Friday, 23 December 2011











Season's Greetings to all our readers. We look forward to your continued interest in 2012. Best wishes from the Linguistics Research Digest team.




Monday, 19 December 2011

How insults can shape identity


Insults can create a feeling of belonging and shared identity

   - hey fat emo, what’s going on?
- hey old fag, where is Jossi?

This is how two young men were heard greeting each other in a youth centre in Germany. It may seem a strange way for friends to behave, but it turns out to be quite frequent behaviour amongst the young men of immigrant background that Susanne Günthner studied in Germany. Günthner and her research team recorded the informal interactions of 18 young men aged between 15 and 23 in youth centres in Münster, Rheine, Solingen and Hamm. The families of the young men had migrated from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Morocco.

It used to be thought, Günthner points out, that the children and grandchildren of migrants would adopt the local majority language as their mother tongue. Instead, studies throughout Europe have shown that young people tend to create new forms of language (such as the Multicultural London English covered in previous posts on this blog) as well as new kinds of communicative practice. Using insults to construct friendship is one example of these communicative practices.

It seems that the insults create a feeling of belonging and shared identity among the speakers who use them, by breaking the conventional norms of how to address someone. The insults revolve around topics that relate to concepts of masculinity within the group, including manliness and sexuality, sexual subordination and homosexuality. Emo in the example above comes from the hardcore punk scene, where it refers to ‘emotionally unstable teenagers and outsiders’. Although young Germans who are not from an immigrant background also make insulting remarks to each other, the young men in Günthner’s study saw this as their own special way of speaking, claiming when interviewed that someone who wasn’t “one of us” would misunderstand the intended playfulness of the insults.

Günthner also describes how the young men in her study skilfully blend different varieties of German while speaking, to stage different social characters. This too is a way of constructing a shared identity for the group. As an example she quotes from a follow-up interview with two young men, Enis and Robbie, whose families are from the former Yugoslavia. The young speakers were explaining that it is difficult to be friends with some of the ethnically German boys at school because there are so many differences between them: for example, the German boys work too hard, don’t understand their jokes, and are brought up differently. When reporting some of the things the German boys say to them, Robbie spoke very slowly, with an exaggerated standard German pronunciation. In this way he brought to life what he considered to be a typical German – the majority group in society– but his caricature of the way that a typical German speaks presented it as pedantic and ridiculous. Although Enis and Robbie spoke throughout the interview in a way that was very close to standard German, when Robbie reports something he himself might say to a German classmate he switches into the ‘polyethnic’ or ‘multicultural’ style that is typical of the neighbourhood. Enis shows his awareness of social attitudes towards the polyethnic style in Germany by saying “you’ll never get a job like that, dude” (so kriegste nie ne arbeit, alder). Günthner claims that by animating characters in their stories with specific linguistic varieties, and by contrasting stylised and even parodied ways of speaking with their own, the young men perform “acts of identity” that create a feeling of inclusion for them within their own group versus a feeling of “otherness” for other groups in German society.

Günthner reminds us that in the modern world globalisation and widespread immigration mean that it is not only people who are moving: languages, she says, are also “on the move”, and so are communicative practices. Analysing the development and dynamics of communicative practices such as the two she focussed on helps us to understand not only the language diversity of modern societies but also the dynamics of social and cultural identities.

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Günthner, Susanne 2011. The dynamics of communicative practices in transmigrational contexts: “insulting remarks” and “stylized category animations” in everyday interactions among male youth in Germany. Text and Talk 31/4: 447-473.
doi 1860-7330/11/0031-0447

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Thursday, 15 December 2011

When, how and why do gender differences in language begin?


Could children’s segregated friendship groups account for the development of gender differences in language use?

It’s well known than women, on balance, use more standard forms than men do. They are more likely, for instance, to say I’m walking to school these days than I’m walkin’ to work.  What is not so well known is how, when and why children acquire these kinds of gender differences in language use.

Richard Cameron set out to find some answers in a Chicago elementary school. He recorded pairs of children in relaxed interviews with a friend, and analysed their use of two pronunciation features: -ing versus –in, as in the walking example, and the standard th pronunciation versus d in words like this or brother. His results come from 10 girls and 7 boys in 5th grade (aged 10-11) and 7 girls and 6 boys in 2nd grade (aged 7-8). In each age group there were children of both European American and African American descent.

