Thursday, October 27, 2005

Ich habe keinen trophies

A silly story in The Daily Star this week (a paper I don't read, honestly) tells how little-known and recently unsuccessful football manager, Alex Ferguson, has had to return his German-made car because its voice recognition software can't recognise his thick Glaswegian accent. It's amusing to imagine the kind of abuse levelled at the unfortunate car from this notoriously foul-mouthed fellow, but it does raise a (sort of) serious point about language: who decides what's a "normal" accent for a car to understand and how is a German going to accurately programme the software for a car sold in England to a Scot?

In fact, who decides - historically speaking - what the standard variety of English is going to be? When studying Language Change in unit 5 of the A level course, you can see that the prestige varieties of English have usually been associated with the South East of the country (the triangle made up of Oxford, Cambridge and London is often highlighted in text books) and the most powerful groups in society. Generally speaking, the most powerful people in society get to choose which variety (in terms of dialect and accent) is the standard. But it's not always that simple. As the BBC Routes of English series found, young people are now much less likely to use an overtly prestigious form such as RP (Received Pronunciation), but more covertly prestigious forms such as Estuary English or Black Vernacular English.

So perhaps if Ferguson had shouted a few "Rarsclats" and "Y'gonna get merked"s at the car instead of his usual "Yous lot are a bunch of f**king idiots" then he might have had some joy. Or maybe not...

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties and Change

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Talk to the hand cos the face ain't listening

As Jean Aitchison identifies in her excellent series of lectures The Language Web, concerns about changing language are often intertwined with concerns about standards of public behaviour and what might be termed "decency". In her "damp spoon" model, Aitchison observes a phenomenon among prescriptivists who view some aspects of language change as being as vulgar, crass or "common" as leaving a damp tea spoon in the sugar bowl after you've stirred your tea. Oh deary me...

What Aitchison adeptly points out with this model is that one person's exciting new word might be another person's bugbear: in other words, our responses to language change are heavily influenced by our responses to cultural and social change, or even our view of what makes "good manners".

And of course, all this is relative. One man's "chav" is another man's "pikey" and one woman's teabag in a mug is another woman's pot of Earl Grey. Or something like that...

Several new books reviewed in this weekend's Observer bring up this connection between language and good manners: Lynne Truss, whose massive bestseller
Eats, Shoots and Leaves, covered standards of punctuation and grammar, is one of the writers reviewed. Her new book Talk to the Hand apparently laments such linguistic horrors as Political Correctness and the "labio-dental fricative" that Wayne Rooney is so keen on uttering to nearby referees (although to be precise, isn't it an unvoiced labio-dental fricative? Tut, tut).

Take a look at the review here: Observer article

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

Monday, October 24, 2005

Hello ladies

"It's political correctness gone mad, I tells yer." So says Hull City Councillor, Carl Minns (well, sort of...) in an article in The Independent last week (and covered in a freely available form on the BBC website). So what's the cause of such consternation? Is it an insistence on calling manhole covers "sewage access conduits", referring to baby girls as "strong, independent pre-wymym" or giving Yorkshire folk the right to vote?

No, it's that old chestnut about what we should call birds...I mean ladies...no women...sorry wymyn. In an email to Hull City Council employees, a list of unacceptable words has been circulated, which includes such terms of endearment as "pet" (as in "Now then, pet, how's life?") and "love" (as in "Ay oop, love") as well as those terms already widely-recognised as being offensive.

