Voice, stance and expertise on the BBC Voices website

Sally Johnson, Clive Upton, Tommaso M. Milani

University of Leeds, UK


Voice, stance and expertise on the BBC Voices website

In 2003 the editor of BBC Wales New Media Department put forward a proposal for a project on language in the UK that aimed to build on previous successes such as Robert McCrum’s The Story of English and Melvyn Bragg’s The Routes of English. The upshot of this proposal – subsequently known as the Voices project - can undoubtedly be described as a major success for the BBC in 2005. Working in close consultation with one of the paper’s authors, the project began with a survey of English around the UK led by a team of BBC broadcast journalists, the results of which then provided the basis for a range of media outputs, including a number of TV and radio broadcasts in mid 2005. The project has also mounted, and maintained, an interactive website (www.bbc.co.uk/voices), which offers access to i) samples of more than 300 professional recordings of different varieties of English; ii) some 50,000 public responses to a range of language-related themes; and iii) an archive of language-related news items broadcast by the BBC in 2005/6.

The aim of this paper is to provide a detailed analysis of the homepage of the BBC Voices project by drawing on recent insights into the structure and function of interactional websites more generally (see e.g. Boardman, 2005). At the same time, we will show how the analysis of such web discourse provides new challenges for the ongoing theorisation of ‘voice’ (Blommaert, 2005), ‘stance’ (Shenk, 2007) and ‘expertise’ (Johnson, 2001; Milani, in press) – theoretical constructs that are typically explored in relation to verbal and/or written discourse. In doing so, we will also be addressing the main themes of the conference, namely social structure at the macro level, with a focus on the BBC as what Silverstein (1998: 404) refers to as a ‘centring institution’. At the same time, we will be looking at the ways in which the (authoritative) voice of that institution is relayed at the micro level, that is, in the multi-media context constituted by theVoices homepage. It is here, of course, that the voice of the BBC is situated alongside a range of other voices, namely those of other participants - both represented and actual - all of whom have something to say about the function and/or nature of language.

Blommaert, Jan (2005) Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: CUP.

Boardman, Mark (2005) The Language of Websites. London: Routledge.

Johnson, Sally (2001) Who’s misunderstanding whom? (Socio)linguistics, public debate and the media. Journal of Sociolinguistics 5 (4): 591-610.

Milani, Tommaso M. (in press) Voices of authority in conflict: The making of the expert in a language debate in Sweden. Linguistics and Education.

Shenk, Petra (2007) ‘I’m a Mexican remember?’ Constructing ethnic identities via authenticating discourse. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 11 (2): 194-220.

Silverstein, Michael (1998) Contemporary transformations of local linguistic communities. Annual Review of Anthropology, 27: 401-26.

Session: Paper session
Digital language 1
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 04