Monday, January 14, 2019

World Englishes


When Dan asked what he should post about next on this blog, one of the most common responses was this, the World Englishes topic.  Maybe this is because it’s relatively new on the AQA spec, especially if you previously did Spec B; but actually many of the issues and debates involved should be familiar from other topics in language diversity or language and power.   I love teaching World Englishes because it’s the most summative of all the topics, so students can use all their knowledge of language diversity and change.  We teach it at the end of year 2 for this reason.  

These are the questions that we cover:


1.    How did English become such a dominant language in the world?

2.    What are the different ways of grouping English-using countries around the world?

3.    What are some characteristics of different global varieties of English and of English as a lingua franca (ELF)?

4.    Who controls the English Language?

5.    What are the political implications of the dominance of English?  Are all groups in English-using countries happy with it?  Why?  Why not?

6.    What effect is English having on languages around the world?  Is it responsible for “killing” other languages?

7.    What is the future of English around the world? 



















For question 1, the simple answer (as with all dominant varieties of language) is power; in this case, the power of the British Empire and, later, the cultural, economic and political power of the USA.  David Crystal has a useful 3 minute discussion of this here, and there’s a great one minute animated film from the Open University here.  Depending on your students, you might need to do a bit of a history lesson on the British Empire at this point, but I usually find that at least some of my classes already know plenty about this. 

For question 2, there are several models which organise different global Englishes.  I use Strevens, which looks fairly hierarchical and is useful for showing how English spread around the world; Kachru’s norm providing, norm developing and norm dependent circles; and McArthur’s ‘different but equal’ wheel model.   Students should be able to discuss what these models imply about power and control of language, and all are very useful when discussing questions 3 to 7.

For question 3, there are great resources on ELF in the CUP book ‘Language Diversity and World Englishes’, but if you don’t have access to this or want something extra, there is a short intro from Jennifer Jenkins here  and a great article by Jenkins and Seidlhofer covering definitions, characteristics, issues and debates here.  Mario Saraceni also debates the issues around ELF, and I’ll return to his work when looking at question 7. 

When it comes to looking at varieties of global English, we research and discuss Englishes from India, China, the USA and Australia, then we do a detailed case study of Singapore.  This raises lots of relevant issues and debates about control and gatekeeping of English and about status versus identity; Singapore has a prescriptivist language policy which privileges British and US English as high prestige varieties, and rejects ‘Singlish’ as slang or ‘broken’ English which could adversely affect Singapore’s position as a centre of international trade.  Here’s a sick rap in Singlish so you can hear what it sounds like; an excellent Open University documentary covering the issues here; and a TEDx talk bigging up Singlish as the future of language in Singapore here.  At this point, we also come back to the models we looked at for question 2 to see how each could be applied to Singapore.  This case study also covers questions 4 and 5.  We also look at other language policies, including L’Academie Francais and the proposed language purity law in Germany; both of these are at least partly intended to stop English making inroads into other languages, and students might apply familiar concepts such as Aitchison’s infectious disease metaphors here.

Leading through question 5 and into question 6, we also cover the issue of linguistic imperialism and language death.  2 of the world’s 7000 or so languages die every month, and the power and dominance of super-languages such as English and Spanish shoulders much of the blame; your more ambitious students might want to read a transcript of David Crystal’s lecture on this.  The term linguistic imperialism was coined by Robert Philipson, and there’s an informative and interesting debate between him and Robert McCrum, who is far more upbeat about global Englishes, here.

Finally, for question 7, we look at possibilities for the future of World Englishes.  There’s a nice discussion by David Crystal in this video.

Mario Saraceni thinks that England should accept that we’ve lost control of the English language, and should now think in terms of Englishes, plural.   This means letting go of the idea of standard British English as the ideal ‘correct’ variety.   He uses a nice simile which students find easy to remember; we have as much control of English as Italians do of pizza – if someone wants to stick banana and bacon on it, we’re just going to have to let that go. 

Robert McCrum talks about ‘Globish’ (a term coined and monetised by Jean Paul Nerriere).  This is really a version of English as a lingua franca, and it raises some interesting debates; for example, are native English speakers likely to be disadvantaged by the spread of Globish because our use of idiom and complex grammar will make us difficult to understand? 

