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How to find us dr. R.M. (Remco) Knooihuizen

dr. R.M. Knooihuizen

Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics
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r.m.knooihuizen rug.nl

My research interests focus on the intersection of language variation, language change, and language contact. I want to understand the social side of language use: how do we use language variation to give social meaning to ourselves and the world around us in a setting that is highly diverse and ever changing? I work on both language and dialect contact in a range of historical and present-day situations, and try to give structural accounts of the variation that I find. References to publications and presentations can be found on my Research page, and open-access publications can be downloaded from there.

Below is some of the stuff I’ve been working on recently. I am open to (serious) suggestions for collaboration, including from postgraduate and undergraduate students.

Language variation and the LGBT community

Most recently, I have been doing more and more sociophonetic research into the speech of the LGBT community. This is a very exciting area of research that really highlights the links between language, society, and individual speakers.

A bilingual view on transmasculine voice change

Successfully conveying a gender identity is particularly important for transgender people. For transgender men in particular, sociolinguistic variation is often ignored as it is generally believed that it is enough that the voice lowers automatically as a result of testosterone. But there are more differences between how men and women speak, and of course even ‘men’ and ‘women’ aren’t homogeneous categories.

In this project (with Max Reuvers) we follow two transgender men through the first two years of testosterone therapy. Through monthly recordings of conversations in both Dutch and English, we hope to not only track the lowering of pitch, but also of other changes in these speakers’ speech. In addition to pitch, also pitch range, speech rate, intonation, and the pronunciation of individual vowels and consonants appear to be gendered; all these are available for gender performance. But they may also interact: if one feature makes you sound masculine already, that may give you more freedom to play with another feature. Remember that men’s speech is not nearly as policed by society as women’s speech, so the more someone sounds like a man, the less people care about the details of their speech.

The bilingual aspect of the study is interesting, because the sociolinguistic differences between men’s and women’s speech are culturally defined, and differ between Dutch and English. Moreover, our speakers are much more thoroughly socialised in their L1 Dutch than in their L2 English, and they have different exposure to and levels of engagement with English. The differences that we find between the Dutch and English speech of our speakers will help us to better understand how we use language to convey gender identity.

Gay Frysk

We may use language not only to convey our gender identity, but also to convey our sexuality. There are many stereotypes about ‘gay speech’, particularly the speech of gay men. These have to do with pitch, pitch variation and intonation, the pronunciation of ‘s’ (the so-called ‘gay lisp’), the use of English, and differences in pragmatics. Research on a variety of languages, but mostly English, has shown that there is some empirical basis for these stereotypes, but also that there is a lot of variation between gay men. Differences in speech are not a diagnostic for sexuality, but rather there are sociolinguistic features that certain gay men use to convey their sexuality.

As sociolinguistic differences are interactionally acquired, it is interesting to look at a case where such interaction is much less likely to happen. In the province of Fryslân, where many people may use Frisian as a home language, the language of education is Dutch, and the primary language of socialisation during late adolescence, when sexuality becomes a salient category of identity, will in most cases also be Dutch. Will gay speakers of Frisian acquire sexuality-based speech patterns if they lack the necessary interaction?

Another reason to question whether gay speech actually exists in Frisian is the very rural character of the language’s speaker base. Rurality is often associated with conservative values and traditional expressions of masculinity, so the language may index a host of things that are at odds with non-normative sexuality. Perhaps for that reason alone, LGBT speakers of Frisian may simply shy away from the language and use Dutch instead.

In this project (with Lysbeth Jongbloed-Faber and Martine Jansen) we want to construct a corpus of free conversational speech of LGBT and non-LGBT Frisian-speaking youth, as well as some more controlled production tasks. This way we can not only investigate the sociophonetic variation, but also potential effects of topic and stance.

World English(es) and their effects

The majority of my teaching is on the BA English Language & Culture, and as I try to incorporate research into my teaching, part of my research is starting to focus on English, in particular contact-related issues to with the global spread of English. A few brief examples are below.

English as a Lingua Franca and dying languages

Most of the discourse around the international use of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is rather alarmist: the spread of English is killing all manner of small languages in a potentially intentional linguicide. But what is interesting is that the many non-native speakers of English show particular features in their English that we also see in the speech of some of the last speakers of dying languages. I’m interested in why this may be — the amount of exposure to ‘good’ language during acquisition is limited in both cases, and there is no correction or standard language ideology. 

English influence on Dutch

The widespread use of English in the Netherlands has given rise to a large body of research on English in the Netherlands, Dutch English, or Dunglish. But it also has the effect that Dutch is influenced by English, not only through loanwords, but more interestingly through loan constructions. Observations of these phenomena are often subject to the ‘recency illusion’, so it is interesting to investigate if English constructions really are on the rise in Dutch, and if their use is correlated with speakers’ use of English.

Second dialect performance in actors

Not a great fit under this header, but it’s teaching-related… I looked at the vowel productions of three Australian actors on an American television show and compared them to their production on an Australian show. How well can these speakers ‘perform’ in a second dialect, and what does that suggest about second dialect acquisition? It turns out that not everyone performs equally well, or equally convincingly, but whether the vowel productions are related to the actors’ acceptability as real Americans is still an open questions. Data for this study were at some point part of a course essay, with the prompt ‘Here is the data. Write the paper.’ It’s amazing how well students perform with just those seven words.

