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Writer's Profile
John James Steed

Specialised Subjects

Education, European Studies, International Studies, Languages, Linguistics, Teaching

I work as a tutor, teaching English Language modules at a Russell Group University and I have also previously worked as a researcher for another university. After having received my BA from Liverpool University, I worked in Marketing, Training & Customer Services for a number of IT companies in Scotland and London. I have an MA in Phonetics/Phonology and moved on to do a PhD on lexical variation in the UK, which I completed in 2010. During my spare time I volunteer at a local theatre, read and cycle a lot. My main interests outside my academic subjects are politics, economics and foreign countries.

The Liverpool speaker and socio-economic concepts to the externalities of priming.

While sociolinguistics traditionally has looked at variations found between groups of speakers of different socio-economic classes, this paper tries to go a step further by looking at structures of relationships and in what way they can be linked to a shared speech pattern. For this we will discuss in how far the strength of weak ties influences the individual speaker in their choices.

For this investigation, we look at Scouse, the urban vernacular spoken in Liverpool and its surrounds. Liverpool is seen as a place apart – and this is also true for the accent spoken there, which does not fit the model of the dialect continuum. It can be asked if there is a socio-linguistic background to an otherness (and would this difference manifest itself in the language used?).

This paper tries to highlight a number of socio-linguistic reasons why Liverpool is different. It also looks at a Liverpool English casual conversation corpus and in how far it provides evidence for this otherness and in what way the theory of Lexical Priming can be used for a possible explanation for this linguistic phenomenon.

Liverpool is a strange place. Situated in England, it is not of it. (cf. Knowles, p. 15) Geographically on the North-West edge, coastal, a port city, it is said to look out to other equals – London, New York, etc. – rather than inland to the other English cities – namely Manchester. The historian John Belchem speaks of Liverpool Exceptionalism in his collection of essays (cf. Belchem: 2001) This Exceptionalism appears to extend itself to language also. Gerald O. Knowles describes in what way Scouse is different as an English variant:

The urban speech of Manchester or Leeds is different from that of the surrounding countryside, but nevertheless it is speech of the same kind; although Scouse shares many features of North-Western English, it contrasts sharply with the surrounding dialects of Lancashire and Cheshire. On a trip from the East coast at Hull to the West at Liverpool, a gradual progression of varieties of North Midland English will be heard all the way, but an abrupt change will be heard shortly before Liverpool. (Knowles; 1974. p.15)

Indeed what was true then still holds true for the M62 corridor today. Knowles also gives an overview of its historical roots; the waves of immigration: first the Welsh. Mostly during the middle of the 19th century, the Irish (by 1861, 49% of the population were immigrants, of which 25% of Liverpool inhabitants were Irish). There was also a significant Scots community. On the whole, the Celtic influence on the Liverpool English variant was making an impact. The historian John Belchem moves on from that and tries to explain how the variant then spread to become used city-wide:

Casualism (also) facilitated the diffusion of a distinctive vernacular. There was considerable mobility and cultural interaction throughout the dockside labour market despite the sectarian geography of a Catholic north and a Protestant south, (…) Whatever their ethnic origin or sectarian affiliation, dockers cherished the variety and sociability of their itinerant work culture (i.e., casual labour on the docks – MP-S), relying on Scouse, the vernacular of the central waterfront, as a lingua franca. In establishing credentials and comradeship along the waterfront, casual workers (…) accentuated the phonetics and the humour.

Once Scouse emerged as a distinctive voice, Liverpudlians took (…) delight in their divergence from the industrial north ‘strange places like Wigan and St Helens, never mind the dark interior called Manchester’ – and its dialect culture. (Belchem, 2000: p. 45f)

Belchem makes an important point here: the clear line of division drawn between Liverpool and the North traditionally seen as so predominantly industrial – something that Liverpool was not.

National statistics, with the focus of a few cornerstones that represent wealth, influence and resulting confidence tell the tale of what clout Liverpool now retains. Looking at the occupational profile for the North-West of England, there are first indications that there is divergence from both the UK and the English average: w hile in England the higher managerial and professional occupations are taken by 11.2% of the working population, it is a mere 8.7% in the NW. Even the lower rank of these occupations – the largest sector of occupation – is 22.5% in England, 20.5% in NW England. There are 1% fewer small employers and self-employed workers. Yet there are 1% more semi-routine occupation workers, and 11.0% rather than 9.7% of employees in routine occupations1.

