Are we analysing how people speak, or how they speak in labs?

speech_labIn the experimental linguistics community there’s an ongoing debate on the type of speech used for analyses. On the one hand are laboratory linguists working with tightly controlled, scripted speech. On the other we have linguists engaging with conversational interaction, or interested in more “natural” speech, who record spontaneous speech in informal settings. Many studies are, of course, somewhere in between these two extremes, but, at least in the phonetics community, there’s a tendency for researchers to prefer one of the two kinds of data (Xu 2010).

The thing is, however, that studies from different branches of experimental linguistics have shown that the settings in which the speech is recorded has a large influence on our results (Wagner et al. 2014). My own work, which I’m presenting at the UKLVC conference in York this week, shows how uptalk rises changes significantly in different speech styles (read more about uptalk here and here). So in, say, laboratory settings, are we recording how uptalk is used in actual, everyday speech, or in the kind of formal speech you use in research settings?

78788-425x282-Group_ConversationTo answer this question we first need to decide on what “actual, everyday speech” really is. Sociolinguists have known for a long time that everyday conversations are made up of a network of different speech styles, and that different dialects, ethnolects or even languages are used most people’s daily conversations (Labov 1972Bell 1984). This type of knowledge makes it harder for us to maintain a clear distinction between formal “lab styles” and informal “everyday styles”.

It also makes it difficult to make a clear choice as to which kind of speech style is preferable to experimental linguists. Both ends of the spectrum have their advantages – lab speech makes it easer to focus on specific phenomena and more fine-grained processes without the added influence of other variables such as faster speaking rates or accommodation to the speech of other people in the conversation. It’s also good for researchers working on very rare phenomena, as they’re able to ensure that their data sample will contain enough specimens to conduct their analyses. Spontaneous speech can shift the focus to broader trends in the data set, and lets the linguist observe exactly these other variables which take place in more informal speech styles.

It may be that what we experimentalists need is not so much a certain type of speech data, but rather an increased awareness of the kinds of speech styles we elicit and how they influence our results (see Wagner et al. 2014 for a thorough discussion of this topic). The key to understanding speech is, I think, to understand it in all its complexity. So my best suggestion for a solution to this debate is not to pick out one speech style over another, but rather to make sure we have lots of research on different speech styles, and on the way they affect our conversations, and our linguistic results.

Does anyone speak the Queen’s English?

buckingham-palace-21976488In 2000, Jonathan Harrington and his colleagues at Macquarie University in Sydney wrote a series of publications on the Queen’s English. Literally. They compared a number of vowel sounds produced by the Queen in her annual Christmas messages from the 1950s to the same vowel sounds produced in the 1980s, and used female BBC broadcasters speaking standard Southern British English (SSBE) as a control group. The idea was to observe whether the Queen’s speech had changed over those 30 years, and whether it had moved closer to the English used by the control group. Their results indicated that not only had the Queen’s English changed quite substantially, it had changed in the direction of – though not reaching – the standard English produced by news broadcasters in the 1980s. Conclusion: the Queen no longer speaks the Queen’s English of the 1950s.

The articles, of course, sparked a lot of media interest. But is it really so strange that the Queen’s speech has changed? Firstly, with age, physiological changes to the vocal chords and vocal tract inevitably lead to changes in the voice. So the Queen’s pitch is physiologically speaking bound to have been lower in 1987 than when she was 30 years younger. Similar changes to the resonances of the vocal tract would have influenced the measures taken by Harrington and his colleagues. And secondly, language itself is not a stagnant entity. The way English is being spoken in the UK changes over time, as does the speech of smaller speech communities such as the royal family. Not even the Queen’s aristocratic English is immune to this tendency.

So will the Queen eventually end up sounding like the rest of us? The answer is, in all likelihood, no. While her speech in the 1980s does not sound quite as cut-glass as the broadcast from the 1950s, it still sounds unmistakably upperclass. Think of it this way: both her English and the SSBE English of the middle-class public are changing, so although her vowels are likely to continue to move towards Harrington et al.’s 1980s SSBE targets, the rest of us have long stopped sounding like that. In other words, she will most likely continue to speak the Queen’s English, it’s just that the Queen’s English, like any other language variety, is not likely to stay the same over time.

So what exactly has changed from the 1950s to the 1980s? If you listen to the two YouTube clips below, you’ll notice a wealth of interesting phonetic phenomena. For instance, in the clip from 1957, notice how she says the word “often” (/ɔːfən/, or orfen, around 0:55 in the clip), whereas in the 1987 Christmas message has her saying something closer to /ɒfən/ (or ofen) in the word “often” (at 2:33). Similarly, in the early clip her /uː/ vowel in “you” and “too” is very back, whereas in the later clip it’s more fronted, that is, closer to the vowel the rest of us are likely to produce. Another interesting feature to look out for is the second vowel in the word “historY”, which is quite open and centralised in the early clip, sort of like the last vowel in in sofA (at 1:22), but closer to the /ɪ/ vowel in the word “kit” in the later clip (in words like “expectEd”). This latter point is further described and discussed in a later paper by Harrington and his colleagues (Harrington et al. 2006).

If you’re interested in reading more on the Queen’s English, here’s the link to a brief and non-technical paper in Nature, and here’s the longer and more phoneticsy full paper from the Journal of the International Phonetic Association.

Prepositions and national identity

DublinLast week I attended the 5th Sociolinguistics Summer School in Dublin, Ireland. Being, as it were, directed primarily at early-career researchers, the talks offered a good overview of what young sociolinguists (that’s linguists interested in the relationships between social and linguistic variation) are up to these days. There was a pretty impressive amount of papers and posters on new media – Twitter seems to be a fairly fashionable research topic among our lot – and, being in Ireland, the summer school had attracted quite a few talks on minority languages and dialects such as Irish Gaelic, Catalan and, yes, you guessed it, Australian Aboriginal English. Among the many interesting talks, one in particular has had me thinking this week: the final one, presented by Anne Marie Devlin of University College Cork. 

Her talk was entitled “Prepositions on the battlefront: ‘В’ and ‘На’ as indices of socio-political identity in the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia” and, as the title indicates, it focused on the socio-political role of language in Ukraine. According to Anne Marie, the current socio-political conflict is now shaping the ways language is being used in Ukraine, most notably resulting in Russian being given preference in different social spheres, including the sociolinguistic landscape. In this way, Ukrainian-language signs are being removed and replaced with signs in Russian. More subtly, though, her talk demonstrated that small cues like the use of prepositions can be just as powerful tools in signalling socio-political opinion. Speakers of Russian have access to two different prepositions collocating with the word “Ukraine”: “v”, which roughly corresponds to the word “in” in English, and “na”, which means something akin to English “on”. The “in” preposition is used to refer to nation states, whereas the “on” preposition is used with counties or islands, that is, parts of a larger nation state. In this way, through the consistent use of one of these prepositions, a Russian speaker can signal her attitude to Ukraine’s national status. And indeed, after combing through a number of newspapers, letters and online forums, Anne Marie concluded that preposition use in both Ukrainian and Russian media strongly correlate with the political opinions expressed. Writers in favour of an independent Ukraine would almost exclusively use the “in” preposition, and vice versa.

Nuuk (Anna)

This got me thinking. As a Dane, I’ve noticed, but never really given much thought to, a similar sociolinguistic situation at home, which hinges on the political relationship between Denmark and Greenland. For you non-Danes out there, let me explain. Because of its colonial history, Greenland is an autonomous country within the Danish realm. This is a strange in-between state of affairs – it has home rule, but it’s still economically, and to some degree politically, dependent on Denmark. Now, Danes have a similar set of prepositions to the Russo-Ukrainian ones. So the question is: how do we refer to Greenland? My own intuition is to use the “on” preposition, but the “in” variant doesn’t sound too bad either. On the other hand, my stepfather, who is very close friends with a Greenlandic couple, consistently uses the “in” variant. I also recall having a discussion with an Icelandic colleague on a similar matter. Iceland received its independence from Denmark in 1918 and became a republic in 1944. However, lots of Danes still use the “on” preposition when referring to the country, to the irritation of (it would seem) a number of linguistically savvy Icelanders. Protesting this trend, my colleague agued that he associated the Danish “på Island” (“on Iceland”) with derogatory views of the country. In other words, preposition use seems to be able to trigger similar sociolinguistic effects in Danish, even within the current calm Scandinavian political climate.And just as interestingly, the status of these prepositions as sociolinguistic markers seem to have completely escaped the attention of Danes. This is why I like early-career conference presentations – they can be real eye-openers!

Denmark map

To end these musings, let me bring them closer to home. As a non-native speaker of English, I’m not as sensitive to linguistic differences in this language as I am in Danish. So, English speakers, this is where I ask for your opinions. Are prepositions used in similar ways in English? Do you use “in” or “on” with the Solomon Islands? Jamaica? The Channel Islands? The Hebrides?

I don’t know about you, but I’ll be paying closer attention to preposition use in media coverings from now on.

4 Myths about Endangered Languages

My research is on the Englishes spoken by Aboriginal people in Australia. Aboriginal English is a fascinating dialect group which is often viewed negatively by outsiders but which is nonetheless hugely important to its speakers, many of whom no longer have access to their ancestral languages. Today’s blogpost is therefore on a topic close to my heart. As with Rowena’s previous post on sign language FAQs, it evolved from many conversations over beers, food, or anywhere else I end up talking about my research. Versions of the 4 statements below have been cropping up more or less frequently in these conversations, and each time I’ve felt like they needed a better response than what I could manage on the fly. And that’s what you have a blog for, right?


The language you speak determines the way you see the world

I thought we would start out with a classic (which has already been alluded to in Eleni’s post on language and dancing, amongst others). Sometimes called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that language has a dominant influence on thought is an interesting point to start a debate on endangered languages. In its strongest form, the hypothesis is that each language embodies a worldview of its own, which can be contrasted with the world views inherent to other languages. This means a speaker of Arrernte, an Australian Aboriginal language, will see the world in a different way than a speaker of English, simply because of linguistic differences between the languages. However, empirical evidence such as Berlin and Kay’s 1969 study on universals in colour term semantics, as well as theoretical criticism (most notably Pinker 1994) means the original version of this idea has fallen out of grace in contemporary linguistics. Nevertheless, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis still survives, both in beer gardens in Cambridge, and in the urban myth that Inuits have countless words for snow – more on this interesting and super-pervasive myth here.


It does not matter which language you speak 

But wait, does this mean one language is as good as another? That would mean there was no reason to care about – or save – endangered languages. Worse, even, being “stuck” with a less widespread language could then be nothing but a barrier to getting an education, and a job. Now, to answer these questions properly I would need an entire blog post just on this subject (or even a book). I’ll try to be brief, but if you’ve got more time on hand, you might want to take 10 minutes to view this TEDx video by Felicity Meakins.

You’ll notice Felicity saying that “encoded in [Gurindji] grammar is a different world view”. Now, that might sound familiar, but what she alludes to is a weaker and more widely acknowledged version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, whereby rather than determining the way we think, the particular characteristics of a certain language may influence how we draw distinctions, or how we categorise things in our mind. What she emphasises is not only the differences in pronunciation, grammar and lexis between English and Gurindji, but also how the two languages convey different ways of conceptualising the world – e.g. with reference to ourselves (left or right in English ), or to external directions (north, south, east and west in Gurindji). And if you ask speakers of endangered languages themselves, they will tell you that their language and culture are intricately linked, and how losing a language feels like losing a connection to culture and group identity.


Identity and all that is fine, but speaking an endangered language does not have any practical implications

In the video above, Felicity Meakins shows some of the potential problems caused by the lack of awareness of Indigenous languages in education. Similarly, Diana Eades has conducted a number of studies on misunderstandings in courtroom settings caused by linguistic differences between speakers of minority and majority languages (and dialects). The problems facing second language speakers of endangered languages are a point of discussion in Australia, among other places, and are currently in the process of coming into focus, both with linguists and the public.

For scholars, endangered languages have plenty of practical implications in and of themselves. Many great linguistic discoveries have been made on the basis of a small language with few speakers that few from the outside had heard about before. And there’s knowledge of the culture in the languages that can, for instance, help archaeologists understand the motifs of cave paintings, or ancient migration patterns, better.


 Language death is not a problem to me.

Language death is what happens when a language no longer has any native speakers. The language may be recorded (for instance on tape, or in dictionaries) and can be revitalised, but language death will still have serious effects on the language itself, such as loss of complexity and dialectal variation. Furthermore, as I’ve argued above, the community associated with the language loose a significant connection to their culture and traditions, and to their own identity as a social group. But what does this have to do with me, you might ask? Well, language is knowledge. Of a culture, of a way of living, of the past. All this is worth keeping! So if you’re the kind of person who thinks that knowing as much as possible about the world is important, and that linguistic and cultural variety is amazing, then I hope you find that small