Speaking of Pride: The LGBT community and Linguistics

By: Nico Mjones, Student in Applied Linguistics MA and Certificate in Curatorial Studies / CLM Intern

June is Pride Month in Canada. As both a student of Applied Linguistics and a member of the LGBT community, I find it important to talk about the ways in which language matters for LGBT people. In this blog I will discuss some of the ways in which language and LGBT topics intertwine. The way LGBT topics and identities are talked about, the terms used to refer to LGBT people, and even grammatical issues such as pronouns and grammatical gender are some of the ways LGBT people and language intersect. Due to Canada’s diverse linguistic make up, these matters can vary by language as well, including in official languages, non-official languages, and indigenous languages.


Terminology is very important to LGBT people. The words used to refer to different LGBT identities and to the community collectively have evolved significantly over the last century. The term LGBT, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender” is the most common collective term, but LGBTQ+, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Plus” is often used in an attempt to be more inclusive. LGBT terminology in Canada is similar to that in the rest of the Anglosphere and Francophonie. A term that is more common in Canada than in other countries is the term “Two-Spirit”. Two-Spirit is a collective term for the many different pre-colonial gender and sexuality concepts in Indigenous cultures in Canada. Not all of the indigenous groups in Canada have traditional identities that fall within the Two-Spirit moniker, and not all Indigenous people identify with the term in preference to other LGBT terms. Many LGBT organizations across Canada have begun to include Two-Spirit so as to be more inclusive of Indigenous LGBT people. An example of this is the longer acronym LGBTQ2S+, adding “2S” to represent Two-Spirit in the acronym.

Fig. 1 A modified version of the Progress Flag. The Progress Flag adds black and brown stripes, representing people of color in the LGBT community, as well the colors of the Trans flag to a Chevron on the left of the Pride Flag. The purple added to the chevron in this flag created by Brock University specifically represents the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe members of the LGBT community in the Niagara Region.

In English, there is debate over the term “queer”. Once universally considered a slur against LGBT people, today many consider the word “reclaimed” and many LGBT people use it self-referentially and to refer to the LGBT community. Some prefer the term ‘queer’ as more succinct, radical, or inclusive than LGBT. Others consider the term to be too offensive and harmful to be used.

Pronouns and Grammatical Gender

Gender in language is an especially important subject for transgender and non-binary people in the LGBT community. Grammatical gender is a system for dividing nouns into different classes and varies between languages, For example, French divides all nouns into two classes of masculine and feminine, while Algonquian languages divide all nouns into two classes of animate and inanimate. Generally, a noun’s class affects other words in the same sentence, through agreement on verbs, adjectives and pronouns. The LGBT community is particularly focused on neutrality in pronouns. Most trans people have preferences for their pronouns, and these can be different from what are assumed, Non-binary people may prefer neutral pronouns.

For English in Canada, gender neutrality is relatively easy. English does not have grammatical gender outside of gendered pronouns. Many gendered terms, such as actress or waitress, have declined in use and terms like actor and waiter have become gender neutral. There has been some debate over a neutral pronoun. Most commonly used is the singular case of “they”. Some view this as grammatically incorrect, but the usage of singular they has been documented in English since at least the writings of Shakespeare. Singular they has become very commonly used amongst non-binary people in the LGBT community, andsees some acceptance by style guides and other prescriptive sources. There have also been examples of inventive neutral pronouns, such as “xe”. These are attempts to create a new pronoun that is gender neutral, and these have seen some usage but relatively little acceptance in linguistic prescriptive guides. 

Gender neutrality in French in Canada is considerably more difficult because of its system of grammatical gender. This makes it difficult for non-binary people who may wish to have gender neutral language used for them. For pronouns, “iel” is the most commonly discussed gender neutral pronoun in French. There are many people who are actively working to develop a system of gender neutrality in French. In Canada, one significant academic is Florence Ashley, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. Florence Ashley, who themself uses gender neutral pronouns, specializes in research of transgender rights and welfare in Canada, and has also written in French about developing a system of gender neutrality in the French language.

Indigenous & Immigrant Languages

Pronouns and grammatical gender in Canada’s non-official languages vary considerably. Many indigenous languages in Canada have a single gender neutral pronoun, such as the Cree 3rd person pronoun “wiya” which is not differentiated by gender. Many indigenous languages have a system that is not defined by masculine and feminine, but instead by animacy and inanimacy. This system is found in the Algonquian, Iroquian, and Siouan language families, which include the Cree, Anishnaabe, Mohawk, and Nakoda languages, among others. Because the grammatical gender in these languages is based on animacy rather than on masculine and feminine, they have no impact on the gendering of language for LGBT usage. Other language families, such as Na-Dene or Inuit, do not have grammatical gender at all.

The many iImmigrant languages in Canada also vary greatly with respect to grammatical gender. The Chinese languages, the largest in Canada after English and French, do not have grammatical gender and have a single gender neutral pronoun in speaking. The third person pronoun in Chinese is written differently for “he” or “she” but both are pronounced the same. In Mandarin this is “Tā” and in Cantonese “Keoi”. Languages like Persian and Tagalog, both within the ten largest languages spoken in Canada, have no grammatical gender and no gendering in pronouns at all. 

Other immigrant languages share some of the difficulties that French presents. Spanish, a Romance language related to French, is the third largest non-official language in Canada. Spanish is a gendered language similar to French, but gender neutrality has been more easily developed for it. Gender neutral endings for nouns are a frequent subject of discussion amongst Spanish speakers in Canada, the US, and Latin America. Where traditionally words would end in “o” for masculine or “a” for feminine, the endings of “x” or “e” are used to create gender neutrality. An example is “Latino/Latina/Latinx/Latine”. There is considerable debate about the “x” and “e” endings, but many Spanish language organizations in Canada and abroad have come to accept or promote the usage of “x” and “e” endings for gender neutrality. 

Some languages have borrowed gender neutral pronouns from other languages. In German, the eighth largest language in Canada, the English gender neutral pronoun “they” is frequently used. The Scandinavian languages Norwegian and Swedish have attracted attention for borrowing the gender neutral third person pronoun “hen” from  Finnish.

Fig. 2  This graphic created for Wikipedia illustrates the native Swedish pronouns “han” (masculine) and “hon” (feminine) alongside the borrowed neutral Finnish pronoun “hen”.
Grammatical GenderGendered PronounsGender Neutral Pronoun (if known)
EnglishNoYesThey, Xe, Others
ChineseNoNoTā (Mandarin), Keoi (Cantonese), others
ArabicMasculine/FeminineYesHuma (From Koranic, dual form)
GermanMasculine/FeminineYesThey (Borrowed from English), Xier, Es (equivalent to “it”), use of name
ItalianMasculine/FeminineYesLoro (equivalent to they)
Fig. 3 Grammatical traits of the 10 largest languages and the 3 largest Indigenous languages in Canada

Gender, Sexuality, and Language

The LGBT community in Canada is not only diverse in gender and sexual identities, but also linguistically. Canada is a highly multilingual society, and so too are LGBT Canadians. There are many linguistic challenges for the LGBT community, but dedicated language activists and community members continue to help define inclusive language around for LGBT topics and people. Although the linguistic challenges for LGBT people vary from language to language, the fundamental beliefs in equality and community underlie the creative approaches to word choice in all languages.

Achieving a Professional Life Goal During COVID-19: My Internship at the Canadian Language Museum

By: Marlène Viardot, Master of Anthropology student / Museum Intern

Bonjour, je m’appelle Marlène, and I am a student at the Université de Bordeaux, France. I’m doing my Master’s degree in Anthropologie sociale et culturelle, on the topic of la revitalisation linguistique of Canada Indigenous languages. I have been attracted to working in Canada for a very long time, wishing to contribute to the language revitalization work that is done there for Indigenous cultures (combining my love for languages and my ideals of justice). And with my mind constantly switching from anglais to français, this country seemed particulièrement indicated!

After studying Language Sciences in Strasbourg, I carried on with this Anthropology Master’s degree, aiming at becoming an ethnolinguist. During the first year of this degree, I wrote a thesis about linguistic revitalization and live art: how do live shows influence language revitalization?, do younger generations want to learn how to speak the language when they hear it on stage, during a puppet show or a story festival, for example? This appeared to be really interesting, but my conclusions led to a misjudgement of the situation – it’s only once languages are revitalized, are actually spoken again, that live shows are created
using them. Not the other way around, as I initially suspected.

So this has been the trail I have been following during this second and last year of my Master’s degree. The required internship offered the opportunity to undertake an enthralling survey of the field, and I was really looking forward to it. I wanted the internship to fully match with my career goals, that it would be more than just a glimpse of the field, but on the contrary, that it would be a real springboard to work in this area of language revitalization.


The COVID-19 pandemic struck! What was I to do if going to Canada was no longer possible? A major part of my planned research relied on a trip there, to include various interviews, participation in pow wows, meetings with revitalization leaders…
After a deep but brief moment of despair, I pulled myself together: Canada was still my goal, and remote working had become the new trend, so why not give that a try?

I had found, during my research for my thesis, a great booklet about Canadian Indigenous languages, giving linguistic information about the eight distinct language families, plus three additional unclassified languages. This was precisely the type of document I was looking for, and I thought it would be enriching to get in touch with the people who had published it – this is how I discovered the Canadian Language Museum.

Booklet “Indigenous Languages in Canada” published by the Canadian Language Museum in 2019.

At the beginning of 2021, I had also followed a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) offered by the Université Laval du Québec, about Northern Quebec, which had captivated me. Consequently, I audaciously decided to contact both of these institutions, hoping that despite the decrease of activities linked to the pandemic, activities concerning language and culture protection and promotion were still ongoing.

The answers I received surpassed my expectations: the Canadian Language Museum and the Université Laval responded positively to my application! And even better – within the framework of this internship, a partnership between the two organizations was created, with me as the contact point.

