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The Sociolinguistics of Greek Teenage Language Practices on Facebook

February 2, 2016
By 19604

Christopher Lees, a Sylff fellow at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, spent time at the University of Hamburg, Germany carrying out analysis and refining his research on youth language on social networking sites. In this article, he describes his findings on digital literacy practices among Greek teenagers using Facebook, and describes how they use linguistic creativity to achieve their communicative goals.

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The way teenagers speak and interact has long been a matter of interest in sociolinguistics, while often being a matter of concern and even controversy in academic circles and among the general public. There can be no doubt that teenagers seem to have their own codes of communication, which are markedly different from those of their elders. This has given rise to many questions both within and outside academia. What is it, for instance, that makes teenagers use different varieties of language? How do we classify these varieties and can we claim, as many do, that these “alternative” uses of language pose a threat to the future of the languages we speak? A new element to this debate in recent years is the question of how teenagers communicate on social networking sites such as Facebook. This has brought a whole new set of questions related to an oral-like style of writing, inconsistent grammar and punctuation, and frequent mixtures of various different, particularly in countries whose languages are regarded as “less widely spoken.”

My field of sociolinguistics aims to provide answers to these questions. For example, it is widely accepted that one of the reasons why teenagers exhibit such unique linguistic practices is because they mix in narrower circles than was the case in previous generations, largely due to the fast-paced development of technology (Kakridi-Ferrari 2005: 195). Since the Second World War, technology has replaced many previous professions, rendering many skills obsolete. This has created a need for young people to be educated for longer than was previously the norm in order for them to keep pace with the new demands created by new technology. This has forged a closer bond between teenagers and other young people who spend more time with each other and have developed a new type of “youth culture” as a result of this new social dynamic. This culture has brought with it new ways of communicating that differ from the varieties of language used by these people’s parents and previous generations and reflect the shifting social reality of which young people are a part.

Social networking sites and Facebook in particular have provided young people with an entirely new “meeting place” where they can chat with their friends, exchange ideas, play games, and share and comment on videos and images. Such a platform is in itself an entirely new social reality for teenagers that has facilitated the development of new language practices. The study of the language practices seen on social networking sites is one of the latest areas of interest to linguists involved what is known as Computer Mediated Communication. This is the area that my research focuses on.

The Research

Following the traditions of sociolinguistics and computer-mediated communication, my PhD research focuses on the language practices of Greek teenagers on Facebook. A total of 15 secondary school pupils are participating in my PhD research, 10 of them enrolled at the Model Experimental School of the University of Thessaloniki and the remaining five at the Model Experimental Secondary School of the University of Macedonia in the area of Neapoli. The two schools are located in different areas of the Greek city of Thessaloniki. The latter is located in a socially underprivileged area of the city, whereas the former is in the center and enjoys a reputation as a school of academic excellence, not least due to its affiliation with the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. The rationale behind this selection was the hope that the linguistic data derived from the pupils might reveal differences that could be attributed to the different social backgrounds of the pupils. Consent was obtained from parents and guardians, as well as from the pupils themselves. In addition, pseudonyms have been used whenever reference is made to the data, so as to protect the identity of the participants, in line with research ethics (D’Arcy & Young 2012: 540-541).

Sunset over the Alster, Hamburg.

Sunset over the Alster, Hamburg.

After receiving my SRA scholarship, I travelled to the University of Hamburg in Germany to refine and discuss the categories to be included in my analysis. In total, I spent two and a half weeks at the Department of German Philology, where I was able to discuss my research with experts in my field and use their resources to develop a concrete qualitative and quantitative approach to analyzing the data collected from the pupils. I was also able to see at first hand how research has been conducted for similar projects in German using the model of online ethnography (Androutsopoulos 2008). Online ethnography refers to observing the linguistic practices of specific communities of Internet users, together with real contact with the users themselves by means of interviews, discussions, etc. The advantage of this approach is that the researcher is able to cross-check and verify his or her interpretations against the explanations and opinions of the producers of the language practices under study. This blended approach can therefore help produce a more reliable data analysis.

In comparison with German, Greek is one of the less widely spoken languages of the EU. One of the consequences of this is that its speakers are exposed to a much greater variety of languages—particularly English through the mainstream media—than speakers of more widely spoken languages like English and French. Three main tendencies observed in Greek teenagers’ linguistic practices on Facebook form the core of my research. These are as follows:

1. Features of digital orality in teenagers’ “written” linguistic practices on Facebook
2. Use of alternate script choices
3. Use of English

In general terms, the term digital orality refers to “oral-like” features employed by users of digital media while communicating in writing (Soffer 2010: 388). The features of digital orality studied in my PhD research are diminutives and augmentatives, as well as oral discourse markers. Such features, in particular, are highly common in the language practices of Greek teenagers on Facebook and fulfill specific pragmatic functions for the users and their fellow participants, as can be seen in Examples 1 and 2 below:

1. Σε ευχαριστώ Άννα, θεάρα μου [se efcharisto Anna mu, theara mu]
Thank you Anna, my [big] goddess
2. εε κι εμείς φοβόμασταν να πάμε στο δωμάτιο και να φανταστείς ήταν πρωί [ee ki emis fovomastan na pame so domatio ke na fantastis itan proi]
errr we were afraid to go to the room, too and that was in the morning, if you can believe it

In Example 1, the use of the augmentative –ara attached to the word theara, characterising the user’s friend as exhibiting “goddess” functions as a way of showing admiration and enthusiasm for the referent (see Daltas 1985). Conversely, in Example 2, the use of the oral discourse marker ee, which resembles but does not have the exact same functions as English er, acts as a way of framing the message that follows, while signifying a relevant part of the conversation, which could be an answer to a previous comment made by another Facebook user. The use of diminutives, augmentatives and oral discourse markers belongs almost entirely to the linguistic repertoire of female pupils. This is believed by the pupils to be due to the fact that, particularly in the case of diminutives and augmentatives, these elements are used to express affection and tenderness.

As far as Greek is concerned, script choice in Computer Mediated Communication has been a subject of debate ever since people started using computers to communicate with each other. Greek users would use Latin transliteration to represent Greek characters, initially due to the fact that Greek characters were not available. However, after this problem was resolved with the invention of the so-called UNICODE system, computer users, and most notably young computer users, continued using the Latin script. In my research I investigate the current situation in the language used by Greek teenagers in my data. In addition, I noted an interesting new trend for English and other languages that use the Latin script to be written in the Greek alphabet (Spilioti 2013), such as in Example 3 below:

3. oφκορσ ι λοβ γιου μαι ντιαρ [ofkors i lov yiou my diar]
Of course I love you, my dear

From my data, this use of Latin script to write Greek is practiced by boys significantly more than by girls. This is recognised by pupils as indicative of boys’ more relaxed attitude to language use and a way for them to avoid the hassle involved in changing keyboard settings between one alphabet and the other.

Finally, my research looks into how English is used by Greek teenagers in their communication with friends on Facebook. Rather than simply communicating in the English they learn at school, Greek teenagers use various features of English, including vernacular ones, often mixed in with Greek, producing an entertaining multilingual puzzle. Such practices are referred to in the literature as polylingual languaging (Jørgensen 2008). According to this model of analysis, what is important in this type of communication is not linguistic accuracy and proficiency but the way in which users exploit features of various languages to accomplish their own communicative needs. For example, the phrase, “are you working me?” in Example 4 below is not a phrase used in Standard English but a direct translation of the Greek phrase, με δουλεύεις [me dulevis], which means ”Are you kidding me?”

4. Δεν σου αρέσει ο Spiderman τώρα? Are you working me? [Den su aresi o Spiderman tora? Are you working me?]
You don’t like Spiderman now? Are you kidding me?

The Facebook user who produced the comment in Example 4 knows that the phrase in question is not an idiom in Standard English, but has used it for the benefit of his Greek-speaking friends, who, because of their knowledge of Greek, are able to understand the humor behind the “Englishification” of a well-used Greek phrase. No significant difference was noted related to gender use of this kind of English; it seems that both sexes use the English language in much the same way and for the same communicative purposes.

Conclusions and Hoped-for Influence on Wider Society

A transliterated, as opposed to translated, sign reading “no entrance.”

A transliterated, as opposed to translated, sign reading “no entrance.”

I hope that this short article has provided a useful overview of my PhD research and given some insight into the ways that Greek teenagers communicate through Facebook. As the examples show, Greek teenagers make use of all the cultural and linguistic resources at their disposal to produce highly creative language practices, which do not reflect any difference in social background between the pupils at the two schools. It seems that Greek secondary school teenagers in Thessaloniki use much the same types of language practices, although some differences can be discerned depending on gender. For example, as we have seen, the use of diminutives, augmentatives and oral discourse markers appears to make up a more significant part of the language repertoire of girls, whereas boys use the Latin script to write Greek significantly more than girls do.

My hope is that this research will help to construct an argument that will enable society to appreciate the creative and intricate ways in which Greek teenagers use language to play, joke, and achieve their communicative goals in the specific context of Facebook. People often view teenage linguistic practices as a degenerative and “cheap” variety of Greek, but far from posing a threat to the integrity of the Greek language, these highly imaginative and creative practices in fact make a positive contribution to enriching linguistic creativity.

In other words, it should not be assumed that teenagers’ use of language is in any way inferior to that of previous generations, or that they do not know how to use language “appropriately,” simply because they combine English with their Greek, use the Latin script, and use features of orality in their written language practices On the contrary, my ethnographic data shows that Greek teenagers are well aware that their use of language on Facebook is for Facebook only and not suitable for academic writing or formal correspondence. I hope that my research will help to dispel the myths and foreground teenagers’ language practices on Facebook as examples of linguistic ingenuity and creativity, and contribute to a better perception of the roles played by language in society.


Androutsopoulos, J. (2008) Discourse-centred online ethnography. In Androutsopoulos, Jannis & Michael Beißwenger (eds.) Data and Methods in Computer-Mediated Discourse Analysis. Special Issue, Language@Internet 5 (2008). http://www.languageatinternet.de

Daltas, P. (1985) Some patterns of variability in the use of diminutive and augmentative suffixes in Spoken Modern Greek Kini (MGK). Γλωσσολογία/Glossologia 4, 63-88

D’Arcy, Α. & Young, Τ.Μ. (2012). “Ethics and social media: Implications for sociolinguistics in the networked public. Journal of Sociolinguistics 16/4, 2012. 532-546

Jørgensen N. (2008). “Polylingual languaging around and among children and adolescents. International Journal of Multilingualism 5:3. 161-176

Kakridi-Ferrari, Maria. 2005. Glossa kai koinoniko perivallon: Zitimata koinonioglossologias (A Meros) [Language and Social Environment: Issues in Sociolinguistics: Part 1]. Contribution 64: Parousia Journal. Athens

Soffer, O (2010) “‘Silent Orality’: Toward a Conceptulization of the Digital Oral Features in CMC and SMS Texts” In Communication Theory 20. 387-404. International Communication Association

Spilioti, T. (2013) “Greek-Alphabet English: vernacular transliterations of English in social media.” In Proceedings of the 46th Annual Meeting of the British Association for Applied Linguistics, 5-7 September 2013, pp. 435-447. Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh

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A Remembrance of Books Lost: Bengali Chapbooks at the British Library

August 6, 2015
By 19596

The Research

This research is focused on the contested history of popular print culture in Bengal, India. Printing technology arrived in Bengal in the late eighteenth century, and the first Bengali books printed with movable type were translation of Christian tracts published under the aegis of the Baptist Missionaries of Serampore.

Although printing was at first controlled by the colonial authorities and the native elite, this “foreign” technology was quickly embraced by local residents, and a thriving publishing industry took shape in the nascent metropolis of Calcutta (now Kolkata), which soon became the second most important city of the British Empire.

The earliest printers were mostly humanists and scholars, but hack writers and pamphleteers soon entered the market with their cheap, entertaining books and crudely written pamphlets. Their target readers were mostly the newly created middle class and the semi-literate lower middle class.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the popular publishing industry became a headache for the colonial authorities and the native elite alike, who were offended by the bawdy contents of the cheap-print. Soon, they adjudged that the local publishing industry had to be controlled in order to inculcate a sound reading habit amongst Bengalis.1

The title of this chapbook is Bharatmatar Bastraharan (The Disrobing of Mother India). Written during the Second World War, it describes how the general populace suffered due to an acute shortage of clothing material and other essential commodities during the years of conflict. The cover shows a picture of “Mother India” as a poor, yet beautiful woman who is wearing rags since she no longer has enough clothes to cover her body. This chapbook was written by prolific author Nagendranath Das, whose works were frequently banned by the British government.

The title of this chapbook is Bharatmatar Bastraharan (The Disrobing of Mother India). Written during the Second World War, it describes how the general populace suffered due to an acute shortage of clothing material and other essential commodities during the years of conflict. The cover shows a picture of “Mother India” as a poor, yet beautiful woman who is wearing rags since she no longer has enough clothes to cover her body. This chapbook was written by prolific author Nagendranath Das, whose works were frequently banned by the British government.

The cheap publishing industry was first established around Battala in North Calcutta. Although this industry later spread to other parts of the state, the name “Battala” became synonymous with obscene and erotic printed material that soon became the target of the censoring authorities. While the Battala presses were persecuted in the nineteenth century for spreading salacious and corrupting ideas, subsequent historians have pointed out that these books represented the “native cultural elements” that the colonial authorities marginalized as part of their efforts to exercise “bio-political” control over the native mind.2

In the subsequent historiography of popular print culture in Bengal, Battala has been celebrated as the quintessential locale of subversion and resistance. This has also contributed to the rather misleading notion that the cheap publishing industry existed only to defy the elite print culture. While the pioneering work in this field done by such historians as Sukumar Sen, Nikhil Sarkar, Gautam Bhadra, and Sumanta Bandyopadhyay has unearthed a treasure trove of interesting material, it has, in turn, ensured that the books that were not so subversive in nature were buried underneath this “romance of defiance.” And in time, these books mostly vanished from the history of Bengali popular print culture.

My research for the SRA period was focused primarily on unearthing such material—chapbooks and pamphlets on topical events that acted as the conduit of information for the semi-literate readers who were not a part of the information network of the newspapers and periodicals published by the educated elite. During my Sylff Research Abroad in Britain, I endeavored to:

  • Find chapbooks and pamphlets written on topical events
  • Analyze their language to see how they used traditional modes of cultural expressions to entertain as well as inform and educate people about the modern world
  • Understand the role they played as the mass media in the nineteenth century

The SRA award allowed me to look for these books in the vast archives of London’s British Library, which was the deposit library of the British Empire. It boasts perhaps the largest collection of nineteenth-century books published within the domains of the empire, and Bengali books were no exception. As a visiting researcher at King’s College London during this period, I also got the chance to speak with scholars and researchers from other institutions, such as the Institute of English Studies and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London and Oxford University.

The archival work was done at the Asian and African Studies Collection of the British Library, which houses the complete collection of the India Office Library. Conversations with Mr. Graham Shaw, the doyen of nineteenth century Bengali print culture, gave me crucial directions on the use of the vast archive. The books, on the other hand, presented unique stories, and I saw how natural disasters, scandals, incidents of legal or political importance, and other events were represented in the popular print media. And examination of these books is important for various reasons. First, the notion that the sole function of the Battala presses was to resist the cultural elite suggests that the marginalized print cultures did not have an independent existence. This, though, was far from the case.

Second, these books show that the colonial public sphere was more complicated than it is generally regarded. Nineteenth century chapbooks and pamphlets serve as important windows on the everyday life of colonial Bengal: a sociological examination along these lines has long been pending.

Third, an examination of these documents reveals that the main purpose of popular print culture was the same as that of elite print culture: dissemination of information.

The British Library in London

The British Library in London

My research during the SRA period was not limited to the study of these books, however. My other aim was to study the India Political Intelligence Department and the Crown Representative’s Records in order to find out how the British Secret Services tracked down seditious literature after the emergence of nationalist movements. Though most of the leading figures of the nationalist movements, both pacifist and extremist, were educated elites, they adopted the chapbook and pamphlet formats for the dissemination of their ideas. Due to the near invisibility and the ephemeral nature of these slender volumes, chapbooks and pamphlets became major carriers of subversive ideas during the period between 1905 and 1947.

The hack writers, in turn, appropriated nationalistic themes to increase the sales of their books, since books written on such themes were very popular. While doing my research in India, I had amassed a vast digital collection of nationalistic pamphlets and chapbooks printed between 1930s 1940s, and I needed to consult the India Office Records at the British Library to access many other similar pamphlets (especially those published between 1905 and 1930) and to examine the records of the Secret Services to understand how the authorities tracked down and persecuted the authors, book sellers, and at times even the readers of these items.

While the colonial authorities exercised stringent censorship to ensure that seditious ideas were not circulated, pamphlets and chapbooks written on nationalistic ideas spread rapidly through private vendors and dedicated revolutionaries, who also doubled as publishers. For this section, my research questions were:

  • How were the seditious pamphlets and chapbooks produced and circulated?
  • How did the censoring machinery of the colonial government function to control the dissemination of such ephemeral items?
  • How did the hack writers appropriate nationalistic ideas in their chapbooks and pamphlets?
  • Apart from the criticism of the colonial regime, did the writers comment on other aspects of the social condition? If so, how?

The Burden of the Archive

My research was enriched by everything that I studied during this period: chapbooks and pamphlets, legal records, court proceedings, and reports of the Secret Service agents who intercepted letters, followed booksellers, and sent spies to track down the people who distributed seditious materials during one of the most volatile periods in the history of the region.

While studying the pamphlets and chapbooks that described the partition riots and famine,3 I got a chance to read the disturbing memoirs of the English soldiers who were stationed in Calcutta at that time. The intense nature of the documents that I studied often left me greatly distressed, though this was also part of the thrill that is often associated with archival research of this nature. These findings have enabled me to develop a greater understanding of how this rustic information network functioned amongst the economically disenfranchised sectors of society, long before the coming of electronic media that made communication more democratic.

For this opportunity I am grateful to the Tokyo Foundation. The Sylff fellowship and the SRA award enabled me to fulfil the academic potential that my project had. I would also like to thank Professor Clare Pettitt of the King’s College London, Mr. Graham Shaw of the Institute of English Studies, University of London, and Ms. Leena Mitford of the British Library for their kind guidance.

1James Long, Returns Relating to the Publications in the Bengali Language in I857 (Calcutta, 1859) pp. xxiv-xxv

2Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996); Deana Heath, Purifying Empire: Obscenity and the Politics of Moral Regulation in Britain, India and Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

3The British left India in 1947, marking the successful culmination of half-a-century long freedom struggle that swayed between peaceful marches and spells of armed resistance punctuated with gunfire and bomb blasts. Independence came at a price, though, as the partition of Bengal and Punjab resulted in the greatest human migration in history. This period also witnessed communal riots in various parts of India, especially in Bengal and Punjab, claiming the lives of thousands of people. During the final stages of the Second World War, when the British government was apprehensive of a Japanese invasion from Axis-occupied Burma, they implemented a scorched-earth policy in Bengal Province. This resulted in a massive famine, entirely man-made, that claimed the lives of at least 4 million people.

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The Arts in Crisis and their Survival in the Twenty First Century:
A View from Sociolinguistics

March 27, 2014
By 19604

Can the liberal arts maintain its value in society despite losing both popularity and funding to such practical disciplines as the sciences, engineering, and business administration? Christopher Lees, a Sylff fellow while at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, offers steps that can be taken by arts scholars to maintain the relevance of their discipline in society, using examples from Greece and sociolinguistics.

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The author deilvering a speech at Sylff ceremony at the University of Athens

The author deilvering a speech at Sylff ceremony at the University of Athens

At last year’s anniversary marking Sylff’s 20-year presence at the University of Athens in Greece, I was given the opportunity to speak about the crisis the liberal arts face today in the context of the economic crisis. Ever increasingly, the arts are brushed to the sidelines, considered of secondary importance compared to the sciences, technology, and business studies. This is apparent the world over with numerous departments being merged, reduced, or even threatened with closure. In Greece too, the infamous and narrowly averted Athina Plan proposed by the Ministry of Education saw it fit to heap foreign language departments together so as to create one giant “Department of Foreign Languages,” apparently with no regard for the academic integrity and significance of each department’s work and research as a separate entity.

In part, this stance towards the arts and their subjects is borne out of today’s predominant philosophy that only visibly practical things are worth people’s time, money and investment. As far as degree courses are concerned, this is often translated to mean that students tend to select a course that they see to be directly linked to the job market. This perhaps explains the popularity of business management and finance-related courses, which, according to David Williams (n.d.), are the most popular among Greek students (but not only Greek students) pursuing postgraduate education.

While students themselves cannot be blamed for choosing a degree course that they envisage will provide them with good employment prospects, this devaluation of arts subjects runs the risk of creating a sense that they are simply not worth studying. I myself, as a former undergraduate student in the UK, was frequently met with bewildered expressions on the faces of those who learned of my intention to study foreign languages at university.

Furthermore, this ever increasing lack of appreciation for the arts also poses the threat of subjects not being given the funding they deserve to carry out important research projects, and this is something which is being increasingly felt on an international level, where students find it difficult to get scholarships, and academic staff face increasing hurdles in publishing their work.

Arts subjects cannot, however, be entirely absolved from blame in relation to the regard in which they are held in society. While a doctor may not need to convince society about the importance of medicine and medical research, and an economist may not need to validate his work by highlighting the significance of sound finance, the arts scholar needs to and should take it upon him- or herself to inform society of the relevance of his/her subject. Quite often, knowledge generated by the arts subjects is confined and recycled within the academic circles of universities, which in turn are often treated as monasteries of knowledge and, indeed, even referred to as not being “the real world.”

Arts subjects and their scholars should, therefore, make the extra effort to share the knowledge they generate with the wider circles of society so that they too may benefit from what these subjects have to teach and offer us. This, I believe, is a general principle by which universities should operate: not to exclude nonmembers of what sometimes resembles the academic elite but to involve them in the work being carried out and to show them how this work is relevant to our lives. In this article, I intend to show how the arts are relevant to society and how scholars may make their work more accessible. I shall do this from the perspective of my own field, sociolinguistics, and then show how the arts can be made more accessible to ordinary members of society.

Sociolinguistics and Society

The relationship between language and society is well documented in linguistics. Just as language reflects social structures, ideologies, and stances, so too does language have the ability to influence and shape society, its structures, and its perceptions (Dittmar 1976, Lucy 1992, Wardhaugh 1992). That is to say that, while the speakers of a language coin or adopt phrases to express themselves linguistically, these same linguistic expressions, through repeated contextualized instances of usage, subsequently contribute to the way speakers think and view the world around them, evidenced by the fact that many linguistic expressions, proverbs, and idioms are unique to specific languages and reflect and form the mentalities of their speakers. Consequently, it is possible for us to refer to the relationship between language and society as being a two-way one: society depends on language to express itself, and language depends on society in order to develop and lexically reflect social structures and values.

According to Kakridi-Ferrari (2005: 53), many sociolinguists feel the need to use their specialized knowledge in order to offer something of practical use to society. As such, one of the main aims of sociolinguistic scholarship is to highlight what language can show us about society, its issues and problems, and how this can then be applied for practical purposes in various areas, from solving issues of inequality and prejudice to better understanding social norms and improving education.

Linguistic sexism, for instance, is an example of how social inequality is mirrored and redistributed linguistically. Sociolinguistic researchers, especially during the US feminist movement of the 1970s, have attempted to highlight some of the features of language that undermine or even exclude the role of women in society. In inflected languages such as Greek, where gender is morphologically marked, this is a particularly problematic issue, especially apparent in nouns denoting professions, for which many still only use a masculine noun ending.

In addition to this, generic references to groups comprising more than one person also, by and large, use exclusively masculine noun endings, thus linguistically excluding women from many sectors of society and creating a sense of a need to adopt male values and practices imposed on them by society and reflected and redistributed linguistically (see Pavlidou 2002). Sociolinguistics is therefore in a position to use its findings to highlight aspects of how language demonstrates sexism in society and to attempt to suggest, at least from a linguistic point of view, how this may be resolved. Once this has been done, both findings and suggestions can be forwarded to the relevant government departments, who may in turn make changes to the existing legislation.

Another area of social inequality visible through language is that of racism. Van Dijk’s (1993) seminal study of how elite discourse, notably that of the press, constructs and disseminates racial prejudice, shows us both how language mirrors a society’s mindset and also how this is then negotiated and propagated though a process of social cognition, that is to say, repeated exposure to expressions of racial sentiment, which then becomes etched in the minds of speakers.

I myself have researched the ways in which Greek newspapers make use of intricate linguistic strategies so as, on the one hand, to represent what they view as mainstream Greek public opinion and, on the other, to fuel feelings of racial tension (Lees 2012). This latter instance serves as a very good example of how the two-way relationship between language and society can be viewed in action against the background of political change in Greece, where older perceptions are being constantly challenged, thus creating a dynamic mix of opinion represented in the language of the press.

As was the case for linguistic sexism, sociolinguistics can again here uncover the linguistic practices of journalists and raise awareness of how these may not always be as objective as one might be inclined to think but are directly related to political and social ideology. Again, by highlighting this, pressure can be brought to bear on the government of the day to make changes to policies concerning racism.

Another important area to which sociolinguistics can contribute is that of education. The foundations of how the social aspects of language interact with education were laid by Basil Bernstein (1971) and his theory of restricted and elaborated codes. Despite the criticism he received, Bernstein was the first to draw attention to the fact that a child’s success at school is directly linked to the linguistic interaction he or she engages in at home. The logical consequence of this is that those children who engage in linguistic interaction at home that closely resembles that of the language taught in schools will be in a better position to do well in education.

It is worth noting that there is often a marked difference between the language taught in schools and the varieties spoken in even a small local community. The emphasis in education should, therefore, be placed on assisting speakers of regional and social varieties to adapt to the standardized language used in schools for the purpose of education, while acknowledging and respecting language rights. This was clearly shown by Labov (1972) in his influential work on the language of the African American community, known then as BEV (Black English Vernacular) and now called African American Vernacular English (AAVE). He concluded that schools should not treat AAVE as substandard, as was often the case, thus placing its speakers at a distinct disadvantage in comparison to those who at home speak the standard form of English taught in schools, but as a distinct social variety of English with its own grammatical rules.

Due to the fact that sociolinguistics, by nature of its subject, is in a position to research and highlight social aspects of language and because language is a social phenomenon, its role in education is particularly crucial. Just as is the case with social prejudice reflected and propagated through language, so is there linguistic prejudice against language varieties. Sociolinguists can work with education policymakers to assure that—while a standard language form is necessary for education and indeed for communication purposes—regional and social varieties of a language are respected and even taught, especially when used by pupils.

A case in point is the research I am currently involved in regarding the language used by Greek teenagers on Facebook (Lees et al. 2014). Since computer mediated language practices have become an inseparable part of teenagers’ lives, and since these computer mediated language practices have their own unique features, we feel that they needed to be treated as a variety of Greek and incorporated into the school curriculum. This is not to say that computer mediated language practices should be taught as standard, merely that it can be used to increase pupils’ critical awareness of the social aspects of language and how, why, and in which contexts these differ from the language taught as standard in schools.

A group of Greek teenagers the author works with.

A group of Greek teenagers the author works with.

In sum, the role that sociolinguistics does and can play in society is apparent and the benefits clear. As previously noted, these benefits need not (and should not) be confined to within the walls of universities and research centers but practically applied to all areas of society where language has an impact. This will ensure that the values and significance of sociolinguistics are known on a much wider scale. The same logic can and, in my opinion, must be applied to all arts subjects so that they may regain some of the prestige and deference lost in the wake of the economic crisis and so that the notion that the arts are not practical subjects and, therefore, not worth investing in can be dismissed. In the next section, some ways in which this can be done are briefly outlined and discussed.

Bringing the Arts Home

There are several ways in which the significance of the arts can be shared with the wider community. For example, scholars may choose to write their research findings in popular newspapers and magazines. Quite different from an academic journal, such mediums allow the scholar to target a much wider audience with various interests. Of course, the style of writing and content must be simplified and even, perhaps, popularized. However, publishing through the popular media allows the scholar to present, discuss, and share their research with a variety of people, many of whom may not even know that fields like sociolinguistics exist, let alone what they do.

Aside from showcasing research, the arts scholar may also use the media of newspapers and magazines to highlight, even on a regular basis by means of a column, the relevance of their topic. For the sociolinguist, this could involve the social aspects of language, including anything from language minority issues to language policy and even street art and graffiti, much of which, especially in Greece, is of a highly political nature. Writing in newspapers and magazines also serves the purpose of dispelling many of the myths concerning language that are often written by nonlinguists who lack the appropriate background to offer academically informed opinions.

Another area in which the arts can be promoted is through the organization of talks in local communities. This can be done either through local community centers or local education authorities. Informal in nature, such talks provide a good opportunity for local community members to come together and learn of the work and research being carried out in any given field. As with the use of the media, talks also allow disadvantaged members of the community to participate in learning in ways that may have previously been inaccessible to them.

Depending on the research interests of the scholar, it may even be possible for local members of the community to actively participate in a research project. In terms of sociolinguistics, a valuable aspect of having community members participate in such projects is that it will enable them to better understand the value of their cultural and linguistic attributes, which in many cases are highly stigmatized.

Finally, another way in which the arts and their subjects can be shared with the local community is through reading groups and free seminars. More formal in nature compared with local talks, such groups generally target people with an academic interest in the field. They may be offered on a volunteer basis and could be integrated into a wider context of volunteer work to provide free education for disadvantaged members of the public or anyone with an interest in the areas discussed. Such groups have been recently introduced in Greece and have so far proved to be a great success.

In conclusion, the fate of the arts and the prestige and respect they deserve largely depends on what we, as scholars, make of them ourselves. It would seem apparent that knowledge and research carried out at universities around the world should be made more transparent and accessible to all members of society, rather than belonging to a select few, especially since such members are the ones who, more often than not, fund such research.

In this article, I have outlined several ways in which this can happen. As opposed to merely complaining about the diminishing regard for arts subjects, those of us in these disciplines should first ask ourselves why this is the case and what we can do both individually and collectively to reverse this trend.


Bernstein, Βasil. 1971. Class, Codes and Control (Vol. 1). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Dittmar, Norbert. 1976. Sociolinguistics. A Critical Survey of Theory and Application. London: E. Arnold.

Kakridi-Ferrari, Maria. 2005. Glossa kai koinoniko perivallon: Zitimata koinonioglossologias (A Meros) [Language and Social Environment: Issues in Sociolinguistics: Part 1]. Contribution 64: Parousia Journal. Athens.

Labov, William. 1972. Language in the Inner City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lees, Christopher. 2012. Glossikos ratsismos: mia kritiki analisi arthron apo ellinikes efimerides. [Linguistic Racism: A Critical Analysis of Articles in Greek Newspapers]. Master’s thesis. University of Athens.

Lees, Christopher (In press: 2014) “Psifiakes glossikes praktikes kai topoi koinonikis diktiosis: mia proti parousiasi” [Digital Language Practices and Social Networking Sites: An Initial Presentation] Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Greek Linguistics. Rhodes: University of the Aegean.

Lucy, John. 1992. Language Diversity and Thought: A Reformation of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pavlidou, Theodossia-Soula. 2002. “Glossa-Genos-Fylo: Provlimata, Anazitiseis kai Elliniki Glossa” [Language-Gender-Sex: Problems, Questions and Greek Language] in Pavlidou, T.S. (2002) (ed.) Glossa-Genos-Fylo [Language-Gender-Sex].15–64. Thessaloniki: Institute of Modern Greek Studies: Manolis Triantafillidis.

Van Dijk, Teun. 1993. Elite Discourse and Racism. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Wardhaugh, Ronald. 1992. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Williams, David. n.d. “Study Choice: A Look at the Most Popular Subjects for Greek Graduate Students.” Web article available at: http://www.look4studies.com/default.asp?pid=19&langID=1&nwid=249 (accessed on February 20, 2014).

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Is There a Link between Music and Language? How Loss of Language Affected the Compositions of Vissarion Shebalin

December 31, 2013
By 19641

How does stroke affect the activities of a musician? Meta Weiss, a cellist and Sylff fellow at The Juilliard School, used an SRA award to conduct research in Moscow about the life and music of Soviet composer Vissarion Shebalin, who lost his linguistic abilities after the second of two severe strokes. By studying Shebalin’s journals and sketchbooks, Weiss gained new insights into the changes in Shebalin’s compositional style after each stroke, which could have broad implications for our understanding of the functioning of the human brain.

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The author performing at the Shebalin Music School

The author performing at the Shebalin Music School

Vissarion Yakevlevich Shebalin was born in 1904 in Omsk, Siberia. He lived in the Soviet Union until his death in 1963 and spent his entire professional life in Moscow. He began his musical studies in Omsk with Mikhail I. Nevitov before transferring to the Peter I. Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow under the tutelage of Nikolai Myaskovsky. Those who knew him always admired his work ethic, modesty, organization, and innate ability as a composer. After completing his studies at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, he taught there as a professor and eventually became its director, a position which he held from 1942 to 1948.

The year 1948 was a stressful time for all Soviet composers, and Shebalin was no exception. He was accused of formalism and stripped of his position in the Composer’s Union as well as at the Conservatory. Many of his family members believe that the first stroke that he suffered in 1953 was as a result of the many political stresses of the time. He was able to make an almost complete recovery following the stroke in 1953, with the exception of the lingering paralysis of his right arm and leg. He relearned how to write with his left hand, and continued to compose as well as teach. As a teacher, he remained extremely devoted to his students, even during his prolonged illness.

With a former student of Shebalin, Mr. Roman Ledenov

With a former student of Shebalin, Mr. Roman Ledenov

In 1959, he suffered a second stroke that resulted in aphasia. This was especially tragic because of his strong literary background and upbringing; before the strokes he was fluent not only in Russian, but also German, French, Latin and a bit of English. He worked with a team of linguists, neuropsychologists, and doctors to regain the Russian language, and although he was limited in his physical activities by his doctors, he set aside time every day to compose and keep a journal of his activities (with the help of his devoted wife, Alisa Maximovna Shebalina).

By virtue of the fact that Shebalin was a Soviet composer—and he deliberately did not do any self-promotion despite his reputation within the Soviet Union as a leading composer and composition teacher—his music and name essentially died with him in 1963. There is almost no literature on him that is published in English, and when his name does come up in music history articles, it is only in conjunction with the political events of 1948. Shebalin, however, has intrigued the neuroscience community for many years since his case was reported by Drs. Luria, Futer, and Svetkova in the 1960s.

My dissertation will be the first paper in any language to discuss Shebalin’s music through the lens of his medical condition. My aim is to analyze Shebalin’s music, focusing on his string quartets, both pre- and post-aphasia, in order to discover a link, if any, between Shebalin’s loss of verbal language and a change in compositional language. I am collaborating with Dr. Aniruddh Patel at Tufts University, a neuroscientist whose research focuses on music and language. While there have been other (better known) composers who suffered brain injuries, Shebalin is unique in that his condition was characterized by an almost complete loss of verbal language, and we can, based on his sketchbooks, create a fairly accurate timeline of his compositions as well as view the changes in his compositional process. This is inferred by studying the different motivic units Shebalin was constantly writing in his sketchbooks, as well as the more obvious indicators, such as handwriting (left vs. right) and pen color. The string quartets were chosen because they span the creative output of the composer from all periods of his life, and Shebalin himself said that they were the compositions he was most proud of and represented him the best.

After receiving my SRA grant, I traveled to Moscow for the month of October on a student visa and enrolled in the post-graduate program of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. After exhaustive research working with a Russian-English translator, I was able to track down the location of all of the archival materials on Shebalin, and I was fortunate enough to obtain access to everything that was relevant to my research. This included the RGALI State Archive, the Glinka Museum Archive, and the Tchaikovsky Conservatory Archive and Reading Room.

With Shebalin's family members and directors of the Shebalin Music School

With Shebalin's family members and directors of the Shebalin Music School

Additionally, I was also able, using the Russian “vKontakte” social networking site, to locate the Shebalin family. They granted me permission to visit Shebalin’s summer estate, interview his surviving family members, family friends, former students, and doctors. Two of the three therapists/neuropsychologists who helped Shebalin with his linguistic rehabilitation following his second stroke had already passed away. Again using vKontakte, I reached out to Dr. L.S. Svetkova, the only living team member who treated Shebalin during his rehabilitation, and she agreed to send me her detailed notes and records that she kept while he was her patient.

The highlight of my research was the sketchbooks that are housed in the RGALI State Archive. Shebalin worked quickly and methodically, and was constantly scrutinizing his work. His sketchbooks proved to be much more revealing than any of the manuscripts or other scores. Unlike the detailed journals kept by both Shebalin and his wife, the sketchbooks are unbiased. They show his compositional process neatly and efficiently. Also, because his right side was paralyzed following the first stroke, one can clearly see the change from writing with his right hand to writing with his left hand. They also reveal that after both strokes, he did not simply go back to older works and revise them but he also created completely new and different works.

Shebalin’s music changed in several ways post-stroke. There are distinct differences in the structure of the themes, the imagery of the music, and the scale of his compositions. After his second stroke, he also experimented with a pseudo-twelve-tone style, though still within the tonal idiom, writing themes that featured all twelve tones melodically but relied on the functional harmony of tonality. Perhaps counterintuitively, his music was full of optimism following the onset of his aphasia, and, like his music before the strokes, the music was very clean and straightforward, but with new richness and depth despite the economy of means.

With Shebalin's great-granddaughter and great-great-granddaughter, outside the Shebalin Music School in Moscow

With Shebalin's great-granddaughter and great-great-granddaughter, outside the Shebalin Music School in Moscow

Upon further analysis, it is anticipated that although it will be relatively easy to differentiate the pre- and post-aphasia musical traits, it will be difficult to attribute an exact cause-effect relationship between the change in compositional language and loss of verbal language for two reasons.

First, despite the fact that both Shebalin and his close family and friends—many of whom were interviewed in the course of this research—deny that he ever buckled to political pressure, it will be difficult to definitively separate changes in his music due to political pressure and those due to his medical condition or changing musical taste. The second reason is that because of Shebalin’s fragile physical state following the strokes, he was easily fatigued and thus limited to composing only a few hours a day by his medical doctors. Preliminary analysis reveals that his musical style is markedly more succinct following the strokes, though this may be a result of the doctor’s restrictions.

Through the research conducted with the SRA grant, I was able to construct a complete picture of Shebalin and his compositional output. The future implications of this research are twofold. First, and perhaps most importantly, it would provide hope for stroke victims that in spite of the odds, Shebalin was able to continue to create music and express himself through his most beloved medium—composition. Second, by analyzing his music both pre- and post-aphasia, it may reveal certain processes or elements that are shared by both music and language that remain intact despite the loss of language (such as syntax and grammar).

In this way, my research may help future stroke victims to recover certain aspects of language and aid in our understanding of the brain and mind, a subject with implications far beyond just music or Shebalin.

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In Search of the New Historians: Fieldwork in the ‘Holy Land’

November 19, 2013
By 19633

Khinvraj Jangid, a Sylff fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University from 2009 to 2011, used his Sylff Research Abroad (SRA) award to research Israel’s “New Historians” and their views, who challenged traditional interpretations of the first Arab-Israel War of 1948. He conducted his field research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva, Israel, and his findings formed the core of his doctoral dissertation. A summary of research and field work are presented below.

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Ben-Gurion University of the Negev 1

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (1)

The case of the contested history of the 1948 War, or the first Arab-Israel War, within Israel is the subject matter of this research. It focuses on a group of Israeli historians who challenged the traditional understanding of the 1948 War on the basis of declassified documents from Israeli archives. The leading scholars of this group are known as the New Historians. The word ‘New History’ is applied to their historical writings and their school, which primarily included Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim, and Tom Segev. Due to Israel’s liberal declassification laws, many archival materials became available from the late 1970s, enabling access to the original war papers and documents of the 1948 War.

However, this alone does not explain the critical reexamination of Israel’s role in 1948. Some crucial social and political events played important roles in prompting the historians to take a renewed look at the country’s past. These include the June 1967 War, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987. A generational change was also one of the factors behind the emergence of the critical reflection of the past. The generation born around or after the 1948 War was more self-critical and less attached to the emotional aspects of the war, as this was the first generation that did not participate in the war or witness its hardships.

The contested issues of the 1948 War between the new and conventional1 views of history can be summarized in the following points:

  • The conventional version stated that Britain tried to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state; the New History argued instead that Britain tried to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
  • The conventional version claimed that the Palestinians fled their homes of their own free will or at the behest of their leadership; the New History countered this by stating that the refugees were either compelled to flee or were chased out.
  • The conventional version stated that the balance of power during the 1948 War was in favor of the Arabs; the New History contested the claim and argued that Israel had an advantage, both in terms of manpower and arms.
  • The conventional version narrated that the Arabs had a plan to destroy Israel but failed to execute it; the New History suggested that the Arabs were not united as commonly understood but were divided and fought for their individual gains, not for securing the Palestinian state.
  • The conventional version maintained that Arab intransigence prevented peace; the New History insisted that Israel is primarily to be blamed for the deadlock at the end of the war.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (2)

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (2)

The fieldwork enabled me to interview the New Historians as well as their critics in Israel. The conversations with many scholars and historians, such as Benny Morris, Avraham Sela, Jose Brunner, Eyal Naveh, Yoav Gelber, Yosef Gorny, Rafi Nets-Zehngut, Dani Filc, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, and David Newman illuminated the various contours of the academic debate of the historians. For the interviews, I travelled to other prominent universities in Israel, including Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, and the University of Haifa. The chance to speak with the historians about their work and their ideological and political underpinnings was very fruitful, providing answers to some of the key questions that had guided my research, such as:

  • What is the significance of Israel’s preoccupation with the historical interpretation of the 1948 War?
  • How does the self-critical historical narrative of New History affect the Israeli polity and society?
  • What is the relevance of the New History? Where is its place within Israeli society and politics, two decades after the emergence of the New Historians?

The conversations provided me with the knowledge of the personal journeys of the New Historians which explained the nuances of their ideological or political evolution. For example, Benny Morris spoke of his disenchantment with the other fellow New Historians like Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim in the aftermath of second Intifada (2000-2004). The New Historians had more differences than commonalities right from the beginning. But an event like the second Intifada revealed how the New Historians came under influence of the political events. On the other hand, the conversations with the critics of the New Historians made me realize to look at the works of the other historians who made significant contribution to the body of knowledge pertaining to the issues of the 1948 War like Avraham Sela and Yoav Gelber.

The debate about the 1948 War ensued with the New Historians influenced Israeli society. First, they brought about a change in the teaching of history in Israeli high schools. The inclusion of the Palestinian version of the 1948 War in school textbooks and mentioning the reasons why the Palestinians call the 1948 War a “catastrophe” paved the way for a mutual understanding of those events. The younger generation is more aware of what happened to the Palestinians in 1948. Since a nation’s collective memory and collective identity are shaped through history textbooks more than through any other means, the teaching of a more balanced account of the 1948 War at the school level signifies an important contribution by the New Historians.

Second, the New Historians have enabled the general Israeli public to understand how Arabs perceive Israel and how they view the common past. The redefining of the Israel-Palestine relationship through historical revisionism has helped society understand the “other” in a more compassionate manner and not in antagonistic terms. The rise and growth of the debate in academia and the media is a good indication of the attention it received in Israel and abroad. The opportunity to bridge the narratives of the Palestinians and Israelis through a fuller knowledge of history is a noteworthy consequence of the work of the New Historians.

Third, they inspired sociologists in Israel to take a critical view of Zionism as a political ideology. A recent development in Israeli academia has been the rise of revisionist sociologists known as post-Zionists who have been re-examining the evolution of Zionism and suggesting limiting its influence on state policy.

Thus, the New History was instrumental in shaping a new understanding of the 1948 War. After provoking debate, it was integrated into the Israeli academia, where it was examined, debated, and eventually accepted. But while the New History has had a discernible impact on Israeli society, it has thus far had no tangible impact on policymaking.

The Past as a “Foreign Country”

The experience of conducting research abroad was meaningful in more ways than one. Academically, it required me, a student of international relations from India, to interact in a society that was foreign and unknown. Studying the history of the 1948 War was a process of understanding the birth of the state of Israel. It explained the origins of the protracted conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In the history of modern international politics, the Israel-Palestine conflict stands out as one of the most complex examples of the formation of a nation-state through the use of force. Sovereignty and territorial issues between Israel and Palestine are far from being resolved, and they also offer a challenge to international conventions and organizations.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (3)

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (3)

On a personal note, staying in a dormitory with Israeli, a few Palestinian, and other students gave me precious opportunities for interaction. The conversations I had reminded me that a wide gap still separates the perceptions of history held by most people and the findings of scholars. University life at Ben-Gurion University was an invitation to interact with the younger generation of Israeli society. Many of the students I spoke with understood the role of the past and of historians in helping resolve present-day conflicts. The role of historians is considered critical in any society. But how much impact do they really have on society?

The younger generation tends to think of the past like events in a “foreign country.” The debate of the historian was too political for the generation which is getting apolitical. They feel that what happened in 1948 has only a minor role in their lives. Nevertheless, university life was full of political and ideological encounters. In May 2012, on the occasion of the annual Palestinian demonstration of Nakba (meaning catastrophe, a term used by the Palestinians for the 1948 War), there was a heated debate that university space was being used against Israel’s national interests. The on-going debate in the social sciences pertaining to the Arab Spring was another example of the attention being given to regional political events and their impact on the State of Israel.

For this research work, Sylff fellowship and SRA award made significant contribution. The year 2009 when I was selected for Sylff was a turning point for me. I was born and brought in a framing family in Rajasthan. Being considered part of an international fellowship and the prestigious association with Tokyo Foundation inspired me for the academic world.

1It is important to clarify that there is not a well-explained and established body of work called “conventional history” in Israel. The history written prior to the New History is considered a conventional or traditional account of the 1948 War. (The word “official” is used by the New Historians.)

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Witnessing History in the Making

August 19, 2011
By 19687

It’s strange to think I’ve witnessed history being made. History that my children and grandchildren will study in school. This week, I saw the man who six months ago used to be the most powerful man in Egypt, and one of the most powerful men in the region, lying on a hospital bed in an iron cage in court. Humiliated in front of the entire world. An 84-year-old pharaoh who lifted his hand up and went “Yes sir, present,” to the judge, like a schoolchild to his teacher. Two days before that I was in Tahrir square, just before it was forcefully cleared out by the military. Where Egyptians from all walks of life had gathered to express their demands peacefully. So many events and so many emotions. The past six months have passed like a whirlwind. Everyone keeps asking us where do we go from here. What it’s like to be here. What things on the ground are like. What Egyptians are feeling. Continue reading