Workshop 1 - Language and space in megacities: Developing an agenda for comparative research



Carolin Biewer, Ninja Schulz, Marie-Christin Himmel & Lisa Lehnen (University of Würzburg)

Workshop description

Studies in urban sociolinguistics have shown that urban and rural speakers show little divergence in terms of the structures that emerge, but they certainly differ with regard to the speed and the pathways to these (Urbatsch 2015). Thus, there is evidence that urbanity affects the ways in which patterns of usage vary and change progresses. Megacities, which can be characterized as particularly fast-changing urban spaces, provide ideal settings to observe patterns of language acquisition, variation and change.

Within a megacity, urban sub-communities emerge and dissolve as residents move to, from and within the urban space causing some sub-communities to be spatially connected, others to be segregated. These developments have an impact on the construction of individual and communal identities, which can be expected to become visible in language use on structural and discursive levels (Carmichael 2017). The interaction between sub-communities further influences the residents’ stance towards living in the city and is, therefore, a vital part of intra-urban dynamics. So far, however, linguistic research on urban spaces has largely been limited to language use and change within individual sub-communities without taking into account more complex interrelationships of language, space and identity within the entire city or drawing comparisons with other cities. In addition, the focus has been on a restricted number of cities located in what is often referred to as ‘Western nations’, in particular cities where English is the native language of the majority of residents (e.g. Johnstone 2015). This one-sidedness constitutes another serious research gap considering that most megacities are located and emerging in Asia, Africa and South America, where English is spoken as a second or foreign language.

One major impediment to filling these gaps is that urban linguistics constitutes a heterogeneous field which has thus far not provided theories, models and methodologies that lend themselves to comparative analyses capturing the multiple facets of urban language. With this workshop, we would like to invite linguists from all fields to take part in the development of a research agenda for the comparative study of language and space in megacities. Potential issues include, but are not limited to:

  • Language and space: How can the interrelationship of language and space be conceptualised? What models and theories best describe language variation and change in urban spaces?
  • Developing methodologies: How can methods from various linguistic fields, such as sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, discourse analysis, linguistic landscaping, etc., be combined to capture the interrelationship between language, space and identity in megacities?
  • Language use in practice: How do urban spaces affect the interactional patterns within and between sub-communities? What role does identity construction play in this regard?
  • Cognition: How does urbanity affect language acquisition, processing, production and attrition? Can the study of language in megacities serve as a tool to better understand underlying principles and processes involved in language acquisition and language change?
  • Local and global patterns: What inter- and intra-urban dynamics of language use, development and change can be identified? How are these affected by the array of social, cultural and economic experience in megacities around the globe?
  • Interdisciplinarity: How can insights from other disciplines, such as Cultural Studies, Human Geography, Sociology, etc., be integrated into the linguistic analysis to provide a fuller account of the findings?


Carmichael, K. (2017). Displacement and local linguistic practices: R-lessness in post-Katrina Greater New Orleans. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 21, 696–719.
Johnstone, B. (2015). Pittsburgh Speech and Pittsburghese. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
Urbatsch, R. (2015). Movers as early adopters of linguistic innovation. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 19, 372–390.

Abstract submission

Please send your abstract (500 words including references) to lisa.lehnen(at) before 15/03/2019.