Language on the rocks

I’m originally a Scandinavianist, and I try to maintain that research line where it links to my main focus on variation, change, and contact. The languages that I work on most are Faroese and (extinct) Shetland Norn, which show a lot of variation and contact.

Faroese

I've long been interested in Faroese. It's a small language related to Icelandic and Norwegian that most people have never heard of, but that is really interesting from a sociolinguistic perspective. Only 50,000 people live in the Faroe Islands, which means that many people know each other and have very dense social networks. Despite that, there is quite a lot of dialectal diversity in the language, and there's not really a sense of a standard pronunciation like RP for English. In the past twenty years, though, lots of people have been moving from the countryside to the capital, Tórshavn, and we would generally expect dialects to become more similar in such a situation. A final ingredient in the Faroese linguistic landscape is that the country administratively belongs to Denmark, and all speakers of Faroese are also fluent in Danish. It's also interesting to look at how this contact with Danish changes Faroese.

Some of the research I've done on Faroese in the past few years is looking at these kinds of issues. I've looked at whether dialects of Faroese are becoming more similar by comparing the speech of older and younger people in different regions — the answer here is basically no. And I've looked at the influence of Danish by looking at how people use the generic pronoun mann, which is a borrowing from Danish. In this case, how people use the word is quite different from what the Danes do, suggesting that the Faroese don't blindly model their language after Danish. These results are interesting because it's generally thought that dialects are dying, and that Danish has this massive influence on the language.

Through this research, I've also become more interested in issues of style. Some researchers have said that a standard pronunciation of Faroese is developing, but I haven't been able to find it in my data. It's possible that this is due to how people look at style in sociolinguistic research; that way might not actually be very appropriate for small language communities like Faroese.

Shetland Norn

A language that was closely related to Faroese is Shetland Norn. It was spoken in the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland, until the mid-18th century when its last speakers died. We don't know an awful lot about the language, but we do have a dictionary of Shetland dialect words that originally came from Shetland Norn. The data for that dictionary was collected in the 1890s, and it gives very detailed phonetic transcriptions so we have information on how these words were pronounced. Of course, actual speakers of Shetland Norn were dead by the 1890s, but is it possible to reconstruct the original pronunciation system based on the data from the dictionary?

So far I've looked at two particular features of Shetland Norn pronunciation, one to do with consonants and one to do with vowels. It's basically a puzzle where the dictionary data gives us many pieces already, but we have to fill in the gaps with what we know of the history of Scandinavian languages and how languages can change when they are in contact with (in this case) English.

Past projects

Fun with strong verbs 

Together with Odile Strik (now in Antwerp), we looked at how people put verbs in the past tense. In Germanic languages, some verbs get an ending to do this (-de or -te in Dutch, so-called “weak verbs”) but other verbs change the vowel (so-called “strong verbs”). When languages change, strong verbs usually become weak, although the opposite does happen.

We've looked at what people do when they are asked to put non-existing verbs in the past tense. Of course, most verbs get a -de or -te ending, but there were quite a few verbs where people changed the vowel. Even more interestingly, they didn't do this randomly: the vowel they used to mark the past tense was o. This vowel appears in so many strong verbs that it's become associated with the past tense. You can also see this when people make strong past tenses of weak verbs for fun: it's always o that gets put in.

We also did the same experiment with speakers of Frisian. Because Frisian is in contact with Dutch, it was interesting to see whether they would also use the o vowel to make past tenses, especially because Frisian doesn't generally do this with existing words. Frisian speakers turn out not to use o, but to our surprise they used specifically Frisian past tense patterns that are not possible in Dutch. Again we see here that language contact doesn't need to mean that the languages become more similar.

How (not) to kill languages

For my MSc and PhD research, I looked at the fate of minority languages in the Early Modern period, roughly between the Reformation and the French Revolution. We now think of language as very important to national identity, and of minority languages as deviant, but that is really an idea from the 19th century. How did people think about minority languages when language was already important (because after the Reformation, church services were no longer in Latin but in the vernacular) but not yet a symbol of national identity?

     Interestingly, what governments thought about minority languages appears to have had little importance for whether the language survived or not. Sure, if a language is supported that generally better for its chances of survival than if it's actively being forbidden. (This is especially clear for Sorbian, a minority language in Germany where all the different states that made up Germany treated the language differently.) But in the grand scheme of things, government policy was less important than simple population dynamics: if lots of majority-language speakers move to the minority-language area, it's more likely for the minority language not to survive. If there was less migration, the language survived much more easily. This is also clear when you look at the dialects of the majority language now spoken in minority-language areas: they have lots of features in common with dialects from exactly those areas from where people migrated.

Last modified:23 August 2019 1.46 p.m.

Contact information

Oude Kijk in 't Jatstraat 26
9712 EK Groningen
The Netherlands

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1315.0237
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