The Language of Organizational Styling

The Language of Organizational StylingPost written by author Lionel Wee discussing his recently published book The Language of Organizational Styling

Organizations are interesting because of the promise and problems they represent. They have promise because they allow individuals to pool their resources and scale up their activities, thus making it possible to achieve things at a supra-individual level. In fact, one might say that this is the very reason why organizations exist at all. At the same time, there is great irony in the fact that, having been created, many organizations then go on to acquire an existence and independence beyond the goals and wishes of their founders. Especially when constituted as virtual persons, organizations can make claims and exert rights that sometimes come into conflict with those of individuals.

One might say, with perhaps only slight exaggeration, that organizations are a form of artificial intelligence – created by us but then coming to have priorities and values that are not always within our control. And just like their better-known computational counterparts, organizations, too, are often portrayed in dystopian terms. Especially in popular media, big businesses are ideologically characterized as faceless, anonymous and profit-seeking entities that undermine the authentic nature of life in small towns and neighborhoods by eroding their individuality and rendering them homogeneous. Scholarly analyses are of course more nuanced, but even here, while organizations have figured prominently as direct objects of study in sociology and business studies, they have been somewhat neglected in sociolinguistics. Organizations usually come into play as part of the backdrop against which the activities of individuals or communities are constrained or enabled; they are rarely the actual focus.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, however, organizations are fascinating because – just like individual speakers – they are entities that employ various semiotic resources, in particular, linguistic resources in order to project specific kinds of identities, cultivate certain kinds of relationships with other organizations, and foster ties with the various communities. But precisely because organizations are entities sui generis, their communiqués and other linguistic activities cannot be reduced to those of the individuals who populate them without at the same time raising a number of conceptual problems. This is because the organization in principle exists above and beyond the intentions and activities of any single individual, however powerful or senior that person might be. And this raises the rather interesting question of how organizations might be best studied.

This is where the sociolinguistic notion of style proves useful, in my view. The analytical beauty of a style-theoretic framework is that it raises issues of strategy, agency and choice as being in need of more careful attention. Speakers make stylistic choices, though not always freely, which means that they have to be mindful of the social and political consequences of these choices. But curiously, the stylistic practices of organizations have not been subjected to any in-depth sociolinguistic analysis and theorizing, even though the extrapolation of style from speaker activity to organizational activity seems a natural one to make. And once this extension is seriously contemplated, we can start asking questions such as the following: Do organizations engage in styling the other? What might prompt an organization to attempt to re-style itself, and what kinds of linguistic maneuvers are involved? Given that big businesses are often seen as anathema to the preservation of a community’s identity, how do big businesses then attempt to overcome this ideological bias? How does talking about organizational styling differ from talking about branding or corporate communications? And perhaps most fundamental of all, does the application of the notion of style to organizational activity require us to revisit and re-evaluate any of our current assumptions about the nature of style (since the predominant tendency is to think of style in connection with people rather than organizations)?

The sociolinguistic study of organizations is relatively new but important, given how ubiquitous organizations are in our lives. Many of us work in organizations; we have our lives regulated by organizations; and more than a few of us join (religious, political, grassroots) organizations because we feel that the goals they pursue can give meanings to our lives.

Find out more on Lionel Wee’s new book ‘The Language of Organizational Styling’ published by Cambridge University Press.

Some unsolved questions about the languages of the Jews

written by Professor Bernard Spolsky

It’s great to be relevant! A few weeks after my sociolinguistic history of the Jewish people was published, a Reuters story highlighted a dispute between the visiting Pope Francis and the Israeli Prime Minister over the language spoken by Jesus (Reuter, 28 May 2014). “Jesus spoke Hebrew”, Netanyahu stated.  “Aramaic”, responded the Pope. He almost certainly knew both Hebrew and Aramaic, and also Greek (and maybe a little Latin), I would have answered, as I did in one of the earliest studies that I published that marked my growing interest in the language of the Jews.

But this disagreement turns out to be only one the many examples of disputes that I found in my research.  There are, I learned, scholars who argue that Jews stopped speaking Hebrew soon after they returned from the first exile in Babylonia (say about 700 BCE), and others who find evidence that it was still spoken after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, as late as the second century of the Common Era. A nine hundred year spread seems a lot; however, seeing we have very little direct evidence of who spoke what, but must depend on much later written sources, we can understand the uncertainties of historical sociolinguistics.

