Friday 22 March 2013

Clean teef or clean teeth?

Pronouncing words like tooth as toof or three as free is a well-known and long-established feature of Cockney English, but people all over Britain are now beginning to use ‘f’ for ‘th’, especially adolescent working-class speakers.  How does the change begin, though, and does it pattern in the same way in different parts of the country? Erik Schleef and Michael Ramsammy suggest answers to these questions by comparing young people’s speech in London, England, and in Edinburgh, Scotland, where this pronunciation is a more recent phenomenon.

Overall, young people in Edinburgh used ‘f’ pronunciations just as often as their counterparts in London. In Edinburgh, though – and not in London – ‘f’ was more frequent in words like maths, where it comes at the end of a syllable, before another consonant. It was less frequent where it is followed by a vowel, in words like thin. Schleef and Ramsammy suggest that these patterns point to the origins of the sound change. The sounds ‘f’ and ‘th’ share acoustic properties, and this can make it difficult for listeners to tell them apart in fast speech, especially in words like maths, when the following consonant makes them less perceptible.

Confusion of the two sounds may well explain the origin of the sound change in London too, but here there has been plenty of time for the use of ‘f’ for ‘th’ to spread to new phonetic contexts, not just the context where they are most easily confused.

Instead, young people in London used ‘f’ for ‘th’ more often in morphologically complex words containing more than one form: words like pathway (path plus way) or months (month plus plural –s). What seems to be happening, Schleef and Ramsammy point out, is that as the change becomes well-established in a variety of English the variation becomes increasingly integrated into grammatical word structure. It can also acquire a social function: in London male speakers use ‘f’ more often than female speakers, whereas in Edinburgh the variation is too new to be available for marking gendered ways of speaking.

Will the change follow the same processes in Edinburgh speech as it has in London, once it becomes more established, losing the phonetic patterning and becoming integrated into word structure instead? Not necessarily. Schleef and Ramsammy explain that the sound system in which the change is embedded differs in the two cities. In Edinburgh words like thing and think are often pronounced with an initial ‘h’. Also, a glottal stop is used for ‘th’ in Edinburgh, but only rarely in London. There is more overall variation, then, in Edinburgh than there is in London, and this makes it impossible to predict the future of this sound change.

What is clear, though, is that comparing social and linguistic influences on a sound change in different locations can help us understand how a change begins and how it becomes part of the language system.

You can hear sound clips of young people from London using this feature at our English Language Teaching Resources website 

Schleef, Erik and Ramsammy, Michael (2013) Labiodental fronting of /θ/ in London and Edinburgh: a cross-dialectal study. English Language and Linguistics 17 (1): 25-54.

doi: 10.1017/S1360674312000317

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Monday 11 March 2013

☺ Am I just emotional? ☹

The term ‘emoticon’ is a mixture of the words “emotion” and “icon” and refers to the graphic signs, such as the smiley face, which often accompany textual computer-mediated communication (CMC).

Emoticons began in CMC in 1982 when the sideways smiley face :-) was first proposed by an American computer scientist, as a means to signal that something was a joke in messages posted to a computer science discussion forum.  Since that time thousands of similar signs have developed.  They vary considerably in form and meaning and have become more graphically reduced over time, such as ☺.  A growing number of signs represent objects of various kinds (such as a heart or a beer mug), although the majority mimic facial expressions.

Emoticons are used in all types of CMC these days, including chat rooms and instant messaging, as well as e-mails, bulletin board postings and blogs.  They can also occasionally make their way into more traditional written contexts that are not CMC, such as advertisements and handwritten notes.  As their name suggests, they have traditionally been thought of as indicators of an emotional state, in that they are assumed to show non-linguistic information that would be conveyed through facial gestures and body language in face-to-face communication.  The argument goes that in CMC these are missing and emoticons are used to replace them. 

However, the researchers Eli Dresner and Susan C. Herring think that this view of emoticons as emotional ‘signals’ is over simplistic. They argue that they actually have a much greater role to play in CMC than just conveying emotions: in fact, they help to form meaning.  They begin by arguing that many facial emoticons do not seem to express a single emotion, or indeed any emotion at all.  For example, is a face with a tongue sticking out (  ;-p  ) a sign of a specific emotion? It could be interpreted in a variety of ways including teasing, flirting and sarcasm, all of which may be associated with emotional states but are not actually emotions themselves.  Or consider the winking face ;-).  This usually indicates that the writer is joking, but are jokes really associated with a single emotive state?  People may joke when they are happy or sad.  Even the smiley face itself does not always only convey happiness.  It has also been found to express sarcasm, again not exactly a state of emotion.  So what do emoticons express other than emotions?

Dresner and Herring argue that emoticons cannot stand alone as separate emotions isolated from a text.  Instead, they are very much a part of it and play a vital role in showing the meaning behind it.  This can be quite straightforward at times, such as in the following excerpt from an online conversation:

STUDENT:           just wanted to let you know that Jason found me a        place to stay so looks like I’ll be going to the                conference
PROFESSOR:       I wish I could be there

The student’s smiling face seems to express their happiness at being able to attend the conference and the professor’s frowning face expresses sadness or regret at not going. However, at times emoticons seem to be used in a less straightforward way, as in the following example posted on an online medical support forum:

i’m 23 and was diagnosed with this condition 3 years ago but i’ve been ill for a lot longer than that. i’m feeling really down at the mo and decided to see if anyone had posted. i’m pretty bad at mo. i am very sensitive and cry easily, and gets even worse when I feel awful :)

This writer is clearly not happy and seems to use a smiley in the opposite way to how we would expect.  It seems that here it maybe functions to mitigate what could otherwise be read as a self-pitying list of complaints and suggests that the writer is not complaining but instead just describing the situation.

Dresner and Herring suggest that all emoticons seem to convey that the utterance they are attached to is not intended to be taken completely seriously.  However, they stress that this is a generalisation and that context is always required for a reader to interpret the specific intended meaning of any emoticon.  They suggest that, just like the rules of conversation, these meanings have to somehow be ‘learned’ by their users and that further research will be needed to determine not only how this happens but also to ascertain the many varied and constantly changing functions of all the different emoticons.  
Anybody fancy it? ;)     
Dresner, Eli and Herring, Susan C. (2010) Functions of the nonverbal in CMC: Emoticons and Illocutionary Force. Communication Theory 20: 249-268.

doi. 10.1111/j.l468-2885.2010.01362.x

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

Monday 4 March 2013

Accommodating across social borders

How do people on either side of the border accommodate to each other?

It’s easy to see that language changes, but how do the changes happen? One key way is when we’re talking face to face with someone who speaks a bit differently to us. Both people unconsciously accommodate to each other’s way of speaking. If this happens often and if many people make the same kinds of linguistic adjustments to their speech, the changes become more permanent.

One puzzle, though, is why only some aspects of language are changed during this accommodation process, while others remain the same. Dominic Watt, Carmen Llamas and Daniel Ezra Johnson propose that this depends on the social meanings attached to different linguistic features, and also whether or not the features are already involved in language change. They reached this conclusion after research in two towns on either side of the border between England and Scotland. People tend to speak differently on either side of the border, so they analysed the speech of a 25-year old Scottish woman interviewing people from Eyemouth, Scotland and Carlisle, England.  In each town she interviewed 2 older men aged between 65 and 82, and 4 younger male speakers aged between 11 and 13.

As expected, the interviewer adjusted her own way of speaking to match that of her interviewers. She did not do this, though, for features that were stable in the two communities. For example, the pronunciation of /r/ after a vowel in words such as cart or car is very frequent in Eyemouth but almost nonexistent in Carlisle, and this pronunciation does not seem to be changing in either town. Regardless of the way her interviewee spoke, the interviewer did not change the overall frequency with which she herself pronounced /r/ in these words. Watt, Llamas and Johnson suggest that features such as these are very noticeable, so they are less susceptible to unconscious accommodation.

The interviewer was more likely to adjust her speech when it came to traditional, declining, forms in the Scottish variety. For example, older speakers in Eyemouth pronounce from as ‘frae’ more often than younger speakers in the same town, and are more likely to use ken than know in phrases such as do you ken John? But rather than matching the frequency with which her interviewee used a particular form, the interviewer adjusted her language in line with her social assessments of her interlocutor. When she was talking to older Scottish men, she unconsciously increased her frequency of the traditional forms, to such an extent that she overshot the frequencies used by the older men themselves. When she was talking to younger Scottish men, the reverse process happened: she undershot their use of these forms, employing them less often than the young men did. The researchers comment that for these features the interviewer seems to be reacting not to actual usage of traditional forms but to her perception of their usage, which she associates with both Scotland and older speakers.

With forms that are currently undergoing change in both communities, the interviewer reacted towards the age of the person she was talking to. For example, older speakers in both the Scottish and the English speech communities tended to pronounce ‘r’ in words like very or brown as a tap, [ɾ]. They also vocalised /l/ in words such as feel or sold, pronouncing it as [o] or [u]. The interviewer’s speech reflected this: in both localities, she used more tapped /r/ and more vocalized /l/ with older speakers than younger ones. Again, though, the interviewer seemed to be responding to her perceptions of the national identities of the informants, as she used more [ɾ] with the older Scottish speakers than with the older English speakers, even though the older English men used more [ɾ] than the older Scottish men.

The researchers point out that although more research is needed, their findings reveal that the ability of linguistic forms to index social meanings is crucial to whether or not individual speakers accommodate to them. Consequently, understanding the social meaning of different forms is central to our understanding of the process and progress of linguistic change in the speech community more generally.
Dominic Watt, Carmen Llamas, and Daniel Ezra Johnson (2011) Levels of Linguistic Accommodation across a National Border. Journal of English Linguistics 38: 270-289.

doi 10.1177/0075424210373039

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire