Sunday, February 24, 2013

Keep buzzing

MacMillan Dictionaries have had a really good web presence for a while now, with plenty of accessible articles for A level students (and normal, everyday people who are just interested in language).

One of the best and most useful features for A level English Language has been its Buzzwords section, a weekly feature in which the ace lexicographer Kerry Maxwell takes a look at a new word that's appeared and explores its origins, formations and uses.

It's exactly the kind of thing that feeds into the work we do on Language Change for ENGA3 (or ENGB3 if you follow the AQA B spec) and provides the kind of up to date and well-referenced examples of words and word formation processes that can make your essays on this topic a much better read, and keep you topped up with new and original illustrations.

Buzzwords is now ten years old, so Kerry has written an overview about what's happened in the world of new words, which you can find here. We'll be looking at this in class in the run-up to the exam in June, but it's definitely worth having a read now and looking back through the Buzzwords for 2012 here and the archive here.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Speak now, pay later

There's always been lively debate among linguists and non-linguists alike about the extent to which language might influence or even control the way we think. At its most extreme, we find the strong version of the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (largely the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf) which argues that the way we interpret the world around us is heavily influenced by the language available to us:

We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way — an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language...

Many have taken this to mean that he believed that language helped control and shape the way we think (a view originally put forward by Wilhelm von Humboldt) but others suggest that Whorf was never really making such a bold claim.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of this, there has been a lot of interest in the idea that the languages we speak, the words we choose and the grammar we use might have an impact on how we view the world. This week's BBC news website carries an account of Professor Keith Chen's research into language and economic habits, wherein he suggests that speakers of languages that have a strong "future time reference" (i.e. use a separate tense to indicate future time) are less likely to plan ahead in terms of money and health. As the BBC story puts it, "... if you speak English you are likely to save less for your old age, smoke more and get less exercise than if you speak a language like Mandarin, Yoruba or Malay".

According to Chen, languages either have a strong or weak FTR (future time reference) and those with a strong FTR tend to separate present and future, making it less likely that the speakers connect present actions with future events. In other words, the stronger the difference between your language's representation of present and future, the weaker the speakers' ability to link present and future. He argues that this then leads to an inability to plan ahead.

Of course, this is a very difficult idea to prove, particularly if you're not actually a linguist (Professor Chen is primarily an economist), and Professor Geoff Pullum cautions against taking the research at face value in an interesting response on Language Log. One of his key points is that Chen is mistaken in claiming that English has strong FTR, given that we tend to use the present tense (I am going to play football to morrow) or modal verbs (I will play football tomorrow).

The story has been picked up elsewhere, including here, where other links between language and thought are discussed, and in this debate between Lera Boroditsky and Mark Liberman.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Hadaway wi ye

The responses to the story last week about Sacred Heart Primary in Middlesbrough correcting their pupils' use of non-standard English are still coming thick and fast.

The most original is from the author, David Almond, who was born in the North East. In his phonetically written article for The Guardian, he argues that "the commin langwij cums from the hart an sole, and must neva be forgot". It takes a minute to tune in, but it's a good read once you're on his wavelength.

This article in yesterday's Independent on Sunday is great stuff too, because it's written by a genuine expert, a sociolinguist from King's College, London. Here, Julia Snell  shows that it's more than just a question of promoting "good English" - which is what all English teachers are trying to do in pretty much everything they teach - but also to recognise the close link between language and identity.

As Snell says, "Ultimately, it is not the presence or absence of non-standard forms in children's speech that raise educational issues; rather, picking on non-standard voices risks marginalising some children, and may make them less confident at school. Silencing pupils' voices, even with the best intentions, is just not acceptable".

Sadly, this article by a teacher called Pete Turner is less exciting, partly because it has no real style and partly because it's just a rather predictable moan about young people's language. Sorry Pete, but if you'd opened your ears a bit more to some of your students' language styles, it might have made a more engaging read. And as for northerners having large, extended families and southerners getting their slang from grime? Right...

The fact that two of the articles have over 600 responses shows what a live issue this is out there in the real world, not just in our English Language lessons. If you're looking at doing your Language Intervention for ENGA4 coursework in the next few weeks (and you probably should be) then this is exactly the kind of language debate that you should be getting stuck into.

(HT to Ellie Aslin, Jon Dolton and @backwellengdept and @UKLiteracy for first link, Paul Kerwsill via the EMC Facebook page for the second, and Alasdair Mackenzie for the last.)

Edited on Monday 11.02.13 to add 2nd article and restructure references.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Driving up standards by driving out the non-standard

A school in Teesside has become the centre of an argument over acceptable English, with its headteacher's decision to send a letter home to parents asking parents to "correct" their children's language "errors".

According to the local paper, non-standard English such as 'I done it' (rather than 'I did it', or 'I have done it'), 'yous' (instead of 'you') and 'gizit here' (instead of 'give it to me, please') are all considered off-limits at the school, and risk making the children's employment prospects lower than those who use Standard English.

Standard English is what we're supposed to teach at school, and it's what we use to communicate in writing, most of the time - unless we're online or on our phones, in which case different rules apply - but the argument that's been stirred here is over whether it's acceptable to limit what young people say to just Standard English and whether we should be describing these usages as "incorrect".

Schools have tried similar things before,  with Sheffield Springs Academy having a "slang ban" (which is also how the Daily Mail headline about Sacred Heart School in Middlesbrough - mistakenly - puts it in their story), Manchester Academy doing the same a year or two before, and a school in Basildon allegedly trying to eliminate Essex accents through elocution lessons, a claim denied by the school itself.

Linguists have long argued that non-standard varieties of English are not "wrong" at all. In fact, some of them might even be seen as more logical: yous is a perfectly reasonable way of differentiating between second person singular and plural, which Standard English doesn't have, for example. Studying the differences between standard and non-standard is something that Key Stage 2 children do as part of their Literacy curriculum, so it's not as if they don't understand the differences, but is it really OK to ban certain terms or suggest they're inferior.

Peter Stockwell, linguist and Teessider, thinks not and is featured in an interesting follow-up piece. York University's Paul Kerswill, an expert in sociolinguistics (and writer of a damn fine chapter in this book) was interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, alongside Simon Gibbons of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) and had some eminently sensible things to say about the whole furore.  You can listen to it here until next week and it's 1 hour 40 minutes into the programme.

Elsewhere, the Daily Mail has its take on it here, and you don't need to be a genius to work out that its online readership have plenty to say about it in the comments that follow, which range from the considered and quite descriptivist in outlook (see comment 1 below) to the dubious and rather poorly written (see comments 2&3).

If you've been studying Jean Aitchison's models of crumbling castle, infectious disease and damp spoon, you'll see nearly all of those appearing somewhere in the prescriptive comments put forward, with discourses of laziness, ugliness, infection and erosion, all making an appearance somewhere.

So, what do you think of the school's attempts to drive out non-standard English? Do they have good educational intentions, or are they misguided prescriptivists? Here are what some Mail Online readers thought: what about you?

Comment 1:

The school is just plain wrong. To call informal English wrong is to mess about with personal relationships: this is where you get some children looking down on others because they think they speak wrongly. What is more, it is actually a disadvantage to speak formally if you are in a service industry where you have to get on with ordinary people. You can always tell people who have been trained to talk formally all the time: they sound like daft, unconfident and untrustworthy pseuds. Besides the fact that there are historical reasons for dialect speech: North-eastern dialects use words which go back to the Vikings and put children in touch with a continuing culture which has existed for a thousand years. There is the formal English you need for interviews and work and there is the informal English that enables you to speak quickly with friends, family and locals. All children are capable of understanding that formal English is not right, it is simply for use in formal situations. - Dave , Wimbledon, 06/2/2013 17:24


Sadly, kids nowadays speak only one language and they use that single language in every social context. When I was a kid I spoke three types of English. One with my parents, another with my mates and a third in more formal circumstances such as education, police and other levels of authority. The component that has disappeared today is authority.

- AndrĂ©, Peckham, United Kingdom, 5/2/2013 20:13 

Comment 3:

Laziness from children and parents nowadays...and its shocking. Most kids seem to think talking in slang is cool, but its further from the truth. God help them with job prospects and further education ( if they're even attempting to better their lives! )

- flash25, glasgow, United Kingdom, 5/2/2013 19:41