‘Progress is not an illusion. It happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.’ — George Orwell

The testing room was overheated. I walked out of the testing centre with sweaty palms, my winter coat slung over my arm. Soon enough I realised that it was actually cold outside, and starting to rain. I moved my backpack to my hand and put my coat on while walking. A woman walking past looked at me doing so and smiled in a knowing, ‘shame it’s still coat weather’ kind of way. People here talk about the weather so much, it’s part of the non-verbal communication, too.

I continued on in a post-anxiety daze for about five minutes before I came upon the Grassmarket. Stepping across the road, the Edinburgh castle rose dramatically in the view to my left, ancient and ostentatious. In that moment, in that space of eclectic locals, tourists, and wayward students, I suddenly felt very un-British. The last six years felt like a brief moment in time, and it seemed absurd that I was carrying a piece of paper that officially claimed that I knew enough about Britain to be British.

What a silly concept.

The test was harder than I’d thought it’d be. I’ve been studying so much, taking every practice test available online, in some cases twice, typing up my own personal timeline of UK history, memorising the table of different court types that my husband wrote up before his test. I’ve taken practice tests just before bed, I’ve taken practice tests right after waking up. I was sure that I was overstudying. But when it came to the test, there was still one question I had definitely never seen before, and a couple others that gave me serious pause.

The question I did not know the answer to was something like: ‘What was invented in the 1930s by Frank Whittle?’ There were four possible answers, one of which was so implausible that I don’t remember it now. The other two wrong ones were ‘ballpoint pen’ (interestingly, they didn’t say biro) and ‘personal computer’. I guessed correctly: ‘jet engine’. By far the easiest question on the test was something like: ‘When is Easter?’ (the answer being ‘March-April’). Of the remaining 22 questions I would estimate that there were at least seven that I would have had no idea of the correct answer without having studied. (In other words, I would’ve failed the test if I hadn’t studied at all and hadn’t guessed correctly.) Interestingly, or perhaps frustratingly, there were no questions about courts, the royal family, sport, music, religion, or television — all topics which feature heavily in the study guides.

So, that’s yet another hurdle down towards the goal of being able to live in my place of residence indefinitely. It’s the closest I can get to getting a degree in UK living. This follows three separate Tier 2 visa applications (and fees) and precedes the most complicated application and by far the most expensive set of fees, yet. Meanwhile, we’ve adopted a wee British citizen, bought a home, and gotten our driving licences. My default spelling convention when I type is now British, and my default lexis in the areas of either academia or childrearing is most definitely British as well. And yet there’s something about this test for Indefinite Leave to Remain that makes me feel so incredibly American. Maybe it’s because I’m constantly aware of my English language privilege compared to the other kinds of people taking the same test, or the closely related privilege that comes with my American cultural knowledge. Or maybe because I’ve just wasted quite a bit of my personal time to pass some ridiculously challenging hurdle in order to prove to the British state that I’m good enough for them. Then again, there’s a quality of that experience that makes me feel rather British, too.

As I type this, I am sitting in my favourite Turkish cafe, across the street from my office building. It’s late afternoon but I’m treating myself to a glass of wine (something I’d never do in the US) and eating some Scottish salmon… on a bagel. One of my favourite songs of all time just came on: Golden Brown by The Stranglers. Lest this be some kind of British ‘sign’, let me tell you that it was then followed by a song that brings me right back to the sights and smells of my early childhood: Jump by the Pointer Sisters. And that’s me in a nutshell, folks.

picking daisies outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse

picking daisies outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 14.47.34

I’m a linguist, but I work with sounds, not words. And I mostly work on describing patterns of pronunciation that already exist, rather than making too many predictions about the future. When I do make predictions, they’re on the order of, “Look how this pronunciation is being used more and more by younger and younger people; it’ll probably continue that way until eventually everyone’s doing it all the time.” That kind of prediction is a pretty safe kind of bet. But this post is about another kind of prediction: a lexical one. And it’s not based on any usage data, but rather on social critique. It’s about the term ‘Gotcha Day’. My prediction is that no one will be using this term in a generation’s time. Here’s why.

The day that an adopted child comes home to their forever family is a day worth commemorating every year. It’s full of mixed emotions, since while the homecoming of a child is itself joyous, in adoption contexts it also necessitates a deep loss for the child. (People often talk about the loss of the birth family, but in many cases, especially in the UK, there is also the loss of the foster family who is the only family the child’s ever know and loved.) The day a child comes home can be frightening, confusing, and overwhelming, at best. But it’s also the beginning of something very beautiful.

Parents choose to call this day by a number of names. The ones I’ve seen include Family Day, Homecoming Day, and Adoption Day. And, of course, Gotcha Day. The term is meant to evoke the expression of love that happens when a parent and child play the ‘gotcha’ game (the kid runs playfully, the parent chases playfully and catches the kid and everyone giggles). As far as I know, this term is really only used in the United States, but it’s worth talking because it’s impossible to avoid in English-language discussions about adoption on social media.

Wikipedia’s entry is mostly about the ‘controversy’ around the use of the term, noting that the “International Association Of Adopted People discourages the use of the term because of the recent history of kidnapping and forced adoptions.” But Wikipedia also notes that the term generated a cottage industry of material celebration. Here’s a screenshot from Google Images:

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 14.23.45

And here’s a screenshot from Pinterest:

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 14.24.28

Both, of course, representing millions more similar products and designs. Putting in any of the other alternatives basically just brings up photos of real people. “Family Day” is not obviously adoption-specific, so I added the search term “Adoption” and got photos of people plus one image about pet adoption. “Homecoming Day” is similar. “Adoption Day” does generate a similar set of material products to “Gotcha Day.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 14.29.40

However, the original justification for the term Gotcha Day was that for many families the day of legal adoption is very different from the day the child comes home. This was true in my family’s case; the two were nearly nine months apart. Nevertheless, although Gotcha Day is handy in terms of being (1) adoption-specific and (2) not the same thing as Adoption Day, I will never use it in my family. Indeed, it’s difficult for me not to take offence when I even hear the term.

The Wikipedia entry gives one reason, succinctly. Here are two other blog posts about why families do not use the term:

“Why We Don’t Celebrate Gotcha Day”

Snippet: “For adopted children, sometimes celebrating a new family is a stark reminder of the family they lost. Often, the times we think will be most joyful — birthdays, holidays, ‘Gotcha Day’ — actually bring up the deepest pain.”

“One Year Anniversary – Why We’re NOT Celebrating ‘Gotcha’ Day!”

Snippet: “It blatantly disregards everyone’s feelings except those of the adopters. And I cannot condone that, I cannot be apart of that. I love Hannah and her birth mother too much to disrespect them in such a way.”

But my favorite piece of writing on this topic was a comment recently left on a Facebook post. I asked the author, T. Gidseg, if I could post her words here, because I feel that they ought to be shared more publicly. She graciously agreed.

“I know we don’t know each other very well so I hope I don’t overstep but I can explain why our particular family avoids that term. It’s because adult adoptees I’ve spoken to or read articles by, both white and especially of color (disclaimer: I’ve always considered adult adoptees to be the real experts on this adoption stuff, not adoptive parents) have expressed being very disturbed at its implications. ‘Gotcha!’ is a word that’s used when we’ve pulled the wool over someone’s eyes or played a joke on them. It’s a word we use when someone runs away from you and you catch them (you can probably see the racial undertones there). It also has a STRONG implication of deception and child-stealing, which sadly are actually potentially part of many of our kids’ stories or that of their parents/siblings/orphanage-mates, etc… or at the very least, they’re part of a widely told narrative of adoption as a whole that our kids will hear over and over in their lives even if it doesn’t pertain to their personal story. And that is where I think it is most problematic when it comes to white parents and Black children. Because in reality, over the trajectory of time the history of transracial adoption HAS largely been one of the government essentially stealing babies of color from their families to “save” them from being raised by “savages”, by poor people, by the “degenerate”, etc. It is only in the past 30-40 years that Native American kids are no longer forced away from their families to boarding schools and/or white urban adoptive families where they were forced not to use their language (and you can see in some recent high-profile cases that they are still frequently removed unjustly from their culture and their tribe’s legal right to have jurisdiction). Black children continue to be routinely removed by CPS for what essentially boils own to poverty, not child abuse, in too many cases. International adoption continues to often involve agencies that use language and tactics of orphan-rescuing, colonialism and white-saviorism to recruit (by and large white, class privileged) adoptive parents. Even domestic private adoption involves a lot of loss and racial and class inequity even with the most ethical agency. It is sad and upsetting and hard to look at, especially as people who have benefitted by building our families through transracial adoption and have obviously all tried to make the most ethical choices we can and wanted to do something positive in the world, but the overwhelming history of adoption has been people of race and class privilege essentially feeling entitled to taking/buying/rescuing babies of color. It’s a harsh reality but it’s the reality of our past, whether or not it feels applicable to our current personal adoptions.”

I agree. And I think it holds regardless of if the adoption is transracial or not. This line of reasoning, plus the other opinions expressed in the blog posts linked to above, combine to make it very clear to me that the term Gotcha Day has Got to go. It’s worth not having a convenient term, if it means respecting our children. Last week, in my family, we celebrated the one-year anniversary of the day my daughter came home. But it was low-key, quiet, and a generally private affair. When my daughter gets older, she can decide how she wants to spend this day. Because it’s her day.

Almost exactly two years ago I blogged about my experience studying for the written portion of the UK driving test:


Today, I find myself studying another bank of equally interesting, mystifying, obscure and amusing practice test questions. I have now been in the UK on a work visa for 5-and-a-half years and it is time to apply for permanent residency, so my husband and I are about to take the Life in the UK test. If you want to try out some practice questions yourself, this is the site we’ve been using:


Since this test is required for both residency and citizenship applications, and because not everyone drives, there’s more general experience with and commentary on the Life in the UK test than there is on the UK written driving test. Nonetheless, I’ve been having a lot of conversations recently with British citizens who had no idea what was on the test and were shocked to learn. So, I figured I’d blog about it.

Below I’ve pasted some of the example test questions that have caught my attention so far. Note that the numbers of the questions are not in any particular order because each question is a screenshot taken from one of 48 possible practice tests.

My husband and I agree that the hardest questions fall under two categories: dates and courts. Dates are obviously hard, because you need to memorise the date something happened or you’ll just be guessing, especially when the multiple choice options are dates that are really close together. Examples:


Court questions are tricky in part, I think, because they don’t naturally map onto native-country knowledge (e.g., my (limited) knowledge about the US court system). And it’s additionally challenging because things are different in Scotland than in the other three countries (and yet my experience with the court system in Scotland, because our having adopted a child here, isn’t doing me any favours). Examples:


Another difficult category is the Famous-people-I’ve-never-heard-of category. I will probably feel silly someday listing these (“I can’t believe I didn’t know who he was!”) but nonetheless, here are some examples:


Then comes the one everyone talks about, the Are-you-kidding-we-seriously-need-to-know-this?! category. For me, the scope of this category is relatively narrow. I am well aware that there are some people who think the entire test falls under this category. Personally, I don’t see the harm in asking a few questions about history, culture, and government. Yes, some of those questions are also pretty obscure, but in my opinion they’re still not as ridiculous as ones like these:


Yeah, so I am basically opposed to these supposed ‘facts’ about holidays being on this test. More to the point, I think that my legal privilege to claim residency in this country should not hinge on my ability to answer questions like this. But that’s just me…

By the way, that third question you will have already seen if you follow me on Twitter. It generated a bit of discussion, not only about this specific question, about about the test in general:


Finally, let me end with some things I would say are genuinely useful to know. Really! Like, the kind of things you ought to know way before taking this test. For example, the age you have to be to gamble, buy alcohol, or buy cigarettes. Other examples?


Yes. I hereby believe that the TV licence is important. Long live the BBC!

Bizarrely, I’m a sociolinguist because of an undergraduate research opportunity at the University of Arizona called UBRP. It’s still going on now, although they probably haven’t had any linguists in awhile! Even when I was part of the program, it was odd to be a linguist, let alone a sociolinguist; most students were in the biological sciences. You can read more about my experience here (the text comes from Stephanie Shih‘s ‘Snapshot of the Field‘ project).

In short, I entirely attribute my career to the experience of undergraduate research, and so I hold research opportunities for undergraduate students in the highest regard. It is in that spirit that I have this week launched the first issue of a new online journal dedicate to undergraduate research:

Lifespans & Styles: Undergraduate Working Papers on Intraspeaker Variation

As you can see, both the journal topic and the author type are quite narrow in scope. For more information on the inspiration and rationale for the journal, please see my editorial.

The current aim is to publish one issue a year, with an unlimited number of papers per issue. If you know an undergraduate or a recently-graduated undergraduate who has produced a compelling study of intraspeaker variation, please encourage them to revise their paper for journal submission. Every (first) author will be asked to peer review another paper for the same volume, and authors are asked to commit fully to a peer review and post-review revision process. The submission and style guidelines are available here.

I know I just blogged a couple of days ago, but I’ve always enjoyed year-in-review posts. And because most of my Facebook posts, tweets, and now blog posts seem to be about my daughter’s language development, this time my year-in-review is centred on just that!

Our daughter came home to us in late March at 19 months of age, so there are no entries for January or February. But for the other months, I’ve gone over her journal and chosen my favourite notes on her language development for that month. Good-bye 2014! I’m so excited to see what 2015 is going to bring our family, linguistically.

3 April 2014

3 April 2014


At 19 months old, most of her utterances in spontaneous production (i.e., not immediately repeating a adult) are the length of one word or one fixed multi-word construction. But she has a lot of them! By the end of the month I’d recorded 180, plus or minus 40 (because I couldn’t always tell if they were truly spontaneous or not). My favourites are the multi-word ones, like good kick [ʊʔɪk], where go? [wɛgo], and be (right) back [bibæk] or [bibæχ].


While phrases like where go? and be back! seem more lexical than syntactic, this month gave us our first proper sentence: ‘Daddy dancing!’ Yes, it was adorable.


This month she got the plural -s morpheme! One day, there were two cameras lying on the sofa. She saw one and said, ‘Camera!’ and then saw another one and said ‘Two cameras!’ (She used two for any kind of plurality, so the number itself was a coincidence, but a cool one.)

This is also the month when I started documenting the switch from her West Scotland accent to an American one.


She now uses the word too productively. We were looking at a photo album and she said, ‘Daddy!’ and then turned the page and pointed and said, ‘Daddy too!’

This month she also started repeating sentences with more than three words; ‘Daddy has to make it first.’ was repeated as ‘Daddy make it first.’


This month our kiddo used the for the first time! We were coming into the building from outside and she said, ‘close the door’ with a clear voiced fricative onset to the schwa.

She also spent the month actively building on adjectives and syntax (e.g., ‘Tiny beach ball hit purple balloon!’).

17 August 2014

17 August 2014


This month saw her first fully adult-like utterance: ‘Look Daddy, a duck!’ She said it twice! And then that same day I said ‘that eye?’ and she said ‘this eye.’ We also started hearing her use I more this month, though she still prefers using her name instead.


It’s the seasons of sentences. Her favourite frame of the moment is ‘I want X.’ such as in, ‘I want [to] swing again.’


Two big language achievements that we noticed this month. First, she used a proportion, saying ‘half a banana’ and then breaking the banana in half to share with Daddy. Second, she learned her first phrase in Akan-Twi: Ma brɛ. It means ‘I’m tired.’ She knows what it means but doesn’t say it spontaneously.

One of my personal favourite sentences this month was, ‘I have a orange tiger suit motorcycle!’ No, I don’t know what it means, either.


The season of sentences continues with more complexity and creativity. Some amusing examples include, ‘Bye-bye, I’m going to the post box.’ and ‘I have little hands.’ My favourite this month was, ‘I’m wearing a scary.’ <makes a scary face> ‘Like a mask!’


This month she starting using quotatives. Examples: ‘I say, Don’t grab, Siardus!‘ and ‘I say, No Siardus, stop.’ (Siardus is a friend’s baby, and she was recounting a play date earlier that day.)

She’s also gradually transitioning from not to don’t, occasionally saying sentences as complex as, ‘I don’t want to wash my hair’, but also sometimes eliding either word and relying only on prosody and facial expression to convey the negative valence.

Lastly, I elicited some US/UK code-mixing the other day: ‘…pockets full of posy, ashes, a tissue, we all fall down!’

17 December 2014

17 December 2014

I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep up with her development in 2015, but I will certainly try! Happy New Year, everyone! Afehyia paaa!

My Facebook friends will know that I love quoting my daughter, now age 2 and 4 months, whose rate of language acquisition is zooming along at a breathtaking pace. In jotting down some of her more interesting and amusing utterances last week, a little pattern quickly emerged that I thought deserved more than a Facebook post.

(Major caveat: I’m not an acquisition expert at all, so my observation here is strictly amateurish. I’m guessing this is a super common phenomenon, but I really have no idea.)

Basically, my kid is using the possessive determiner ‘my’ more often than the articles ‘a(n)’ or ‘the’. Here are some unremarkable uses of ‘my’ that are presumably being extended:

  1. I need my baby [doll].
  2. Where’s my balloon?
  3. I have that [toy] at my nursery.

And here are some examples of the marked use:

  1. It’s in my office.
  2. I’m on my edge.
  3. I have that at my Hemma.
  4. I have that at my bus.

The first one refers to the location of her balloon in the previous set of examples. Since the balloon was in our home office/study, her sentences actually kind of work: it’s a room in her home, so why not call it her office? (She doesn’t use ‘our’ yet.) It’s just cute to hear a two-year-old talk about ‘her’ office.

The second example was something uttered when she was starting to roll toward to the edge of the sofa. Again, it’s a sofa in our home, so in a sense it’s ‘hers’, although I think it’s just as if not more likely that she’s just using ‘my’ in these cases in place of ‘the’.

The other two examples require more context. Hemma is a (wonderful!) family-friendly restaurant-bar where we’ve gone several times for parties and hanging out, so unlike other restaurants, she knows it by name. At Hemma they have a fussball table, and this example utterance occurred when we were at a charity shop and saw another fussball table.

The last example occurred when we were looking at a newspaper and she saw an ad that she had seen on the outside of a bus that had gone by earlier. In both this and the Hemma example, ‘I have that at X’ seems to mean ‘I saw that at X’ or ‘I recognize that from X’.

She does use both ‘the’ and ‘a(n)’, too. For example: she and I both have sniffly colds right now, and this past weekend she said the following, actually self-correcting from ‘a’ to ‘my':

I need a tissue! I need my tissue!

By far my favorite example of this, which I’m not sure actually counts as an example, was from a moment the other day when she got stuck accidentally in between a chair and a table, and said:

I’m in my way!

What I love about this and ‘I’m on my edge’ is how both could be rather deep and profound statements if not for the very literal contexts they occurred in.

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/


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,133 other followers

%d bloggers like this: