Monday, 27 February 2012

Could language have something to do with the glass ceiling?

Much research has been carried out on male and female roles in business. While it’s a consistent finding that there are fewer women in management positions, there seems to be less consistency in the type of language styles and strategies employed by each gender.
For example, it has been proposed that females are associated with indirect, conciliatory styles which incorporate supportive feedback in their structure.  On the other hand, males tend to be linked with direct, confrontational styles and their discourse will feature more aggressive interruptions.  However, Hans Ladegaard’s research found that reality is a lot more complex than this.
As part of a bigger project, Ladegaard approached executives working in a large entrepreneurial company in Denmark and asked 2 males and 2 females to wear a digital device to record their interactions during a typical day at work (such as chaired meetings, proposal discussions etc).  He wanted to look at how power relationships were established, maintained and challenged, and if there were any differences between their interactions.
His basic findings support those of Baxter’s ( in that both males and females were found to use a range of interactional strategies, making it illogical to label one as ‘female’ and one as ‘male’.  One particular ‘softening’ device was using inclusive we instead of direct you (for example, perhaps we could move that forward?)  However, Ladegaard does note that males were the only speakers to use, albeit rarely, truly direct unmitigated directives, such as give me your home number then (one leader’s response to an employee in his department who was taking time off before an important deadline). A more mitigated directive would be would you give me your home number, perhaps even with an added please.
Ladegaard suggests that a point of greater interest is how the females had their authority routinely challenged by males who worked in their departments, even though both the male and female executives use similar approaches in their discourse. There’s an example in the  box.

Tanya (female leader and chair) arrives in the conference room after two male engineers (Dennis and Christian) are already seated.  The meeting was to discuss project ideas and Tanya opens as follows. [//xxx// shows overlapping speech]
            Tanya:   do you want me to try to present something or….?
            Dennis:  yes but I think you need to explain something
            Tanya:   // about how//
            Dennis: //you hadn’t mentioned// anything about a recording
Adapted from Ladegaard (2011:10)
Dennis is referring to the recording equipment that Tanya is wearing and is immediately challenging its use in the meeting (even though all staff had been informed of the day it was going to be used and the reasons for it).  This immediately challenges Tanya’s authority by suggesting that she is accountable to Dennis, when, in reality, it should be the other way around.  In addition to this, Dennis continues interrupting and questioning Tanya and even enlists support from Christian. The effects of this are clear in Tanya’s speech as, later, her discourse becomes quite hesitant and disconnected.
Ladegaard finds that challenges like these were never present in the male leaders’ interactions, only the females’, suggesting that the maintenance of power is an obstacle for women in the workplace.  His analysis also highlights the attributes of one of the male leaders, Martin.  Martin, who was the only leader to be praised by his staff on several occasions, was found to use a wide range of styles (relating to both direct and indirect approaches) in his interactions, as well as a constant alternation between shop-talk and social-talk.  This suggests that a successful and popular leader needs to be sensitive to different interactional contexts and stylistically flexible in their use of discourse structures.
Ladegaard, H. J. (2011) 'Doing Power' at work: Responding to male and female management styles in a global business corporation. Journal of Pragmatics 43: 4-19.
doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2010.09.006

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

Thursday, 23 February 2012

What does 'you' mean?

“you can see this picture…something to look at and then you’d imagine you were inside that picture walking away through the trees”

Looking at interviews of women recounting their experience of being treated for breast cancer, Lesley Stirling and Lenore Manderson (2011) looked at how women, in such emotionally charged discourse, employed the use of generalised you compared to other pronouns, and what implications this had on the discourse.

The focus of the paper is an interview with a woman they call Glenda (who knew the interviewer from previous work together). In the example above, Glenda talks about how she would look at a picture on the wall while undergoing radiotherapy. Although she is talking about her own experience, and could have said I’d imagine I was inside that picture, she uses generalised you, and in this way draws the hearer into her own perspective.

Through the analysis of Glenda’s descriptions of what she went through (from diagnosis to her recovery after the mastectomy), Stirling and Manderson looked at how generalised you is used to signify certain membership categories, which may or may not include the addressee. 

