A report from the second HaCKS workshop of 2018-19 – by Thomas Rollings

Tom Rollings is a PhD researcher whose work focuses on the intersection of linguistics and intellectual history in imperial Russia. In February, Tom attended the HaCKS workshop in York and he would like to share a summary and commentary about this event.

He writes:

After introductions over generously provided tea and biscuits, Johanna Blakey, a PhD student at Sheffield, kicked off with an overview of her research on dialect continuity and change in Sheffield. Johanna underlined that Sheffield has a history of dialectal research because of its marked social inequality. Johanna is looking to establish how factors such as deindustrialisation and the rise of service sector industries have impacted on the evolution of the local dialect. Since the Sheffield dialect was studied in the 1980s and 1990s, the speaker is looking to compare the evidence she gathers to that gathered by previous studies.
During the discussion, Johanna clarified her growing interest in how attitudes, such as criticisms of the reconstruction of the city centre that left long-term residents disorientated, may serve as a marker for dialectical shift. In terms of indexicality, I found this talk fascinating because it highlighted how individuals respond to social change in their lifetime. Johanna’s research underscored how individual agency in Sheffield only makes sense in terms of wider regional shifts, but that these wider regional shifts can only be understood as a result of how people individually negotiate and renegotiate the pressures of social change.
Keith Tse, who works in the linguistics department at York, spoke about the derivation of cleft constructions in Chinese dialects. As Keith explained, his talk was an attempt to utilise Chomsky’s minimalist programme in the study of sociolinguistic evidence. The Chinese data were tricky for us to follow because none of us apart from Keith had any knowledge of Chinese. However, the use of regional variation in the constructions that Keith presented was clear. Moreover, Keith clarified the difference in the origins of constructions that are now, in certain dialects, mixed up and used interchangeably.
For me, what was most striking was Keith’s discussion of deixis. Although Keith did not look at individual variation as other speakers did, his comments on deixis echoed the analysis of Silverman on shifters back in the 1970s that the subsequent work of Penelope Eckert and others built on. While Eckert’s analysis of individual variation and performativity in language may challenge Chomsky’s universalist assumption, Keith’s focus on syntax may point to an aspect of variation in Chinese that existing studies of indexicality have not yet grappled with, so this may warrant further investigation.
Dominic Watt, a faculty member of the linguistics department at York, spoke about aural evidence in the fight against crime, as well as elsewhere. One issue here is the training that the police and other law-enforcement agencies require in order to be able to elicit relevant information from witnesses who are not trained linguists. To this end, Dominic shared with us some the questionnaire template that the UK’s counter terrorism agency uses, for example in documenting the voice of callers who make bomb threats. In a really concrete manner Dominic’s talk clarified the issue of speech perception, which is a major topic in itself and crucial to wider research on indexicality.
Salina Cuddy, a PhD student at York, introduced her research in the field of queer linguistics. In particular, she identified variation in the markedness of what she termed a “lesbian voice,” when speakers index their sexuality in certain situations more than others. Many members of the audience related to issues that Salina raised regarding her methodology and data collection, which foregrounded the need for researchers to reflect on the extent to which our own role and identity shapes the results that we gather.
Amy Wearmouth, a Masters student at York St. John University, compared the lyrics and contexts in two songs by the hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj in order to trace how Minaj indexes her gender. I found Amy’s talk the most memorable of the day because for me it summed up the idea behind the series of workshops on indexicality in bringing together researchers from various angles. As Amy explained, her background is in English literature rather than linguistics. This goes a long way to explaining why she was the only speaker who used critical discourse analysis and who built their talk around the study of one individual. This made it possible to explore indexicality in ways that I had not considered previously.
In addition to research on indexicality within local speech communities, there is value to studying celebrities too. The topic of fame is usually considered in connection with iconicity for good reason but iconicity does not explain how Nicki presented herself before she was famous, as in the first song (“Your Love”) that Amy analysed. Moreover, Nicki has been able to become so iconic because of the way that she has presented herself. Iconicity does not exclude indexicality but means that Nicki has had to index herself in relation to the iconic status that she has achieved. Finally, because of her influence, her fans can index themselves in relation to her (including other singers in their work, as Amy mentioned), so the reception of her artistic creativity could be a topic of research in its own right.
The last speaker was Nathaniel Dziura, a PhD student at Sheffield, and the main organiser of HaCKS this year. Nathaniel spoke about his research that seeks to uncover how migrant Polish and LGBTQ+ identities intersect in Sheffield. My interest in Nathaniel’s work is shaped both by my lengthy experience of teaching English in Russia and by my knowledge of Polish migrants in Sheffield.
I completely agree with Nat’s questioning of the commonly held assumption that learners of English as a second language first acquire the standard language and only when they have mastered a sufficient level of proficiency acquire an active knowledge of dialectal variation. In my personal experience, this is often largely a result of the way that textbooks privilege the standard language in English L2 instruction. In terms of how migrant Poles relate to local identities once in the UK though, this could be subject to significant evolution during the course of Nat’s data collection. In my experience, young Poles I have met (who weren’t LGBTQ+) identified very strongly with the UK, so it may not be the case that LGBTQ+ speakers demonstrate any greater degree of positive attitude to the UK. But I have also been struck by cases of linguistic discrimination against Poles, which may trigger them to feel disillusioned with the UK, especially given the current political climate.
Although it is not feasible within Nat’s current study, I have a final thought informed by my experience of teaching that Nat’s presentation has raised. Given that he plans to hold extensive group discussions with his Polish LGBTQ+ migrant respondents, it would be very interesting for future research to incorporate some language instruction into such a methodology, and to compare how the positive group environment established during data collection influences language learning – for example, would learners focus more on learning slang and the Sheffield dialect, as opposed to formal, standard British English, as the latter might be less relevant to the group.
Overall, having missed the first workshop because I was away, I was really glad that I was able to attend this event and benefit from the enthusiastic presenters and stimulating exchange of ideas and research experiences.

