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English Language & Linguistics

English Language



Milroy's Belfast Study


Members of a speech community are connected to each other in social networks which may be relatively 'closed' or 'open'. A person whose personal contacts all know each other belong to a closed network. An individual whose contacts tend not to know each other belong to an open network.

Closed networks are said to be of high density: open networks are said to be of low density. Moreover, the links between people may be of different kinds: people can relate to each other as relatives, as neighbours, as workmates, as friends. Where individuals are linked in several ways, e.g. by job, family and leisure activities, then the network ties are said to be multiplex.

Relatively dense networks, it is claimed, function as norm-enforcement mechanisms. In the case of language, this means that a closely-knit group will have the capacity to enforce linguistic norms.

Milroy investigated three working-class communities in Belfast: Ballymacarrell (a Protestant area in East Belfast), the Hammer (a Protestant area in West Belfast) and the Clonard (a Catholic area in West Belfast). All three areas are poor working-class districts with a high incidence of unemployment.

Milroy took part in the life of each community as 'a friend of a friend' She investigated the correlation between the integration of individuals in the community and the way those individuals speak.

To do this she gave each individual she studied a Network Strength Score based on the person's knowledge of other people in the community, the workplace and at leisure activities to give a score of 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest Network Strength Score. Then she measured each person's use of several linguistic variables, including, for example, (th) as in mother and (a) as in hat, which had both standard and non-standard forms.

What she found was that a high Network Strength Score was correlated with the use of vernacular or non-standard forms.

In most cases this meant that men whose speech revealed high usage of vernacular or non-standard forms were also found to belong to tight-knit social networks. Conversely, vernacular or non-standard forms are less evident in women's speech because the women belong to less dense social networks.

However, for some variables, the pattern of men using non-standard and women using standard forms was reversed. In the Hammer and the Clonard, for example, more women than expected tended to use the non-standard form of (a) as in hat.

Milroy's explanation for this finding is based on the social pressures operating in the communities. The Hammer and the Clonard both had unemployment rates of around 35 per cent, which clearly affected social relationships. Men from these areas were forced to look for work outside the community, and also shared more in domestic tasks (with consequent blurring of sex roles). The women in these areas went out to work and, in the case of the young Clonard women, all worked together. This meant that the young Clonard women belonged to a dense and multiplex network; they lived, worked and amused themselves together.

The tight-knit network to which the young Clonard women belong clearly exerts pressure on its members, who are linguistically homogeneous.