Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

19 posts categorized "Sociolinguistics"

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.

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: http://languages-and-first-world-war.tumblr.com/

09 May 2014

Languages and the First World War

Julian Walker writes:

The early part of 2014 saw a rush of books, new websites and television programmes about the First World War, and for some of us there was a concern that ‘First World War fatigue’ would set in before the arrival of the actual anniversaries. Finding a new way of considering the conflict seemed a remote idea. The field of language, however, has been little considered, is a fantastically rich area, and allows examination of both the differences and the commonality of experience among civilians and combatants across all the combatant nations. How did language change during and as a result of the war, how did languages influence each other, and what effects have lasted through the century between then and now?

The conference ‘Languages and the First World War’, to be held at the University of Antwerp and the British Library in June 2014 will address some of these questions, with papers from 27 speakers, and subjects ranging from the influence of French on English trench-slang, to the professionalisation of interpreting, to the censorship of soldiers’ letters home in Welsh, the difficulties faced by French-speaking Caribbean soldiers in France, and the use of propaganda in an Italian soldiers’ magazine. The conference coincides with Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour, the British Library’s exhibition on the First World War, and is open to the public.

The linguistic experience was a fundamental part of the experience of the war, and ranged from the deeply problematic to the enjoyable. The melting-pot of the Western Front brought together speakers of different dialects or sociolects within one language, leading to the uptake and spread of previously isolated terms. Officialese brought terms such as ‘debus’ and ‘attest’, while British soldiers tucked into ‘Bombardier Fritz’ (pommes de terre frites); new terms from the conflict – camouflage, tank, air raid – quickly came into common use. The management of the war was in many cases required to be multilingual: administrators dealing with Belgian refugees were baffled by Flemish, and the 1919 report on the Belgian community in County Durham relied partially on sources from the Catholic Church, written in Latin.

Trench glossary
Pastiche glossaries were popular in trench journals, newspapers produced by soldiers for soldiers.

The British Expeditionary Force was to a large extent made up from men who were the beneficiaries of a series of compulsory education acts, and who constituted the most literate army Britain had ever had. They were led ‘over the top’ by junior officers who were in many cases public school and university educated, conversant with Latin and Greek. Trench journals, diaries and letters home give evidence of how important reading and writing were for the Tommies – 15,500 bags of mail crossed the Channel just from England to France every day in 1916 and 1917. Those who found themselves further away from home, in Palestine, Greece or Iraq, might not know exactly where they were – so labelled those parts ‘Mesapolonica’.

Examination of the linguistic aspects of the war reveals an underlying sense of shared experiences, and there are instances of parallel wordplay occurring across the hell of no man’s land. German hand grenades were called ‘potato-mashers’ by both sides. Both German and British soldiers were unimpressed with the substitute for butter in their rations: on one side they called it ‘Wagonschmiere’, on the other ‘axle-grease’. Sometimes this wordplay emerged as the most awful puns: a German raiding party scrawled the words ‘Gott mitt uns’ on a plank left amongst the barbed wire; the following night a British raiding party turned it round closer to the German lines, adding the words ‘Don’t swank – we’ve got mittens too’.

Message for the Bulgars
Message for the Bulgars: the conflict in Salonika allowed references to what was at that time a highly contentious term

German soldiers could find themselves using a phrasebook that told them how to say in French both ‘I am confiscating the money’ (schè kongfisk larschang) and ‘Waiter, bring me half a litre of wine’ (garsong, donneh moa öng dèmih litr dè wäng). It all looks very like an English schoolboy’s attempt to pronounce French; but then many of the British soldiers fighting in France were not long out of school themselves.

Postcard tray bon
Postcard home: Arthur Tildesley writes that he is ‘tray bon’.

Perhaps the one word that conjures up images of the First World War is ‘Blighty’, meaning ‘home’ or ‘Britain’. Deriving from the Hindi bilyati, meaning ‘foreign’ or ‘European’, it was applied to British soldiers and administrators, who then took the term themselves. ‘A Blighty one’ or ‘a blighty’ was a wound that would take you safely away from the fighting, while ‘a Blighty touch’ was the same thing, but self-inflicted.

Throughout the war there was discussion of the origins of the names of allies and enemies – did the nickname Poilu (‘hairy’) for French soldiers really derive from their being able to grow beards while on active service, or was it from a novel by Balzac? And where did the word ‘Boche’ come from? Indeed was it ‘Boche’ or ‘Bosche’? Newspapers regularly updated their readers with new slang terms, and there was an awareness in the UK that the ‘war of words’ was enlarging and enriching the English language. Right at the beginning of the war the Rev. Andrew Clarke set about collecting what he saw as ‘ordinary words’ – the words used in reporting the war, in advertising, and in people’s conversation as they experienced the fear, grief, relief and stress of the conflict. Lynda Mugglestone, University of Oxford Professor of the History of English, will be giving a keynote paper on his work.

The conference is at the University of Antwerp on 18th June and the British Library on 20th June, and is open to all. Regular updates and information will be posted on the blog http://languages-and-first-world-war.tumblr.com/ and the twitter feed @LanguagesFWW and tickets can be booked on http://www.bl.uk/whatson/events/event160561.html

04 October 2013

Listen up!

Over 350 conversations between friends and family members from people across the UK have been made available this week on the British Library Sounds website. These conversations were recorded as part of the Listening Project, a partnership between the British Library and the BBC, and cover all kinds of topics relating to family relationships, friendship, personal memories, triumphs, tragedies and intimate and everyday life. They offer a unique insight into the lives of people across the country and will be preserved for future generations at the Library. Importantly, they can be listened to by anyone via the website.

Holly Gilbert, who works on the project at the British Library has written a more detailed blog post about the collection here. She describes how the conversations detail narratives of different people's lives which range from 'coming out' stories, to experiences of war, to life in unusual careers such as that of a polar explorer.

A full press release about the project can be found here on our press and policy pages.

30 September 2013

Reminder - Call for Papers: Languages and the First World War

Languages and the First World War

The British Library & University of Antwerp

International Conference, 18-19-20 June 2014

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War coincides with the fading of direct memory of the period. Few can remember the linguistic experience of wartime in the speech of those directly or indirectly involved, but the linguistic traces of combat and civilian life, in and out of war zones, remain.

The term ‘no man’s land’, for instance, came into general use in English during the First World War, referring to inhabitable areas that saw the fiercest of the fighting between the two sides of the conflict; the use of the term, many centuries earlier referring to an isolated patch of land outside the City of London, is indicative of a pattern of language-change produced by the war – by 1920 ‘Niemandsland’ was a widely used term in German. In the varied theatres of war, the home fronts, training camps, war offices, hospitals and supply trains, language shifts happened, in which the dialects and languages of the various parties involved influenced one another, and in which new language and new language use emerged through new technologies of destruction and communication.

The idea for a conference on the linguistic experience and legacy of the war arose from research into the sociolinguistics of the war (especially the Western Front) and the immediate post-war period in the UK, particularly with reference to how terms had crossed linguistic boundaries, including between hostile linguistic groups.  The conference aims to be truly international and interdisciplinary.

The conference will take place on 18, 19 & 20 June 2014.

The University of Antwerp will host the first day, and the British Library will host the third. The interim day will be for travel between the two sites, with a possible visit to In Flanders Fields Museum at Ypres arranged for the morning of 19 June. There will be a book launch and public lecture at the British Library on the evening of 19 June. Eurostar travel between the two Brussels and London only takes two hours.

Abstracts of 300 words need to be sent to [email protected] by 1 December 2013, 4pm.

Notification of acceptance will be sent on 20 th January 2014.

Papers may be given in languages other than English, with synopses available in English.

Call for Papers PDF

19 July 2013

Call for Papers: Languages and the First World War

Languages and the First World War
The British Library & University of Antwerp
International Conference, 18-19-20 June 2014

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War coincides with the fading of direct memory of the period. Few can remember the linguistic experience of wartime in the speech of those directly or indirectly involved, but the linguistic traces of combat and civilian life, in and out of war zones, remain.

The term ‘no man’s land’, for instance, came into general use in English during the First World War, referring to inhabitable areas that saw the fiercest of the fighting between the two sides of the conflict; the use of the term, many centuries earlier referring to an isolated patch of land outside the City of London, is indicative of a pattern of language-change produced by the war – by 1920 ‘Niemandsland’ was a widely used term in German. In the varied theatres of war, the home fronts, training camps, war offices, hospitals and supply trains, language shifts happened, in which the dialects and languages of the various parties involved influenced one another, and in which new language and new language use emerged through new technologies of destruction and communication.

The idea for a conference on the linguistic experience and legacy of the war arose from research into the sociolinguistics of the war (especially the Western Front) and the immediate post-war period in the UK, particularly with reference to how terms had crossed linguistic boundaries, including between hostile linguistic groups.  The conference aims to be truly international and interdisciplinary.

The conference will take place on 18, 19 & 20 June 2014.

The University of Antwerp will host the first day, and the British Library will host the third. The interim day will be for travel between the two sites, with a possible visit to In Flanders Fields Museum at Ypres arranged for the morning of 19 June. There will be a book launch and public lecture at the British Library on the evening of 19 June. Eurostar travel between the two Brussels and London only takes two hours.

Abstracts of 300 words need to be sent to [email protected] by 1 December 2013, 4pm.

Notification of acceptance will be sent on 20 th January 2014.

Papers may be given in languages other than English, with synopses available in English.

Call for Papers PDF

25 March 2013

And a salad batch for the trip back to London, sir?

Jonnie Robinson (Lead Curator for Sociolinguistics) writes about his observations on dialect in Warwickshire in relation to the BBC Voices collection. From 'babby' to 'batch' - read about some of the linguistic highlights in this collection in his most recent post on the British Library Sounds blog.

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