But this email itself has caused offence and much spluttering into teacups, which highlights the sensitive nature of these centrally imposed outbreaks of political correctness - or linguistic engineering as some have called it - and the ways people feel about the policing of their language use. So what's wrong with "ladies" and why do some see it as old-fashioned, patronising or just plain offensive? Well, have a look at books like Deborah Cameron's Feminist Critique of Language, Dale Spender's Man Made Language, or Mary M Talbot's Language and Gender for some clues. Many feminist linguists would argue that ceratin terms are so historically loaded with negative connotations and assumptions about male superiority that they should be banished from the language; others argue that terms like "dear", "love" and "pet" aren't necessarily offensive in themselves, but that their use often signals an assumption of intimacy on the part of the addresser that can threaten women.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA6 - Language Debates

Ta to Chas for the link to this

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Urgent assistance required

Dear sir, you may have heard of my father, the late General Ayo Boateng of Nigeria. Upon his death, I discovered a sum of some US$ 10 million in a dormant account. If you help me transfer this money I can assure you, you will become a rich man. All I need are your bank account details...

So begins one of many 419 scam emails sent by fraudsters looking to dupe gullible punters into parting with their bank details. It's amazing that anyone falls for it, but people do, and somewhere - well, Nigeria mostly, if the story on the BBC website is to believed - someone is making some money out of it. So are the BBC right or is this an attempt by a Ghanaian BBC journalist, over-excited about his football team's qualification for the World Cup, trying to stir up West African animosities? I'll let you decide that, but my last 3 scam emails have come not from Nigeria but South Africa (one is reprinted below).

But it would be a shame if these 419 scams disappeared, as they make for a good bit of linguistic analysis. Just what is it that doesn't ring true about the one below? Is it the inconsistent punctuation and spelling, the over-familiar salutation "Hello Dear", the semantically nonsensical sign-off "Contact immediately for more information with favorable succinctly your positive response" or the cack-handed explanation of familiar euphemisms "I also discovered that the account holder has long since passedaway (dead) leaving no beneficiary to the account"?

There's got to be a language investigation in there somewhere!

Scambusters article - interesting link to BBC story on people who deliberately wind up 409 scammers.

Recent 419 scam:

From:Mr Davison kas
NO:57 EASTERN CAPE,
JO/B.SOUTH AFRICA,


Hello Dear,

My name is Mr Davison kas and I work in the
International operation department in a Local Bank
here in South Africa.

On a routine inspection I discovered a dormant
domiciliary account with a BAL.Of 36,000,000 (Thirty
Six Million USD) on further discreet investigation, I
also discovered that the account holder has long since
passedaway (dead) leaving no beneficiary to the
account.

The bank will approve this money to any foreigner
because the former operator of the a/cis a foreigner
and from Iraq in particular and I am certainly sure
that he is dead, and nobody will come again for the
claim of this money A foreigner can only claim this
money with legal claims to the accountHolder;
therefore I need your cooperation in this transaction.

I will provide the necessary information needed in
order to claim this money, but you will need to open
an account where this can be transferred.If interested
send your private Telephone No. And Fax number
including full details of the account to be used for
the Deposit I wish for utmost onfidentiality in
handling this transaction as my job and the future of
my family would be jeopardized if it were breached.

I want to assure you that the transaction is without
risk if due process is followed accordingly. Finally,
I will give you 25% for your corporation.

Contact immediately for more information with
favorable succinctly your positive response.

Great regards,

Mr Davison kas

Useful for:
EA4C - Language Investigation


Friday, October 14, 2005

Verbal smokescreens

There's a great article in today's Guardian concerning the use of government jargon. Simon Jenkins launches into a linguistic and political assault on the government's housing policy: if it weren't bad enough that the Labour Party (that's the Labour Party!) were planning to sell off all council housing by 2012, they can't even use language most of us understand when they tell us of their plans. He calls the document "a disgrace to the English language and the British civil service", which is fair enough. Hardly surprising though is it, that the more New Labour embraces the market and its values, the more it speaks in the business mumbo-jumbo of the sub-David Brents who run its PFI projects and City Academies. And the more it moves away from its original supporters...

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA6 - Language Debates

Eating ghotifingaz and coming from da endz

It's been a week in which teachers have been criticised for their poor spelling and questions have been asked about children's levels of literacy. So what's that headline all about?

Well, in case you didn't know, "ghoti" spells "fish" and "da endz" is some form of youth slang for "the area you live in" (as in "You coming round my yard tonight?", "No, why don't you come round my endz", or something...) but both examples highlight issues with English spelling: its bizarre rules and its susceptibility - or otherwise - to the powerful forces of slang and language variation.

First off, in an article on the TES website, Bill Hicks talks about the uproar among teachers when The Times poked fun at their dodgy spelling in an online debate about literacy. I've got to admit, I've seen some really awful spelling among teachers of all subjects and feel embarrassed when I spot reports going home with howlers like "recieved", "Mark must work too his full potential" and "I hope this isn't to late", but isn't it a bit much to criticise teachers for what they write on discussion boards. Isn't it all down to context?

Most young people don't text in standard grammar or using standard spellings, and most teachers probably slip into a different register when they're contributing to internet discussions or sending colleagues emails. After all, we switch between registers when we speak to each other and use different elements of our "linguistic wardrobe" (as Jennifer Coates puts it). On top of that, there are the usual typing errors and technological cock-ups that lead to unwitting mistakes.

But beyond this discussion about appropriateness within given contexts, there's a bigger problem: the illogicalities of English spelling. If you can write the sound "ee" in 12 different ways, as a colleague at another college, Susan Wilde, has done in one of her resources (available for download from the resources site - thanks Susan!) then what hope is there for children trying to learn how to spell?

English spelling is notoriously tricky and contains relics from all sorts of bygone eras, and borrowed words from all over the world. If we take the noun "debut" as an example, you can see that in its original language (French, I assume), the "t" sound is silent. We've converted the noun into a verb as well, since importing the term and can now write "debuted" (using an -ed suffix to denote the past tense) but it sounds nothing like how it's written. For more on the history of English spelling have a look here, while if you want to check your own spelling have a look at the BBC's hardspell site here.Today's Daily Mirror also carries a feature on spelling here. Elsewhere, campaigners for spelling reform put their case, arguing for a change to the way we spell words to help bring spelling closer to pronunciation.

Finally, with texting and email language embedding spellings like "da" for "the" and "dem" for "them" into the lexicon of younger people, perhaps reflecting a Caribbean influence on the phonology of many youngsters in London and beyond, is the spelling system being pulled in conflicting directions? Is English spelling caught between the fossilised remains of the Great Vowel Shift and the shiny I-Pod English of the present day?

"Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold" - or should that be "center" ?!

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change and Varieties
ENA6 - Language Debates

Friday, October 07, 2005

And finally...the dreaded r-word

Just to show I'm not obsessed about racist and homophobic abuse, how about this bizarre story? Posters on the Island of Portland (or peninsula really, if you're getting all topographical) advertising the new Wallace and Gromit film, have been altered so as not to offend local sensibilities towards the word "rabbit".

Read it and weep...

Next up, the c-word

No, not that c-word, it's "coloured".

Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has opened up a debate on people's attitudes towards the word and whether it's worth getting worked up about when there are more pressing issues of racism to deal with in British society.

In the article for yesterday's Guardian, Phillips says:
Most black or Asian people who venture out of the comfort zone of urban Britain will at some point hear someone refer to people like us as "coloured". Like most people of my generation, I regard this as a relic of a less enlightened age. Occasionally it masks an uncompromisingly racist viewpoint, but let me be clear: even when the intention isn't malign, its use offends me personally and every black person I know.
But then goes on to add:
If you are faced with a beetle-browed racist, it's easy to deal with. You tell them where to get off. But if the term is used by a gentle octogenarian, desperate to be polite? No matter how gently you do it - and believe me, I've been there - the correction always feels like a stinging rebuff. Next time they meet a black person they'll be even more anxious and reserved. And how will that black person interpret this reserve? Understandably as yet more evidence of deep-seated white hostility.
So is it a bad word? Or just one of those words that you can excuse old people using because it's what they were brought up with? And even if we make a decision about the word for ourselves, what do we do about it in real life? Many older people aren't really sure which words are OK to use since there have been so many shifts in meaning and nuance over time. I remember an elderly family member once asking me "So it's OK to call the coloureds black now, is it?", and choking on my coffee when an aged neighbour once referred to Tiger Woods as "that young nigger golfer"! But while we may be shocked and offended by such words, is it right or appropriate to take up cudgels every single time and "correct" such usage? And how do we now explain to Aunt Gladys that it's alright for young black people to refer to each other as "nigga" when she only stopped using that word 10 years ago!

The article by Phillips is followed up by a piece in G2 which looks at the background to the word and its use.

Once again, all comments welcome!

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language and Representation
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Biggin' it up

As every cheapskate London sixth former knows, Metro is the best newspaper in the world because a) it's free and b) it's not the Evening Standard. Today's is a particularly good edition as it has an article on Susie Dent's new Language Report, "Fanboys and Overdogs". Last year's Larpers and Shroomers was a great read and covered the latest developments in English language use, including new words, non-standard grammar and semantic shifts. E-julie's Language Legend has a feature on it too, with an article from the Telegraph.

According to the article, the most popular recent development has been the "bigging up" of usual terms of approval such as "hero" to "superhero", or "overdog" instead of "underdog". There's bound to be some real gems in the book itself, so put it on your Christmas list.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

Sunday, October 02, 2005

And now for the dreaded g-word

"In most schools up and down the country, the word 'gay' is being used thousands upon thousands of times in a derogatory context. If you fall over in school and look a prat, that's gay; when you're given homework, it's gay; if you're wearing unfashionable trousers, they're gay. It is the "in" insult of the playground, along with faggot, queer, bender, bum boy, batty boy, lezzie and dyke."

So says Sue Saunders of the campaign group, Schools Out. And we all know it's true. So why is this type of language generally looked upon as less serious than racist abuse? In an article about homophobic bullying in yesterday's Guardian, the impact of homophobic language is discussed at length, and the point is made that - rather like the n-word discussed earlier - there is a history to terms like "gay" which goes beyond the current use of it as a generalised term of abuse for anything remotely "crap" (a form of broadening in language change). And there's also a history of suffering, abuse and violence - not least for younger people who are either open about their sexuality or just lazily labelled as "gays", "battyboys" or "faggots" by other children for whatever spurious reasons.

Again, all comments on this article and the wider debate about terms of abuse, would be welcome!

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

The dreaded n-word

'I thought that if I saw the word as a negative one, it would be the same as admitting we had not moved on since those days of racism. I said that people could call me "nigger" if they wanted but I was proud of the life I had made for myself and for my children, and so if that's what a nigger does, then thank you, that's what I was proud to be. I was still going to use the word; end of.'

So says Ashley Walters (aka Asher D of So Solid fame, and more recently star of the excellent British film, Bullet Boy) in an interview in today's Observer. But that's not the whole story; while making a programme for Channel 4 about racist language (Sticks and Stones, to be shown this Tuesday night), Walters' attitudes to the word underwent a massive change:

'I began to understand that you can't say that a word means one thing coming from black people's lips but has another meaning when it comes from a white person's. I didn't realise I was actually making it easier for the racists to use, but when that little boy said what he did, I felt that even though I didn't feel I was directly reinforcing and promoting racism, maybe I was part of the cycle. I suddenly felt guilty and wrong.'

But is Walters right when he claims the word can't have different meanings when spoken by different people? When we discuss this issue in class, most students (of whatever ethnic background) agree that the word means different things in different contexts and from different mouths. So why does Walters feel so differently? Is it part of an attempt by Walters to escape the background that he's been linked with: the itchy trigger-fingered sarf London ghetto hustler? Or is it a genuine re-assessment of language from a man who's grown up and changed? I'd like to think the latter, but I'll leave you to decide.

All comments welcome!

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA5 - Language Change and Varieties
ENA6 - Language Debates