Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I don't want to talk about it...

There's an interesting article in today's Times about the ways in which men and women supposedly use language differently in arguments. Following on from Deborah Cameron's Myth of Mars and Venus work, I feel dubious of any claim that men do x and women do y, because as Cameron has persuasively put it, most of these claims are exaggerated and tend to generalise people's behaviour, without showing much awareness of context.

But one point that does emerge from this article is that even though it's daft to generalise, maybe there are some patterns of socialisation that influence some women's behaviour and some men's when it comes to arguments. As Christine Northam, a counsellor for Relate the marriage-guidance service says:

I do talk with men who find it very, very difficult to engage with their feelings. Women say: ‘He won’t respond to me, he won’t listen, he thinks he’s right all the time.’ Men have been socialised to think that they know what they are talking about. I know it’s changing, it’s really changing a lot. But that’s still around: ‘Men are powerful and what I say goes.’ Women internalise that too. It’s not just the blokes. Women get very frustrated, hysterical, when trying to get their point across because it seems that it just falls on the dead ground all the time. What they are saying is not being picked up and acknowledged and dealt with.

Certainly the younger men that I see tend to be much more willing to engage with their feelings, keen to understand them and talk about them. Older men find it slightly trickier or more than slightly trickier.


So how important are expectations of what's appropriate "masculine" or "feminine" behaviour to the way we argue? Are we influenced in different ways by our own parents and their arguments, by the way we want to appear to other men or other women?

The article makes interesting reading, even if it does quote a little too heavily from the John Gray book Men are from Mars, Women from Venus...

Useful for:
ENA3 - male/female conversation

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Yidiotic chanting

Tottenham Hotspur FC currently languish in the relegation spots of the Premier League and are going through yet more management upheavals, but the club and the fans are also suffering from a resurgent wave of anti-semitic abuse, if reports in today's Observer are to be believed. Spurs' reputation as a north London club with a high proportion of Jewish supporters has led to them being called the "Yids" - both by their own supporters as an affectionate self-labeling term and by others as a pejorative and racially offensive term - so-called because of the German word for Jewish ("Yiddish") which then went on to become the name of the language/dialect spoken by many Jews around the world.

While racist chanting against black players and fans has reportedly decreased since its miserable peak in the late 1970s, anti-Jewish chants have picked up in popularity again, as charming ditties like "Spurs are on their way to Belsen, Hitler's gonna gas 'em again..." might prove.

Read on...

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Put up your hands, for 'tis the grammar police

The prescriptivists are in action again, this time targeting the grammatical accuracy of the BBC's presenters. According to Ian Bruton-Simmonds (a member of the Queen's English Society) in a report in today's Observer, BBC presenters' standards are slipping:

Broadcasters are said to make mistakes such as mixing up singulars and plurals and using 'may' instead of 'might'. One of the most common mistakes cited by language campaigners is the incorrect use of the word refute. They point out that the word means to disprove, not deny.
Their solution?

100 unpaid 'monitors' working from home would note grammatical slips or badly chosen vocabulary. The checkers would then report to a central adviser, who would write to broadcasters outlining what was said and what should have been said.
Oh dear...

Fears about language change are nothing new. Two years ago, Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow was cited as a terrible example to children both linguistically and behaviourally, while about 800 years ago, a homesick Norman monk complained about the ghastly "teeth-grinding" sounds of the English language as spoken by its working and middle classes.

Prescriptivists argue that the language should be controlled and regulated to prevent its decay, while descriptivists would argue that change is inevitable and beyond the regulation of government and self-appointed guardians. A note of sanity is raised towards the end of the article when Adam Jacot de Boinod, author of The Meaning of Tingo says "Language evolves and we should evolve with it".

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

Thursday, October 25, 2007

n-word and music

According to the BBC 1 Xtra website on Weds., Nas is thinking of calling his new album the n-word. Should this cause consternation, or is it celebration of black culture, a reclamation of the racist slur, rather like gays have done with words like 'queer' and 'gay'? Read the piece and attendant thread of posts here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/1xtra/tx/nas.shtml
There's a useful link on the same page to a half-hour audio documentary on the topic. Should prove interesting for language change, representation, social contexts - besides, it's a contentious subject. Search the BBC website for earlier items on this topic: it keeps cropping up. More material can be found in the archives of all the major newspapers. Btw, one of my last year's A2 students sent me this link. She's just started a degree in Graphic Design, but misses her linguistic forum on my college VLE; uplifting, don't you think?!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Christ on a Bike! Swearing is good for you

Research by the University of East Anglia has given swearing at work the green light. The Daily Mirror explains:

A study found workers are able to let off steam and defuse tension with a well-timed curse. And many younger staff communicate more effectively by using four letter words to express themselves. But the study found managers who swear in the workplace have a negative effect, damaging morale and making employees feel bullied.

But apparently it's bad for members of certain professions to swear, according to the report, "Clearly it is not right to swear if you are dealing with customers in a bank or if you are a doctor or nurse treating a patient". So, no mention of teachers there. Excellent! Let the swearing commence...or should I say continue?

The psychological and linguistic roots of swearing are also looked at in some detail in Steven Pinker's new book, The Stuff of Thought in which he likens it to the noises dogs make when you tread on their tails. Apparently, our brain circuitry treats swearing as very different from more eloquent forms of language - almost like a reflexive noise: a growl or a bark - which is one of the reasons why stroke victims can often utter swearwords even when other language is restricted, or Tourette's Syndrome patients use swear words almost like nervous twitches.

For those of you interested in swearing and taboo language, Geoffrey Hughes' Swearing: a Social History is a good read, while the Viz Profanisaurus Rex (reviewed on Michael Quinion's excellent World Wide Words site here) is one of the most comprehensive guides to offensive language that you could ever hope to read.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change & upsetting your maiden aunt

You're not being kicked off the course...we're thinning out the class

Euphemism is a wonderful thing. At least it is until you get shot by an American soldier and they call it friendly fire, or you lose your job and find you haven't been sacked but the company has downsized. But it can be great when you suffer memory failure over a piece of work you say you handed in but know that you didn't, or suffer a Janet Jackson-esque wardrobe malfunction which is actually a case of indecent exposure. Hiding the horrible truth of death, redundancy, toilet functions or prejudice is what euphemism is all about.

An article in yesterday's London Paper which is so cheap it doesn't actually feature the story online, and an article from last month's Times here take a look at euphemism and its uses. Quoting a new book by John Ayto on the topic of euphemism, The Times article gives some nice examples of business-speak which hide the truth under layers of verbal gibberish:

Rather than fire workers, a company “down-sizes”, “rationalises” or “implements a skills mix adjustment”. Rather than admit to losing money, the accountants will report “negative cash flow”, “net profit revenue deficiencies”, or the mind-bending “negative contributions to profits”. Businessmen talk about “preserving optionality” – finance-speak for “doing nothing”.
And for a view on euphemism from 20 years ago, try this link to an article from Bernard Levin

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

The origins of new words

An article in today's Independent follows up the story from earlier in the year about the Oxford English Dictionary's quest to find word origins by getting the public to help. This exercise in democratic etymology has proved pretty successful, with earlier than previously recorded citations for expressions like "Daft as a brush", "der-brain" and "the dog's bollocks" making appearances.

More here: Independent article

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Language Change timelines

As promised, here are links to Language Change timelines for use with ENA5. Remember that you are set texts from 1600-1950 as part of your exam, so do not need to know masses of details about pre-1600 change, but I've suggested some broad areas which are important to remember below.

BBC History timeline

British Library timeline

Important areas to have an understanding of in pre-1600 language change:

  • Word order becomes increasingly more important in controlling meaning as Old English (Anglo-Saxon) develops. The Norse influence has a part to play in this but the change is almost complete by Early Modern English.
  • "Layering" of words from other languages is a trend that starts with Norse, continues with Norman and into the present day.
  • Integration is vital to the development of the English Language from Anglo Saxon through to the present day: where peoples intermingle, languages start to influence each other.
  • Technology was changing language as far back as 1476 when Caxton brought the printing press from the Netherlands. This helped to cement the East Midlands and South East dialect as the standard and led to the diffusion of written English around the country.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Linguists on the Radio

I know Radio 4 is not the station of choice for most south London sixth formers, but it's worth a listen every now and then to help you pick up on how language issues are popularised and made accessible to mainstream audiences.

For example, in the last week, two linguists have featured on Radio 4 programmes. Deborah Cameron whose excellent new book The Myth of Mars and Venus challenges the stereotype that women speak more - and more articulately - than men is featured here in last Friday's Woman's Hour podcast. Steven Pinker, whose new book The Stuff of Thought explores the language universals that bind us all together as humans, is featured here in yesterday's Start The Week.

And while both interviews are interesting for their subject matter - which will undoubtedly help you do well in your exams if you use it - it's also worth thinking about how radio like this can be scripted. In your ENA6 paper next summer, you may well be asked to write a radio script about a topic just like these.

Useful for:
ENA3 - male female conversation
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA6 - Language Debates

New words scrapbook

New words are emerging all the time. Before you can say "Rarsclart rudebwoy, why you flexin me?" a new word has sprung up and worked its way into our language. And as part of your A2 work on ENA5 you'll need to have plenty of good examples at your disposal. So, this post is designed to help.

"How?" I hear you ask. "You haven't given us any new words here. What are you playing at, man?" I hear you continue.

Well, that's because it's your chance to add comments to this post about new words you've come across. Together we can build a new words scrapbook.

"Scrapbook? Crapbook!" I hear you respond, somewhat rudely.

Well, it doesn't have to be rubbish, but it largely depends on you and what you post. If you can send in new words or links to articles about new words we'll soon have some examples to be getting on with, Then I'll try to offer a bit of analysis of what we've got, you can chip in with your ideas and we'll all learn something together.

"Yes, but where are the Haribo?" you ask.

Well, the Haribo prizes will be awarded to the top 5 most interesting new words posted as comments. There's no strict criteria for what makes an interesting new word, but if I like it I'll award you some Haribo. OK?

So to get the ball rolling, here's a link to something about
Susie Dent's new Language Report and the words of 2000 - 2007.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Contemporary Language Change

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The votes are in...

So thank you to all the (80) people who voted in the poll on the dreaded n-word. The results are quite interesting on a number of levels:
  1. Maths isn't my strong point but it adds up to 99%, so I guess there are stray decimal points somewhere.
  2. Lots of people from outside SFX have voted because there are only 13 (self-identified)black people in the poll and that's probably about 20% of the total number of black students we have in AS and A2.
  3. While 11% of respondents are black and don't use the n-word, 5% are black and do use it. The vast majority (88%) don't use it at all.

What does this tell us? Well not a lot. Some explanatory comments would be useful to go with this. For the 5 white or Asian respondents who say they *do* use the word, what context is it in? Are you marking out your affinity to black culture (whatever that means) or are you unreconstructed racists? And for the 9 black respondents who don't use the word, what are your objections?

What it does tell us is that polls like this are only moderately helpful in gauging people's attitudes. So let that be a lesson to you when you do your language investigation coursework!

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language and Representation
EA4C - Language Invetsigation

The Language Barrier?

There's a series of three extracts from Deborah Cameron's new book The Myth of Mars and Venus in The Guardian this week, which should be essential reading for all AS and A2 students (and teachers!).

As she outlined in this piece last year, Cameron isn't really a fan of those linguists who argue that there are inbuilt differences between male and female language. For one - she argues - there are more language differences between different men or women within their own sex than there are between the sexes. For two - she argues - the myth of gendered differences is being used to make women feel that they need to adjust their speech to become more "assertive" and "direct". For three - she argues - an industry has sprung up around the whole myth, crystallising these rather dubious ideas as scientific "fact".

They're convincingly researched and persuasively argued points, and part of a much wider debate about gender and language which affects us all. As Cameron puts it in today's extract:


The idea that men and women metaphorically "speak different languages" - that they use language in different ways and for different reasons - is one of the great myths of our time. Research debunks the various smaller myths that contribute to it: for instance, that women talk more than men (research suggests the opposite); that women's talk is cooperative and men's competitive (research shows that both sexes engage in both kinds of talk); that men and women systematically misunderstand one another (research has produced no good evidence that they do).

The three pieces can be found here, here and here.

Recent research detailed here supports Cameron's findings and suggests that males and females actually talk about as much as each other on average. But as Cameron is quick to point out in her book, what is an "average" male or "average" female? We are all different and use language in many different ways in different contexts.
Useful for:
ENA3 Male and female conversation
ENA6 Language Debates


Monday, October 01, 2007

Information for teachers of English Language

The course blog for our programme of English Language teacher workshops is now up and running at http://englishlanguageworkshopssfx.blogspot.com/

We're still finalising the programme of speakers and presenters, but it's already looking like a really great line-up. If you're interested in attending please use the course blog to contact us.