In the Shadow of the Standard – a workshop

Olivia Walsh
University of Nottingham

On Saturday 22 September 2018, I organized a workshop, ‘In the Shadow of the Standard’, at the University of Nottingham. The aim of the workshop was two-fold: firstly, to explore new perspectives on how attitudes towards standard languages interact with, and influence, attitudes towards other language varieties or usages; secondly, to afford an opportunity for Early Career Scholars to network.

When we study or talk about language, we reflect particular language ideologies, that is, beliefs about language or about the relationship between language and society, which are often then used to justify or rationalize particular language uses (Silverstein 1979: 193). One of these beliefs is that ‘language homogeneity’ is a ‘natural state’ (Kroskrity 2000: 26) and that one particular form of language, the ‘standard’ language, is superior to others. This is standard language ideology (SLI, see Lippi-Green 2012), and it feeds directly into attitudes towards and about language, affecting attitudes towards both ‘non-standard’ usages (that is, deviations from the norm as codified/prescribed in grammars and dictionaries) and also towards language varieties which are viewed as ‘non-standard’ (for example, regional or minority varieties).

Even though, as sociolinguists – all participants in the workshop could be classed as such – we are acutely aware of the issue, it can still be very difficult to talk about non-standard varieties or usages without resorting to reference to the standard. To use my work on the French spoken in Quebec as an example, where I talk about ‘archaisms’ in Québécois French, in fact, these are only archaic with reference to the standard French of France; they never fell out of usage in Quebec. By using the term ‘archaic’, I am therefore inadvertently referencing the standard French of France, even though I do not directly mention it. Equally, speakers who are not necessarily consciously aware of a standard variety may still subconsciously reference it, as when they call out transgressions from it on social media. We have all seen online memes on ‘bad’ spelling or the incorrect use of apostrophes, and in these, using non-standard language online is viewed not only as something negative, but very often allows someone’s general knowledge or even their intelligence to be called into question.

But why is this important? Well, attitudes towards both standard and non-standard languages or usages – whether they are conscious or not – are important because they can have real-life consequences; we know that they are frequently linked to preferential treatment on the one hand, or discrimination, on the other, of speakers of certain varieties. For example, negative attitudes towards certain non-standard accents are widespread, and this can have significant consequences for speakers with those accents. Such attitudes may lead employers to decide to employ a speaker with a standard accent over an equally qualified one with a non-standard accent. Various studies have shown that reactions to different speech varieties in fact reflect a set of attitudes towards, or beliefs about, the speakers themselves and not just about the language that they speak (Edwards 1999: 103-04).

Standard languages always exist alongside other languages and language varieties – including ‘non-standard’ varieties of the standard language itself – and nearly every speaker of a standard language will use, or at least be exposed to, one or more of these other varieties. But in spite of this, a lot of research on standard language ideology to date has focussed on standard languages in (perceived) monolingual nations, particularly those in Western Europe (see Joseph 1987; Lodge 1993; Linn and McLelland 2002; Hickey 2012; Milroy and Milroy 2012). Instead of taking a monolingual perspective, the aim of this workshop was to examine standard language ideology in the context of diverse and often multiple languages, identities and cultures and the outcomes of this reality in shaping speaker attitudes towards the standard and other varieties.

Given the dual aim of exploring SLI and networking, the day was divided into two parts. In the morning, a really fascinating keynote talk by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Professor of English Socio-Historical Linguistics at the University of Leiden, on usage guides in English (including a very amusing overview of a usage guide called ‘Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English’) was followed by two ‘regular’ conference sessions. By this I mean three 20 minute papers with 10 minutes questions afterwards.

Later on, a PechaKucha session was held. PechaKucha presentations are short talks using PowerPoint which consist of 20 slides which last 20 seconds each, timed to move on automatically. I decided to use this format because the short length of presentations meant that we could hear from a much higher number of early career researchers about their research in a limited time-frame. However, this was an innovation for me – and I think for most people in the room! – and I was slightly nervous beforehand. Given that the slides move on automatically, there is very little room for hestitating, hedging, backtracking, recapitulating or any of the other things we all do so often when presenting.

Due to a last-minute drop-out, I also ended up preparing a PechaKucha presentation myself and can confirm that it is indeed a difficult task! However, it was really successful, with all of the other participants doing magnificently (I can’t speak for myself here) – providing lucid, detailed, but concise introductions to their research while keeping strictly to time – no mean feat, particularly for those who were presenting in what is a second language for them. Very impressive! As Nicola McLelland posted on Twitter:

The broad range of papers at the workshop meant that a wide array of approaches to language standardisation were discussed with reference to various political, cultural and linguistic contexts, both European and non-European. Topics ranged from discussions of standard varieties such as standard English (Ingrid Tieken) and standard Chinese (Hui [Annette] Zhao); to regional languages such as Occitan and Catalan (Damien Mooney and James Hawkey) and Luxembourgish (John Bellamy); social varieties such as Multicultural London English (Ruth Kircher); and also non-standard regional varieties spoken in a new location that is both geographically and socially distant from the original location, namely two diasporic speech communities in London: Cypriot Turkish (Çise Çavuşoğlu) and Cypriot Greek (Petros Karatsareas).

The PechaKucha presentations were equally broad-ranging, covering topics as diverse as regional or minority languages including Breton (Merryn Davies-Deacon) and the minority languages of Russia (Svetlana Jedygarova), to discussions of various varieties of French (Emma Humphries, Sara Cotelli Kureth), the Bristolian dialect (Katiuska Ferrer-Portillo), Japanese as a heritage language (Nahoko Mulvey) and British sign language (Kate Rowley) (shout out to the BSL interpreters, Susan Booth and Christopher Stone, who interpreted all day with no sign of fatigue, even coping with myself and Damien Mooney’s ridiculously speedy speech – you might call it the Irish gift of the gab!).

The papers covered not only a broad range of languages and cultures, but also a broad range of research perspectives, including qualitative and quantitative sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, language policy, language ethnography and heritage linguistics. A broad range of sources were used for the various studies discussed, including interviews, surveys, newspaper articles, policy documents, textual and audio-visual internet data, speaker observations and recordings of naturally occurring speech. This allowed participants to explore the role played by SLI in informing attitudes towards a broad array of language varieties in different cultural contexts, examining the subject through the lens of nation building, identity creation and maintenance, minority languages, plurilingualism and language policy.

This really highlighted the importance of taking a very broad view of the role played by standard language ideology in informing language attitudes and further supported the argument that standardization really cannot be viewed solely as a monolithic model, but must be considered in its true multilingual and multicultural context. There has been an acknowledgment of this in recent years and it has been the subject of some recent research projects. For example, the MEITS project (which very kindly funded the travel bursaries for the workshop) is doing a lot of exciting work on various aspects of standardisation, identity and multilingualism; Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade and Carol Percy’s 2016 edited volume, Prescription and Tradition in Language. Establishing Standards across Time and Space deals with an impressively broad range of languages and time-periods in the context of standardisation and prescriptivism; and there has been important recent work on plurilingualism, that is, on how we deal with geographical variants of a language that is considered to have one highly standardised form, including Leigh Oakes and Yael Peled’s 2018 Normative Language Policy: Ethics, Politics, Principles and Darren Paffey’s 2012 Language Ideologies and the Globalization of ‘standard’ Spanish.

The workshop was therefore timely and its outputs (a special issue is planned) should provide a further perspective on the variation inherent in all contexts where a standard language ideology exists. A further outcome of the conference, as pointed out by attendee Mara Fuertes-Gutierrez (Open University), was the need for linguists to communicate their findings better to the general public. John Bellamy, for example, noted that speakers of Luxembourgish are frequently unaware of official language policy; my own research has shown a similar problem in France.

The second aim of the workshop – for it to act as a forum for networking – was really to create a space where connections with researchers at a similar stage of career were facilitated. I know that I personally often get very stuck into my own field in French, and can sometimes miss making connections with other scholars who are working in similar areas in different languages or in areas that may be connected but not directly. I think creating an environment where people can meet who might not always be attending the same kinds of conferences or hearing about each other’s work is therefore really valuable.

I also really wanted the emphasis of this workshop to be on early career, because while it is naturally important to make connections with, and to work with, more established and experienced scholars – I have had some really excellent mentoring from senior colleagues – I think it is equally important to build connections and relationships with your direct peers. I have already had conversations with early career colleagues that I know are going to change the direction my research is taking, so I know how fruitful such relationships can be. They are important not only from a professional point of view, but also from a support perspective. In the current climate – in particular, the current proliferation of precarious positions in academia – being an early career researcher can be really hard and disheartening and can be surprisingly lonely. Some of the people I have met at my stage of career have not only been really inspirational to me in terms of research, but have also been great givers of advice and support at various stages and that’s been invaluable to me. With this in mind, I scheduled in plenty of time for coffee breaks and a longer than usual wine reception at the end of the day. The atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming, and everyone talked to everyone else. It certainly felt like there was a lot of networking going on and this continued at the post-workshop dinner.

To sum up then, the workshop was a timely intervention in providing a further perspective on the variation inherent in all contexts where a standard language exists and on aspects of standardisation that have until lately been relatively neglected, examining languages other than the traditional, mainly Western European, subjects of standard language inquiry and using both traditional and more recent research perspectives and methodologies. It also provided a useful networking space for early career researchers who might have otherwise not happened across each other. Hopefully, this will lead to great new research in the future! Watch this space…

References

Edwards, J. (1999) ‘Refining our Understanding of Language Attitudes”, Journal of Language and Social Psychology 18: 101-110.

Hickey, R. (ed.) (2012) Standards of English: Codified Varieties around the World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Joseph, J. E. (1987) Eloquence and Power: the Rise of Language Standards and Standard Languages, New York: Basil Blackwell.

Kroskrity, P.V. (2000) ‘Regimenting Languages: Language Ideological Perspectives’, in Kroskrity, P.V. (ed.) Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities and Identities, Oxford: James Currey, pp. 1-34.

Linn, A. R. and N. McLelland (eds) (2002) Standardization: Studies from the Germanic Languages, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Lippi-Green, R. (2012) English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States, 2nd Ed., Abingdon/New York: Routledge.

Lodge, R. A. (1993) French: From Dialect to Standard, London/New York: Routledge.

Milroy, J. and L. Milroy (2012) Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English, 4th edition, London: Routledge.

Oakes, L. and Y. Peled (2018) Normative Language Policy: Ethics, Politics, Principles, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Paffey, D. J. (2012) Language Ideologies and the Globalization of ‘standard’ Spanish, New York: Bloomsbury.

Silverstein, M. (1979) ‘Language Structure and Linguistic Ideology’, in Clyne, P.R., W.F. Hanks and C.L. Hofbauer (eds) The Elements: A Parasession on Linguistic Units and Levels, Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society, pp. 193-247.

Taggart, C. (2010) Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English, London: National Trust.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, I. and C. Percy (2016) Prescription and Tradition in Language. Establishing Standards across Time and Space, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

How to cite this post

Walsh, Olivia. 2018. In the Shadow of the Standard – a workshop. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2018/09/28/shadow-of-the-standard/

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Posted in Article, Europe, History, Linguistics, Sociolinguistics
One comment on “In the Shadow of the Standard – a workshop
  1. Ít was a truly great workshop, very well organised, with excellent papers all round. It was also the first for me to have a paper signed, which was a very interesting experience. But extremely expertly done.

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