Maybe English as a native language will die and various World Englishes will remain; after all, this is what happened to previous lingua franca Latin.  Or perhaps, given the decline of Britain and the USA as global powers, another language such as Spanish or Mandarin will take over as a lingua franca.  Post-Brexit, English is certainly likely to lose some of its importance in Europe, as Juncker pointed out in 2017.

Finally, it’s well worth discussing the idea that elements of World Englishes are finding their way into varieties of British English as a result of globalisation and patterns of migration; we go back to our study of MLE/MUBE at this point.



Tuesday, January 08, 2019

AQA A Level English Language Workbook

This is just a quick plug for the new AQA A Level English Language Workbook that was published by Oxford University Press before Christmas. We wrote it to give lots of texts and practice tasks to help with the A level and if you've been following this blog for a year or two, you might even recognise a few things that have been covered here in the past. Anyway, I hope it proves useful.



Book Depository link
Wordery link
Amazon link

Friday, January 04, 2019

‘Topics’, topic areas and overlap


Following on from the last blog about AO2 on Paper 2, another aspect that I think it is important to address, for hitting Levels 4 and 5 in particular, but more generally in terms of an understanding of language across the board is that of the overlapping nature of the ‘topics’ on Paper 2. I use ‘topics’ in slightly wanky quote-marks because I think there’s often an issue around the word that I hadn’t really twigged until the new spec appeared. For some, ‘topics’ are just blocks of content, often optional ones from a wider list, so if you used to teach the old AQA B spec, you could choose from 3 topics on ENGB1: language and technology, language and power and/or language and gender. A few centres taught all three, most seemed to do two of the three and I think some might have just done one and crossed their fingers and hoped that it was a nice question.

This is clearly very different with the new spec; the topic areas (if I can call them that without falling into the ‘topic’ trap) are all related in various ways. We have areas such as occupation, class, gender, ethnicity and world Englishes all floating around in various forms and there’s a lot of overlap between them. For example, where does social class and language fit in? Is that part of social groups or is it more related to region? And what about language & occupation? Is that part of social groups or a different area entirely? I think the simplest thing is to actually go back to the spec and see how it’s laid out there.

The specification outlines the following: sociolect (specifically mentioning social and occupational groups, gender and ethnicity), dialect (including regional, national and international variation) and change.

To me, it makes sense to use this as the starting point and to think about the overlapping nature of all these areas before really going into detail into all of them and considering the most relevant examples, studies and theories to explore. By that I mean – a bit like I mentioned in the last post – to think about the core concepts to begin with and then map the detailed knowledge back from there.

Before we even look at the areas that we might cover for language diversity, let’s step back and look at the bigger picture for Section A of Paper 2. If we look at the nature of language variation and change to begin with, we can see that the two big areas (which get divided into a choice of two questions in Section A of Paper 2) themselves overlap.

An example of this is UK dialects and the ways in which they have changed over time. If you look at work carried out by the Universities of Cambridge, Zurich and Bern in 2016, they have traced dialect change using an app and compared the findings of their survey to the Survey of English Dialects gathered between 1950 and 1961. While there are differences in their methodologies and some variables that might have altered, what’s really clear to see is that in some areas, dialect terms have almost completely disappeared. What’s also interesting is that accents have changed too but not always as obviously. So, with this dialect levelling we are actually seeing a change taking place over time in the way that English varies. There appears to be less variation now than there was in the mid-20th Century.

'Backend' and 'Autumn'


Pronunciation of 'arm' with rolled /r/

Another example is that of word meanings. Again, this is ostensibly a change issue – word meanings changing over time – and therefore a change ‘topic’. But how do word meanings change? They don’t just change overnight and in fact at any given point, lots of people will have a very different understanding in their own minds about what words might mean.

Take recent examples like ‘gay’ and ‘awesome’ (both looked at by Justyna Robinson in 2010). At any time, there will be multiple – often age-differentiated - meanings for the same word. 


There are other contentious terms that have different meanings for different age groups. I remember having a heated debate with a bloke at football last year because he’d used the word ‘mong’ to describe a player on the home team. I objected and told him that it was a disgusting word to use, because it was an offensive term for people with Down's Syndrome. He couldn’t see the issue and claimed it meant nothing like that and I heard him grumbling later to someone he was with that “You can’t say anything now”. Who was right? Maybe we both were. I was brought up in a time when the word ‘mong’ was tossed around as a casual slur and it was linked to the word ‘mongoloid’ which had been used to describe the facial appearance of those with Down's. He was younger than me (and bigger, so I’m glad it didn’t come to blows) and denied point blank that it meant anything like that to him. I’ve had similar discussions (although usually less sweary and heated) with students who have used the term and been oblivious to its older meanings.

It doesn’t just have to be slurs and slang under discussion though. Even this week, there has been debate about the meaning of the word ‘sausage’ in relation to Greggs’ new vegan sausage roll. “How can a sausage roll be vegan when a sausage has to contain meat?!” shouted some angry gammons. “Sausage is all about the shape, fam. Allow it!” responded some millennial snowflakes. This is how change often takes place: meanings gradually shift, are contested, complained about and often take a while to bed in. (If you’re interested in this, John McWhorter’s ‘Words of the Move’ is a brilliant book about how and why change happens and a recommended read for everyone studying this course.)

So, there’s overlap between change and diversity, but what about within diversity? The key point for me here is to make sure that before diving into the study of areas like gender and occupation, all students are completely clear about the bigger picture. Most sociolinguists these days don’t subscribe to a ‘pigeonhole’ view of language – that the ‘categories’ you are born into, be they your class, region, sex, race, or whatever, dictates your language use. That’s far too deterministic and doesn’t really reflect the nature of language as we use it in the real world and the variation within groups.
The thinking now tends to be that while these factors might all contribute to your language identity in some way (and perhaps some more significantly or obviously than others), we can draw on different linguistic strands from this pool or repertoire to perform different identities with different people in different situations.

We can perform a friendly and competent co-worker identity with Person X at work, perform a more casual and relaxed identity with Person X and Person Y after work and then perform a parental role with young children at home. All of these will draw on different linguistic resources available to us through our individual backgrounds and the contexts we are using language in.

Rob Drummond and I have talked about this idea about performing identity quite a lot in the CUP Topics in English Language book, ‘Language Diversity’, that we collaborated on but you can also find more about it in sources such as Penny Eckert’s ‘Jocks and Burnouts’ Detroit study, Jenny Cheshire’s Reading study, Kevin Watson’s work on the Liverpool accent and performing a Scouse identity, Carmen Llamas’ work in Middlesbrough and Emma Moore’s Bolton study. There’s a lot of new work going on around it too and it’s a very productive and interesting area for students to explore.

That understanding of language as something that we can choose to use to construct a version of ourselves in different contexts is one that underlies a lot of the ‘interplay’ alluded to in the indicative content on the mark scheme for Level 4 of AO2 in the June 2017 paper and the “different views, approaches and interpretations” in the Level 4 performance characteristics each year.

So, how could you approach this in practical terms?

Case studies are a way to introduce this. By looking at some real (or made up) examples of people’s language backgrounds, you can explore the language they use in different contexts and where that comes from. We included one such case study of a former A level English Language student from south London, Shahnaz, in the OUP textbook and this might give you a flavour of the kind of approach you could take. You could also ask students to start building up a picture of their own influences, but a problem with doing this with A level students is that while there may be a degree of social, ethnic and perhaps even regional and international variation among them, they are all of a similar age and you might be teaching in a single sex school. While you can get somewhere with this and start to help students unpick the different influences on their own linguistic behaviour, it might be more useful to start with a few case studies that allow you to show different features and factors at work. Just off the top of my head, I might look at David Lammy, Maxine Peake, Stormzy, Danny Dyer and Scarlet Moffatt, but there are plenty of others who could be interesting case studies to examine.

The next step might be to gather language from these people used in different settings and to think about what it is specifically and linguistically that’s interesting to talk about. Does David Lammy use the same kind of language in parliament as he does on Twitter? Has Scarlet Moffatt’s language changed in different settings since she first appeared on Gogglebox and I’m A Celebrity? You’d need to be careful to avoid scripted performances, but there’s plenty to look at.

What’s also important with each case study is to really show what you mean by language variation – in other words, the characteristics of language that can vary on a lexical, semantic, grammatical, phonological and pragmatic level and how these can be illustrated.

Once you have looked at these case studies, you’ll be able to think a bit more about the different topic areas and how to approach them, because you’ll no longer be looking at them in isolation, but as part of a much bigger picture of language variation and diversity.

I hope that gives a few ideas about how to deal with the overlapping nature of parts of Paper 2. In the next blog, I’ll have a look at how to encourage students to use case studies, research and examples and to write linguistically about the issues at the heart of Paper 2. It might take a little while, but there will be other blogs along soon from other writers. Huzzah.

Lists, concepts & different ideas: thinking about AO2 on Paper 2

I’ve been at quite a few meetings recently where teachers have asked if the exam board can publish a list of the key theories and studies needed for each topic and that question has got me thinking about what students need to know to do well on the English Language A level, especially on AO2, which at 26% of the weighting of marks across the whole course, is equal highest with AO1 in terms of importance. And while most people are familiar with what AO1 involves – a grasp of linguistic terminology, methods of language analysis and coherent written expression (balanced out differently on different kinds of questions), AO2 isn’t always as clearly understood.

The request for a list to cover is perfectly understandable: there is a lot to cover on the course (including some areas that are new to experienced English Language teachers), many teachers (still) come from a Literature background and the exam boards haven’t always been very clear on exactly what might come up, either in the specifications or in the sample material issued with them. Then again, you might argue that this is just the nature of the beast – English Language is a vast subject, it changes constantly like the language itself and there is always something new to add to the pile to study. That’s what makes it so interesting… but kind of frustrating if you’re also teaching KS3 and 4 and maybe even two or three other A level courses. And I can appreciate that if you’re coming to the course as a new teacher of English Language with little grounding in linguistics, it’s pretty daunting.

But I think that it’s the scope of the subject that can actually help us understand a bit more about AO2, what students need to know and how it’s assessed. My own take on it – and this is very much my own view as a teacher of the subject (alright…sort of teacher of it these days) rather than something that AQA are saying - is that you could actually teach pretty much any studies and theories you like and still see your students do really well. Just so long as they understand the core ideas behind language change and diversity and can relate that understanding to the studies and theories you choose to cover. I’ve thought this through more and think that this is most relevant for Paper 2, but I can also see how it might work for Children’s Language Development on Paper 1 (but more on that another time).

So, how does this work in practice? If we look at the mark scheme for AO2 on Paper 2 (Questions 1, 2 and 4), we can see that the different levels relate to different kinds of knowledge.


  • Level 0 is no knowledge at all and I can only see that being applied to a student who has not even attempted to answer the question. 
  • Level 1 relates to students who talk very generally and without any specialist linguistic knowledge. In essence, this is the kind of knowledge a total stranger would bring to the question, had they come in off the street, evaded the invigilators and (for some inexplicable reason) sat themselves down at a desk and taken the exam. 
  • Level 2 responses would show the beginnings of understanding and might reference a few named researchers, perhaps start to talk quite generally about how language changes or notice that language varies from person to person. The higher you go in this band, the more solid that knowledge would be. It might also be used to allocate marks to those students who have the beginnings of the bigger picture but little sense of detail and probably no examples. 
  • From Level 3 upwards, we are normally looking at students who know some stuff and will be able to discuss examples, refer to studies, ideas and concepts to support their arguments and choose material that’s relevant for the idea they’re evaluating. 
  • Level 4 work will start to see that language is complex and that there can be different ways of looking at the question, different positions and arguments that might be offered. 
  • Level 5 work will be genuinely evaluative, offering “an individual overview of issues” (which to me at least suggests that ‘evaluation’ has to offer a supported personal judgement from the student on the idea they’ve been asked to look at). 


So, obviously students need to know ‘stuff’ and that’s maybe where the desire for a list of ‘stuff’ comes from. But I think we might be better off looking at Level 4 first and thinking about what that means before discussing the ‘stuff’ that can be deployed in Levels 2-5.

The ‘performance characteristics’ for AO2 Level 4 (i.e. the description of the kind of work going on in that level that doesn’t change year to year and paper to paper) states that students will “identify different views, approaches and interpretations of linguistic issues” and I think that’s the key here. What are these views, approaches and issues?

In a way, it’s quite simple. The key things students need to know are:

How and why does language change? 

and

How and why does language vary? 

If they can go some way to answering these questions, using a range of different examples and studies to illustrate what they are saying, they are starting to produce the kind of work that is seen in really good answers. Of course, students will need to answer the questions that have actually been set and address those specific ideas, but at the heart of all questions about language change and diversity, these to me are the key concepts. It can get a bit more complicated when you factor in questions such as “What do people make of these changes and variations?” but that’s still part of the same broader question, I think (again, something I hope to come back to another time).

Once students have a grasp of these questions and some ideas about the answers – and really importantly for Levels 4 and 5, a grasp of the different and often competing ideas that thinkers, commentators and linguists have offered – they are on their way to being able to select from a range of different material at their disposal.

And that’s why I don’t think a list of content for each topic is really that useful. It might make sense to argue that all students should look at the Milroys’ work in Belfast, Trudgill’s Norwich study and Petyt’s Bradford study for UK language variation – and they’re nice studies to teach because they are clear and widely available in plenty of resource and reference books, but there’s nothing wrong with using a completely different study to illustrate a similar point. Emma Moore’s Eden Village Girls 2010 study in Bolton, or Rob Drummond’s 2012 study of Polish speakers of English in Manchester (in this) could be just as helpful. So long as the study is explained and detailed and the significance of it is clear to the question set and the overall argument being offered, I think that’s fine.

The other issue and one that I think is really important for more able students to understand is that language is complex. If they can start to show their understanding of these complexities, they will again offer an insight into the bigger picture and potentially hit Levels 4 and 5. They’ll need to support and exemplify their arguments and ideas, but again that can come from a huge range of different sources. So, for example, one complexity about language is that while our backgrounds and individual characteristics (occupation, social group, ethnicity, sex, gender, region and class) can have an impact on our language, we also have choices to make depending on who we are talking to, the mode of communication we are using, the relationship we have with others involved in the conversation and the uses to which we want to put language. That’s the kind of complexity that can be illustrated by drawing on some of the wider concepts of code-switching and style-shifting, accommodation and linguistic repertoire.

And again, while it can be useful to have a name or theory to hang these on, I think it’s probably more important to understand the principles behind these and be able to illustrate them. How and why did Ed Miliband sound more and more like Russell Brand as his pre-2015 election interview went on? How and why (in the name of all that is sacred) did George Osborne think it would help his cause to sound like Jonathon Ross while speaking to Morrisons warehouse workers? And why did privately-educated Adam Boulton of Sky News try to throw shade on working class Eastender and Labour candidate for Chingford, Faiza Shaheen by claiming that she was “hiding her poshness” by dropping her Ts? These case studies – if well-explained and linguistically explored – can be really useful ways to look at the issues of identity and language use (and indeed language change) that are behind so many of the discussions we have around language on this paper.

So, that’s quite a long blog on AO2 and what I think it involves on Paper 2. I’d be interested to hear what people think and whether or not this chimes with your own experience and thinking.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Getting involved in some research

Welcome back to all of you picking up your A level English Language studies from last year and hello to all new students of the best A level course*. There will be a few new posts this term about different areas of the course and lots of stuff on the @EngLangBlog Twitter account, but this post is about a project that linguists at Lancaster University need your help with.

Researchers there are currently putting together a 100-million word corpus of written language. A corpus is basically a well-organised database of language that then provides a body of material to be explored and analysed in different ways later on. Because the ways we write and the devices we use to write on and with have changed over time, linguists need examples of electronic language from actual, real-life users of it to build up a better picture of what's happening. Which is where you come in.

Extracts of emails, online conversations, WhatsApp messages and the like are all needed, so if you can help feed data into this project, have a look at the instructions here and take part. If you are a teacher, you might also want to build some of this in to your work on language change and technology.

Once the data has been collected and analysed, the linguists at Lancaster will be writing an article for the English and Media Centre's emagazine, which will take a look at how the corpus is tracking changing language and what the data tells us about the directions the English language is taking.

(*true)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Investigating Language - ideas for projects

As I'm currently holed up in my marking bunker with only a red pen, a bag of Monster Munch and a 2L bottle of Diet Coke, I've not got time for a full blog post on the NEA Language Investigation, but here's a thread on Twitter where teachers talk about some of their favourite and most interesting NEA projects of recent years. See what you think.


Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Telling porkies about gammon

If you're thinking ahead to Paper 2 at the end of the week and wondering about potential case studies to use for the language change question or even for debates about language for Section B, gammon might be a good place to look. It's one of those words that's been around for a while with one main meaning (a kind of smoked ham) but it's recently developed a newer and more controversial meaning that's been used online and debated in various newspapers by some of the most high profile columnists and sharpest minds of our generation (and Brendan O'Neill from the appalling Spiked Online). It's a neat example of semantic change, polysemy and debates about the potential of language to cause offence. It also ties in quite nicely with the sample paper on 'literally' and attitudes to language change.

