Poster: ‘Roma acquisition of the Manchester lettER vowel’ presented at UKLVC10, University of York, 1-3 September 2015

Follow link below for a PDF version of my poster which was presented at UKLVC10, University of York, 1-3 September 2015:

‘Roma acquisition of the Manchester letter vowel.’



Fairytale of mondegreen

Thanks to the University of Brighton linguistics blog for my inspiration. After reading Liam Scholey’s post about how on earth we all manage to understand Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, I started thinking about Christmas song mondegreens.

A mondegreen is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase, often a poem or song lyric. One of the best-known mondegreens can be found in Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix where many people hear ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ instead of the actual lyric which is ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky‘.

The word mondegreen itself can be traced back to the American writer Sylvia Wright who in 1954 coined the term in her essay ‘The Death of Lady Mondegreen’. As a child, Wright heard a line from a poem as ‘They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, And Lady Mondegreen’. It wasn’t until later she realised that the actual line was: ‘They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, And laid him on the green’.

When we hear a mondegreen we sometimes mishear a word itself, but often we mishear where one word ends and the next one begins, as in the case of the Purple Haze lyric above. This is called misdivision. We reanalyse the sounds that we hear and try to match them with words that we know and ones that we think would fit into the sentence or story we’re hearing.

Christmas tree

Because of the way that Shane MacGowan, the lead singer of the Pogues, pronounces (or rather doesn’t pronounce) the words, Fairytale of New York does lend itself to a number of mondegreens. One of the most common being ‘God I’m the lucky one, came in at ten to one’ instead of the actual lyric: ‘Got on a lucky one, came in eighteen to one.’ There are quite a few more mondegreens from this song listed here.

One of my very favourite mondegreens ever comes from a dear friend of mine. After many many years of loving the song Golden Brown by The Stranglers, we were listening to it one time and my friend suddenly asked ‘What’s a mansheron?’ We all looked around puzzled and asked him for some clarification. He explained ‘The first lyrics of the song: “Golden Brown, texture like sun; Lays me down, with my mansherons”. What’s a mansheron?’ To which we all burst out laughing and told him what the actual lyrics are:

‘Golden Brown, texture like sun
Lays me down, with my mind she runs

I’m not even sure if it’s a true mondegreen as he made up an entirely new word, but I’ve never forgotten the term mondegreen since that day!

Have you got any mondegreens that you’ve heard? Oh and now you should definitely try listening (and singing) along to Fairytale of New York using the guide in the Brighton blog post. It’s a classic Christmas song. Enjoy.

The wonder of you, Twitter

Things  got away from me a little bit in the last week which was hectic to say the least. So, the greatly-imagined blog post I wanted to put up has not as yet materialised. I decided instead to write a brief, light-hearted one about just how great I think Twitter is.

Now, I’m sure for many of you who may be reading this, I’m preaching to the converted. However, I know that among certain of my friends, Twitter comes in for quite a bit of grief. Most of the complaints I hear involve something like ‘I just don’t get it’ and ‘It’s just a bunch of media idiots shouting about themselves’. So, I think my beloved ‘Twitterverse’ deserves a bit of appreciation and TLC from time to time.

It did take me a while to ‘get’ Twitter. I wasn’t sure who to ‘follow’ at first and wasn’t entirely sure why stalking had apparently become so popular. But once I decided to use it pretty much exclusively for work and found other people working in the same areas and with similar interests to me, I was quickly able to build up a network that provides me with an informative and stimulating set of tweets on my timeline whenever I go on.


As I said, I do only use Twitter for work. As with Facebook, I believe you create the cyber world around you. So, for example, my husband’s Facebook and Twitter worlds look very different from mine. He is a drummer and uses both Facebook and Twitter for social and work purposes. This manifests itself in him having a lot of enviable posts and tweets from amazing drummers playing somewhere awesome and lots of close ups of drum kits (seriously, how many drum kits does one man need to see?!). Whereas, my Facebook is primarily social – lots of status updates about what people are having for breakfast – and my Twitter is work – in general this means academic questions and articles and socio-political information about Roma affairs and migration.

However, the bare information traffic that passes through my timeline is only the start. The thing that I have really come to appreciate is the support and real sense of community that I find on Twitter. I am studying for my PhD in relative isolation. I’m the only sociolinguist at my uni and, being in my writing up year, I don’t always get out of the house as much as I should. Through Twitter, I am able to contact and have conversations with people involved in my field from all around the world. There is no way that I could have chatted so regularly and informally and on so many topics with these people without Twitter. Email just wouldn’t be the same.

I haven’t met most of my ‘Tweeps’ face-to-face, but still the support is there. If someone needs a research paper, there’s sure to be another person on there who can send it to them, and when we’re having PhD related crises, there are people out there who can understand and help (I adore my husband and he supports me greatly, but there are some things you just don’t get unless you’ve been through it yourself!). We can have a joke, and some people have even set up their own long-distance film nights!

So, to all those Twitter doubters out there, if any of you are reading this: firstly, there is no right or wrong way to use it, but if it helps, decide what purpose you want to use Twitter for and build your Twitterverse around that; go on regularly and contribute; show your own personality; and most of all have fun with it. My last word, in a very uncool, hip-hop stylie, goes out to all my Tweeps. Thanks for your ongoing support, entertainment, and advice (not necessarily in that order).

I jog therefore I sleep

Image from Nathan Rupert

Image from Nathan Rupert

I recently watched a fantastic speech that Tim Minchin made at a graduation ceremony. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a look. In the speech, he gives some excellent advice, and one suggestion was to ‘run, my beautiful intellectuals, run’.

I know already from twitter that a lot of my fellow linguists gain benefits from regular exercise, and it’s no secret that it can lower the risk of some chronic diseases, cancers, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. Regular exercise can also boost self-esteem, mood, energy and sleep quality, and reduce stress and depression.

So, after having a short period when I wasn’t sleeping well at night, I asked myself: why aren’t I doing some exercise?!

I’m now coming into the writing up year of my PhD, and things feel very different from my past nearly 5 years studying (2 years part time for my Masters and now nearly 3 years of PhD). While I did my Masters, I taught at an English language school. For the first three years of my PhD, as a Graduate Teaching Assistant, I taught at university. As well as teaching and lesson planning, my days were kept busy with fieldwork and the usual meetings, supervisions, seminars, library visits etc. However, this year, I’m not teaching and I’ve finished my fieldwork. I’m working from home with only my lovely dog, Lola, for company in the daytime. It’s a much more sedentary and solitary life than what I’m used to.

Basically, I need to get out more.

So, just under two weeks ago I started running (again), and I have to admit I really feel it’s making a difference. So far, I’ve been sleeping much better, I’m feeling much more focused and able to concentrate on my work, and I feel determined each day to complete my tasks. I even started this blog for goodness sake!

It’s early days, I know. It’s now October and here in Manchester, the days are getting shorter, greyer, colder, and wetter, so it’s not always going to be easy. I just hope I can keep motivated and continue to see the benefits.

Mixed methods can mean more

“If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called ‘research'”

Albert Einstein

As I was searching for ideas to start this blog, I happened upon an interesting post by leakygrammar about mixed methods research. His post, about the way that the combination of qualitative and quantitative are meant to bring out the best in each other but at times can leave the reader feeling ‘let down’, struck a chord with me because my research is firmly rooted within the mixed methods paradigm.

Mixed methods research combines elements of qualitative and quantitative research approaches in order to further our understanding of what is being investigated. Being able to confirm an argument or the existence of a phenomenon by using two or more independent methods should mean that uncertainty is greatly reduced. Where the use of mixed methods is appropriate, it can have a number of advantages. According to Johnson et al. (2007), mixed methods can:

  • allow researchers to be more confident of their results;
  • stimulate the development of creative ways of collecting data;
  • lead to thicker, richer data;
  • lead to the synthesis or integration of theories;
  • uncover contradictions;
  • by virtue of its comprehensiveness, serve as the litmus test for competing theories.
bird boxes community

Image from See-ming Lee

The article that leakygrammar discusses in his post investigates fluency development in a group of American college students studying Mandarin in China. By the end of the course the students’ fluencies all improve, but some people improve more than others. The author gathers quantitative data about how their fluency increases and uses qualitative observations to contextualize these results to give us a fuller picture of why there are differences between the individual student’s progress. Her qualitative data are taken from conversations with the students themselves, participant observations, observations of their classes, conversations with their teachers, and from reading their journals.

