question meetings

Back in the mists of time I posted something here about the traditional Scottish “communion season” and mentioned the Question Meeting, which (currently at least) is part of the Friday theme of self-examination ahead of participating in the Lord’s Supper.

Different people have different stories about how question meetings started and why. There is also some debate about how useful they are and whether it’s worth keeping them going even among the congregations which still hold them. (There are of course real pressures which combine to make the survival of question meetings seem doubtful – being unable to take time off from work for a Friday morning service, developing the skill to speak helpfully in accordance with relatively complex unwritten conventions, not to mention in general being spiritually-minded enough in the first place.)

Anyway, a couple of recent posts by Iain D Campbell are worth highlighting on the topic – one post on the meeting itself (19th century and contemporary practices plus some reflection), and one which quotes the views of Donald Munro of Ferintosh on how these meetings originated:

There are also various suggestions in addition to Munro’s about how the question meeting originated – Douglas Somerset reviews several in an article in the FP magazine a couple of years ago (‘The Origin of Fellowship Meetings,’ available here in pdf, starting on p333).

Questions meetings can be really useful and beneficial, when the speakers manage to demonstrate the distinction between what is experienced in genuine conversion and sanctification and what is artificial or spurious in religious experience. I can’t say that’s happened in every question meeting I’ve ever been at, but when it does, it’s extremely valuable to hear how the universal general features of effectual calling, regeneration, and Christian living, are worked out in concrete terms in the personal experience of other individuals. (If I could think of any of the many staple question meeting anecdotes right now I’d add them in – but maybe that will do for another post sometime.)

In the best-case scenario, nothing about a question meeting would differ from what Christian friends would discuss with each other anyway – how scripture and experience match, and what growth in grace really looks and feels like. Perhaps we don’t really need the (arguably Scottish-specific) formalisation of this natural part of Christian life to supplement it. Yet somehow you can’t help thinking that we could view the dwindling commitment to this public and formalised aspect of self-examination with slightly more unconcern if there wasn’t the sneaking worry that it might just be a more overt expression of our dwindling efforts in the church at large in the direction of striving for sincerity in godliness (and Christian fellowship specifically on Christian experience). Perhaps.

spectrographic artwork

Can I tell you about something I came across on a university website recently – an intriguing combination of speech science and civil liberties, in the Tony Benn sonograms, created by an artist called Tracey Moberley.

Being clueless about copyright I don’t want to copy the images to publish here, so you’ll just have to follow the link:

But please do click on it – it’s a stunning image of a spectrogram as phoneticians don’t normally see it. More typically those vivid blues and yellows are simply shades of grey, and the tiny black squiggles at the bottom look like they might be a little confirmatory waveform – with the words at the bottom provided in ordinary writing, unaligned with the acoustic data.

I think most LabPhonistas would like it.

uptalk description & references

‘Uptalk’ is one of the names given to the phenomenon which has recently appeared in English where people use rising intonation at the end of sentences – a pitch pattern that is more usually associated with questions. Some people associate it with American English, others with Australian English – and theories abound as to why it’s emerged at all.

It’s not something I know a huge amount about, but a quick trawl around Google Scholar brings it up in a couple of articles by Paul Foulkes and Gerry Docherty, phoneticians with a sociolinguistic bent at York and Newcastle respectively. I’ll just quote the relevant passages here for information and list the references at the end so that they can be followed up if anyone is sufficiently interested to do so.

One article is titled ‘Phonological variation in the English of England,’ available here in pdf.

“One of the most noticeable innovations in recent years has been the development of rising intonation in the Closed tone category in dialects which traditionally use falls. This has been found in the USA, Australia and New Zealand as well as Great Britain, and has been variously labelled high rising tone (HRT), Australian Question(ing) Intonation (AQI) and uptalk (see Cruttenden 1995, 1997: 129-131, Fletcher, Grabe & Warren in press). The pattern is associated with the upwardly mobile (‘yuppies’) in England (Cruttenden 1997: 130), but lower class and/or female speech elsewhere.