As I carried out my studies, a number of similar major disagreements and doubts emerged. One concerned the origin of the Jewish variety that developed strongest claims to status as a language, Yiddish. There are continuing arguments (some almost violent) about the location where Jews (still reading and writing Hebrew but speaking another variety derived from a non-Jewish “co-territorial” language) started to speak Medieval German and made it their own by adding many words and phrases from Hebrew (or actually from the Hebrew and Aramaic that had become the regular language of religious expression and literacy). The classic theory by the major scholar, Max Weinreich, holds that Yiddish started when Jews speaking a French-based language moved into the Rhineland, and before the Crusades set up barriers between them and Christians that drove them into ghettos, picked up the local spoken German dialect. Another theory (and one that Weinreich recognizes in the footnotes which add a second volume to his monumental history of Yiddish) argues that Yiddish developed further east, in Regensburg in Swabia.  Others suggest it developed further east even: one theory holds that it was Jews living in Prague speaking a Slavic based variety who adopted it from the German-speaking Swabian farmers who moved in and populated the region in the 13th century. There are more extreme theories: one Israeli scholar has put forward the notion that it derives from a relexified version of the language of the Sorbians who he believed converted to Judaism, and others relate it to the mythical accounts of the conversion of the Khazars (but recent research has challenged any genetic evidence for the Khazarian hypothesis that Koestler proposed, and has cast serious doubt on the stories of the conversion itself, just as unlikely as the 13th century belief that the invading Mongols were Jews or one of the missing Ten Tribes).

“…the fact that Jewish children mainly attended schools in the local national languages suggests that even without the
subsequent Soviet banning of Yiddish culture and the Nazi extermination of millions of its speakers, Yiddish too would soon
have become an endangered language”.

There is no question that East European Jews developed Yiddish into their main spoken language (although there were many variants that are traced in the major Yiddish dialect atlas that is now appearing), although they continued to pray and write Hebrew. Only in the late 19th century did Yiddish literature start to appear, reaching a high point in the 20th century between the two wars. Here again, there is a quarrel, for in spite of the double standardization (one by YIVO in Warsaw and Vilna, and the second under Soviet imprimatur  in Moscow) and the associated burgeoning of secular Yiddish writing, the fact that Jewish children mainly attended schools in the local national languages suggests that even without the subsequent Soviet banning of Yiddish culture and the Nazi extermination of millions of its speakers, Yiddish too would soon have become an endangered language.

Jewish varieties developed elsewhere in the extensive Diaspora.  Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 took with them a language variety which developed in North Africa into Haketia and in the Balkans and Turkey into Ladino, which itself developed in time a strong literature. Ladino was replaced in Turkey first by French (when the Alliance Israélite Universelle set up schools for Jews) and then by Turkish (reformed and established by Kemal Ataturk). Jews in the Arab speaking world developed varieties of Judeo-Arabic, used in the Middle Ages to write philosophical and religious works (as second class citizens, Jews and Christians under Islam were forbidden to learn Classical Arabic); in North Africa, they switched to French after colonization, and by the time they were expelled from Arabic countries after the UN decision in 1947, they had little loyalty to Arabic and were easily persuaded to adopt local hegemonic languages, whether Hebrew in Israel or French in France.

And in the West, emancipation and even more the introduction of compulsory state education in the national language, worked against the continuation of Jewish varieties, most of which by now are spoken if at all by the elderly. But there remain some signs of life – Yiddish has been adopted as a spoken variety for boys in some Hasidic sects. And there have grown up postvernacular activities for many of the languages: local groups that learn and read Yiddish or Ladino, theatres that present plays in these two languages and in Judeo-Arabic, web-sites that teach and preserve a number of Jewish varieties; for supporters, the varieties have symbolic and not communicative relevance. And there are signs of the creation of new Jewish varieties, such as the Jewish English learned by newly-observant young Jews, incorporating the Yiddish and Hebrew words and grammar of the Haredim.

The study of Jewish language varieties is quite new, and it is made especially difficult because the historical evidence we have of spoken language is limited, and dependent often on much later written developments. But tracing their history, we can learn how the wandering Jew fared in different times and places, and how Hebrew remained and still remains the main force for identity.

Find out more about The Languages of the Jews and download an excerpt here.

The Study of Language by George Yule | 5th Edition

The Study of Language has proven itself to be the student and instructor choice for first courses in language and linguistics because of its accessible approach to, what is often, a complicated subject. In every edition, readers have praised the book for being easy to follow, simple to understand, and fun to read, with its quirky anecdotes and examples of languages from around the world. Now in its fifth edition, it is further strengthened by the addition of new student ‘tasks’ (guiding readers to connect theory to real-world scenarios), including examples from even more foreign languages, and updating the text to reflect the most current linguistic theory. We will also be offering an enriched learning experience with our new enhanced eBook (publishing in Autumn), which will include pop-up glossary terms, embedded audio and interactive questioning. All of these features make this the most student-friendly edition of the textbook yet.


The Study of Language

Paragraph above by Valerie Appleby, Development Editor, Cambridge University Press

Cambridge University Press announces launch of the Journal of Linguistic Geography

Posted on behalf of Editors William Labov and Dennis Preston


Cambridge University Press is pleased to announce the launch of the new online-only Journal of Linguistic Geography (JLG). The journal’s goal is to open the flow of linguistic analysis using electronic formats (such as scalable maps and figures, searchable data sets, and embedded audio files) in a field that has long been blocked by technical factors. For all new subscribers, a comprehensive User Experience Guide provides an overview of the journal’s interactive capacities. Submissions to the journal are welcome and may be sent to Queries are welcome, too.

The journal is an official publication of the International Conference on Methods in Dialectology. Editors Bill Labov (University of Pennsylvania) and Dennis R. Preston (Oklahoma State University) are supported by Technical Editor Bartłomiej Plichta (University of Minnesota). The full editorial board can be viewed here.

The Journal of Linguistic Geography: From Concept to Creation

The stacks of our libraries are filled with magnificent atlases of linguistic geography. File cabinets throughout the world are filled with papers that have never appeared, faced with the problem of reducing maps to small black-and-white versions that convey only a small part of the information in the original.

There will be no limit on the size of maps submitted to the Journal of Linguistic Geography; they will be viewed in their entirety with the panning and zooming options that are second nature to users of the internet. Color is as fundamental as size in cartography, and in electronic publication, color is no more difficult or expensive than black-and-white.

Even more crucial to analytical reading is the relation between map and text, which in print may require a back-and-forth paging operation that challenges memory and even lead to accepting (or rejecting) the author’s statement without making a point-by-point inspection. In the Journal of Linguistic Geography, maps and figures open in a new window, allowing the reader to make a direct comparison between what is said and what is shown.

A further advantage of the journal’s format is that of sound samples in the electronic page. They will not replace IPA notation, but rather serve to refine and encourage the use of phonetic notation.

Reading the Journal of Linguistic Geography will also show that technical innovations are not confined to modes of display. New developments in mathematical analysis of spatial patterns are represented and may include substantial appendices, since the space limitations of print journals do not apply.

So much for form. But what about content?

To put it simply, linguistic geography is concerned with the spatial differentiation of linguistic forms. Teachers of introductory linguistics find that students are fascinated with the fact there are regions nearby where speakers use ‘X’ to refer to what is (“rightly”) called ‘Y.’ This fascination with the facts of the matter impedes rather than encourages the development of our field as a branch of linguistic science. JLG hopes to mobilize those facts in pursuit of a better understanding of the nature of language structure and language change. Our interest is focused on those connections within language that reflect the impact of a given change on other members of the system. A submission that traces distribution of isolated forms or sounds will receive our full attention when it is woven into the fabric of relations that turn words into language.

We do not disprefer studies of the lexicon, but we encourage authors to display the use of a form against the background of competing and complimentary forms, showing what meanings are found for a given form as well as what forms are found for a given meaning.

Fields of structural relationships are most clearly delineated in phonology, and we would be surprised not to receive submissions dealing with the geography of chain shifts, splits and mergers, but we hope to deal with the geography of the full range of linguistic structures.

We invite studies of the perception of speech as well as production. We are interested in both how linguistic varieties across and within regions are heard and processed and how non-linguists perceive the spatial distribution of varieties, particularly when such studies shed light on the characteristics of language variation and change.

The fact that we are named the Journal of Linguistic Geography is not without significance, but the linguistics we appeal to is not just that of the internal relations of linguistic forms. It is also outwardly defined to include the social, historical and economic contexts in which language is formed and used. Thus we expect to find maps reflecting population growth and movement, out- and in-migration, political trends and voting records as well as highway and railroad networks.

Our Editorial Board comprises a group of distinguished linguists from throughout the world.  Learn more about these board members and how their own published work illustrates research of the scope and quality we hope to feature in the journal.