My mission at the Museum involved research for the creation of a travelling exhibit about the Anishinaabe language and culture. The project was starting from scratch, and I was tasked with gathering linguistic and social data: where is the language spoken?, how many speakers are there?, how has the language community changed over time?

Speaking fluent English and French was an advantage here – this allowed me to link with people working with the Anishinaabe communities in both anglophone and francophone regions.

Indeed, the Anishinaabek were originally settled near the St Lawrence River. When the first European immigrants arrived and started settling, at the beginning of the 17th century, they migrated westward. According to Anishinaabe oral history, they were guided by a vision of a sacred miigis, a cowry seashell, which made a prophecy: if the Anishinaabeg did not move further west, they would not be able to keep their traditional ways alive, because of the many new pale-skinned settlers who would arrive soon in the east (Benton-Banai, 1979).

The community gradually moved westward, along the St Lawrence River to the Ottawa River, to Lake Nipissing, and then to the Great Lakes.

The Anishinaabe people now cover a great range of territory, as shown on this map below:

Map by Professor Will Oxford, University of Manitoba, 2021.

This wide distribution explains the number of dialects of Anishinaabemowin.

As explained to me by Carole Lemire, director of Minwashin, an association promoting the art, culture and language of the Anishinaabe people, this dialect diversity is one of the greatest challenges the language faces today. As is the case with many Indigenous languages of Canada, Anishinaabemowin is endangered and standardization of the language would make maintenance and revitalization easier.

Vigorous and effective acts of revitalization are taking place, such as the creation of games for tablets, the broadcasting of songs and podcasts, and festivals – for example, Minwashin founded the Miaja festival. “Miaja” means “now is the time”, or “let’s do this”, and this large gathering is a celebration of Anicinabe culture in all its forms.

Yes, “Anicinabe”, and not “Anishinaabe” as written previously in this article. Did you notice the difference? Well, this points exactly to the diversity problem I mentioned above: the very name of the culture itself comprises at least 11 variants (bolded for emphasis):

  • Anishinaabe
  • Anishnabe
  • Anishinabe
  • Anichnabe
  • Anichinabe
  • Anicinabe
  • Anicinape
  • Anishinaubae
  • Nishnaabe
  • Nishnabe
  • Neshnabé

The Museum uses “Anishinaabe”, but the Université Laval spells it “Anishinabe”. One might think the version with one ‘a’ is the spelling used in Quebec, but no! Minwashin, which is based in Rouyn-Nouranda, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, writes “Anicinabe”. And all three groups told me they had never seen these different spellings before.

Spelling standardization is an important goal for the survival of their language.

So, to put it in a nutshell: in my internship of only 4 weeks, I was in contact with real players in linguistic revitalization, within 3 different organizations. I learned many different ways to be active in language revival: festivals, exhibitions, apps, online classes, songs, etc.

I felt like I myself took an active part in this, as I have always dreamt of, when for example I worked with Dr. Gold, director of the Canadian Language Museum, on a questionnaire for the Anishinaabe communities. We really brainstormed about the formulation of the questions, about how to be respectful and how this could help them.

This brought up the complex issue of the position of a settler who works on an Indigenous matter: as a white, French person, I think it is my responsibility to think about my approach and my way of talking about Indigenous languages. My discussions with Dr. Gold deepened my reflections on that issue.

During this internship, I have been able to use as much French as English – which filled me with joy as you can guess – but most importantly, I have finally been able to touch on the job I have wanted to do since I was 18 years old.

Of course, it would have been even greater to have been out there in Canada, in the field, meeting all these fabulous people for real, feeling the energy of the places. Instead, everything was online and I spent my time in front of my computer rather than attending Pow Wows. But! Considering the global world situation, I managed to be close to what I have always wanted to work on! And during these confusing COVID-times, I do appreciate the opportunity this represents.


Benton-Banai, E. (1979) The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway, Indian Country Press & Publication.

Pennsylvania German and the Old Order Mennonites in southern Ontario

The history and current status of affairs

Woolwich county in the Waterloo-Kitchener area, approximately 100 km west of Toronto, is home to a dense population of German speakers and has been so for a very long time. Up to this day, German is still the most common immigrant language in the area (Statistics Canada 2016). The region is not only very German, but also contains a huge variety of Mennonite and Amish communities (Fretz 1989: 45). The Old Order Mennonites, with whom I have worked, are Anabaptists of Swiss-German origin. Due to religious persecution, their ancestors left Europe for Pennsylvania where they were promised freedom of religion by the early 18th century (Frantz 2017: 131–2). After the American War of Independence, some left Pennsylvania with the majority settling in Waterloo county, where they still reside today (Burridge 1998: 72). The Old Orders have maintained Pennsylvania German (also called Pennsylvania Dutch) as a first language, and still use it at home, in the community, and in church, while their second language English is restricted to more formal contexts, including school and doing business with the outside world. For the Old Orders, Pennsylvania German symbolises group identity. Maintaining the language does not only mean preserving their traditions and marking group membership but also represents resistance towards and separation from the secular world (cf. Johnson-Weiner 1998). Consequently, language is a very important tool for the conservative Mennonites, while the more liberal communities, having abandoned Pennsylvania German first in church and then in all other contexts, have all shifted to English within the last fifty or so years. When asked whether Pennsylvania German might be lost in the future, locals – that is both non-Mennonites and the more liberal Mennonites – count on the Old Orders, also known as the horse and buggy people, to hold on to it.

Horse pulling a Mennonite buggy.
View from inside a Mennonite horse and buggy. (Photo: Miriam Neuhausen)

Linguistic research

Within the framework of Sali Tagliamonte’s research project ‘Dialects of Ontario’ at the University of Toronto (see http://ontariodialects.chass.utoronto.ca), I spent five months with the community and recorded conversations with Pennsylvania German-speaking Mennonites. Thereby, I spoke to members belonging to both the aforementioned conservative horse and buggy people (who do not drive cars) and the more liberal churches (who drive cars and use modern technology).

My research focuses on language change and variation. To me, Pennsylvania German is highly fascinating because it has survived for such a long time in this area. In the community, the two languages – Pennsylvania German and English – strongly influence each other. Pennsylvania German resembles the Palatine dialect in southwestern Germany (Seifert 1947: 291) mixed with Canadian English, while the Old Olders’ English is sprinkled with German words, grammar, and intonation. For example, you might hear ‘tsh’ for ‘dj’ as this first sound in words like German and likewise ‘z’ for ‘s’ in words like song. In addition to that, most speakers say words like about the American way instead of the Canadian way (which sounds more like a boat). This feature is exactly what I am examining more closely: whether the Old Orders say about the American or the Canadian way.

“My mom war Deutsch like.”

(My mom was German like.)

Language change

The language change from about to a boat began in Ontario around the 1880s (Chambers 2006: 107), roughly 100 years after the first Mennonites arrived in Canada (Epp 2002: 17). Nowadays, the majority of people in Canada use the new pronunciation a boat. The traditionally isolated Old Order Mennonite community has largely resisted the language change owing to their deliberate separation from the secular world – and are thus about users. Now that at least some of the members are in increased contact with the outside world, some speakers have adapted to the change in pronunciation and use both the new and the old pronunciation. For my research, I look at when they use which vowel and what they say while doing so. My findings show that specific words tend to be pronounced a boat, while the majority of words can be variably pronounced either way. This could mean that the new vowel is associated with specific words, and other words might potentially gradually follow in the future. By contrast, other words show mixed pronunciations, which may indicate that some speakers are using the different vowels for performative functions. For example, when they take specific stances, they might use the a boat pronunciation to show belonging to the Canadian speech community; alternatively, they may use the about pronunciation to mark distinctiveness and show Mennoniteness. Whether speakers do this or not seems to depend on the degree of their exposure to the outside world. What I find most interesting about the linguistic situation here is that even though the community deliberately isolates themselves from the outside world, new linguistic forms seem to gradually arrive in the community, apparently due to the growing exposure to the outside world. It is super interesting to see who adopts these and why and when. These preliminary findings are super exciting and need to be investigated further!

I absolutely loved working with the community – everybody was so open and welcoming. I am so grateful for having been introduced to such wonderful people and their lifestyle. I have learned so much about a minority language that is kept alive in an increasingly globalised English-speaking world and a culture that conforms to norms and values that are so different from what I knew before. Last but not least, I learned how wonderful life without technology can be in times of globalisation, and I learned so, so much about myself.

Mach’s gut!

Miriam Neuhausen

Contact: german.in.ontario@gmail.com

“Do you think Pennsylvania German will die out soon?”

“I don’t think so, net so lang es noch zu Hause ist.”

(I don’t think so, not as long as it is still at home.)


Burridge, Kate. 1998. Throw the Baby from the Window a Cookie. English and Pennsylvania German in Contact. In Anna Siewierska & Jae Jung Song (eds.), Case, Typology and Grammar, 71–93. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Chambers, Jack K. 2006. Canadian Raising Retrospect and Prospect. The Canadian Journal of Linguistics 51(2/3). 105–118. https://doi.org/10.1353/cjl.2008.0009 (27 May, 2019).

Epp, Marlene. 2002. Mennonites in Ontario. An Introduction. 2nd edn. Waterloo, ON: The Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario.

Fretz, Joseph Winfried. 1989. The Waterloo Mennonites. A Community in Paradox. Waterloo, ON: Wilfried Laurier University.

Johnson-Weiner, Karen M. 1998. Community Identity and Language Change in North American Anabaptist Communities. Journal of Sociolinguistics 2(3). 375–394. https://www.academia.edu/737070/Group_identity_and_language_maintenance_The_survival_of_Pennsylvania_German_in_Old_Order_communities (16 December, 2019).

Seifert, Lester W. J. 1947. The Diminutives of Pennsylvania German. Monatshefte 39(5). 285 293. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30160202 (16 December, 2019).

Statistics Canada. 2019. Proportion of Mother Tongue Responses for Various Regions in Canada, 2016 Census. https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/dv-vd/lang/index-eng.cfm (05 December, 2019).

Coming to la Tavola of Italian-Canadian Heritage

This week we’re speaking with Caroline di Cocco about her experiences working to preserve the history, language, and culture of one of Canada’s largest immigrant groups: the Italian-Canadians.

Italians make up a large part of the history of Canadian immigration. In the 2011 census 1.5 million Canadians (4.6% of our total population) stated they are at least partially of Italian heritage. The Italians who came, and come, to Canada with their language (or languages, but more on that later), become a part of Canada’s language landscape. It is the work of Caroline di Cocco, and others across Canada, to preserve their stories, experiences, and their language. Not just for their descendants, but for all Canadians.

IMG_0005 (2)

[My gramma and grampa, Rita and Cataldo, and my dad and his brother, Frank and John]

Michael Iannozzi : What led you to get involved in documenting the heritage of Italians in Canada?

Caroline Di Cocco : I began documenting the story of the Italian-Canadian Presence around the mid-1980’s. I tried to find some history about the Italian presence in the Sarnia area. The closest thing I was able to find in the written history of Sarnia was that there was a growth of the Italian population in Sarnia in the 1950’s due to the growth of the refineries. I was driven by this question: how did the Italian-Canadian presence change the community of Sarnia-Lambton, and how were the Italians changed by having created a new home and a new life in the area? I felt a profound sense that if we did not take on the responsibility to research and document stories of the Italian-Canadian presence, these stories would be lost for future generations.

MI : What has been the immigration history? When did the Italian-canadians come to Canada?

CDC : The Italian immigration history has many complexities that fill volumes of books. In this response I can only touch on a couple of aspects. These stories are built of struggle, sacrifice, survival, resourcefulness, hard work, adjustment, and success; and in the creation of an identity which is unique from that of Italians in Italy. This was created out of holding on to one’s identity and values while at the same time re-creating that identity in a Canadian context. The Italian immigration story of Sarnia Lambton is written in a book called “One by One… Passo dopo passo.” In the introduction, Dr. Gabriele Scardellato writes, “From the late 1870s to the early 1980’s a total of some 630,000 Italians had immigrated to Canada”. In our research of the area we found evidence of a Charles Ribighini in 1870 who came to work in the oil fields in the Petrolia area [This may be the first Italian to come to Canada, although no one can ever know for sure].

Numerous stories of this history and experience is dispersed across the country and in personal collections. These collected histories of Italian-Canadians are fragmented and many of the stories are hidden from the public. More research needs to be done because collections and personal histories are being lost or forgotten with each generation.

In order to have the Italian-Canadian stories preserved, made accessible, and to document the ones that have yet to be told, the Italian-Canadian Archives Project (ICAP) was founded.

MI : What is the Italian-Canadian Archive Project?

CDC : The Italian-Canadian Archives Project “ICAP” is a not-for-profit organization, incorporated to promote and organize a national strategy to gather, preserve and make accessible material about the Italian-Canadian experience across the country. To this end, ICAP has created a Canada-wide network of established and emerging researchers in the field of Italian-Canadian studies to collaborate, partner and connect with other individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions across Canada who are interested in the Italian-Canadian experience. Through this network, ICAP works to encourage and support activities to preserve and provide access to materials on the Italian-Canadian experience.

MI : Why is it important to preserve the Italian spoken by the immigrants to Canada and their descendants?

CDC : I believe that the identity of one’s heritage is directly tied to that specific language. By understanding and speaking the language of one’s heritage, you create a stronger connection to the culture and you are able to engage others with others within that community, which makes one feel more a part of that heritage.

MI : How does the archive use the materials it gathers to create this stronger connection?

CDC : ICAP does not collect materials directly, but facilitates the preservation of collections. It does this through its national network of experts who assist in identifying collections that are at risk, and help to direct these collections to archives such as the National Museum of History, or to local archives. All across Canada ICAP members assist in bringing together Italian-Canadian communities to engage in the conversation about their Italian-Canadian stories, and to encourage the local communities to collect, preserve, and make accessible their history. We encourage people that their stories are an important part of Canada’s History; assist them, with the help of experts, on how they can preserve their history; provide workshops; and to connect like-minded communities who are doing this kind of work. Finally, we provide support and advice to ensure that any materials are preserved in either a local, provincial, university or national archive.

By keeping these documents, stories and artifacts in archives, it ensures that they are professionally managed, catalogued, and over time, digitized and made accessible to all Canadians.

MI : Why is it important to record the voices and histories of the Italian immigrants and their families?

CDC : The voices and histories of the Italian immigrant tells of experiences of dramatic change in people’s lives and how their lives impacted communities into which the settled. These stories are about people who for the most part came from very humble origins. The stories are important in so many ways, and I believe we have a responsibility to make certain future generations can also hear them. If we do not document our history then who will? After all, it helps us to understand ourselves and how we fit into the fabric of Canada.

MI : How are culture and language tied together?

CDC : Culture and language are intrinsically tied to one another. Cultural identity is imbedded in language in so many ways. For example, take the Italian relationship to food. When a table is considered as its physical noun, it is gender neutral “il tavolo”. When a table has been set for dining for guests, or is prepared for the family to sit and eat, then it is no longer just a physical and objective object, and the feminine gender is used “la tavola”.

MI : What do the experiences of the Italian immigrants tell us about language and immigration more broadly?

CDC : The stories and experiences tell us that although people adapt, adjust, and rebuild a life in a new country, their identity is intrinsically connected to their language and place of origin. The shaping of their values and thinking is in large part connected to their roots. Their behaviour is in many ways shaped by the place of origin, and closely tied to their heritage. Basically I see that the day-to-day lives of the immigrants, although they are now for all intents and purposes Canadian, are full of habits and ways of life that are closely linked to their ethnic and historical heritage [For instance, my gramma still gets up and bakes fresh bread at 78 years of age almost daily. She has friends that have “secret” places where they harvest wild asparagus and mushrooms each year, and only pass on the location to their children. And the full moon of October is still used for when wine pressed in garages is bottled or racked].

MI : You published a book on the history of Italians in the town of Sarnia (which happens to also be my hometown). What has been the experience and history of the Italians of southwestern Ontario, and does it differ from the experiences of Italians elsewhere in Canada?

CDC : I find that there are many similarities but also significant differences. The stories have a similar theme no matter where the Italians settled, not just in Canada, but around the world. For the most part, the values of a strong work ethic, and close family units are a common theme anywhere you go.

My observations have been that in smaller towns and cities, Italians seem to have integrated more quickly within the Canadian community, although they continue to maintain a pride of their heritage. In smaller centers those of Italian origin identify themselves as either Italian-Canadians, or simply as Canadians with Italian background. In large centres, where the number of Italians is in the hundreds of thousands, such as Toronto, they have create “little Italys”, and seem to stay connected more to their place of origin. From my conversations with many groups and individuals, they seem to identify more with Italy.

When the conversation of Italian-Canadian history takes place, I have found that in small centres it is about the journey here to Canada, whereas in large cities it seems to be about what constitutes being Italian.

MI : Are there differences in the Italian spoken in Sarnia, vs Windsor, vs Toronto, vs elsewhere in Canada? Why would that be?

CDC : Because of “chain migration” [Which allows an immigrant, once given citizenship or permanent residence status, to sponsor or bring extended family to join them in their new country], people from the same town or same regions of Italy settled in the same places in Canada. Because most people who emigrated had very little education, they did not speak Italian, but their specific dialects, which often are very different languages. For instance if the group was from Sicily, they spoke Sicilian. For someone like me, who is from Central Italy, Sicilian is a foreign language.

There are many different dialects all coming from Italy. These dialects are all labelled Italian; however, they are distinct. Depending on where the specific clusters of Italian immigrants settled, you will see a common dialect. For example, the majority of Italians to settle in Sarnia come from southern Lazio, known as Ciociaria, so you have that dialect spoken. In Toronto the largest number of immigrants come from Calabria, with many from Sicily, some from Friuli, Abruzzo, Molise, whereas a much smaller number are from southern Lazio. Not only do you have different “Italian” spoken from city to city, but also great variation within the cities.

It is only over the last maybe 20 years, due to mass education, that most people speak “standard” Italian in Italy, and unfortunately the dialects are being lost.

MI : Do you feel that the experience of “being Italian” in Canada has changed over the past 50 years?

CDC : Yes I think it has changed from “Italian-ness” initially having a negative or pejorative connotation to being “in” today. The experience has changed because the Italians earned the respect of other Canadians along the way. As Canadians interacted with Italians they were less uncertain about them. This understanding has led to the appreciation of the Italian values of hard work, family, good food and so on, and of course this worked in reverse too as Italians more-and-more integrated into Canadian society.

Unfortunately, this acceptance has led to the perception that Italian is not needed, and a decreased interest in learning Italian. There are fewer and fewer Italian-Canadians today who speak Italian.


[Making wine using an old-fashioned, hand-cranked, press]

There is a phrase, “Hyphenated Canadian”. It represents the idea that many Canadians don’t identify as simply Canadian. If you ask many Canadians, including many in my own family, they don’t say they are Canadian, rather they say they are “X-Canadian”. For example, they may consider themselves “Italian-Canadian”, or maybe even just “Italian”(the Canadian part being assumed).

Very few Canadians, if they are willing to go back a couple of generations, will find that their ancestors were living in Canada. We are a nation of nationalities. Canadians are First Nations, Inuit, and Metis, but Canadians are also Somali, Ukrainian, and Thai. These heritages shape us individually, and also as a nation. Italian isn’t something I may need to use on a daily basis, but it helps me feel more connected with my past.

I actually consider myself just simply “Canadian”, I don’t use a hyphen, but my family is made up of Italian and Dutch, and that is part of my reality as a Canadian. What it means to be Canadian is as diverse as the nationalities, peoples, and languages that make up our country, and that is one of my favourite things about being Canadian.

And because it would be irresponsible, and an abnegation of my duty to not provide you with Italian tasty recipes, here are some:




Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi



They will speak their language again and forever

This week we are looking at Mi’gmaq, a First Nations Language spoken in Eastern Canada.

More specifically, we are looking at efforts to revitalize the language, and a very promising and encouraging trend among minority and endangered languages : linguists and academics working with and among the community rather than deciding what is best for them.

To that end, this week I am speaking with Carol-Rose Little, linguistics Ph.D. student at Cornell University, and Madelaine Metallic, Mi’gmaq language teacher at Alaqsite’w Gitpu School in Listuguj, QC about efforts currently underway to protect, preserve, and promote the Mi’gmaq language.


[The Mi’gmaq “hieroglyphics” described below.]

MI : So I suppose, to start, what is Mi’gmaq?

CRL : Mi’gmaq is an Eastern Algonquian language of eastern Canada.

MI : Where was it originally spoken?

CRL : Eastern/Atlantic Canada/Newfoundland and Labrador and Maine

MI : Where is it spoken today?

CRL : Eastern QC, Cape Breton, NB, NL

MI : How many speakers are there?

CRL : Numbers are hard to come by…Ethnologue says 8,000 but I would say it is definitely less than half that amount. It is hard to get this kind of survey data.

MI : What makes it unique?

CRL : Mi’gmaq is a polysynthetic language, which basically is to say that each word is composed of many parts. So in one word it is possible to say “I see you” nemul nem=see, -ul = first person acting on second person.

MI : What does it looks like, and what does it sound like?

CRL : Mi’gmaq has a number of different writing systems, there was even once a hieroglyphic system (*cover this* -MI), though that system has not been in use for many years. The orthographies used in communities today all use Latin-based characters [The Mi’gmaq language is written by all communities today using the same alphabet as English].

MI : Are there related languages spoken currently?

CRL : Many languages spoken today are related to Mi’gmaq (all Algonquian languages, e.g. Passamoquoddy-Maliseet, Ojibwe, Blackfoot, Cree).

MI : Now turning to you both, did you grow up with Mi’gmaq as one of your languages, or did you learn it later?

CRL : I began learning Mi’gmaq in the classroom in 2012 and am still learning today.

MM : I grew up with Mi’gmaq as one of my languages. My grandparents have been speaking to me in Mi’gmaq for as long as I can remember, and I have been speaking the language ever since.

MI : And your project “migmaq.org”, how has it been built?

CRL : migmaq.org is meant to be a place where members of the project can share updates and keep updated themselves of what is happening with the work being done by both the community and linguists. It also acts as a place where those interested in Mi’gmaq can go and find resources and references on Mi’gmaq, and how to learn it.

MI : What are the project’s goals?

CRL : The collaboration is a collective effort to bring Mi’gmaq speakers, teachers, and linguists together to develop a deeper understanding of the grammar of the language, create teaching materials, and facilitate the learning, speaking, and promotion of Mi’gmaq.

MI : What is the role of the linguist, and what is the role of the community and its elders in a project like this?

CRL : My role is to help in whatever way possible to build language-learning resources! I’ve helped document course curricula, organize language workshops, contribute to social media campaigns, and record and document the language. I also do fieldwork on Mi’gmaq. For instance, a paper I wrote on Negation will be published soon. This research also feeds into the grammar wiki [Found Here].

MI : What are some of the challenges in a project this big?

CRL : Not getting overloaded with resources! I think at one point we had so many different platforms (apps, social media, computer softwares, websites) to learn Mi’gmaq, we just had to stop and re-evaluate, then cut the programs that were not attracting traffic, and work more on the apps/sofwares/websites that were drawing users.

MI : What are the advantages of modern technology and the internet in revitalizing First Nations languages?

CRL : Accessibility, being able to share resources quickly, and having access to open-source programs that are very attractive to limited budgets.

MI : On the website I see that there is a decision to be active on social media, why is it important to have the community use social media? And how does this impact interactions with the outside communities?

CRL : Social media is a powerful marketing tool. For instance Savvy Simon’s #SpeakMikmaq movement has garnered a lot of support. Many people are posting instagram videos of them speaking Mi’gmaq, even if it is just a word.

MM : Also today, many people are actively involved with social media, so one way to promote the language and reach these people is to share the language through social media. Social media also allows communication between different Mi’gmaq communities, which allows for sharing of resources as Carol-Rose mentioned.

MI : What is a master-apprentice language program? And why do you think it is an important tool?

CRL : The goal of the master apprentice program is to pair a speaker (“master”) up with a learner (“apprentice”), and for the speaker to go about daily routines, but only in the language [In this case Mi’gmaq], forcing the apprentice to use and practice the language in everyday settings. This is an extremely important tool because not only are learners practicing the language, but they are practicing it in culturally and socially relevant contexts, thus learning terminology and phrases related to those activities.

MI : What do you think is the most important thing for the survival of Mi’gmaq in the future?

CRL : Getting young people to learn the language, and use it with each other. Being able to have entire friendships and relationships in the language.

MM : I agree with what Carol-Rose says, but I also think that it is most important for Mi’gmaq people to begin to take initiative in learning their language themselves, and to have the motivation on their own to learn it in order for our language to survive. At the moment we have plenty of resources, and fluent speakers (although, unfortunately, not for much longer) who are willing to help; now is the time where we need the people to be willing to actively use these resources.

MI : If someone wants to learn Mi’gmaq, what do you feel is the best approach, and how should someone get started?

CRL : The best approach is to learn a few basics phrases, and some verb conjugations and just go out and start speaking. Listening to music in Mi’gmaq and learning the lyrics helps with pronunciation (My favourite song). However, I am a linguist, and I’m sure teachers would have many things to add.

MM : I agree with Carol-Rose, a good start would be to learn some simple words and phrases and to practice those. Try to use the new words you’ve just learned as much as possible. In order to learn the language, one must try to immerse themselves in the language. I was also told it was important to begin thinking in the language as much as you can, even if you only have a small vocabulary. If you see a door, don’t identify it to yourself as a “door”, but as a “gaqan”. Also speakers (especially new ones) have to keep in mind that they are still learning, and that they should not be afraid to make mistakes, or to try even if they might not be sure they know. Speakers should realize that they are making an effort to learn, and they should take pride in that, and never feel too embarrassed or shy to keep learning.

MI : What has been your favourite part of being involved in the project?

CRL : I love working with speakers. Mi’gmaq is such a different language than any other I have studied. There is so much to discover and learn from all the structure. It’s such a fun language to talk in as well. I felt so happy after the first time I managed to hold a conversation for 30 minutes in Mi’gmaq. It’s so fun being able to talk to Mi’gmaq speakers in their native language and learn about their rich culture.

MM : I love being able to learn more about my language and to discuss the language with other speakers. I also love hearing the input of others, and working to find different solutions to try for a given issue, and get other people to begin to start speaking their language.


[The Listuguj Mi’gmaq Territory is in the far east of Quebec]

A sincere thank you to Carol-Rose and Madelaine for taking part in the interview

This project is just one example of a growing number of instances where communities are working with academics to preserve and promote their language. Mi’gmaq is a great instance of work being done by people of all backgrounds, and all ages, to create digital resources, fieldwork research, immersive language-learning, and create teaching materials altogether. A large group of people is working very hard, and coordinating a great number of people, and their time, and the results are impressive.

The work that is being done on Mi’gmaq will hopefully be used as an example of how communities and outside experts in various fields can share and learn from, and with, each other. Academics should always ask, coordinate, and work with a community. The results of their combined efforts and various skillsets and knowledge result in a very promising future for both Mi’gmaq specifically, and language revitalization across Canada!


Take care eh,





A new year, thank you for the old one

Happy New Year to you all!


Just a brief post from me today. I just wanted to thank you all for supporting the museum over 2015. I joined the Canadian Language Museum in the late summer of 2014 as a volunteer. I have since then run the blog, twitter and Facebook accounts.


It has been, and continues to be, an enormous honour, and a terrific amount of fun. I am able to speak to fantastic professors, graduate students, and community members who do essential and amazing work. I am able to share the things that I love about language(s) with all of you, and I want to say that I am extraordinarily grateful and thankful to each of you for your support. So I want to thank you for being patient with me, and for supporting the blog, twitter, and Facebook, but also for supporting the Museum more broadly.


In particular I want to thank all of the wonderful people I’ve spoken with over the past year for the blog. You have all been incredibly patient and endlessly kind and helpful in sharing your work with me, and with the readers of our blog. I apologize for any delays in my replies in email, and I will do my best to keep up with all of the people I hope to speak with, and continue to work hard in 2016 to keep bringing new interviews, and new research to the blog.


I also want to sincerely thank Elaine Gold and Katharine Snider-McNair; the Museum’s chair and executive assistant. This may sound self-congratulatory, but I don’t actually see either one of them very often, and I don’t speak with them as often as I likely should. They/you have both been continually supportive and kind, so thank you for allowing me to keep doing this. I love every part of this.


I also want to thank Floriane Letourneux. She has been a fantastic, and fantastically understanding and patient, translator for our blog posts. Any faults with the French translation are always my own (especially today as she hasn’t seen this), but the amazing quality of the translations are entirely due to her. Thank you.


Finally, thank you from the core of my heart to my friends and family for always supporting me, and serving as test subjects for my ideas and initial drafts of blog posts. I try to write everything so that non-linguists can appreciate the amazing work the people I talk with and about are doing, and my friends and family are never anything less than entirely patient and kind with helping me.


In 2016, I’d really like to begin brief weekly profiles of graduate students, something I tried to start in September, but the start of the year was just too busy a time for many students and Universities. So, if you are a graduate student in Canada, or a Canadian graduate student elsewhere, or someone working on something Canadian-y and language-y, please get in touch at CanLangMuseum@gmail.com. I will be sending out an email to linguistic departments all over, but the document is attached below, and I would love to hear from you.

CLM – Graduate student profiles – Questions – The Document!

In general please feel free to contact me at any point with any advice, ideas, or otherwise. I am always happy to speak with anyone about the museum, and I don’t pretend to be an expert at any form of social media, so please get in touch if you have something you’d like to share—news, events, ideas etc.


