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30 January 2007

Research on Oor Wullie Initiated in Heidelberg

Anne Hoyer's study of Scotland's best-loved strip cartoon reveals that Standard English is gaining ground in it

In Scotland everyone knows him. William Russell is a nine-year-old scamp always ready to get into mischief. He first saw the light of day 70 years ago and since then he hasn't aged at all. The reason is that "Wullie" is a cartoon figure, a spiky-haired Scottish counterpart to Dennis the Menace. He has been amusing the readers of the Scottish Sunday Post since 1936. According to a survey from 2004, reading the cartoon is one of the "100 things to do in Scotland before dying". And in the same year this "Scottish icon" (BBC) was elevated to the status of a national hero, thus pipping Sean Connery to the post.

So it's only logical that "Oor Wullie" has now attracted the attention of scholarly research. The initiator of this academic slant on Wullie is Anne Hoyer, a young researcher from Heidelberg. "I wasn't really all that fond of comics as a girl," she admits. She first came across Oor Wullie (Our Willie) when she was 16 and spending a year with a Scottish family. Every evening one of the little girls she was looking after asked her to read the cartoon to her. "At first I found it a little weird," says Hoyer, "but after a time the stories started growing on me." Later, when she was ferreting around for a subject for her exam thesis as a student of English in Berlin, she remembered the comic. She was particularly interested in sociolinguistics and she wanted the topic to have some kind of link with Scotland. So she took out her old good-night stories and supplemented them with another popular cartoon, "The Broons", which appears with "Oor Wullie" on a double page every week in the Sunday Post.

In the meantime Anne Hoyer had met Professor Beat Glauser of the University of Heidelberg's Department of English and American Studies at a sociolinguistics conference in Heidelberg. Prof. Glauser was familiar with these two cartoons. So after obtaining her degree, Hoyer moved from Berlin to Heidelberg in 2004 and set about transforming her faible for Scottish cartoons into a doctoral dissertation, concentrating this time exclusively on the exploits of Oor Wullie.

For this purpose she first developed a method for the qualitative and quantitative analysis of thematic and linguistic stereotypes. This made good sense because the characteristics of the comic figures and the everyday situations they get involved in are typically Scottish. But it was particularly apposite in connection with the specifically Scottish language elements occurring in the comic. Scots was after all a national language in its own right up to the end of the 16th century and the "Scottishisms" in the cartoons are generally thought to function as instruments of identification. But in this connection Anne Hoyer actually detected a process of erosion. The conclusion she comes to in her dissertation is that Scots usage in the cartoons has been diminishing for decades, while Standard English has been gaining ground. Anne Hoyer was able to demonstrate this on various planes: phonology, lexis, syntax and morphology. She was assisted in this by a computer programme with which she was able to compile concordances and word-lists. These striking findings have not gone unnoticed in Scotland. A Scottish publishing house has already contacted Anne Hoyer and announced an interest in publishing her dissertation. The very fact that a young German academic should have devoted her energies to such an ur-Scottish subject as Oor Wullie has caused quite a stir. All the major Scottish newspapers have reported on her findings. The "Broons" cartoon even made reference to the research project, albeit in a rather oblique form. In one instalment a professor from Doodleburg (= Heidelberg) makes an appearance, displaying a remarkable resemblance to Beat Glauser and hunting down Scottishisms with the aid of a language detector called a "glausophone" (!). Who knows? Maybe Anne Hoyer will soon be making a guest appearance in the Sunday Post as well — preferably, of course, in "Oor Wullie".

Oliver Fink

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Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

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