9 October 2017

Research on the connection between language and urban spaces

Sociolinguist seeks urban geographer

Sociolinguist Jacomine Nortier was looking for an urban geographer. She started with the letter ‘A’, and found Irina van Aalst. The two researchers joined forces and explored how their disciplines could complement each other. “There has been a lot of focus on language in the city. However, little is known about the relationship between language and urban spaces.”

Groep jongeren met skyline van de stad

When Jacomine Nortier attended a lecture by an urban geographer, she immediately felt drawn to collaborating with someone from that field. “They study fascinating things. How cities work,  how groups of people interact with each other. And how the design of our urban environment affects that interaction, or is caused by it. Language is a part of that, but the funny thing was: that connection had not yet been made. Our scientific disciplines are related, but have made acquaintance far too little.”

The language of the city

“Linguists often talk about urban stuff,” Nortier knows. “Multilingualism in the city for example is very trendy. Only up till now the urban aspect has simply been the background against which the research was conducted, while a full knowledge of the facts was missing.” Conversely, Irina van Aalst once studied the use of public squares by groups of youngsters. The different subgroups mark their boundaries with clothes and music. Nortier: “That language also plays a part in that, they had never taken into consideration.”

Het onderzoeksteam
The research team. Photo: Ed van Rijswijk

The need for collaboration thus turned out to be strong on both sides. But how do you set up something like that? Nortier: “I didn’t know anyone, so I just took Utrecht University’s list of urban geographers. Van Aalst was the first ‘A’ on the list. Truly, that’s how it happened! We had a connection right away. It made us feel free to ask one another questions: I don’t understand what you mean, what is the difference between ‘space’ and ‘place’? Or the other way around: what is language acquisition, exactly? We have learned so much from each other.”

Together Van Aalst and Nortier observed how physical space determines young people’s behaviour and use of language. “Some things that are very obvious to Irina, I had never thought about. For example, the difference between different types of spaces.” Young people told us: ‘The way I talk to my friends when we’re in the park, that’s not the way we talk when we’re strolling along the Oudegracht [a shopping street in central Utrecht].’ Or: ‘When you see someone you know in a neighbourhood such as Overvecht, you call them from across the street. In a different area, like Tuindorp you would walk towards each other first.’ Looking at the use of language in spaces that way is new to me. It’s about things you already know, but from a different perspective.”

Jongeren in het Wilhelminapark
The Wilhelminapark. Photo: Arnaud Mooij

Chattering in spaces

The research team focused on the Wilhelminapark in Utrecht. There they observed and talked to young people from different subcultures. That confirmed their idea that space and language are inextricably linked to identity. Nortier: “Teens are actually forced to go outside. They live in their parents’ house and school is a space in which you cannot do the things you feel like doing. There is a reason so many youngsters are loitering, they are looking for their own space that they can arrange the way they want to.”

Irina van Aalst discovered that language use can indicate how youngsters divide themselves into groups, and how group dynamics are manifested. In their own space young people can speak their own language unabatedly. Nortier: ‘For example, we ran into a group who tried to sound Japanese, so they added san or sempai to every name. They strengthen the ties of their group by speaking in a certain way.”

Every group has their own way of doing that. “A group of friends from Twente [in the east of the Netherlands] who studied in Utrecht, sometimes used their own accent, which they did not normally use. This way they could emphasize their identity. That mechanism is very common. The stronger such group processes are, the bigger and clearer the boundaries with the outside world become.”

Strengths and Power of Youth

A story for the average Joe

Nortier would like to continue researching and collaborating on this subject, but above all she wants to make the story accessible to as many people as possible: “You have to reach the average Joes and plain Janes. Political and interethnical tensions often stem from fear. The fact that people cannot understand each other contributes to that. ‘Street language’ for example has a bad reputation, but it’s actually the pinnacle of creativity. You have to be very skilled to manipulate the way you speak to perfectly suit where you are.”

Dynamics of Youth

As one of Utrecht University's four strategic themesDynamics of Youth combines excellent child research from all seven faculties.Within Dynamics of Youth, researchers from different disciplines integrate their expertise to answer crucial questions for future generations. How can we help our children develop into balanced individuals, that are able to function successfully in a rapidly changing environment?