Saturday, December 19, 2009

English: refreshing the lexical gaps that other languages cannot reach

“If a language is not capable of creating new words to describe new advances, it will die.” These are the words of Alfred Gilder, terminology chief at the French finance ministry, speaking at a recent Swiss conference about the spread of English around Europe and the state of the continent's native languages. "Modernise or die!" was his message. There is a growing concern in many countries about the seemingly unstoppable rise of English as a global language and the effect that this is having on the health and integrity of other languages. So, when words like laptop and roaming, and a phrase like last but not least make it into another language - be it Swiss, German, French or Turkish - the native language takes another step towards losing part of its identity and global English takes another step into another nation's territory.

But why are speakers of other languages using these English words? Why don't they come up with their own new expressions in their own mother tongues? Well that's what Alfred Gilder would like to see, but it's hard to imagine it happening when English has become so ubiquitous and so, well...global. With English being spread through technology, commerce and culture around the world, it's hard to resist its influence. But perhaps there's something about the language itself that makes it attractive - something internal, rather than external - such as its adaptability and tendency to innovate. In short, the fact that English is constantly adding new words and phrases to its vocabulary could be the reason why it's spreading so quickly: it's refreshing the lexical gaps that other languages cannot reach, to nick Heineken's old advertising slogan. In effect, language change - so often derided by prescriptivists as leading to the degradation of our language - has helped push English to the forefront of world languages.

And returning to the article in The Journal of Turkish Weekly, where this conference was covered (linked from Macmillan Dictionary's language in the news roundup), there is recognition that this isn't a new thing, but it's something that is happening at a much swifter pace than ever before:

Of course borrowing words and expressions from other languages is a natural function of language development and English itself has absorbed countless influences in its history – from Latin, French and Hindi, to name but a few. What is different about the current dominance of English is that it is the first truly global language and it is spewing out words at a pace that other languages have no chance to compete with. This rapid evolution favours those who can ride the English wave but creates a language divide, akin to the digital divide, for those who are poor in English.


Where will this lead? At worst, it could lead to the deaths of certain languages around the world, some of which are nearly on their last legs, if this report is anything to go by.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

10 years of new words

Top lexicographer (and frequent visitor to SFX) Kerry Maxwell, has put together a list of the most interesting words of the decade on the excellent Macmillan Dictionary blog. So in the spirit of Christmas and all that, the first three people to identify the word formation/language change processes (blending, compounding, borrowing, affixation etc.) behind these new words will get a bag of Haribo/alternative organic foodstuff when term begins.

Here they are:

  1. Staycation
  2. WAG
  3. blog
  4. slow food
  5. sudoku

Add your attempt as a comment with your name and class, and the best 3 answers will win. If you enter and you're not an SFX student, you win eternal pride and a few bluetooth high fives.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Weapons of mass distraction?

The USA is a few years behind Britain with texting and the moral panics around it, but there has been a recent upsurge in reports of texting damaging literacy skills, textisms working their evil way into students' written work and suchlike. So, this article from Science Daily is a nice counter to those stories and a very helpful one to have a look at for the Language Discourses part of the A2 exam. Phones, therefore, aren't really weapons of mass distraction, more like tools of mass engagement. Or something like that...

Here's a quick snippet of what Carol L. Tilley, professor of library and information science at Illinois says about using texts and tweets in lessons:
"There's always that danger when embracing something in a school setting that you kill it for the students," Tilley said. "But helping kids understand the social and contextual role that texting plays in their lives I think is one possible justification. If there are ways educators can incorporate it in providing homework support or building dialogue out of school hours, then I think it could be a useful communications tool."

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Slanguage reviewed

Not that I'm obsessed, but here's another link to something about the Radio 4 programme that SFX students took part in. This time it's a positive review of the programme from today's Guardian.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Slagging slang

The Mind Your Slanguage programme on Radio 4 today, which SFX students and staff contributed to, has kicked off an interesting debate about slang on the BBC news site today. We've got the usual prescriptive arguments: things were better in my day...these young people are just using broken English...it's all the fault of those black people with their ghetto talk...slang is "contaminating" Standard English...it's lazy and ugly talk... you know the kind of thing. But there are also some more sensible and well-formulated positions, which might also be termed prescriptive too.

Perhaps there is some truth in the argument that language is changing so rapidly now - faster than ever before - that it's too much to cope with for many people. Perhaps too, there's some truth in the claim that young people don't recognise that they're using slang some of the time, and that it's inappropriate in formal settings. But isn't that also the case for older people too and their own slang and idiomatic expressions?

Have a look and see what you make of it all. But remember, this is a great opportunity to be part of a language debate and even intervene in it yourselves. Many of you have already, by being part of the programme, so big up yourselves and that, bang bang etc.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Noughty words

With 2009 drawing to a close, nearly every newspaper and magazine in existence is currently filling its pages with end of decade lists: films, albums, influential political figures, artists, you know the sort of list. But BBC news magazine also offers us some good language discussion as it looks for the most important words of the noughties.

The language expert and author, Susie Dent (who has written some really good books on language change, the annual Language Report) offers a few suggestions - chav, green, tweet and poking among others - but the BBC also wants your suggestions. Have a look here for more. And my personal favourite has to be (drum roll)... celebutard: a blend of (I think) celebrity + d├ębutante + retard, a nice and catty term of abuse for a recently semi-famous nonentity.

Elsewhere, if you're interested in new words and where they come from - and you should be 'cos you're an English Language student, innit - then you can do much much worse than Buzzword on the excellent Macmillan Dictionary pages here.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Mind your slanguage

Tuesday 8th December, 11am on Radio 4 is when Mind Your Slanguage is broadcast. It features lots of good stuff about how people use and feel about slang, including interviews with Tony Thorne and Paul Kerswill. But most importantly it features lots of SFX students talking about the slang they use, don't use and how they feel about it. Huzzah!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The unseemly stalkers of youth slang

In this comment piece in The Guardian, Shirley Dent takes a swipe at "the rush to relevance" that she argues is reducing classic literature to a series of empty gestures, designed to attract fickle youth audiences who can't cope with proper English. Swear down.

Dent, in particular, doesn't like the idea of Julius Caesar being adapted to include street slang:
Not only is it patronising to those it hopes to welcome, but it entirely
misses the literary purpose and value of slang, usually utilising the lamest,
least challenging has-been manifestations of "cutting-edge,
fresh-from-the-street" talk. Take a line from the street slang Julius Caesar: "I
come to bury Caesar, not big him up." Are you kidding me? Even to an old fogey
such as myself, this sounds dated. When well-meaning literary professionals seek
to get down with the kids in this way, the world really is turned upside down.
On one side, those who should know better abdicate their duty to introduce the
next generation – wherever they come from – to the very best of literature; on
the other, you have a misplaced scramble to latch on to and leech off the
knowing cool of youth.

I've got mixed feelings about this view. On one hand, the students involved in the Wasted production, deserve to be applauded for their hard work and dynamism ( I've got to say that as well because I teach some of them and I don't want to get slapped up by an angry gangsta-thespian at registration), and you can see that the use of language that they are familiar with from the colloquial discourse around them is one way of opening up the text to different audiences. But, on the other hand, is it just a cheesy, patronising and craven attempt to bring a hint of ghetto colour to a pedestrian adaptation of a great play? Is slang being used because the actors don't actually understand the original words and meanings?