Review of Ethnicity and Language Change: English in (London)Derry, Northern Ireland
Date: Tue, 27 Nov 2001 18:02:10 +0000
From: Jennifer Smith <email@example.com>
Subject: review of McCafferty, Ethnicity in Language Change
McCafferty, Kevin (2001) Ethnicity in Language Change: English in
(London)Derry Northern Ireland. John Benjamins Publishing Company,
xiv+241pp, hardback ISBN 1-58811-002-8 (US), 90-272-1838-2 (Eur),
$80.00, IMPACT: Studies in Language and Society 7
Jennifer Smith, University of York, England
This book is a sociolinguistic study of the variety of English spoken in
London(Derry), Northern Ireland, with specific reference to how
religion (referred to here as 'ethnicity') affects patterns of language use.
The book consists of three main parts: the first is an overview of
previous sociolinguistic studies on Northern Ireland, the second is an
exploration of the notion of ethnicity in the Northern Irish context and
the third is a variationist analyses of five linguistic variables.
Chapter 1 introduces the main premise of the book: that ethnicity in the
Northern Irish context does impact on language use, despite findings to
the contrary by previous scholars in this field. It also provides a
summary of the main points of subsequent chapters.
Chapter 2 contains a lengthy discussion of the potential problems of
data collection in the highly sensitive environment of the Northern Irish
Catholic/Protestant divide. The author identifies two major obstacles
which he terms the 'ethnic' and 'ethic effect'. The 'ethnic effect' is the
difficulty in gaining access to a community when the fieldworker is
from the 'other' side (this is, in effect, the problem of insider vs. outsider
(Gumperz 1982), but in this context the problems are substantially
increased). The 'ethic effect' is the influence that this knowledge would
have on the informants. The author discusses various ways in which he
tried to mitigate these problems in order to gain access to the vernacular
norms of the speakers. The chapter also details sample design,
informant numbers, type of data collected (participant observation and
one-to-one), and the interview schedule. Data extraction and analysis
procedures are also explicated.
Chapter 3 reviews the available sociolinguistic literature on Northern
Irish varieties, and in particular, the claim that ethnicity does not exert a
significant influence on language behaviour. The author argues that re-
examination of the existing data does actually reveal an ethnic divide in
many cases, but this effect is accounted for in different ways. For
example, in the Milroys' study of Belfast English, he proposes that
possible 'ethnic ranking' has been replaced by social network accounts
and issues of prestige. He concludes that that 'while certainly not
explaining all the observable variation, ethnicity ought to be taken into
Chapter 4 focusses on an ethnographic study of the beliefs and attitudes
of the community members in London(Derry). The author provides a
lengthy exploration of the notion of ethnicity as it is employed in this
work: 'an anthropological concept which refers to relations between two
groups � Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants' where the two
groups have 'mutually antagonistic, mutually incompatible ethnic
nationalisms' (76), resulting in ethnicity influencing nearly all aspects of
life. The chapter goes on to examine the principle of 'non-sectarianism',
which 'states simply that ethnicity (or religion) doesn't matter here (2)'.
This principle is held by many residents in (London)Derry, but is set
against the sectarian attitudes and actions seen in everyday life. In other
words, according to the author, there is a dichotomy between principle
and practice. Four case studies are employed by McCafferty to
demonstrate this. Through these, he finds limited interethnic contact in
London(Derry) resulting in a 'socially constructed ethnic boundary'
between Catholics and Protestants. This is in stark contrast to the 'civic
self image' (94) portrayed overtly, where 'the folk model of a
harmonious community' (96) plays down the divides.
Chapter 5 tackles the linguistic analyses. McCafferty begins with a brief
description of the vowels and consonants of London(Derry)English,
based on Wells (1982)system. He then selects six linguistic features
1. merger of the FORCE and NURSE classes under FORCE.
2. merger of the SQUARE and NURSE classes under NURSE
3. the spread of a centring diphthong [i@] in the FACE class
4. th-dropping medially in words like 'bother'
5. lateral [l] for th in the same environment
6. variation between the GOOSE and STRUT vowels in the FOOT class.
These variables are targetted for two reasons: they have all been
previously studied in the sociolinguistic literature, thus allowing
comparison and second, they appear to be undergoing change. He
provides a synopsis of previous work on the features, including possible
origin and subsequent diffusion of the variants.
The analyses focus on how the variants distribute across the extra-
linguistic constraints of ethnicity, class, sex, age and social network. He
also carries out multivariate analyses in some cases and cross-
tabulations by ethnicity, class and sex. The results lead him to conclude
that the innovative forms spreading from Belfast are first adopted by
Protestants, and primarily those from the middle class. Thus, ethnicity is
an important factor in many of these ongoing changes.
Chapter 6 reiterates the main findings of the research, assessing the
importance of using qualitative, ethnographic work in tandem with
quantitative studies to achieve a fuller understanding of the communities
themselves and thus their language use.
This book provides an extremely comprehensive overview of language
variation and change in one Northern Irish community and the part
ethnicity may play in this process. The use of sociolinguistic interviews
to examine the ethnography of the day to day life of the members of the
London(Derry) community presents an illuminating portrait of
sectarianism 'extending way beyond the ritual, the institutionalised, the
party political to affect ordinary lives in a multitude of ways'. These
interviews tap into the underlying attitudes of the community members
and clearly set the scene for the subsequent linguistic analyses.
In the linguistic analyses, there is excellent coverage of previous work
on the six variables, with a comprehensive synthesis of both historical
and contemporary work. The author states that his main aim is to
establish the language external influences on the observed variation.
These extralinguistic constraints are dealt with fully, with a consideration
of effects of, for example, individual speaker use and the possible
interaction between factors such as class and ethnicity. However, I
propose that the research would have benefited from analyses which
also took into account linguistic internal constraints, as these in many
cases exert the strongest influence on the variable features (Preston
1991). For example, what are the effects of preceding or following
phonological environments on the variable use? Is there a difference
between functional and lexical items in the use of a particular variable?
Are these internal constraints the same across the ethnic divide? This
type of analysis would provide a fuller picture of the most important
effects operating on the variables, in addition to their origin and
subsequent diffusion through time, space and the linguistic system
A more minor point is the combination of variants in the multivariate
analyses. For example, two variants were collapsed which actually
appear to be quite heterogeneous in the distributional analyses (181).
One is left wondering about the linguistic justification for doing so,
aside from the fact that they are the vernacular forms. It might have been
better to exclude one of the variants altogether to get a more reliable
picture of the choice processes involved.
However, these points do not detract from the fact that this book
provides an invaluable addition to the inventory of world Englishes and
the effects of ethnicity on language behaviour.
Gumperz, J. J. (1982) Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge
Preston, D. R. (1991). 'Sorting out the variables in sociolinguistic
theory'. American Speech 66(1): 33-56.
Well, J.C. (1982) Accents of English (3 vols). Cambridge: Cambridge
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jennifer Smith is a lecturer in Linguistics at the University of York,
England. Her research is on non-standard morphosyntactic features in
dialects in the British Isles, and their relationship to Englishes
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