Take care everyone, thank you, and have a good year eh,


Michael Iannozzi



Talking Baby Talk

This week I’m talking with Dr. Ailís Cournane of The University of Toronto. We are discussing first language acquisition, or FLA. We spoke about the way babies and infants acquire their mother tongue(s), the first language(s) they learn, and how they go about doing that.

Have you ever wondered if your infant understands your baby-talk? Whether you could raise a perfectly trilingual child? Or if it matters that your kid can’t remember that we don’t say “gooses” or “meeses”?”. Understanding how our children acquire language through FLA is the first step in answering some of these questions. Even if you don’t have a child, you were one once, so let’s find out what the kid in us thinks about how we all learned our first language

Like so many aspects of child rearing, having one’s own child tends to make people feel like experts on how babies develop. When it comes to first language acquisition, we can turn to researchers like Doctor Cournane to help understand out the science behind how our babies develop, and what kind of universal truths actually exist. Even if you don’t have a child, you were one once, so let’s find out what the kid in us thinks about how we all learned our first language.


[Child version of me being encouraged to speak by being given macaroni…still works 24 years later]

Michael Iannozzi : What first got you interested in studying first-language acquisition?

Ailís Cournane : I originally worked on language change, and I continually saw reference to the role of the child learner in driving language change [Language change is the way language evolves over time, which usually means over generations]. Children are thought to reanalyse the language when they learn and build their own [internal and subconscious] mental grammar. However, despite seeing that theory everywhere, and it being widely accepted, no one had explored it sufficiently in how languages change. So I got into child language because I’m interested in change. Development and change have much in common.

MI : How is first-language acquisition defined?

AC : FLA [First-Language Acquisition] describes the process and properties of the language of infants/toddlers/young children as they acquire their mother tongue(s). The child begins with no language (but with the capacity for language!), and with social input from speakers around her, she gradually builds her language(s). I say “language(s)” because many infants are exposed to more than one language, so they acquire these simultaneously.

MI : How is the learning of a first language different from the learning of second language?

AC : There are a few important differences. Firstly, with FLA there is no other language in place. If you are a child acquiring English you are building your first language using just your language capacity and exposure to older speakers. For Second Language Acquisition [SLA] you already have a language in place! So when you learn English as a teenager, for example, you learn it in relation to your mother tongue (say, Mandarin). The English you learn as an L2 competes in some ways with the Mandarin you learned first [An L2 is someone’s 2nd language. The one they acquired second]. Secondly, SLA appears to require more motivation and explicit learning (classes, drills, forcing yourself to practice with native speakers, etc.) than FLA. SLA also seems to show less defined milestones (or stages) than FLA.

MI : Who are the main sources of input for an infant’s first language [L1] acquisition?

AC : The primary caregivers are the main source of input during infancy and early childhood. Very early on, when most infants are relying heavily on their mother, the maternal input is usually strongest. Older siblings also play a role early on in development. Once the child attends daycare or preschool the peer-group begins to play a larger role.

MI : From whom does a child learn their accent?

AC : Well, at first a child – especially an oldest or only child – models their language on their primary caregivers’ language, from who they are hearing most of their language input. However, children very quickly adapt to their peer-group as soon as they enter daycare or elementary school. This is why people with immigrant parents do not share their parents’ accent, but instead sound like their peers. For example, my parents are from Ireland, but my brothers and I grew up in Montreal. We have Canadian English accents with the features expected of Montreal Anglophones. We occasionally have some Irish influence in our language, but we sound much, much, more like our peers than our parents.

MI : Are the parts of a child’s language (accent, grammar, pronunciation, etc.) learned separately/from different sources, or is it all learned concurrently?

AC : Concurrently, however, the focus or main concentration of developmental changes may be in different areas at different times. For example, since words are made up of several sounds the infant needs to begin to crack the sound system of a language before they can really grasp words (let alone complex words or sentences). That said, sounds are contained in words so the child is also necessarily learning about words when they are focusing on sound development. There are very complex interactions at work.

MI : As children learn their first language, they all make some mistakes, what do they tell us about how the children are learning to speak?

AC : I like to call mistakes or errors “divergent” or “creative” analyses, because these analyses are productive and systematic and emerge from aspects of how the child is learning [Meaning the mistakes a child makes like calling geese, “gooses”, or moose “meese”, make sense even though they aren’t correct. In other words, the mistakes are patterned, and can be explained].

They only seem like mistakes when we compare them to adult grammar norms, but they aren’t actually mistakes, they’re (for example) the child uncovering rules of the language and applying those rules (sometimes to exceptions). For example, children sometimesover-apply the regular past tense (-ed) to irregular past tense (e.g., goed for went, or eated for ate). This shows that the child understands how to productively form a past tense in English – that’s a big achievement, and shows pattern recognitions and the ability to generalize a rule.

MI : Are the mistakes a child makes in speaking all the same “kind” of mistake? Is a mispronunciation the same “kind of mistake” as eated or goed?

AC : Not necessarily. Mispronunciation, for example, can have either or both physiological (muscle-control, shape of the developing vocal tract, coordination, etc.) and cognitive (understanding of the sound system of the language, planning, etc.) causes.

Omissions of grammatical words (e.g., saying wan go, leaving out the pronoun “I” and the “to” infinitive marker, I wanna go), and what these mistakes mean, are notoriously debated. Does the child omit them because they’re not salient in the sound signal of the language [Is the child not hearing the other parts?]? Or because they are more grammatically complex and abstract? Or because they can be omitted pragmatically (i.e. they’re not necessary to be understood when speech happens in context, as most daily speech does, especially for a child)? Or some combination of these? [It is pretty clear what “want eat” means coming from an infant at supper, even if grammatically it isn’t “correct”]

MI : Is there an “order” to the way children learn a language? Do they learn certain parts first and last?

AC : Yes. Some of this order is logically determined – sentences are made up of words and words are made up of sounds, so you can’t jump right to learning sentences if you haven’t figured out something about the sound system of the language you are learning. Thus, simplifying somewhat, the infant’s first task is to break into the sound system of the speech around them (or the gestural system of the sign language around them). Part of learning the sound patterns in a language is learning where word boundaries are in the stream of speech. Our speech is a continuous acoustic stream with no boundaries, but our mental grammar knows where to put boundaries [This is often why, when we hear a language we aren’t familiar with, we think they are speaking quickly. Because we can’t hear where words end].

We learned to do this as infants by solving what is called the “segmentation problem”. This problem refers to how the child learns where in the continuous stream one word ends and the next begins. Current research mostly argues that children rely heavily, or solely, on monitoring transitional probabilities between sounds. Sounds that frequently pattern together in the speech stream are thought to pattern together as words. Only by having some understanding of the phonology of the language, e.g. which sounds pattern together and how, can the child progress to associating meanings to words and learning how words can be combined together into complex words and sentences.

MI : Is that order the same across languages? What are the differences in children who learn different first languages?

AC : Yes, as far as we know the order is remarkably similar across diverse languages. The infant, unlike someone trying to learn a second language, has no knowledge of any previous language, so much of what constrains development is determined by how the child learns, and if the child has any learning or language impairments. The child must figure out the sound system, word forms and word-patterns, word meanings, grammatical rules (syntax), etc. The task is broadly the same one, despite the language that is being acquired varying. American Sign Language, despite being in a different mode (gestural-visual, rather than oral-aural), is known to be very similar in development to spoken languages when we consider milestones – babbling, first words, first word combinations (early sentences), overgeneralization of rules, etc. That said, most languages have not been sufficiently studied in development, the focus has been primarily on Western European languages and other prominent/widely-spoke languages (e.g., Japanese, Mandarin).

MI : How do adults/parents/caregivers change their speech when talking with children/infants?

AC : Caregivers often use what is called “Child Directed Speech”, or CDS. This is also called Infant-Directed Speech or Motherese. CDS has distinct phonetic features – it is higher pitch than the speaker’s regular voice, stress patterns are exaggerated, and vowels are held for a longer duration. These phonetic features are perceived as having a “happy affect”. Infants and young children respond preferentially to happy affect.

There is also some evidence that adults simplify their word choices to represent basic-level categories, for example, a mother might call a tiger a “kitty” when talking to her young child. Further, there is also some evidence that adults might simplify the sentences containing words the child is poised to learn. For example, a father might say “You want water?” to his 1-year old rather than, “Do you want a glass of water?”. Adults are thought to subconsciously complexify their child-directed language as the child grows linguistically.

MI : Is this change helpful for the learning children?

AC : It seems to be helpful, but not necessary. There are cross-cultural differences in the ways adults, and particularly caregivers, interact with children. We know that CDS is something that infants and young children respond to, and it may help exaggerate word boundaries and other features of the speech stream and thus help with learning words, but helping is different from being necessary. Most of our research has been conducted on children learning a language in western societies in recent times, so it is fair to say that it this point we know more about this learning situation than all other extant learning situations.

MI : Do different children learn their first language differently?

AC : Yes. There is variation across children, but this needs to be viewed as secondary to very robust trends and similarities. Thus, there is more that is the same about how children learn their first language than there is that differs. With that in mind, let’s talk about what varies.

First, children may have a disorder that affects language development (e.g., Down Syndrome, Autism, Williams Syndrome), or they may have a hearing impairment that impairs their access to spoken language (but not to sign language if they are exposed to a sign language). Then, even among children who are considered typically-developing with respect to language, the time course of development varies. Some children reach milestones much earlier than others, all within the normal range. For example, some children will use their first words by 10 months of age, while others may not use their first words until 24 months old. This is comparable to how some children start walking at 9 months while others start walking at 18 months. Language delay is only diagnosed in children over age 4 because children can vary widely in early development without any cause for alarm.

The child’s personality also affects development. Some children will be quiet and cautious, while others will be quite loquacious. The nature of linguistic interaction with caregivers matters as well. Some studies have shown that socioeconomic status (SES) is a significant factor in vocabulary and syntactic development. Families in the US were followed and their speech analysed; caregivers of lower socioeconomic status were less likely to ask their young children open ended questions (e.g. “What are you drawing?”) and more likely to address young children with yes/no questions (e.g., “Are you drawing?”), and more likely to use prohibitive language (e.g., “Don’t…”) compared to higher SES caregivers. Children from higher SES families on average had larger vocabularies, and reached syntactic development milestones somewhat earlier.

MI : How does a child change the language of their parents?

AC : My research directly addresses this, but it is an area that has previously received a lot of theoretical attention, but very little data-driven research. In other words, many researchers think children play a role in how languages change, but it’s unclear from real-world research whether that is true or not. We know that teenagers are “early adopters”, and most likely to embrace and spread language changes (think about, for example, use of quotative “be like” as in “He was like, ‘thank you’”), however do these new variants in the language emerge from child-language innovations?

I look at this question for modal expressions (words that express possibility: must, can, might, maybe, probably, etc). Children do appear to make analyses that are compatible with how languages change over time. However, compatible is not necessarily causal, so stay tuned!

MI : Does your research affect the way you now speak with children?

AC : I don’t think so, except perhaps that I’m more and more comfortable with lots of different children the more I work with kids. That said, working on child language definitely affects how I listen to children! I love talking to children not just for the content of what they say, but for the linguistic form of what they say.

MI : What is your favourite part of studying the way children learn languages?

AC : The linguistic creativity! They are using their developing language to live their wee lives, and they make many creative sentences when they try to express themselves. The problem itself is fascinating and complex – how does a language-less infant go from that pre-linguistic stage to becoming a fully-linguistic adult? Language is complex and systematic, and it is so easy to take it for granted. When you have to explicitly think about what the little language learner is doing you are regularly struck by how marvellous it is that humans can learn language at all.


[My mum and her twin sister sharing sandbox gossip]

A great thank you to Ailís Cournane for taking us back in time, and teaching us how we once learned language.

One of the great advantages of studying linguistics, or language more broadly, is that you are constantly amazed at the complexities of language, and how subconsciously and effortlessly you are able to handle that complexity.

The fact that the little child version of me was able to learn “Tractor” as one of my first words, is quite remarkable. Infant Michael was able to find out where the word began and ended (with a “t” sound and an “r” sound), pick out the sounds in between, and attach that collection of sounds to a massive machine my grampa drove through the field with me, and then produce those sounds without being asked when I saw it the next week. Not bad work considering I still struggle after 10 years to use dont correctly in French.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi


Don’t Say That, It Makes You Sound Like A Girl

LeAnn Brown is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Toronto, a sessional instructor at the University of Calgary, and a research assistant for the University of Manitoba. She studies how gender, sexual orientation, and personal traits are all manifested (or if they are manifested) in people’s speech, and how that shapes power in our society.

This is one of a two-part interview with LeAnn. This week we are discussing how women have traditionally had their speech stigmatized as a proxy for criticizing women in general.

In two weeks our next post will focus on LGBTQ issues.

The research LeAnn Brown does, and that she cites, reflect critical biases in our society. By better understanding these issues, we can work to address and overcome them.

[Men and women have compared and contrasted their ways of speaking since we started speaking]

[People judge how others speak, and often gender plays a role in those judgements]

Michael Iannozzi : What first got you interested in studying the way power, gender, and sexual orientation shape language use?

LeAnn Brown : As an undergrad I heard a little about “genderlects” – this idea that women and men speak differently. I wondered how easily trans gender individuals would be able to acquire a new genderlect and that became the focus of my masters project and some of my PhD research. Looking at cis (i.e., non-trans) and trans gender issues brings up all kinds of questions about power and sexual orientation, so my interest in all these issues evolved out of this first basic question.

MI : How do you define power in a conversation between two people?

LB : There are many different definitions of and kinds of power. A good starting point definition is that you have power if you have access to prestige, status, wealth and opportunities. When we are talking about language and broad social factors such as gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, and class, we’re talking about who has the power to set the norms within a society. English-speaking Canadian society today is for the most part a product of white, English-speaking, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis gender populations, and therefore is predominantly led in most areas (political, religious, educational, justice systems) by white, English-speaking, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual men. Not only do they have access to prestige, status, wealth and opportunities, but they also control who else has access. Challenging this kind of power requires social movements – for example, the US Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, challenges to anti-discrimination in the workplace for members of the LGBTQ communities.

All of this is in the background when two people have a conversation, but their own social realities and the context, including the purpose of the conversation, also affects the power relationship. These things are not static as the context or purpose can change along with the power balance. So there is no simple one-off answer to this question.

MI : How does gender play into the weighing of power, and has that changed in the last decade/few years?

LB : In terms of Canadian society, women now have more access to power in social realms than they did historically, but there are still power inequities. I don’t think most people would dispute this given the prevalence of domestic violence against women, the higher proportions of women (and children) living in poverty, gender based pay gaps, and the lack of women in government as compared to men. Language reflects this.

For example, if we look at the history of how the English language was talked about, we find that it was assumed to be the arena of men. The writer Thomas Hardy noted that “[i]t is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” Men were assumed to be standard speakers and writers, using the “correct” grammar and pronunciation. Of course, this did not include all men — only white, native English speaking, educated men. For example, in Jespersen’s 1922 book on English grammar he had specific chapters to talk about the speech of non-standard speakers, like “foreigners” and women. When you are in power, you can decide what is “normal” or “standard” and what is not normal or non-standard (read substandard). This keeps you in your place and everyone else in their place.

Yet research by Labov in the late 1960s and 1970s in the US revealed interesting results that didn’t support this view of language. He found that English speaking women, across race and class lines, produced more standard forms than did their male counterparts. He also found that women tend to be the language innovators, keeping the language alive and vibrant, by participating in, for example, new syntactic forms, new lexical items, and new vowel shifts initially at greater rates than their male counterparts. This is Labov’s famous “Gender Paradox”.

MI : What do these findings reflect about our preconceptions and expectations?

LB : These kinds of results are important because they indicate a big disconnect between what specific speaker groups produce and what specific listener groups think others produce. That is, we have stereotypes about groups of speakers that are not based on actual linguistic output and this holds for gender as well as other social factors.

It was Robin Lakoff’s work in the early 1970s that truly focused on the question of “genderlects” (i.e., language differences by gender). Her work has been downplayed as it was based on her own intuitions as a white academic, rather than through studies of actual people in everyday life, but she is an important figure in my opinion for a couple of reasons. First, she clearly identified the limitations of the work, but also acknowledges that these language differences are primarily about differences in power. Women’s language reflected powerlessness and men’s reflected power, so it’s not inherently about gender roles but about the power each gender role is allocated in the societal scheme. Second, she identified specific variables that women tended to use in her experience. These variables were then picked up and used by later researchers in their own quantitative research. For example, hedges (e.g., sort of, kind of, I guess), fillers (e.g., you know, like), and tag questions (e.g., You’re going, aren’t you?).

Later studies (e.g., Shuy, 1993) looking at court hearing transcripts supports Lakoff’s first point. In court, when a witness and a lawyer or a judge converse there is a clear power difference: the witness is the least powerful person in the conversation. Many of the linguistic cues Lakoff identified as part of women’s language — the use of hedges and fillers for example — are found in witness speech, regardless of their gender. Interestingly, Shuy’s research suggests that the use of these less powerful linguistic devices leads to the speaker being disbelieved, and this has consequences in terms of legal outcomes and sentencing.

MI : What are some examples of the way features of “women’s speech” are viewed negatively?

LB : What is interesting to me is whether a variable is stigmatized because it is non-standard or because it is used by women. Uptalk is a great example. Simply put, uptalk makes a statement take on a questioning intonation and in North America it is often thought to be used exclusively by young women (innovators!). Lakoff also noted uptalk in women’s language as expressing hesitancy and the need for reassurance. Uptalk is interesting because it is something everyone seems to notice. In North American English, uptalk is strongly associated with young women and as negatively making the speaker appear unsure or inept.

For example, I had a young woman explain to me during a workshop that she had been explicitly told in her university business program to never ever use uptalk as it would damage her credibility and professional image. There are many popular online articles and YouTube videos on presentation skills that address the horrors of uptalk.

Interestingly, a small study of Ontario speakers (Shokeir, 2008) found that while women used uptalk much more than men did, it was not exclusive to women, and it was not exclusive to younger women. Everyone is using it, women more so than men, but older women were using it at similar rates as the younger women. Shokeir (2008) further found that for men, uptalk was connected to negatives such as uncertainty, but for women it reflected positive attributes like friendliness.

In terms of power, is uptalk negatively viewed because it is associated with a lack of power or the speaker sounds uncertain, or because it is considered to be something used by young women? Does the ban on uptalk in business classes reflect a culture that values power or devalues friendliness, or devalues women in general? Will uptalk be used in Canada by women and men, and/or will Canadian men change their associations of uptalk into something more positive? That’s something to keep on the radar. This is a good example of who gets to set the standard and how new things that don’t fit the standard are not viewed positively until more people (i.e., those with more social prestige) use it.

MI : Why do you think this kind of “policing” of language is so popular?

LB : Language is often an “acceptable” way of othering people. Criticisms of language use are the framework to continue to produce and justify prejudice and discrimination. There are great examples of this on YouTube videos that attack young women (and I would assume other groups traditionally discriminated against). When you look at the video content it isn’t about the language use, it’s about misogyny, couched in terms of language use. Ironically, the very language use being attacked is often used by the critic.

So for example, in one video I presented at a workshop a young man mimicked a young woman he allegedly disliked because of the way she speaks. He did this by using like excessively. But he uses like excessively in his own speech too. The video content makes clear that this young man found this woman he was mimicking (and women who speak like her) “morally wanting” yet he chose to explicitly attack her speech rather than her moral character.

[I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me. - V. Woolf]

[I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me. – V. Woolf]

A big thank you to LeAnn Brown for sharing her research and knowledge with the blog.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion surrounding “vocal fry”: the creaking or croaky sound a voice can make often at the end of a sentence. It has been criticized in same way as HRT. However, also like HRT, it has been found to not only be used by women (not even close), but it is hardly a new phenomenon.

Certain aspects of language can be (rightly or wrongly) associated with particular groups, and is often used to discredit and criticize them. However, there is a diversity in the way we use and abuse language that does not reflect who we are as people.

You can find stories surrounding the vocal fry kerfuffle here:






Thank you very much.

Take care eh,

Michael Iannozzi

Does That Name Mean Anything to You?

Karen Pennesi is a professor at Western University, and she is also the Vice President of the Canadian Society for the Study of Names. She studies how individual’s names are shaped, perceived, and often judged by personal evaluation, familial values, and societal mores (her project is here, and on facebook here).

I am fascinated by peoples’ names. One of my favourite things is how we react to another’s name. My family has a long-standing tradition for when we eat out at a restaurant. One of the four of us (my mum, dad, sister and me) looks at the bill, and at the top is usually the name of the person who served us our meal. The other three then try to guess the name; we are allowed to ask questions, and one of the first questions is almost always, “does the name suit him/her?” Amazingly, at least in our family, we all seem to have roughly the same understanding of what a suitable name is for a person we met, at most, 2 hours previous. Moreover, once we guess the name, we all immediately have a strong reaction as to whether that name “fits”. How do we form these notions about who is most suitable for which name?

This is just one of the thousands of things I find so interesting about the field of onomastics. Professor Pennesi has so many interesting things to say, and many answers to questions I’ve had for years, so let’s get to the interview.

Image credit: MapsAreAmazing

[Naming conventions in Europe, North Africa, and Asia]

Michael Iannozzi : First of all, what is onomastics?
Karen Pennesi : Onomastics is the study of the history, structure, meaning and use of names. This is a broad field, which can include place names, personal names, brand names, and other types of names. My research is on personal names, sometimes called “anthroponyms”.
MI : What led you to first begin studying personal names?
KP : I think names are inherently interesting to anyone since everyone has a name, and some people have multiple names over their life span. I was looking for a research topic that would be broad enough to keep me interested and productive for the next several years, and which I could study locally (i.e. not have to travel to another country, as with my previous research in Brazil). Names are everywhere so that made it easy.
Names are a great example of where language and identity converge. People often think about names as a kind of label to identify or refer to individuals, but names are also words. They have to fit into the sound system of a language and they have a structure, which is determined by social or cultural convention. For example, someone with an Indonesian or Mohawk name may only have a single name component, not a first and last name combination like we use in Canadian English. Meanwhile, someone with a Spanish or Portuguese name may have four or five name components if they have a two-part first name and the last names of both parents [for example, Salvador Dali was from Catalonia, and his full name was Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech].
I also have had a long-standing interest in the ways people try to fit into new cultures. When I taught English in Korea, I noticed that many Koreans assumed English names in their English classes, and then continued to use them when they travelled overseas. When I taught international students in the U.S. and Canada, lots of them had English names, but many also continued to use their original names. I became interested in finding out why Koreans often take English names while Japanese or Iranians do not. Or why English-speaking foreigners in Korea do not usually take on Korean names while they are working there. For newcomers to Canada, this decision of whether to keep or change their name can be a big one. I had personal knowledge of several cases where people had difficulties with their names in Canada which led to various levels of stress, annoyance, inconvenience and even discrimination or exclusion.
In my research I want to explore this relationship between identity and names: What kinds of names are problematic in a given context? Why? What kinds of problems result from a diversity of unfamiliar or unconventional names? How do different groups of people respond to these problems? What can be done to reduce some of these problems?
MI : What have you found about the way people perceive their own names? And how does that personal perception affect their identity?
KP : People seem to have different attitudes toward their names at different points in their lives. For example, a child might not like her name if she is teased about it, but then in adulthood there is no more teasing and she comes to appreciate it more. Or someone may have an indifferent attitude toward his name until he moves to a new country and suddenly his ordinary name is unpronounceable and strange and marks him as different. Then he might grow to resent the name, or feel that it is a burden or a hindrance. Others in the same situation might feel happy to be unique. Later in life when he builds more confidence and awareness of social inequalities, he might be proud of his name as a sign of his heritage.
Some people feel that their name represents their essence so they could not conceive of changing it, whether that means keeping their last name after marriage or keeping their name after immigrating. Even if they don’t like their name or see that it is problematic, they simply can’t change their identity by changing their name. One of my graduate students is researching transgender name changes and she has found that choosing a new name to match the new gender presentation is a crucial part of the transition. Transgender people look for a name that “fits” their self-image and when they find it, there is a sense of relief and satisfaction in having their true self finally being addressed appropriately. In those cases, choosing a name is an overt act of identity construction.
MI : What can you tell me about how people perceive the names of others?
KP : There has been research showing that names perceived as “foreign” reduce the name-bearer’s chances of being hired for a job. That happens in Canada, the U.S., Europe, etc. so what is considered “foreign” will vary, but the effect is the same. A similar form of discrimination occurs with access to rental housing where certain kinds of names are interpreted as representing an undesirable race, religion, nationality or culture and the applicants are denied.
MI : And do these perceptions, or even prejudices extend to names thought of as “non-foreign”?
KP : There are findings showing that particular names come to be associated with certain characteristics or social categories. For example, people may assume that a guy named Josh is “probably good at sports and fun to hang around”, whereas a guy named Bryce is “probably a spoiled snob”. A woman named Dolores is “probably an old lady or an immigrant”, while a woman named Jennifer could be almost any age or social class. People expect Lebron to be Black and Brittny to be white. These are all just examples and of course those associations are based on a combination of stereotypes, personal experiences and social trends. The point is that people do make assumptions and judgements about other people based on subjective perceptions of names.
MI : Your research has focussed on the names of Canadian immigrants. How are the names of immigrants perceived by Canadians? Is the “foreign-ness” of a name based on a pattern or particular sounds?
KP : Familiarity is key. Italian names may have been considered foreign or difficult to pronounce for Canadians 70 years ago, but now they are more familiar and people will not hesitate in trying to say them. That’s a question that really depends on who you are asking. My research has shown that what counts as a “difficult” or “easy” name depends on personal experience (do you know many people with that type of name?), general linguistic ability (are you good at learning languages and pronouncing unfamiliar sounds?), and general attitude toward different kinds of people (if you have a negative attitude toward diversity you will likely dismiss “foreign” names as too difficult to even try).
MI : What is it that leads to certain names having certain associations for people?
KP : This has to do with race, ethnicity, class and age. Parents choose names which fit their social groups. There was a study done that showed how upper-class girls’ names come to lose their high class status as more middle class girls are given that name by upwardly aspiring parents. The same thing happens with the lower-class parents, and eventually names like Ashley and Brittany, which used to be only found among white upper-class girls are now among the most popular names for lower-class girls (in the USA). Meanwhile, there will be a new list of upper-class girl names to replace the ones that have been taken over by the lower classes, in order to maintain the distinction. The particular associations also depend on how you come to know the name, the actual individuals you meet with the name and how you perceived them. I have a friend who thought Angus was a Chinese name because the only boy she ever knew with that name was Chinese.
MI : Whenever I’m asked what my surname is to, for example, make a reservation at a restaurant I instinctively just spell it out. Is this common, and what does this reflect about society’s acceptance of uncommon proper names?
KP : I have heard of this strategy before, especially when on the phone or talking to service personnel who do not know you, and will not interact with you again. I think this comes from a desire to avoid mistakes, but also reduces the potential for embarrassment for you or the service agent. It’s a recognition that there is great diversity in names which can be difficult and that there is no expectation that any individual should know how to spell or say every name. It does reveal your own assumption that the person on the other end will have difficulty if you don’t spell it out. Some people might find that unnecessary if they consider your name “easy”.
MI : Speaking of fitting into certain social groups, how do celebrities shape perceptions of people with the same first name, and the name’s general popularity?
KP : There are statistical studies which show that popular movie or TV characters, or even politicians, prompt an increase in the number of babies with those names in the years following the famous person’s height of popularity. This can also work the other way for names that become associated with people who are famous for negative reasons (e.g. decrease in the number of boys named Adolf or Osama).
MI : How have naming conventions changed in our society, and what do those changes reflect about us?
KP : Naming conventions reflect social changes and the way the society is organized. In Canada, all babies must be given at least two names: first and last. This partly has to do with the government’s need to identify individuals for things like taxes, education, voting etc. It used to be the convention that the father’s last name was the baby’s last name unless a father was not identified. Now, with divorce and remarriage resulting in blended families, hyphenated or double last names are becoming more common. Double last names are also common in situations where married women keep their last name throughout their lives instead of changing it to match their husband’s. So the current naming practices for children reflect these social changes about the position of women in society, and how that has affected marriage and the constitution of families. It also means it is harder to make assumptions about people based on their names: a child may have a different last name from his mother, and you won’t know if that is due to his mother never having married but naming the child after the father, the mother having remarried and changed her name again, the mother never having changed her name, the child being adopted, or the child being a step-child of the mother. A teacher who knows only the child’s surname cannot assume that the mother should be correctly addressed as Mrs. or Ms. Child’s-last-name. This would not have been a problem 50 years ago in Canada when it was pretty safe to assume that children and parents all shared a common last name.
MI : Each year a list of the most common baby names for both boys and girls is released, what does this list show you about parents and about our society?
KP : It shows that people are interested in what other people name their babies. It also shows that parents end up making similar choices in similar social contexts even without being aware of it. (“I picked Olivia because I like the O sound. I didn’t know 2,000 other Canadian babies were named Olivia this year too!”)
MI : Do you find yourself reading more or less into someone’s name since you’ve begun your research?
KP : Yes, I am more acutely aware of comments people make about other people’s names, whether positive or negative. I make a point of not commenting on people’s names unless I am talking about the research. Most people I’ve talked to don’t want their name to be evaluated or commented on (“that’s different”, “how do you spell that?”, “that’s a pretty name”). They just want to tell you their name and get on with the conversation. If you make a joke or a comment, chances are they’ve heard it all before and that can be tiresome. I do my best to pronounce and spell people’s names the way they prefer, but I don’t make a big deal about it, and I won’t call too much attention to it.
MI : What would you like to do next with your research on onomastics?
KP : I am still interested in the social usage of names, and the constraints on naming particular groups face, such as immigrants and First Nations people whose naming practices and writing systems do not conform to institutional requirements. I want to explore those issues from both sides to see how institutions deal with the challenges of name diversity in Canada as well as how individuals “live their names” in different ways, and with different consequences.

[Most common surnames in European counties]

A sincere thank you to Professor Karen Pennesi.

I think names are often taken for granted. We often see them as simply designating a person, the way the word ‘basil’ designates the delicious herb I happen to be very fond of. As Professor Pennesi points out, a person’s name can shape their experiences in life, both in how they see themselves and how others engage with them.

[Also, if this subject interests you, you should definitely check out the website of the Canadian Society for the Study of Names, who have a conference coming up!]

Take care eh,

Michael Iannozzi

What makes you say that?

Today I spoke with Professor Molly Babel of UBC. Our conversation was about interaction, and how we create predictions and expectations when we meet people. These predictions and expectations can help us to get on the same “wavelength” as our conversation partner, or they can make us “tune-out” before we’ve even heard them speak.

So, please enjoy our interview. It has a little of everything you’d expect: research, stereotypes, LEGOs, and Lord of the Rings.

[Lab at UBC where Professor Babel does her research]

[Lab at UBC where Professor Babel’s research is conducted]

MI : As an introduction, what do you study about language?

MB : What I study is how we deal with phonetic variability in spoken language; both from the way that we, ourselves, perform and produce it, but more from the side of what we as listeners do with the variation in other people’s voices. Or to put it more simply: how do we handle the fact that everyone sounds different? Also, how do we manage the fact that some of those differences in the way other people sound are socially meaningful, but others are just background that we can choose to tune out.

MI : How do we relate to our society through our speech, and that of other people?

MB : Our knowledge of people and society manifests itself in speech in two ways: through how we perform speech ourselves (speech production), and through our expectations of how we think others will perform speech (speech perception).

From the moment we open our mouths, we reveal our social and individual characteristics. Our voices provide subtle and not-so-subtle cues to gender, age, where we are from, our emotional state, etc.

We change our speech patterns to fit different social contexts: we don’t speak the same way to family or strangers, infants or our same-aged peers, friends or authority figures. These changes are gross reflections of formality, in some cases, but we also make style shifts that are more personal and reflect our social identities.

As listeners, we make associations and come to expect certain speech patterns from certain individuals or groups of individuals. For example, we scale our expectations for acoustic dimensions like an individual’s pitch based on whether they are male or female because we have learned that men generally have lower-pitched voices than women, as men tend to be comparatively larger in size. Learning these patterns helps us efficiently process voices we have never heard before. But, these learned patterns can also veer dangerously into the territory of stereotypes.

MI : How do we build our expectations of how we think someone will perform? And how do we react when we’ve judged the style incorrectly of both our production and theirs?

MB : Well, for example, you would know some things about me before you heard my voice. You would build a rough assumption of how I would sound based on your previous examples of speaking with other professors.

We also constantly update those expectations. A student and I recently published a paper about these issues (Babel & Russell, 2015). We took 12 locally-born BC residents. 6 were white Canadians, and 6 were Chinese-Canadians; all were locally-born, and all were native English speakers.

We created an intelligibility test by having all of our 12 speakers read sentences. Then we added background noise to those sentences; otherwise understanding them would be too easy. We then presented listeners with trials where they saw a photo of the face of the speaker, and others where they didn’t see the photos. We had 40 UBC students do this experiment.

When they didn’t the photo of who they were listening to, everyone was roughly equally intelligible—there were no differences. However, when people saw the pictures of the speakers then intelligibility of the Chinese-Canadians went down.

So while this is a sad finding, we think it is important to discuss in a public space. We did many analyses with this data, and the results suggest that people just expect Canadian-Chinese speakers to have a non-native accent. This is an example of a kind of expectation that is bad. The expectation that you might have before speaking to me that I’m female, that I’m roughly a certain age, or going to speak within a certain range of frequencies; that’s good because it helps you understand me.

So your question about expectations, and how we update them, is a huge one. One of the things we’re going to look at next is how long does it take people to say, “OK these Chinese-Canadians do not have non-native accents. I can go ahead and process this speech the same way I would for any other local speaker”.

MI : So is it that the listener would be expecting to have difficulty, and then have to stop and correct that misjudgement?

MB : I wouldn’t even say that you would be expecting to have difficulty, just that you were expecting something else, and you don’t get what you were expecting, and so that mismatch is what gives you a temporary decrease in understanding

So, for example, if you first heard my voice, and I had an Australian accent, there would be a “hey-wait-a-second moment” on your end, and you would have to stop and readjust your expectations.

Another study I’m hoping to do is to look at how much of those expectations are based on race and ethnicity. Are people better able to pick up on whether a speaker has a local or non-local accent based on what they look like. In other words: how much of our expectations of who sounds like a Vancouver-Canadian-English speaker is based on being white.

One of the ways that, to go back to your first question, I would describe what I’m doing is looking at how stereotypes and prejudice affect us in real-time for spoken-language processing. Often, those are sad results, but those are important results; because they actually impact people.

MI : How do people close (or widen) the distance between themselves and others in a conversation through their speech? And what are we “saying” by closing or widening that distance?

MB : If someone wants to decrease the social distance between herself and an interlocutor [The person she is speaking with], she can increase the similarity of their speech patterns through a process called convergence. Say she wants to increase the social distance – she can diverge her speech patterns, making them less similar to those of her interlocutor. We make these kinds of changes in conversation to grease the social wheels of interaction.

We can definitely close or widen the gap between us and our conversation partner. I’ve been at dinner parties where I’m happily talking with someone, we’re definitely moving toward a middle ground between our two speech styles, and then they say something that I disagree with or might find offensive. Then I become a completely different person in terms of my speech style for the rest of that conversation.

MI : Do you feel that this is done automatically, or is it something that is learned from seeing others do it?

MB : This is a complicated question. To some extent, we engage in these patterns of accommodation automatically. We certainly don’t say to ourselves, “a-ha! In order to get what I want in this situation, I’m going to shift my vowels to match this person’s.” On some level, we might consciously be aware of admiring a person who we find ourselves imitating. There is evidence that imitative linguistic behaviours are part of how we learn language, but we certainly learn how to use accommodative strategies in socially appropriate ways. Overly converging with someone’s speech patterns is a great way to alienate someone.

What I mean by that is that it can sound fake, or overly manipulative. In many ways, all of these different types of accommodating one another while speaking are means of manipulating one another. However, you can certainly overdo it, or be too obvious about it.

MI : How do people perceive the speech of others that are particularly similar, or especially distinct from their own accent/dialect?

MB : Group membership is important to us as people, and identifying others as in-group (members of our social groups) and out-group (not-members of our social groups) is something we do. When we hear individuals who sound like us, we positively evaluate them, in part because they are part of our in-group. Accents and dialects that are different from our own often, but not always, come with social labels.

For example, many speakers of North American English perceive many British varieties of English as more intelligent-sounding. This is based on stereotypes we have created, not because of anything inherently intelligent-sounding in British English.

If you a watch a film, in many cases the hero or most attractive looking character will speak the most standard variety of that language. I recently rewatched the Lord of the Rings movies, and Aragorn and Legolas, who are both handsome and heroic, speak with Standard English accents. Gimli, a dwarf, is arguably less attractive and less of a main character – he speaks with a less standard accent. Media helps perpetuate and feed stereotypes and associations about accent.

MI : Are there things beyond the way someone is speaking that shapes how they are perceived in a conversation?

MB : Speech and language is just one of many social signals we use to evaluate others. How we dress, what we smell like, our posture, our facial expressions – these are all social signals we present and that others use to evaluate us, for better or for worse. For example, if someone wears a lot of cologne or perfume that will trigger certain judgements about that person for us.

MI : How do you collect the speech you use for your research, and how important is it that that speech be “natural” or by a speaker who is at-ease and comfortable?

MB : We use different methods of collecting spoken language for different types of projects. Sometimes we have people read words or sentences. Sometimes we have people tell stories along with video prompts. Recently, Jen Abel, one of my PhD students, collected speech from pairs of individuals who were playing with LEGOs together. By working on a given task together, the two individuals [who don’t know one another] have something to keep talking about, which avoids awkward pauses and silences, and produces more natural speech.

It is important for linguists to study many different styles of language, as language is a multi-faceted and diverse system. The different styles show us the range of things speakers know about their language.

MI : What would you like to do next with your research?

MB : Some of my students’ and my more recent projects have been looking into our linguistic expectations and predictions. Our expectations and predictions about upcoming linguistic events are based on linguistic or social knowledge and we want to know how those expectations interact with what we actually experience to give us what we ultimately perceive.

MI : What is your favourite part of your work?

MB : The best part of my job is being able to curiously engage in the process of discovery. We have a lot to learn about how speech works!

[Waveform of my gramma saying, "That's like back in the old days"]

[Waveform of my gramma saying, “That’s like back in the ol’ days”]

A sincere thanks to Molly Babel.

Professor Babel’s work has produced some discomforting results about stereotypes and judgements. However, they are very important findings because they are part of our daily reality, and affect people continuously.

The importance of our perceptions and expectations when speaking with others is that the stereotypes can be useful (they can help us identify situations and emotions), and they can also be hurtful, as her research has shown.

While we don’t consciously think, when we are introduced to someone, of an expected frequency in their voice, our brains are making that leap. Our brain can also subconsciously make negative leaps, so by being more conscious about how we form our conceptions of others can help us reduce the harm we might unintentionally cause. It’s not easy, but we can all agree that reducing hurtful stereotypes is a good thing.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi