It is interesting how an informal chat over coffee can really get you thinking. I’ve just been discussing shared research concerns with a visiting colleague from Australia, who has been developing some innovative approaches to recording and analysing life histories. Somehow we turned to the question of language, and how people’s spoken words are changed through the processes of transcription and publication.
During a recent large scale life history study, I was struck by the number of participants who responded to their transcripts with horror. What they said was that they didn’t ‘realise I spoke like that’. What did they mean? The most common answer was that they sounded ‘uneducated’, and this was because the transcriber had done her best to reproduce their words as spoken, dialect and all. We offered all participants the right to correct the transcript, but they didn’t use it. Clearly, though, some were responding to the written record with shame – and this was something we hadn’t anticipated.
The decision to include hesitations, slang, swearwords and dialect also crops up when you try to publish your results. I have yet to get a paper accepted that includes the words and sentences that the research participants actually used. Invariably, referees insist that direct quotations are turned into what we usually think of as standard English. Some referees get quite indignant about the use of dialect (‘How can I be expected to understand this stuff?’ was one comment), while others gently remind you of the journal’s international readership. So the quotations are duly turned into standard English.
This is a difficult area, and there isn’t a simple solution. But I think we are committing a kind of ‘symbolic violence’ against people who give us their time and their narratives, but do not speak a socially approved version of our language. And we are also losing sight of an important body of evidence, because language never is truly neutral.
The way people express themselves is bound up with their identity and it provides a series of cues about them. And this is true for all sorts of people, including the advantaged. One woman, who ran camps for the wives of unemployed miners in County Durham during the 1930s, provides a good case in point. She came from a highly privileged background, and she spoke in a very precise, grammatical and clipped manner. By standardising all the direct testimony of my participants, I was suppressing the particularities of her speech, along with important cues about her social status and her sense of who she is.
In summary, we are imposing an invisible standard – or rather, an unheard standard – as the norm. The non-normative are not just stigmatised but written out of sight, and out of hearing as well.