Social Science blog

3 posts from June 2014

24 June 2014

Lost in pronunciation

MA student Maryna Myntsykovska writes:

The British Library presents a wealth of opportunities, sometimes most unexpected ones. Fuelled by my desire to participate in an on-going linguistic project, I recently completed a three-month placement at the British Library as part of my Linguistics MA course at Queen Mary, University of London. I worked with the BBC Voices Recordings, aiming to create a detailed linguistic description according to the framework developed by the British Library’s Voices of the UK project. My task included capturing instances of lexical, grammatical as well as phonological variation in one of the recordings.

My first task was to choose a recording, in which I would look for vernacular words, pronunciation features and grammatical constructions.  Having considered recordings from Glasgow, Cardiff and Oxford, I opted for the latter, since understanding the flow of words naturally produced by British people is not a piece of cake for a non-native speaker like me. Before coming to London last September I had previously only been exposed to the socially prestigious British accent, Received Pronunciation (RP). Speakers from Scotland or Wales presented a considerable challenge, but even some varieties of southern English speech remained undecipherable for a while. One speaker, for instance, referred to [‘broid’] and [‘stroidz’] –frustratingly, corresponding entries were elusive in the Oxford English Dictionary. Only with the help of another native speaker did I learn that this was a London pronunciation feature, and the speaker was actually saying brideand strides(his preferred variant of ‘trousers’). Gradually, listening to the recording over and over again, I got used to the speakers’ accents to the extent that I stopped noticing vernacular features and could extract the meaning effortlessly.

Bizarrely, right by the time my skill at interpreting non-RP elements reached its peak, I got to the phase of the description in which I had to listen precisely for vernacular pronunciation features. All those little deviations in vowels and consonants that I was so determined to overlook in my effort to understand the meaning suddenly became the focus of my work!

The actual discussion I had chosen was built around 40 words, presented to the participants beforehand. The interviewees had to come up with words and expressions synonymic to those presented in the list (for example, clobber for ‘clothes’ or sprog for ’baby’). My objective was to note down all the instances of a single lexical item and to check for spelling precedent in printed sources, which set me exploring endless pages of slang dictionaries and enriched my vocabulary with new acquisitions, such as chucking it down (‘to rain heavily’), tesco-bombers (‘cheap trainers bought in Tesco supermarket’) and up the duff (‘pregnant’), to quote just a few.

During my time at the Library I also attended a workshop about regional variation in accents and dialects aimed at A-level students, given by the Sociolinguistics curator of the British Library. Inspired by what I had witnessed, I delivered a similar presentation at school in my home town in Ukraine, promoting the use of the BL resources about regional varieties of English, such as Sounds Familiar?. Using Sound Map, we first listened to a fragment of the children’s story ‘Mr Tickle’ (© 1971 Roger Hargreaves), recorded by speakers from Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. The pupils attempted to guess the accent of the speaker, but admitted it was a challenging task. In fact, due to their lack of exposure to regional varieties of English in the UK, the class did not identify any of the speakers, but was definitely eager to learn more about accents and dialects. In my presentation I encouraged them to make the most of the resources created by the British Library, both for learning as well as leisure purposes.

Overall, creating a linguistic description like this helped me to appreciate the differences between accents and understand the components constituting those differences. In this respect my time at the British Library was a truly invaluable experience.

11 June 2014

Football Heroes

With the World Cup starting this week, we post this piece from Germanic studies curator Susan Reed who writes about one particularly relevant donation:

We receive many donations in the British Library, but one of the more unusual ones to pass through my hands arrived just in time for the 2006 Football World Cup. Football Heroes was described as ‘The complete album with over 700 Soccer Worldcup [sic] trading cards’, which I have to admit made my heart sink for a moment: did we really want a football sticker album?

Football Heroes2
Ashi & Jerzovskaja [ed.]  Soccer heroes : the complete album with over 700 soccer World Cup trading cards = Fussball Helden : das komplette Album mit über 700 Sammelbildern zur Weltmeisterschaft (Zürich, 2006). LF.31.a.1218

But Football Heroes was in fact a clever and brilliantly executed homage to the albums many of us remember from childhood. It was the brainchild of Swiss graphic designer Jerzovskaja who explains: ‘I could never afford the expensive collector pictures as a child … So I started to draw soccer pictures myself’ (p. 11). This sowed the seed of what would become Football Heroes, for which Jerzovskaja brought together 50 artists to draw the teams competing in the 2006 World Cup and some famous national teams from the past.

Each team is shown  in basic sticker album style –  mugshots of each member arranged in a specific order – but the artists were free to choose their style and medium, and the pictures show a wide range of approaches. Some refer obviously to the team’s nationality, such as cartoonist Beach’s depiction of the 1934 Italian squad as ancient Romans, while some hint less directly at national culture: Christian Montenegro portrays the 2006 Iranian team in a stylised and modern form which nonetheless subtly recalls classical Persian art. Others go against expectations: the Argentinian duo ‘Stupid Love’ subvert their country’s macho stereotype by depicting the 2006 team in pastel colours and a kind of ‘Hello Kitty’ style, surrounded by cupcakes and cute smiley animals.

