Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Word of the week

Just a quicky to recommend this link to Kerry Maxwell's Word of the week on the MacMillan Dictionaries site.

Each week she looks at a new word that has emerged and explores its meaning, etymology and use. Very handy for A2 Language Change.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Chavs and chav nots

Turn away now if you sat (or marked) an ENA6 paper last month, as Zoe Williams is about to reappear. In her Guardian online column she responds to yesterday's call by the Fabian Society to stop using the word chav. Yes, it's a nasty word, redolent of prejudice and snobbery, but banning words is not a great plan, she reckons.

Meanwhile, one of many responses to the article in yesterday's Guardian about what to do about offensive language in a post-PC world makes the point that Zia Sardur missed out women from his lists of groups susceptible to bigotry. The correspondent says "Although not strictly a "minority", women have been verbally abused since time began. Sadly, vicious insults such as bitch, tart, chick and even whore are increasingly used against us now, after a couple of decades when such words were rarely used. The idea that these references are "ironic" is merely a smoke screen".

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Axe the chav and more tales of PC

Two articles in today's Guardian feature discussions about language and how it represents different groups and individuals in society. In the first piece by Ziauddin Sardar, the idea of language in a post-PC world is discussed. The argument goes something like this: if the term PC (Political Correctness) is discredited and the ideas that go with it are suffering splashback as a result, then what should we do to make sure that people are sensitive and careful about the potential impact of their words on others? As Sardar says:

We shape our language, but language also shapes us. Giving a currency to demeaning language can blind us to the fact we have embraced demeaning perceptions about other people.

And he expands on this:

Derogatory words make way for degrading treatment. Language is more than our basic tool of communication; it shapes perceptions and so influences behaviour. Referring to "faggots" or "wrinklies" strips people of respect, and it's just a short step to thinking them less equal. Terms such as "cripples", "spastics", "thick" and "retarded" stigmatise disabled people as less human. A recent increase in attacks has its roots in such language. If "terrorism" is constantly linked to the "Muslim community", as though it is one monolithic entity, it is not surprising if 69% of Britons see all Muslims as terrorists and feel fear and loathing towards them.

It's an argument that should be familiar to most A Level students who've looked at Language & Representation or done the recent Language Debates ENA6 paper (which I'm still marking...). Basically, what Sardar is proposing is an argument inspired by linguistic determinism: that the language we use is a framework through which much of our perception of the world is dictated, or at least influenced.

Elsewhere in the same edition of the paper, Tom Hampton of the Fabian Society, a left-leaning think tank and pressure group, argues that the word chav should not be used as it is "deeply offensive to a largely voiceless group and – especially when used in normal middle-class conversation or on national TV – it betrays a deep and revealing level of class hatred".

This time what's being proposed seems to be a reflectionist argument: that the language we use reflects our social values and attittudes, and that if these values stink (racism, snobbery, sexism etc.) then we should try to moderate our language. The article goes on to talk about the use of racist, homophobic and generally abusive language, so it's a good read for anyone studying ENGA2 (new spec) next year or ENA6 (old spec) from September.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Txtl Analysis

David Crystal is renowned as one of the country's top linguists and in an extract from his new book on language, in The Guardian today, he looks at the rise of texting and the arguments about its effect on our wider communication skills.

Some of the background to texting is covered - the number of messages sent each year & the typical abbreviations used - but maybe more interesting from an English Language A Level point of view is the debate over what texting does (or doesn't) do to our language. Some views are particularly strong...

Crystal quotes a 2002 John Sutherland article (which actually featured on an ENA6 paper a few years ago) in which texting is described as "penmanship for illiterates", and a more recent article by John Humphrys which tell us that the "SMS vandals" "are destroying it (English): pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped."

But as Crystal points out, "Ever since the arrival of printing - thought to be the invention of the devil because it would put false opinions into people's minds - people have been arguing that new technology would have disastrous consequences for language. Scares accompanied the introduction of the telegraph, telephone, and broadcasting". He makes the point that texting is just another example of language change in action.

People think that the written language seen on mobile phone screens is new and alien, but all the popular beliefs about texting are wrong. Its graphic distinctiveness is not a new phenomenon, nor is its use restricted to the young. There is increasing evidence that it helps rather than hinders literacy. And only a very tiny part of it uses a distinctive orthography. A trillion text messages might seem a lot, but when we set these alongside the multi-trillion instances of standard orthography in everyday life, they appear as no more than a few ripples on the surface of the sea of language. Texting has added a new dimension to language use, but its long-term impact is negligible. It is not a disaster.

So is texting destroying our language, turning us into a nation of lazy illiterates? Or is it just a form of technology that helps us communicate quickly, a form with its own rules that we can switch into and out of when we choose? Sounds like a language debate to me, so fair game for assessment on ENA6 and the new ENGA3 spec.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Dictionary takes the biscuit

Custard cream is entering the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time, along with muffin top, leetspeak and fascinator. Today's Daily Mirror tells you more about these new additions, while the press release and guide to new entries from the Concise OED reproduced below might give you more of an idea about how dictionaries are put together, where idioms such as "freeze the balls off a brass monkey" and "take the biscuit" come from and what's happening to our language.

Your guide to some of the new entries in the latest edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary

• n. a set of photographs displaying a fashion designer's new collection, assembled for
marketing purposes.

• adj. very fashionable: her fitted jacket is bang on-trend.

• n. a light, decorative woman's headpiece consisting typically of feathers, flowers, beads, etc. attached to a comb or hairclip.

muffin top
• n. informal a roll of fat visible above the top of a pair of women's tight-fitting low-waisted trousers.

• adj. denoting a style of clothing characterized by very tight-fitting garments: the body-con trend is big news at the moment.
— origin shortening of body-conscious.

vanity sizing
• n. the practice of assigning smaller sizes to articles of manufactured clothing than is really the case, in order to encourage sales.

custard cream
• n. Brit. a biscuit with a vanilla-flavoured cream filling.

• n. informal a celebrity.
— origin 1990s: representing a colloq. pronunc. of celeb.

• v. emulate or seem to be inspired by: Meg Ryan plays Avery as if she's channelling Nicole Kidman.

• n. the practice of dressing up as a character from a film, book, etc., especially one from the Japanese genres of manga or anime.
• v. engage in cosplay.
— derivatives
cosplayer n.
— origin 1990s: blend of costume + play.

• n. Brit. an inner-city school which is funded partly by the government and partly by a private individual or organization.

• n. another term for biomarker. naturally occurring molecule, gene, or characteristic by which a particular medical condition, disease, etc. can be identified.

• v. start up (an Internet-based business or other enterprise) with minimal
financial resources.

boiler room
• n. a room or office in which many operators engage in high-pressure telephone sales, especially of risky or worthless investments.

• n. a network of private computers infected with malicious software and controlled as a group without the owners' knowledge, e.g. to send spam messages.

bragging rights
• pl. n. a temporary position of ascendancy in a closely contested rivalry: it's
over 25 years since Burnley last had the bragging rights in East Lancashire.

busted flush
• n. (in poker) a hand containing four cards of the same suit and one of a different suit. informal a promising person or thing that turns out to be unsuccessful: her leadership is already a busted flush.

car crash
• n. informal a chaotic or disastrous event or situation that holds a ghoulish fascination for onlookers or observers: her life is turning into a car crash.

cc (also c.c.)
• v. (cc's, cc'ing, cc'd) send a copy of an email to (a third party).

• n. a severe shortage of money or credit: the beleaguered company has become the latest victim of the credit crunch.

• adj. feeling elated because one is about to leave a stressful or responsible job or situation.

/"drUkIt/ (also droukit)
• adj. Scottish extremely wet; drenched.
— origin
C16: origin uncertain; cf. ON drukna ‘to be drowned’.

• adj. — phrases
fit for purpose (of an institution, facility, etc.) well equipped or well suited for its designated role or purpose.

• n. chiefly N. Amer. a bag packed with essential items, kept ready for use in the event of an emergency evacuation of one's home.

goji berry /"g«UdZi/
• n. a bright red edible berry widely cultivated in China, supposed to contain high levels of certain vitamins. See also wolfberry. either of two shrubs (Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense) on which goji berries grow.
— origin from Chin.

• n. [with modifier] a dominant contender within a particular sphere of operation or activity: they'll be up against the 800-lb gorilla in this business, Sony.

• n. an informal language or code used in Internet chatrooms, email, etc., in which numerals or special characters are used to represent standard letters.
— origin from leet, representing a pronunc. of elite, and -speak.

locavore/"l«Uk«vOÉ/ (also localvore /"l«UkÒ«ÔlvOÉ/)
• n. N. Amer. a person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or
produced food. — origin C21: on the pattern of carnivore, herbivore, etc.

• pl. n. the shoots of salad vegetables such as rocket, celery, beetroot, etc., picked just after the first leaves have developed.

• n. chiefly N. Amer. a non-alcoholic drink consisting of a mixture of fruit juices or other soft drinks. — origin 1930s: blend of mock + cocktail.

• n. Brit. a young person who is not in education, employment, or training.
— origin acronym.

non dom

• n. Brit. a person who lives in a country but is not legally domiciled in it, thereby sometimes obtaining tax advantages in the country concerned.

• n. informal a person's guest at a social function.

• v. (on the social networking site Facebook) attract the attention of (another member of the site) by using the ‘poke’ facility.

pump and dump
• n. the fraudulent practice of encouraging investors to buy shares in a company in order to inflate the price artificially, and then selling one's own shares while the price is high.

• adj. enabling a person to feel that they can relate to someone or something: Mary-Kate's problems make her more relatable.

able to be related to something else.

• adj. referring to credit or loan arrangements for borrowers with a poor credit
history, typically having unfavourable conditions such as high interest rates.

train wreck
• n. informal a chaotic or disastrous situation that holds a ghoulish fascination for onlookers or observers: his train wreck of a private life guaranteed front-page treatment.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The universal language of hand gestures

Research at Chicago University and reported here in The Telegraph seems to suggest that a "universal language" of gesture might exist regardless of the grammar of spoken language used by people around the world.

To help settle a long-running dispute about whether language influences the way we think, psychologists tested 40 speakers of four different languages: 10 English, 10 Mandarin Chinese, 10 Spanish and 10 Turkish speakers, first asking them to describe an action in a video in speech, then only with gestures.

What was remarkable was that, when asked to describe the same scenes using only their hands, all of the adults, no matter what language they spoke, produced the same order - subject, object, verb (woman knob twists, for example). Meanwhile, when asked to describe the scenes in speech, the speakers used the word orders typical of their respective languages.

What the research seems to be pointing towards is that certain conceptual frameworks exist beyond speech and language and that it's these frameworks that we see the world through, rather than language. Linguistic determinists and relativists such as Sapir and Whorf argued that it is language that controls our perception of the world.

So why - if people use a universal gesture "language" regardless of their actual spoken language - do different world languages have varying surface structures? In other words, why do some languages have Subject - Verb - Object word order, while others have Subject - Object - Verb? Is there, as Noam Chomsky famously suggested, a deep structure underneath all human languages?

If you know the answers, please tell me...

Edited to add: Language Log runs this story with a degree more scepticism here and refers to the original article in New Scientist here.

And no one has mentioned the fact that I've got to the end of this post without guffawing childishly about the words woman , knob and twist being in the same sentence. Ha ha.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Blendtabulous tabloids

Apparently some Scottish bloke has won a game of "tennis" at "Wimbledon", so the tabloids are very excited. But more exciting than this victory for our great nation, is the range of glorious headlines in the tabloids (and some broadsheets):

Muscles Murray (Daily Mirror) - alliteration and possible pun on "Muscle Mary" (a slightly derogatory term for a muscular man)
Mighty Murray (The Sun) - alliteration
It's a Murracle (The Sun again) - blend of Murray + Miracle
Mooray! (I just made that one up) - blend of Murray and hooray!

So how about a mini-investigation into the devices used in newspaper headlines as a nice, gentle way into A2 coursework?

And some other blends have been appearing in the papers recently. Yesterday's Guardian had mumager (mum + manager) , or momager if you're American, a term relating to young celebrities whose careers are managed by their mums.

(stagnation + inflation) has made a comeback. Originally coined in 1965, according to Wikipedia, it's now being used to describe the current economic downturn.

And then there's cashtrati which seems to be a blend of cash + castration + the suffix -i (as in literati or technorati) and means a group of men who have been affected by the credit crunch and financially castrated ( I think). Ouch.