This time on our “Meet a Fieldworker” series, Sadie Ryan, who produces the Accentricity podcast series, writes a guest post about what it’s like to start a linguistics podcast and how doing research for a podcast is different to conducting research for a PhD. More specifically, Sadie talks about ‘outliers’ of traditional research, and how outlets such as podcasts can provide the perfect platform for exploring the aspects of language that theoretical research can struggle to explain or come to terms with: people.
Sadie is currently based at the Manchester Metropolitan University and is researching variation in Englishes across greater Manchester. To get in touch check out @accentricitypod on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, or email email@example.com. Finally, in light of on-going events, Sadie is doing a fundraiser to raise £250 in April. The money will go to a charity doing emergency food deliveries during Covid-19, and if the goal is met she will release a special lockdown-themed episode of Accentricity. To donate please check out: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/accentricity
Finishing a PhD and starting a podcast: The story of Accentricity
By Sadie Ryan
While I was doing my PhD fieldwork, I met a boy called Marek. Marek isn’t his real name, it’s a pseudonym that I use to protect his anonymity. I did my fieldwork at Marek’s high school, in the East End of Glasgow. My project was an analysis of the speech of fourteen pupils at the school, who, like Marek, had all moved to Scotland from Poland. My research questions were about how they, as a group, were acquiring Glaswegian speech patterns.
Although I was very interested in the experiences, stories and ideas of these pupils as individuals, my statistical analysis of their speech was about looking for patterns and commonalities across the whole group. Describing the way that one person is acquiring new speech patterns doesn’t tell us much about the way that people in general acquire new speech patterns, but finding commonalities across a group of fourteen people might tell us something about how people in that kind of context acquire new speech patterns. In this type of analysis, where there were differences between the individuals, I was looking for explanations for those differences. Where explanations couldn’t be found, I was focusing on the similarities. Where one individual’s speech behaved really differently from the others, they would be designated as an ‘outlier’, described, and then possibly removed from the analysis and put aside.
Marek was an outlier. When I looked at the group as a whole, there were some clear trends. One was that most of those who had arrived in Glasgow at primary school age generally now sounded very Glaswegian, and those who had arrived after the start of high school generally didn’t sound very Glaswegian. But Marek didn’t fit this pattern at all. He had arrived in Glasgow when he was five, but at age thirteen he hadn’t picked up many Glaswegian linguistic features at all. I found that I really wanted to find out more about Marek. He had lots of Glaswegian friends, he was surrounded by Glaswegian speech, so according to established theory we would expect this to be reflected in his own speech, as was the case for the other participants in the study. I wanted to look at his speech in more detail, look at his story and attitudes and feelings in more detail, and learn about why his linguistic behaviour was so different to that of the others in the study. Unfortunately, the type of analysis I was doing didn’t really have space for that. Within a statistical model that looked at group behaviour, Marek’s exceptionality was notable, but not really a finding in itself: he was, after all, just one person.
I didn’t change the focus of my PhD research: I conducted my analysis using established methods, and I produced interesting and informative findings about how most of the speakers, generally, were acquiring Glaswegian speech norms. I commented on Marek’s outlier status, discussed some hypothetical explanations, but I wasn’t able to go back into the school and spend more time with him to find out more. That was OK.
But while I was getting my PhD ready for submission, I decided to find myself an antidote. I started a podcast, which I called Accentricity: like Eccentricity, but with Accents.
As the name suggests, I wanted the podcast to be about the inconsistencies, eccentricities and strangenesses of language: the messiness, and the bits that don’t fit. At times I’ve branched out to discuss linguistic theory more broadly, but in every episode so far, my aim has been to bring linguistic theory up against the everyday linguistic experiences of people outside of academia. Sometimes this means explaining and contextualising their experiences using linguistic theory, but sometimes it means bringing established linguistic wisdom into conflict with their lived experience.
For example, the first episode opens with my friend Jennie. Jennie is a bit like Marek, in that she’s a linguistic outlier. When I interviewed her, she told me about her working-class childhood in Nottingham. Usually, her background would be associated with a specific way of speaking. She told me about how she wishes that her voice matched with the way that people expect her to speak when they hear her story. But she sounds, for want of a better word, a bit posh. Her siblings don’t sound posh, she doesn’t want to sound posh, so why does she? I can’t really explain Jennie’s experiences with the linguistic theory that I know. She doesn’t fit neatly within the patterns that language and identity generally follow. And that’s why my interview with her is my favourite that I’ve done so far.
Making Accentricity was very different from my PhD research. I started making recordings just after finishing my PhD, when I wasn’t attached to a university and I didn’t have a supervisor. That meant that it didn’t have a pilot study, there was no funding, no deadline, and initially there was very little structure. The early stages were pure exploration and play, and it was joyful. I interviewed friends, friends of friends, linguists I’d met at conferences, people I’d found on the internet, and even strangers on the street – anyone who would talk to me, really. I had questions I wanted to ask, things I wanted to find out about the ways people related to their own language use, but when something else came up that interested me, I was able to change course and follow that topic instead.
As time went on, things became more structured. The original idea had been simply to release the conversations I’d had with people as stand-alone episodes, but as I was having these conversations I kept noticing interesting parallels, and I found that I wanted to place different ideas and different voices alongside each other within an episode. I sifted through my many hours of recordings and began to build episodes around themes.
Without planning to, I’d begun to make a narrative non-fiction podcast, assembling clips from different conversations and sewing them together with voiceover narration. This is a much more time-consuming and complicated way to make a podcast, but it felt right. Since starting Accentricity a year ago, I still haven’t released all that many episodes, but each one is very dense. There’s a lot of recorded audio that doesn’t make it in, and usually several abandoned ideas left out. I’m now working on being a bit more efficient in how I work, trying to make the production less time-consuming, but I’m glad that I started the way I did. Making a podcast without funding or institutional support was in some ways very difficult, but it gave me the freedom to be inefficient, and as I emerged from the highly-structured PhD research I’d been doing, that was great for me.
It wasn’t all fun and games, of course. There were technical difficulties, there was new software to negotiate, there were periods of boredom. In the first two obstacles, I was incredibly lucky to have the help of my partner John (both my partner in podcasting and my boyfriend), who has worked as a radio producer. He trained me in the basics of radio production, and continues to support me with feedback and editing help. I’d also made linguistic field recordings before, so I knew a little about microphones, audio quality, etc., so transitioning to making a podcast wasn’t as steep a learning curve as it would have been for a complete technical newbie.
Lack of money for equipment was a potential barrier, but it wasn’t as much of a barrier as I expected it to be. I found that recording straight onto my phone or laptop was possible, and that the free software Audacity provided all of the editing tools I needed. On advice from one of John’s audio technician friends, I bought two SM58 microphones, and then I started recording. When I eventually launched the podcast, I set up ways for listeners to make donations. I still don’t make a lot of money at all, but I quickly made enough to offset the cost of the microphones and website hosting (I use Squarespace). I then used additional donation money to add to my kit, getting a proper digital recorder (a Zoom H4N), another microphone, some microphone stands and cables.
Lack of time became a bigger issue. As I’ve mentioned, the ratio of time taken to audio content produced is, for me, very high. Not having funding (other than listener donations) meant that I had to work full-time elsewhere, which meant that my work on Accentricity had to be (and continues to be) confined to evenings and weekends. Whether this is a hobby, a job, or might become a part of my job in the future, is something I’m still not sure about. I know that I enjoy it enough to call it a hobby. I feel lucky that I’m someone who (currently) has time for hobbies. I hope I can continue making Accentricity even if my life circumstances change. I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll never be able to produce as much content as fast as some podcasters do. Among podcasters, I’m a tortoise. I think that those who listen to my podcast understand.
The making of Accentricity series 1 was unstructured and messy, but I think that was what I needed to help me develop as both a linguist and a podcaster. It forced me to listen to people talking without trying to fit them into patterns and theories that I’d read about. It brought me face to face with the messiness of lived experience. It made me confront how I felt about my own voice, as I listened again and again to my interactions with people. It reminded me why I fell in love with language in the first place.
During the hot summer just after my PhD viva (I’d passed!), I spent three days recording short conversations with strangers at the Barras market in the East End of Glasgow, near where I lived at the time. These were some of the first recordings I made. I had an SM58 microphone plugged directly into my phone, and that was all. John was with me on the first day, but he was also working on his own recordings for a radio piece he was doing. The rest of the time I was alone.
I expected that maybe half of the people I approached wouldn’t want to speak to me: I’d prepared myself for rejection. But actually, everyone I approached was friendly and most were willing to talk. I asked people about their experiences of linguistic discrimination. Some people gave the kind of answers I was expecting, and some really didn’t. I heard stories that were familiar to me, of adults trying to shape children’s voices to sound a certain way, and of people feeling out of place at college and university because of the way they spoke. But I also heard from people with the same often-stigmatised accents who didn’t feel that they’d ever faced linguistic discrimination, even when in similar situations. Everyone’s answers were different, and in the moment it was impossible to pick out patterns or trends. Some people veered wildly off topic, giving answers that weren’t related to language at all. One man began asking me to explain the meanings of local words he’d heard young people say. Some people stopped in the middle of answering my questions to shout to their friends. A stall holder with a South African accent suddenly turned around and spoke to another stall holder in an accent that sounded completely and utterly Glaswegian. People shouted to me as I walked past, calling me over to speak to them. Around me I could hear Glaswegian accents, Aberdonian accents, Irish accents, Arabic, Polish and French.
I arrived home from my fieldwork at the Barras exhausted, with way too much audio of variable quality recorded, and unsure what I was going to do with it. By many academics’ standards, what I had just done wouldn’t really be considered research: it wasn’t structured enough, it wasn’t theoretically underpinned, it would never be turned into a publishable journal article. But to me, in many ways, it felt like the best research I’d ever done. It challenged me to step far outside of my comfort zone – both in terms of how I conducted fieldwork, and how I thought about language and identity. It challenged me to resist the temptation to tidy up messy data, remove outliers, find the neatest patterns and simply leave it at that. And perhaps most importantly, it cemented my belief that research on language needs to be centred around the people that speak it: that to understand the structured patterns of sound and gesture that allow us to communicate, we need to wrap our heads around the complicated beings who produce them.