“Because of its perceptual salience, HRT has been the subject of much comment by non-linguists, including the mass media. Some of these comments are highly speculative and empirically untested, for example, that Australian soap operas are responsible for the spread of HRT (Bathurst 1996, Lawson 1998). Others, taking up the mantle of John Walker and others in lamenting change of any kind, identify HRT as a sign of unstoppable decay in modern English (e.g. Bradbury 1996, Norman 2001). Still others draw a logical but naïve conclusion, based on comparison with standard English, that rises indicate questions, and thus the use of rises in declaratives reflects a psychological state of uncertainty. The voice coach Patsy Rodenburg, for example, is quoted by Kennedy (1996) as claiming ‘that rising inflection is about being unsure…you make a question rather than a statement because you are scared’. Such statements are ill-founded in that they equate a particular intonation pattern with a single linguistic function. They thereby fail to take account of issues raised earlier: the form-function problem; the fact that intonational meaning is derived from a complex set of sources; and that social and linguistic evaluation of features may vary from speaker to speaker. It is obvious from examination of intonation patterns in dialects such as Newcastle and Liverpool that rises may be employed in the Closed category without any indication of interrogative meaning or uncertainty. Furthermore, linguists who have analysed HRT have identified its positive discourse functions. It has been shown that HRT serves to track the listener’s comprehension and attention, especially when the speaker is presenting new information. Listeners perceive HRT to be deferential but friendly (Guy & Vonwiller 1984). It also acts as a turn-holding mechanism in narratives (e.g. Warren & Britain 1999).”

The other article is Foulkes and Docherty’s 2006 paper in the Journal of Phonetics (a pre-publication version is available here in pdf); the section I’m quoting is useful mainly for the references to descriptive work in other varieties of English:

“Rising contours in declaratives have begun to emerge recently in English dialects where they are not traditional features, a phenomenon variously referred to as ‘uptalk’ or ‘high rising terminal’ (see Cruttenden, 1995, 1997). This innovation has been observed in the USA (Arvaniti & Garding, 2005), Australia (Guy, Horvath, Vonwiller, Disley, & Rogers, 1986), New Zealand (Britain, 1992; Warren & Britain, 2000), and England (Cruttenden, 1997). In most locations, it is characteristic mainly of young speakers. In the USA, Australia, and New Zealand it is also most common in lower class and/or female speech, but by contrast it seems to be associated with the upwardly mobile in England.”

Selected references in full:

  • Arvaniti, A., & Garding, G. (2005). Dialectal variation in the rising accents of American English. In C. T. Best, L. Goldstein, & D. H. Whalen (Eds.), Laboratory phonology 8. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Britain, D. (1992). Linguistic change in intonation: The use of high rising terminals in New Zealand English. Language Variation and Change, 4, 77–103.
  • Cruttenden, A. (1995). Rises in English. In J. Windsor Lewis (Ed.), Studies in general and English phonetics: Essays in honour of Professor J. D. O’Connor (pp. 155–173). London: Routledge.
  • Cruttenden, A. (1997). Intonation (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Guy, G., Horvath, B., Vonwiller, J., Disley, E., & Rogers, I. (1986). An intonational change in progress in Australian English. Language in Society, 7, 23–51.
  • Warren, P., & Britain, D. (2000). Intonation and prosody in New Zealand English. In A. Bell, & K. Kuiper (Eds.), New Zealand English (pp. 146–172). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

The 2006 paper in the Journal of Phonetics is useful for a variety of reasons and worth reading if phonetics/phonology interest you at all. The full citation is:
Paul Foulkes & Gerard Docherty (2006), ‘The social life of phonetics and phonology.’ Journal of Phonetics 34: 409-438

no Plan B?

Reinforcing the consistent pattern that whenever voters in any of Europe’s member states are directly consulted about the plans embodied in the Lisbon Treaty they always reject them, the Irish have now impressively voted No.

One theory for why they did so is of course this from the BBC:

“Our correspondent says that many voters seem to have voted No for the simple reason that they did not understand the treaty, despite a high-profile Yes campaign.”

The alternative explanation is that they did understand, and still didn’t want it. But as far as the designers of the constitutional treaty are concerned, people who participate in the democratic process are guaranteed to fail to “understand” the treaty for as long as they oppose the treaty.

