This was “Regional varieties, language shift and linguistic identities”

On 12-14 September, over fifty delegates from across the world came together at this international conference at Aston University to discuss the situation of smaller regional languages and varieties in the age of globalization. Globalization – the flow of people, products and ideas across the world – is not a new phenomenon. Mass migration, the development of air travel and electronic communication devices, however, have caused it to increase in speed and impact on the individuals’ lives. In the context of regional varieties we look at an accelerating increase in dialect levelling and language shift. In the light of this, sociolinguists have started to see the need to revisit many well established concepts of theory and analysis: Is there such a thing as a language, such as “English” or “Welsh”? Is a “native speaker” an ideological construction? Can we still apply the concept of a clearly defined “speech community” in a globalized world? Is “superdiversity” a more appropriate term to describe the present linguistic situation than “multilingualism”? The most urgent question for speakers of smaller languages is whether there is still a role to play for lesser used varieties under these changed circumstances.

Regional varieties, so the conference showed, have become an important contributor to identity construction processes, an increasingly important issue for the individual and the community in late Modernity: the individual is under constant and increasing pressure to define who s/he is and has to choose from an ever growing pool of possibilities to construct social identity in an increasingly globalized world, which is perceived as overwhelming and complex. By referring to what is seen as traditional regional language, dialect and culture, localizing oneself seems to be a viable way out of this dilemma. This should have stabilizing effects on lesser used varieties, which have been facing a gradual process of language shift and divergence towards dominant contact languages over the last hundred years. Unfortunately, at the same time, modern life does not so much require knowledge of regional varieties as of standard languages and a good command of English as the global lingua franca. How can an upwardly mobile individual combine the requirements of modern life with identity construction on a regional scale if they so choose? What are the linguistic consequences for lesser used varieties and their respective contact languages?

The discussions were led by three keynote lectures:

Professor Yaron Matras (University of Manchester) The afterlife of a language: The journey of English Romani from community language to a discourse register.

Professor Joan Beal (University of Sheffield) Dialect Inc: the commodification of languages in the ‘new economy’.

Professor Barbara Johnstone (Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh) The History of Yinz: from areal distribution to regional identity.

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