If you want to read more thoughts from attendees of this workshop, click here to read one of our speakers Keith Tse‘s Medium article about his work on reconciling the (seemingly) incompatible positions between formal syntax and sociolinguistics.

Language and identity

One of the most important functions of language is that it allows us to manage our presentation of self and our identities. In the same way that we can, for example, utilise different items of clothing in order to create unique presentations of self, we can also employ a whole range of linguistic resources.  Whereas early quantitative sociolinguistic studies, such as Labov (1966) or Trudgill (1974) understood a speaker’s sociodemographic characteristics (i.e. their gender, age, socioeconomic class or ethnicity) to be the cause of their linguistic practice, contemporary research understands language practice to be constitutive of our social identities. This means that rather than presuming that because I am a woman I will speak in a certain way; we can say that I am perceived to be a woman (in part) due to the way I speak (Cameron 1997). This understanding of the relationship between language and social identities is in keeping with Judith Butler’s (1990) influential theorising about the nature of gender. Butler (1990) argues that there is nothing behind the expression of gender identities other than the performative enactment of such identities.  This has led scholars in sociolinguistics, such as Bucholtz and Hall (2005) to suggest that identities are the emergent products of interactions, something which we construct using linguistic and non-linguistic social practices.

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Historical sociolinguistics – how and why?

Having established in the previous post that sociolinguistics is a broad discipline that encompasses issues of language and society, it is not too much of a leap for us to imagine that we can study language and society in the past as well as the present. Sociolinguistics has a wide scope in terms of its sub-disciplines and also the timespan it can cover. Historical sociolinguistics naturally focuses on language and society in the past. This means that a certain number of practical issues arise for historical sociolinguistics scholars that do not exist in the same way for contemporary sociolinguists. In this post I shall outline just a few of these practical issues in an attempt to address the question: ‘So, how and why do you actually do historical sociolinguistics?’.

To begin addressing this question, we should establish exactly what historical sociolinguistics has in common with contemporary sociolinguistics, before highlighting the practical difficulties and how we overcome these. Historical sociolinguistics (sometimes called socio-historical linguistics) benefits being informed by modern sociolinguistic theory, in particular the uniformitarian principle – ‘the working assumption that the fundamental principles and mechanisms of language variation and change are valid across time’ (Auer et al. 2015: 4). Here we encounter our first problem, since we do not want to impose modern concepts onto past societies and languages anachronistically. Being aware of this pitfall, historical sociolinguistic scholars attempt to overcome this by examining each case individually (Auer et al. 2015: 5). Continue reading

What is sociolinguistics?

Hello! Góðan dag! Merhaba! Xαίρετε!

Welcome to HaCKS, an academically-oriented blog about all things sociolinguistic!

But what exactly is sociolinguistics? This first blog post will introduce this concept to those who are unfamiliar with it and give a better insight into the overarching theme of this blog and indeed our seminar series!

Essentially, sociolinguistics is an academic discipline that studies language and society. 

Sociolinguists must ask themselves how language affects society and how society affects language. Research in sociolinguistics generally concerns how language changes according to social context and the roles language plays in different social processes.The study of sociolinguistics explains not only how and why languages change, but also the different factors that cause it. It unearths the complex and multiple interactions between social actors, the language(s) they speak and the society within which they exist. Since language is a fundamental part of our human society, the scope and application of sociolinguistics is astronomical, not to mention highly interdisciplinary. Continue reading