Romanian Words of Turkish Origin

by Julie Tetel Andresen
Duke University, North Carolina

My favorite words in Romanian are those of Turkish origin. Because parts of present-day Romania were under Ottoman rule for a long time, it’s natural that Romanian would have lexical borrowings from Turkish. One is the word for tulip. Now, tulips are not native to Holland. They are native to Central Asia, and in the eighteenth century there was a craze for tulips at the Ottoman court, and images of tulips could be found on clothing and furniture, while real tulips flourished in gardens and parks. Still today the tulip is a symbol for Turkey. The English word ‘tulip’ comes from the Turkish word tulbend ‘turban’ because the flower resembles the shape of a turban. However, the Turkish word is lâle, and the Romanian word is lalea.

Why do I like this word? Because it’s fun to say, especially in the plural: ‘tulips’ is lalele and ‘the tulips’ is lalelele. There’s ‘coffee’ cafea, ‘coffees’ cafele, and ‘coffees’ cafelele. Same goes for ‘hinge’ balama, plural ‘hinges’ balamale and ‘the hinges’ balamalele and for ‘crane (piece of construction equipment)’ macara, ‘cranes’ macarale and ‘cranes’ macaralele. Not all Turkish borrowings have the phonetic form that generates these plurals, and not all words in Romanian with this plural type come from Turkish, but most of them do.

The other reason I like Turkish borrowings in Romanian is they often come with nice semantic twists. The word belea is usually used in the plural belele and means ‘troubles,’ which is tinged almost, but not quite, with a sense of the ridiculous. When I think of ‘my troubles’ as belelele mele, they don’t seem so bad. And what could be better than the word beizadea ‘son of a bei, a high ranking Turkish official’? It would never be used in Romanian as a compliment, and we need such a word in English, because entitled spoiled brat doesn’t quite cover it.

Finally, there’s the Romanian word for ‘neighborhood, suburb’ mahala, and it, too, is freighted with negative connotations. The politică de mahala, which includes personal attacks and reckless speech, would characterize much of what’s gone on in Washington DC is recent years. Those readers with knowledge of Arabic will recognize the root halla ‘to lodge’ with the place prefix ma-, making a word that means something like ‘building.’ So, the Turkish borrowing is itself a borrowing from Arabic. This word was also borrowed into Persian and is immortalized in the name Taj Mahal, which means in Persian ‘best of buildings.’ So, in the western extent of this etymon, we have a down-market usage, while in the eastern extent, we find something beautiful. Romania has its beauties, too. They’re found in the language.

Analysing codeswitching practices in super-diverse settings

a blog post by Zane Goebel, La Trobe University, Australia

While super-diversity has increasingly become an issue to grapple with in anthropological studies focusing on urban settings (e.g. Blommaert, 2010; Vertovec, 2007), in Indonesia super-diversity has been a concern at least since the emergence of an anti-colonial nationalist movements in the 1920s (Elson, 2008). One significant off-shoot of attempts to come to terms with this diversity were attempts at standardizing a variety of Malay with the idea of it being used as a lingua franca amongst an archipelago of ethnolinguistic others. By the early 1970s Indonesia’s attempt at standardizing and circulating a ‘standard’ was hailed as a significant success by such notable figures as the sociolinguist Joshua Fishman (Dardjowidjojo, 1998). As an important Australian neighbour, there was also much activity surrounding the teaching of Indonesian in Universities and Australian schools since the late 1950s (Reeve & Read, 2010). For example, by the mid 1990s there were large numbers of primary school, secondary school, and university students studying Indonesian with many engaging two to six weeks of in in-country intensive study or even longer exchange type programs. For those students who returned a common complaint was that what they had learned in class was very different to what they had heard, learned and spoke while in Indonesia (e.g. Sneddon, 2003).

I was one of these students in 1992 and then again in 1993. Following my return from an exchange at Diponegoro University, which is situated on the North coast of Semarang (Central Java), I did some tutoring in Indonesian as I contemplated what to do with an honours degree. As I reflected upon my experiences in Indonesia and on my teaching, one of the things that struck me about teaching materials and about discourses about Indonesian more generally was the lack of empirical research that had been done on what actually happens in interactions amongst Indonesians from different areas of the archipelago. For example, early ethnographic treatments only mentioned this issue in passing (e.g. Kartomihardjo, 1981; Wolff & Poedjosoedarmo, 1982). I had a PhD topic! As I familiarised myself with early primarily US-based anthropological and linguistic anthropological studies I found that these scholars spent years in the field (Bloch, 1976; Geertz, 1973; Hymes, 1972): perfect for someone with a topic a scholarship and no post-PhD plans! While my final PhD dissertation was heavily dependent on research in the field of codeswitching, at that stage I hadn’t yet identified the gaps that became apparent nearly ten years later as I read work on semiotics and interaction by Asif Agha (2007) and Stanton Wortham (2006). For example, this work suggests that in order to interpret situated social identification we need to pay attention to participant trajectories across several timescales, including their exposure to circulating ideas linking signs to social types and their associated semiotic systems while also taking a semiotic approach to codeswitching.

