Tuesday 14 January 2014

Can Eastenders affect your language?

‘Stop saying ‘innit’!  You sound like you’re in Eastenders!’

How many times have you heard television being blamed for a decline in the language standards of young people?  Sociolinguists have traditionally ascertained that accent accommodation (adapting your accent to sound more like someone else) can only happen through face-to-face interaction.   However, recent evidence is beginning to suggest that there might be something in worried parents’ complaints….

Jane Stuart-Smith, Gwilym Pryce, Claire Timmins and Barrie Gunter investigated the possible factors involved in the spread of some linguistic changes in Glasgow, Scotland.  They focused on two changes that have been underway for the last 60 years but which have recently increased in usage in the vernacular of working class Glaswegian youngsters:  saying ‘f’ instead of ‘th’ in words like think and mouth and pronouncing the ‘l’ in words like milk and people as a type of vowel, for example as miwulk or peepul . This is the typical pronunciation of what many of us would consider a traditional London ‘Cockney’ accent, although it is now mainly heard in Essex. The researchers were interested to find out whether these two changes were indeed taking place and if so, why this was happening.  They conducted their research in an area of Glasgow that is characterised by low unemployment and urban deprivation, concentrating on 48 young people over a period of 18 months.  They collected recordings of spontaneous conversations and readings from wordlists and conducted interviews with the adolescents.]

They found that the pronunciation of ‘f’ for ‘th’ and ‘l’ as a vowel sound were both used mainly by speakers who didn’t like conforming to correct school uniform, preferring the look of Glasgow street style, and also by those who regularly watched and engaged with television shows, especially Eastenders.  The ‘f’ pronuncation was mostly used in spontaneous speech at the end of words (such as mouth) rather than at the beginning of words like think.]

So, both of these changes seem to be linked with the development of Glasgow street style and its visible appearance: wearing tracksuits, trainers with socks over trousers, jewellery and particular hairstyles and especially with trying to introduce elements of this into school uniform instead of conforming to the rules.  Speakers who are adopting these pronunciation changes and this particular street style seem to be trying to say, through their looks and speech, that they are ‘not posh’; rather,  they are ’cool youth’ and ‘urban tough’. 

Arguably the most interesting finding was that engagement with TV programmes and especially Eastenders does seem to have an influence on young people’s speech.  For this to happen it seems to be important that such programmes are not just being watched in passing but are engaged with psychologically and emotionally, usually by criticising the characters verbally whilst watching it, shouting at them and feeling somehow emotionally connected to them.

Sociolinguists claim that language and social identity go hand in hand and in these Glaswegian accent changes we find concrete evidence of this.  However, what is most interesting is that television viewing could actually be playing a part as well.  This research provides us with evidence to show that broadcast media can act to strengthen, accelerate and reinforce changes that are already taking place in language.  This influence can be very subtle.  One interesting observation in this study is that the young people involved did not find the stereotypical cockney accent on Eastenders ‘cool’ or ‘tough-sounding’.  In fact, they actually described Phil Mitchell’s accent as ‘posh’!  So, they are clearly not trying to sound like him....Much more research will be needed to be done in this area to find out what really is going on.  Meanwhile, we wait in anticipation … (Cue Eastenders theme tune)... ‘Dum, dum, dum dum dum, dum, dum………’

Stuart-Smith, Jane, Price, Gwilym, Timmins, Claire and Gunter, Barrie (2013) Television can also be a factor in language change: Evidence from an urban dialect. Language 89 (3): 501-536

doi. 10.1353/lan.2013.0041

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

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