Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A gripefest about language use

People have always complained about others’ use of the English language, and have looked back to previous generations as golden ages of English while bemoaning the language of the youth of today. Julie Blake covered the history and background to such complaints about language change in her Bilious Pigeon lecture at the last SFX Language Conference, and it’s now an article in the February emag (in the LRC).

A recent discussion in class about the conversion of the noun text to the verb to text and younger people’s use of the past tense form “I text you yesterday” rather than what I thought was the “right” past tense form “I texted you yesterday”, is maybe a case in point. To me, as a 30-something English teacher, it seems normal to say “text” in the present tense and then add the –ed inflection in the past tense. But for (I think) everyone in the two A2 classes that was strange, abnormal, weird, just…extra. Even Gbemi’s dad thinks it’s weird and he’s probably older than me. So, who’s right? Well, we all are to some extent, but if the usage of text as a past tense continues to spread, then you’ll be standard in your use and I’ll be just a bit old-fashioned and non-standard in mine. Then I'll start to moan about the youth of today having no respect.

Likewise, the trend towards missing out prepositions like “to” in utterances like “I’m going Peckham”, or “You going library” seems to growing beyond casual, colloquial use into more formal settings. Maybe that too will spread to become the standard form among a whole generation. There’s probably someone researching it now.

But in wider society (i.e. away from SFX and Sarf LDN) many, many people have their own linguistic bugbears, and two websites have called for their readers to add their own.The response has been huge. According to
The Language Log blog, “at the New York Times, Dick Cavett's inaugural blog post "It's only language" now has 761 comments. And across the Atlantic, on the Telegraph's web site, readers have devoted more than 1,270 comments”

Old favourites like like being “over-used” in speech (“And I was like “yeah?” and she was like “whatever”) and doubling-up of prepositions (“He’s Damon out of Blur” or “She’s inside of the house”) all appear, but there are many others too, like complaints about the verb to rob being used to describe thefts from houses as well as people. “The house was robbed” is seen as wrong by some of the contributors; they argue it should be “The house was burgled” as only people can be robbed. Have a look for yourselves.

But, as The Language Log points out, lots of these so-called wrong usages have actually been around for hundreds of years and the more recent ones are just matters of personal taste. Like so many prescriptive attitudes to language change, there are deeper social factors at work, and these are not just complaints about language but about a changing society.

Underneath it all, lies something a bit more psychological too: the need for people to get together into communities – either real or virtual – and hold gripefests about language. As
this article discusses, the unease that the gripers feel about abuses of their language, is probably more to do with social and psychological issues than it is to do with language itself. And the article goes on to ask where this will lead us.

The recent Lynne Truss and John Humphrys phenomenon - and David Crystal’s excellent response to both of them
here and in his book The Fight For English - show us that many people feel insecure about “correct” usage and how they will be judged by others if they speak incorrectly, while others are quick to correct us on our errors. But, equally, there are many people who go around blissfully unaware that they are being judged, looked down upon and condescended towards, by “correct” speakers. What the study of language at GCSE, A Level and beyond should be able to do is make all speakers of language aware that one person’s “incorrect” usage is another’s code-switching, and that so long as we all have some grasp of Standard English, we shouldn’t write off others’ language as inferior.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Attitudes to Language Change

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The lexical patterns of liars

If you’re emailing a teacher with excuses for not being at a lesson, not giving in coursework or being late, and you’re telling porkies, beware; new software has been developed which can – according to this article in The Sunday Times - spot lies through your lexis.

The software has been designed by a team at Cornell University led by Jeff Hancock, and scans messages to discover a number of lexical patterns and trends, which might indicate that the writer is lying, with a 70% success rate so far.

One of the main giveaways is the length of a message. E-mails that mask a lie have, on average, 28% more words than truthful messages. “When you’re lying, you are trying to give a credible story so you provide more detail, you are in persuasive mode,” said Hancock.

