Thursday, July 29, 2010

Solving crime with linguistics

Forensic linguistics is a really fascinating area of language study, so this lecture by Dr Malcolm Coulthard, one of the daddies of the discipline, is well worth a look. Here he shows how linguistic analysis can be used to piece together the identity/ies of text message senders in criminal cases.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Slang rules, ya smell me?

The Sun seems to be having a love-in with slang at the moment, and they've got a piece in today's edition giving lots of examples of different types of slang from various occupational and lifestyle groups. I can't claim it to be a very linguistic take on slang, but there are some funny ones (and a few dodgy ones too, like the definition of bare, which is just wrong).

Monday, July 26, 2010

Five Go Mad on Mephedrone

The news that Enid Blyton's classics children's series, The Famous Five is to have its language updated has upset some and pleased others. The Famous Five books were originally published over 60 years ago and have been huge sellers since then (I even read them when I was a little boy back in the 1970s.) but have often come under fire for their old-fashioned representations of boys' and girls' social roles and for their apparently class-ridden stereotypes. So, will we see the stories themselves updated to meet the demands of a 21st Century audience: teenagers indulging in binge drinking, chopping out lines of miaow-miaow while updating their Facebook profiles, casual threesomes and the like? Not on your nelly.

While the stories will remain the same, Hodder Children, which is revamping them for publication next month, is planning to update the language. So gone will be "we shall have a gay old time", "he's a queer looking fellow" and "school tunic", and in will come "I is cotching at my yard innit" and "Man's gotta make money y'feel me". Well, not exactly... Apparently the changes are relatively minor ones such as explained by Anne McNeil in this extract from The Guardian's piece last week:


Other changes include "housemistress" becoming "teacher", "awful swotter" becoming "bookworm", "mother and father" becoming "mum and dad", "school tunic" becoming "uniform" and Dick's comment that "she must be jolly lonely all by herself" being changed to "she must get lonely all by herself". McNeil said references to a "tinker" have also been changed to "traveller". "Enid Blyton wouldn't have meant that ['tinker'] pejoratively. It's a description of a person, in order to place the character. So 'dirty tinker' has become traveller."

 For anyone looking at the A2 topic of Language Change, this would be a fertile area for investigation. Why are some expressions being changed and others left the same? Is there any kind of pattern to some of the words being changed? Are they (for instance) dated slang terms that no one will recognise these days, or words that have shifted in meaning? Later in the article, an opponent of changes to the original books makes an interesting point about the names of characters:

Tony Summerfield, who runs the Enid Blyton Society, said he was "thoroughly against unnecessary changes just for the sake of it, from adults who underestimate the intelligence of children". He added: "I am in approval of changing language which has perhaps become offensive or has different meanings, or any racist references," he said. "And certain words such as 'gay' or 'queer' obviously have different meanings nowadays and it's fair enough to change them. But changes for the sake of them, I disapprove of."

Summerfield had heard Hodder would change the name of the circus boy, Nobby, in Five Go Off in a Caravan, to Ned, which struck him "as very strange". "How can you change Nobby to Ned and yet leave Dick and Fanny? It doesn't make sense.

Elsewhere, Zoe Williams of The Guardian argues that we shouldn't change the books, claiming that "In expunging the dated words, you strip out their personality: and even if you don't particularly like that personality, it's better than none at all, a skeletal adventure without the flesh of authorial voice".

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Street slang has no place in the classroom

That old bugbear, street slang, makes another appearance in the news and this time it's not all "let's all laugh at the white children speaking like they're black" it's like "street slang is really bad for kids". Frankly, as I type this I am kissing my bloodclart teeth.

A new pamphlet (actually a rather poorly researched and sketchy document) published by the Centre for Policy Studies makes the claim that teachers in primary schools are either a) too scared, or b) not allowed to "correct" children's slang use and are therefore hindering their literacy development. It's a typical right wing argument that PC has gone too far and that we are no longer allowed to speak our own language in our own country, and it's therefore no surprise that Boris Johnson writes the foreword to the pamphlet, right wing bozo that he is.

Here's an extract from the report:

In other European countries argot and slang are not allowed into the classroom; children know exactly what is “correct” usage in their main language, and what is not. In this country, by contrast, primary school teachers – dedicated as many of them are to “child-led” education – don’t feel that it’s their role to interfere with self expression in any shape or form. On the contrary, they encourage children to read poems and stories written in ethnic dialects – in Barbadian patois, for example – which is fine, but they omit to point out that there are linguistic discrepancies. Only later, when they get to secondary school, do these pupils discover that “Street” is not acceptable in their written work. Understandably, they find this both confusing and discouraging. 

Where to start? The conflation of dialect and slang is all too common, so that's maybe a first point to pick out. They're not the same thing at all. Slang is a type of language marked by its informality and its association with particular groups of people who share a common shared interest. It's often used to mark an affiliation or identification with a particular way of life. Dialect is often associated with particular regions and varieties of English. So, for the writer of the document, Miriam Gross, to say that children are taught dialect poetry and then to extend this to street slang is just plain wrong. Yes, students of all ages get to study a range of literature from all over the world, some of it in dialect, but that's not the language they recognise as slang. I suspect the fact that some of it is Caribbean dialect poetry and a lot of recent slang is heavily influenced by Caribbean terms has caused her brain to melt down and assume it's one and the same.

Secondly, Gross then claims that "child-led" education (which she seems to hate more than slang) is a philosophy that prevents teachers from "correcting" children's "misuse" of language. That's news to me. If we're going to get anecdotal (and let's face it, there are no references in Gross's report to actual research so I won't be the first to) my own kids came back from their caring sharing child-led primary school the other week to tell me "Daddy, innit is not a word". So much for not correcting speech in primary schools. Of course, I tell them innit is a perfectly acceptable use of an invariant tag question when used in the appropriate colloquial context, but then they've already gone back to FIFA on the X-box to compare their bare skillz and that.

Thirdly, young people do not find reactions to different language styles "confusing and discouraging". They deal with them, like we all do and adjust their language to suit the purposes and contexts of what they're doing. It's called code-switching and we all do it. Children are taught Standard English at school from a very early age and to claim that what they get is a diet of patois and slang is utter rubbish.

Finally, the whole report has a horrible whiff of Tory back-to-Victorian-values crustiness about it. English is great. Everything that's not proper English is bad. Children need facts not self-expression etc etc. 

The Lancaster University linguist Paul Kerswill, in the reader comments to a Guardian piece on this report puts a very convincing case against the report:

This is a big debate and we mustn't jump to conclusions. Four points: (1) The English language like all living languages is always in a state of change. There was no Golden Age. (2) London's English has always reflected the city's multiethnic, multilingual character, and today is no exception. We cannot suppress creativity in young Londoners’ use of language, written and spoken. See my short article(3) We empower children economically and socially by helping them achieve literacy, but with the huge technology-driven changes in the way we communicate we should recognise that ‘literacy’ nowadays needs to encompass much more than it did 20 years ago. It goes far beyond a question of apostrophes or whether we should say ‘fewer’ or ‘less’. (4) Teachers and the people who train them need to be absolutely clear about their objectives when teaching literacy skills, and to develop methods accordingly. The Guardian’s report about Miriam Gross’s work suggests this isn’t the case, regrettably.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Teh spread of t'intertube wordz

An article by Linton Weeks on the National Public Radio website makes a number of interesting points about the ways in which language spreads from the web and into popular spoken usage. Weeks argues that many words that once only appeared in print/ on screen  are now being spoken: LOL, noob and pwned being prime examples. He points out too that as with so many other forms of language change (and linked to the wave model of change), new words start with a core group and spread out to wider society like a ripple effect. So far so simple, but what he also points out is that while the internet is creating new language for us, its own technology is perhaps restricting its use in some ways.

The ways in which search engines operate is being used by headline writers, he argues, to simplify headlines into more straightforward and descriptive summaries of what's in an article, rather than (like with the stupid title of this post) to play around with words and meanings for fun. As Weeks puts it:

One important way that websites lure traffic is through search engines, such as Google, Bing and Yahoo. When someone types in a search term, he is led to a ranked series of websites. Needless to say, websites are extremely competitive when it comes to those search engine rankings. Every website wants to be #1... As search engines have gotten more sophisticated, their crawlers and scrapers have learned to also sort through all the text on the site. So many websites, trying to enhance their SEO, now pepper headlines and stories with nuts-and-bolts, no-nonsense words that pigeonhole the story. The overuse of this tactic is called keyword stuffing. Purists frown on the practice, but it works.

So what the internet gives us with one hand - hilarious misspellings like teh and pwn, new blends such as blegging and vlogging, leet words such as n00b, and initialisms like FTW and WTF - it takes away with the other. So, what I should have called this posting is "A posting about how the internet affects language change".

Everyone's descriptive nowadays

Sarah Palin's recent use of the made up word "refudiate" (an apparent blend of refute and repudiate, neither of which would have been accurate in the context she was speaking) has sparked a discussion about our attitudes towards new words and slips of the tongue.

George W Bush was famous for his mistakes (misunderestimate being one notable example) and Palin was quick to make light of her error by referring to Bush, but also by referring to an apparent slip by Barack Obama (wee-wee'd up) and, more surprisingly, William Shakespeare.

In a tweet a day or two back she stated in her folksy way that "English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words. Got to celebrate it!". And yes the bard did coin plenty of expressions (whether or not he made them up himself or was the first to put them in print and into wider circulation isn't really clear) as you can see from this link. But is Palin in the same category?

Some have argued not, while others have argued that it's just snobbery to pick out faults in other people's language. You could go further and argue that attacking Palin's language use actually adds to her credibility as an outsider and maverick, by making her look like she's being picked on by an intellectual, liberal elite. So where do we draw the line? Are we all descriptivists now, embracing every change to our language however weird...or wrong? Does anything go? And is it rude to point out mistakes in usage?

For more look here on the OUP blog and here in today's Guardian.So is Sarah Palin really a desriptivist (someone who believes in the natural evolution of language) or just a numbskull (someone who doesn't believe in evolution)?

Monday, July 05, 2010

Cockney's done a runner

Here's a link to Ant Heald's blog where he covers the recent story about the Cockney accent dying out. Well, it's not really a recent story, more the latest instalment in a much longer narrative of dialect levelling and accent change, but it's interesting stuff none the less. And as Ant's covered it I don't have to.