In (1) Glenda situates herself as a member of a group (i.e. those who have been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer) which excludes the addressee. In this way she makes her story more authoritative.

(1) I took off my shirt and my – the bra that I had on and the prosthesis that they give you

However, in (2) below, talking about a medical check-up after giving birth, she aligns herself with the category ‘mother’ and, knowing that the interviewer is also a member of this group, is able to draw the interviewer into the dialogue and get support to authenticate her points (which comes when the  interviewer overlaps with yeah)

(2) Glenda: you know when you have to go back to antenatal for 
                      [your] check up,

     Interviewer: [yeah]

Stirling and Manderson also examine how Glenda switches between I and generalised you when reporting direct personal thoughts, especially when they are highly emotional negative ones. In (3) she is talking about how frightened she felt when she looked down at her chest after surgery. She repairs her self-including generalised you with the self-referencing I:

(3)  and thinking oh you know all the women around you who had two breasts you know, had nice breasts, you’d be always- I’d be always looking

In conclusion, Stirling and Manderson note that, in the narration of personal experience, generalised you, as opposed to I, allows the speaker to talk in detail about an experience while maintaining distance (especially if the experience is complex and/or traumatic).  They also observe that speakers need to use mechanisms which give validation and credibility to what is being said. One way of doing this is for the speaker to align themselves with a particular membership category, which shows that they have the right to comment and discuss certain issues. However, another way is to recruit or align the audience, using you to include an addressee in an activated membership category.

Stirling, Lesley and Manderson, Lenore (2011) About you: Empathy, objectivity and authority. Journal of Pragmatics 43: 1581-1602.
doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2010.12.002

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

Monday, 20 February 2012

Buckle your seatbelts!

Believe it or not, this was the title of a recent journal article about the global financial crisis. Another article on the same topic had the title A Spike Through the Heart. While the content of the articles may not be obvious from their titles, Ana María Rojo López and María Ángeles Orts Llopis argue that metaphors such as these are powerful tools affecting the way that we conceptualise economic issues.

Lopez and Llopis analysed articles taken from two financial periodicals – the The Economist and the Spanish El Economista. The articles were written at two different periods. The first was between June and November 2007, when the idea of a global financial crisis was beginning to be mentioned internationally. The second period was between September and December 2008; by then the financial crisis was causing havoc worldwide. The researchers write that during the earlier period financial problems were initially belittled by the mass media in Spain, unlike other European countries. This, they say, was because the Spanish government was about to hold national elections. Politicians therefore refused to reveal the grim state of the national economy. Metaphors were used differently in the two periodicals, reflecting the different socio-political climates in which the articles were written.

Although similar metaphors were used in The Economist and El Economista, an important difference lay in whether they conceptualised the economic issues as having a positive outcome for the economy or a negative one.

In both periodicals the most frequent metaphors conceptualised financial events as ‘natural’ beings and events, such as humans, plants or storms. For example, a journalist in El Economista wrote that the credit drought was caused by a financial storm forcing banks to restrict their loans. The researchers categorised examples such as this as a negative use of metaphor, since the context gave a negative view of the economy. In articles written during the earlier period, before the crisis, the metaphors in El Economista were used less often in a negative sense than a positive sense; during the 2008 recession, however, negative uses were twice as frequent as positive ones. In The Economist, by contrast, metaphors referring to natural beings and events were used far more often in negative contexts during both periods.

Another frequent metaphor conceptualised economic events as a journey, which could be upward or downward, smooth or troubled. In The Economist these metaphors occurred in negative contexts more often in the earlier period, before the recession, whereas in El Economista the highest proportion of negative uses was in the second period. In the later period, metaphors portrayed the economy as a vehicle that had no clear destination, that had lost speed or suddenly braked, or that had punctures.

The third type of metaphor saw financial activities as events. In El Economista these included show business events, medieval tournaments and even a bullfight.  These metaphors were mostly used in a positive way, painting a light-hearted scene with images of races and playful rivalry. Unsurprisingly, this type of metaphor was less frequent during the second period, but even then the metaphors were still mainly used in positive contexts. By contrast, metaphors of this kind in The Economist mostly pointed to more sombre aspects of war or competition.