The overall figures show small differences between boys and girls in the younger age group, with girls using slightly more of the standard pronunciations of both features. The differences increase dramatically for the older age group. Cameron explains the increase as reflecting the girls’ and boys’ friendship patterns. When the boys talked about their friends, they talked about boys, whereas when the girls talked about their friends the talk was about girls. This conforms to a wide range of previous work that shows that children tend to socialise in single sex groups. Gender segregation in friendship groups means that as children grow older their language use becomes increasingly divergent.

When Cameron looked at the results in more detail, though, he found that things were more complex. For th versus d the change between the older boys and the younger boys was in a different direction to the change for girls: older boys used more of the nonstandard d forms whereas older girls used more of the standard th forms. Cameron refers to this pattern as ‘dual polarization’.

For –ing versus –in, though, there was a split along ethnic lines. African American children showed a tendency towards dual polarization for -ing versus -in, but less so than for th versus d. However, European American children did not share this pattern at all. Instead, although the older girls used more standard pronunciations than the younger girls, the frequencies of the nonstandard forms for the older boys and the younger boys stayed the same. In other words, the girls seemed to change their behaviour as they grew older, but the boys didn’t.

Cameron admits to being puzzled by these findings. One possible explanation, he suggests, reflects children’s early exposure to gendered variation in the home. He cites previous research that shows mothers using more standard pronunciations to their young daughters than to their young sons. The younger children in his study, then, may reflect this kind of early input from their mothers. As children move through different stages of childhood, he suggests, they begin to associate social meanings with the different pronunciations. The social meanings of –ing may be different to the social meanings for th, and since social meanings are acquired in friendship groups which tend to be segregated by gender, they may differ for boys and for girls. The social meanings may develop as children grow older. The differences between the European Americans and the African Americans may also reflect friendship patterns. It is still not clear, though, why –ing versus -in should have a different social meaning to th versus d. A further puzzle is why boys prefer nonstandard pronunciations overall, while girls prefer standard pronunciations. Linguists do not agree on any explanation for this common finding.

What is clear from this study, though, is that gender differences in pronunciation are found in children as young as 7, and that these gender differences increase as children grow older, in different ways for different features. It is also clear that intriguing differences can emerge when we look beyond overall patterns of gender differences in language.
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Cameron, Richard 2010. Growing up and apart: Gender divergences in a Chicagoland elementary school. Language Variation and Change 22 (2): 279-319.
doi: 10.1017/S0954394510000074

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Monday, 12 December 2011

“Can’t talk now”: gender and mobile phones


Is talking on a mobile in this situation acceptable? What's your view?


How do you feel when you’re eating dinner at home with the family and one of the people at the table starts to talk on their mobile? A recent study by Naomi Baron and Elise Campbell suggests that if you don’t feel upset, the chances are you’re male, or perhaps from Korea. Baron and Campbell investigated gender differences in the way people use their mobile phones and in their attitudes towards mobiles. They asked 2001 university students aged between 18 and 24 a series of questions including how acceptable it is to use a mobile at family dinner, with friends in a café, and at a supermarket checkout, as well as in public situations like walking and being in a bus. By collecting data from 5 different countries (Sweden, the US, Italy, Japan and Korea), they were able to compare the role of gender versus culture (admitting that this can only be to the extent that culture corresponds with nationhood).

In all three personal situations, men were more likely than women to find talking on their mobiles acceptable – except in Korea, where there were no gender differences. As many as 41 per cent of the Korean students found it “always” or “usually” acceptable to talk on their phones during family dinners, compared to 14 per cent of the Swedish students and only 3 per cent of the Italians. Everyone was more tolerant of texting during family dinners, though here too more men than women found this acceptable behaviour. By contrast, only the Japanese found it unacceptable to speak on their phones in a bus, presumably showing that having prominent signs on public transport reminding passengers not to use their phones, as happens in Japan, really does have an effect.

Overall, more women than men claimed to prefer talking on the phone to texting because they “wanted to hear the voice of their interlocutor”. The researchers suggest that this reflects the importance of social connection for women. Equally, though, more women than men claimed to choose texting because “talking takes too long”. These two findings seem contradictory, but Baron and Campbell point out that women may prefer to avoid making a curt phone call because this may seem impolite.

