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Sociolinguistics success at Uni of Chester

C.E.L.L.MATES correspondent MEGAN HARDING reports on her first academic conference, to experience how linguists research the relationships between dialect and identity

On Wednesday 29th March 2023, as the boisterous spring winds blew a gale outside, a gathering of esteemed academics convened on Exton Park campus at the University of Chester. The topic on the table - Current and New Methods in Sociolinguistics (or CANMIS).

A Sociolinguistic Conference – what it is really like from a student perspective?

As an English Language student, the prospect of attending my first sociolinguistic conference was compelling, if not slightly nerve wracking. Not knowing what to expect I arrived with a notebook, a pen, and an open mind. The conference was organised by University of Chester English Language lecturers Dr Helen West and Dr Jo Close, who assembled a group of experts in the field of sociolinguistics to discuss their research into dialect forms and the methodologies they used.

Back row: Drs Helen West (left) and Jo Close (right) Front row (l-r): Chester English Language students Megan Harding, Emma Smeltzer, Cat Kelly

After the event, Helen told me more about the aim of the colloquium. Helen and Jo are embarking on a research project based around language, identity and dialect in Chester. Their Talking Chester research is part of a wider Cestrian English project which also includes Changing Chester in which Dr Matt Davies & Dr Clara Neary explore historical and modern representations of Chester in published writings. Surprisingly, Chester has been somewhat forgotten when it comes to sociolinguistic research, despite the fact it is a place of linguistic diversity surrounded as it is by strong dialect areas such as Liverpool, Manchester, and Wales. The research Helen and Jo are conducting asks “what is the Chester dialect”? And “what forms are prevalent in the local community”? The conference was organised with the aim of sharing ideas about how best to study dialect forms in a community and to compare research methods, while establishing links between different research projects so they can be analysed against each other in the future.

Sociolinguistic energy

After pinning my name badge to my jumper and taking my seat, I felt enraptured by the tantalising energy in the room as everyone was ready to learn and discuss sociolinguistics. Before I dive into a short overview of each speaker’s presentation, let me pose the question… “what is sociolinguistics”?

Sociolinguistics is defined as “the study of the relationships between language use and social structure” focusing on the interaction between linguistic features, and social factors to analyse if they impact each other (Alla V. Yelyseieva in the Encyclopaedia of Communication and Interaction). Each academic foregrounded the importance of using public engagement and going out into the community as a method to studying sociolinguistics. There may be a presumption that linguistic research, especially phonetics, must take place in a lab under strictly controlled conditions, but this is not the case. The abilities of new sound technology make it possible to record almost anywhere, and this can be a benefit in recruiting more participants and getting a representative sample, as Dr Fiona Douglas highlighted.

Breaking rules, taking risks, making legacies – the Dialect and Heritage Project

Dr Fiona Douglas

|Twitter - @DialectHeritage | Website – |

Dr Fiona Douglas is a Project Lead, in the School of English, at the University of Leeds. In her talk she outlined the methods that the Dialect and Heritage Project used to collect data on how vernaculars in different areas of the country have changed overtime, and if so, why and how the change has taken place. The study made use of the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture, with the aim of digitalising the photographs, audio recordings, and other historical documents to make them available to the public. By doing so, the community could access the archives at public events, museum exhibitions, and via the project website. For me, the biggest outcome from the project was restoring and establishing the relationship between the community and the university, and allowing individuals to find information about loved ones that they may never have known.

My takeaway: after listening to Dr Fiona Douglas’s presentation, I realised that sociolinguistic research is not just for academics, but it can have a larger impact in the community.

Establishing similarities and differences across varieties in Southeast Wales

Professor Mercedes Durham

| Twitter - @drswissmiss |

Professor Mercedes Durham is a lecturer at the University of Cardiff, where she is starting a new comparative sociolinguistics project to study varieties of English across South-East Wales, having noticed that younger speakers in Cardiff have accent and dialect features that are not found in the language of older speakers in the region. Durham hopes that by comparing the features in Cardiff to those from three commuter towns, she will identify the source of particular features. Have you watched Gavin and Stacey? If you have, that is the type of language Durham has researched on Twitter, focusing on features such as: “what’s occurring?”, “lush”, and “boyo”.

My takeaway: from Durham’s talk I took away that comparative linguistics is beneficial when studying individual features within and across a community.

The Sociolinguistics of Dialect Writing

Professor Patrick Honeybone

Professor Patrick Honeybone, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, presented his research into dialect writing, giving an insight into what it is and why it is important. The question posed to the room was, “does dialect writing honour or belittle non-standard English”? In his research, Professor Honeybone used quantitative methods to differentiate ‘literary dialect forms’ from ‘dialect literature’. This potentially demonstrated that people who write dialect forms often do not speak it, and generally people who speak it cannot write it. The question arises, “is dialect writing accurate”? And would it be more precise if a local wrote the dialect writing, or would that cause it to have a bias? Examples from Dave Dutton’s Completely Lanky (A Comic Guide to the Lancashire Lingo), included: “Thez a face lahk a line o’ wet washin’” (“Stop sulking”!), and “Th’art too slow ter catch a cowd” (“Do hurry up!”).

My takeaway: Dialect writing is complex and requires more research! I also learnt that dialect literature is frequently only sold and bought in the place where the vernacular originates, so often the dialect is restricted to the specific area.

Manchester Voices – doing community engaged research

Dr Rob Drummond

| Twitter - @RobDrummond @VoicesMcr |

Before the conference I was most looking forward to the talk by Dr Rob Drummond. In January I visited the Manchester Voices project in Manchester Central Library as part of an English Language trip.

Listening to Manchester Voices in the city’s Central Library, from left to right, University of Chester English Language students: Ella Dickinson, Megan Harding, Lauren Robinson

Drummond highlighted the importance of getting the community involved in sociolinguistic research and academics giving back to the communities they study. One way the Manchester Voices project did this was by having ‘The Accent Van’, which would visit town centres, parks, and even music festivals to get members of the public to talk about what their dialect means to them and how it impacts them in society. The project was not hindered by the COVID pandemic, as might have been expected. Instead, it was rebranded as ‘The Virtual Accent Van’, which meant that the sample of people recorded doubled, and individuals were accessed that may not have been if they had only had the physical van.

My takeaway: From Drummond’s talk, and my visit to the Manchester Voices exhibition, I learnt that Manchester has vast dialect variety across its Greater Manchester regions. I realised the power and importance of getting out of the lecture room and venturing out into the dialect areas to get an insightful understanding of how dialect is influenced acutely by geographical location and group identity, even if the distance between two dialect forms is just a few miles.

Linguists at Lunch

Of course, an important part of every conference is the complementary lunch break, and I must say the University of Chester catering team excelled in the lunch spread they provided! There was an array of traditional sandwiches and an impressive selection of vegetarian and vegan choices. Despite the freshly cooked wedges being a highlight, the chocolate brownie was by far the best item on the buffet, accompanied by a coffee.

Ignore social class and ignore the working class – some findings from Manchester and Blackburn

Dr Danielle Turton

| Twitter - @danielle_turton |

Danielle Turton’s presentation addressed the fact that the working class are

subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) forgotten about in sociolinguistic research. Turton acknowledged that ideology, current trends, and methodology are often responsible for the neglect of social class in sociolinguist studies, and that if linguistics fail to classify and recognise class, then the data collected will be inaccurate. Turton highlighted the importance of having researchers and participants having a class consciousness. Even though it might feel uneasy to address class in academic writing, Turton encouraged her fellow linguists to get uncomfortable and recognise class, regardless of how socially awkward it may be.

My takeaway: Turton floated the idea that any university student is middle class because they are socially mobile. This made me consider my own class position because previously I would have classified myself as working class, whereas now as a university student I might position myself on the boundary of working and middle class. This made me ruminate on who classifies what characteristics make up a class? Your definition of working class, compared to mine, compared to Danielle Turton’s may be very different. I feel using class as a marker in sociolinguistic research is complex, but it is necessary to successfully understand the dialect forms used in different areas.

Outreach and data collection in Lancashire

Dr Claire Nance and Pam Forster

| @clairelnance, @PamelaForster5, @PhoneticsLab @lancsvoices |

Claire Nance presented the research she undertook in Blackburn market, using ultrasounds to capture a video of the participants’ tongues when reading a word list of thirteen words and two minimal pairs. Like the previously discussed research, this project took place in the heart of the community, involving individuals who have no prior knowledge or experience in sociolinguistics and dialect research. Not only is this beneficial for promoting the field of linguistics, but the University of Lancaster gave back to the community by bringing people into the market and providing an educational experience. Luckily, Dr Nance and her team were met with open arms by the market, proving to all academics that taking research out of the lab can be successful for the researcher, participant, and society.

Following Dr Claire Nance’s talk, Pam Forster discussed the Lancaster Voices project that is in its first stages. The research will use recordings from the Lancaster Archives to show how the socio-economic status in Lancaster and Morecambe has changed over time. Despite the short, four-mile distance, Lancaster and Morecambe vary enormously in dialect forms and social status.

My takeaway: Once again, I recognised how important it is to involve the community within sociolinguistic research and how it can benefit the individual, the research, and the community as a whole. Previously, I had assumed recording of a participant would have to take place in a silent and secluded room, but this project showed that the sound quality is undisrupted by being out in a busy and lively environment, and by doing so, the sample of people becomes more representative.

The future of sociolinguistic conferences in Chester

Helen and Jo told me after the conference that they are considering hosting the Northern Englishes Workshop at the University of Chester in 2024. Watch this space!

Feel free to comment below on any of the ideas explained above and next time you’re in your hometown shopping centre, keep your ears open for dialect features that you think might be unique to your area.

Professor Patrick Honeybone

Dr Danielle Turton

Dr Claire Nance

Pam Forster

Dr Rob Drummond

Dr Fiona Douglas

Professor Mercedes Durham

Conference photo credits- Dr Matt Davies

Written by Megan Harding

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