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How Accents Work

I wrote the following article by request from the Ragged University, who will be hosting my upcoming talk at the Counting House on the evening of 11 September. The basic idea behind the Ragged Project is what some call ‘knowledge exchange’ — basically, bringing academics into pubs for a chat with non-academics about the research academics do. My participation was motivated by my receipt of a Small Grant award from the British Academy with funds from the Leverhulme Trust. You can find the original version of my Ragged article here. (Their version is nicely formatted; mine has footnotes!) Special thanks to my PhD students Daniel Lawrence, Ruth Friskney, and Zuzana Elliott for their feedback on earlier drafts.


 

How Accents Work

by Lauren Hall-Lew

 

The way we speak suggests to the world something about who we are: where we come from, what our gender is, what age group we’re in, and even what kind of job we might have. The parts of our identity that most define us are often marked most strongly in our accents and voices (whether we want them to be or not). Often, the aspects of our speech that do this social signalling can be very subtle. Sometimes we’re aware of them, but often they just pass by, unremarkable and unnoticed at a conscious level, but nonetheless shaping the way we interact with one another. Understanding how and why this happens is part of sociolinguistics: the study of the relationship between language and society. Sociolinguists pull together work from linguistics, sociology, psychology, and anthropology, among other things (such as speech acoustics). The results give us insights into the nature of society, the nature of speech communication, and the relationship between the two.

 

How accents are documented and analysed

Imagine that you stop a stranger to ask for directions and the person points and says simply: “It’s over there.” If you are very fluent in English, then you will be able to infer something about that person’s social identity based only on how they pronounce that phrase. The presence or absence of the ‘r’s, the quality of the vowels, or even the quality of the ‘th’ in ‘there’ (does it sound like a ‘d’?) might all serve as clues. As linguists, we need to be able to describe these clues in a systematic way, before describing how this process of social inference actually works.

Linguists call all these possible clues ‘variables’, categories composed of possible ‘variants’ that then can signal particular social qualities. The ‘r’ in words like ‘over’ or ‘there’ is an example of a very well-studied linguistic variable (called ‘rhoticity’) that’s important to descriptions of different accents of English within the UK and across the English-speaking world. The quality of ‘rhoticity’ is the variable; one variant is ‘rhotic’ and the other variant is ‘non-rhotic’ (and there might be even more variants, still). But although the presence or absence of a final ‘r’ is one of the qualities that distinguishes, for example, most Scottish accents from most English accents, it’s far from the only variable that does so (consider, for example, the vowel in the word ‘house’). Linguistically then, an ‘accent’ is just a list of those variants that distinguish one way of speaking from another way of speaking. Everyone has at least one accent, and how ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ a person’s accent either reflects how different that person’s variants are from your own, or how different that person’s variants are from some recognised ‘standard’ accent. If the person who says, “It’s over there” says each vowel and consonant differently from you, then you might think that person has a ‘heavy accent’. But if their variants are all the same as the ones you would use, you might not think about their accent at all, or you might even (mistakingly!) think that they have ‘no accent’.

A dialectologist is the kind of linguist who might produce a description of all the variables that distinguish one regional accent from another one. A sociolinguist is also interested in this, but might instead look closely at only one or two variables and see how those vary between speakers within a community: are there differences in their use according to the speaker’s age, social class, or gender? In Edinburgh, for example, recent research by one of my undergraduate students has confirmed our impression that working class men are more likely to roll their ‘r’ in a word like ‘road’ than middle class women are. At the same time, that tendency gets more complicated and interesting when you consider middle class men versus working class women, or younger people versus older people. Of course age, class, and gender are only three aspects of people’s identities, but when we hear the voice of a stranger on the street, not only do we usually infer those traits, but we also infer any number of other social qualities. Looking at which variants are used by which groups of people helps us describe what those social qualities may be, but it also raises the question of how we define a ‘group’ – which aspects of identity matter in determining which accent we use?

Practically speaking, sociolinguists conduct research by recording people talking, listening to the recordings, and counting the proportion of times different variants appear. For cases when the difference between variants is gradual rather than either-or, we might make use of acoustic measurements. For example, some people say that the stereotypical pronunciation of the vowel in the word ‘bat’ by residents of the Morningside neighbourhood of Edinburgh is ‘bet’-like (making possible slightly off-coloured jokes about ‘sacks’ in Morningside). A sociophonetician is the kind of linguist who might take precise measurements of someone’s vowel in words like ‘bat’ to see just how close it really is to their vowel in words like ‘bet’. If this is done across a representative sample of members of a community then we often find very regular statistical patterns between peoples’ accents and their social identities. We also find that these patterns exist even when people aren’t consciously aware of them.

That kind of research can be described as the sociolinguistic study of speech production. It’s also common to study the listening side of things, which is the study of speech perception. Sociolinguists who study the perception of accents might look at what conscious attitudes people have, playing recordings of speech for listeners and then asking listeners to comment on the kind of person they think the speaker is. We might intuitively think that we start out with neutral opinions about people and then judge them positive or negatively based on how they speak. But linguistic research has shown that if we view a group of people negatively, then we’ll also often extend those negative evaluations to the way they speak. In many cases, saying disparaging things about a particular accent is just a socially acceptable way to say disparaging things about the people who speak with that accent. In addition to this kind of language attitudes research, there has also been some interesting work on subconscious speech perception, including work on ‘accent hallucination’, which I’ll say more about in the next section.

 

How an accent provides clues to a person’s identity

So what do we think we know about how accents signal social identities? Without getting too deep in the theory of it, the basic idea is that when we acquire language, we not only learn what words mean or refer to (‘referential meaning’) but we acquire information about how those words are most often used, such as which contexts they occur in (‘pragmatic meaning’) or what kind of person is likely to use them (‘social meaning’). As we learn how to speak, we learn the pronunciations of those we spend the most time with, and as we get older, we adjust those pronunciations as our social networks change (such as when we shift from spending more time with family, as a child, to spending more time with friends, as a teenager). Although adults take on new ways of speaking less often, or slower, than children do, nearly all of us do shift a bit when talking with different kinds of people, regardless of whether we notice that we’re doing so or not.

One of the most famous examples of this is work by Jonathan Harrington and colleagues on changes in the speech of Queen Elizabeth II over her lifetime.[1] Their study looked at her Christmas broadcasts since the 1950s and compared the pronunciations of all of her vowels over time. They found that, overall, her speech had shifted gradually away from Received Pronunciation and towards a more widely-spoken variety linguists refer to as Southern Standard British English.

But changes over the course of one’s lifespan are not remarked upon nearly as often as changes that happen from one moment to the next, or what sociolinguists call ‘style-shifting’ or ‘code-switching’. This is the phenomenon of someone’s accent changing when they speak to a stranger on the telephone, or speak lovingly to a baby or a pet. Observers often take notice of someone else’s style-shifting when it happens, and can poke fun at it.[2] In some instances an observer may accuse someone of putting on a false accent, and thus a false social identity, even though style-shifting is a ubiquitous feature of human communication.

While it’s perhaps not so surprising that linguistic forms can point to social identities, here’s an example of just how deeply ingrained these associations are in all of us: ‘accent hallucination’. In a study conducted by Okim Kang (Associate Professor, Northern Arizona University) and Donald L. Rubin (Professor Emeritus, University of Georgia) and published in 2009,[3] 158 American university students sat together in a lecture hall and listened to a recorded lecture on a generic science topic. The lecture was given by a native speaker of U.S. English who had been described by his friends as “a particularly clear speaker.” While they listened, the students saw a picture of someone who they were meant to think was the person giving the lecture. Part of the time they saw a White face and the description “native speaker” and part of the time they saw an East Asian face and the description “non-native speaker” (there were various measures taken to make it believable that the speakers were actually different people). The listeners were then asked to write down some of the sentences that they heard the speaker say. The listeners were also asked how much regular interaction they had, personally, with non-native English speakers. Not only did they find that listeners said the “non-native speaker” had a non-native accent, but they also found that those listeners who interacted less often with non-native speakers were actually less successful at writing down the exact words that the “non-native speaker” said.

Remember: they were actually listening to the same speaker the whole time; it was only their perception of who they were listening to that changed. This study reveals that our social expectations alone are enough to make us think that someone has a non-native accent, even when they don’t, and thinking that someone has a non-native accent may actually make it more difficult for us to comprehend what they’re saying, regardless of what they sound like. The findings take the relationship between accents and social identities to another level, where it’s not only just a question of how a particular variant conveys something about the speaker’s identity, but the listener’s own inferences about the speaker also influence what variants the listener hears.

