Manchester Voices: A community-oriented project on language use, language attitudes, and regional and social identities

Lead Research Organisation: Manchester Metropolitan University
Department Name: Information, Communications & Languages

Abstract

Greater Manchester (GM), far from being a historically unified whole, is made up of ten boroughs, each with its own unique character. The Manchester Voices project investigates the ways in which people in the city-region position themselves locally, regionally and nationally, and the role of language in enacting social and regional identities.

The project is structurally organised around three core strands: language use, language attitudes, and regional and social identities. It addresses a number of issues relating to the academic and non-academic treatment of regional and social varieties of language in the UK, and the role of such language varieties in the construction of identity:

1. Lack of detailed linguistic descriptions of regional variation across GM.

Previous research has tended to view 'Manchester English' as a monolithic entity or has focused on specific areas within GM, thus not acknowledging the wide linguistic variation that exists. This project provides a rich and full description of language use across the region's ten boroughs, thus ensuring an accurate contemporary record of developing and changing regional varieties of language.

2. Societal and institutional disregard for regional accents and dialects.

'Regional' language varieties are often perceived in a negative way, with speakers being stigmatised. This project explores and challenges those perceptions by promoting and celebrating the linguistic and cultural heritage of GM, thereby advancing our understanding of the social, cultural, and historical factors that continue to shape the language, places, and people of the region.

3. Lack of attention to attitudes as factors mediating the relationship between language and identity.

By exploring people's feelings towards their own speech and towards that of others, the project seeks to uncover deeply embedded and widely held beliefs regarding the status and value of regional accents and dialects. This attitudinal data will serve to challenge perceptions of regional accents and dialects and to promote linguistic equality and diversity as a means of nurturing a sense of social and regional pride.

4. Lack of sociolinguistic insight into existing cultural, historical, and literary resources relating to regional identity.

GM, like many regions across the UK, has a wealth of resources relating to past and present society, much of which is collected by Manchester Libraries. However, the extent to which this material has been explored from a sociolinguistic perspective is minimal, despite language being at the heart of the available resources. By partnering with librarians, poets, literary specialists and cultural historians, the project will reach a fuller understanding of the linguistic context, contributing to a fuller understanding of the historical and literary landscape of GM.

5. Lack of community access and engagement in sociolinguistic research.

Sociolinguistic data tends to be collected during pre-arranged meetings in neutral locations and formal contexts. To counter this, we will take our research into the community in the form of a mobile interview booth, allowing us to access groups who might otherwise be unaware of, or unwilling to be involved in, the project. In addition to majority populations, we will seek the voices of specific groups, such as young people and GM's multilingual/multicultural communities.

The primary spoken data will be collected in the Accent Van, which will travel the ten boroughs of GM gathering speech and insights from people across the region. In addition, creative poetry and history workshops will gather further data and explore themes around regional identities. Dialect maps will be collected online, and attitude tests will take place online and at the University. Finally, existing audio recordings being digitised as part of the Save Our Sounds project will be housed with our data in a Voices resource area at Manchester Central Library.

Planned Impact

Manchester Voices will directly, and most greatly, benefit the people and communities of Greater Manchester. It will encourage them to celebrate social and regional diversity and identities, and truly give them a voice on the national and international stage.

Creative poetry workshops, participatory action research, and oral history methodologies will be used to empower all communities, but especially marginalised and minority groups. Perspectives will be changed, stereotypes challenged, and identities strengthened in the process of engaging members of the public in meaningful reflection with the help and support of expert practitioners. Outreach workshops in schools, youth groups, and heritage centres will also provide an opportunity for the researchers to share their knowledge and experiences of issues surrounding language and identity, which will support curriculum requirements and initiatives within secondary education.

In addition to the above, we will engage with non-academic audiences in various ways. These will include a travelling exhibition, which will take place in community settings in each of Greater Manchester's ten boroughs. The content and the accompanying performances will be tailored to each of the boroughs, ensuring that each region is fully represented and that its unique character is celebrated. Visitors will be invited to contribute to the project.

Other initiatives include talks and lectures based at Manchester Metropolitan University and organised through the university's RAH! (Research in Arts and Humanities) public engagement programme. These will be complemented by a programme of local dialect poetry performances, using our network of contacts within and beyond the university. Participants will be invited to all of these events, enabling them to have an ongoing contribution to the dialogue surrounding Greater Manchester accents, dialects and identities.

The project's most permanent and long-lasting impact will be found at the very heart of Manchester, in Manchester Central Library. In collaboration with the Archives+ team at the library, we will install a 'Voices' resource area that will provide access to audio and video recordings of speakers from across the city-region, interactive dialect maps, creative outputs, and key data and findings from the project. Along with contemporary data, visitors will be able to access historical recordings of Greater Manchester voices, digitised as part of the British Library's Save Our Sounds project. The 'Voices' area will sit alongside the existing Archives+ resource areas of 'Places', 'Radical Manchester', 'Industry and Innovation', and 'Health and Living Conditions'.

The data held in the Archives+ area of the library will also be accessible via the project website. This will allow interested parties - such as members of the wider public with links to or a strong affinity with the city-region - access to this information resource both nationally and internationally. In this way, the project is expected to have lasting impact beyond the North West of England.

A selection of written and spoken data collected during the project, along with historical and contemporary dialect poetry from Greater Manchester, will be archived in the Manchester Poetry Library, which is due to open in 2020. This will create another space in which local accents, dialects, and identities can be appreciated and celebrated by the public and will ensure the long-term legacy of the project.

Publications

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