One  of the most striking – and daring – depictions is again by Beach, and shows the 1958 Brazil team in series of images which together make a pastiche of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ with Pelé in the role of Saviour. The book ends with a series of imaginary players drawn by Jerzovskaja with wonderful (and almost believable) names like ‘Ringo Thickplank’, ‘Electro Zamboni’ and ‘Brickwall van der Tor’.

Football Heroes see red
Jerzovskaja [ed.]   Football heroes  see red! The complete sticker album for the European Football Championship = Fussballhelden sehen rot! Das komplette sammelbilder-album zur fussball-Europameisterschaft; (Zürich, 2008). LD.31.b.1498

Two years later we received another album, Football Heroes See Red!, marking the 2008 European Championship and featuring 38 artists from 12 European countries. As well as the team ‘sticker’ pictures, this album includes a number of full page images, including 23 of the French player Zinédine Zidane. According to Jerzovskaja, Zidane ‘embodies [the] notion of duality in the game,’ which he wanted to explore in this album, ‘the moment where passion spills over into something darker’ (p.7).

But not everything is dark here. For example, the 2008 England team members are humorously portrayed (by Beach again) as missing pets. In a reference to his long absence following injury at the 2006 World Cup, Michael Owen becomes a heavily bandaged rabbit on a poster inscribed ‘Lucky. Black + white marking. Slight limp’.

Jerzovskaja has gone on to produce other Football Heroes albums, including one devoted to the team he has followed since his teens, FC Winterthur. As well as expressing his passion for football, they are also proof of his commitment to promoting the work of graphic and comic artists from around the world.

02 June 2014

Languages and the First World War: Trench Journals

Conference Organiser Julian Walker writes:

The First World War was, as is well known, a great catalyst for literary activity. The relationship between expectation and reality, the change, the magnitude of the experience and the sharp focus on the details are the matter of a literary experience that altered the direction of twentieth-century literature.

But these ideas could be equally seen in a non-literary written culture produced by the war, the trench journal. Trench journals were magazines produced by troops for troops. There were produced in vast numbers, at the front, in hospitals, behind the front lines, in troopships and in prison camps. Issues were printed in a small number of copies, or in their thousands. They are known from September 1914, and they immediately tell the experience of the war.

P P 4039 wcc (3 )_CB Xmas1915_0001 (2)
Cyclist Battalion Christmas Bulletin 1915

They are important because, as J G Fuller writes in Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies (1990), they are ‘ not coloured by subsequent experience, and they represent a collective rather than an individual commentary, validated to a large extent by their soldier audience.’ Effectively they represent the experience of the war to those who are going through the experience, presented by those who are going through the experience; as such they are uncoloured by subsequent thoughts and to a large extent give us an immediate idea of ‘what it was like’. This validity was recognised early on, as from 1915 the British Museum asked for copies of trench journals for their collection, and the British Library now holds 1138 issues, including Australian troopship journals, hospital journals and journals produced by German internees and prisoners-of-war. The most well known title is the Wipers Times, but there were hundreds of others.

They were produced by people who often had no professional journalistic experience, but employed the skills of soldiers who in civilian life were printers, compositors, or commercial artists. Some were made up in the trenches and printed back in Britain, others were copied out by hand and circulated amongst a handful of men. Full of in-jokes, poetry of dubious quality, limericks, pastiches, well and badly drawn cartoons, awful puns, diary-sketches that give self-censored references to the frontline experience, football results and thanks for gifts from home, they often resemble school magazines. But then the people who wrote and read them were in many cases little older than schoolboys.

  P P 4039 w (3 ) _Morning Rire_Issue3_1916_0007 (2)

Morning Rire Issue 3 1916

It is in homage to this extraordinary journalistic culture that the Languages and the First World War conference is working with Graphics students from Central St Martins College of Art and Design to produce a homage ‘trench journal’. It will contain articles by some of the people who wanted to come to the conference but were unable to attend, some linguistic titbits (including new finds), illustrations and photographs, excerpts from journals in the British Library collection and some in private collections, and pastiches of trench journal material.

The Central Saint Martins students have studied trench journals in the British Library collection, and for them this project, working in direct relation to a print medium a century old that was produced under the most stressful conditions conceivable, is a challenging venture. Various print methods are being explored, including letterpress and mimeograph, the print technique by which some of the more close-to-the-action original trench journals were produced. Echoing the ‘autonomy within self-imposd boundaries’ of the originals, the students have full design control of the journal, including the title; working from the description by Graham Seal (The Soldiers’ Press, 2013) of trench journals as a ‘democratic cultural republic amidst a hierarchical martial regime’, the publication is called At No-one’s Authority.

The relationship between the wartime journal editors and their superiors varied; while some were explicitly published under the authority of commanding officers, for others, circulating even in typescript or manuscript, this was not an issue. It is particularly pertinent that Koenraad Du Pont from the University of Leuven will be giving a paper on how an Italian trench journal, L’Astico, was centrally manipulated for propaganda purposes; in this case the attempt to use a range of dialects to cement camaraderie within the army backfired. Though British journals display attitudes of ‘grumbling but not complaining’, pride in achievement, group identity, ‘laughing will get us through’, and ‘getting on with the job’, these were perhaps uneasy and fragile masks of the soldier’s awareness of his unprecedented relationship with his environment, and manifestations of a desperate need to say ‘I am still here and alive now’.

At No-one’s Authority will be available in a very limited edition, and only at the conference, so book your ticket now.

Programme, booking links, and blog: