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Summary Article: LESLEY MILROY from Key Thinkers in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language

Milroy, (Ann) Lesley (b. 1944; British), research fellow, University of Manchester (1982–83); lecturer and professor, University of Newcastle upon Tyne (1983–94); Hans Kurath collegiate professor of linguistics, University of Michigan (1994–). Sociolinguist noted for her major contributions to theory and method in the quantitative and qualitative study of language variation, bilingualism and language ideology. (See also Cameron, Deborah; Labov, William; Tannen, Deborah.)

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, Lesley Milroy was raised near Glasgow and attended school in Darlington. She obtained a BA (1965) and MA (1967) from the University of Manchester, and her PhD from Queen’s University Belfast (1979). Between 1972 and 1988 she held research and teaching positions at Ulster Polytechnic (now University of Ulster), Manchester and Newcastle. She was promoted to a personal chair at Newcastle in 1988, and in 1994 took up her position at the University of Michigan.

Milroy is probably best known for the research she conducted in Belfast in collaboration with her husband James Milroy. Lesley, who carried out the fieldwork, used participant observation as a means of gaining access to three close-knit working-class communities in the city. A particularly innovative aspect of this study, which combined an ethnographic approach to fieldwork with rigorous quantitative data analysis methods, was the adoption from sociological research of the social network model. This, the Milroys argued, more appropriately characterised the structure of the Belfast communities than did conventional means of delineating sample populations, such as the socioeconomic class indices employed by Labov and the British sociolinguist Peter Trudgill. Acrucial insight emerging from the Belfast study concerned the centrality of the role of vernacular (versus institutional or middle-class) norms in the mechanisms underlying language variation and change. Such norms, the Milroys contended, compete against normative pressures from beyond the immediate locality, and depend for their perpetuation on the ‘density’ and ‘multiplexity’ of the network ties binding the community’s individual members. The persistence and stability of non-standard forms used as markers of local affiliation, in spite of the influence of externally imposed forces such as standardisation and levelling resulting from societal homogenisation, continue to be a principal theme in Lesley Milroy’s work. Her research since the 1990s has investigated patterns of variation in urban varieties of English in the UK (Newcastle, Derby) and the US (notably Detroit). She has also published on bi- and multilingualism (1995, with Muysken) and language disorders (1993, with Lesser), and is considered a leading authority on sociolinguistic methodology. In this area her Observing and Analysing Natural Language (1987) and its successor volume (2003, with Gordon) are canonical texts.

Lesley Milroy sits on the editorial boards of several major journals, including Journal of Linguistics, Journal of Sociolinguistics, Language in Society and the International Journal of Bilingualism, and since 2000 has been honorary visiting professor of linguistics at the University of York.

Primary works
  • (1980; second edition, 1987). Language and Social Networks. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • (1985; third edition, 1999) (with James Milroy). Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English. London: Routledge.
  • (1987). Observing and Analysing Natural Language. Oxford: Blackwell. Rev. edition (2003) (with Matthew Gordon). Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • (1993a) (with Ruth Lesser). Linguistics and Aphasia: Psycholinguistic and Pragmatic Aspects of Intervention. London: Longman.
  • (1993b, ed.) (with James Milroy). Real English: The Grammar of English Dialects in the British Isles. London: Longman.
  • (1995, ed.) (with Peter Muysken). One Speaker, Two Languages: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Code-Switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Further reading
  • Wei, Li (2001). ‘Milroy, Lesley’. In Mesthrie, R. (ed.). Pergamon Concise Encyclopaedia of Sociolinguistics. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.
  • Dominic Watt
    © in this edition Edinburgh University Press, 2005; © in the individual contributions is retained by the authors

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