Monday, May 29, 2006

Top tips for ENA5

Following on from the top tips for ENA 1, here are some suggestions for what you can do to mug up on ENA5 Language Varieties and Change: today, the textual analysis and contemporary language change questions, later in the week, the varieties question...

ENA5 can be a tricky paper as you’re expected to have a decent knowledge of language change over time & attitudes towards change, as well as a sound grasp of more advanced elements of grammar. You can revise the change aspects using a range of online resources, but the grammar bit needs plenty of practice. There are some resources you can have a look at to help you test your own knowledge of grammar, and then you can try to apply this knowledge to some older texts. Try the Internet Grammar of English and English in Use sites and then take a look at the History of Prose Style and British Library online sites for examples of older texts.

I’d suggest looking at really short extracts of a range of forms and genres and see what you could usefully say about particular lexical and grammatical features in each text. So if you’re looking at one of the selection of recipes available on the British Library site, you could think about pronoun use, modal auxiliaries, sentence function and uses of subordinate clauses of condition in the context of what the recipe’s main purpose is.

Alternatively, with a piece of philosophical or political writing, you might get mileage out of looking for particular noun types, semantic fields and sentence types: you might find that there are more complex sentences featuring relative or dependent clauses, because that type of text requires more complex logical relationships as part of its subject matter.

For the contemporary language change essay question, it’s important you have a range of examples of new words that have come into the language over the past 50 years as well as the linguistic terms used to label the processes that have created them (clipping, compounding, blending etc.). It’s also useful to look at semantic change and have the same set of terms at your disposal to describe changes in meaning (pejoration, amelioration, semantic reclamation, broadening etc.). One of the best places I've come across for discussion of new words is the MacMillan English Dictionary site.

Try to get a sense of the reasons for change too: new technology and the influence of the media are two such factors but there are many wider ones to do with social and political change (gender, sexuality and race issues and the language associated with them) and education.

With attitudes towards language change, I think it’s important to know your history and realise that people have always moaned about how language changes, while others have embraced the changes as part of a natural organic process: progress, if you like!

So, look at the background to things like Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 and Jonathan Swift’s calls to introduce an academy for language. The best places I’ve found to mug up on these have been Melvyn Bragg’s Adventure of English and the BBC series, the Routes of English .

For a critical look at attitudes to language change, your best bet is to read the chapter at the back of your ENA5 resource pack (if you haven't already) which covers Jean Aitchison's approach to others' attitudes (from her book The Language Web). These links created by the late Andrew Moore are very helpful in looking at language change and Aitchison’s views.

If you can get hold of it, David Crystal's new book How Language Works has a good section in it about change and the whole prescriptivist/descriptivist debate called "How Not to Protect Languages".

For more variety you could have a look at Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss and Adrian Beard's Language Change (check chapter list for the one on attitudes).

Friday, May 26, 2006


With all the recent media coverage of Sue Fox's research focusing on the made-up term "Jafaikan" and the Caribbean influence on English slang and youth dialect, it's easy to forget that most of her research started off looking at the Asian influence on Cockney in Tower Hamlets. A recent book by Gautam Malkani called Londonstani is written in what sounds like a form of the Multi Ethnic Youth Dialect that Sue has researched, and it's been widely talked about (a bit like the film Kidulthood) not just for its violent and disturbing plot, but for its grasp of the "real" sounds of speech from the street.

So how does it sound? Here's an extract as quoted in The Guardian's review of the book: "your glasses r so smashed up u can't count? Shud've gone 2 Specsavers, innit. How many a us bredren b here?".

So, does it sound genuine or not? Depends what you hear around you and how successfully you think Malkani has translated this into prose on the page. He's certainly not the first to attempt to convey dialect and accent on the page; as an article by Pete Bunten in the latest E Magazine explains, writers like Charles Dickens and D.H. Lawrence have used regional varieties to flesh out their characters' voices and identities, while more recently Scottish writers Irvine Welsh and James Kelman have used the voices of working class Scots to tell their complicated tales of drug addiction, alcoholism and dead-end lives.

A couple of reviews in The Guardian and Telegraph take differing positions on the novel and are linked here for you to look at. In terms of the usefulness of this for A Level study, ENA5 asks you to look at both change and varieties, so anything on emerging new dialects covers both topic areas, while ENA6 is all about language debates - issues around language that cause discussion or argument - so this could easily be part of that debate. For Lang and Lit students, it's perhaps helpful too to study the ways in which writers try to mimic spoken language in their prose style and the various technique sthey employ to capture the spoken voice.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Gangsta rap is "offensive and horrible"

A report in today's Guardian tells us that "a headteacher in charge of the government's taskforce on school discipline has urged parents and schools to ban children from listening to "offensive and horrible" sexist and racist rap music lyrics".

Whatever you think of the practicalities of stopping people listening to gangsta rap (Do teachers have to enforce a "no hoodies, no hats , no pimpin my hoes" rule in the classroom?), what do you think about the lyrical content of such beautiful gems as "Nothing left to do, but buy some shells for my glock/Why? So I can rob every known dope spot ... Gotta unlock it, and take me up a hostage" or "And what's between your legs is the product/Use it properly/And you'll make dollars, bitch"?

Many argue that the lyrics of this type of rap glorify violence, criminal lifestyles, abuse towards women and minority groups, and generally perpetuate a worldview that is negative and self-defeating. And I tend to agree, to an extent. Much as I liked the rap of my own era (and I'm showing my age here with names like Public Enemy, De La Soul, Paris, The Goats, Hijack and Ice Cube) a lot of the more recent lyrical output of 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg and many others seems to me to celebrate being an idiot. Maybe it's just my age...

But my opinions aside, is there a linguistic focus for all of this? Could we really argue that the words of these songs affect people - especially vulnerable, disadvantaged young boys - into behaving in more extreme and violent ways? The Sapir Whorf hypothesis (or at least the strong version of it, linguistic determinism) would propose that language can change the way we think, while reflectionists might argue that it simply tells us about a society that's going down the plughole.

Many A2 students have looked at the representation of women in rap lyrics as part of their Language Investigation coursework, and others have explored the different styles of language used in lyrics, but how about exploring the themes of violence and abuse, or looking at the connections between language and attitudes/ language and lifestyle choices?

I know the AS exams have only just finished but now's a good time to start thinking about coursework for next year...

You can join the Guardian debate on this story here too.

Good luck!

Good luck to all of you taking ENA1 and ENA3 today. Make sure you have some lunch before you start and don't revise up to the last minute!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Two cheers for PC

For those of you revising for ENA1 Language & Representation, this article by "Teacher of the Year" Philip Beadle has some good stuff to say about PC and attitudes towards it. (And on top of that, I like Phil Beadle - he's got a sound educational philosophy and his teaching is inventive and fun.)

In particular, this paragraph hits on issues around language and disability which some of you have asked for advice about:

Take, for instance, the phrase "Aids victim". During the early 90s, there
was a drive to tag people as "living with HIV", as opposed to being "victims" of
it. There are few, outside the most militant political group, who would argue
with this drive. The word "victim" implies defencelessness and defeat, whereas
"living with" suggests the fat lady hasn't even begun tuning up yet, and that
the person in question is vital, active, getting on with the task of living, and
not the passive recipient of an immediate death sentence.

If you need more advice on ENA1 work, try looking here and here, and do a search using the blog search toolbar at the top of the page using keywords like "political correctness" & "racist language".

Friday, May 12, 2006

Going grrrr can be grrrreat in some conversations

Most of us know that if we're angry it isn't always easy to make our point in a discussion (and research seems to support this), but what about if we're only pretending to be angry?

If we put on an angry face and behave in an angry fashion (without actually losing control) can we get better results in some conversational situations? Research from the British Psychological Society's research digest seems to suggest that such an angry act can get us results.

“Whereas feeling angry has been shown to lead to bad negotiation outcomes, we showed that expressing anger can lead to good negotiation outcomes” said researchers Marwan Sinaceur and Larissa Tiedens.
First they asked 157 students to imagine they were a salesman for a technology company, and to read a fictional account of a negation between themselves and a buyer. Afterwards, the students who read a version in which the buyer got angry agreed to more concessions than the students who read a version in which he stayed calm, but only if they were told beforehand that their business was struggling at the moment.
Could we apply some of these findings to conversation analysis ourselves, or perhaps link it to what we've seen with The Apprentice and the boardroom showdowns at the end of each episode?

Useful for:
ENA3 - Interacting through language

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

What do we mean by 'words'?

There was an item a few weeks ago about how many separate words there are in English. David Crystal has various suggestions in his Cambridge encyclopedias - and elsewhere - and you can easily find other figures bandied about by other linguists.

But it's not as easy as it might seem to calculate a precise figure. What do we mean by 'words'? Do we include every morphological variant of a root word, with every possible permutation of affixes? Do we just mean 'headword', as lexicographers term them? Some scientific and other specialist glossaries contain thousands, maybe even millions of entries that never make their way into 'English' dictionaries. So beware of easily swallowing stories like: 'English nears its millionth word'; the picture is more complex and multi-faceted than it appears. Here are two links for more nuanced discussion of this fascinating topic:
Merriam-Webster site on this (a very useful site for exploring in general, btw)


Monday, May 01, 2006

Internet gives language change free reign

Discussions about language change often seem to focus on new words and the ways in which words change meaning over time, but what about spelling (or orthography, as we tend to call it with A Level Language)?

A brief look at older texts - from Old English through to Middle English, and even up to Late Modern English - should reveal that spellings have undergone significant changes over time. Some are due to fairly simple typographical conventions of the time - how will smilies like this appear to readers in 20, 50 or 100 years? ;-) - while others seem to change for other reasons, such as particular foreign influences. How about French/Norman "querunto", American "color" or Jamaican "sekkle"?

An article in today's Guardian points the finger at one of the media for spreading changes in orthography: the internet. According to Patrick Barkham, dubious spellings of common expressions and cliches, whose meanings and original forms have become lost in time, are increasingly being disseminated through the internet. Take for example some of these:
"slight of hand" instead of "sleight", "phased by" when it should be "fazed by", "butt naked" instead of the correct "buck naked" and "vocal chords" for "vocal cords."
Many of these are quite baffling and rely on words that have either dropped out of usage or have changed meaning over time, but with the increased speed of communication that the internet offers, the "wrong" spellings seem to spread like wildfire.

But as Catherine Soanes, of Oxford Dictionaries goes on to explain in a pleasingly descriptivist way, "We have to accept spelling is not fixed and can change over the years. You only have to look back 100 years, when the word rhyme was spelled rime. But since then we adopted rhyme as the correct spelling because this is more like the Greek word from which it originally came".

And for this week's Haribo prize, what's the deliberate spelling mistake in this post's title, and what should it be? The first two answers posted as comments below get the prize...

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change