All 2 entries tagged Language Attitudes

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March 02, 2019

Why you probably already speak some Cockney

Writing about web page https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-you-need-do-something-save-cockney-march-3rd-andy-green/?published=t

This was originally published on the University of Warwick Knowledge Centre on 1 March 2019. I have modified it slightly from the form that appeared there, and have changed the title. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0)

I’m a sociolinguist, which means that I research the ways people use language to do things--and the ways language does things to people. As a rule, I cringe when people imitate accents. Imitations are usually lousy, and invariably include problematic stereotypes—think Dick Van Dyke stepping in time. Bad imitations and rehashed stereotypes reinforce negative attitudes about accents, and these negative attitudes have real consequences for speakers of these accents. In the United States, for instance, researchers have shown that people are denied jobs and housing because of their accents.

Cockney, of course, has a long history of being highly stigmatised. It’s therefore a prime candidate for being badly imitated in ways that harm its speakers. If #SpeakCockneyDay doesn’t get farther than “’ello Guv’na” and “up da apples”, there will be much to cringe over on 3 March.

On the other hand, Andy Green recognises that a dialect is not just a way of speaking, but a central aspect of our personal and cultural identities. That is absolutely worth celebrating--especially when it means spending time with friends or doing things for charity to express innate generosity. If these are part of the culture that’s expressed through Cockney, then Cockney indeed belongs in the DNA of all Englishes.

The good news is that, across Britain, many people can speak Cockney just by talking normally. Rather than disappearing from the streets of London, features of Cockney are spreading into accents all over Britain.

In most cases, wherever these features spread, they still carry negative social stigmas, and those stigmas carry adverse consequences for speakers. If we can agree to celebrate Cockney speech, perhaps we can agree to celebrate Cockney features wherever they show up in English. If so, we can combat negative evaluations of accents and reduce the negative effects of these evaluations on speakers, while also celebrating the connections between our ways of speaking and our ways of living.

TH-fronting

Andy has put #SpeakCockneyDay on “the ’fird of the ’fird” as a nod to one of the most salient features of Cockney: the replacement of the sounds traditionally associated with the letters <th> with the sounds of [f] and [v]. Linguists often refer to this feature as “TH-fronting.” TH-fronting is thriving throughout Britain (or friving froughout, if you prefer). Researchers have found TH-fronting across England and Scotland, and a 2016 article in the Mail warned that the "th" sound would disappear in 50 years. TH-fronting is often stigmatised as “yuf speak” or, in the case of the Mail article, blamed on “foreign visitors.” But TH-fronting is a clear case of a traditional Cockney feature spreading into other British Englishes. We should celebrate TH-fronting as one of the ways that Cockney is alive and well.

T-glottaling

Linguists refer to the sound that occurs in the middle of a word like uh-oh as a “glottal stop.” Imitations of Cockney will invariably include the replacement of /t/ with glottal stops, especially when the /t/ is in the middle of a word like better. Cockney accents may extend this “T-glottaling” to use glottal stops in the place of sounds associated with <p> and <k>, or may replace consonants at the beginning or end of a word with a glottal stop, or may reinforce a consonant by adding a glottal stop to it. As with TH-fronting, T-glottaling has long been documented in a wide variety of British Englishes, and gives every indication of continuing to spread. As with TH-fronting, the spread of T-glottaling represents the continued vibrancy of Cockney in English, and should be celebra’ed.

H-dropping

When Andy wishes readers “’appy March 3rd,” he is demonstrating H-dropping. H-dropping is so widely attested in Englishes that it’s not really accurate to call it a Cockney feature (Donald Trump, for instance, is H-dropping when he pronounces huge as “yuge”). H-dropping is widespread in the UK, documented, for instance, in recent books on the East Midlands and West Midlands. But while it’s not a “Cockney feature,” it is definitely a feature of Cockney. So celebrating H-dropping wherever it occurs is another great way to celebrate Cockney sounds.