Interestingly, overall about 30 per cent of the students reported pretending to talk on their phones “at least occasionally” to avoid conversation with an acquaintance. Women, overall, were more likely to pretend to be talking on their phones in order to avoid talking to strangers – hardly surprising, the authors point out, since women are more physically vulnerable in this type of situation. More surprising is the stark cultural difference between Americans and Italians: nearly 13 per cent of the American students claimed to avoid acquaintances at least once a month by pretending to talk on their phones, compared to just over 2 per cent of the Italian students. This finding, when seen together with the very small proportion of Italian students who found it appropriate to talk on their phones during a family dinner, supports previous research showing that Italians strongly value face to face communication with friends and family.

The researchers conclude that gender is just one factor influencing how young people use mobile phones. Sometimes culture seems to be a more critical factor. They also point out that digital technology changes rapidly, so that studies carried out even just a year or so after theirs may well yield different results, perhaps especially in terms of reported frequency of use of mobiles. Even so, they predict that gender distinctions and some culturally-driven differences are likely to persist.
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Baron, Naomi S. and Campbell, Elise M. 2012. Gender and mobile phones in cross-national context. Language Sciences 34: 13-27.

doi: 10.1016/j.langsci.2011.06.018

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Multicultural London English - part 4

A apple, a orange and a change of rule



Researchers Jenny Cheshire, Paul Kerswill, Sue Fox and Eivind Torgersen report on the use of the indefinite article (a/an) and the definite article (the) before words beginning with a vowel. In standard English the forms are roughly a and thuh before a consonant e.g. a pear, ‘thuh’ pear, and an and thee before a vowel e.g. an apple, ‘thee’ apple. Older speakers in London conform to this standard English pattern. However, some recent studies have shown that young people in London are not varying their use of the article forms but are using the pre-consonant forms in both contexts i.e. a pear but also a apple and ‘thuh’ pear but also ‘thuh’ apple.

The results from the Multicultural London English study confirm this trend. There are, however, interesting differences between the ‘Anglo’ speakers (the term used for speakers of British origin whose families had lived in the area for two or more generations and roughly equivalent to ‘white British’) and ‘non-Anglo’ speakers (speakers whose families were of more recent immigrant background). For the Anglos there is a decrease in frequency of the new forms as they get older and the researchers say that this is due to them being exposed to more competition from the input they receive – the newer forms used by their non-Anglo peers against the standard forms of their caregivers (the Anglo caregivers hardly ever used the new forms). On the other hand, the non-Anglos of all ages have very high frequency rates for the new forms and this is consistent with other studies of contact varieties of English around the world, e.g. South African English, Singapore English and African American Vernacular English.

The researchers state that this is another feature of language change which has probably come about due to the language contact situation in London. The clear patterns shown by the results of this study suggest that the dominant variants in the ‘feature pool’ (see previous post Multicultural London English - part 1) are a and thuh which are used by the majority of the non-Anglo speakers. The evidence that these forms are influencing the speech of the Anglos is shown in the fact that  the young Anglos use the new forms much more than their caregivers.
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Cheshire, J., Kerswill, P., Fox, S. and Torgersen, E. 2011. Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: the Emergence of Multicultural London English. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15/2: 151-196.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2011.00478.x

This summary was written by Sue Fox


Monday, 5 December 2011

Multicultural London English - part 3

I was, you was, they was, we was .…….. wasn’t we?


Researchers Jenny Cheshire, Paul Kerswill, Sue Fox and Eivind Torgersen report on the use of past BE forms (i.e. was/were) in London. Although the standard English forms are was with first and third singular subjects (I was, he/she was, negative wasn’t) and were with all other subjects (you were, we were, they were, negative weren’t), it is well known that the pattern varies considerably around the English-speaking world. There are predominantly two patterns which involve non-standard forms. These patterns are both variable i.e. the non-standard forms occur alongside the standard forms:

1. Variable use of was with all subjects in positive contexts (e.g. I was but also we was, you was) and wasn’t with all subjects in negative contexts (e.g. I wasn’t but also they wasn’t, you wasn’t)

2. Variable use of was with all subjects in positive contexts (e.g. I was but also we was, you was) but weren’t with all subjects in negative contexts (e.g. we weren’t but also I weren’t, she/he weren’t)

Although the first pattern is the most common throughout the English-speaking world, it is the second pattern (i.e. was/weren’t) which is the most common in Britain (note, though, another pattern in north-west England) so that many people in Britain today will say things like we was busy; she weren’t at home; he was angry, weren’t he? (You might remember the FT article on Lord Alan Sugar’s use of you was)

