Where have all the AusE sociolinguists gone?

Harriet Sheppard and Jonathan Schlossberg recap the March Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

 

Topic: Is the study of Australian languages at the expense of the study of Australian English variation?

Australian linguists are world renowned for their work on the description and documentation of indigenous languages. It is remarkable (to this outsider), given such a febrile research environment, that so little descriptive work seems to be being done on dialects of Australian English compared to the study of English variation in other nations. Can it really be true that Masterchef Australia has more to contribute to the analysis and documentation of Australian English than Australian linguistics does? I’d be interested in hearing from local (socio) linguists whether they think a focus on indigenous languages will necessarily be at the expense of the regional varieties of English in Australia.

 

A large contingent turned out for the March LIP, with representatives from Melbourne, Monash and La Trobe Universities, including many sociolinguists. The discussion was led by special guest Prof Miriam Meyerhoff (Victoria University of Wellington).

Meyerhoff opened the discussion with a caveat of the evening’s topic, highlighting that it had been proposed playfully and wasn’t meant to offend anyone or question the validity and urgency of linguistic work on Australian languages, rather that she was simply curious about the relative lack of research conducted on Australian English (AusE) varieties. Meyerhoff noted that while there is a considerable amount of literature on varieties of New Zealand English (NZE), there appears, to an outsider, to be a relative dearth of work carried out on AusE and its varieties and chose the topic after watching Australian MasterChef last year, and being struck by the variation that some of the participants displayed in their AusE which appears to go unnoticed in the variationist literature.

The discussion started by considering whether we are too busy communicating and therefore are not aware of the variation in  the AusE spoken around us. Many researchers present disagreed with this potential explanation for the lack of work on AusE. One researcher commented that he hadn’t been as fully aware of AusE variation until he moved from interstate to Melbourne and was exposed to varieties from an area that wasn’t his own. International researchers in attendance, who had only recently moved to Australia, also remarked upon how struck they were by the variation they heard from AusE speakers. One researcher pointed out that it isn’t just linguists who are aware and interested in AusE variation, as it is an ever popular topic of talkback radio discussion.

The popularity of the evening would suggest that there is in fact a community of linguists currently working towards expanding our knowledge of variation in AusE. Meyerhoff compared the situation in Australia, where language documentation is comparatively well supported but variationist research is less common, with that of New Zealand where the opposite is true. Some participants questioned whether the two subfields should be compared to one another at all and whether limited resources, both in terms of funding and linguistic ‘manpower’ must necessarily be a zero-sum game. From here the discussion turned to the various problems associated with getting researchers to do sociolinguistic research.

The discussion then turned to considering other barriers that are contributing to the relative lack of research and output on our English varieties compared to places like the US, where there is both a strong tradition in documenting and describing Native American languages and in investigating American English varieties. One researcher pointed out that we simply don’t have the same sort of linguistic personpower  that places like the US have and that we don’t sell linguistics as a subject to the public or our students as effectively as we probably should.

This also brought up a discussion among the sociolinguists present on the topic of selling their projects within their subfield, one researcher said that one of their own projects didn’t receive funding due to critiques from fellow AusE sociolinguists. This led on to the researchers present considering whether fellow documentary and descriptive researchers are more supportive of colleagues’ projects than other areas of linguistics. One linguist who works on Australian languages highlighted that there are more conferences and gatherings for those documenting and describing Australian languages than for those linguists investigating AusE. It was also pointed out that it is easier to justify the funding and resources for endangered languages than for a majority language like AusE.

Discussions of funding also lead to debate about what resources are actually needed to carry out research into AusE. While some pointed out that, unfortunately, projects are frequently not taken seriously without a big grant attached to them, discussion turned to how sociolinguists in Australia could potentially adopt more opportunistic data collection strategies. This discussion produced many interesting and potentially fruitful suggestions for the future as well as considering some projects that are already underway, such as the Austalk corpus which is in its final year of data collection. The Austalk project is a joint project between 11 universities around the country, collecting spoken AusE data from 1000 speakers and promises to be a very interesting and valuable resource to AusE researchers in the near future. It was suggested that we could possibly introduce data collecting to our undergraduate students in order to build new corpora of AusE, potentially in a manner comparable with undergraduate psychology students who have hurdle requirements to participate in a certain number of psychology studies before they complete their undergraduate studies.

One researcher discussed a data collection that was undertaken by linguists in Glasgow by setting up a stall at the city’s science centre and collecting data from interested members of the public who approached them to volunteer their participation. It was suggested Melbourne researchers could do similar data collection by setting up stalls at places like the Queen Victoria Market or the Immigration Museum, with an additional benefit of such a data collection technique being that we could simultaneously educate the public about what we, as linguists, do. One researcher also discussed a current project they are involved in which involves crowdsourcing for both the recording and transcription processes and consent is then tacitly given when speakers deposit data to the project. It was also suggested that researchers could bypass some of the institutional hurdles (although of course not ethical ones) that universities impose on researchers, by being affiliated with NGOs such as RNLD, therefore potentially expediting parts of the research process.

The somewhat provocative topic description of this month’s LIP attracted a bevy of researchers from across Melbourne’s linguistics departments. The outsider perspective of Meyerhoff (as well as our other international guests) lent a unique view on the state of variationist research in Australia.

The next Linguistics in the Pub will be on Tuesday April 28th at the Prince Alfred Hotel, Carlton on elicitation methodology.

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