'Gammon' has meant other things too and you can find definitions that relate to the police (presumably a link to the pejorative slang terms 'pigs'), to telling lies (probably because of the link to Cockney rhyming slang and 'porkie pies' for 'lies') and a few that are a bit rude about women's body parts that I won't repeat here, as this is a family publication.

So what does this new type of 'gammon' mean? It first appeared on Twitter in 2016 in association with David Cameron, whose face was on occasion described as resembling a boiled ham (and after *that* story about Cameron and a pig's head had been circulated, it took on a slightly more disturbing tinge). But it was in 2017 that it really took off when it was used to describe a post-Brexit vote phenomenon that many had observed but few had been able to nail so accurately: namely, a certain type of man whose anger about the modern world had made them turn the colour of ham or what Urban Dictionary's (now mysteriously removed) top definition describes as "a particular type of Brexit-voting, middle-aged white male, whose meat-faced complexion suggests they are perilously close to a stroke".

You might have seen the "wall of gammon" assembled from the faces of Question Time audience members judged to fit the criteria.


So far so good. You might argue that there's a clear resemblance to a smoked ham product in all those faces and if they're ranting about "Brexit meaning Brexit", immigration and/or EU fishing quotas, then - as the saying goes - if the caps fits... On the other hand, if that's you, your dad or your Uncle Barry, it might not go down so well.

But wait: aren't these all white men? And doesn't that mean that 'gammon' therefore must be a racial slur? That was certainly the argument put forward by the DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly who claimed that 'gammon' was a term 'based on skin colour and age' and therefore a slur that should not be used. You can read more about it here and about the subsequent debate over the term.

Use of the term has spiked in the last few weeks. And while the original meaning of gammon seems to have been on the decline since its peak in around 1820 as the Google n-gram below shows, its more recent meaning has spread far and wide.



The number of searches for 'gammon' as an insult or 'gammon' as slang can be tracked through Google Trends and they show a spike in 2018.


gammon as slang (via Google Trends)

gammon as an insult (via Google Trends)

So, have we reached peak gammon? Probably, if these charts are anything to go by. And that's an interesting case study in itself, because tracing the spread of a new slang term, or an old word that's been given a new meaning, is a fascinating way of looking at what language is and how it works.

But what about the wider debate about gammon as an insult? Is it - as several have claimed - a racist slur? Is it (sharp intake of breath) as bad as the n-word? This tweeter thinks not and I'd tend to agree with him.



But that's Twitter and people are often very rude on Twitter. I try to stay off it these days (and fail most of the time). What about other commentators? And what about the wider language debate about what constitutes a slur? One accusation is that gammon has been used by left-wingers to attack their political opponents when reasoned argument fails. It sits alongside centrist dad and melt as terms that left-wingers use to abuse those to their right and perhaps equates with the kind of jibes that right-wingers have been chucking at the left for even longer: snowflake and remaintard, for example. Matt Zarb-Cousin is one such left-winger and he argues in Huck magazine that it can't be racist as it's directed at a group of people who choose to behave in a certain way.

It isn’t racist to say someone looks like gammon, as while there are striking aesthetic resemblances across the gammon constituency, gammon isn’t a race, it’s a lifestyle choice driven by warm ale. It’s a state of mind, driven in no small part by a regular spoon feeding from the trashy tabloids.

On the other hand, Lucy Fisher in The Times argues a different line:

Whether or not the trope is a statement about race, it is obviously a statement about culture and class. Gammons are backward, provincial embarrassments. They may be unskilled workers or small business owners or wealthy aristocrats. If that sounds a confused mix, it’s because the term has already met the fate of most political insults: stretched beyond coherence to encompass as many people as possible who vote the “wrong” way and hold the “wrong” views.
No debate about politics would be complete without Owen Jones of The Guardian getting a word in.

Gammon is a racist slur, we are told. Let me put this gently: affluent white men with reactionary opinions are not a race. White people mocking other white people over their skin colour is not racism. Inherent in the term is how a certain type of golf-club bore can go somewhere between a shade of pink and crimson red as they froth about gays having more rights than them these days, and only Jacob Rees-Mogg can be trusted to deal with the remoaners and leftie terrorist supporters. It is a term about political views and how they are expressed.
And others have gone on about it too. Gamm-on and on, in fact.

Suzanne Moore
Tanya Gold
Steven Poole
Michael Henderson
Anoosh Chakelian

And many many more...

The debate for Language Discourses is an interesting one, I think because we can all argue about the offensiveness of terms that we think might be applied to different people, but to my mind 'gammon' is hardly in the same league as racial slurs. It might have an element of classism to it - although I'd contend that it's used to describe the wealthy as well as the working class - and it might be childish, but that's not a crime.

Is there a double-standard at work here too? We often hear complaints from the right that Political Correctness means "you can't say anything any more", but it's now the right who are complaining about a term that's used to describe them. Meanwhile, some on the left have long complained about the coarsening of public discourse and the need for sensitivity in language, but shouting "Button it you brexit gammon!" is hardly likely to add nuance to the discussion.

But what it does show - and I think this is brilliant - is that language is at the heart of so many of the debates around us. Whatever you think of the term (and obviously, I like it) it shows that language is a subject for debate; it's worth discussing and analysing because it's relevant to our daily lives. That's great for you if you are an A level English Language student or teacher because it gives you so much to write about and think about for Paper 2.

So on that positive note about what an ace subject English Language is (and I genuinely hope that despite all the hard work - maybe even because of it - you've found things to enjoy and interest you on the course), I'll wish you the best of luck for Wednesday's Paper 1 and Friday's Paper 2.

(Edited on 24.07.18 to change link to now (mysteriously) removed top definitions on Urban Dictionary.)

(Edited again on 23.08.18 to add this link to Tony Thorne's article on 'gammon'.)


Monday, June 04, 2018

Thinking about Paper 1

Paper 1 of the A level isn't that far away so here are a few suggestions about approaching the first 3 questions. I've posted in more detail about these in previous blogs which you can find here, here and here but here are some quick pointers:


  • It's all about meaning. Texts mean things and are made to mean by the people who produce them and the people who receive them. Think about what each text is actually about before you put pen to pen to paper. What are you being presented with? What's happened? Who is involved? What perspectives are being offered?
  • Meanings depend on contexts. You need to think about how meanings are being created in the texts in front of you. Look closely at how language is being used in particular places in the texts and how that relies on context. Is it the context of text being spoken, online or written? Is it the context of what has gone before in the text? Is it the context of who is saying or writing something?
  • Texts can be from all sorts of modes, genres, times and places, and for all sorts of audiences and purposes. Many of these will use language in recognisable ways that you'll be used to seeing and writing about. Some might be a bit less familiar - older, for example - but they'll still have been produced by a human being who's using language in ways that you'll recognise. 
  • Language is not just words. When you're analysing how language is used, look for what words mean, patterns of meaning, structures and visual design. Think about all the language levels or frameworks that you've been learning over the last two years and use the most appropriate ones for the texts in front of you. Graphology isn't an issue in a spoken text (it's not designed to be seen on the page, after all) but phonology might be. An online text might use visual design to structure ideas and create meanings, so that could be vital.
  • Structure is important. This could be grammatical structures (how phrases are put together, how words and clauses are placed in certain positions, how modal verbs, pronouns or tenses are used etc.) but also bigger, text-level, structures (beginnings, middles, ends...).
  • Don't write anything until you've read the texts and don't start writing your answers for Questions 1 and 2 until you have made notes and annotated your texts. 
  • Think about what you can include in your Question 3 answer while you're planning for Q1 and 2. It *is* OK to repeat yourself in Q3 but you need to explore connections and you need to think more carefully about the things that make the texts similar or different. One text will always be older and one contemporary - so there's your first difference -  but also think about organising your Q3 answer around things like audience, purpose and mode. 
  • Don't offload huge amounts of knowledge about language change when you think about the older text. Stick to discussing what's relevant to the text and its immediate context.
  • Be selective in what you write about and try to structure your answer clearly. There is no one right way to do this but it's best to avoid working your through a text in order ("In the first line there is a pronoun, in the second line there is an adjective, in the third line there is another adjective...") but to select the most useful parts to talk about and think about how they link together.
  • Don't write a long, rambling and generic intro. Get into the texts as quickly as you can with just a  short introduction.
I'm sure you will have lots of advice from your teachers about how to approach these questions, but these are things I've often told my students and I think they usually help. Best of luck.