Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Accent change? You're having a laff.

Today’s Telegraph has a front page feature on research into accent change in the UK, which focuses on the spread of vowel sounds and trends in dialect (or rather, accent) levelling. The article takes a historical overview of trends in accent and looks at how the words bath and laugh are pronounced these days and how they were spoken 200 years ago. As with many pieces of research into this , there seems to be a trend away from distinct local accents towards regional ones, so as Jonnie Robinson, curator of English Dialects and Accents at the British Library explains:

Huddersfield, for instance, is becoming more like Leeds, while towns nearer Hull that once had their own sound were becoming absorbed into the Humberside accent. "Really large towns stand firm, but the rest can lose their distinctiveness. And in the South, accents in places such as Reading and Oxford have become more like London." There are power accent bastions, with Liverpool being the most obvious. A combination of Irish and Welsh immigrants in the second half of the 19th century gave the city its distinctive voice, but association with what was then not a very healthy or law-abiding urban centre did not appeal to folk within easy reach.

Perhaps of more interest than the article itself – which is fairly good but doesn’t really offer much more insight than you’ll have from your lessons anyway – is a set of sound files you can listen to, of accents recorded around the country in 1950, and a link to what looks like an amazing British Library project which is creating a voicemap of the whole country.

And if the spread of Estuary/London tones isn't enough to cause palpitations for our northern brothers and sisters, have a look at this article (recommended by blog contributor, Simon Lavery) which suggests that children brought up by parents with different regional accents may end up falling behind at school. Or so they say...

Useful for:
ENA5 – Language Change & Varieties

Monday, March 26, 2007

We’re not loving it

It’s a job that is “poorly paid and menial” according to the Collins Dictionary and by the Oxford English Dictionary as an "unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector", so no wonder McDonalds wants to change the definition of the word McJob. But how do you go about changing a dictionary definition if you don’t like it? Well, not by pressurising the lexicographers, if this quote from The Language Log is anything to go by:

Sydney Landau, in his book, Dictionaries: the Art and Craft of Lexicography (Cambridge U Press, 2001) says that the lexicographer "cannot allow any special-interest group to determine what gets in his dictionary or how it is represented" (page 407). That would seem to discourage McDonald's from being too pushy with lexicographers, who have their own methods of determining meaning and who don't much cater to external pressures from industry.

So, how are dictionaries compiled and what do lexicographers do? The latest update to the OED has just come out, and some of their experts talk about the new words and how they collect them here:
http://www.oed.com/news/newwords.html
http://www.oed.com/news/revisions.html

Useful for:
ENA5 – Language Change

Friday, March 23, 2007

Haribo crisis

Due to a recent fire at the Haribo factory in Luxemburg, supplies of this delicious confectionery have been scarce. So winners of last week’s quiz – Evelyn and Whitney – and winners of the language change bingo lessons – err, lots of you – will have to wait until next week for supplies.

Either that, or email the college principal with a demand for me to receive a well-earned pay rise, and I'll be down Walthamstow Asda/Poundland like a shot.

English accent = bad teeth and booze problem


On first hearing an English accent 50 years ago, Americans might have thought: stately home, private school, good manners. Nowadays, they think: low income, poor diet, alcohol problem.

So says Toby Young in this article from The Guardian. Accents and different ways of pronouncing particular words and sounds, have long stirred up animosity and disquiet. Some people only have to hear a Scouse accent before they’re clutching their handbag and hubcaps to their chest and muttering “smackheads”, while others hear a Jamaican accent and run for cover. Many harbour prejudices about Caribbean or American accents (as this post from last year shows) and some just hate it when we drop our t’s (as in the glottalised bottle and water).

Stephen Fry commented earlier in the week – some say rather bitterly – that an English accent, rather than acting talent, will open doors for you in Hollywood (that story is featured here and developed in the BBC website's magazine) and Toby Young’s article is a response to this. Meanwhile, David McKie looks at the ways in which the letter “h” is pronounced and the extreme reactions such an ‘umble little word can produce.

All this can tie in to work on ENA5 and attitudes towards different accents and dialects, and links to previous posts on the blog about Howard Giles’ matched guise experiment and the Aziz corporation’s survey of attitudes to accents back in 2005. And like so many of these articles, it’s not just what the columnist says that’s interesting but the responses from readers at the end of the article. Just quoting a few examples of extreme prescriptivism from these articles would be a useful way of injecting some contemporary discussion into essays about attitudes to accent and dialect.

Useful for:
ENA5 – Language Varieties

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Nasty names

Black bastards... gingers... monkeys... it must be another post about offensive language and race.

There’s been another flurry of media interest in racist language over the last week with a senior Conservative Party MP resigning over his use of the term “black bastard” while talking about racism in the army, the current Miss Scotland receiving criticism for calling Samantha Mumba (remember her?) a monkey, and lots of ginger people complaining to Metro about the abuse they receive (no link – check the tube train floor).

There’s not much more to say about this sort of thing, apart from how it’s always useful to see what media commentators have to add to the debate, and in this instance Nirpal Dhaliwal talks about how his own dad served in the British Army and was subjected to racist abuse, but how he coped, dealt with it and eventually thrived. Worth a read, and the comments posted afterwards have sparked heated debates too.

My dad came to Britain, from India, as a nine-year-old. Aged 17, he joined the Gloucestershire Regiment in 1967. Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, the army was his only way to escape the factory work that everyone else he grew up with was destined for. Only 5ft 6ins tall, he was a slightly built Asian lad who wanted to see something of the world.

He'd been the only Asian child at his school and had suffered racial abuse and beatings. He now entered the hyper-macho arena of the army in which his colour made him stick out like a sore thumb. Coming from London made him even more of an oddity. When he first joined the West Country regiment, other soldiers would appear at his billet to gawp at the brown-skinned boy who spoke with a cockney accent. But people's responses weren't always so benign. The word 'Paki' wasn't then a common part of racist parlance, so the bullies used the words 'wog', 'nigger' and 'coon' to his face instead. He shared a room with one who habitually called him a 'black enamelled bastard'. He was also attacked. One long-serving soldier, a heavyweight boxer several years older than him, picked a fight with him in a pub, spuriously accusing my dad of badmouthing him behind his back. He took my father outside, shouted the routine insult of 'You black bastard!' and butted him.


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

New acronyms: FIDS and FUDS

Last year we had HEIDIS (Highly Educated Independent, Degree-carrying Individuals) and now we have FIDS (Fully Involved Dads) and FUDS (Fully Uninvolved Dads). The trend to label different or changing groups in society with increasingly strange acronyms seems to be on the increase, as advertisers, and now government, try to put us all into categories and box us up.

A BBC4 programme called Are We Having Fun Yet is running at the moment and according to this link on the BBC website (posted by blog contributor Simon Lavery to the English Language List), part of the series considers new words used to label the changing demographics of the 60s through to noughties.

So this week's Haribo competition for A2 students is, what do the acronyms MOS and PAW mean? Post your answers as comments below and the first 2 answers will get a prize each.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

Monday, March 05, 2007

Today's cliché is tomorrow's proverb

A hundred years from now, period dramas set in 2007 will feature pretty girls with antique rings through their noses informing their parents that they are going upstairs for a, like, chill-out, y'know, and Telegraph readers will coo and purr at this comforting reminder of a more civilised era.

In an excellent response to last week’s Daily Telegraph article (and subsequent 8 million replies) about words and phrases that annoy us, Craig Brown traces the origins of certain “newfangled” expressions and finds that they’re older than they appear. While prescriptivists moan about new words and phrases entering the language, Brown points out that words and phrases like “undies” (as short for underwear), “trouble shooter” and “beat it” (like in Michael Jackson’s classic, pre-scandal, tune) have been around for about 100 years already.

And he makes the point – like all good descriptivists – that attitudes to language change are more to do with attitudes to the users of these new expressions than the words themselves.

Anyhoo, check it out, like. Innit. And other expressions that annoy...

Useful for:
ENA5 – Language Change

Language change - a mehness to society?

With new words and the reasons for their existence high on the agenda for A2 students (and presentations taking place tomorrow and Wednesday – hint hint), this article in The Guardian and this post on The Language Log blog look at the word “meh” and its spread across the internet and into print.

I’m not sure I’d even registered that the word really existed, although it sounds familiar, but apparently it’s an expression of indifference or vague disapproval that’s made its first notable appearance (although this is hotly debated) in The Simpsons and then spread through the power of the constantly hilarious little yellow 4-fingerered fellows to wider society. Nowadays, it seems to occupy the same semantic space as the much more British (and therefore better) “whatever”.

As with so many words that seem to have come about in the last decade or so, it’s not so much the etymology of the word that’s interesting but its rapid spread and the reasons for this. Technology is part of it: the internet, and its massive influence on the speed of change, has to be a significant factor in the spread of new words and new meanings. When you consider that the telephone has only been around for about 130 years and personal computers for 20, you realise that in centuries past, language change could only be as quick as the quickest mode of transport: an airplane, a train, a donkey delivering the mail from one person to another.

So now, with virtually instant communication across continents, new words and new meanings spread like bird flu in a Bernard Matthews slaughterhouse. And words morph into new forms as they are transmitted: “meh” has now moved from its original function as an interjection ( a bit like “ha” or “heh”) and into an adjective (“that’s just so meh”) and now into a noun (“the very meh-ness of it”).

And a special, Haribo-based prize goes to any student who mentions this meh post in their presentation tomorrow or Wednesday.

Useful for:
ENA5 – Language Change

Thursday, March 01, 2007

NYPD Black?

A brief article on the BBC website today and a longer one in The Guardian tell how the City Council in New York has banned the use of the word "nigger", although the ban is more symbolic than legal as you can’t be punished for using the word. Apparently the move is a response to a growing use of the word, beyond the young African Americans who have supposedly “reclaimed” it from its negative connotations, into other ethnic groups.

It is, according to The Guardian article, “the latest move in an argument raging across the US over the common use of the word, especially in the black community, where it has morphed into a slang word similar to "mate".

This “semantic reclamation” has been a topic for discussion in many English Language lessons, and if the comments from SFX students are anything to go by, there seems to be a growing trend on this side of the Atlantic towards the word being used in a similar way, maybe due to the influence of American rap music on British youth culture.

But it’s not universally accepted by any means, and lots of older people from Caribbean backgrounds strongly object to its use in this way, maybe because they were the ones who were subjected to its worst sting when they arrived in this predominantly white country back in the 1950s and 1960s.

As the American lawyer Roy Miller, a campaigner against the n-word, puts it "At its worst, the N-word is the ultimate form of disrespect against black people. It is a dangerous snake which is liable to bite".


In terms of its etymology (the word’s origins and development) The Guardian describes it as coming from “the Latin "niger", Spanish "negro", and middle French "negre" meaning black. One of the earliest uses of the written word was in 1786 by slave masters to label their Africans. It is through its application in slavery that it has come to be seen by many as the most offensive racial slur in English”.

The website Ban the N-word, says on its home page “If it’s not acceptable, ok or cool to use kike, hooknose, wetback, spic, honky, cracker, paleface, peckerwood, blue-eyed devil, dago, wop, greaseball, guinea, chink, slant-eyes, gook, then, remember, it is not acceptable, ok or cool to use the N-word”.

So, a pointless campaign, doomed to failure, or a reasonable attempt to get people to address their potentially offensive language use - you decide.

The debate about the n-word has been taken up here on the BBC website, with journalist Kari Browne offering her perspective on the word's history and current usage:
Words are multidimensional. And they mean different things to different people. But how can a word used to categorically dehumanise an entire race of people ever be flipped around to be used as a term of endearment? Some African-Americans argue that by reclaiming the word, by owning it for themselves, the word can take on whatever meaning they ascribe to it.

In other words, they argue it is possible to re-invent the n-word and change its connotation. Words can be painful and incredibly emotional. The n-word was born in the context of American slavery. The first written documentation of it in print form was in 1786. It was used by white slave masters to label their black slaves.

Centuries later, it has enjoyed a rebirth among mostly young folks who have never known the context in which it was once spoken. And this is the problem. We do not hear our elders saying: "Hello my n..., how are you today?" My grandfather, raised in part by his grandmother - a freed slave - doesn't greet his friends with the word.

In fact I have never heard him, or anyone else in my family use it. So why did I?

Meanwhile, Gary Younge in The Guardian today talks about the issues around other labels for black people in the USA - African-American and Black - arguing that the rise of US Democrat and presidential hopeful, Barack Obama has led people to question what the difference is and what "blackness" actually means:

"African-American" and "black" have been used interchangeably in the US to such an extent that they are regarded as synonymous. They are not. African-American, a term which entered regular usage in the late 80s, refers to a particular ethnic experience of black Americans of African descent. Black refers simply to Americans of African descent, which includes black immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and Latin and South America. All African-Americans are black; but not all black Americans are African-American.

The political relationship between the two has always been close. Two of the greatest icons of black nationalism in the US - Stokely Carmichael and Marcus Garvey - were from Trinidad and Jamaica respectively. Malcolm X's mother was from Grenada; Louis Farrakhan's mother was from St Kitts and Nevis and his father from Jamaica.

These connections make sense. In their daily lives, all black Americans face racism. But there is more to the black American experience than racism and more to African-American identity than race.

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