These are just a few of the features that have escaped the East End to become part of the future of English. #SpeakCockneyDay is an opportunity to recognise the spread of these features, to celebrate the perpetual vibrancy and innovativeness of English and its speakers, and to appreciate that we can now hear the Bow Bells all over Britain.


September 30, 2018

"filler words" fill the news

Writing about web page https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/uk-british-slang-urban-dictionary-filler-words-a8555681.html

Non-linguists often use the term "filler words" as a convenient catch-all for utterances that, for various reasons, don't meet arbitrary prescriptivist rules for "correct" speech.

The BBC, Independent, and other news outlets recently reported the results of a pseudo-scientific study about "filler words."

"Pseudo-scientific" is overly kind. The study was apparently conducted by a marketing firm on behalf of a website, so it's really just a company taking advantage of the press for free advertising. This is a cursory list of obvious problems with the study.

Perceptions of language ≠ productions of language

The "study" surveys people's perceptions of their usages of linguistic features and presents them as facts about their productions of linguistic features. The absurdity of this should be obvious, since the "study" finds that 23 percent of people "don't realise they're using [filler words]" at the same time that it reports situations and demographics where people realise they're using "filler words." In other words, the "study" says, "People don't know when they say err, and those same people say they say err when they're on a date." You can't study what people actually do by asking them what they do. You must study them doing the thing.

The "study" design doesn't meet basic scientific standards

The "study" apparently showed people two videos of the same person giving talks about Brexit, one factual speech with "filler words" and one false speech without "filler words." As a basic methodological principle, you cannot tell people what an experimental condition is and then examine their responses to it. The method in this "study" of language is analogous to giving a person a trial medication and a placebo, telling them which is which, and then asking them whether they feel like the trial medication or the placebo worked better. That's obviously bad science. Beyond that, we'd need to know how the researchers identified the "filler words" included and whether there were other cues to the speakers' perceived confidence (like body language), not to mention conflating factors like informant demographics and attitudes toward Brexit. And the genre of speech matters, too: people like respond differently to someone using "filler words" in a situation where prepared remarks are expected (like a speech on major international policy) than they do in a spontaneous conversation.

The researchers don't know language

The "study" problematically conflates many different kinds of language under the label "filler words," revealing that they have no knowledge of the tremendous body of science about language. For instance, there are many different versions of the word like:

  1. He was like forty years old.
  2. I was like, "This is not good."
  3. Like, what do you want to do?

In (1), like carries an approximer function, so that the man is 'approximately, but not exactly, forty years old.' In (2), like introduces a quotation that captures the spirit and general idea of what was said, but may not be literally word-for-word. In (3), like functions as a focuser, which points the hearer toward the importance of the clause that immediately follows it.

These are not fresh insights into like. There's a whole Wikipedia page about like with a great bibliography of some of the work linguists have done on it. The fact, though, that this marketing gimmick conflated these very different forms of like under the heading "filler words" reveals the lack of knowledge about language and linguistics.

Indeed, there's real science behind every word that this "study" calls "filler." umm, for instance, is a hard-working discourse particle that helps govern conversation. People say umm in part to signal that they're still talking and that it's not yet someone else's "turn" to talk. Linguists refer to this as "floor management"--managing who "holds the floor" during conversational turn-taking. innit isn't "filler" at all. It is an innovation in British English that functions like a "tag question," but also indicates a speaker's strong feelings about the statement they've just made. It's lumped in as "filler" by the "study," because innit is associated with young people and the speech of young people is socially stigmatized.

"filler words" and future study

I take three points from reading the reports of this "study" in British media:

  1. Media must remain vigilant to being duped into handing out free advertisements to companies on the basis of phony science.
  2. Linguists have much more work to do to share scientific knowledge about language with the public.
  3. There are no "filler words" in language. Every linguistic utterance means something and is doing something to make language work.

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