December 09, 2017

Sociolinguistic concepts through popular culture, Part 3: Bernie Sanders and factors that drive language variation

Part three of my examples linking sociolinguistics to popular culture kinda follows up on Part 1 which showed (via drag queens) how no two speakers are identical. (Part 2 skipped over to communities of practice in Mean Girls).

I have to confess, this episode is less about my own creativity and more about finding a pretty perfect video on YouTube that did the job of linking sociolinguistics to the real world for me. Worth sharing all the same...

Key concept: Variability in language (which exists everywhere) is caused by geographic and social factors.

Concept in more detail: The subfield of sociolinguistics makes no bones about the fact that language varies everywhere, all the time. No two individuals speak exactly the same way and no individual speaks the same way all the time either. Many sociolinguists are concerned with not just describing this ubiquitous variability but figuring out the causes of variation.

For a long time, where someone is from (i.e. geography) was investigated as the main cause of variation. Then sociolinguists got cleverer and saw how variability can be explained by factors like age, gender, ethnicity and class - factors that are social rather than geographical.

Exemplifying the concept: If you can remember back to the wonderful days before Donald Drumpf ruled America, you might recall a nerdy old dude called Bernie Sanders who had quite different ideas about what an American president should do. While Bernie was in the presidential candidacy spotlight, people noticed he talked funny.

As a result, the American news site Vox put together a clever, entertaining and brilliantly edited video explaining key features of Bernie Sanders' speech. It proved to be the perfect explainer of how social and geographic factors can explain linguistic variation:

When we looked at this video in class, students were able to appreciate the ways in which Sanders' speech deviates from what most people consider to be a typical American English accent. The video also gives enough information so that students can easily connect the dots and, based on the excellent explanations in the video, describe the factors causing variation. After a quick in-class Q&A, students can summarise Sanders' variable features (called variants) and the correlating geographic and social factors:
  • 'Thought' vowel: 
    • geography factor - New York English
    • age factor - used less by younger New "Yawkers
    • ethnicity factor - the age-based change is more obvious among white people
  • Lack of 'r's (non-rhotic accent): 
    • geography factor - New York, Boston, Savannah English
    • age + class factors - seen as prestigious in early-mid 1900s, non-prestigious in late 1900s
    • ethnicity factor - associated with Jewish community
  • Final 't' sounds released:
    •  ethnicity factor - associated with Jewish community
Thanks Vox for making this great video linking sociolinguistics to popular culture. It made for a very useful learning tool!



November 06, 2017

Roper Gulf Regional Council and the awkwardness of local government investing outside their jurisdiction

"...Council is part of the Katherine community..."

"... we have a social responsibility to contribute to the growth of the town..."

Positive rhetoric like the above is par for the course for any Australian local government. The above quotes come from Roper Gulf Regional Council's CEO Michael Berto. Great messages? Definitely. One major problem though: the town they refer to - Katherine - isn't part of the council's area.

Roper Gulf Regional Council covers a massive, sparsely populated area reaching from east of Katherine right out to the Gulf of Carpentaria coast. It came into being 10 years ago when the NT Government oversaw the establishment of 'Super Shires' - amalgamations that subsumed a stack of community government councils which were often local government areas with only a few hundred constituents.

The creation of 11 'Super Shires' a decade ago was an unpopular move. Poorly consulted and hastily done, some say it caused Labor to lose the next election, which then brought in the resoundingly ridiculous Country Liberals' effort. I was living in Ngukurr when the council amalgamations happened. At the time, the locally-based Yugul Mangi Government Council oversaw the communities of Ngukurr, Urapunga and Minyerri. It seemed like a small, inefficient and challenging local government to run. What Yugul Mangi and other mini-councils did have in their favour was the ability to foster local decision making and create local leaders. The counter-argument was that small government authorities like Yugul Mangi have tiny economies of scale and little bargaining power. Amalgamation will bring muscle. A reasonable point.

What worried me at the planning phase wasn't the likely watering down of local input and authority. I was more surprised to learn that administrative headquarters of the new shire weren't even going to be within the shire. It created a bizarre contradiction: create a new shire because it makes economic (rather than social) sense, but administer it from outside the area therefore sending all related economic activity to a different council.

But again: practicalities. The amalgamations were rushed. Katherine was the only decent sized town in the vicinity that was ready to handle Roper Gulf administration. But it didn't make sense - certainly not in the long term. "What about Mataranka?" I asked when we were briefly 'consulted' at the Language Centre back in 2006 or 07. My question was dismissed.

Mataranka is a much smaller town - about 500 people - and an hour down the road from Katherine. It had its own community government council back in 2006, meaning there was at least some capacity to administer local government. Mataranka is hardly a metropolis, but it has decent accommodation and places to eat, some facilities and infrastructure, Elsey National Park is right there and Katherine not far away. If running Roper Gulf from Mataranka wasn't immediately viable a decade ago, it would have been an entirely appropriate strategy to aim for in the future.

But what happens in real terms when a local government bases itself outside its own area? In day-to-day terms, it is inevitable that you are less aware and less invested in your own service provision. When council workers live and work in their council area, they notice what happens immediately beyond their front door: what are the roads like, waste removal, recreation facilities, what sort of community and local cultures are fostered in your neighbourhood? When there are problems, they are noticed. And hopefully addressed.

However, when the front doors of key Roper Gulf staff open on to Katherine Town Council's area and vote in Katherine Town Council elecdtions, how can you be personally invested in ensuring your council is the best it can be? Instead, Roper Gulf residents - who are mostly Indigenous and non-native English speakers - find themselves reporting to staff in Katherine about the realities of life in the council region. That hardly seems efficient, or fair.

Yet this awkward, unfortunate state of affairs is not something that seems to cause embarrassment. As the quotes at the top show, Roper Gulf Regional Council is proud to be "part of the Katherine Community". That quote was in the Katherine Times in October 2017 following Roper Gulf publicising a $1.14million infrastructure investment and $1.42million in tenders going to Katherine businesses. That is, investments going outside Roper Gulf towns and communities. If the decision ten years ago to base Roper Gulf in Katherine was due to practicalities and time pressure, a $2.5million spend 10 years later is a side-swipe to its own constituents. And far from acknowledging this as regrettable, it is something Roper Gulf are proud of:


But what's the alternative? Could Mataranka be the administrative centre of Roper Gulf? Right now, probably not. Because no-one has tried to make it happen. But if strategies had been implemented 10 years to transition Roper Gulf's administration to within its own area, it could have happened. I used to work at Batchelor Institute: a large tertiary institution an hour south of Darwin, in a town of only a few hundred. The parallels between Batchelor/Darwin and Mataranka/Katherine are obvious. Some Batchelor Institute staff live in quiet Batchelor, nestled next to Litchfield National Park. Others live in Darwin. Darwin-based staff are provided with a daily shuttle bus commuter service and it works effectively enough. The same could absolutely be done for Roper Gulf employees who live in Katherine but had their workplace in Mataranka. And for Roper Gulf residents - especially those in Mataranka - they have a better chance of working at and accessing their administrative centre.

If the commute seems inefficient, there is an efficiency benefit: most places in the council region are an hour closer to Mataranka than Katherine. More than half the region would have two hours cut off round trip travel times between headquarters and community. Imagine being a Robinson River resident with your local government authorities a 20 hour round trip away and not even in your region. Would you feel like your council staff have your best interests in mind?

If Mataranka as Roper Gulf's administrative centre is logistically possible, it requires motivation, vision and long-term strategy. The benefits would be significant. More Roper Gulf staff would know first-hand what their service provision is like. Roper Gulf Council would be considerably building the economy of Roper Gulf itself, rather than investing in someone else's Council area. The inconvenience of Katherine-based staff having to work from Mataranka rather than Katherine? If Roper Gulf demonstrated that developing its own area was a core part of its vision, it could be possible to motivate its staff that a Mataranka base was for the greater good. Such motivation just doesn't seem to exist.

If Roper Gulf constituents are worried about the benefits their local government pours into Katherine, their concerns are largely voiceless (unless you consider Labor's 2012 election loss to have been a voicing of such concerns). Geographic, cultural and linguistic boundaries mean that most Roper Gulf residents have difficulties speaking up. However, a recent semi-public Facebook discussion (following the recent news story shown above) shows that for some it is a cause of disappointment or concern:


Apart from a few murmurs, there is not a lot of obvious discontent about the current state of affairs. Katherine residents and council certainly aren't going to speak against the economic boost generated from having Roper Gulf as "part of the Katherine Community". Katherine-based Roper Gulf staff (generally the most powerful players in the entity) aren't going to volunteer to uproot themselves or their workplace. And Roper Gulf constituents have never been told that an alternative to the status quo is possible. But I argue that it is possible. It's just easier for Roper Gulf Regional Council to bizarrely stay as one of the only local government councils in Australia to be administered from outside their bounds. "Defeatist"? "Short-sighted"? Weak? Insulting? Take your pick.

Note: I am focussing on Roper Gulf Regional Council in this blogpost, only because of my ties to the region and my experience of living in Ngukurr when Roper Gulf was established. There are other Regional Councils in the NT that also have the awkward situation of being administered from outside their region: Victoria Daly Regional Council is also administered from Katherine.  Central Desert Regional Council and Macdonnell Regional Council are administered from Alice Springs. East Arnhem Regional Council is administered from Nhulunbuy while Tiwi Islands Shire is administered from Darwin. As far as I'm aware, this does not occur anywhere else in Australia apart from the Northern Territory.

A further note: I know plenty of great people who work for Roper Gulf and it is not my intention to disparage any individuals. I am writing about the overall vision and strategy of the entity which is larger than any individual. 

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?

References

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! :)

References

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/