 

Uncharted areas of accent and identity research

So how does speech actually convey speaker identity? In attempting to understand this question, sociolinguists have looked at the relationship between linguistic variants and regional, class, age, and gender identities. These are the staples of sociolinguistic research, and others such as ethnicity, race, religion, and sexual orientation have also been studied in great depth in some places. Some work has even taken a very fine-grained look at language use in very specific social groups, such as a friendship cohort of six middle-class Muslim high school girls in Sheffield whose friendship was primarily defined by an interest in the ‘Twilight’ novels, and see how their language use compares to that of members of other similarly specific cohorts.[4]

Another angle we can take for approaching this question is to look at social identities that have not been previously considered, such as what political party a person belongs to. In this talk, I will present work-in-progress from my latest project that asks if politicians’ accents can tell us anything about their politics. Some recent research shows that politicians present an interesting case, presumably because their political identity is particularly important to their social identity, and also possibly because they speak professionally and therefore present their identity in an on-record, public way more often than most of us do.

In my talk, I’ll first present work from an earlier study I did on Members of the United States House of Representatives,[5] and then I’ll move on to talk about my current work on Scottish Members of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.[6] While the specific identities of the political parties are very different in those two contexts, in both cases political party is a strong predictor of the way those politicians pronounce their vowels. Typically when we think of the speech of politicians we think of conscious rhetorical decisions designed to manipulate and spin. In contrast, in my talk I will present the argument that politicians subconsciously convey their political identity through their pronunciation patterns, just in the same way that all of us subconsciously convey various aspects of our identity through our speech. In short, politicians are people too, and what their speech patterns look like provides us with insights on how speech works for all of us.

 

[1] http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v408/n6815/full/408927a0.html

[2] For a great example, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzprLDmdRlc

[3] http://jls.sagepub.com/content/28/4/441 (Note that ‘accent hallucination’ is my term, not theirs, and not an official term.)

[4] http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/5864/

[5] http://americanspeech.dukejournals.org/content/85/1/91.abstract

[6] http://www.political-voices.lel.ed.ac.uk/

In late March, my daughter came home. She was born west of Glasgow and lived her first year and a half of life there with a wonderful foster family, also from area. Since late March she’s spent the vast majority of her days speaking only to me and my husband, who are American, living in Edinburgh. This post is about what’s happened to her accent.

When a child moves from one family to another the most important thing to help with the transition is to minimise differences between the two places as much as possible. We switched soaps and laundry detergents to the same ones that they used; we bought and served the same foods, in the same way; we changed our hourly schedule to match hers as best as possible. We learned the songs she knew and liked, and which of her toys and books were the favourites. Linguistically, my husband and I have done our best to use the same terminology that her foster family was using for the objects familiar to her: our default family terms now include nappy, pram, and dummy, to name just a few. But our accents are still distinctly American. Like my other American colleagues at the university, after years in Edinburgh we haven’t acquired any Scottish accent features except for the occasional unflapped /t/. I was worried, at first, that the difference in accents might be disconcerting to her, but happily we haven’t noticed any problems. Unsurprisingly, what we (and our friends and family) have noticed has been a shift in her own accent over the past few months. So I decided to measure it.

Although I’m a sociophonetician, I never planned to collect data for this comparison. Although I wrote down some of the words she knew, and their pronunciations, it was really more for the sake of proud parental documentation than for the sake of studying her accent shift. Our daughter is very verbal. She had about 100 words in spontaneous (initiative) production at the time she moved in (1;7), and then at least 250 words less than a month later (after which, I stopped counting). It was really this incidental fact that made it possible to even measure her production patterns, since all of the audio that these data come from family videos that were taken for the purpose of capturing a cute or funny moment and not for the purpose of linguistic analysis.

In the following plot, each dot represents the mean of all measured instances of a particular vowel class, and the ellipses are one standard deviation from that mean. The vowels are represented by keywords which are taken from Jane Stuart-Smith’s (2003) chapter, “The Phonology of Modern Urban Scots” from The Edinburgh Companion to Scots (rather than, e.g., Wells’s (1982) lexical set terms, which refer to vowel classes in RP). The exception is the BALL class which I’ve labeled that way simply because every instance of that class is the word “ball” (her favourite toy)! I only included vowel classes that have representative tokens in both the March and May recordings.

If you’ve never seen a vowel plot before, just know that the location of the vowel roughly corresponds to where that sound is produced in the mouth, and that vowels that are closer together on the plot are more similar to one another. The lines jutting out from the dots represent how the pronunciation of the vowel changes from the middle of the sound to the end of the sound. These plots were generated using the handy web-based suite, NORM (Kendall & Thomas 2010).

 

My daughter's vowels when she came home (on the left) versus two months later (on the right).

My daughter’s vowels when she came home (on the left) versus two months later (on the right).

 

What stands out to me the most in this plot is her vowel in BAIT. While this is raised and fronted in Glaswegian, it’s lower and backer in American Englishes, and you can see this in the plot. I should say that there’s a lexical bias here: in March, all of the tokens were from the word “baby,” while in May, the tokens came from the words “blanket” and “daisy.” But I tried to control for coarticulatory effects, and I’m also confident about this result because it’s something that I’ve noticed a lot, anecdotally. I was telling a colleague yesterday that the strongest holdout to her BAIT-retraction was in the song “Wheels on the bus,” which she came to us already knowing very well. The word “day” in the final line “all day long” has consistently had an /i/-like quality until just yesterday morning when we were walking through town and I heard her say /deɪ/ for the first time.

In the following clip you can hear this change in action. She and I are repeating the word “oops-a-daisy” over and over while playing with her toys. This is a word that she learned before coming to live with us on the 25th of March, and the recording was made on the 21st of May. When she initiates the first instance, the first vowel in “daisy” sounds distinctly /i/-like. But after I offer my own pronunciation, by the third instance that vowel sounds more like /eɪ/.

http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~lhlew/2014-05-21_oopsadaisy.wav

The other thing you can see suggested in the plot is that her BIT vowel seems to be raising — the Glaswegian one is lower than the American one, so this makes sense. Her May vowel space also seems more compact than her March one, but I would guess that that’s either an effect of language acquisition (her pronunciations are much clearer in May) or the stylistic context (the March recordings were taken from more high-energy, excited speech).

There are other changes that I’ve noticed but which haven’t been audio recorded or which didn’t make it into these data. The one that stands out to me the most is her pronunciation of the word hoover, which had a distinct /i/-like vowel in late March and is now pronounced with an /u/. Unfortunately I don’t have any recordings of the earlier pronunciation (in fact, no recordings of the /u/ vowel all from March except for one exclamative “ooh!” which was too loud to measure).

Anyway, she starts nursery (AmEng: daycare) in September, so we’ll see what happens!

There are some frequent topics of conversation at the weekly coffee hour in my department: shop talk, the weather, and food. A lot of us often talk about food we can’t get in Edinburgh. Or what used to be unavailable, but now can be found at such-and-such shop. Or what we stock up on every time we’re back in the Old Country (and I’ll spare you the tangential thought about how reverse-directional migration makes phrases like ‘the Old Country’ very awkward).

I’ve just spent over a month visiting the United States. I left Edinburgh before the holidays started in order to present a paper at the ASA. After three weeks in various parts of Northern California I spent 11 days in various parts of Arizona. Now I’m in the Baltimore area, and on Sunday I fly back home to Edinburgh.

While here, I’ve eaten a lot. And having so much time to have so many meals made me think about how I prioritize food choices. There’s the must eats, those things I’ll seek out even if I just have one day in the US! And then, like a travel guide book, there’s those things I seek out if I have more time. Or a lot more time! And every time I visit, the list changes. But here’s the current list…

Must Eats:

Apple butter! (I know, it’s a little random, but I’m I huge fan.)
Breakfast burritos
Panera’s Iced Green Tea
Sonic’s Cherry Limeade
Trader Joe’s brand anything

Guilty Pleasures, given the opportunity:

Auntie Annie’s Pretzels
Biscuits-n-gravy
Boba tea
Jimmy John’s
Ranch dressing
Rice Krispy treats
Taco Bell
Whatever new gimmick the major candy bar brands have come up with

Foods we can get in Edinburgh but are better in the US:

Dim sum
Mexican
Pho
Ramen
Sushi

Foods we can get in Edinburgh but which are cheaper in the US:

Almonds
Avocados
Gai lan
Kumquats
Red Vines
Seaweed salad

Specific Restaurants, if geographically possible:

La Mediterranee, Berkeley, CA
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g32066-d377661-Reviews-La_Mediterranee-Berkeley_California.html

Macy’s European Coffeehouse & Bakery, Flagstaff, AZ
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g60971-d335847-Reviews-Macy_s_Fresh_Roasted_Coffee-Flagstaff_Arizona.html

MartAnne’s, Flagstaff, AZ
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g60971-d1551388-Reviews-MartAnne_s_Burrito_Palace-Flagstaff_Arizona.html

Maya Quetzal, Tucson, AZ (get the Plato Vegetariano)
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g60950-d513991-Reviews-Maya_Quetzal-Tucson_Arizona.html

San Tung, Inner Sunset, San Francisco, CA (get the chicken wings)
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g60713-d537813-Reviews-San_Tung_Chinese_Restaurant-San_Francisco_California.html

Travel on, friends! :)

Macy's Coffeehouse, Winter 2008

Macy’s Coffeehouse, Winter 2008

Yesterday, I got my UK driving licence — on my first try (after 20 hours of lessons), and with only three minor faults, despite being a bundle of nerves and taking what felt like an hour just to parallel park. To celebrate, my friend Stephanie suggested I blog about it. So, in the ex-pat spirit of this blog, here are the Top Five Differences between the practical driving test in the UK and the ones in the US. (Caveat: I never even took a practical driving test in the US, because I’m from Arizona!) Limiting this to only five was a bit of challenge, so feel free to ask questions or list your own tips in the comments below. My list is pretty different from some of the ones out there that are just for Americans visiting the UK (who are just trying to stay alive on the road and not get a ticket, which is a different thing entirely). For more details pertaining to American ex-pats in the UK check out this site.

Before we get started, keep in mind that to pass the test you can accumulate no more than 15 minor faults. More than 15 minor faults, or just one major fault, and you fail. If, on the test, you do anything that causes another vehicle to alter what they otherwise would have done (e.g., if they have to slow down even slightly because of you), it’s considered a major fault.

1. Mirrors Are God

As mentioned briefly in my earlier post about the written/theory test, the UK driving test is all about mirror checks. You’ve gotta check your interior mirror, and then the side mirrors, before you do anything. Seriously, ANYTHING. Not just changing lanes, but before speeding up, slowing down, or turning on your turn signal. And what’s more, turning on your turn signal should always precede breaking. “Mirror, signal, brake” will become your little mantra for how to make any turn. Every time you diverge from that Order Which Rules All Things, you will receive a minor fault!

2. You Drive Badly

When I started lessons the first thing I had to do was relearning how to drive. I drove a stick-shift for many years in the U.S. and had picked up all sorts of atrocious habits, like keeping the clutch in too often, like while making a turn from a main road into a side street, or while coasting into a red light. Keeping the clutch in results in reduced control over the car, and so doing so can result in a minor fault on the test. The other thing was that, like most Americans, I previously only used the handbrake to park the car. Silly me! As mentioned in my earlier post, you’re meant to use the handbrake at ANY time during the course of driving when the car is stopped. I have to say, now I kinda like it. Among other things, it’s definitely easier to start from a stopped position on a hill.

3. Drive in Reverse into a Side Street

Everyone hates the manoeuvres. Yes, manoeuvres, not maneuvers — these babies are distinctly British. There are four possible manoeuvres; on the test they ask you to perform one of them. Parallel parking and a three-point turn are easy enough for Americans; just make sure to use that handbrake, and stop and check your blind spot, at every. single. damn. point. of. the. turn. The third manoeuvre is to reverse into a parking spot — sort of weird for some of us, and an easy one to mess up on the first try, but not utterly foreign. It’s the fourth one that has all us Yanks scratching our heads: reversing around a corner. Many UK roads are very narrow, and so sometimes it’s not possible to do a three-point turn when you need to turn around. The alternative in such a case is to turn around in a side street. But you can’t legally drive in reverse on a main road, so you have to drive in reverse into the side street in order to get yourself turned around legally. The thing is, on the test, you have to do this while staying within 1-2 feet of the left kerb and without ever crossing into the side street’s opposite lane. Make sense? Yeah.

4. Position Left to Go Straight

You’ll get the basics of entering and exiting roundabouts pretty quickly. The challenge is doing so in the correct lane, and using the turn signals in the right way. If you’re turning left or right it’s obvious; just enter the roundabout from the respective lane; signal left for left, and right for right (but switch your signal to left as you pass the last exit before your exit… obviously, right?). But funnily enough, that thing which should be easiest — just going straight — is the most perplexing. To go straight, you need to enter the roundabout in the left lane, even if ‘lanes’ aren’t actually painted on the road. And this is true even if the exit to go ‘straight’ is actually positioned to your right as you enter the roundabout… which is potentially very confusing. Also, although you might be moving into the left lane in order to go straight, don’t signal left until you’ve entered the roundabout and passed the first exit. If you do, and if there’s a car there, and it looks like the driver of the car might possibly have been confused by your early turn signal, you will fail the test.

5. Drive on the Left, while Sitting on the Right

Those who haven’t studied for the test often make a big deal about this one, probably because it’s the most visible difference from outside of the car. But trust me, once you get behind the wheel this is by far the least of your concerns!

Good luck and happy driving! If anyone needs a tip for a good driving instructor in Edinburgh, let me know. :-)

Green lights ahead: West Crosscauseway & Buccleuch Street, Edinburgh

Green lights ahead: West Crosscauseway & Buccleuch Street, Edinburgh (photo by Lauren Hall-Lew)

 

Four years on

San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge  (Photo by Leong Weihao)

The Golden Gate Bridge between San Francisco and Marin County
(Photo by Leong Weihao)

     

‘This was Edinburgh, after all. One did not go about the place declaring oneself like some lovesick Californian.’

– p43, Love Over Scotland (a 44 Scotland Street novel), by Alexander McCall Smith

     

I moved from California to the UK, and started this blog, in September 2009; four years ago. Being a nerd, I’ve often thought about life in four-year, school-based chunks: four years of high school, four years of college. The six years I took for the PhD also feel easily divisible into the first four years (courses, Qualifying Papers, dead-end dissertation proposals, and getting an MA) versus the last two (the dissertation). In short, four years is the amount of time I associate with obtaining a degree.

So do I get a degree in UK living? No, surely not. I’m still too much of a lovesick Californian. And probably always will be. The difference now is that I have yet another beautiful place I honestly call ‘home’….

     

The Forth Bridge between Edinburgh and Fife  (Photo by Lauren Hall-Lew)

The Forth Bridge between Edinburgh and Fife
(Photo by Lauren Hall-Lew)

     

(That’s the trouble with ex-pat life. One is always homesick for somewhere.)

Listening Back

Flagstaff_ae_split

Back in early 2008, my external hard drive died. I was in my 5th year of graduate school and just starting fieldwork for my PhD thesis. The following items were just some of the many files that were on that drive:

  • recordings of interviews with residents of Flagstaff, Arizona, recorded in 2002
  • recordings of interviews with Northern Arizona cattle ranchers, recorded in 2003
  • recordings of word lists and sentences read aloud by Twi speakers in Ghana, recorded in 2005
  • recordings of Condoleeza Rice from a project with Rob Podesva (et al.) that we’d started in 2006
  • recordings of participants in a Map Task from a project with Rebecca Scarborough (et al.) from 2007
  • recordings of matched guise stimuli for a perception experiment on /ai/-monophthongization that I never ran

and lots and lots of text-based documents in various formats that were all related to some aspect of my linguistics research (including the Plotnik-created vowel plot, above, which show the as-yet-unpublished and probably-never-to-be-published result that some urban Arizonans have a nasal /æ/ system).

Basically, those files comprised the entirety of This Is Your (Grad School) Life, up until that point. And they were gone… in an instant! Because no, these weren’t second copies, or back-up copies; these were the only copies. (PSA to everyone, everywhere: always back up your files!!! DO IT NOW!!!) Yes, the Arizona and Ghana interviews do still exist on tape or mini-disc; yes, my co-authors have copies of the Condi recordings and the Map Task recordings; yes, I changed my PhD topic for independent reasons and never needed those stimuli again. In fact, the latter three file types were much less important to me to recover than the first three, which I had so laboriously digitized in real time. And perhaps even more importantly, those text-based docs included countless hours of coding and writing. So, I paid the $1000, or whatever it was (the exactly price is blocked from my memory), to have my files restored. (The vowel plot above was one of those restored files.)

However, what I got back in return was a string of files organized only by document type and with no meaningful filenames. At all. So, for example, there was one folder with WAV files, and it looked sort of like this:

Some of the restored sound files from a hard drive that died in 2008.

This (blurry, sorry) image actually only contains the contents of a small subset of the original batch of files, because every now and then (since 2008) I’ve sat and sifted through those files, opening them one at a time and organizing them back into the right folders: an Arizonan here, a Ghanaian there… It is, in a word, ridiculously tedious. I do wonder if I should’ve just saved the money and redigitized from tape again. But it’s too late for that.

Today was the day that I finally finishing sorting the remainder of the unclassified WAV files. Yes, it only took me five years to finish! Because, you know, first I had a thesis to write. And then I guess I got distracted by the UK…? Anyway, hearing these voices today, voices that I hadn’t heard in five, seven, even ten years, was a remarkable feeling. Nostalgia, for sure, mixed with some wistful regret (“I haven’t done enough with these recordings”), but also mixed with a surprising degree of satisfaction (“I’ve done more work than I think I have”). In fact, the sense of accomplishment I felt was the same feeling I got the other day when filling out the paperwork for my annual review.

I know, “paperwork for an annual review” either sounds tedious or anxiety-provoking, depending on how you look at it. But trust me, pausing for an hour or so for reflecting can be incredibly motivating. “But I already know I haven’t done what I wanted to do” you might be thinking (because you, dear reader, are presumably my friend, and that is something I would expect a friend of mine to say, because my friends and I commiserate a lot).

Well, see for yourself.

Here are the main questions (edited a little bit) from the “Self Review Form” provided by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences:

A. Taking Stock

For Teaching, Research, Administration and Other activities (e.g., knowledge exchange, academic service):

  1. Briefly list the main goals on which you have focused. Start with the bigger goals first.
  2. Summarise your primary achievements in the last academic year.
  3. Briefly list any aspects in which you encountered difficulties, and how you tried to deal with those (if you did/could). This is where you should identify aspects of your work situation that may have hindered your career progression.

B. Planning ahead

For Teaching, Research, Administration and Other activities:

  1. Summarise your goals for the next academic year (and if you wish, for the longer term)
  2. List any areas you would like to develop or in which you would like to become involved (e.g., kinds of teaching you might prefer to do; new directions you might want to take your research; committee work you might prefer to engage in).
  3. Suggest if you feel you need any training, support or resources to help you in the future.

I invite you to try out these questions yourself! If you’re a postgrad/grad student, maybe you can talk through the answers with your supervisor, or another grad student. (In my department, junior academic staff are paired with senior academic staff to talk through the answers together.) Like spring cleaning, or laboriously sorting restored sound files into their proper folders, I think we can all use an annual review, whether we’re academic or not. New Year’s Eve and birthdays sometimes motivate reflection, but I find that it’s all too easy in those moments to focus on what’s been lost rather than what’s been gained.

 

This post might not have ended up the way you expected it to, being that it turned all self-help-y, so I’ll leave you with a short but funny little story about urban/rural dialect differences in U.S. English and the misunderstandings they can lead to. (Note: you might want to listen to this once through before letting the kids hear it…!)

 

This is just one of the gems I discovered today, and the last time I heard it was probably ten years ago!

Listening back on life is awesome.

This: http://english2english.tumblr.com/

(h/t Stephanie Shih)

 

It had me at its header (the grey bridge theme). So simple! So clever! The posts themselves range from silly to linguistically insightful, the latter being the kind of things I might use for teaching purposes (like Kara Becker’s page of artifacts; also Lynne Murphy’s blog, on the off chance you’re not already familiar with it).

One thing I like is how the Canadians sometimes enter the picture (cf. “In hospital” versus “In the hospital”) as if they, themselves, are the bridge. I know it’s massively oversimplified, but I’m fond of saying that Canada is what the US would look like if we’d lost that one war; that “Happy 4th of July” amounts to “Thank God we’re not Canada.” (Yes, they love me at the July 4th parties…)

Anyway, I suggest you now leave my blog and go check it out!

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