Thursday, January 28, 2010

"I'll get da fiend to duppy her den"

Those are the words that led to two East Londoners getting sent down for lengthy prison sentences, and linguistics had a major part to play in getting them off the street and into a cell. An article in yesterday's Independent tells us more:

To give you the background: in December 2008, two months after the conversation above, the girl pregnant with Jolie's baby was lured by text to a spot close to the Regent's Canal in Islington, North London. There, Ogundele lay in wait to batter the girl over the head with an iron bar before throwing her in the waterway. Both the girl and the baby escaped alive, and the search turned to her assailant. After Ogundele and Jolie became prime suspects, their computers were seized. They had forgotten to delete their MSN history folders and police called in experts from the University of Aston's Centre for Forensic Linguistics. They helped decipher the boys' language, and the two rappers were sentenced for conspiracy to murder last month. Ogundele got 18 years in prison, Jolie, 14.

Forensic Linguistics is something we've looked at before (try here and here) and it's a fascinating area in which close study of people's language use can lead to the solving of some pretty unpleasant crimes. Last February, Krzysztof Kredens from the Centre for Forensic Linguistics did an excellent talk to SFX students about some of the cases in which forensic linguistics had been applied, and some of the techniques they have employed, and we're hoping to repeat this in the future. But in the meantime, the article itself is a good introduction to some of what they're up to. You can find out more about the work of the Centre for Forensic Linguistics here.

Promiscuous polysemy

There's a very good article on Language Log about how meaning change in language is a natural and positive thing. Using the word post as an example ("Fence posts, army posts, the New York Post, blog posts, ambassadorial posts, post offices..."), Geoff Pullum argues that the prescriptive point of view -  change is a bad thing that must be prevented or controlled at all costs - is cobblers, and that words change meanings all the time. As he says: 

Human languages do not strive to avoid ambiguity. They do not try to align words with meanings one to one. They are not in danger of anarchy when a new word sense evolves. People don't just tolerate languages with multiply polysemous words, they seem to love them; people thrive on multiplicity of meaning. There are thousands of examples that show this. It is only the prescriptivist thickheads who cannot see what it means.

So, he argues, polysemy - multiple meanings of the same word - is not inherently confusing. One major argument used by prescriptivists against semantic change is that it leads to misunderstanding and confusion (How can sick mean good when it also means ill, or wicked mean excellent when it also means evil?) but Pullum's take on this is a strong counterblast to all of this.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Texting: not the work of the dark lord himself & actually quite good for you

As if by magic, having posted yesterday on texting being linked to young people's illiteracy, a news article crops up saying that texting is actually good for you and can be shown to improve young people's communication and literacy skills. It's based on research by Clare Wood and Bev Plester and their team at Coventry University (the same people who brought you this and this) who say this about their work:

We began studying in this area initially to see if there was any evidence of association between text abbreviation use and literacy skills at all, after such a negative portrayal of the activity in the media. We were surprised to learn that not only was the association strong, but that textism use was actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children. Texting also appears to be a valuable form of contact with written English for many children, which enables them to practise reading and spelling on a daily basis.

Emma Jackson and Lucy Hart, members of the Coventry team, did a talk for teachers at SFX last summer as part of our QIA Beacon Colleges workshops and their earlier research can be seen in this Powerpoint on the resources site, while this most recent research is available as a pdf here.

This is all good stuff for ENGA3 Language Discourses (A2 students) but equally it's excellent material for Language & Mode ENGA1, especially the material here on the British Academy's news release about the research.

  • Shortenings: cutting the end off a word, losing more than one letter, e.g. bro = brother.
  • Contractions: cutting letters, usually vowels, out of the middle of a word, e.g. txt, plz, hmwrk.
  • G Clippings: cutting off only the final g in a word, e.g. goin, comin, workin, swimmin. 
  • Other Clippings: cutting off other final letters, e.g. I’v, hav, wil, com.
  • Symbols: using symbols, including emoticons, and x used symbolically, e.g. &, @, ;-), :-p, xxx. 
  • Initialisms: a word or group of words is represented by its initial letter, e.g. tb = text back, lol = laughing out loud, gf = girlfriend. 
  • Letter/Number Homophones: a letter or number is used to take the place of a phoneme, syllable, or word of the same sound, e.g. 4, 2, l8r, u, r, c. 
  • Non-conventional Spellings: a word is spelled according to legitimate English phoneme-grapheme conversion rules, but not the conventional one used to spell the word, e.g. nite, cum, fone, skool. 
  • Accent Stylisation: a word is spelled as it is pronounced in casual speech, e.g. gonna, wiv = with, av = have, wanna, elp = help, anuva = another.
  • Missing Apostrophes: left out either in possessive or traditional contraction form, e.g. dads, Im, Ive, cant.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Texting: the work of Satan himself


According to an article in last week's Times, texting is not only making teens' vocabulary shrink to an almost caveman-like 800 words a day but it's also making them unemployable. The article quotes research commissioned by the government which states that teenagers "are avoiding using a broad vocabulary and complex words in favour of the abbreviated “teenspeak” of text messages, social networking sites and internet chat rooms". So, it's not just texting then , but all computer-mediated communication that's to blame.

It's another moral panic which stokes the public's fears about a new generation of illiterate imbeciles being spawned by feckless parents and incompetent teachers. And do u no wot? It's rubbish. But at least it's exactly the kind of article you can use in preparation for the Language Discourses part of ENGA3 and this article even manages to quote a proper linguist, the ubiquitous (look it up and improve your meagre vocabulary if you don't know what this word means) David Crystal:

David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor University in Wales, said many experts underestimate the breadth and complexity of a teenager’s vocabulary. “The real issue here is that people object to kids having a good vocabulary for hip-hop and not for politics. They have an articulate vocabulary for the kind of things they want to talk about,” he said. “Few academics get anywhere near measuring that vocabulary.”

Go David, go David. We're gonna party, like it's your birthday. Etc.

An encouraging aspect of an otherwise scaremongering article is the mention of the government 's Communication Czar, Jean Gross, and her plan to get teenagers to record language being used in workplaces and for them to study what they record. Sounds to me like what we've been doing very successfully for the last 10 years with English Language A level...

Edited on 23rd Jan to add: David Crystal has a very good post on this on his own blog here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

This blog will go on...

I know this blog is primarily for our students at SFX (and a fine group of students you are) but it's always had other A level English Language students (and teachers) as part of its wider audience (and contributors). So, even though I'm leaving SFX in a week or two to do other things, I'm hoping to carry on blogging here at least until the A level exams are done this summer.

The plan is to keep posting relevant language stuff here even after that, but we'll see what happens. Anyway, for the time being it's business as usual and I'd really like to encourage a little bit more interaction and comment use on the blog in the run-up to the summer exams.

Loquacious locavore lays into lexis lovers

There have been loads of interesting articles about language appearing in the mainstream media recently and this one from today's Daily Telegraph is no exception. In it, Christopher Howse argues that what he calls vogue words - words that are briefly fashionable but then die out - shouldn't be selected to define the era they're from.

What I am hinting at is that it is very easy to concentrate on neologisms that reflect the wilder shores of modern life. It's harder to spot defining markers of the way we live now. At the moment the temptation is to identify too many trends from new media – web-surfing, blogging, twittering and unfriending. They don't often last.

He's referring to such end of year and end of decade word lists as this one from the American Dialect Society or this one from the Australian Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year poll in 2008.

Instead of these vogueish, trendy and ephemeral words, he reckons we should wait a while and look a bit deeper before choosing words which define our times, and opts for farmers' market (well, he would seeing as he's writing for the Telegraph and probably owns a few hundred acres of prime farming land in Monmouthshire) and chav (which is probably my choice for word of the noughties). But class hatred aside, it's a good read and another fine style model for broadsheet op-eds. Huzzah!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatards and twihards

Two new words related to film obsessives get a mention in today's Guardian: avatards & twihards. The former is a blend of the film title Avatar and retards and is being used to describe hardcore fans of the James Cameron movie who are going to see it again and again. Avatar itself is an old word which has undergone a shift in usage. Originally relating to the physical form a spirit would take in some religions, it now often relates to the virtual identity a player creates in an online game, or an image used to represent yourself on an online forum. Twihard is a blend of Twilight and diehard, and it's pretty easy to see where this comes from. In fact as I look at the sofa in our living room I see a Twihard sitting there, staring at me disapprovingly as my keyboard taps interfere with her "enjoyment" of Cedric Diggery, sorry I mean Robert Pattinson.

Edited to add: there's probably a link between the way Avatard has been formed and another word, celebutard, which appeared a couple of years ago (see here for more).

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Language discourses

The excellent MacMillan Dictionary blog has a great post on it about the role of dictionaries in debates about language change. For any A2 students starting to look at ENGA3 Language Discourses it's a must read, so have a look here. And in the article Michael Rundell makes reference to a recent classic: Jean Aitchison's Reith Lecture on language change, which you can find here.

The rise of the regional super-accent

An article in this weekend's Sunday Times has some interesting stuff to say about how regional accents such as Scouse, Brummie and Geordie (what Cheryl Cole speaks...mmm Cheryl...Stop it. OK, I'll stop it) are apparently becoming stronger.

As the article points out, "Conventional wisdom was that accents would disappear and merge into a national way of speaking, albeit with some class and regional variations". But this is coming with a cost as "while big-city accents are surviving and even colonising surrounding areas, the nuances between districts within those cities are disappearing".

The article draws on expert opinion too: the eminent linguist Paul Kerswill of Lancaster University as well as Dominic Watt, a lecturer in forensic speech science of York University and Clive Upton at Leeds University.

So why is this happening? Well, it appears that while local accents are dying out, the strong regional accents seem to be spreading out from their traditional bases and into new territory. In a way it's like a localised form of dialect levelling and it's happening for many of the same reasons: movement of people, prestige and status in society and the power of the media. Certain regional accents appear to have gained a foothold in modern Britain as signifiers of authenticity and honesty, and perhaps a marker of working class tradition, and have therefore maintained their strength against what was ( a few years ago at least) thought to be the all-conquering power of London and Estuary English.

The article goes on to add some other interesting points:
Accents are more varied in northern England because they have not been subjected to the mass levelling of speech caused by London and its commuting hinterland. In the southeast, Kent, Essex and East and West Sussex are all losing their distinctive accents while the capital’s own cockney is also under threat.
I'd definitely recommended having a look at the whole article and following up some of the wider issues about language, region and identity for your work on ENGA3. And I'd also recommend a look at the Kerboodle video clips for this unit where Kevin Watson of Lancaster University gives an excellent introduction to the main ideas concerned with the study of accent and dialect.

(edited on 21.04.16 to remove salacious references and rather eye-popping picture)

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

First word hurdles

There's quite a bit of coverage in the media of a recent survey on children's early language development, with the main focus being on the story that (according to The Times) some children are "reaching the age of 3 without being able to say a word" and that "boys are almost twice as likely to struggle to learn to speak as girls".

The average age for a baby to speak their first word is 10 to 11 months. However, a significant minority (4 per cent) of parents reported that their child said nothing until they were 3. Toddlers between the ages of 2 and 3 should be able to use up to 300 words, including adjectives, and be able to link words together, according to I CAN, the children’s communication charity. Late speech development can lead to problems, such as low achievement at school or mental health problems.



The BBC reported it yesterday in this news story, but in a slightly less alarmist way.

What makes me feel a bit sceptical about the alarmist tone of The Times article is that the whole piece is based on a YouGov survey, which would seem to indicate that parents are self-reporting what they claim to have heard or not heard. This is problematic for a couple of reasons: a) self-reporting is not a particularly accurate methodology for assessing what actually happens, just someone's perception of events ("I'm sure my son said daddy just then" or "I don't really see much of my kids because I work all week, but I reckon they can say 50 words..."); and b) it can be heavily influenced by demand characteristics ("If I don't say that my daughter can say 50 words, people will think I'm a bad parent.").

So the truth might well be that things are just as they always were: some kids speak very early and others relatively late, but it's only a very small minority who have genuine difficulties (sometimes those on the autistic spectrum).

We'll come back to looking at the whole issue of children's first words and the role of environment and interaction in the next few weeks, and I'm sure we'll return to this story and some of the arguments around it.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The dialectics of language change

In an article from today's Observer, David Mitchell argues a witty and persuasive case for not celebrating language change. It's partly a response to other articles which revel in new words and the linguistic innovations English seems to be spawning at such a rapid rate, but it's also a personal take on why learning rules can be important. As Mitchell says "...when language changes, slang becomes correct, mispunctuation is overlooked and American spellings adopted, I feel that I'm a mug for having learnt all the old rules to start with. If those who misuse the apostrophe are not adversely judged for it, then why did I waste so much time listening in class?".

...which is honest, I suppose, if nothing else. Elsewhere, he argues that the whole debate itself - for and against language change - is vital to the health of the language.

In the end, though, the rules do matter - it's just that obeying them doesn't. They need to be there to create a tension between conservatism and innovation. If the innovation continued unchecked, unmonitored by Susie Dent, then the language would fragment into thousands of mutually incomprehensible dialects. The stickler-advocated rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation slow the speed of change and allow the language to remain united.


This is a really crucial point and one that I've tried to articulate in class (with little success of late). The argument - the dialectic, is how you might put it - is part of what helps shape the language's development. The fact that people argue over whether or not new words should enter the language, be accepted and entered into a dictionary is perhaps as important as the new words themselves, the processes that form them or the people that use them.

Given that the ENGA3 exam is at least partly based around Language Discourses (debates about language), it's probably a good idea to read this article and have a good think about the opposing arguments on a range of discourses: gender and conversation, political correctness, new words and slang.

Manchester United 0 Leeds United 1


Sorry, no language reason for this post, just a need to express my happiness.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Reflecting on new words

After all the posts on new words of 2009, and new words of the last decade, and all the other posts about new words on this blog (probably about 50 of them over the last 5 years), here's a really excellent feature article from the Sydney Morning Herald that takes a more reflective look on which words last and why certain words become popular.

Among the many good observations Jacqueline Maley makes in her article is the point that "technology, along with American English, is by far the biggest force for change in the English language today". And she goes on to ask "How can we determine which neologisms are passing fads and which should be included in dictionaries, our lexicological gift to the next generation? How to decide which words are worthy of being anointed official representatives of our language? Or is it our dictionaries that must change, moving from stolid documents of rusted-on record to more dynamic, changeable texts?".

What I really like about this article is that it takes a wider view. Rather than just list loads of new words (like many recent broadsheet news articles on the same theme) it considers what's going on in the longer term, and asks some interesting questions about where language is heading. Plus - to be totally reductive and make it all about A level English - it's a brilliant style model for feature articles in ENGA4 Language Interventions.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy new words

For this first post of 2010 there's an op-ed from Liz Hoggard from The Independent all about popular culture and new words. It's a good, pro-language change piece that celebrates the "energy and rhythm" of new language, and it doubles as a neat style model for anyone doing an ENGA4 Language Intervention in this form.

And here's an article from The Guardian a few days ago about the best new words of 2009 and the Oxford English Dictionary's latest additions. Plus, here's a Guardian blog post of readers' favourite words and phrases of the noughties.