You’re All Talk: Why We Are What We Speak by Rob Drummond

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Review by Lix Dexter

This is a book about the relationship between how we speak and who we are. More precisely, it’s a book about the role of spoken language, specifically English, in creating all the different version of us that we employ in our day-to-day lives … The way we speak can provide a lot of clues about us – where we live or where we’re from, our social class, possibly even our jobs, and maybe more.

Rob Drummond is a professor of sociolinguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University and is particularly interested in accents and more generally the relationship between our selves and how we speak. He’s appeared in various media outlets so is ideally placed to write this chatty and approachable book about why we make assumptions about people based on how they speak and why some of us speak how we do.

Drummond introduces the book with some examples of people who have been criticised for the way they speak, also discussing the ways we change our speech depending on who we’re with. We’re then into an explanation of accents and a short and accessible history of English.

We find in the book an appropriate discussion of intersectionality, i.e. the joint effects that our race, class, gender, etc. will have had on societal expectations of us and the way we speak, and there is a whole chapter on prejudice and discrimination around accents.  He’s also clear that when people complain about “not understanding” people’s accents whose English is a second or additional language, it’s a listener issue rather than a speaker issue, and often a way of, as he puts it, “laundering other prejudices into a socially acceptable format”, pointing out that broadcasting and teaching are starting to represent more linguistic diversity but there’s a long way to go.

As part of the discussion on style-shifting and code-switching, which is associated with the above points, there are a fascinating few paragraphs about how people who learn a second or additional language out of necessity (after moving countries) will retain particular pronunciations that are non-standard so indicate their background, consciously, rather than striving for an exact match to the new country’s language and accent, in order to demonstrate their first language identity and the identities that come with that. He also criticises official policy that demands all residents speak English while not providing language courses and acknowledging how hard it is to learn another language. Aboriginal and other Indigenous languages and their role in the countries that include Indigenous communities are also included in this chapter. 

I really liked the little personal and family anecdotes that are included in the book. As transplants from the South to the North of England, Drummond’s youngest child, in particular, has a different accent from him, and at one point he asks her, at seven, a research question her answer to which he goes on to spend three years proving. I also enjoyed the discussion of covert prestige, which is where a less officially prestigious accent, such as Cockney, becomes a more appropriate accentual code than one’s own received pronunciation voice. He even touches on the effect on his life of his own stammer, a brave thing for a sociolinguistics professor to discuss and more power to him.

There’s a suitably lively discussion of language change and the inevitable dire warnings about this; he of course takes a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach here as he looks at new language, slang, etc. and their effects on language, and whether our own accent changes as we age.

In the postscript he continues the social justice theme, asking readers to at least see how attitudes to language and accents can promote inequalities as well as taking a general interest in language after reading the book.

The book is suitable for anyone from an expert to a novice as there’s lots of cutting-edge research and, as an armchair enthusiast who studied sociolinguistics, there were certainly things I learned, as well as having a smile at a couple of in-jokes: I loved his question “How many conversations actually include a discussion of bread rolls, or sport shoes, or small alleyways between houses?”, as those are key terms that allow people to be identified by region of origin, but of course that is also true.

There’s a useful glossary and carefully presented footnote-numbered notes, although no index.

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Liz Dexter balanced out her poor show in Old Norse with the English Language part of her degree, with a particular interest in sociolinguistics which she’s maintained ever since. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Rob Drummond, You’re All Talk: Why We Are What We Speak (Scribe, 2023) ‎ 978-1914484285, 250 pp., ill. hardback.

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