Research Seminars

Research seminars

Language and ‘the local’: How language indexes identity in an insular community

Emma Moore (University of Sheffield)

Discussions of language and place sometimes give the impression that the ‘local’ is a clearly defined and recognisable entity. However, as Eckert (2004:109) has noted, “the community is a contested entity that is differentially constructed in the practices and in the speech of different factions”. That is to say, different people experience ‘the local’ differently. This paper will explore precisely how life trajectory and gender interact to affect how individuals from the same small island community use language to index ‘local’.

My data comes from the Isles of Scilly, a group of islands off the south-west coast of England. I focus on the vowels in two pairs of lexical sets, one with quite clear ideological associations in English English (TRAP and BATH), and another which is regionally distinct, but less socially marked (MOUTH and PRICE). My data suggests that men define the envelope of variation for these vowels, and that this can be explained as a consequence of different educational experiences, which result in the construction of two oppositional Scillonian identity types. The women in the community show a smaller degree of variation and this can be explained as a consequence of reduced access to the range of linguistic markets available to men.

In the course of the analysis, I will question the assumption implicit in much sociolinguistic work that use of standard forms straightforwardly reflects orientation to norms external to the local community being studied (see, e.g. Labov 1963; Gal 1978; Holmquist 1985; Schilling-Estes 1998)). Furthermore, by focusing on a small, rural, island community, I’ll also demonstrate that the local is not even easily defined in communities which are often portrayed as linguistically conservative and homogeneous. Building on existing research from Schilling-Estes (2002), Smith and Durham (2011) and Burland (2017), I’ll show that what matters is not the size or type of communities we study, but the necessity for individuals to index distinct styles and identities within a particular social space.



Burland, Kate. 2017. Where Black Country meets “Black Barnsley”: Dialect variation and identity in an ex-mining community of Barnsley. In Chris Montgomery & Emma Moore (eds.), Language and a Sense of Place. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eckert, Penelope. 2004. Variation and a sense of place. In Carmen Fought (ed.), Sociolinguistic Variation: Critical Reflections, 107–120. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gal, Susan. 1978. Peasant men can’t get wives: Language change and sex roles in a bilingual community. Language in Society 7. 1–16.

Holmquist, Jonathan C. 1985. Social correlates of a linguistic variable: A study in a Spanish village. Language in Society 14. 191–203.

Labov, William. 1963. The social motivation of a sound change. Word 19. 273–309.

Schilling-Estes, Natalie. 1998. Investigating “self-conscious” speech: The performance register in Ocracoke English. Language in Society 27. 53–83.

Schilling-Estes, Natalie. 2002. On the nature of isolated and post-isolated dialects: Innovation, variation and differentiation. Journal of Sociolinguistics 6(1). 64–85.

Smith, Jennifer & Mercedes Durham. 2011. A tipping point in dialect obsolescence? Change across the generations in Lerwick, Shetland. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15(2). 197–225.