In spite of scare talk by Barroso and others, as David Milliband was quick to demonstrate, there certainly is a Plan B – it’s called pressing ahead anyway. The “due respect” with which the democratic decision of the Irish people is being treated by the French and German heads of state thus consists of total disregard. What part of No do they not understand?

As I’ve said before.

davis against the monstrosities

David Davis is obviously not the only MP who cares about civil liberties – Tony Benn, William Hague, Nick Clegg, et al do a fine job – but he’s demonstrated his commitment in the most unthinkable of ways. His very impressive resignation speech is available here in full:

“… in truth, 42 days is just one – perhaps the most salient example – of the insidious, surreptitious and relentless erosion of fundamental British freedoms.

And we will have shortly, the most intrusive identity card system in the world.

A CCTV camera for every 14 citiziens, a DNA database bigger than any dictatorship has, with 1000s of innocent children and a million innocent citizens on it.

We have witnessed an assault on jury trials – that balwark against bad law and its arbitrary use by the state. Short cuts with our justice system that make our system neither firm not fair.

And the creation of a database state opening up our private lives to the prying eyes of official snoopers and exposing our personal data to careless civil servants and criminal hackers.

The state has security powers to clamp down on peaceful protest and so-called hate laws that stifle legitimate debate – while those who incite violence get off Scot free.

This cannot go on, it must be stopped. And for that reason, I feel that today it’s incumbent on me to take a stand.

I will be resigning my membership of the House …”

MPs don’t resign for anything any more, not even when they’ve been exposed as wittingly and wilfully involved in the most sordid of circumstances – for an MP to resign on a matter of principle is sensational, especially when it virtually guarantees that his career will not now reach anything like the heights it might have otherwise done. But does that even matter? Some twit of a reporter on the news this evening said Davis had now resigned his place in the history books in order to make this stand – obviously, making a stand on fundamental civil liberties doesn’t really count as history-book material for some people.*

This time, it seems that party politics might just not have had anything very important to do with this decision – but even if it’s naive to think so, perhaps attention could just focus on the principles for a little while. We need to be alert and engaged in order to hold on to our liberties – maybe Davis’s action will help wake people up a bit about these issues and at the least slow down if it doesn’t reverse the damage of the last decade or so.

* And plus, isn’t that just such an idiotic Blairite phrase?

28 days was more than enough

The Commons has voted in favour of extending the time limit that a person can be detained without charge from 28 to 42 days.

It was shocking when they extended it up from 14 to 28 days, and that was only a couple of years ago – as was the increase from 7 to 14 – and bearing in mind that for any suspected offence other than ‘terrorism’ the maximum period that a person can be held and questioned by police without being charged with an offence is 3 days.

Evidence that increasing it up to 42 days was necessary simply was not forthcoming. MI5 said they didn’t want it, the Director of Public Prosecutions said he saw no need for it, the Scottish Lord Advocate spoke out against it, there was huge unhappiness even among Labour MPs, the last-minute compensation package which the government was offering was itself an implicit admission that the safeguards were insufficient, and yet there is such a crumbling of backbone among members of the Westminster parliament that after all there was a majority in favour of 42 days.

The frenetic activity of the Labour whips – inducements here, pressures there, a confused concession or two – has seemingly paid off – but although it speaks volumes about the government’s commitment to principle that they resorted to this kind of bargaining on an issue of such fundamental civil liberties, it is also a very depressing indictment of the kinds of people who represent us parliament, that they are prepared not to think so much in terms of principles and freedoms, as in terms of their own or their party’s short-term interests – when these fundamental liberties are at stake. We can still hope that the Lords will resist the 42-day extension, but it’s more that slightly alarming that the Commons and the Lords continue to be at odds on such fundamental liberties.

Noam Chomsky quotes Winston Churchill (see pdf here):

“It is most disturbing, indeed shocking, to learn of the plans to extend detention without charge to a level that should be completely intolerable in any free society, and will surely be welcomed as a model by brutal and repressive governments everywhere. I see no way to improve on the words of Winston Churchill, at a time when the very survival of Britain was under severe threat: ‘The power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious, and the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist.”