Liars are also more likely to use third-person pronouns, such as “they” and “he”, in a bid to distance themselves from a lie because of the guilt associated with it.

“People also tend to use negative emotional terms because they feel uncomfortable when they are lying,” said Hancock. “So they tend to use terms like ‘sad’, ‘angry’, ‘unhappy’ and ‘stressed out’.”

Another telltale sign of a fib is the overuse of “sense terms”, such as “see”, “feel” and “touch”, which Hancock believes are employed to build up an elaborate and evocative account of a scenario that may never have happened.

Finally, liars tend to use fewer “causal phrases” to minimise the chances of being caught out. So, for example, a person conducting an illicit affair is less likely to say they were unable to get home early last night because they were with someone else. “They will just say, ‘Sorry, I couldn’t meet you’ and be deliberately vague,” said Hancock.

Email is often described as a blunt tool, which doesn’t convey the nuances and tones of real face to face conversation, and it’s often blamed for misunderstandings between people. So, can a computer programme really reveal lies in people’s email style? There are skeptics, including psychologist, Peter Collett who says “The thing about lying is that a lot of it can be picked up from body language when you talk, it’s got something to do with the timing, the pacing and the actual utterances,” he said. “How can you get software to spot all this? With e-mails you are just left with lexical patterns”.

But with so much communication now carried out by email, maybe we’ve all developed our own styles – our own email idiolects - and the technology can work to reveal our little white lies. Or the big fat ones, like when my children try to get sweets and biscuits out of me by saying that I’m not bald. So, don’t try that one at college…

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dying dialects

"It's been dying for some time and it will just die a natural death. I was brought up in the fishing industry, which has died out, and the dialect has gone as the place changes." So says Bobby Hogg, 87 years old and one of possibly two or three surviving speakers of a particular fisherman's dialect from Cromarty in the Highlands of Scotland.

In an article in The Scotsman newspaper this week, linguists and cultural historians had a look at the looming disappearance of another local dialect - not just a regional dialect but an occupational one too - and the significance of it to the rest of us.

And it's not only in sleepy fishing villages that local dialects appear to be dying out, but in the urban heart of Scotland too. In a linked article, Miriam Meyerhoff, a professor of sociolinguistics at Edinburgh University looks at the ways in which the influence of southern English, American and Australian has changed the lexis and phonology of Scottish English.

So are we seeing the death of regional varieties of English, smothered under a blanket of mass media-driven metropolitan mumbling? Well, yes and no; as lots of recent research by linguists like Dave Britain at Essex University, Sue Fox at Queen Mary's University and Paul Kerswill at Lancaster University (among others) has shown, while dialect levelling is clearly taking place - local differences gradually blurring as wider and regional ones take hold - new dialects are also being created.

Have a search under multi ethnic youth dialect or multi cultural london english in the search bar at the top of this page, to find a host of articles about new varieties of English, or better still, post your own examples here as comments.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties

Friday, February 09, 2007

Faggots swimming in gravy

"It's all about having a laugh," says Peter Towler of Mad O’Rourke’s Pie Factory in Tipton, West Midlands. So why aren't gay rights activists laughing? Well, it might have something to do with the so-called Michael Barrymore pie on offer at the shop, which according to the menu contains "faggots swimming in gravy", a reference to the dead man floating in Michael Barrymore's swimming pool presumably. The story appeared earlier this week in The Sun.

For those of you under 25 and from the south of England, the original food-based definition of faggots might need explaining - meatballs, basically - and that's because the pejorative use of the term to refer to gay men has pretty much taken over in younger generations' usage. But what is a faggot and how did the word come to be?

According to Michael Quinion's World Wide Words site, the term used to mean "a bundle of sticks" (strangely, the same origin of the word "fascist", I think) and then came to be applied to women, in much the same way as the word "baggage" was applied to women: in other words they were property, owned by men and probably - like baggage - a bit of a burden. So, having made the journey from sticks to women, like so many other words it started to be applied as a term of abuse for men who exhibited overly feminine characteristics, including gay men.

According to Quinion the use of it as a term to describe women remained until relatively recently, the influence of American English and the widespread use of it as a term for men gradually pushing it aside until it crept into relatively general usage.

So general in fact, that Rio Ferdinand let the word slip out on Radio 1 last year before apologising and claiming he wasn't homophobic. Yeah, right...

As a derogatory term, it's up there with some of the extreme racist words that featured in The Sun article last month, but it seems like there's more of a fuss when racist language is used maybe because there's wider antipathy towards gay people than there is towards ethnic minorities. So, while Rio Ferdinand is happy to sign his name to any anti-racist campaign, he might be less likely to support an anti-homophobia in football campaign.

But it's not all bad news; the word appears in one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time, The Pogues' and Kirsty Maccoll's "Fairytale of New York" - "You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, Merry Christmas your arse, I pray God it's our last". Quality...

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Importance of Context (and Prepositional phrases!)

This post is quite a technical but interesting one. It talks about clause structure and hopes to show how prepositional phrases help us identify ambiguity and in doing so show us the importance of context.
(Yes I did get it from a supervisor but where's the harm in sharing the fun?)

Let's analyse the following sentence on a phrasal level:

I saw a man with a telescope in the park

Most noticeably, there are four noun phrases
(noun phrases tell us what exactly we are talking about in terms of entities/things):
-'I' (remember phrases can in fact be one word when dealing with clause structure),
-'a man',
-'a telescope', and
-'the park'.

There are also two prepositional phrases
(I have recently been enlightened that these tell us not only about spatial relationships- 'on', 'above', 'underneath', etc- but also relationships regarding general awareness of things i.e. 'with', and 'between'):
-'with a telescope', and
-'in the park.'

(I tried to argue that 'saw a man' was a verb phrase but I was told that was pushing it, so we'll disregard those but post if you agree with me that it so could be identified as one! Moving on Charissa..)

Prepositional phrases (pps) are meant to tell us something about how these nouns and entities are related to each other right? Like what they are doing and who has them and stuff.
Now, bearing this is mind-
where is the man? I looked at my supervisor like duh- the man is in the park stupid.
Where are you if you are referring to yourself as 'I'? 'I'm watching the man in the park with me.'
Where is the park? 'Around me'
Where's the telescope? My response: 'it belongs to the man, so it's in the park also?' (by this time I'm not even sure myself now- there is a term for this which I really need to revise. Anyhow..) The argument goes thus:

Is it not possible, that the pps have decieved you? You cannot possibly know where the man is and the park is etc simply by looking at the sentence- that is if we assume this is a complete sentence, as we have been given no punctuation to signal this is so.
-What if the park was one of those parks with telescopes fitted in? you could be watching the man with the park's telescope but the man may not be in the park himself.
-What if the telescope was by your bedroom window? You could be looking into the park through the telescope at the man, the man doesn't necessarily have to have the telescope.

Didn't really enjoy the insinuations that I'd be the one watching men through telescopes (I don't for the record), nevertheless the point is clear. With literature, and indeed the texts we get in textual analysis papers, this ambiguity is removed and we wouldn't even be considering what the circumstances of these entities were. Literature builds up characters and tells us more about what we need to know, so that language becomes revealing of situations and places and events. Literature, in a way, makes pps safe and reassuring to us because it serves an adverbial or adjectival function. But, if we get one of those texts that begin with clauses such as the one given above, then these prepositional phrases become important for us to analyse as it'd be a major part as to how we're recieving the text and why we're making the technical judgements we are about the text at work.

Of course this is just one example of how language complicates literature in an interesting way.
Honestly, I'm not sure can't tell you how to directly apply this complication to a question, but perhaps if we consider what doesn't add up about the text given, pps would be a way in. What do you think?

Farewell for now..