Friday 28 September 2012

Sounding gay in California

What does 'California' mean to you?

If you have a regional accent, you may think the way you speak lets people know where you come from. Recent research, though, suggests that regional accents can evoke a range of meanings much richer than this, and that these meanings have their roots in stereotypical local characters or cultural values.

Robert J Podesva notes that speaking with a recognizably Californian accent can evoke personality traits like being “laid back”, “carefree” and “fun”, through an association with valley girls, surfers and similar young, fun-loving stereotypical characters in California. These social meanings can then be recruited to construct a range of locally significant identities. In the example Podesva gives, a self-identified gay Asian American man, ‘Regan’, uses Californian vowel pronunciations together with a voice quality and intonation typical of gay men to construct a specific gay party-going identity.

Regan recorded his own speech in three different situations. He made the first recording during a weekly ‘Boys’ Night Out’ ritual, when he and his friends meet up for dinner, drinks and dancing. He made the second recording during dinner with a close friend. The third recording was made at work: Regan was about to go on holiday and was talking to his supervisor about the tasks that would need to be done in his absence.

Podesva analysed Regan’s pronunciation of 4 vowels that are currently changing in young people’s speech in California, as part of the ‘California Vowel Shift’. Regan’s pronunciation of these four vowels changed in the three situations, and always in the same way: he used the newer, shifted pronunciations most often during the boys’ night out, less often during dinner with his friend, and not very often at all when speaking to his supervisor.  

The shifted vowel pronunciations coincided with Regan’s use of a falsetto pronunciation. He used this voice quality very often during the boys’ night out, less often with his friend, and only once with his supervisor. His use of high pitch at the end of a statement followed the same pattern across the three situations; in fact, in the boys’ night out setting his pitch was on average nearly five times higher than that of the typical adult heterosexual man. Podesva notes that the boys’ night out group sees Regan as their most fun member. During the recording made on one of the nights out he talks a lot about the clubs, gay circuit parties and tea dances he goes to, and the alcohol he drinks at these events. Some of his most extreme pronunciations were on words typical of a party-goer, such as tequila bar and fun. His use of falsetto expressed surprise and excitement, and emphasised his feelings about what he was saying. Podesva concludes that Regan’s use of the Californian vowels contributes to the construction of a party-going persona and, together with the falsetto voice, high pitch, and what he talks about, the persona is that of a specifically gay party-goer.

Podesva stresses that he is not suggesting that the vowels that are part of the California Vowel Shift are directly linked to the construction of a gay identity. Regan’s shifted vowels do not directly index Californian stereotypes, but the social meanings that reside in them. These are compatible with Regan’s party-going gay persona and this explains why they are well represented in his speech during the Boys’ Night out.

Other researchers have found that the same vowel pronunciations can be linked to other types of identities: for example, to gang status amongst Latino speakers in western Los Angeles, or to the display of a teenage identity by a preadolescent girl. Podesva therefore suggests that the range of social meanings attached to a specific language feature can be thought of as constellations of related meanings, any one of which can be activated when speakers use that feature.  Considering the similarities between constructing heterosexuality and constructing gay identity, he says, is an important step in understanding how language variation can be used in the construction of sexuality.

Podesva Robert J. 2011. The California vowel shift and gay identity. American Speech 86 (1): 32-51.

doi 10.1215/00031283-1277501

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Community norms vs. school influence in children’s speech

They was chasing us!

Among British schoolchildren, the National Curriculum requires that children aged 5-7 years old ‘should be introduced to some of the main features of spoken standard English and be taught to use them’ while children aged 7-11 years old ‘should be taught the grammatical constructions that are characteristic of spoken standard English and to apply this knowledge appropriately in a range of contexts’. Quite what ‘spoken standard English’ entails is never explicitly stated, except that it is disassociated with a limited number of non-standard grammatical features, one of which is subject-verb agreement in past tense uses of the verb BE (i.e. you was, we was, they was, the boys was), often referred to among linguists as was/were variation.  Given that the use of was in these contexts is widespread in many English varieties worldwide, is it socially realistic to expect children to use standard were consistently, particularly in informal situations?

Researcher Stephen Levey examined the use of was/were variation in children aged 7-8 years old compared to children aged 10-11 years old to see whether the increased exposure to formal education correlated with a rise in the frequency of standard variants (in this case, standard were usage) in children’s speech. His data came from children that he recorded between 2000 and 2004 in a large primary school in an eastern outer suburb of London. To ensure that the children used their most informal speech, they were encouraged to share stories in which they had been personally involved and which had high emotional content, such as arguments, accidents and fights. The data yielded a corpus of 60,000 words and Levey examined over 1400 uses of was or were, including both standard and non-standard occurrences. 

The results of the study showed that rates of non-standard was usage among the children in this part of London is particularly high (59%), comparable to rates found in other studies which examined the speech of older adolescents in the same area. Non-standard was, then, is clearly a robust feature of English used in the local community. Levey also found that there was a statistically significant sex-differentiated pattern, with boys in both age groups using more non-standard was than girls. While this result is not surprising in itself, it suggests that sex-differentiated patterns may emerge at a much younger age (around 7 years old) than has previously been reported (around 10 years old). 

A key finding, though, was that increased exposure to formal education had no significant effect on the children’s use of non-standard use of was in their informal speech, suggesting that local community-based norms exert more influence on informal speech than normative pressures exerted by the school. So, what do these results tell us about the teaching of spoken standard English? While Levey acknowledges the importance of standard English in children’s education, he proposes that it is unrealistic to expect children to become proficient in standard English simply by teaching them to replace their non-standard variants with standard ones. Instead, he urges for the expansion of classroom-based activities that are informed by the findings of sociolinguistic studies, helping children to increase their awareness of their own usage of language, as well as that of others. He also emphasises the need for research which addresses teachers’ reactions to a broad range of nonstandard features in children’s speech. Perhaps most importantly, though, is the need for a more finely-tuned definition of what counts as standard spoken English and how it should be taught, taking into account the fact that we find structured variability in everyday speech.
Understanding children’s non-standard spoken English: a perspective from variationist sociolinguistics. Language and Education 26(5): 405-421.

doi: 10.1080/09500782.2011.651144

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Thursday 20 September 2012

That's not funny!

 I said to the waiter "This cake isn't very (h)fresh"

Laughter isn’t always shared by all the participants in interaction.  Sometimes, we introduce laughter into our speech which isn’t returned by the others in the conversation.  Thus, we can make the distinction between laughter and humour (the latter of which is shared).

Taking this distinction, Rebecca Clift analysed instances of laughter which occurred in reported speech.  The examples of laughter that she examined weren’t featuring in humorous speech and, as a result, the laughter which the speaker produced wasn’t replicated by the addressee.  In addition, these examples differed from other types of reported speech in that they were not produced as part of storytelling (which is where we generally find speakers using the direct quotes of others).  For example:

1)            I go “it’s ab(h)out t(h)ime”
2)            I said “your system breaks down ve(h)ry frequentl(h)y”
From Clift 2012:1306
In these examples, we can see how the laughter (shown here by (h)) is inserted in the words ‘about time’ and ‘very frequently’.  However, Clift notes that this type of laughter does not obscure the speech and she referred to these as ‘laughter tokens’.

Clift’s analysis also highlights how this non-reciprocal laughter occurs in speech which is some kind of negative assessment or complaint. Complaints tend to be established through stories which provide the details and set the scene.  This can be through a collaborative sequence of talk by all the participants in a conversation.  However, the actual complaint is achieved in one single turn by a speaker following the build-up sequences. In this context, the laughter tokens seem to appear in those lexical items which are central to the complaint being made. In doing this, the speaker can use the laughter tokens to lessen the severity of a complaint.  Previous work, highlighted by Clift, suggested that people will try to avoid coming across as ‘complainers’ and, as a result, they will alter their speech to avoid this label being attached to them.

Building on this, Clift suggests that there may be a link between the strength of the complaint and the degree of laughter.  By analysing a range of examples, she suggests that the more vehement the complaint, the more forceful the laughter will be.  In contrast, when a speaker reports speech which represents the complaint with only a slight laugh or smile to the voice, what is reported falls short of a full-bodied complaint.  However, even though this is one avenue for future research, it highlights how the use of laughter in these contexts is linked to the action (i.e. a complaint) which is undertaken by the speaker.  Thus, Clift concludes that there is much to gain from analyses which look beyond purely the linguistic and consider non-linguistic aspects of communication such as laughter.

Clift, R. (2012) Identifying action: Laughter in non-humorous reported speech; Journal of Pragmatics 44:1303-1312

doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2012.06.005

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

Monday 17 September 2012

#Tweet #Tweet


Founded in 2006, Twitter is the online social networking service that allows its users to communicate via text-based messages of up to 140 characters, known as ‘tweets’. Communication in Twitter is fast-paced and it can be difficult to keep track of the talk that emerges, so a convention has arisen among Twitter users whereby a hashtag (#) can be used as a prefix to make the term searchable and then others can search for tweets that have that same topic. So, for instance, a search of #LFW this week in Twitter should produce a list of tweets relating to London Fashion Week. Anyone can start off a term with a hashtag and if it catches on and is used with sufficient frequency it can become what is known as a ‘trending topic’. To get an item into the list of trending topics is, according to researcher Ruth Page, a ‘signal of status and influence’.

Page’s study investigates the way that Twitter members use hashtags as a way of gaining increased attention in order to self-promote, relating this to the notion of ‘self-branding and micro-celebrity’ (the idea of promoting one’s self in order to gain status or fame in the offline world).  She collected over 90,000 tweets from 100 publically available Twitter accounts. Of those accounts, 40 were corporations (e.g. British Airways, Marks and Spencer), 30 were ‘celebrities’ (people who regularly appear in mainstream media channels, e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Britney Spears) and 30 were ‘ordinary’ individual Twitter members. Page was interested to find out the frequency with which each of these types of members used hashtags and whether the tweet in which the hashtag appeared was a ‘one-to-many’ update, a public message directed to another member or a retweet (the act of forwarding a message posted by another to all members of a follower list).

The results showed that, overall, all three user groups favoured the one-to-many updates rather than posting individually addressed public messages. Retweeting was the least frequent tweet type for all three groups. Furthermore, hashtags were also more frequently used in updates rather than in addressed messages. This was particularly strong for the corporate accounts where hashtags appeared 10 times more in updates than in addressed messages. Page’s analysis of the 12 most frequently occurring hashtagged terms for each group seems to indicate that some corporations prefix their own name with a hashtag in a lot of their updates.

Page further analyzed the hashtags in updates according to whether the tag was representing a topic or expressing an evaluative sentiment and she found that hashtags are primarily used to make the topic of a tweet visible rather than to emphasize stance. When topics were examined more closely, Page found that only one tag, #FF (an abbreviation for ‘Follow Friday’), was used by all three participant groups. Follow Friday is a weekly practice whereby members promote other members, a practice which potentially increases the visibility and growth of the recommended member’s follower list. Recommending another user can of course also help to promote a user’s own network of contacts.

Overall, Page found that corporations and celebrities most frequently use hashtags. Corporations use hashtags to promote their company name and their field of expertise. Celebrities, on the other hand, are more likely to use hashtags to promote their own branded products (e.g. a fashion line produced in their name) and their performances (e.g. on TV shows). For the more ordinary members of Twitter, the tagged terms are used to construct their position as ‘commentators’ on cultural events that are produced by others, such as political events and television shows. Page’s analysis shows that the use of hashtags to promote individual identities by the three different user groups is not evenly distributed, suggesting a reflection and reinforcement of asymmetries of economic power and status that operate in offline contexts.   
Page, R. The linguistics of self-branding and micro-celebrity in Twitter: The role of hashtags. Discourse and Communication 6(2): 181-201.

doi: 10.1177/1750481312437441

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Thursday 13 September 2012

Quoting others

…and she said ‘hey, come and see this’
…and she was like ‘hey, come and see this’

Which of the above do you think is more formal, said or was like? Why? If you’re telling a story and start reporting what someone else has said, how do you think that you would introduce the quote?  What would influence your choice?

These are the sort of questions Natalia Blackwell and Jean Fox Tree investigated by looking at the speech and opinions of students at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  The focus of their study was the verbs that people use to introduce direct speech (such as said/say, was like/ is like, went/ goes etc.) and it’s these verbs which are known as ‘quotatives’. They explain that there are two main approaches to how previous research has viewed the choice of quotatives.  The first is known as ‘quotation-centred’.  This approach says that it is the content of the quote that determines what quotatives are used.  For example, say is thought to introduce quotes which are more accurate and true to the original, while be like (i.e. she’s like/ I was like), although more emotional and dramatic, indicates that what is reported is more vague in relation to the original event.  In contrast, the ‘social-context-centred’ proposal claims that it is the social relationships between, for example, the speaker and the person being quoted or the speaker and the listener that influences which quotatives are chosen. 

Blackwell and Fox Tree designed 7 experiments to test what factors may influence quotative choice.  The motivation for designing a range of experiments was that, unlike using a corpus of spontaneous speech, conditions could be controlled and, therefore, comparisons would be more valid.  The design of the experiments varied in form and included tests where participants were asked to guess which quotatives (either say or be like) had been bleeped out of recordings (to judge whether it was the content of the quote which guided selection), and the telling of stories to different audiences relating to video clips they watched (to judge whether social factors influenced choice).

The results of the various experiments showed that participants thought there was a distinct difference between say and be like, with be like particularly described negatively as irritating and annoying.  As a result, a comparison of their actual use and their opinions showed that most participants over-estimated their use of say.  They also found little evidence supporting the ‘quotation-centred’ approach to quotative use, as, for example, participants couldn’t select the correct quotation when it was missing from sound clips they were played.  However, they did find evidence supporting the ‘social-context-centred’ approach as participants adjusted their choice of quotative according to who they were quoting and the status of the addressee – the higher the status, the more say was used. They suggested that use of say, in contrast to be like, enabled speakers to signal the relationship status among the person being quoted, the speaker and the addressee. In addition to these observations, Blackwell and Fox Tree suggested that, even though there was little evidence to suggest that say was used instead of be like to reflect the accuracy of the quote, say was used extensively when quoting writing or set phrases.  This, they suggested, indicates that say may be adopting specific functions in the language.
Blackwell, N. and Fox Tree, J. E. (2012) Social Factors Affect Quotative Choice. Journal of Pragmatics 44: 1150-1162.

doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2012.05.001

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

Monday 10 September 2012

It's actually quite interesting

Previous research has claimed that the adverbs actually and really are interchangeable.  In other words, we should be able to use one or the other with no significant change to the meaning of the utterance.
                          It’s actually not as simple as that
                          It’s really not as simple as that

Mark Gray investigated the meaning of these words in medial position (i.e. when they are not at the beginning or end of an utterance) to see how interchangeable they were.  He used two sources of data for the analysis – the spoken part of the British National Corpus and a series of BBC 4 radio broadcasts of the ‘Any Questions’ programme.  In order to carry out his study, he looked at what other words actually and really occur with throughout the data.  By looking at these collocations, he could judge how interchangeable they were.  For example, if actually and really were found to occur in the same structures (such as with the same following verbs), they could be considered as interchangeable.  However, if there wasn’t much overlap in how they were used, that would indicate they had different core meanings and were not able to be substituted for each other without changing the meaning.

Looking at actually and really before adjectives, Gray found that actually tended to occur with adjectives whose meaning had an easy opposite (such as true, which has the opposite false: we say that’s actually true and that’s actually false). Actually also occurred with adjectives that imply only a two-way comparison (such as he’s actually better than Sam).  In contrast, really was found to pattern mostly with gradable adjectives (such as it’s really good to see you or she’s really nice, where it’s also possible to say she’s exceptionally nice or she’s slightly nice).  This seems to imply that speakers will select which adverb to use in accordance with the properties of the following adjective.  Further to this, Gray observed that actually is much more restricted in what type of verb can follow it, and there are many verbs which were found to follow one but not the other.  For example, saw and put were found to follow actually but not really, while hate and like were found to collocate with really but not with actually.

However, even though this evidence suggests that, at least in British English, actually and really are not interchangeable, there are some syntactic contexts where both can be found.  In particular, both were found to occur after the pronoun I and before the verb think.  For example, people said I actually enjoyed it and also I really enjoyed it. So, how does a speaker choose between the two?

Gray proposes that actually is used when a speaker is presenting a new opinion - that is, one which is not implied by the discourse so far. Using the example I actually enjoyed it, a previous utterance could have been:
            A:  I can’t believe you went scuba diving….. you’ve always                        hated being in the water
            B:  I actually enjoyed it
B’s response shows how the actually refutes the assumption that A had about B’s feelings toward scuba diving.  In contrast, really is used when the speaker wants to intensify their own feelings towards what follows it.  So, if we substitute really in the example above (I really enjoyed it), the speaker is instead emphasising the ‘enjoyment’ of the experience.  In contrast to previous claims, then, Gray concludes that, even when really and actually are found in the same syntactic frame, they do not have the same meaning in discourse.
Gray, M. (2012) On the interchangeability of actually and really in spoken English: quantitative and qualitative evidence from corpora. English Language and Linguistics 26:151-170


This summary was written by Jenny Amos

Thursday 6 September 2012

Text or call? How one thing leads to another…..

The use of mobile phones allows us to exploit communication through both written (text messages) and spoken (phone calls) language. Whether we choose one mode over another depends on many factors. For example, research has shown that teenagers often choose text messages over phone calls because they are cheaper and faster than making a call and because they are more convenient in that they can take place anywhere and at any time. On the other hand, teenagers seem to prefer a phone call if the call is to their parents and usually only call their friends if they need to explain something or if they have a lot to say.

Researcher Ditte Laursen has been at the forefront of research on adolescents’ mobile phone communication and in this recent article she reports not on the choice of mode but rather on the change of mode, specifically how participants manage the change of mode from a text message to a phone call and how both modes interrelate as parts of the same communication sequence.

The data come from the recordings of mobile communication (text messages and mobile phone calls) of six 14-year-old friends who were recorded over a period of six weeks, one week for each person. Laursen focused on a subsample of mobile communication, which involved 31 young people and consisted of 481 text messages and 173 calls. She found that the messages and calls were often linked to other messages and calls. For example, she found that 100 of the 173 calls were parts of series of calls and that 24 of the calls were preceded by a text message.

The 24 calls preceded by a text message were analysed further and Laursen found that after a text message in a continuing communication sequence, four different types of conversation may follow:
1)             the answer (after a text message demanding a reply)
For example, a girl sends a text message to her best friend to say that her boyfriend has let her down. Rather than reply with a text message, the best friend calls the girl. Laursen suggests that in this context the call demonstrates a greater commitment than the text message and is used to ‘upgrade the importance or the seriousness of the text message’. These calls, which can be seen as a second pair-part in a paired sequence, also allow for a longer and more complex response than a text message. The opening sequence in this type of call is said to be minimal since the participants do not need to introduce themselves or make any initial enquiries (such as how are you? where are you?).
2)             the reminder (when there is a missing text message)
When a text message is sent and requires a reply which does not subsequently arrive, a reminder for a response may be made in the form of a call. Laursen provides an example of a young person who sends a text message asking another person to meet her the following day to repay some borrowed money. The person does not respond to the message nor arrives the next day with the money so the sender makes a phone call which then requires an immediate response. In these conversations the opening sequence is likely to be maximal (self-identification, greetings, initial enquiries). In this way, the caller puts off the reason for the call and provides the callee with the opportunity to respond to the unanswered text message (thus avoiding possible conflict).
3)             the resumption of conversation (picking up a conversation again after a closed text sequence)
In these cases, there has been a closed text exchange but it is then followed up by a call which addresses the text message exchange. An example might be when an arrangement to meet has been agreed via text messaging but then one person calls the other close to the time of the appointment perhaps to confirm the meeting. Laursen suggests that the phone call provides an opportunity to confirm the meeting place and time in an interactive way and that it gives the conversation ‘an air of urgency’ as the call is made at the time of, or shortly before, the meeting time.
4)             the confirmation (after a text message with a request for/promise of a call).
These are calls which result from text messages that contain a request or a promise of a later call, for example calls which follow a text message which contains the request call me or a text message which contains the promise I’ll ring you later. These calls are usually made because the exchange is likely to be complex and will require multiple turns back and forth. Text messaging in such cases might be deemed as inappropriate.

The study is innovative in that it is the first study of text messages and mobile calls in interconnected communication sequences. Laursen argues that text messages and mobile calls are often intertwined to such an extent that they are not meaningful if considered separately or taken out of sequence. Her analysis indicates that phone calls following text messages are often used for complex or lengthy matters and that they might be considered ‘more valuable than a text message’ when the call is used to deal with important topics or when used to express emotional aspects of an interaction such as compassion and sympathy.
Laursen, Ditte (2012). Sequential organization of text messages and mobile phone calls in interconnected communication sequences. Discourse and Communication 6(1): 83-99.

doi: 10.1177/1750481311432517

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Monday 3 September 2012

Taken Prisoner?

Two prisoners in a cell – so why do we say taken prisoner? Why haven’t they been taken prisoners? We may not often stop to think about the way we use the little phrase take prisoner, but Eva Berlage’s research shows that it is a good example of the processes of change that affect the way we use language.

Using a wide range of historical and modern texts dating from the early 1500s to the early 2000s, representing both American English and British English, Berlage explored how the phrase take prisoner(s) has evolved over the centuries. She showed how it has stabilised and created a new meaning which is distinct from the original meaning of the two separate words take and prisoner.  For example, the literal meaning of (to) take prisoners means something like ‘to condemn persons to a state of confinement’.  But when we use the phrase in writing or speech, it can either keep its literal meaning or adopt more metaphoric meanings (e.g. he took my heart prisoner).

Berlage was able to identify two separate but relevant processes of language change.The first is known as grammaticalisation.  During this process, a word takes on a more abstract meaning (rather than a literal meaning) and, as a result, can generate many new structures which it couldn’t before.  In the case of take, Berlage suggests that it has undergone partial grammaticalisation over the centuries so that it is now used to produce a wide range of phrases such as take care, take advantage or take notice. 

However, while the number of phrases with take has increased, the distribution of prisoner was found to have decreased.  Therefore, while historical texts had cases where both take prisoner and make prisoner were used, over time prisoner was no longer found to occur with other verbs.  This restriction of prisoner to occur only with take (and its derivatives such as took or taking) suggests that the phrase take prisoner has become increasingly lexicalised over time.  This is the second type of language change, with the phrase now used as if it was a single word with its own unit of meaning rather than having the separate meanings of each of the words.  However, the lexicalisation process is only partial as both the words take and prisoner can have individual meanings outside the phrase take prisoner (as in, for take, I only take sugar in my tea sometimes).

Berlage suggests that further evidence for the lexicalisation of take prisoner is the increasing loss of the plural form take prisoners (e.g. many soldiers were taken prisoners), which, according to the historical evidence, declined the most during the 1920-1939 period in British English.  She produces evidence to show how it was word order which influenced the speed of change towards the loss of the plural form prisoners in this phrase.  Looking at American newspapers between 1895 and 1945, the plural was more than twice as likely to be kept in phrases where a noun phrase came before prisoners compared to when it came after – examples from the LA Times in 1917 include The Teutons took prisoner 556 men and […] bayoneting a number of them and taking others prisoners. After the 1940s, the plural form prisoners fell out of use. In the texts that Berlage analysed it survived only in the phrase take prisoners of war.

The results from this analysis show that there are a number of inter-relating factors that influence language change and that historical texts can provide valuable insight into how these changes are accepted by those who use the language.
Berlage, Eva. (2012) At the interface of grammaticalisation and lexicalisation: the case of take prisoner. English Language and Linguistics, 16:35-55

doi: 10.1017/S136067431100027X

This summary was written by Jenny Amos