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Expert of the Month July/August 2014: Nanna Haug Hilton

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Dr. Nanna Haug Hilton works as assistant–professor at the Faculty of Arts, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in Groningen, the Netherlands.

Nanna's research interests include social and regional variation in Scandinavian languages, English, Frisian and Dutch. Her current projects include investigations of mutual intelligibility between speakers of closely related languages, overt and covert language attitudes as well as variation in phonology and morpho-syntax.

She teaches courses concerned with sociolinguistics, applied linguistics or variationist linguistics within the Faculty of Arts.

Face to face with Nanna Haug Hilton

What is your background in the field of regional and minority languages/education/multilingualism?

I trained as a variationist sociolinguist (my Phd is in Linguistics from the University of York) and have predominantly worked on language change, and loss of localised linguistic variants in the past. Growing up I was fascinated by people's ability to style shift in language and always wanted to know which social factors determine whether someone starts speaking with a standard-like variety, for instance, instead of their local dialect. Another line of work that I have been involved with is concerned with language attitudes towards minority languages, where I have done research in South Africa as well as the Netherlands. More recently I have been involved with work on receptive multilingualism and the linguistic factors that determine intelligibility between speakers of different, yet closely related, languages.

In my current job as assistant professor of sociolinguistics in the Department of Frisian Language and Culture at the University of Groningen I try to make the most of the variationist background in my work on European minority languages. These days I am perhaps particularly interested in what happens on a linguistic level when majority and minority language speakers are in long-term contact with one another. The multilingual situation in the province of Friesland is one that fascinates me tremendously and I have recently been able to start some projects concerning changes in phonology and phonetics of West Frisian.

What do you think is the major challenge in your field of work?

A challenge working with changes in dialects and minority languages is linguistic insecurity and the standard language ideology that a lot of people hold. Many minority language speakers claim their speech is not ‘authentic’ enough to be recorded and documented, and often mention that their grandparents were better speakers of the minority language than they themselves are. It can be hard convincing such people that their speech is interesting to a linguist regardless! Related to the previous phenomenon is standard language ideology, my pet peeve. Many speakers of European regional or minority languages have grown up in nation states with language policies that (sometimes implicitly) aim to homogenise the linguistic situation in a country. The belief that one variety of one language is a better variety than any other spoken within a country is so ingrained in us by our education systems and media that linguicism and discrimination on the basis of accent is widespread. This holds true also in communities who do not speak minority or regional languages, and leads to the massive loss of localised linguistic variants throughout Europe. I see it as one of my goals as a linguist to teach people to treasure the diversity, as to me, the really interesting parts of a language can be found in its variation.

What is one of the hottest new projects / items you are working on?

I just received a grant to hire a PhD student to work on prosody in the speech of Frisian-Dutch multilinguals. The grant is co-supervised by my colleague Matt Coler who works at INCAS3, a sensor technology company in Assen (the Netherlands). The student will work towards writing a report about how feasible it is to use prosodic traits in language to develop sensor technology that can recognise social or socio-psychological traits from speech.

Another venture I am very happy to be part of is the science-meets-culture projects planned for the celebrations of Leeuwarden as a cultural capital in 2018. In the project Language Lab my colleague Goffe Jensma and I are hoping to build linguistic security among speakers of Frisian and create knowledge, technology and awareness related to the Frisian language. The project is yet to start, but we are always looking for more international partners to participate in the project (do get in touch with Goffe Jensma if you would like to know more).

Are there any important references such as articles, links, etc. you would like to mention?

- Our “Language Lab” project can be found in the Leeuwarden European Capital of Culture 2018 bid.

- My PhD thesis on standard language ideology and the loss of local dialect features: Hilton, Nanna Haug (2010) Regional Dialect Levelling and Language Standards: Changes in the Hønefoss Dialect. PhD thesis, University of York, 2010.


      This is a sociolinguistic investigation of regional dialect levelling and the role that standardised language plays for this particular type of dialect change. This study combines a quantitative variationist investigation of linguistic variation and change in East Norwegian cities Hønefoss and Oslo with experimental and qualitative studies of attitudinal data in Hønefoss. The aim of the study is to shed light on the role that standard language ideologies play for loss of localised dialects. Varieties of East Norwegian spoken in the small city Hønefoss and the capital city Oslo are becoming increasingly alike. Oslo speech is an influential factor in the loss in Hønefoss of local linguistic variants in variables 3pl personal pronouns and <rd>. The force behind the regional dialect levelling is not the Oslo dialect only, however. Overt and covert attitudinal data show that the influence is twofold and that the codified written variety of Norwegian, Bokmål, largely influences speakers’ usage of local variants for linguistic variables stress in loanwords and plural definite article suffixes. The investigation considers linguistic ideals that speakers link to codification of language (correctness), education or the capital city and attest that language that can be linked to all these ideals is becoming more widely used in the East Norway region. Speech that can be linked to the codified variety Bokmål is an overt as well as a covert ideal to speakers in Hønefoss. Covert positive attitudes towards speech from Oslo are also found. This study shows that the social and political context of language must be taken into account in the study of loss of linguistic features. The social meaning of language is crucial in informing us about the social mechanisms behind dialect change.


- My latest article about receptive multilingualism and the role that morpho-syntax and phonology plays for understanding a closely related linguistic variety: The influence of non-native morphosyntax on the intelligibility of a closely related language / Nanna Haug Hilton, Anja Schüppert and Charlotte Gooskens. Lingua 137, December 2013, p. 1-18.

- A recent book chapter of mine about language attitudes towards Frisian in the Netherlands (co-authored with Charlotte Gooskens): Ch. Gooskens and N.H.Hilton, Language policies and attitudes towards Frisian in the Netherlands.

Do you have any questions on these topics?

Ask Nanna