Overall, the Spanish articles written before the crisis contained more metaphors used in a positive context than those written later, when the financial crisis was underway. The English language articles used metaphors negatively during both periods, painting a sombre, gloomy picture of the global economy both at the beginning of the crisis and during the recession.

The researchers argue that the different uses of metaphor in the two journals reflect the fact that the international press was discussing the crisis long before the Spanish mass media acknowledged the economic disaster. They claim that metaphors not only affect the way that we conceptualise the world, but are also a powerful tool that can serve political interests.
López, Ana María Rojo and Llopis, María Ángeles Orts (2010) Metaphorical pattern analysis in financial texts: Framing the crisis in positive or negative metaphorical terms. Journal of Pragmatics 42: 3300-3313.

doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2010.06.001

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Who's calling?

Speaker A: This is the electric company. Is your refrigerator running?
Speaker B: Yes, it is
Speaker A: Then you better catch it!

This is a classic example of a crank phone call, dating from about 60 years ago.   Crank calls actively violate the accepted norms of conversational structure by misleading the ‘victim’ into thinking the interaction is ‘real’.  Here, the prankster, (A), introduces the “frame” of a service interaction, which (B) follows by giving a relevant answer.  The prank is completed when (A) shatters this frame in line 3 and (B) now has to reassess and conclude that the interaction was one of play.

Due to the modern age of the internet and digital media, Mark Seilhamer notes that it is easy now for pranksters to share recordings of themselves and get advice on techniques on the many internet sites/ chatrooms dedicated to this cause. However, modern crank call communities tend to condemn ‘unsophisticated’ pranks such as the phone call above as ‘lame’.  Instead, the modern crank caller will employ a range of devices (such as specific foreign accents which reflect certain stereotypes held by particular societies).  

Their behaviour highlights the conversational frames that we usually take for granted when we communicate. During face-to-face interaction, we can pick up all sorts of different cues, such as types of eye contact and gesture.  These cues are not available during telephone interaction and, as a result, we have to rely solely on audio cues and how they fit with our intuitions and expectations of particular conversations. For example, we might ring someone with the aim of getting specific information, and so we will follow a conversational structure which fits that purpose (e.g. by opening with Hello, I wonder if you can help me). Usually participants work together to maintain types of conversational structure.  During a prank call, though, only one participant treats the interaction as real: for the other, it’s play.

The aim of the crank caller is to keep the victim disoriented about the type of conversational frame that is in place. Seilhamer gives the following example, where Justin (the prankster) phones a telecommunications company under the guise of applying for a job with the company.

(1) Kevin: Thank you for choosing (name of company) this is Kevin how can I help you?
(2) Justin: Hi Kevin this is Justin how are you doing?
(3) Kevin: Good who’s this?
(4) Justin: This is Justin
(5) Kevin: Justin?
(6) Justin: Yeah, Nickatyne. I’m trying to (.) uh find out about the ad for the tele sale receptionist

 (adapted from Seilhamer 2011:683)

The manner in which Justin introduces himself in line 2 leaves Kevin unsure which conversational framework he is in, as this is not the response he would predict from the expected customer services frame.  He tentatively replies and tries to find an appropriate frame for the interaction in line 3, but his uncertainty continues until line 6 when Justin declares that he is ringing about a job. The rest of the phone call proceeds in a similar way, with Justin’s remarks suggesting that he has no idea how to behave when making an enquiry about employment.  Thus, Kevin is continually being wrong-footed as he tries to establish an appropriate frame.

Crank callers operate on the fringes of the law. However, by analysing these types of interactions, we can gain insight into the accepted (socially ‘agreed’) rules of conversational structure and how participants go about trying to repair broken structures.  After all, Seilhamer concludes that the successful crank caller will adopt a specific set of rules in order to complete a fabricated frame so that the victim wouldn’t even know or suspect that they’ve been pranked.

Seilhamer, M. (2011) On doing ‘being a crank caller’: A look into the crank call community of practice. Journal of Pragmatics 43:677-690
doi 10.1016/j.pragma.2010.09.005

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

Monday, 13 February 2012

Men, women and leadership language

Why are there still a minority of women in executive roles?

Do women make less of a linguistic impact in the boardroom than men? Is this one reason why there continues to be a lack of women who succeed at executive level? These are questions that researcher Judith Baxter set out to explore in her analysis of data from senior management meetings and follow-up interviews in seven multinational companies.

In her article, Baxter reminds us that men are still at the top when it comes to ‘the most powerful roles in most national and multinational companies, not just in Britain but worldwide’ and that women are rarely found in the top positions in boardrooms.  Of course there are many reasons why this is the case but Baxter argues that little attention has been given to possible linguistic explanations, an oversight that she aims to redress in her research, which explores whether the use of leadership language is a possible reason why women are not reaching the highest positions in business.

The research team spent time within seven leading private sector UK companies from a range of business sectors and in each case observed and recorded at least two senior management meetings, ensuring that one meeting was led by a female and the other by a male, both of equal seniority. After each meeting, the leader and several of their colleagues were interviewed on a one-to-one basis resulting in a total of 48 interviews. The interviewees were asked to consider the use of their language to achieve their goals during the meeting and were also asked who they thought had been the most ‘effective’ in the meeting and to define what they meant by being effective.

During the interviews the researchers noticed that women tended to show a raised awareness of using linguistic strategies as a way of effecting leadership. The women would often compare their language use with equivalent male leaders but they found no instances of men comparing their language use with the women leaders. The researchers also noticed that the women leaders used what they call ‘heightened or pre-meditated language’ especially during difficult interactions with male colleagues in the meetings.  The heightened or pre-meditated language (which they also refer to as ‘double-voiced discourse’ (DvD), a term originally coined by the Russian philosopher Bakhtin) is defined as ‘a judgment call about how to make the ‘right’ linguistic impact with colleagues’ and could take many forms, such as politeness, humour and assertiveness. All instances of such language use were coded and it was found to fulfill four main functions; to anticipate and dilute possible criticism (Anticipatory); to heighten impact and display personal power (Authoritative); to correct or repair a mistake, usually their own (Corrective) or to reduce authority and build rapport (Mitigating). Interestingly, they found that the male leaders also used these strategies but less so and in a less varied way.

The conclusions drawn from the study are that while men and women use a similar range of linguistic strategies to lead their teams, there is a clear gender difference in the data in one respect: women compare their language use with that of their male counterparts but the men do not compare themselves with the women. Baxter argues that this is because women are still in an unequal position to men in senior roles and that senior women continue to be under greater scrutiny than their male equivalents. The consequence is that women draw more on the use of DvD, which ‘enables them to use leadership discourse strategies with a greater delicacy, discernment and adeptness than has previously been recognized in the field of gendered talk in the workplace’.

Baxter suggests that the use of DvD can be seen in two ways. On the one hand, such language use dilutes the impact of words spoken and makes the leadership message ‘harder to hear’. In this way it can be seen as a ‘survival strategy’ for many women who work in male-dominated environments and may then offer a linguistic reason why women are still struggling to reach those high executive positions. On the other hand, as Baxter argues, it can be seen as a ‘powerful resource’ for developing linguistic expertise among all leaders, regardless of gender. For female leaders especially, Baxter suggests that they might ‘find themselves in a stronger position to progress to the boardroom if they were to acquire the linguistic expertise of double-voiced discourse’. 

Baxter, Judith (2011). Survival or success? A critical exploration of the use of ‘double-voiced discourse’ by women business leaders in the UK. Discourse and Communication 5(3): 231-245.

This summary was written by Sue Fox.      

Thursday, 9 February 2012


(1) He helped his brother build a wall

    (2) He helped his brother to build a wall

Which of these two sentences would you say: (1) or (2)? Most English speakers use both, but when do they choose one rather than the other, and why?

Previous researchers have found that people use the “bare” infinitive (as in help build) more often than the full infinitive (help to build) when they are speaking than when they are writing, and more often in informal situations.  However, Arne Lohmann discovered that things are a bit more complicated than that. He analysed 1718 examples of help with a following infinitive – both bare and full – in the British National Corpus.

There was a complex set of findings for spoken and written English, though overall different genres of spoken English did seem to favour the bare infinitive more than non-fiction written English. However, what influenced the use of the bare infinitive more than anything else was when there was a second full infinitive after HELP: so, with a sentence like (3), people were more likely to say help the candidate relax than help the candidate to relax.

(3) your job as an interviewer is to help the candidate (to) relax

Also relevant, though less so, was the number of words between HELP and the infinitive. The bare infinitive was more likely in a sentence like (4), where there are three words (the home decorator) between HELP and the infinitive.

(4) the automatic wallpaper pasting machine helps the home decorator to achieve really professional results

It was less likely in a sentence like (5), where there is only one word (me).

(5) I don’t mind talking about it because it helps me get over what happened.

The more words between HELP and the infinitive, the more likely was the full infinitive, probably because as sentences get more complex, including to makes the grammatical structure more explicit.

A further relevant factor was when the subject of HELP was human: so, the fact that the subject of (3) is an automatic wallpaper pasting machine may account for the use of the full infinitive in that sentence. Perhaps we see a human subject as more involved in the helping event, and this small conceptual distance between the subject and the verb is then matched by a small linguistic distance between HELP and the meaning of the infinitive.

Why should a second infinitive have such a strong influence on saying help build rather than help to build? Lohmann suggests that this reflects our system for speech production. Current theories assume that words in our mind are organized in the same way as neural networks, with words roughly corresponding to neural nodes, with links between them. Like neurons, when a node has been activated it needs a recovery phase. Speakers therefore avoid repeating a similar or identical form, as this would use the same node again in the network.

Like all research, finding a plausible answer to this small question raises many other questions that now need to be answered. What caused English speakers to drop to after HELP in the first place? Do they drop it only with HELP, or are there other verbs that can have both a bare infinitive and a full infinitive after them? Is this more common in American English than British English? And what about other types of grammatical construction, as in all we have to do is (to) wait?

Lohmann, Arne (2011). Help vs help to: a multifactorial, mixed-effects account of infinitive marker omission. English Language and Linguistics 15 (3): 499-521.
doi: 10.1017/S1360674311000141

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Monday, 6 February 2012

Who's the expert?

The linguist?

Who decides where one regional dialect stops and another begins? And who decides what are the distinctive features of a dialect? Barbara Johnstone’s research in Pittsburgh, USA, finds that linguists and local people tend to give different answers to these questions.

Local people talk about “Pittsburghese” and are interested especially in words that they think are specific to their city. They assume that the features of Pittsburghese are used only in the Pittsburgh area, and that everyone from that area uses at least some of them. Linguists, on the other hand, talk of “the western Pennsylvania dialect area”, recognising that none of the local features are unique to Pittsburgh or even to western Pennsylvania. Earlier dialectologists may have been more interested in words, but present-day linguists are concerned more with accent and grammatical features, many of which are shared with other areas. None of these features is used by every local person.

In public discussions about the local way of talking it was the type of communication technology used that determined whether local people’s views or linguists’ views dominated. In print newspapers, where journalists decide what sources of expertise to represent, claims about Pittsburgh speech used to be attributed mainly to newcomers to the area, whose authority arises from personal experience. Increasingly, claims now come from people with various kinds of institutional authority, such as school teachers, Human Resources personnel, and linguists. People on the street are also quoted. However the headlines for newspaper articles are not usually written by the same journalist, and these often push against the voices of authority. For example, “Pitt prof finds Pittsburghese a slippy subject” juxtaposes the academic linguist with the non-linguist’s preferences for thinking in terms of local words (here, slippy) and referring to Pittsburghese.

Or the people on the street?

On a local website about Pittsburgh speech, on the other hand, anyone could act as an expert, whether or not they were from the local area. There was no way to indicate the source of a person’s expertise and no way to contest the claims of others. Although the information was presented on the web site as there for entertainment rather than as representing any linguistic expertise, this did not prevent it being drawn on by students of language and linguistics. 

Contributors to an online discussion forum, by contrast, could indicate where their expertise came from, and most of them seemed to feel the need to do so. Some told stories to show their local experience, others mentioned local linguistic features to demonstrate their knowledge and some justified their comments by referring to books or scholarly articles.

Johnstone also analysed the Wikipedia entry on Pittsburgh English, which she had developed herself. Of course, the entry had been altered and added to by other people, since this is the way that Wikipedia works. However, the volunteer editors who monitor Wikipedia rely on the citation of scholarly research as a way of evaluating entries. Although it might be thought that the Wikipedia entry would have the most potential for interaction between different kinds of expertise, in fact the voice of local people is less present there – unless they can cite the published research of sociolinguists or dialectologists ­ – than it was in the least interactive of media, the newspaper reports.  

Johnstone’s research suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that if linguists want to get their voice heard in public discussions of language, their best chance of doing so is through Wikipedia. But her research also shows that public understanding of language and dialect comes from several different kinds of expertise, of which the linguist’s can never be the only one.
Johnstone, Barbara (2011). Making Pittsburghese: Communication technology, expertise, and the discursive construction of a local dialect. Language and Communication 31: 3-15.

doi. 10.1016/j.langcom.2010.08.010

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The numbers game

Can numbers carry social meaning?

Nikolas Coupland’s research suggests that they do. He used the Yahoo search engine to trawl through the worldwide web for numbers between one and one hundred, looking first for words (such as ninety-nine) and then for digits (such as 99). In both cases, there was a regular pattern of declining frequency of use with increasing size of numbers. Both twenty and 20 were more frequent than ninety or 90 – or even thirty or 30. Perhaps this is partly because it is easier to remember and understand small numbers, but cultural norms are also relevant. Coupland points out that we have developed ways of keeping numbers small by, for example, saying 10 minutes rather than 600 seconds, 10 pounds rather than 1000 pence, and even 4 billion rather than 4000 million. If we decide to use the larger forms, it is to make a rhetorical point.

Unexpectedly, the pattern of decreasing frequency with increasing size of the number turned out to be regular even within smaller sets of ten: 21 was more frequent than 22, 22 more frequent than 23, and so on, and this pattern was repeated within the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. What broke the pattern were the multiples of 10 (so, 30 was more frequent than 29) and, though to a lesser extent, the in-between numbers ending in 5. Other, more subtle, breaks in the pattern came from multiples of 6, numbers ending in 9, and ‘twin numbers’ like 44 or 99.

These patterns again reflect social and cultural factors. Whether or not the decimal number system originates in human biology (the number of our fingers or toes), there is now a naturalness about round numbers ending in 0 that makes them attractive when we don’t need to be precise. Numbers ending in 5 share something of the same quality. Multiples of six may also be culturally natural to us, featuring in boxes of eggs, bottles of wine or bags of bread rolls, but they have also been institutionalized as part of the measurement of angles in geometry, of longitude and latitude in navigation, and of the structuring of time into minutes and seconds.

The popularity of 99 on the web must be partly on commercial grounds, with prices such as 5.99 seeming more affordable than a price of 6.00. However this is not the only explanation. Coupland found that in the majority of cases 99 or Ninety-nine was used as a brand name. For example, a Ninety-nine card game was advertised, as was a Ninety-nine Bar and Kitchen and a book called Old Ninety-Nine’s Cave. Numbers such as 99 and 44, then, seem to have an aesthetic appeal. Even apparently neutral numbers are used more often than might be expected as brand names – seventeen, for instance, is a frequent brand name, though there seems no obvious reason why this should be more appealing than sixteen, say, or eighteen.

The study of numbers, then, raises interesting questions for students of language as well as for students of mathematics. Coupland’s study shows that it is well worth exploring the wider senses in which numbers do and do not ‘count’.

Coupland, Nikolas 2011. How frequent are numbers? Language and Communication 31: 27-37.
doi: 10.1016/j.langcom.2010.09.001

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire