Sociolinguistic Symposium 22

June 27th to 30th saw the University of Auckland hosting the 22nd Sociolinguistic Symposium. This is the first major(read:large) international conference I’ve had the privilege of attending, and coming from a small cozy circle of Australian linguists it was quite an eye opening experience.

Pōwhiri welcome ceremony to kick off SS22. Image courtesy Chloé Diskin (@ChloeDiskin)

Firstly, I’m reminded of how broad a church sociolinguistics actually is. There are researchers from a variety of research methods (critical discourse analysis through to quantitative corpus linguistics), with a variety of concerns (identity, language revitalisation, education policy), and from a variety of regions in the world. One friend imparted some good advice early on, that the symposium is a good opportunity to get a feel for what are cutting edge topics and concerns in the world, and indeed that’s a good way of summarising my overall feeling about the conference.

There were some concepts I’d vaguely heard of in the past that were relatively prevalent: “Translanguaging” and “superdiversity” being the main ones. I came to get a bit more of a feel for the concepts, but anyone who had the misfortune of hearing me rant knows my feelings on the terms. I can appreciate the ideas behind the words, but I think they are truly ugly words. I’m sure there’s an analysis to be made out of that sentiment.

The highlight session (other than our own Variation in the Pacific long colloquia!) was the “Fresh insights on traditional variationist methods in non-English contexts” session organised by Uri Horesh (@urihoresh) and Jonathan Kasstan (@JRKASSTAN). The emphasis was on the notion of “style” which, to be honest, is not something I even remotely consider in my research because we’re not at a stage of description where style is a concern. The panel was overall a good reminder that there are plenty of people innovating with methodology, and tackling and problematising concepts such as style and prestige from their own research contexts. Heads up to Maya Ravrindanath Abtahian working on Garifuna.

Our own panel was a solid show of how variationist and quantitative methods are being applied to investigate phenomena in the Pacific. The Wellsprings Project’s very own Marie-France Duhamel presented on Raga, a Vanuatu language that shows interesting conservative language tendencies in contrast to it’s more diverse neighbouring languages. Anne-Laure Dotte presented on the change happening in the unique and extensive possessive classifier system of Iaai, a language of New Caledonia. Brook Ross presented on a possible emergent Auckland variety of New Zealand English. Isabelle Buchstaller showed how level of education in English in the Marshall Islands conditions h-insertion (a possible import of sociolinguistic evaluation of h-dropping from English?). Wilfred Fimone (@WilfredFim) presented negative results for glottal stop deletion in Rotuman; an interesting reminder that not all variation is given social meaning, or sociolinguistically conditioned. And Miriam Meyerhoff gave a whirlwind talk on how we should choose our variables carefully when investigating the relationship between individual and social group.

One of the things that came out of attending the other variation colloquia and seeing the presenters in our session, was that “small datasets” are not a problem. It’s really the willingness of researchers to give things a red hot go, and for us to amplify the findings from more “exotic” or “minor” contexts. I feel pretty strongly about this, and am uber thankful to Miriam Meyerhoff for giving us this opportunity on an international stage.

…And some personal reflections

I find is slightly ironic that for a conference that talks about the importance of multilingualism, challenges to hegemonic discourses, and questioning the dominance of major cultural groups over others, the vast majority of attendees continue to be presenting on English, and other large population languages. I don’t make this statement as a word-version of an eye-roll, or a statement intending to accuse linguists of being egocentric or eurocentric, or whatever-centric (although when I’m feeling less generous I do feel the rumbles of frustration). I make this observation with a lot of ambivalence. Marginalised groups within English/major language contexts absolutely should be researched. Major languages that are not English should also be researched to contribute their insights towards (socio)linguistic theory. Varieties of Englishes can also contribute to challenging the assumed theories coming out of studies of American Englishes. We contribute to research in ways that we can.

But I also can’t help but feel nervous at the lack of interaction I had with sociolinguists outside of the Pacific context, and Australia. I suspect part of it comes from the lack of knowledge, and not really knowing how to interact with people who work in different contexts (this goes both ways: I’m not placing blame on my potential interactants, this applies equally to myself). Also if you are attending an international conference as an L2 speaker of English, this adds another layer. But if we as researchers are unwilling to take those steps to build bridges to those we are less familiar with, how on earth can we expect our wider communities and societies to build bridges and listen to the marginalised voices that we as researchers supposedly represent? How can we as researchers, who represent marginalised voices through our research, possibly expect to have wider society listen to these voices when we ourselves are so reluctant to build bridges across to different research contexts within our own field?

Again, I’m not putting myself off the hook. Trying to interact with people of different regions and areas is awkward, takes care and energy, and requires patience. And at conferences you may just want to catch up with your immediate colleagues and collaborators with whom you may not regularly interact with as much as you like. Maybe I’m just grumbling about something that comes inherent with the way modern conferences are organised. I’m not pontificating to people that they should pay attention to small languages, or non-Englishes or whatever. I’m merely feeling circumspect about what it means to be part of a broad conference, when all of us participants are trying to deal with jet lag, bleeding out of energy, and trying to put our talks together for an international audience.

(Would “linguist speed dating” be an event that conferences can organise? Sign up, see which linguist you’ll be paired off with, and have dinner with them?)

Anyway, thank you to the wonderful volunteers and unpaid organisers for pulling off a momentous task. Though I would like to suggest to the leaders of the conference, they may wish to reconsider in the future the outsourcing of conference planning to a company that can’t possibly know how best to organise an international conference which requires sensitivity to intercultural communication.

Presenters at the “Variation in the Pacific” long colloquia. From left to right, me (duh), Wilfred Fimone, Marie-France Duhamel, Brook Ross, Miriam Meyerhoff, Anne-Laure Dotte, Isabelle Buchstaller. Photo courtesy Marie-France Duhamel.



Workshop on the Languages of Papua 4

Starting the year with a bang, I made my over to the Workshop on the Languages of Papua 4 held at Manokwari, West Papua, Indonesia! That was 1) my first ever talk at an international conference (debut!), and 2) my first ever time in Indonesia (a pretty niche location, I know). The last workshop was held in 2014, just a bit before I started my PhD. I’d heard good things about it, so was pretty keen to check it out for my self. It did not disappoint!


West Papua gets a bit of a bad wrap as a site of sensitivity re: Indonesia, West Papuan Independence, and things like that. But the city it of Manokwari itself felt very safe, much safer than a city like Daru in Papua New Guinea. Those of us who work on the PNG side were all amazed that the roads were beautifully paved, and that there were motorbikes! We had a great time chilling, and the hosts at the Universitas Papua were wonderful hosts.

View from the water front Cafe Laut at our accomodation, the Hotel Mansinam.

The conference was held across four days, and brought together linguistic researchers who work in the island of New Guinea and the surrounding islands (West Papua in Indonesia + Papua New Guinea). A broad range of topics were covered (which is the way these regionally focused conferences inevitably go), and there seemed to be a good spread of Austronesian and Papuan languages being represented. Topics ranged from grammatical descriptions, language contact, cultural practices, pragmatics…

The talks I personally found super interesting and relevant was the stuff that is coming out of Marian Klamer and her mob over at the University of Leiden. They are working to untangle the complex language history of the Sunda Islands, trying to work through inherited change vs. contact induced change. There was then the familiar work of Russell Gray‘s using ecology to model language diversity, and all the stuff from our usual ANU mob. I don’t know an awful lot about prosodic structure and phonetics of that kind, but I enjoyed the findings of that ilk (here, here) like those presented by Nikolaus Himmelman, and Carlos Gussenhoven.

It was also a nice opportunity to spend some intensive time with fellow fieldworker/Papuanists/people who work in this region – other PhD students, but also finally meeting the Bill Palmer who’s editing a soon-to-be published book about Papuan languages and linguistics… one of the first things I contributed to upon commencing my PhD!


Cheers to Yusuf Sawaki and David Gil for a wonderful conference!


Prof Poplack Giving Me Some Thoughts

Prof. Shana Poplack giving a master class on variationism at the University of Queensland

The frequency at which a particular variant/linguistic variable occurs may change over time, but the conditioning factors are stable.

In which case, for language change to occur at that locus of variability, something needs to happen to disrupt the transmission of those conditioning factors to the next generation.

I’m trying to unpack the diachronic consequences of long term, stable multilingual communities with balanced bilinguals making up the population. For where I am in Southern New Guinea, I feel I should read up of this, about the social networks of hunter-gatherer societies… Because there must be some effect about interaction frequency and social networks in explaining language change?