October 11, 2017

Sociolinguistic concepts through popular culture, Part 2: Mean Girls and Social Networks

As mentioned in my last post, in my lecturing this semester I've been trying to exemplify key concepts in sociolinguistics via popular culture. I have a stock of these snippets and hope to find time to share a few more. As I said previously, it's an effort to engage students and adhere to the philosophy that "when all is said and done, we study sociolinguistics because it is fun" (Meyerhoff 2011: 4)

In part two, we jump to this week's lecture where we looked at various of definitions of 'speech community' and then how concepts of social networks and community of practice have built upon notions of speech community.

Key concept: Social networks, unlike macro-social categories such as class, group people according to interactions (and can then tell us more about linguistic variation)

Concept in more detail: Some sociolinguistic studies have shown how important social networks are in explaining language variation and change (or lack of change). According to Meyerhoff (2011), Milroy & Milroy were leaders in this via their study of English in Belfast, Northern Ireland. They argued that social networks are least as important as macro-social categories in understanding language change.

When looking at language variation and considering the effect that social networks might have on variation, we can look at features such as density of the network (loose v dense), degrees of membership (core, peripheral etc.) or quality of ties between members (uniplex ties, multiplex ties). The Milroys argued that dense networks are more resistant to change and innovation than looser networks.

There are also differing ways of analysing social networks. Some approaches are more etic, made via the researcher's observations. Some are more emic, where members themselves define their networks.

Exemplifying the concept: Cult American teen movie Mean Girls (2004) exemplifies social networks very well. (In fact, I argue that one reason the movie is so popular and has longevity is because it is based upon a whole of lot of solid sociology). In the scene below, Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) provides school newcomer Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) with a map and lightning fast summary of the school's social networks:

A further question to be asked is what method of social network analysis has Janis deployed? The answer is obviously an etic one - Janis has defined the groups herself and we do not know whether the members of each labelled group would agree with Janis' characterisation.

This fictional example presents social networks as extremely tidy groupings, with each one centered physically around a cafeteria table. Sociolinguists would have an easier job if real-life networks were that neatly packaged.

An epilogue: when a dense social network breaks down

One of the Milroys' ideas about dense social networks is that they slow down or inhibit change and that this could be because the denseness of the network leads to more policing of members' behaviour by other members. In Mean Girls, we see this among the "Plastics" (the specific social network the movie focuses on). Most notably, we see the leader of the "Plastics", Regina George, famously police Gretchen Weiners attempt at linguistic innovation by refusing to accept 'fetch' as an innovative and trendy adjective. ("Stop trying to make fetch happen!").

By the end of the film, the dense network of the Plastics has disintegrated. With networks loosened, we see linguistic change happen in a big way (as predicted by the Milroys). One of the final scenes shows the previously heavily-policed Gretchen Weiners in a new social network and using a whole new language:

And that is how Mean Girls can teach us about social networks and its effects on language change and innovation. I know, right?


Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2011. Introducing Sociolinguistics. 2nd edition. Routledge: London

September 06, 2017

Sociolinguistic concepts through popular culture, Part 1: drag queens and how 'no two speakers are identical'

I am currently teaching sociolinguistics. Most lectures, I have found ways to illustrate key points and concepts with short online videos - usually stuff from TV shows, YouTube and other things. It's an effort to co-opt things I already enjoy and am familiar with to make sociolinguistics and lectures fun. After all, "when all is said and done, we study sociolinguistics because it is fun" (Meyerhoff 2011: 4)

So, in the name of fun, I'd like to share the videos and corresponding sociolinguistic concepts I've been using in my lectures. Others might enjoy and learn from them too. Here's part one.

Key concept: Sociolinguistics is about individuals. No two speakers have the same language.

Concept in more detail: Societies consist of individuals, none of whom are exactly the same. We shouldn't forget this when we study sociolinguistics. In Hudson's introductory textbook, he says:

"The individual speaker is important in sociolinguistics in much the same way that the individual cell is important in biology: if we don't understand how the individual works, to that extent we shan't be able to understand how collections of individuals behave either. Moreover, there is an even more important reason for focussing on the individual in sociolinguistics, which does not apply to the cell in biology: we can be sure that no two speakers have the same language, because no two speakers have the same experience of language" (Hudson 1996: 10-11, original italics).

Exemplifying the concept: two drag queens (made famous by the reality TV show RuPaul's Drag Race), Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova:

Trixie and Katya are both L1 American English speakers and both belong to American drag sub-culture. They appeared on the same series of RuPaul's Drag Race and now have a successful YouTube web series called "UNHhhh" (Caution - MANY adult themes! Audio is VERY not suitable for work. You could *maybe* get away with listening to it with headphones at work but it may still raise many eyebrows).

In UNHhhh, Trixie and Katya talk all kinds of rubbish (much of it absurdly hilarious and/or crude), loosely tied to a broad topic. When watching their videos, it is crystal clear that Trixie and Katya belong to the same speech community/community of practice. Far beyond simply speaking English the same way, they understand the same references that are understood not just by drag queens but, more specifically, by RuPaul Drag Race contestants. The first video below demonstrates this. They share references, get each others obscure jokes and finish each others sentences. The section to watch runs from 0:41 to 1:20 (that section is suitable for work, the rest isn't - timed link here):

In that excerpt, you hear them refer to Gia Gunn (a former RuPaul Drag Race contestant), mock her way of speaking, mock her career progression and, finally, utter 'you're welcome' in unison. Trixie and Katya appear to be two linguistic peas in a pod.

The second snippet from UNHhhh, however, shows how two linguistic peas in pods can still have a different experience of language, as per Hudson's idea above. In the second excerpt, a complete communication breakdown occurs over the term 'forensics'. They simply do not have the same understanding of the term. Katya is in disbelief at the semantics Trixie tries to convey, to the point where a third party has to intervene and the insult 'you dumb bitch!' is affectionately deployed. The section runs from 2:50 to 3:35 (timed link here):

And that is an example of how no two speakers have the same experience of language. I hope you enjoyed it one-tenth as much as I did doing the research and sourcing of data! :)


Hudson, Richard. 1996. Sociolinguistics. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2011. Introducing Sociolinguistics. 2nd edition. Routledge: London. 

March 12, 2017

The Bodhi Bus (is the best thing ever)

I recently spent a week in Ngukurr. It's the middle of the wet season and road access goes only to Roper Bar Store. After that point, two swollen rivers block the way. I flew into Ngukurr on the mail plane, which was awesome.


But how to get out?

The Bodhi Bus of course! Bodhi Bus provides a twice-weekly bus service between Ngukurr and Katherine, in the wet season as well as the dry. In the wet season, you pay a bit extra and get barged up the Roper River for about an hour and at the remote boat ramp, you are dutifully collected and then arrive safe'n'sound in Katherine via an air-conditioned bus.

Bodhi Bus' wet season drop-offs/pick-ups at Four Mile,
connecting with the barge trip up/down the Roper River.
I promise you, this blogpost is in no way sponsored by Bodhi Bus. I am just a fan. Not only does it service Ngukurr and the communities between there and Katherine, it goes all over the Katherine region - Bulman (incl Beswick), Lajamanu (incl Kalkaringi), Borroloola, Wyndham (incl Timber Creek, Kununurra), Tennant Creek (incl Elliott) and Darwin too (including a stop at Darwin Airport).

Passengers are, I'd say, 95% Aboriginal. On my bus the other day, there were two other munanga on and about 15-20 non-munanga. We all had different reasons to travel. Some got off at Jilkminggan or Mataranka to go home or visit family. One woman with a disability was off to Darwin for a meeting with the Machado Joseph Disease Foundation before going to bible college for study. Others travel to go to appointments in Katherine, return from or go to hospital, attend training, go shopping, or just have a break from community life and/or have a drink or three.

In my experience the drivers are all considerate and flexible. For example, on our trip, we were in no rush and stopped to buy food at Roper Bar Store and at Mataranka. And the passenger with a disability got dropped at her accommodation in Katherine instead of the designated bus stop. It's an impressive service.

But the reason I find all of this so great is because I remember Ngukurr life before the Bodhi Bus existed and can appreciate the difference it makes. I remember the stress that was placed upon individuals and organisations who were travelling between Katherine and Ngukurr and the pressure that was put upon drivers to take extra passengers. For a munanga outsider like me, it was hard to manage - requests for lifts would often start at the start of a week if people knew you were leaving that weekend. And how to figure out priorities? Does so-and-so really need to get to hospital or attend that funeral or are they just keen to get to town to have a drink. This stress was constant. Now that the Bodhi Bus exists, there is less stress for both would-be passengers and for vehicle owners/drivers alike.

However, this post isn't just about me selfishly rejoicing that I'm humbugged less. By now you've probably heard of Social Determinants of Health and know that they're a thing. They determine who is affected by social disadvantage and who gets relegated to the fringes of society. Transportation is a known factor, particularly so for rural and remote people. This is mentioned by the Rural Health Information Hub where they discuss the importance of:
Access to safe and affordable transportation, which can impact both job access and healthcare access. Unsafe transportation, such as vehicles in poor condition, may increase risk of injury.
The safety and risk of injury point is a very important one too as, tragically, everyone in Ngukurr knows multiple people who have died on the Roper Highway over the years.

So thumbs up to the Bodhi Bus. A commercial enterprise that is also (inadvertently or not) a social enterprise, making life in the bush that little bit better and more equitable for some of our most remote and disadvantaged citizens. Keep up the great work!

(Edit/correction: just learned that Bodhi Bus is actually a not-for-profit organisation. Which doesn't make it any less or more great in my eyes)

January 20, 2017

These Kriol interviews make me smile

I'm knee-deep in transcribing Kriol interviews that I did last year for this Kriol Proujek, being ably assisted by some Summer Research Scholars from UQ and, before Christmas, some Kriol-speaking language workers from Ngukurr. (See here for a neat little story about their work).

Pretty regularly, while transcribing, I smile, laugh and really enjoy some of the chat I hear. The lovely examples are endless really. The recordings are just wonderful (in my humble opinion).

I won't go into a lot of detail (or share any examples that might be a bit too personal or identifiable), but here's one that made me giggle this afternoon, when I transcribed the part of the interview where I asked two young guys if they use a regionalised term for 'scavenge': gubarl:

Q: Yu sabi det 'gubarl'?
A: Yuwai! Ai oldei gubarlgubarl grawun faibsen burru eberriwe la grawun!

Q: Do you know (the word) gubarl?
A: Yeah! I'm always 'gubarl'-ing the ground (for) five cents, from everywhere on the ground!

[giggling ensues]

I don't know... maybe you had to be there, but I lolled. The enthusiasm behind the answer was not what I was expecting!

Moral of the story - Kriol is fun and sociolinguistic interviews are fun too.

January 10, 2017

Language Matters - a review (thanks Qantas!)

I managed to have a proper holiday and went to Perth for a few days, switching off entirely from work and linguistics which was much needed. Flying back to Darwin though, I had the most pleasurable easing back into the world of languages when I happened across the doco Language Matters on my little back-of-the-chair Qantas Inflight entertainment screen.

Look who's on my Qantas flight!
Nick Evans in Language Matters
I was aware of Language Matters but I'd also kinda forgotten about it. Filmed in 2013 , it was made for PBS (Public TV) in America and I don't actually know anyone who has seen it. The only reason I knew of it was because it features my at-the-time PhD supervisor Nick Evans and I remember him talking about it (see also this mention in an old ANU newsletter). So what a pleasant surprise to be reminded of its existence by Qantas and then be able to spend the next two hours watching it while zooming over Australia.

It turns out, Language Matters is wonderful. It's a documentary triptych, if you will: three panels comprising Warruwi (Goulburn Island, off the Arnhem Land coast), Wales and Hawai'i. Each panel conveys the importance of language to culture and identity. Each panel stoically damning hegemonic monolingualism and each panel explores language loss, maintenance and revitalisation. But while these themes are very familiar to linguists, the documentary does more then skim the surface and provide familiar tropes. On Warruwi, for example, we don't just talk to the elder who knows of languages no-one else does and the linguist working with him. We see families performing dance and song on the beach. Meet the local teacher who uses three languages to support students. Check in on the church and the local radio. Talk to a musicologist and a sociolinguist. The range of contexts and participants in Language Matters makes it constantly interesting and the specifics of each place enrich their documentary further.

Nancy Ngalmindjalmag and Ruth Singer were also on my flight!
On Goulburn Island, Language Matters normalises multilingualism, meeting several islanders with complex-yet-distinct linguistic repertoires. But we also learn about languages that have been lost and see the efforts of community members and researchers to prolong languages in various stages of vulnerability. And - bonus! - it was a lovely surprise to see linguists I know on Qantas inflight entertainment!

The through-line offered by narrator/producer Bob Holman (a prominent US author) is the exploration of song, poetry and performance across the three locations. The songs sung by Goulburn Islanders are echoed in the poems, stories and songs of the Welsh, where we see how Welsh language maintenance happens on prestigious stages like the National Eisteddfod and in poetry-as-public-art on Cardiff's Millenium Centre.

Cardiff's Millenium Centre: vertically, it displays monolingual verses in English and Welsh.
Horizontally, the words create bilingual verse.

The Welsh story introduces politics and protest. Most prominent is the description of the flooding of a small village, Capel Celyn. I hadn't heard the story before. Language Matters details how the flooding of the village, for Liverpool's water needs, catalysed Welsh national movements which also included language activism. The person interviewed describes nicely how after decades of tolerating English oppression, the flooding of the village clearly symbolised to the Welsh just how far down the ladder their interests lay with the English. Activism built a movement that has since seen Welsh language revitalisation become one of the most successful revitalisation efforts in the world.

Not far behind are the Hawai'ians. Early non-Hawaiian residents had a positive impact, when missionaries introduced literacy in Hawai'ian and created possibly one of the most literate societies of the 1800s. American governance reversed the situation. Colonisation, associated policies and a need to survive led to a swift demise of Hawai'ian. Song and civil rights are again shown to create a strong revitalisation movement, beginning just in time for the last few dozen L1 Hawai'ian speakers to have significant input.

Language Matters tells stories that are familiar to all linguists and to many non-linguists. But rarely do we get such broad, first-hand access to a range of locations and people who tell these stories vividly and authentically. Bob Holman's infusion of song, poetry and verse as a linking device is a creative and effective one. Holman does well to portray himself as a student rather than expert so his central role is rarely overbearing. But for me, it is hearing first-hand from so many language activists, speakers, students and teachers that kept me engaged. Too often, linguistics as a discipline divorces language from language speakers. Language Matters keeps this inseparable relationship in perspective and takes viewers on great journeys to meet great people.

If you're lucky enough to be flying Qantas in the near future, keep an eye out for Language Matters on the documentary section of your inflight entertainment. Americans (or those with VPN) can watch it here: http://www.languagemattersfilm.com/