Amongst comparable cities, Liverpool fares still worse. The National Statistics Socio-economic classification data from 20032 looks at the distribution of occupations (for males only in this case) in England as a whole. Also, Liverpool is directly compared with the cities of Manchester (the other major urban centre in the North-West) and Newcastle upon Tyne (another port city of comparable size, though in the North-East). It shows that Liverpool has a lower percentage of  the Higher professional occupations not just than the average, but lower even than both Newcastle and Manchester. Though there are more people in Liverpool in Lower managerial and professional occupations tha n those two cities, it is still nearly 3% lower than the English average. At the same time, semi-routine and routine occupations are slightly above average, while the total figure of those of working age who have never worked is not just clearly above the average but also distinctly higher than in other comparable cities.

Indeed, given the official published statistics, Liverpool is an exceptional case. There is no place where the male and female mortality is as high as in Liverpool, Knowsley and Halton, places where Liverpool residents during the slum clearances found new homes3. Put succinctly, one-in-four Liverpool residents die earlier than the national average. This is in stark contrast to the Wirral peninsula just across the River Mersey where mortality lies just below the average (99%). Maybe even more poignant is the fact that the North-Eastern port city, Newcastle, has a mortality rate that lies just slightly above the national average4.

All these indicators point at a higher level of social and economic deprivation and a lower level of economic and political power and leverage.

Would the indicators of social and economic well-being influence the language of her people – the Scousers? There is one curious figure in the statistics of social inequalities. On page 96 of the 2004 edition, the report reproduces figures from the 2000 General Household Survey (GHS) as to whether the person surveyed claims a satisfactory friendship or relative network by region. It is reproduced as Figure 1 below.

General Household Survey

Friendship, though not widely researched in academic circles, is an important connector in this particular research. As Grey and Sturdy point out:

Search the index of any textbook on organizations, and it is highly unlikely that the term friendship will appear. Yet (…) typically, this has occurred in studies of the informal aspects of organization. (…)

There might also be relationships between gender and ethnic compositions of workforces and friendship patterns if, as suggested in sociological studies, friendship choices are conditioned by social characteristics.  (Grey / Sturdy 2007: 156)

Friendship patterns, therefore, might play an important part in the social and also the psychological interaction of the city.

There are two odd details to be found in Figure 1 when we look at Merseyside.

  1. Of all regions and even when compared to the English average, Merseyside stands alone there as being the only region having a near-equal percentage of relatives and friendships as their satisfactory network. In all other regions, satisfactory friendship networks appear in a higher percentage than kin networks .
  2. The level of kinships classed as satisfactory may be higher than the UK average (and on a par with Wales) yet there is only one “region” where the quality of friendship networks are classed as low as on Merseyside: London.

These raw figures can merely highlight that there seems to be evidence of a different social set-up on Merseyside.

Furthermore, one could assume that Liverpudlians,  like Londoners, make a clear distinction between the network of friends and the network of acquaintances. If one assumes that the average metropolitan inhabitant comes in touch with a large number of people who are merely known to them – at work, through leisure-time activities, in the neighbourhood – these have a bond not strong enough to be called friendship. It can be assumed that this is not different for Merseyside inhabitants in comparison to the North-West inhabitants. A friend (or close relative) is defined as follows in the GHS 2000:

Those described as having a satisfactory friendship of relatives network were those people who saw or spoke to friends or relatives at least once a week and had at once one close friend or relative who lived nearby. (cf. Fig.1)

This is rather narrow – given that many people can probably claim good or best friends they no longer contact for prolonged periods or that live far away.

While many people in London have moved there but come from somewhere else, in Liverpool a number of people lost their “satisfactory” contact with friends because they had moved away in the 1970s and 1980s.
Those who sought better employment (in many cases, simply a job) left the city.

All in all, this could be taken as the explanation for the below average 60% of satisfactory friendships recorded for both communities. The network of acquaintances, however, might be far larger. Granovetter (1973)points out:

(…) that removal of the average weak tie would do more “damage” to transmission probabilities than would that of the average strong one. Intuitively speaking, this means that whatever is to be diffused can reach a larger number of people, and traverse greater social distance (i.e., path length), when passed through weak ties rather than strong. (Granovetter 1973: 1366)

People can therefore feel part of a community despite the fact that they have a limited number of close ties (and these can be parochial) when they still have a larger number of weak ties in the said community. This could hold as an explanation for the percentages given in Figure 1. Granovetter describes an experiment by Rapoport & Horvarth from 1961:

The smallest total number of people were reached through the networks generated by first and second choices – presumably the strongest ties – and the largest number through seventh and eighth choices. This corresponds to my assertion that more people can be reached through weak ties.  (Ibid. p. 1369)

I would like to transfer these findings onto the scale of a select community. Based on Granovetter, I would claim that a community can define itself by its weak ties. As Burt (2001) stated in his study on attachment decay:

(…) the second strategy is about network embedding. Attachment increases with the extent to which an organization is embedded in the network around a person, and embedding increases as the person has strong relations to individuals affiliated with the organization. An organization is relevant to you as it is relevant to your friends, colleagues and acquaintances. The organization comes up in conversation. It is a component in important relationships.  (R.S.Burt: 2001. p. 621)

One key word here is affiliation. There are no strong ties (as an organization is an abstract entity, not a person) only indirect connections. This becomes relevant when we replace the organization with the city of Liverpool.

Given the data on employment shown above, another of his own studies referred to is fitting. Here, he describes how blue collar, white collar and other professionals go about finding a job. Unexpectedly, the majority reported that they rely on informal networks of mere acquaintances to find a new employer. Granovetter comments that it is remarkable that people receive crucial information from individuals whose very existence they have forgotten. (p.1372)

Given that hard times would have meant that many people needed to fall back on their support networks, Richard Gaskins, based on Granovetter, finds a parallel in Norse Sagas:

According to the “the strength of weak ties” principle, the best way for people to expand their personal support network is by turning to distant acquaintances and not to everyday friends. Our closest friends (and especially our immediate families) already share many of their contacts with us. Instead we need to call on less- intimate associates, people who can serve as bridges to entirely new opportunities and resources. Hence the significance of “weak ties” for the expansion of support systems. For these purposes, a “weak” tie is defined as an acquaintance whose circle of contacts overlaps only slightly with one’s own (Granovetter 1363). (R. Gaskins: 2005: 201)

In Liverpool, however, these weak ties  would need to be the  individuals whose existence has been forgotten to fit in with what we have said in reference to Figure 1.

Taking into account one major historical fact about Liverpool, a preference for more weak ties than the average community could be explained. Liverpool was never a factory town with a settled workforce. Instead, a sizeable number of local employees were taken on a day-by-day basis to work casually. A large network would develop over time, yet the ties would be less binding than found amongst the typical factory / mill / mine worker community, as Belchem (above) says.

Turning to Hoey’s theory of Lexical Priming (2005) we see that the amount and impact of certain words or strings of words accumulate to create a primed acceptance to how this (or these) word(s) should be used:

Every word is primed for use in discourse as a result of the cumulative effects of an individual’s encounters with the word. If one of the effects of the initial priming is that regular  word sequences are constructed, these are in turn primed. (Hoey 2005: 9)

The cumulative effects of an individual’s encounters with a word are simply the frequencies certain words are heard to be used, and consequently used in a certain set of circumstances. A single use may not even register, yet repeat usage  primes the listener/speaker to appropriate the term or term sequences for their own use. Wolfram, hardly aware of the revolution in techniques available with ever-increasing computing power, brings into play an important area of distinction between language varieties – frequency of use:

But studies of sociolects which were done during the 1960s – particularly those which followed the Labovian quantitative orientation – indicated that sociolects were often not differentiated by discrete sets of features alone, but also by variations in the frequency with which certain features or rules occurred. (Wolfram: 1978)

Wolfram highlights here that  the variations in the frequency of sets of features rather than a complete collection of variations are the ones that distinguish one variation from another. While Labov, Trudgill et al. initially focussed on phonological differences, Wolfram casts the net wider – and opens the door to expand the tools and approaches to dialectology amongst other things:

Further, it is necessary to identify relevant linguistic environments (phonological, grammatical, and semantic) which may affect the variation of items. (Ibid.)

Wolfram makes clear that an expansion of dialectology and sociolinguistics beyond its traditional brief and stretching out to the phonological, grammatical and semantic is possible. In short, all people who are native speakers have access to about the same sets of features. The point of distinction appears to be, however, how these sets of features vary in their frequency.

Given that Lexical Priming focuses on semantic and grammatical variation, and that my research tries to dissect variation beyond the classical perimeters of dialectology, it appears that the time has come to work on those relevant linguistic environments.

Linguistic theory, if studied seriously, has asits goal accounting for exactly the capabilities people have in using their language – no more and no less. Linguistic theory, then, can be viewed as a special kind of study in psychology. [ My highlights] Taken seriously, every capability built into a linguistic theory constitutes a claim that the same capability is built into the language control parts of the human brain and speech mechanism. (Ibid.)

Hudson’s discussion makes clear that this concept goes way beyond the confines of grammar and into the area of cultural conventions:

Some parts of communicative competence may be due to universal pragmatic principles of human interaction (…), but there are certainly other parts that vary from community to community and which have to be learned. (Hudson 1980: 224)

This can be seen as connecting with Michael Hoey’s claim that every word is primed for use in discourse as a result of the cumulative effects of and individual’s encounters with the word.

As Wolfram pointed out without knowledge of priming:

Ultimately, then, linguistic theory will only be shown correct or incorrect when much more is understood about the operation of human brain neurology. (Wolfram: 1978)

Looking at the sum of sociological, economic and cultural differences hinted upon in this section, I believe that a case can be made that the inhabitants of Liverpool stand apart from the average English speaker. As a community apart, its own forms of expression could be expected.

National Statistics Socio-economic Classification. 2003

Belchem J., An accent exceedingly rare. In: Merseypride. Liverpool. University of Liverpool Press. 2000

Burt, R. S., Attachment, Decay, and Social Network. Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 22, No. 6. (Sep., 2001), pp. 619-643.

Gaskins, R., Network Dynamics in Saga and Society Scandinavian Studies. Lawrence: Summer 2005. Vol. 77, Iss. 2; pg. 201

Granovetter, M. S., “The Strength of Weak Ties.” American Journal of Sociology 78 (1973): 1360-80.

Hoey, M., Lexical Priming. London: Routledge. 2005

Honeybone, P., New-Dialect Formation in 19th Century Liverpool: A Brief History of Scouse. In: Grant, A., Grey, C. & Watson, K. (eds) The Mersey Sound: Liverpool’s Language, People and Places. Liverpool: Open House Press. 2007

Hudson, R.A., Sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1980 /1996

Knowles, G. O., Scouse: The urban dialect of Liverpool. PhD Thesis. Leeds 1973

Labov, W. The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. 1966 (reprinted 1982)

Labov, W., Language in the Inner City. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.1972

Milroy, L., Language and Social Network . Oxford: Blackwell. 1980

Peter, P.L., The Speech Community. In: JK Chambers, Trudgill & N Schilling-Estes (eds.), Handbook of language variation and change. Oxford: Blackwell. 2002

Trudgill, P., The Social Differentiation of English. Cambridge: CUP. 1974

Wolfram, W., Contrastive Linguistics and Social Lectology. In: Language Learning 28:1. 1978

1.Source: Labour Force Survey, Office for National Statistics. Summer 2003
2.National Statistics Socio-economic Classification. 2003. The percentages have been calculated by me.
3.ONS gives the average UK mortality the figure of 100%. Everything above is higher; everything below lower mortality. Among the Government Office Regions (England, Wales + “Elsewhere”. Average = 100%), the highest level of mortality in 2001 was in the North East (SMR of 112), while the lowest was in the South West (92). Within the regions, mortality levels were highest in Halton UA (131) and in the local authority districts of Liverpool (130) and Knowsley (130). The lowest levels of mortality were in the City of London (50), though this is based on small numbers, followed by the London Boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea (71) and Westminster (71). National Statistics Website. Published Dec. 2004.
4.103%. However, neighbouring Gateshead has a 119% mortality rate. The NW neighbour of Liverpool, Manchester, has 117%.