Thursday, August 25, 2011

OMG that's so NEET

Chambers Dictionary is publishing its latest edition and the papers are full of the new words they've included. Here The Daily Mail looks at the inclusion of what they call the acronyms (but which are actually initialisms - shame on you Daily Fail) OMG and BFF, pointing to the dictionary's interest in text-speak and words derived from celebrity culture. But there are loads more mentioned too, some of them less current than others (jeggings, bromance and skank have all been knocking around for a good few years now). They also like the acronym (which is an acronym this time) NEET - Not in Education, Employment or Training - which is nice, given that there are now more NEETs than ever before thanks to cuts and university fees.

Elsewhere, The Scotsman looks at labradoodle and dubstep, among others, but also at wider trends - economic collapse, "men's liberation" and environmental issues, while the BBC focuses more on the role of internet language.

The Chambers press release also points out that among all the new words, they've also highlighted what they see as "rare, literary or quirky" words such as thunder-plump, tickly-benders and mallemaroking, all of which sound brilliant.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Glorping the wug

Here's a quick link to a piece of research from University of Liverpool's Child Language Study Centre which points to children having a clear understanding of some grammar functions a long time before they are able to use these functions themselves:

Researchers at the University’s Child Language Study Centre showed children, aged two, sentences containing made-up verbs, such as ‘the rabbit is glorping the duck’, and asked them to match the sentence with a cartoon picture. They found that even the youngest two-year-old could identify the correct image with the correct sentence, more often than would be expected by chance.

The use of made-up words is interesting as it's a feature of child language research from as far back as 1958 when Jean Berko Gleason's wug test revealed that children are able to apply plural rules to words they've never heard before.

Child Language researcher, Dedre Gentner also used made-up words in her interestingly titled 1978 paper What Looks Like a Jiggy but Acts Like a Zimbo (pdf link).

While the appearance of made-up words in reading tests for primary school children has upset and angered many reading experts, their use in child language experiments is helpful because they can shed light on how patterns and rules are internalised by children and applied to examples of language they haven't heard before, perhaps suggesting that there's an innate capacity for language acquisition (or at least, some sort of generalised puzzle-solving equipment) in all children.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ghetto grammar

The linguistic fall-out from last week's riots continued yesterday with an article by Lindsay Johns in the Evening Standard proclaiming that "Ghetto grammar robs the young of a proper voice". While Johns' work in Peckham with disadvantaged young people has to be applauded, he's got a very narrow view of street slang and has prescriptive form - this article on supposed "gang slang" and this on "proper English" being cases in point (and covered here on the blog last November).

While Johns talks a lot of sense about the power of language and the need to unlock potential in inner city teenagers who might be stereotyped and demeaned for their use of certain varieties of English, he's also unwilling to accept sound linguistic arguments about code-switching and sets up something of a straw man argument with his attack on what he calls "cultural relativism":

Some educators take a position of cultural relativism. They assert the legitimacy and value of street talk, or at the very least, the importance of teaching young people to "code switch" - how to differentiate in which milieu it is socially acceptable.

I have no time for such an approach. In my experience, young people find it very hard to code switch. Text-speak, poor grammar and street patois routinely pervade the essays I set them, let alone their conversations with me.

The problem here is two-fold. Firstly, you'd be pretty hard-pressed to find any linguist or educator who doesn't argue that a mastery of Standard English is a prerequisite of a good education. Who are these cultural relativists that Johns is referring to? It smacks of the right wing arguments about the "PC brigade": some nebulous and sinister cabal of liberals and lefties hell-bent on messing up everything about young people's education with their crazy commie views. They don't really exist...

Secondly, code-switching is not that difficult for young people. They do it all the time. But only if they have another form to switch into. That's essentially the point that Johns is missing. The young people he works with - if they have as poor a command of Standard English as he claims - don't have a problem with slang: they have a problem with basic literacy. To lay the blame for these young people's inability to write and speak clearly at the door of street slang and those people who don't condemn it out of hand is a very weak argument.

Blame the education these young people have received so far. Blame the system that values grades above individual achievement. Blame racist and classist stereotyping of young people. Blame the young people themselves for messing around, bunking off and generally taking the piss; but don't blame slang.


Such an argument is made weaker by the seemingly arbitrary list of features that Johns gathers as markers of this "ghetto grammar":

an inarticulate slang full of vacuous words such as "innit" and wilful distortions like "arks" for "ask" or tedious double negatives

Like so many other arguments about accent, slang and non-standard English, the list just serves to flag up a few personal peeves. A quick look at the comments after the article shows that there are plenty of others happy to jump on the bandwagon and list their personal dislikes in language use. And again, this is part of the wider problem. So many of these features are just down to personal prejudices and individual taste. I don't really have a problem with ain't and innit - perhaps because they're forms that I heard being used around me from quite an early age - but I bristle when I hear feds or po-po for police. So what? As William Labov showed in his studies of New York speech, the post-vocalic "r" (farm, park, card) was often viewed as a marker of upper-class speech , while here in Britain it's often been associated with rural accents and given much less prestige (Drink up thy ciderrrrr, ooo-arrrrrr). There are different ways to pronounce things and different words we like or dislike, but these aren't sound principles on which to build the "rules" of a language.

In many ways, Lindsay Johns adopts a Bernsteinian approach to language, talking about restricted and elaborated codes, and that's an interesting and valid angle, but in other ways he adopts a prescriptivist approach that undermines his wider argument. I can't argue with his desire to increase the linguistic skills of the young people he mentors, to increase their articulacy, self-esteem and employment prospects, but to blame street slang for where they are now just seems plain wrong.

(Edited on 13.11.15 to fix broken links)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Starkey's "Norman Tebbit moment"

Amid the horrific mayhem and destruction of last week's riots, there were a few moments of grim irony - David Cameron deriding the violence of the British underclass shortly before "declaring war" on gang culture, a Labour MP criticising looters for their "naked greed" having made a claim on his parliamentary expenses the year before for an £8,865 flatscreen TV, Nick Clegg propping up a government who he'd previously warned the public about as being likely to cause riots on the streets - but surely the most bizarre moment of all was historian and TV pundit, David Starkey's appearance on Newsnight last Friday in which he blamed the riots on white people turning black, before clumsily reading out the text of a BBM he said represented the broken English of a looter.

Many media commentators struggled to find the right words to describe what was going on. Were the people smashing up shops and lobbing bricks at the police protesters or looters, scum or terrorists? The Guardian wasn't sure. Were these disturbances race riots, London riots, British riots or English riots? The BBC settled for England riots, which strikes me as odd, given that England weren't even playing. Were the young people using the term feds to describe the police showing the influence of US hip hop and mimicking the antics of the LA rioters back in the early 1990s? The BBC News magazine reflected on these issues and even got some linguists and lexicographers to comment, making it a more informative and nuanced discussion than many others.

But let's go back to David Starkey and his rant on Newsnight. Back in 1996, the linguist Jean Aitchison delivered a series of lectures for the BBC on language (which can be read here or listened to here) in which she talked about the worries that exist for many people about how language changes. In one example, she quoted the then Conservative Minister Norman Tebbit making a direct link between language use and crime:

"If you allow standards to slip to the stage where good English is no better than bad English, where people turn up filthy ... at school ... all those things tend to cause people to have no standards at all, and once you lose standards then there's no imperative to stay out of crime."

So, in David Starkey's diatribe against "Jafaican" I think we have this generation's Tebbit moment. Let's look more closely at what Starkey said and unpick why it's not only racist and wrongheaded but linguistically suspect too. The Independent quotes Starkey's words as follows:

"I think what this week has shown is that profound changes have happened. There has been a profound cultural change. I have just been re-reading Enoch Powell. His prophecy was absolutely right in one sense: the Tiber didn't foam with blood, but flames lambent wrapped around Tottenham, wrapped around Clapham.


"But it wasn't intercommunal violence; this was where he was completely wrong. What has happened is that the substantial section of the chavs that you [Mr Jones] wrote about have become black. The whites have become black. 

"A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion. Black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together, this language, which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has intruded in England. This is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country. 

"Listen to David Lammy, an archetypal successful black man. If you turn the screen off, so you were listening to him on radio, you would think he was white." 

What strikes me as so twisted is Starkey's leap from the assertion that "the whites have become black" to the apparent linking of  "blackness" to "violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture". At that point in his argument, he makes no attempt to draw a distinction between skin colour and culture. Later, he offers some (feeble) attempts at mitigation, perhaps when he tries to argue that not all black people - David Lammy, for example - "sound black", but it's still a reductive and idiotic argument. Why? Because in Starkey's mind black = "violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture". And your degree of blackness can be identified by the way you talk...

From a linguistic standpoint, his assertion that the "Jamaican patois" that has "intruded in England" and is used by young people involved in the riots is "wholly false" smacks of desperation. As one Twitter user @vivmondo wittily put it, "Asking David Starkey for his views on youth culture is a little like asking Lady Sovereign for her views on Elizabethan shipping law" but even so he goes ahead and gives us the benefits of his massive knowledge. And that's before he launches into his freestyle, which has been remixed for your pleasure and delight in the You Tube clip here.



As Geoff Pullum explains on Language Log, Starkey's views about the insidious influence of Jamaican patois on the native language are ill-informed and wide of the mark. What Starkey quotes in his poorly performed rap is nothing like Jamaican patois and much closer to Multicultural London English (MLE, MEYD or what some dubiously call "Jafaican"). 

Even Katherine Birbalsingh (who normally gets my goat about as much as Toby Young and Richard Littlejohn) gets it right when she says that the language Starkey is talking about is "a kind of fusion of many cultures, including Cockney East End speech. One can also hear some Jamaican influence, general working-class London influence and so on. Does Starkey really believe that Jamaicans go around saying “innit”? “Innit” has a Cockney glottal stop in it! Interestingly, this accent not only is not Jamaican, but neither is it in American gangster culture. What MTV rapper sounds like our kids?".

In yesterday's Evening Standard, Sam Leith made a slightly different point about the language of  Starkey's rant. Annoyingly, he insists on calling the variety of English in question as "Jafaican" with all its connotations of affectation and mimicry, when any good language student knows that what is emerging in London and has been developing for well over two decades is an organic form of language that has its roots in a range of different varieties brought together by contact in urban areas. He can be forgiven though as he's not a linguist and doesn't claim to be an expert on language. Plus he makes some good points elsewhere. 

Discussing Starkey's claim that "so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country" he agreed that "(Starkey) touches an anxiety more people feel than admit to" before going on to say "it's actually a class and generational anxiety. It finds its most poisonous outlet in fears about race" and concluding by saying "Prof Starkey defended his position by saying that in times like this, "plain speaking" is needed. No. Careful, precise speaking is needed". 

Wise words indeed, and all the wiser because Leith - and Birbalsingh - notice that the people who use the language Starkey so derided are actually all around us: they are our students, our own children, us, our communities, not some alien race. To mark them out as a separate group because of their "wholly false" language use is to misunderstand and misrepresent both young people and the ways in which language works.

*Edited 16.08.11 to change title after inadvertently copying Stan Carey's MacMillan blog title from yesterday. Woops!