Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Discussing language over a coffee...

Back when I was an A-Level student, I thought I had the concept of borrowings worked out. The textbook definition (as given by my teacher) was that a borrowing must either fill a gap in the borrowing language (usually an abstract concept), or it should name some kind of phenomenon that has gripped the culture of the borrowing language (a more concrete notion).

I suppose words like the German-derived abstract noun 'schadenfreude' (finding pleasure in the misfortune of others - usually a friend) and the Georgian abstract noun 'Shemomedjamo' (eating beyond the point of fullness because the food tastes so good) are fine examples of the first part of the definition because to find an English equivalent to describe such ideas would be too cumbersome. The second part of the definition is more straightforward. The borrowing of the Japanese noun 'karaoke' was beneficial as it gave a name to a new innovation on western shores. 

Where am I going with all this? Well, arguably the traditional circumstances related to borrowings no longer hold true. They appear to have become a cultural issue, designed to fit in with the British class system. Let me give you some examples. 

Two friends are having a tête-à-tête over their suburban garden fence, with one foreshadowing a juicy bit of gossip with the phrase "Strictly entre nous..." The first bit of French means 'head-to-head' (in a friendly sense) and the second means 'between us'. Can English express these ideas without recourse to the Romance languages and without ambiguity? Yes, ultimately making this a middle-class affectation. The late, great comedy writer, John Sullivan bestowed 
such character flaws(?) on Del Trotter as he described attractive women as 'fromage frais' and 

used exclamatives such as 'Chateau Neuf du Pape!' Del always had those middle-class yearnings and Sullivan captured them with warmth and incisive accuracy. 

But let's get to the real point. Return with me to my childhood...

When I was growing up in the 1970s and '80s, my family often popped into a traditional cafe for a drink. Usually, they had tea or coffee but, when feeling extravagant, they would opt for a milky coffee or, in moments of utter recklessness, a frothy coffee! Although you can still ask for such beverages in small tea shops, we know these drinks  better as lattes and cappuccinos today. That's right, I'm about to propose that coffee culture is proof of the changing nature of borrowings. 

Rewind 30 years, enter a cafe and ask for a tall, skinny macchiato with an extra shot to go. What kind of response would you receive? A look of incredulity followed by immediate arrest. Today, however, it's the norm. We speak a different language to many of our grandparents. What's wrong with requesting a small macchiato, made with skimmed milk with an extra drop of coffee thrown in that you wish to take away from the cafe? What's wrong is that, despite its clarity, it sounds like you don't understand; it isn't snappy enough; you're not part of the club - and belonging is everything in today's society. 

And who said size doesn't matter?

If we take the so-called big three coffee chains, we see huge variations in their use of Italio-American jargon to reference the size of drinks available. In Starbucks, you can have (from smallest to largest) short, tall, grande and venti. Meanwhile, Costa limits the choice to primo, medio and massimo while Caffe Nero offers just regular and grande. How do these sizes correlate? I reached the (not unreasonable) conclusion that grande, venti and massimo must all be Italian synonyms for 'large'. I put this to two friends, both fluent in Italian, who laughed at me explaining that the choice of size names were all style over substance. 

Therefore, There exists a reasonable possibility that social class and a desperation to be part of something (moderately) elite has become a factor in why the English language continues to borrow words - even though they don't necessarily mean what we think they do. Isn't it sufficient to ask for small, medium or large? Oh well, c'est la vie!

Friday, July 08, 2016

Brexit: the war of the words

By chance or design, our often fractious relationship with continental Europe has contributed significantly to our proverbial 'mongrel' language which is up there with Finnish and Welsh as one of the continent's most notoriously difficult languages to learn. As if this isn't bad enough, recent events, monolithic institutions and the pseudo-intellectuals in the media have saddled us with a whole new world of linguistic detritus.

Looking back, it was easy: David Cameron promised a straight in/out referendum that we could get our heads around. As time passed, factions emerged in the form of official (and unofficial) Remain or Leave camps. Sadly, as with Brangelina and Jedward, the media outlets needed something...sexier? They found it! After all, who could fail to be seduced after drinking the love potion that is the blended neologism (or blelologism)?

Suddenly, a reporter recalled that the Greek threat to leave the EU had been dubbed Grexit (Greek exit) and so, logically, the concept of Brexit (noun) was born. But Brexit versus Remain lacked balance and harmony. We had the Yin, but why borrow that when we had no Yang to complete the set?  Fortunately, help was forthcoming as a timid hand raised itself from beside the water cooler and suggested that Remain could be renamed Bremain. Everyone present knew it was rubbish, but the noun worked. Shrek had found his Fiona and the blended neologisms were settled upon as the official lexicon of the Breferendum.

From this point on, we saw linguistic change take place at light speed. You were either pro- or anti-Brexit. Already, the new noun had undergone affixation thanks to two tried and tested prefixes. As a consequence it had shifted semantically, evolving from noun to adjective as in the pre-modification present in, '...claimed the pro-Brexit camp.'  The same didn't happen with Bremain because, as a  
noun, it was still rubbish.

Then came the ever-so-slightly-tortured plural noun for the pro-Brexit bunch: Brexiteers. Ostensibly, this is affixation through the use of a a suffix but, however we perceive it, it is difficult to dissociate the connotation of -eers with The Musketeers. Fearless, selfless noblemen risking everything for the side of good? It makes for a compelling image. Meanwhile, The Bremain Camp continued to sound like a dodgy political remake of Carry on Camping.

In truth, it may well have been the war of semantics - not words - that decided the referendum. Brexit always had so much more potential than Bremain and, in the end, three noble horsemen from France contributed to a divorce from that same nation (amongst many others). A result that left many voters feeling a sense of Bregret or Branxiety. Really? The blended neologisms were now forming more abstract nouns. Where will it all Brend?

As for the matter of the the red tops taking the initialism EU and using it as a substitute for the second person pronoun you? We'll leave that abuse of orthography for another time. EU have probably had enough for today.

Monday, June 13, 2016

ENGA3 - Accent & Dialect revision

Accent and Dialect is one of the topics that could appear in Section A for Language Variation but also in Section B for Language Discourses. Over the last few months, I've added lots of links for this topic for the students taking the new A-level (where the topic appears in the 1st year of the course) but all of these are relevant (and some are really excellent) for your work on ENGA3. Here's a selection of useful posts and links:

Sunday, June 12, 2016

ENGA3 - Language Discourses revision

Language Discourses

  • This Word of Mouth episode featuring Oliver Kamm (who we talked about recently) is useful for debates about pedantry and 'proper' English.
  • This Salon article about online communication making us more stupid is a good read and offers some opinions about language change that could be explored (thanks to @QEEnglish for the link).
  • These articles (this one and this one) by Robert Lane Greene focus on arguments about language and offer a linguistically descriptive perspective on such changes. Ideal for exam revision.
  • Jean Aitchison's original Reith Lectures about language can be found here. If you want to hear what she really said about crumbling castles, damp spoons and infectious diseases, go no further than A Web of Worries.
  • An old blog post from here about the prescriptive - descriptive debate is worth a read, especially if you're interested in exploring arguments about views belong along a continuum.
  • Finally for today, Stan Carey has written an excellent article about why slang is not a broken down form of 'proper' English and you can find it here.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

ENGA3 - World Englishes revision

Sorry to neglect you ENGA3ers out there. I've been busy with the new AS level, so put the A2 stuff on the backburner a bit. Here are some things that I hope will help...

World Englishes

  • Have a listen to this Word of Mouth episode about English as a Lingua Franca to get a grasp of what's going on with English around the world.
  • Think about the ideas in this article which suggests native English speakers are often the problem in international conversations using English.
  • This article is also interesting about the ways English is used around the world.
  • David Crystal talks in this clip about the future of English around the world.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Paper 2 today - good luck

Hope it all goes well today. Plenty of revision tips on the blog should you want to do any more!

Monday, June 06, 2016

Paper 2: last few revision pointers

Paper 2 is on Wednesday, so good luck with it to everyone. I won't be blogging or tweeting about the AS for a while after then as I'll be marking it and will need to keep my head down and prime my red pen for lots of (I hope) ticks.

I've posted loads of stuff about Paper 2 here and via the Twitter feed, but if you're looking for a few last-minute ideas, why not have a look at the following?

Accent and dialect: Paul Kerswill and Alex Barrata were interviewed on Radio 4 last week and if you listen from 14 minutes in to this link, you'll get a nice overview of some of the attitudes to different accents.

There's been some interesting material emerge from the team behind the English Dialects app and if you want to see how some of their work has been reported have a look here and here.

The area of social groups is perhaps a bit more slippery than that of accents and dialects, so you might want to look at some ideas around social class here and about slang and young people here. Julie Coleman's The Life of Slang is a great book about slang and how it emerges, so a look at some of the reviews of it might help with your revision. Here's one.

There's already a lot about gender out there, but reading and referring to recent posts by Deborah Cameron on her fantastic blog are a great way of showing your examiner (maybe even me!) that you've gone beyond the usual reading that everyone else will be name-checking. This article is great for interaction and gender, while this takes a different tack by looking at gender representation (both of which could appear on Paper 2 for AS and/or A level).

For occupation, have a look at some of the tweets from the last month or two, including this one and this one.

Anyway, good luck; I'm looking forward to reading and marking lots of ace answers.