Damien Hall

Well into the swing of the chats now. Nothing like a 20-minute IM session to increase your typing speed afterwards!

Favourite Thing: Looking in places people have looked before, but finding something new by looking in a different way.



For most of my primary school, I was at St Gregory’s School in Ealing (London) (1981-85). For all of my secondary school (1985-92), I was at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Kensington.


I did a BA in French and Latin at Oxford from 1992 to 1996, then a Master’s in European Politics at the London School of Economics in 1996-7. Then I worked for a while, in lobbying in Westminster, but after a few years I couldn’t resist it and went back to University: I did a Master’s in Linguistics at Cambridge in 2002-3, then did my PhD, in Linguistics as well, at the University of Pennsylvania (in America) from 2003 to 2008. That’s as far as you can go, so I had to stop then. You did ask!

Work History:

From 2008 to 2011 I worked at the University of York, on a project called Accent and Identity on the Scottish-English Border (trying to find out why people speak so differently on the English and Scottish sides of the border even though their towns are only a few miles apart and they see each other all the time). Then I came to Kent, where I am now. My jobs from before that included postman (interesting), Buckingham Palace tourist guide (excellent), and cheese-factory worker (lasted 2 days!).


University of Kent

Current Job:

I’m a researcher on my own project, Towards A New Linguistic Atlas of France, which will try to find out what the boundaries of the different accents in the North of France are.

Me and my work

I interview people and analyse the sounds, and that helps us find stuff out about the people and the society they live in.

If you want a quick overview of the kinds of linguistic things I’m interested in, and you’re on Twitter, you can look at my profile there! @hall_damien – and also feel free to read on …

What I do is called sociolinguistics: it’s about what you can tell about a person when they speak (and sometimes what you can tell about the community they live in, as well). I got into it because I was really interested in why people talk the way they do – and I learned that it was a lot to do with the kind of society they lived in, and the social life they had. What I love about it is that everyone can relate to it, because everyone uses language in some way – sociolinguistics can be done on sign language and writing as well.  That means that a lot of what I do is finding out the scientific, numerical basis of things that we all instinctively know are true, but we didn’t know before why they were true or exactly what the numbers were.

More precisely, a lot of what I do is called sociophonetics: phonetics is the science of studying speech sounds – how they are made and what they sound like. This often means using a computer to see what the sound waves look like: when someone speaks with a Geordie accent, you can sometimes see on the screen that it’s different from a London accent, just because of the way it looks.  That part of it looks very like what you see sometimes on CSI. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that what they do on CSI with sounds is possible!  You can’t usually get a really bad recording and play it through some fancy machinery, then hear a voice coming out crystal-clear and go and arrest someone.   Sometimes you can, but it’s mostly much more complicated than that – but that doesn’t make good telly …

If you’re interested in knowing more about that, I’ve got a PowerPoint that I could send you – let me know.

If I’m not doing phonetics, I might be working on another part of my project: for example, looking at how the different sounds that people say (particularly the vowels) relate to each other – which defines their accent. It might surprise some people, but that bit’s a science too! There are often numbers that you have to compare, in order to have an objective way of saying how two systems are different. The ‘socio’ part of the work can also be a science, in the sense that geography, social science and history are social sciences with statistics and stuff.

The best bits of my work are when I have to actually go and get the data that I then come back into the office and analyse.  That means going out to people’s houses and putting a microphone on them and recording them.  You usually have to record some boring stuff, like a word-list, but my favourite part is when you’re just talking to them and they get so caught up in a story that they forget that they’re wearing a mike.  I’ve heard some really good stories, and made some good friends, like that.

A lot of people think that, to do linguistics, you have to speak lots of languages. You don’t, necessarily – some of the greatest linguists in the world only speak the language they were brought up with. It certainly doesn’t hurt if you speak more than one language – and of course it can be helpful – but what makes these people scientific linguists is just that they know things about how languages in general work, and you can do that without speaking lots of them.

The project I am working on at the moment is about different accents in French, but in the past I’ve also worked on more than one big project about different accents in English.

My Typical Day

I’m usually in the office, working at a computer – sometimes listening, sometimes just reading – but some days I get to go out and record people!

My favourite days are when I have an interview booked, and I go and talk to the person and they tell really good stories.  That happens sometimes!  Most often, I’m in my office, either working on analysing the interviews I have done, or doing some research which will help me understand what I’m finding out.

In the project I’m working on at the moment, I’m making something called a dialect atlas of the Northern part of France – that’s like a normal atlas but, instead of roads, cities, rivers and things, the things on the maps are the types of accent that people have, and the areas where the accents are different.  So, when my work is done, you’ll be able to look at my maps and see where there are different accents in the North of France.  To make this atlas, though, I have to know all about how to make the maps, and how to analyse the linguistic data – so a lot of my day is spent learning all that background kind of stuff, as well.

What I'd do with the money

I’ve got a few ideas – a CD that would allow you to analyse your own accent, a museum exhibit about language, or a national linguistics competition for schools – but I’d really like to hear what you would like!

Some things that might be really interesting ways to spend the money are here.  Please tell me what you think of them, or suggest others!

  • We could make a computer CD to send out to schools, which would allow people to analyse their own accents and see the science behind that.
  • We could ask a museum – like the Science Museum – whether they would like an exhibit about the science of language, so that a large number of people could get to see what the science of language is like and how science actually contributes to language analysis, which many people think is completely an art and nothing to do with science.
  • There’s an international linguistics competition for people at secondary school, called the International Linguistics Olympiad. To take part, you don’t have to know any linguistics, and you don’t have to have done any before – for all the problems, everything you need to know is in the question, and you can solve them just by looking at it logically. The UK hasn’t competed much in the ILO before (only twice), but it’s really fun and you get to travel worldwide to do it, so it would be great if we could get more UK teams in future!  To find out who’s going to be in the UK team, there’s a UK linguistics olympiad, like the qualifying round for the international one, and that’s organised by the United Kingdom Linguistics Olympiad. It’s already happened for 2011, but we could see about contributing the I’m a Scientist prize money to organising it in 2012.

Let me know what you think …

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Curious about people.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Queen, or Muse, or the Divine Comedy. Though I love choral music by Bach and Howells as well.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I once drove the lifeboat near Eyemouth (Southern Scotland) at night!

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

To be a healthy, happy, Dad.

What did you want to be after you left school?

A European bureaucrat. I loved the idea of living my life between lots of European countries and getting paid for it!

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

When I joined my secondary school, I was the first person in my class ever to get a detention, because I’d forgotten to do some of my homework and I’d copied someone else’s!

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I was very proud when a Summer intro course I taught (in sociolinguistics) persuaded a student (who was 16 at the time) to come to my University and study linguistics!

Tell us a joke.

My two dogs split everything fairly. They’re always going ‘arf and ‘arf.