Monday 23 December 2013

Season's Greetings to all our readers.

We will resume our weekly summaries on January 6 2014. We look forward to your continued interest in 2014.

Best wishes from the Linguistics Research Digest 

Monday 16 December 2013

Getting on together in conversation

we communicate through gestures too!
When we talk, the nods, gestures, posture and body movements that we make convey important messages to our conversational partners. They can help in understanding meaning and can show whose turn it is to speak next. They can also display how we feel about the person we’re talking to.

Mary Lavelle, Patrick Healey and Rosemarie McCabe confirm that nodding and hand gestures affect the amount of interpersonal rapport that people experience when they are talking to each other. They set up an experiment where 40 groups of three people were asked to do the ‘balloon task’. This task is a good way of getting people to talk to each other: they are asked to imagine that a hot air balloon is losing height and about to crash. The only way for anyone to survive is for one of the three passengers to jump to a certain death. The three passengers are a cancer scientist, a pregnant primary school teacher and her husband, who is also the pilot. The task of the group is to decide which of the three should make the jump. The conversations in the groups lasted about five and a half minutes, and each participant then rated on a ten point scale the level of rapport they had felt with their conversational partners.

They were not told, however, that in half of the groups one of the participants was suffering from schizophrenia, a condition that apart from its other symptoms often means patients use less non-verbal communication than expected.

During the conversations the patients with schizophrenia spoke less than the healthy participants, and they used fewer gestures when speaking and fewer nods when listening. The more severe their schizophrenic symptoms, the less often they nodded when listening, thus giving fewer indicators of understanding to their partners. Interestingly, the conversational partners compensated by gesturing more when they were speaking themselves, perhaps because they assumed the patients had not been paying attention or were not understanding well. This shows, then, how we adapt our nonverbal cues to the behavior of others during the flow of conversation.

The experiment also showed that gestures in themselves are not enough to achieve interpersonal understanding. Patients with more severe symptoms gestured more when speaking but this (together with more negative symptoms and poorer social cognition) resulted in their partners giving poorer ratings for interpersonal rapport. The researchers point out that gestures were measured mechanically, in terms of speed, so the total number may have included movements that were not helpful to communication (scratching, for example, or displacement behavior). They also note that successful communication relies on gestures that are relevant to communication being well coordinated with speech: if patients are not able to harmonize their verbal and nonverbal features, this would impact on others’ experience of rapport with them.

This exploratory study shows how people’s nonverbal behavior and experience of interpersonal rapport changes in response to the behavior of a schizophrenic patient even when they are unaware of their diagnosis. It has implications therefore for therapy designed to combat the social isolation that tends to accompany this illness. More generally, it shows how important nonverbal communication is for establishing rapport between conversational partners, and how we design the nonverbal cues we use in the flow of conversation in response to those used by others.


Lavelle, Mary, Healey, Patrick G.T., and McCabe, Rosemarie (2013). Is nonverbal communication disrupted in interactions involving patients with schizophrenia? Schizophrenia Bulletin 39 (5): 1150-1158

doi 10.0193/schbul/sbs091

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Monday 9 December 2013

Putting Gender in Writing

A lot of sociolinguistic work has focussed on how males and females use linguistic features in spoken language.  This research has led to certain features being associated more with male use, such as I references (e.g. I think….) and quantity references (e.g. it was 24 metres), while references to emotion (e.g. a happy occasion) and verbs expressing uncertainty (e.g. it seems to be…) are linked to female use.

But are these gender-associated language features also used in written language?  Anthony Mulac, Howard Giles, James J. Bradac and Nicholas A. Palomares enlisted the help of 127 19-21 year old students and asked them to produce a written description of 5 different photographic images depicting nature scenes (such as a mountain reflected in a lake).  The experiment had five stages.  Participants had to:

  • ·       write a description of the first image (this was the control task - as no other instruction was given, the researchers assumed that this was a natural reflection of the participants’ language use)

  • ·       write a description as if they were:

a.     a man describing it to a man
b.     aman describing it to a woman
c.     a woman describing it to a man
d.     a woman describing it to a woman

By imposing these conditions, Mulac and his colleagues could test whether the writers’ language altered according to the gender of the perceived recipient of the description or the gender persona that they were told to adopt.

Each description from the participants was anonymously coded for gender-specific language features (such as those mentioned above) and the control description was used as a base for comparing their language use in the other four scenarios. 

The results showed gender differentiation in the the control task. In the natural descriptions (with no instruction from the researchers), males and females used more of the features associated with their gender.  The researchers note that this is evidence of gender-linked language at an unconscious level.
 In addition, when the participants were asked to write as either a male or female, there was an increase in their use of appropriate gender features.  For example, males writing under the guise of a female adopted more ‘female’ features, such as emotional references, while females writing under a male guise increased the use of ‘male’ features like quantity references.  This, the researchers suggest, means that, in addition to unconscious knowledge of gender-linked language, there are some features of language that are gender-linked stereotypes.  These stereotyped features can be accessed and manipulated by people when they want to present different gender affiliations. 

In contrast, the results did not show any manipulation of gender features according to the perceived audience (for example, males didn’t alter their language use according to whether they were writing to a female or male).  Also, the results didn’t show any increase in gender features when writing to someone of the same gender.  Previous research had suggested that, for example, a male conversing with another male may increase his use of ‘male language features’ in order to promote his sense of maleness.  Instead, Mulac, Giles, Bradac and Palomares suggest that, as respondents used a combination of features when writing to other people, they were styling their speech so that it did not heavily emphasise one gender or another.  They were, in a sense androgynous.

In conclusion, therefore, the researchers propose that individuals have gender schemata and stereotypes.  The former generate gendered language features in an unconscious sense (hence the control descriptions show many gender-associated features).  The latter allows us to consciously draw on our knowledge of gendered language when we are prompted to do so.  It is interesting that both the schemata and the stereotypes produce similar linguistic features, as the features used by participants (be it consciously or unconsciously) were consistent across the tasks.


Mulac, Anthony, Giles, Howard, Bradac, James J. and Palomares, Nicholas A. (2013) The gender-linked language effect: an empirical test of a general process model. Language Sciences 38: 22-31

doi: 10.1016/j.langsci.2012.12.004

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Wi’ a guid Scots tongue

Can we still feel Scottish if we lose our accent?
This was the question Inès Brulard and Philip Carr wanted to investigate when looking at the changing speech patterns of Scottish politicians in Westminster. They argue that it is important to distinguish between conscious changes people make to their pronunciation, which may be connected to their sense of identity, and unconscious changes, which are different.

Looking, in particular, at the speech of Scottish politicians in the House of Commons in Westminster and in BBC interviews, Brulard and Carr investigated phonetic features including rhoticity (whether a person pronounces the ‘r’ in a word like first, as in Standard Scottish English but not in RP) and several vowel pronunciations. They found that Scottish politicians varied widely in their use of SSE and adopted RP features. For example, the Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, exhibited no RP-like features in his analysed speech, leading a spokesperson for the party to describe him as “the authentic voice of Scotland, wi’ a guid Scots tongue in his heid’.  On the other hand, fellow Scotsman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a member of the Conservative Party, exhibited stronger RP influences, but he stated later ‘I have never been conscious of having changed my accent’.  So, how important is our sense of identity in this type of personal language change?

Brulard and Carr note that there are times when we can consciously change how we speak. One way of doing this would be through elocution lessons, when people might consciously try to move away from a perceived lower class manner of speaking to one that is viewed as being more upper class.  However, this type of conscious act can’t explain all types of change. Frequently, people unconsciously accommodate to the speech of others, making their own pronunciation more similar to theirs without realising that they are doing so.

Considering research relating to the neurological investigation of language, Brulard and Carr note the distinction between procedural learning and memory (‘knowing how’) and declarative learning and memory (‘knowing that’). Procedural learning would be the establishment of particular habits associated with Scottish speech (such as how to make a particular vowel sound, or pronouncing the ‘r’ in words like first). Our feelings of identity, they suggest, rely on declarative memory or learning. This is the sense of consciously learning, for example, that one is Scottish or remembering certain events which relate to one’s Scottish childhood. Thus, when a child realises that they are speaking with a Scottish accent, they are putting a label of identity to a particular procedure (e.g. “I say it like this because I am Scottish”). It is this kind of conscious knowledge, they argue, that can feed into our sense of identity.  

Following this, they tentatively propose that linguistic accommodation which is consciously driven (such as through elocution lessons or linguistic training) is done without activating a person’s sense of identity, whether this is national, regional, social or personal identity. Unconscious accommodation, on the other hand, does not necessarily affect our sense of identity.

This has implications for our general understanding of unconscious linguistic knowledge though, as Brulard and Carr show, this is a complex phenomenon to analyse.

It is not clear why some speakers should accommodate their linguistic behaviour more than others. This research suggests, though, that politicians like Sir Malcolm Rifkind who seem to have accommodated to RP without being aware that they have done so have not necessarily compromised their sense of being Scottish. 


Brulard, Inès and Carr, Philip (2013) Variability, unconscious accent adaption and sense of identity: the case of RP influences on speakers of Standard Scottish English; Language Sciences 39: 151-155

doi: 10.1016/j.langsci.2013.02.017

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Is the use of racial slurs really just black and white?

Slurs are terms, such as slut, nigger or bitch, that are typically used to offend members of certain groups.  They are largely considered as the most taboo and offensive of all linguistic expressions. 

In his article exploring their use, Adam Croom firstly distinguishes between three types of terms:  those that are descriptive, those that are expressive and lastly, those that are slurring. A descriptive term is used to objectively identify some feature of an individual or group.  For example, in the utterance ‘S is an African American’ the term is neutral and shows no opinion on the speaker’s part.  Expressive terms, on the other hand, express the speaker’s own heightened emotional state.  So, a speaker may say ‘S is a fucker’ and express anger towards S for some reason but not by targeting a particular descriptive feature.  However, if a speaker says ‘S is a nigger’ this is a slurring term as a certain descriptive feature has been picked out and the individual put down on that basis, in this case on their race.

Croom refers to the concept of ‘face’, which is the desire for respect from other speakers within your linguistic community.  ‘Face’ is a type of social currency as, just like money, you can get more things done with the more positive ‘face’ or respect you have.  Offending people threatens their ‘face’ and complimenting people adds to their ‘face’, with slurring terms often used in this bargaining process.  In fact, the use of racial slurs can be extremely destructive to the actual character of their targets and speakers who use them are contributing to a history of derogation that harms their social identities. 

Croom quotes the example of how slaves were treated like domestic animals by their masters.  Although it is clear that humans and livestock are in no way alike, the easiest way for the slave owners to deal with their own behaviour was to dehumanize the slaves in their minds and think of them as animals.  The slave owners’ language closely reflected this way of thinking, hence the term ‘nigger’ which for them encompassed the meaning of ‘emotionally shallow, simple-minded, sexually licentious and prone to laziness’ and is clearly a negative and derogatory term for an African American. Interestingly slurs are also sometimes used to belittle targets who are not typically associated with the original slur.  Croom quotes research carried out by M. MacDonald* in 2000 amongst African American communities where he reported that the term ‘white nigger’ was sometimes used by black speakers to refer to white people who were thought of as being beneath the speaker socially. 

Intriguingly, slurs may sometimes be used by the very members of the group they were originally aimed at.  In this case, groups of speakers seem to have adopted slurs that were historically used against them and somehow claimed them for their own, giving them positive connotations. At first glance this is a puzzling phenomenon; however traditionally minority groups will often distinguish themselves by turning standard society’s norms on their heads.  So, for example, many black inner-city residents may feel that the wider white society has abandoned them and disrespects them.  In response, an oppositional culture develops and spreads within these groups.  Anything associated with conventional white society is seen as square and the cool things are the opposite things: untied trainers, low slung trousers, caps worn backwards, etc. Running alongside this, such groups will adapt their speech styles too and adopt words traditionally used against them, reversing their original intention in a way, which is exactly what has been seen to have happened with the word ‘nigger’.  Amongst young black people, the word now has positive connotations and this has extended to some extent to young white fans of hip-hop.  ‘Nigger’ is an oft-used term in the hip-hop culture and young white fans usually have no previous knowledge of the word’s history and will therefore also use it as a positive term.  The concept of ‘face’ is reversed as speakers use slurs to actually compliment each other and signal respect.

Croom makes the point that this is not only true of racial terms but also of sexist ones such as slut and bitch and homosexual terms such as queer.  It is a fascinating field of study and one which merits a lot more research.

*MacDonald, M., 2000. All Souls: A Family Story from Southie. Ballantine, New York.
Croom, Adam M. (2013) How to do things with slurs: Studies in the way of derogatory words. Language and Communication 33: 177-204.

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

Monday 4 November 2013

Gentlemen before ladies?

     Does word order perpetuate outdated images about women and men?                             

You probably say pots and pans, not pans and pots, and lords and ladies, not ladies and lords. Why, though? What makes us always produce one of the words in a pair first?

A previous post on this blog discussed ordering in word pairs in general (which way round?). Heiko Motschenbacher, though, argues that pairs involving personal nouns like lords and ladies need special treatment since, unlike pots and pans, pairs that refer to females and males can reflect and perpetuate power differences in society. The term that comes first in the pair is usually thought to represent the social role with the higher social ranking. This is why guidelines for non-sexist language often recommend placing the female term in first position, to symbolically reverse the traditional order.

Motschenbacher analysed 30 frequent mixed-gender word pairs in the 88 million word written part of the British National Corpus. These pairs occurred a total of 8, 156 times. In addition to general terms denoting men and women such as girl/boy, he/she, the pairs included address terms (ladies/gentlemen), nobility terms (lords/ladies), occupational terms (actor/actress) traditionally heterosexual role terms (husband/wife) and kinship terms (aunt/uncle).  She found that the order of the words in the pairs perpetuated images about the social roles of women and men that now seem outdated. Men came first in general, especially in pairs referring to professions (doctors and nurses) and the nobility. The conventional ordering in sons and daughters reflects, she claims, previous traditions of sons being more important than daughters. The ordering in word pairs related to marriage reflects traditional gender discourses: men dominate during marriage (husband and wife) but women come first when they are not yet married (bride and bridegroom), no longer married (widow and widower) or when raising children (mum and dad).

Other factors affect word order too. Just as with non-personal nouns, words with a smaller number of syllables tend to come first (hence, perhaps, ladies and gentlemen). This tendency is more common, though, when it is the male form that is shorter. The form of the word is also relevant, with less complex words occurring first (prince and princess, for example). The sex of the author had a small effect, with male authors using man and woman more often than woman and man, compared to female authors and mixed sex (co) authors. Male authors also had the highest rates of father and mother, preferring this to the more usual mother and father. The sex of the target audience also had an effect: higher female-first rates were found only in writing stereotypically targeted towards women (for example, in a book entitled The Art of Starvation).

In most cases though, the strongest factor overall was whether the word referred to a male or a female. This corresponds to research on word pairs in general, which finds that conceptually more salient semantic features prevail over other factors as far as the ordering of terms is concerned. Male-first predominance is not absolute though: as we have seen, there are some domains where females come first, reflecting traditional views about gendered social roles.

Motschenbacher does not want to make suggestions for language reform, arguing that for some pairs it would be hard to find gender-neutral alternatives and that in any case most recommendations are likely to be biased in some way. She is in favour instead of raising awareness of the fact that no linguistic choices are neutral. Individuals have the choice of shifting away from a traditional ordering that perpetuates harmful discourses about socially ‘appropriate’ roles of the two sexes; we need, therefore, to make up our minds about which messages we wish to convey. We should bear in mind, though, that putting females first is not necessarily the best way forward, since it can entrench domain-specific female stereotypes (in mother and father, for example). Word pairs that specify the two genders, she points out, are almost invariably connected to gender inequality.  

It’s much easier talking about pots and pans, isn’t it?!


Motschenbacher, Heiko (2013) Gentlemen before ladies? A corpus-based study of conjunct order in personal binomials. Journal of English Linguistics 41 (3): 212-242.

doi. 10.1177/0075424213489993

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire