A Scot in Scottsdale

On BBC Radio Scotland’s “Sport Nation” programme today there was an interview with Martin Laird, the “Scot in Scottsdale,” a Glasweigan golfer who lives in Arizona. He was being interviewed because of his recent success at the World Golf Championships in Scottsdale. Immediately following the radio interview the hosts were making fun of his accent, one saying, “You know when I met Martin when he was a wee boy he didn’t have that accent! <laughs>”

I should say up front that I know absolutely nothing about golf and only just heard about his guy today. Laird is 29 years old and moved to the U.S. when he was 17. According to Wikipedia he went to university in Colorado, so his ambient variety for the past 12 years has been all Western U.S. English. Colorado and Arizona are relatively understudied with respect to English variation, though at one point in my life I cobbled this page together, and I hope to collect more data in Arizona later this year. But the one thing we do know for sure is that Colorado and Arizona are part of the wider geographical region that features the Low Back Vowel Merger, i.e., we say the vowels in cot and caught identically (for more on that, check out the the Atlas of North American English). In any case, that particular feature isn’t going to help much in this instance because those vowels are also merged in Scottish English (though the position of the merged vowel is different, so I suppose you could look at that).

Anyway, as an Arizonan in Scotland, I was clearly intrigued by Martin Laird’s accent. At least some of his vowels were noticeably Scottish to my ears, and the intonation patterns I’ve come to associate with Glasgow were also there. But the commentators were also right in that his accent wasn’t nearly as strong as that of, say, Rob Lawson, the Glasweigan sociolinguist who spent a good portion of his PhD studies in Tucson (and who has a good blog you should check out, too). Okay, maybe we don’t need a linguist to tell us that the longer a person stays in a place the more likely it is to affect them. But the extent to which an person can and will change their accent as an adult is an intriguing and active area of current research, and there are still a number of open research questions. (If you’re interested in the details, the go-to research on these issues is undoubtably Gillian Sankoff)

So, being who I am and listening to Laird on the radio made me think of running a fun little study comparing expats. Would a Glasweigan who spends 12 years in Colorado/Arizona sound like an Arizona who spends 12 years in Glasgow? (Obviously we’re need to find our Arizonan, since I’m not a viable candidate, not only because I’m not in Glasgow but because what you’d want would be someone who spends as much of their time around Scots as Laird spends around Arizonans, and as a university lecturer I spend more time talking to students from England and colleagues from the U.S. than I do talking to Scots. Not to mention that I just got here.) But say you could control for things like nativeness of network and level of network interaction, it would be cool to see what features change more than others, and specifically how the features of the two expats’ resultant varieties compare with one another. I think Jennifer Nycz, who studied Canadians in New York, likely has some smart thoughts about New Yorkers in Canada. The comment section is yours, Jen!

That radio interview with Laird was quite brief. I wish it’d gone on longer, because it would’ve been interesting to see if he might have gradually shifted back to sounding more Glasweigan the longer he talked to the BBC Radio Scotland interviewers. Near the end of the interview, for example, they asked him a question and he responded with “Aye” and it made me immediately wonder how often he says “Aye” in his daily life. Maybe a lot, for all I know; he’s in a particularly interesting position as a golfer, where Scottishness surely has high social capital. Of course, now I’m wondering about getting ahold of BBC archival recordings to track down earlier interviews with him… which of course I don’t have time for right now! This is why I blog, people. Someone should steal this idea and let me know how the research goes.

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8 Responses to A Scot in Scottsdale

  1. Manuela says:

    Great post!

    I remember that a few years ago there was a big brouhaha about the British singer Joss Stone turning up at the Brit Awards with what sounded like an American accent. The poor girl got a huge amount of stick for it (and it’s become a bit of a classic Brit moment, see here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/gallery/2012/feb/19/10-best-brit-award-moments#/?picture=386123106&index=3 ).
    The video is here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8SbgXOTrKE

  2. Paul Kerswill says:

    Good stuff! I’ve got an undergrad here in York who wants to do a dissertation on accent change in students from year 1 onwards. It’s a popular topic, but I don’t know if anyone’s published on it.

    • Paul, you might direct your student to Evans & Iverson (2007)’s Plasticity in vowel perception and production: A study of accent change in young adults. (JASA 121:6); they track some students from the North over their first two years at uni in the South.

  3. Thanks for the shout-out, Lauren! I haven’t actually looked at New Yorkers in Canada, but I am intrigued by the kind of reciprocal situations you’re talking about (X-ians in Y vs. Y-ians in X). The wrinkle, of course, is that these situations are not likely to be socially reciprocal: the dialect (feature) of one region may be more salient/marked/stigmatized than the other, which might be an obstacle to accommodation in one direction and not so much the other. That said, even though all the Canadians in my study were super-aware of raised (aw) as a feature that outed them (or ‘oated’ them?) as Canadian, and thus claimed to try to eradicate this feature from their speech in the US, they all produced lots of raised (aw) in their interviews with me! So maybe X-ians in Y and Y-ians in X would, over time, converge quite a bit after all. Questions for future research…

    • Oop, there’s a sentence missing in my comment (kinda crucial for making the comment make sense), which is something like “so maybe stigma/salience does not straightforwardly determine whether speakers will abandon or adopt a feature.”

  4. Ah, some lovely data there Lauren! You’re right about the position of the merged vowels, they’re a lot further back than what’s usual for Glaswegian. Also lots and lots of intervocalic /t/ voicing (matter, got to, ninety nine), which is really very different to Glaswegian where glottal plosive would be pretty much categorical. Given that this is such a clear marker of American English, it’s perhaps no surprise that he uses this feature.

    Incidentally, I really wish I had taped myself before, during and after my time in Arizona, because I’m convinced that was when my accent changed the most. Nowhere near as much as Laird’s certainly, but noticeable enough that when I came home, my mum asked me why I was talking ‘in that daft accent’!!

    One thing that I’m also really interested in looking at is Billy Connolly’s accent over the past thirty years, because that one really stands out for me as a move from Glaswegian Vernacular to Scottish Standard English. But similar to you, it’s all about the time…

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