Monday, June 20, 2011

ENGA3 Language Discourses: some pointers

With ENGA3 coming up at the end of this week and several requests for help with section B of the paper, here are some pointers about the topics and what to revise. 

There have been three ENGA3 papers set so far, and the topics for language discourses have been as follows:

Jan 2010
Popular psychology/ linguistic self-help books looking at male and female communication
Jun 2010
John Humphrys arguing prescriptivist views about language change
Jan 2011
Will Self and Lynn Truss discussing their attitudes to texting and txt language

There’s no point trying to “question-spot” and putting all your eggs in one basket, by proclaiming that as regional accents haven’t turned up yet it’ll definitively be that topic, but it can be useful to think about the types of questions that have been asked and those that haven’t yet.

So, the topics that haven’t cropped up yet are:

Changing varieties of English. There’s been quite a lot of discussion about how regional accents are thriving and local accents dying out, as well as new ones (like MLE/MEYD/”Jafaican”) emerging, and whether this is a good or a bad thing.

World English/es. This hasn’t cropped up yet and could appear as it’s on the spec. What could be asked about this? Well, there have been quite big debates around the world about the role of Standard English and whether we should be imposing World English (one variety) or showing awareness and understanding of different varieties (World Englishes) and how English changes thanks to local language and culture. There are also several interesting historical angles about why English has spread and whether this will continue in the same way.

New words and attitudes to them. While language change has cropped up before in the form of John Humphrys bemoaning the state of our common language and Truss and Self talking about texting and its impact on language, there is also scope for something on new words. Many new words have entered dictionaries in recent years and some commentators find this deeply discombobulating. “How can OMG and LOL be “words”? “ they cry. Dictionary compilers have argued in response  that they’re reflecting the changing nature of our vocabulary and that they have a duty to record new words.

Political correctness and Linguistic engineering. The need (or otherwise) to impose changes on language and remove offensive terms is a very good topic for debate and leads to some very polarised opinions. One man’s throwaway remark about chavs is another’s systematic demonization of the working class. Likewise, terms for gender, race and sexuality have been discussed recently in regard to the changing roles and status of different groups in British society.

Variation that isn’t gender or region-related. The topic of language variation doesn’t just have to cover females and males or regions; other areas on the syllabus that could appear are age-related variation, work-related variation and what might broadly be termed “communities of practice”.

Technology and changing language. Texting cropped up recently, but other technological advances and forms of Computer-Mediated Communication, like Facebook and Twitter, could be a focus for debate. 

Knowing something about the topics is only part of the knack to doing well in this exam. Equally, if not more, importantly, you need to know about how to analyse the language used to construct the debates. What are the writers saying and how are they expressing their views? What kinds of wider debates are these discussions tapping into?

Over the next day or two, I'll add some points about what often works on this paper and give some examples of how good students have approached language discourses.


Language_student said...

Thanks -- helpful post. I feel a bit unprepared regarding opinions about changing varieties of English though; I suppose I could always use the good old prescriptivist vs. descriptivist debate if necessary...

When you say "communities of practice" do you mean variation based around identity, such as anti-language?

Dan said...

Re: opinions about changing varieties, you could argue that there's a kind of conservative (small c) tradition that wants to hang on to older, local markers of identity with the traditions they embody. They were often the dialectologists of the last century who charted the weird and wonderful local expressions of different towns and villages (Clive Upton and co, I think, but I might be wrong). Then there are modern linguists like Kevin Watson and Paul Kerswill who have mapped recent shifts between local and regional forms, less with conservation in mind and more with a descriptivist approach.

As for "Communities of practice", yes that's pretty much what I mean, I suppose. The Eckert and McConnell-Ginet ideas, basically, but anti-language would fit with that too, as would the stuff on l33t speak.

Not having much joy finding age-related variation though, sorry, apart from a few mentions in Sociolinguistics books where it crops up as part of wider identity issues.

Language_student said...

Thanks Dan.

Re: the age-related variation. As there doesn't seem to be much about it, hopefully AQA won't set it as a topic on the paper! If it does come up, I think I'll just refer to language + identity research.

Dan said...

Yes, I'd be surprised if they set just age on its own, but other varieties could be fair game.

There's a bit of age-related variation in things like Labov's Martha's Vineyard study and Milroy, Cheshire, Trudgill et al when they look at regional varieties, but I'm struggling to find much more.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the helpful post. I was wondering if you could provide information regarding Section A of the paper, language variataion and language change. Also if you could provide the topics and theorists needed to be learnt. I am very unsure on this topic!

Dan said...

There's some stuff here:
and some stuff from last year here:

Beth Kemp's site is good for explaining what's covered:

Jessica said...

Really helpful post!!

I am struggling with the topic of political correctness. Other than the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Norman Faiclough and Swift&Miller I am lacking in evidence and research and don't feel as if I have enough weight behind the debate to argue it fully, any thoughts?


Dan said...

Glad it's helped, Jessica.

I think you're fine with those theorists really, so long as you're clear that the underpinnings of the PC movement come from a belief that if you remove sexist & racist words from the lexicon, you'll either a) remove the pejorative association of that term, or b) go some way towards changing the discourse around sexism and racism by drawing attention to the problems inherent in those words.

E.g. You could argue that the debate about "slutwalking" has polarised opinion about the word slut and "slutty" dressing, but on a very simple level it has at least made everyone think about the word, what it means and whether or not it should be used. It's also given young feminists the chance to enter the debate about women's rights in a way that might not have been open to them before, thus intervening in the discourse.

I think the other thing is that it's important to realise that PC is quite a rarity in linguistic terms in that there has been a degree of success in imposing a "top-down" model of language change. You could argue to what extent it's been successful, but in many ways it's one of the few attempts at linguistic engineering that's actually worked.

Most of the time, language change is bottom-up - usage leads to adoption and codification of patterns of lexis and grammar - and organic.

This of course means that there are some who would normally see themselves as descriptivists aligning themselves with a rather prescriptivist stance - PC, after all, is all about prescription. So it makes for some unlikely bedfellows: normally prescriptive language commentators arguing that PC is a bad thing because it's telling us what we should and shouldn't say; normally descriptive linguists arguing that PC is a force for good.

That's why I think it's such an interesting debate.

Dan said...

Jessica, I've added this as a new post on the blog to try to get others to add their own views too. Hope that's OK

Captjenny said...

This is great! thank you!!

Jessica said...

Hi Dan, thanks so much for all your help! I hadn't come across the 'slutwalking' epidemic but I am more confident on the topic of PC now and feel I could write a good response if it comes up in tomorrow's exam!

Thanks again

Dan said...

I bet it won't now!