Although there have been many excellent ethnographic studies of codeswitching practices (Kulick, 1992), some of which also focus on the links between codeswitching and language ideologies (e.g. Errington, 1998), recent treatments of codeswitching that attempt to build bridges between different paradigms (e.g. Gafaranga, 2007; Gardner-Chloros, 2009) have yet to integrate ideas about participant trajectories and time-scales. While this may be because the different paradigms that focus on codeswitching practices ask different questions, in Language, Migration, and Identity I attempt to add to these and earlier bridge-building efforts (e.g. Auer, 1998; Heller, 1988) by showing how these ideas can be incorporated in studies of interaction in settings characterized by transience and diversity.

Language, Migration and IdentityZane Goebel’s book Language, Migration and Identity: Neighborhood Talk in Indonesia is available now from Cambridge University Press.


Agha, A. (2007). Language and social relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Auer, P. (Ed.). (1998). Code-Switching in Conversation: Language, Interaction and Identity. New York: Routledge.

Bloch, M. (1976). Review of Bauman, R., & Sherzer, J. (Eds) Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking. Language in Society, 5(2), 229-234.

Blommaert, J. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dardjowidjojo, S. (1998). Strategies for a successful national language policy: The Indonesian case. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 130, 35-47.

Elson, R. (2008). The idea of Indonesia: A history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Errington, J. (1998). Shifting languages: Interaction and identity in Javanese Indonesia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gafaranga, J. (2007). Talk in Two Languages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gardner-Chloros, P. (2009). Code-switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books Inc. Publishers.

Heller, M. (Ed.). (1988). Codeswitching: anthropological and sociolinguistic perspectives. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Hymes, D. (1972). Models of the interaction of language and social life. In J. Gumperz & D. Hymes (Eds.), Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication (pp. 35-71). New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Kartomihardjo, S. (1981). Ethnography of communicative codes in East Java. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

Kulick, D. (1992). Language shift and cultural reproduction: Socialization, self, and syncretism in a Papua New Guinean village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reeve, D., & Read, J. (2010). Teaching Indonesian in Australia. Retrieved from

Sneddon, J. N. (2003). The Indonesian language: Its history and role in modern society. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Vertovec, S. (2007). Introduction: New directions in the anthropology of migration and multiculturalism. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(6), 961-978.

Wolff, J., & Poedjosoedarmo, S. (1982). Communicative codes in Central Java. New York: Cornell University.

Wortham, S. (2006). Learning identity: The joint emergence of social identification and academic learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently

Duels and DuetsA blog post by John L. Locke

It has long been known that men and women talk differently when conversing with members of the opposite sex. This has never been explained, but insights emerge from same-sex conversations where, free of the need to accommodate to each other, deeper differences between men and women readily bob to the surface.

In Duels and Duets, I claim that modern men and women talk differently because our male and female ancestors followed different evolutionary paths.  Since men were selected to aggress and dominate, but could end up killing themselves, they needed a safer way of achieving their goals. Ritualized duels, using words instead of weapons, filled the bill.  Verbal duels also provided a way for me to display the fitness information that women needed in making their long-term mating choices.

In a number of traditional societies, anthropologists have encountered various contests, from song duels to drum duels, poetic duels, and sung poetic duels – all fought with words, and all fought by men.  By itself, this is intriguing, but the underlying disposition to duel also leeches into the speech of men in modern societies, even when they are merely socializing with their colleagues and friends. In these ordinary duels, men denigrate their friends in a humorous way, often before an audience, but they also hold competitive joke- and story-telling sessions that feature verbal artistry.

Today, many men see themselves as performers, seeking eloquence where it could attract favorable attention from women and men, and portraying themselves as heroes in the stories they tell.  One trial lawyer, so theatrical in the courtroom that someone said he should have been an actor, responded, “What do you mean ‘should have been’?”

For reasons I describe in the book, women have tended to compete with other women indirectly, through mutual friends, and they have enlisted a more harmonious way of talking to build their relationships.  In these duets, women create feelings of closeness through intimate disclosures about others and themselves.  Gossip, the name we give to conversations that impart information about others, derives from “god-sibs” – originally “God’s siblings” – the 15th and 16th century women who gathered in bedrooms to witness new births but, while awaiting the natal event, discussed matters of mutual interest.  An unusually pure form of duetting occurs when women collaborate, effectively co-authoring and co-telling their personal stories.

Some books on “gendered language” say that little boys learn to talk like their father, and little girls imitate their mother.  But it is clear that males and females come into the world pre-wired to engage with other members of their sex in vastly different ways.  The endocrine system plays an important role here, supporting various relationships between the speaking voice and reproduction.  Men who enjoy locking verbal horns in public also tend to have more testosterone than others – trial lawyers are off the charts.

The adaptive value of this is revealed, predictably, on the evaluative side of the equation: women prefer men with low-pitched voices, especially during the high fertility phase of their menstrual cycle.  In this sense, women literally call the tune.  But other areas of speech and language are also involved in courtship, and I discuss the things that men do, in their speaking behaviors, to convince women that they have the right biological stuff.  Of course, duetting has its own set of physiological supports.  Intimate vocalization tends to increase oxytocin, which appears to facilitate emotional connection, and to decrease cortisol, a stress hormone.

How discrete are the relationships between the human sexes and their preferred ways of talking?  I’ve found lots of cases, historically, where women verbally assaulted each other, but these assaults were typically genuine – lodged in anger, usually as a form of reprisal for a perceived injustice – not as a way of posturing or relating, and none was ritualized.  Women may denigrate themselves, but they do not insult their close women friends, even humorously.  Men do talk quietly and privately with other men, but they usually shy away from the intimate self-disclosures that could increase their vulnerability, and they rarely work through other men in their efforts to compete with male rivals.  If they have something to say to a foe or competitor, they usually go up to him and say it.

Toward the end of the book, I revisit linguistic evolution, suggesting that if human language is built the way it is because the designers, the ancient human architects, were built the way that they were, then the shape of language would have been formed around these innately scripted preferences and priorities.  But how did this happen?  How did the human sexes’ ways of relating and interacting affect the design of spoken language?  In earlier chapters I focus on the things that language, as a communicative tool, has done for men and women; in the final chapter I ask what men and women did for language.


In recent years, writers have discussed the fact that speaking differences can cause couples to clash in their conversations.  But couples also need to collaborate in carrying out a broad range of domestic operations, from getting the car fixed to raising the children, paying the bills, and maintaining some sort of social schedule.  Teams usually work better if the members bring different strengths to the table, and divide up the responsibilities.  Different speaking strategies, I suggest, can and do help men and women to mesh in their lives.


John L. Locke is the author of Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently. Click here to find out more about the book and order your copy today for just £14.99 / $28.00

Why not listen to Professor Locke in discussion with Kirsten Hoge on Woman’s Hour

Accent and dialect in Australian politics

Written by Jeff Siegel

In Australia, the New South Wales state elections will be held on 26 March, and once again the American accent of the incumbent Premier, Kristina Keneally, has come into the news. Many of the issues discussed in the press and on blogs are reminiscent of the themes in my book, Second Dialect Acquisition.

Ms Keneally was born in Ohio to an Australian mother and an American father. She married an Australian, moved to Australia in 1994 and became a citizen in 2000. Although she now considers Australia her home and has only an Australian passport, she has not acquired Australian English. This is not surprising, since was 25 years old when she moved to Australia, and it is extremely difficult to learn a new dialect after childhood.

Ms Keneally joined the Labor party and was elected to the House of Representatives of the NSW State Parliament in 2003. In parliamentary debates, she was sometimes ridiculed for not speaking Australian English. For example, one time she appeared to disobey a ruling from the Speaker that she should conclude an answer. The Shadow Leader of the House rose and questioned whether the minister with the American accent “doesn’t understand Australian”.[i]

In 2009, Ms Keneally began to be viewed as a potential leader of the Labor party, and thus the future state Premier. But Australian English is an important part of national identity, and there were rumours that the power-brokers were worried that her American accent would be a turn-off for voters. One political commentator specifically referred to “fears of how that accent will play in western Sydney” (a crucial political area of the city).[ii]

At the same time, other rumours began to circulate that Ms Keneally was undergoing accent modification training to learn Australian English. Commentators noted that her accent was becoming a mixture of American and Australian. One wrote that her accent “sounds as if it set off from California and, at some indeterminate point over the Pacific Ocean, met [Australian golfer] Greg Norman’s accent coming the other way”.[iii] He continued:

It is difficult to describe Keneally’s pronunciation to those who haven’t heard it: suffice it to say that, in parliament, ‘Mr Speaker’ emerges as ‘Mr Spayka’, and that she has never seen a terminal ‘g’ that she did not make a valiant attempt to drop.”

However, Ms Keneally strenuously denied any voice training, saying: “If people think I have either the time or the inclination to stand around practising vowel sounds and dropping ‘r’s — no.” She also expressed the common view that one’s accent is an intrinsic characteristic of their true self: “My voice is as much a part of me as my eye colour or my heart.”[iv]

Nevertheless, in December 2009, Ms Keneally won a party leadership challenge and became the first female Premier of NSW. But her accent was still an issue. In an interview, she was again asked if she had done voice training. Her reply was: “Do you think I’m some sort of Eliza Doolittle, sitting around with some fellow getting me to say ‘the rain in, you know, Spain’?”[v] But in a Sydney Morning Herald online reader poll, 39.8 percent answered “yes” to the question: “Does Kristina Keneally’s American accent annoy you?”[vi]

Negative comments continued during her premiership. For example, one blogger wrote: “I saw her in an interview last night on Lateline [TV show] and her accent was a painful conglomeration. She is obviously attempting to hide her natural accent and in doing so, sounds like a hybrid of numerous clashing vowel pronunciations.”[vii] There is even a facebook page titled, “Kristina Keneally’s accent kills me”, with the description: “doesnt that australian-cross-american accent just make you cringe”.[viii]

In the final sitting of state Parliament before election, the Leader of the Opposition, Barry O’Farrell, presented Ms Keneally with a copy of The Little Aussie Fact Book, reminding voters of her American origins and suggesting she still had a lot to learn about Australia. In response to this stunt and to allowing his front bench to heckle her about her American accent, she said:

I go to question time and comments are made about my accent, interjections are hurled that I wasn’t in the country at this point or that point and then that sort of really immature, juvenile gesture by the leader of the opposition (to present the book).[ix]

The campaign had begun.

While the vast majority of the electorate will be rightfully focusing on political issues rather than superficial characteristics of the candidates, some voters are still hung up on the Premier’s accent, reflecting the common folk view that by changing their accent, a person is pretending to be someone they’re not.

[i] “Blinking Hazzard makes Keneally see red”, Andrew Clennell, Sydney Morning Herald, October 22, 2009.

[ii] “Labor Right’s future linked to an American accent”, Imre Salusinszky, 
The Australian, September 19, 2009.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Tear and fears: a day in the life of the Premier”. Andrew Clennell, Sydney Morning Herald, December 12, 2009.

[vi] Sydney Morning Herald, December 12-13, p.4.

[vii] sporty1, April 15, 2010,;wap2


[ix] “I’ll get personal, Keneally warns”. Heath Aston, Sydney Morning Herald, December 12, 2010.

Jeff Siegel’s title Second Dialect Acquisition is available now:

Peter Trudgill on English in Retreat

“The history of the geographical spread of English outwards from the British Isles is a familiar story. During the course of the 1600s, there was an explosive expansion of the English language across the Atlantic Ocean, with settlements in what is now the USA, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and the Bahamas; and then during the 1700s in Canada. By the mid 1800s, English as a native language had extended its reach into the Southern Hemisphere, arriving in Australia, South Africa, the Falkland Islands, and New Zealand. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, English continues to spread as a native language, as a second language, and as a foreign language.

“However, this tale of inexorable spread is not the whole story. There are actually a number of places in the world where English-speaking communities are under pressure from other languages, and where there is a possibility of language shift – the process whereby a community abandons its native language and adopts another – taking place.

“One striking example of English under threat concerns perhaps the least-known anglophone community in the world. These are the Bonin Islands, as mentioned in Investigations in Sociohistorical Linguistics: stories of colonisation and contact. The islands are in the central Pacific Ocean, about 500 miles southeast of Japan proper. The current population is about 2,000. The uninhabited islands were discovered by the Spanish navigator Ruy Lopez de Villalobos in 1543. They were then claimed by the U.S. in 1823 and by Britain in 1825. The islands were first settled in 1830 by 5 seamen: two Americans, one Englishmen, one Dane, one Italian; and ten Hawaiians, 5 men and 5 women. They were later joined by whalers, shipwrecked sailors, and drifters of many different origins, which led to the development of a unique form of English with many similarities to American New England varieties. The islands were formally annexed by Japan in 1876, but after World War II they were a placed under U.S. military control. They were then returned to Japan in 1968. Currently immigration from Japan is being followed by language shift to Japanese on the part of the original (part-)European origin population. If the Japanese-based American linguist Danny Long had not alerted us to this community, it is quite possible that this form of English would have died out without anybody knowing that it even existed, let alone what it was like.

“Other examples come from Central America. In the 1640s, parts of the eastern coastal areas of Central America and adjacent islands began to be occupied by groups of anglophones – one consequence of this which is not widely appreciated is that much of the Caribbean coastline of Central America, from Belize down to Colombia, is English-speaking to this day, with both British Isles-origin and African-origin speakers. The Honduran Bay Islands of  Roatan and Utila were occupied by English buccaneers in 1642, and Honduras was officially ceded by the British to the Spanish only in 1859. Today, however, in-migration to the islands from the Honduran mainland means that the communities are becoming increasingly Spanish speaking.

“More recently, during the late 19th century, there was large-scale expansion of native-speaking anglophones from some of the Caribbean islands, notably Jamaica, to eastern coastal areas of Costa Rica, focussing on Limón. They came to work on the construction of a railroad to transport coffee from the interior highlands to the coast. Today we find an unusual situation where English is a language which generally has lower status in Costa Rica than Spanish does. Spanish is the official language of the country, and is spoken natively by people who are mostly of European origin. The anglophones, on the other hand, are people of African origin who have in the past experienced considerable racial discrimination – until 1949 they were actually forbidden by law to travel from the coastal zone into the highlands.  Younger English speakers are now all bilingual in Spanish and English ­­– necessarily so, because they are required to speak Spanish in school – and recent reports suggest that English is giving way to Spanish to a certain extent, as is also happening on the English-speaking islands of Colombian and Nicaragua.

“In another example, the Dominican Republic is basically monolingual Spanish-speaking, but several regions of the country were settled in the 1820s by some 6,000 American ex-slaves who immigrated there through arrangements between the Haitian rulers of Santo Domingo, and American philanthropic agencies. One settlement was on the peninsula of Samaná. The anglophones there refer to themselves as ‘Americans’ and speak fluent English, some of them to the apparent total exclusion of Spanish.  Most of them cite Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey as the place of origin of their ancestors. There is now, however, considerable pressure on the community to shift to Spanish.

“A further interesting case goes back to the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Thousands of Americans from the defeated South then left the United States. Some went to Mexico and the West Indies, and some even made it as far as Japan and Egypt, but the largest number of those that left went to Brazil, perhaps as many as 40,000 of them, where they founded a number of settlements. The best known of these is called Americana, which is situated about 150 km northwest of Sao Paulo, and today has about 200, 000 inhabitants. The language of the community was for many decades a Southern variety of American English, and there are many hundreds of older people today who still speak a conservative form of English which has its roots in, particularly, Georgia and Alabama. Gradually, however, the community have become bilingual in English and Portuguese, and most younger people are as comfortable in Portuguese as in English, if not more so.

“We see, then, that there are cases in the world of English being threatened by major languages such as French, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese. However, in a final and most extraordinary example of English as an endangered language, we can note a remarkable case of a reversal of the usual tragic pattern of English killing off indigenous languages: in one small part of the word, English is dying out and being replaced by a Native American language. The language in question is Guaraní, the main indigenous language of Paraguay. The presence of English in Paraguay is the result of a Utopian Socialist settlement carried out from Australia in the 1890s, when a colony of perhaps 400 English-speaking people was established. Many of the descendants of these New Australia colonisers are still to be found in the area of the town of  Nueva Londres (formerly Nueva Australia),where the community retains English-language surnames and a collective memory of their Australian origins and customs. Large-scale language shift is taking place, however, and English is being lost as a native language: younger members of the community are now native-speakers of Guaraní.[1]“

Peter Trudgill

[1] I owe this up-to-date information about the situation in Paraguay to Danae Perez, of the University of Zurich.

Continue reading Peter Trudgill on English in Retreat

Language Diversity in the USA

Cambridge author Kim Potowski seeks to contribute to the appreciation and promotion of ethnolinguistic diversity in the United States:

Continue reading Language Diversity in the USA