At the start of the course, the students take a language pledge to only speak Chinese, both in and outside of class. In general, the results show that those who observe the pledge increase their fluency more than those who do not. This seems logical, but of course, the actual situation is much more nuanced that this.

Leakygrammar’s post focuses in on the case study of Emily. Emily is of interest to Hang Du, the author of the article, because even though she speaks a lot of English with her classmates and does not observe the language pledge to speak only Chinese, she improves her fluency in every measure. Therefore, Hang Du uses her as a case study, a traditional qualitative research tool, to find out why she improves so much, when other non-observers of the language pledge do not.

The author explains that very early on in the course, Emily begins to explore the city by herself using taxis and buses and going into shops. Chinese bus passengers and taxi drivers have a fascination with speaking to American students who can speak Chinese and so Emily is in fact creating opportunities for herself to speak Chinese. On one college trip, Emily takes the opportunity to speak to local people and bargain with stall owners. Emily also reports strangers in supermarkets asking her lots of questions once they found out that she could speak Chinese, and she takes a trip to a popular Chinese holiday destination where she goes surfing.

Chinese stall

Image from dcmaster

The fact that Emily goes surfing is not in itself important, but Hang Du’s qualitative reporting of her conversation with Emily about the trip tells us two things. Firstly we hear of another opportunity Emily took to experience Chinese culture and language. It also demonstrates that Emily’s fluency in Chinese has increased to the point where when she doesn’t know the word for ‘bruise’, she has the linguistic agility and confidence to be able to communicate her message effectively and probably learn the Chinese word for bruise in the process. The key to Emily’s progress is her personality and motivation. She creates opportunities for herself to speak Chinese outside of the classroom with native Chinese speakers, and this is why her fluency improves much more than her classmates who do not.

This type of information about the students’ personalities, activities, and behaviour is the fine-grained, detailed, textured qualitative data that the researcher can provide us with after spending three months with the students and gathering over 2,400 pages of notes. Without this information we would not have such understanding of why Emily progresses differently from her peers. The results of the study show that overall, students, like Emily, who improve their language, whether or not they follow the pledge to the letter, are those that create social networks for themselves with Chinese speakers and go out into the culture and speak Chinese.

Mixed methods are not appropriate for every research situation. However, it can be healthy to complement previous research using alternative methodologies. Every approach has its strengths and weaknesses and after all, our common pursuit is one of knowledge and understanding, so why not use all the tools that are available to us to try to find the answers we seek.


Du, Hang (2013) The Development of Chinese Fluency During Study Abroad in ChinaThe Modern Language Journal97:1, 131–143, Spring 2013

Introducing me – my first attempt at blogging

“Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated – overpopulated – with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process.” (Bakhtin 1981: 294)

Hello. My name is Gerry and I’m a Sociolinguist.

kids' shoes

In my current research, I work with Roma adolescents attending high school in Manchester. I am interested to see whether they acquire the local accent and whether they become sociolinguistically competent. Where they do, I want to know what social factors impact upon this.

Our sociolinguistic competence is the conscious and subconscious knowledge that enables us to use language that’s appropriate to the situation we’re communicating in. In other words we know to speak differently depending on what we’re saying, what situation we’re saying it in, and who we’re saying it to. (This is a very oversimplified explanation, but I hope to be able to go into more detail on this in another post)

I have completed just over 2 years of ethnographic fieldwork in a Manchester high school. Towards the end of my fieldwork, I did a number of recordings with some of the Roma students in school, and I’m currently finishing transcribing my recordings. At the same time, I’m completing a large spread sheet of items that the Roma teens say that may be of interest to me later. The more I go back and listen again to my recordings, the more fascinated I become by how these young people, most of whom have only lived in the UK for about 4 years, deftly manipulate their language to suit a range of styles and purposes (hence the quotation at the start). Of course, this is what I’m meant to be studying, and I can’t wait to get stuck into doing my analysis proper as soon as my transcriptions are completed.

The research I’m doing is for my PhD which I should complete some time next year. I’m a Sociolinguist especially interested in Phonetics and New Language Acquisition. This is my first attempt at blogging and I hope to update regularly (once a week is the plan), talking about what I’m doing in my research, general phd experiences, and other PdD/research/sociolinguistics related matters.

I’d love to receive any comments, suggestions, or thoughts on what I’ve written here. You can also find me on twitter: @gerryhowley

Thanks for reading!