Monday 25 February 2013

Gay Talk

According to the online British and World English Oxford Dictionaries, the word gay has four different meanings assigned to it. Two of those meanings, the use of gay to mean ‘light-hearted and carefree’ and the use of gay to mean ‘brightly coloured, showy’, are both said to be ‘dated’.  The primary meaning of gay in current usage appears to be its reference to a ‘homosexual, especially a man’. Interestingly, though, a fourth meaning of ‘foolish, stupid or unimpressive’ has been documented. In this latter case, the use of gay is said to be ‘informal, often offensive’.

Using sociolinguistic methods, researcher Justyna Robinson investigated the semantic changes-in-progress of the word gay to see whether such an analysis can provide further insights into the variation and change of this word. She traced the word across selected data from the British National Corpus and the Oxford English Corpus and found that the corpora data supports the perception that gay is undergoing semantic change. She found that the older sense of gay ‘happy’ is diminishing, balanced by an increase in the use of gay ‘homosexual’. She also found that the data provides evidence that gay can mean ‘lame’ (meanings similar to the dictionary definitions of ‘foolish, stupid’ or even ‘boring’) but also that it can mean ‘unmanly’ to refer to activities considered to be ‘effeminate’ or ‘not masculine enough’.

Robinson also analysed the speech of 72 speakers born and bred in South Yorkshire that she had interviewed as part of a larger project on semantic change. The speakers represented different age groups (age range: 11-94), genders and socio-economic groups. From these speakers, Robinson elicited all the different senses of gay that each participant knew and, once more, she found that the most salient senses of the word gay matched the meanings of ‘happy / bright’, ‘homosexual’, ‘lame’ and ‘unmanly’.   

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she found that it was the older speakers who retained the most use of gay in the sense of ‘happy, bright’ and that the younger generations, most notably young males still in education, were the main users of the most recent sense of gay to mean ‘lame’. For the older speakers, their views about the shift in meaning of gay were often expressed in negative terms and Robinson reports comments such as ‘I really fight against the use of this word [as ‘homosexual’]. I object strongly to hijacking of the word’. In general, as is often the case with language change, a ‘common, nostalgic narrative’ emerges among the older speakers. The majority of younger speakers seem to be aware of the use of gay to mean ‘happy / bright’ but it has not been part of their usage. Their comments were more likely to be along the lines of ‘it used to mean’ or that ‘happy / bright’ was the ‘older meaning’. The younger speakers assigned meanings to gay ‘lame’ ranging from ‘boring’ (school, lessons, friends) to ‘not interesting’, ‘weird’, ‘annoying’, ‘bad’, ‘rubbish’ and ‘stupid’. None of the speakers in the study seemed to suggest that this usage projected homophobic undertones, a concern that has been raised in other academic literature.

While it seems that teenage boys use gay ‘lame’ the most, Robinson’s analysis showed that young adult males employ gay in a slightly different way, in the sense of ‘unmanly’ and that it is used to describe activities such as ‘eating salad’ or ‘carrying an umbrella’. Used in this way, Robinson argues that gay projects masculinity through distancing a speaker from anything considered ‘effeminate’ or ‘not masculine enough’. She suggests that men use gay in this way (note that no women in the study used gay in this sense) to challenge the masculinity of other men. Once more, though, these participants clearly indicated that they did not think this sense was used as a homophobic pejorative but that it applied to behaviour that goes against traditional notions of masculinity, particularly as they might pertain to local ‘northern’ English toughness.

Robinson concludes by tracking the different stages of change for the word gay and shows that older meanings often overlap with newer meanings, with the newest meaning of gay ‘lame’ emerging along with the meaning of gay ‘unmanly’.
Robinson, J. (2012). A gay paper: why should sociolinguists bother with semantics? English Today 28: 38-54.

Doi: 10.1017/SO266078412000399

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Monday 18 February 2013

Interesting, isn't it?

it's on the left, isn't it?

It’s on the left isn’t it is a typical English tag question: there’s a statement (it’s on the left) followed by a reduced question (isn’t it?). The form is sometimes linked to the characteristic dual functions of tag questions. They can show that we are less than certain about the statement we’ve just made: so, it’s on the left isn’t it can convey less confidence than it’s on the left. At the same time, tags can involve the listener: it’s on the left isn’t it is more likely to get a response than it’s on the left.

Many English tags, though, are just single words: think, for example, of right, eh, huh or innit. Marianne Mithun set out to discover whether all tags, whatever their form, are united by having some core function. She examined the way people use tags not only in English but also in a language with a very different structure: Mohawk, an Iroquoian language spoken in Northeast America. She found some striking initial similarities in the functions of tags in the two languages, but beyond these were some interesting differences. These, she claims, can be understood in terms of some of the deeper characteristics of human language.

In Mohawk tags are very frequent, but unlike English there is just one form, the single word wáhi’. Mohawk speakers use the tag to show how certain they are about what they have just said and to appeal to their audience for confirmation, in just the same way as speakers of English.

However Mohawk speakers can also use the same tag form to achieve the opposite effect. The example in the box illustrates this. Here speaker B first uses the particle ki’ to show that the contribution is relevant to what A has just said, then uses wáhi’ to confirm A’s statement. Rather than indicating a lack of certainty, then, the tag shows confidence, albeit in a polite consensual way. Speaker C’s contribution serves the same function.

A:  That’s the reason there’s a lot of cancer nowadays. It’s the food.
      They mix in all kinds of stuff.
B:  Ki’ wáhi’.
      ‘That’s right, isn’t it.’
C:  Ki’ wáhi’.
      ‘Isn’t that so.’

Note: A’s utterance, though uttered in Mohawk, is given in English by Mithun for ease of interpretation

A further difference lies in the type of discourse where tags occur. Speakers of English use tags more frequently in the discussion parts of a conversation rather than in the narrative sections. In Mohawk, though, the division between narrative and discussion is less clearcut. Mithun found that narratives of varying length were typically embedded throughout conversations, especially where there were many speakers. In these narratives the tag was used very frequently, with a range of important discourse-structuring functions. It could highlight the topic or the setting of a story, draw attention to key points, and emphasise background information, explanations, evaluations or other kinds of commentary. In these contexts tags do not directly solicit a response, but their function is still interactive, checking that listeners are following the story. In English these kinds of functions tend to filled not by tags but by other discourse pragmatic features such as y’know, right or are you with me.

Mithun concludes that English and Mohawk tag constructions share a functional core, mingling interactive functions with an indication of the speaker’s degree of certainty about what they have just said. These overlapping meanings lie at the root of the cross-linguistic similarities and differences between the two languages, allowing speakers to sometimes privilege one meaning and sometimes another. The contexts in which tags are used, Mithun claims, are ultimately constrained by both universal and language specific factors. These include the grammatical structure of the tag form, the presence in the language of competing forms like English y’know, the social relationships among speakers, and culturally-specific styles of interaction such as the greater use of narrative in Mohawk. The differences reflect a deeper characteristic common to speakers of all languages: the propensity to exploit available linguistic resources for creative acts of communication.

Mithun, Marianne (2012) Tags: Cross-linguistic diversity and commonality. Journal of Pragmatics 44: 2165- 2182.

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Monday 11 February 2013

R u tryin to b formal?

Nowadays, it’s hard for us to imagine a life without mobile phones.  Texting and instant messaging are as much, if not more, a part of our daily life as phone calls and emails.  For example, since 2008 in the USA there has been a huge increase in the amount of texts sent, with teenagers using their phones to text much more than to talk and half of them able to do so blindfolded!

Over the past fifteen years or so a language of texting has evolved and continues to develop.  The types of ‘textisms’ that people might use include shortened words (e.g., tues instead of Tuesday); missing letters (e.g., & instead of and); missing apostrophes (e.g., dont for don’t); ‘emoticons’ (e.g., ;-)); capital letters to express strong emotions (e.g., I AM ANGRY) and surrounding words with special symbols to intensify feeling (e.g., I **love** you).

There has been a mixed reception to the rise of texting and instant messaging with some educators, and particularly the media, advocating that it is causing young people to lose the ability to write in acceptable English prose and even destroying the English language itself.  Most linguists, like David Crystal in his book Txting: The Gr8 Db8 (2008, Oxford University Press) are more measured in their approach.  Crystal himself feels that texting may actually help children’s writing and that it actually requires ‘sophisticated abilities in reading and writing’ (p.157). 

Unfortunately, as yet there has been a limited amount of research into this area and what does exist is conflicting, with some studies finding that texting aids and others that it hinders literacy.  Five researchers in the USA (Rosen, Chang, Erwin, Carrier and Cheever) were keen to investigate whether texting affects young people’s ability to write.  They examined the writing of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 who, despite having varying educational backgrounds, were all experienced texters.  Rosen and his colleagues were keen to discover whether females or males used textisms more often in their writing and whether their educational background had any bearing on this use.  They examined the use of textisms in both formal and informal writing, asking the participants to write a formal letter of complaint and an informal description of what it feels like to be unhappy, as well as surveying them on how often they used different types of textisms.

They found that the female participants sent more texts and used more textisms than the males. This could be for a psychological reason as it has been found that girls tend to mainly use texts to establish and maintain relationships.  This takes longer and uses more words than just conveying concrete information, which is the reason males have generally been found to text.

An interesting result was that a more frequent use of texting and instant messaging, and particularly of using shortened words when texting, seemed to relate to a worse standard of formal writing amongst the participants. This suggests that daily texting may well be carrying over into the participants’ formal writing. However, these results seemed to reverse when it came to informal writing, as a more frequent use of texting and instant messaging related to a better standard of informal writing amongst the participants in the study. 

So, texting seems to have a negative impact on formal writing but a positive impact on informal writing.  It seems that daily texting serves as good ‘practice’ for writing in an informal style.  This may be especially true for those participants with a less formal educational background for whom writing texts and instant messaging may be the only writing practice they are engaged in on a daily basis.  This could indicate that young people in general are able to express more thoughts by using the shortcuts that textisms give them and this is especially beneficial when they are asked to write about their feelings and emotions.  Whatever the reasons may be, it is clear that a complicated relationship exists between texting/instant messaging and writing, one that certainly deserves further investigation.

Larry D. Rosen, Jennifer Chang, Lynne Erwin, L. Mark Carrier and Nancy A. Cheever (2010). The Relationship Between “Textisms” and Formal and Informal writing Among Young Adults. Communication Research 37:420- 440.

doi: 10.  1177/0093650210362465

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

Monday 4 February 2013

Are regional dialects dying out?

is increasing mobility the cause?

It’s often thought that local dialect forms are withering away as people adopt more widespread ‘supralocal’ forms. In England, for example, glottal stop pronunciations are now widely used for /t/ in words like butter, in rural and urban areas alike.

David Britain’s review of recent research, though, sounds a note of caution. He accepts that in areas where traditional dialects are spoken, there is evidence of increasing use of language forms with a wider geographical currency.  But he points to three aspects of dialect studies where researchers need to think more carefully about the processes involved.

First, although supralocal forms may be arriving in areas where rural dialects are spoken, traditional local forms have by no means all disappeared. What is more, the supralocal forms are arriving at different speeds, to different extents, in different places and are used by different social classes (for one example, see the box). We should reflect more, then, on what the robust variation that still exists can tell us about the delocalization process.

Joanna Przedlacka investigated the use of 14 supralocal forms in four counties to the north and south of London: Buckinghamshire, Essex, Kent and Surrey. She found differences of between 18 and 55 per cent between uses of the 14 forms in the different locations. For example, people in Buckinghamshire used the glottal stop pronunciation of /t/ the most and people in Essex the least, with their rates of use differing by 35 per cent.  The pronunciation of words like tooth and mother as toof and muvver varied by about 30 per cent between the county where it was used most and the one where it was used least, but this time it was Kent where people used the supralocal /f/ and /v/ pronunciations the most, and Surrey where people used these forms the least.

Przedlacka, Joanna (2002). Estuary English? A sociophonetic study of teenage speech in the Home Counties. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Secondly, although forms with wider currency may be replacing more localized dialect forms, how wide is wider? Supralocal forms become used as people become more mobile, but we still spend a good deal of time moving around our own local neighbourhoods. It is not surprising, then, that people in a particular neighbourhood sometimes adopt local forms and sometimes supralocal forms, with the supralocal forms coming from the local area, the wider local region, or beyond (see the example in the second box). Local dialect forms, then, still compete strongly with their supralocal competitors.

Carmen Llamas’ study in Middlesbrough, in North East England, even found three different pronunciations for three related features, /p, t, k/: a local North Eastern form for /p/, the supralocal glottal stop for /t/ and the standard pronunciation for /k/.

Llamas, Carmen (2007). “A place between places”: Language and identities in a border town. Language in Society 36: 579-604.

Thirdly, supralocal dialects are the result of mobility, but it is middle class English people who are the more mobile. Middle class people are more likely to commute long distances to work, to choose to leave the city and live in the countryside, to leave home when they go to university rather than attend their local institution, and to buy basic goods in an out of town shopping centre rather than the local grocery store. This kind of mobility affects rural areas the most, bringing relatively traditional nonstandard rural accents into contact with middle class urban, possibly standard-influenced accents. No wonder then if, overall, rural accents are in decline. Britain points out, however, that we know little about the sociolinguistics of this interplay of dialects at the local level.

Britain concludes that we need to socialise studies of the supralocalisation process, to find out how and why individuals begin to use forms with a wider currency, and why some traditional forms survive longer than others.
Britain, David (2011) The heterogeneous homogenisation of dialects in England. Taal & Tongval 63: 43-60.

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire