response. Instead, A thinks and comes up with an alternative suggestion which is taken up by B and the matter is settled.

Comparing these three possible responses (disappointment, irritation and lack of affective display), Couper-Kuhlen concluded that there is an order of preference between them.  Irritation was not as frequent as the other two.  Additionally, when irritation occurred in the same sequence as disappointment, disappointment would come first before any affective display of irritation.  Therefore, while every response to rejection is uniquely linked to the contexts in which they take place, further research into the ordering of affective displays and how they intertwine with linguistic structure can help us understand conversation structure and the relationships between the participants.
Couper-Kuhlen, E. (2012) On affectivity and preference in response to rejection. Text and Talk 32:453-475.

doi: 10.1515/text-2012-0022

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

Thursday 2 August 2012

Can you pass the salt?

This study takes a look at how people respond to requests

We can use requests to achieve many different things.  For example, we may want to ask permission to do something (e.g May I get a glass of water?) or to ask for assistance (e.g. Can you help lift this for me?).  How do we respond to requests, though? We can either accept and take action to fulfil the request, or we can decline.

By analysing peoples’ responses, Mirka Rauniomaa and Tiina Keisanen looked at how people use both linguistic and physical actions to fulfil various requests. The data that they used consisted of 16 hours of face-to-face and in-car interactions, and a total of 69 requests were identified.  Of these, 56 received a favourable response (i.e. the request was accepted by the person being addressed).  The linguistic construction of these requests was mostly either interrogative (e.g. Can you pass the salt?) or imperative (e.g. Tell us a story), showing that these are the preferred linguistic structures for asking someone to do something.  In addition, favourable responses were shown to prompt differing levels of commitment. 

Consider the following:

            1)  Will you put the rubbish out later?
                        a)  Okay
                        b)  I will                         
     c)  Yes, I’ll put the rubbish out

The response okay in 1a is judged as showing less commitment to the request compared with the responses in 1b and 1c.  As a result, it’s suggested that responses are made on a scale of commitment and that the more elaborate the response structure, the more committed the responder is. 

The main focus of the data analysis highlighted how responses to requests can take two different formats: (1) fulfilment only or  (2) acceptance + fulfilment.  Fulfilment-only responses involved the physical completion of the request only.  An example would be if A asks B for the salt and B simply passes it to A without saying anything or using any body movement to acknowledge A’s request.  However, an example of acceptance plus fulfilment would be if B says something like sure and also passes the salt.  Rauniomaa and Keisanen observed that the acceptance aspect of the response doesn’t need to be a vocal acceptance like okay, sure or yeah. Instead, it can be a bodily gesture such as nodding or giving the thumbs up.  They also highlight how acceptance plus fulfilment responses may serve to buy the responder time so that they may complete the request once they have finished an ongoing action (for example, if you were asked to pass the salt but were holding a dinner plate at the time, you might respond Okay, just a sec before putting down the plate and picking up the salt). 
 Therefore, Rauniomaa and Keisanen noted that responses also work on different time scales – they may be immediate, delayed while another act is completed or even postponed to a time in the future (e.g. Okay, I’ll do it next time I’m in town).

In conclusion, Rauniomaa and Keisanen noted that embodiment (that is the physical act of doing what is requested) is closely linked to the structure of request sequences – how much effort or imposition will be involved in the request’s completion will affect how the request is framed.  Also, the capability of the responder to react immediately or sometime in the future will depend on what type of response is produced, both verbally and non-verbally.

Rauniomaa, M. and Keisanen, T. (2012) Two multimodal formats for responding to requests. Journal of Pragmatics 44: 829-842.

doi: 10.1016/jpragma.2012.03.003

This summary was written by Jenny Amos