In their first study of London English Linguistic Innovators: the English of Adolescents in London the researchers found that adolescents in outer London (the borough of Havering) conformed to the expected non-standard British was/weren’t pattern but in inner London (the borough of Hackney) they found that the use of was in positive contexts was increasing but that there was competition between the two non-standard negative forms of wasn’t and weren’t. The researchers give the language contact situation in London as a likely explanation for this competition. Many speakers in London come from linguistic backgrounds where the dominant pattern is was/wasn’t e.g. English Creole-influenced varieties, second-language varieties such as African and Indian English as well as interlanguage (or learner) varieties and this competes with the local vernacular variety which tended to favour a was/weren’t pattern. In the second study Multicultural London English: the emergence, acquisition and diffusion of a new variety the researchers looked to see whether one of these patterns was winning out among younger children but it seems that, for the time being at least, the two patterns exist alongside each other.

The researchers focus on a newcomer to London to try to predict future trends in the use of this feature. They examine the speech of a 12 year-old Albanian girl who lived in London between the ages of 4 and 7, then returned to Albania until she was 11, after which she returned to live permanently in London.  She uses non-standard was in positive contexts almost all of the time and her few instances of negative past tense forms are all non-standard wasn’t. Perhaps this suggests that the trend is moving towards a was/wasn’t pattern in the multiethnic areas of inner London but we will have to wait and see.
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Cheshire, J., Kerswill, P., Fox, S. and Torgersen, E. 2011. Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: the Emergence of Multicultural London English. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15/2: 151-196.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2011.00478.x

This summary was written by Sue Fox


Thursday, 1 December 2011

Multicultural London English - part 2


This is me ‘I’m from Hackney’


Researchers Jenny Cheshire, Paul Kerswill, Sue Fox and Eivind Torgersen report the use of a new quotative expression to introduce reported speech in spoken discourse. Of course, speakers use a variety of forms to introduce dialogue; the verbs SAY (e.g. she said ‘let’s go to the cinema’), GO (e.g. he went ‘let’s go to the cinema’) and THINK (e.g. I thought ‘Oh no, not the cinema again’) are among the most common introducers. In recent years there has also been an explosion in English varieties around the world in the use of BE LIKE (e.g. they were like ‘Oh, we love the cinema’). However, in inner London, the researchers have also discovered the use of the expression this is + speaker such as those given in the examples below.

this is them ‘what area are you from?’ this is me ‘I’m from Hackney’

this is my mum ‘what are you doing?’

Although the new form only accounts for a small number of the quotatives found in the London data it is nevertheless used frequently enough in young people’s speech generally for it to have been noticed by non-linguists. For example, you can hear it being used in this comedy sketch from the Armstrong and Miller show. The researchers found that the expression this is + speaker is used by adolescents and also by children as young as eight years old but none of the adults in their study used it. This points to the feature as being a fairly recent innovation but in fact there is some evidence to suggest that it has existed in the ‘feature pool’ (see our previous post) for some time; Mark Sebba found three examples in his recordings of London Jamaicans made in the 1980s and there are also examples in the Corpus of London Teenage Speech (COLT) recorded in the 1990s. The researchers say that in language contact situations such as that which exists in London, features which have been in existence for some time (but have perhaps been used infrequently) may get picked up from the feature pool causing the frequency of its use to increase. This seems to be a possibility for the increase in the use of this is + speaker.

Another interesting finding is that there is a difference in the way that the different age groups use this feature. The 12-13 year-olds and the 16-19 year-olds use this is + speaker almost exclusively to introduce reported direct speech (e.g. this is her ‘that was my sister’). However, the 8-9 year-olds use it to introduce both direct speech and non-lexicalised sound and gesture (e.g. this is me <followed by an action>). This function allows the young children to ‘perform’ the actions in the way in which they actually occurred. Furthermore, the 8-9 year-olds also use this is + speaker with non-quotative functions (e.g. he’s sitting on a chair this is him like he’s drunk or something) to describe someone’s state, feeling, action, gesture or expression.

The researchers state that the use of this is + speaker is in its early stages and that, so far, it is confined to inner London. Whether it is a short-lived phenomenon or whether it will continue to increase in frequency and spread to other regions remains to be seen. Comments welcome on the use of or further development of this fascinating language feature!
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Cheshire, J., Kerswill, P., Fox, S. and Torgersen, E. 2011. Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: the Emergence of Multicultural London English. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15/2: 151-196.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2011.00478.x

This summary was written by Sue Fox