Sunday, November 25, 2007

Words of War

Here's a link to a good piece from the always interesting BBC News Magazine on the way wars have led to the creation of new words or adaptation of older ones. It's not so long ago that a "tank" was something you kept water in, rather than a large metal thing with a big cannon.

This could be handy for anyone looking at the ways in which social change and historical events have affected language change, and also help any AQA A spec teachers preparing for next year's new spec with its focus on Investigating Representations.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA2 (from 2008) - Investigating Representations

Friday, November 23, 2007

Nang slang

"Don't be prang; be nang. And use slang. Bang bang" as the lyrics to my latest release on BaldNinjaRecordings go. Not really*

But "nang slang"- one of the names given to the youth slang influenced by Bangladeshi young people in east London - is covered in real depth in this programme from the BBC Asian Network. If you can get past the first couple of minutes of rather self-conscious attempts at uber-hipness, it's a really good programme, with guest appearances by Tony Thorne (who'll be one of the speakers at our English Language Workshops for teachers in June) and Sue Fox (who spoke about her research into this dialect at our last student conference) among others.

Thanks to my bredren Tony C, aka MC Fruityloops, for this link.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change & Varieties

*I have to say this because I told one class last year that the linguist Pamela Fishman was half man half fish and several students believed me.

What should we call the people who want to kill us...

"... Islamofascists? Islamists? Jihadists? Or just plain murderers?" begins Timothy Garton-Ash in a comment piece in yesterday's Guardian. I know what I'd like to call urban 4x4 drivers doing 50mph in a 30mph zone next to my kids' school, but the swearing filter would kick in.

Aside from the fairly provocative use of inclusive pronouns to start the piece (Who are "we" and "us"?) which, to be fair, he attempts to clarify later on, it's a considered reflection on the importance of language labels in identifying "the enemy".

As he goes on to explain, "You might say it doesn't matter that much; the point is to stop them. But finding the right words is part of stopping them. It means we've correctly identified our real enemies. It also means we don't unnecessarily create new enemies by making all Muslims feel that they're being treated as terrorists".

In the topic of Language & Representation we're studying in AS at the moment, the debate over the importance of labels is central. Whether it be ethnic groups, the opposite sex, people of different sexuality, people with disabilities, members of different social classes, subcultures or age groups, labels are part of the way we define others and ourselves. As Garton-Ash points out, if we choose the wrong label we run the risk of alienating a particular group, or choosing the wrong way to deal with them - you can presumably negotiate with a freedom fighter but not a terrorist - but beyond that, the human need to label and to work with stereotypes is worth thinking about in more detail.

Do these labels affect the way we view different people? Do the words actually exert some influence on the way we think, or are the labels just a reflection of our views about the people being labelled? And why do we tend to be so quick to use stereotypes when dealing with members of different social groups?

More questions than answers...

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language and Representation

Hit me baby one more time

No, it's not a story about how Britney Spears has become rhyming slang for beers, but a link to different stories about the intelligence and education of young children.

In this report on the BBC website, researchers at Yale University claim to have discovered that babies show "social intelligence" - a pre-linguistic ability to judge others' intentions - by about 6 months of age.

As we're looking at Child Language Acquisition in AS classes at the moment, and considering different case studies like the wugs test, it's interesting to see how this experiment was designed to rule out other factors, but it's also interesting to see how far cognitive abilities can develop before language appears.

Here's an extract from the report on the BBC website:

Kiley Hamlin and colleagues at Yale University devised experiments to test whether babies aged six and 10 months were able to evaluate the behaviour of others. They used wooden toys of different shapes that were designed to appeal to babies.

The babies were sat on their parents' laps and shown a display representing a character trying to climb a hill.

The climbing character, which had eyes to make it human-like, was either knocked down the hill by an unhelpful character (a toy of a different shape and colour) or pushed up the hill by a helper cartoon figure (another shape and colour).

After watching the "puppet show" several times, each baby was presented with the helper and hinderer toys and asked to pick one.

All of the 12 six-month-old babies tested and 14 of the 16 10-month-olds reached out to touch the helper character rather than the anti-social one.

Further experiments were carried out to rule out other explanations for the behaviour - such as a preference for pushing up or down actions or the appearance of certain characters.

Part of the debate about language development concerns whether children's language develops alongside cognitive skills like a grasp of object permanence, relative size (seriation) and time. Some theorists have suggested that language comes after cognition - once a concept has been understood, the language to label it will follow - while others have suggested that the two develop alongside each other, with language labels helping children place concepts into mental categories more easily.

Behind it all lies a wider debate about the link between language and thought, which the psychologist Steven Pinker has explored in great depth in his latest book The Stuff of Thought.

A different article in yesterday's Guardian suggests that however clever babies of six months are, children of 5 and 6 are too young to be formally taught reading and that pushing children to read at too early an age can affect their confidence and later reading skills.

Children in British schools are taught phonics from the age of four or five and then more formal reading skills in Year 1, but critics argue that the British education system starts kids off too early compared to other European countries with higher literacy rates.

While you don't have to study children's reading and writing for our syllabus, it's a good area to investigate in your second year coursework.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Looking down the barrel of a gun

Rap lyrics have been blamed for many things - promoting sexist attitudes towards women, celebrating criminality and stoking anti-police attitudes, among other claims - but the link between lyrics and gun crime has been discussed at some length recently and with a little more sense.

Last year we covered this story on the blog and the same arguments are floating around now. And David Cameron - ever the soundbite-hungry attention-seeker - had criticisms to make about Radio 1's lyrical output in this link.

Meanwhile, this thoughtful article on the BBC website explores some of the issues around lyrics and their influence (or not) on young people.

Those of you doing A2 coursework which focuses on rap lyrics might want to have a look at some of the links from these articles, or contribute your own views as comments below.

And to lighten the mood, you can win a bag of Haribo if you can correctly identify the rappers who originally wrote and recorded the track "Looking down the barrel of a gun"... 1st come first served.

Useful for:
EA4C Language Investigation

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The cultural capital of the urban youth

Ever wondered why some white kids in the sticks want to "talk black" when the nearest they've been to a pimped ride is their uncle's tractor, or why middle class professionals come over all geezerish when they're talking to a plumber who's come to fix their corner bath, or why some young black people in South Africa dress and talk like Californian gangstas? It's cultural capital innit?

It's an idea first put forward by the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu and it relates to a commodity which someone possesses - usually money, education or connections to a social network, but possibly something less tangible too, such as "cool" or "prestige" - which others value and want. Wikipedia will tell you more here.

So it's interesting to read this article in last week's Times which explains how a particular variety of street slang spoken in working class urban areas of France is influencing the mainstream. I know this is an English Language blog, but if it's happening in France it's probably happening in some ways here too... fo shizzle.

What is it about non-standard varieties that makes Standard English users want to adopt it? And does this mean that non-standard varieties are being looked on more favourably than in the past? It's a tricky one to answer.

On one level, the middle and upper classes have always raided working class speech practices for a bit of "flavour" - hippies appropriating black American vernacular, skinheads staring at the rudebwoys, Tim Westwood being a dork - but it's often been a sort of class tourism (take some of the poor people's words for a bit of a jolly jape and then get the hell out of their ghetto, like man) in which the wealthy, comfortable classes can pick and mix before getting jobs with daddy's firm in the city. On another level, there's been a genuine cross-fertilisation of ideas and language from Joe Strummer of The Clash to recent collaborations between middle class indie rockers and grime artists like Lethal Bizzle.

So, does any of this matter? Yes and no. You still need Standard English to get ahead in this society, I would argue, but if you can code-switch into it from your normal sociolect - be that Cockney, Black British English or a multi-ethnic youth dialect (MEYD) - you'll probably be ok. And after all, there has to be something to be said for peppering your Standard English with a few markers of "realness" just to keep the middle classes on their toes...

For more on Verlan see here
For more on MEYD see here

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

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Zooks, Ziggies n Spliffs

Hey SFXians!

I assure you this is strictly for research purposes- I'm a big old third-year writing a real dissertation- so, in light of this... slang terms for marijuana anyone?!

I'm trying to compile a list of terms with possible dates and etymologies attached, so if anyone in this loving, caring and sharing community comes across links for bringing me closer to such revelations, do reply to my post!

Also, do feel free to explain why you think these terms exist (i.e. why a particular pronunciation? Does it have a link with another word you know?) and why they're changing all the time!

Eternally grateful,

Charissa