Monday, May 21, 2018

Revision round-up 4: reading that works

You've still got over 2 weeks before you sit Paper 2 so there's still time to do some reading. In the last post I mentioned how it's important to read plenty of articles about language, but there's even time to read around the subject (or listen if that's what you prefer).

I posted these suggestions earlier in the year, but there's still time to dip in and out and these are all accessible for students if you've got a bit of time and patience.

My top tips are:

  • Deborah Cameron, The Myth of Mars and Venus - a brilliant, dry take on how women and men use language and the myths around it.
  • Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars - a readable and comprehensive overview of some of the ways in which English has been debated about and argued over ever since it came to be.
  • Jean Aitchison, Language Change: Progress or Decay? - excellent for how language changes and what people think about it. Essential reading for Paper 2.
  • Annabelle Mooney and Betsy Evans, Language, Society and Power (4th edition) - almost as useful as a 3rd textbook for this course.
  • English & Media Centre, Language: a Student Handbook of Key Topics and Theories (aka the little red book) - put together for you to offer new angles and key ideas for most of the main areas you cover. Buy it or my husky starves.
  • Susie Dent, Modern Tribes - a very accessible and readable book with lots of great examples for work you will do on social groups.Worth dipping in and out of.
  • Julie Coleman, The Life of Slang - while the slang material is really good in its own right, the discussion of how new language gets generated, how it spreads and why it gets picked up (or not) is very insightful.
For listening revision (always good for those tedious bus or train journeys, or Maths lessons):

Michael Rosen's Word of Mouth
Talk the Talk
The Vocal Fries
Lexicon Valley

And finally, the Cambridge Topics in English Language series that Marcello Giovanelli and I edited are all out now. We're chuffed with how they've come out and they seem to have been going down well. You can see more about them here.

If you have any suggestions for things you've read or listened to recently that have been helpful, please add them to the discussion on Twitter here.


Revision round-up 3: being prescriptive (about being descriptive)

As you'll no doubt have studied on this course, descriptivists describe language while prescriptivists prescribe, telling us what we should (or shouldn't) be doing with language. After (nearly) two years of language study, you'll probably have got the general idea that we (your teachers) would prefer you to be descriptive rather than prescriptive about language. That's not (necessarily) because we want you in some kind of liberal-leftie lockstep in which anything goes, but because if you're studying language you really need to be able to do better than just say "I don't like X and that's why you shouldn't use it" (where X is vocal fry, 'Americanisms', rising intonation, 'like', (non-literal) 'literally' or 'bae'... Ok scrub that, no one should say 'bae').

Overall, what I think we want you to avoid is knee-jerk prescriptivism. And that doesn't mean you can't challenge language change and/or language diversity, or offer your own deeply-held views about language. I can think of plenty of cases where there's a really good argument to be had about the problems that might arise if language changes too quickly or becomes too diverse. There are arguments around intelligibility and how people are judged out there in the real world for their language use which could all be argued from a broadly prescriptive position.
There are also some compelling arguments around the top-down control of language and language engineering, with topics like political correctness and language reform that could be addressed from different positions and argued about with reference to all sorts of studies and linguistic debates.

For example, is political correctness an oppressive anti-free speech movement, or an attempt to make people more conscious and therefore more careful about language that can cause genuine upset?  Look at attempts to police and control language in the past: it's exactly the sort of debate that would have been relevant in last year's question about language change being "controlled or directed".

So, at the heart of this, I think we want you to show your knowledge about language and argue your own case, with supporting evidence. And because you have studied language, your arguments will probably be better supported than some of those you'll be asked to analyse and discuss on Paper 2. After all, many of the articles about language that are published in the media are written by people who may well love language and use it very effectively, but they probably haven't studied language change, diversity and the history of language complaints. You have, so you might come to these topics with a different insight.

While you might be able to offer a different perspective on the content of the articles/extracts you're given in Paper 2, what you can also do is learn from good writers how to put a case. You will have looked at lots of pieces of writing about language on this course - articles complaining about the modern use of 'literally' (even if it's not really that modern at all), self-help guides telling all you need to know about male-female conversation styles, online pieces about women needing to empower themselves by getting rid of vocal fry and uptalk - and hopefully you'll have picked up some of the techniques to write catchy headlines, helpful straplines and to structure your argument so it hits home, but you'll also have seen how writers make use of what's going on around them to link their arguments about language to wider points about society, and how sometimes they play the devil's advocate or use a running joke or metaphor as a way of guiding the reader.

As you're revising for Paper 2, don't forget that while content and knowledge are really important, practising writing opinion pieces that both inform and entertain is also part of your task and there's still time to get better at this by reading plenty of articles and identifying the techniques and approaches that you can make use of too.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Revision round-up 2 - metaphors about language

If you ask a linguist to describe a form of language, they'll probably focus on its features, its functions, its background and history. Ask a non-linguist and they'll probably describe it using evaluative terms such as ugly, broken, lazy or even beautiful (sometimes), or they'll reach for metaphor: language is an amazing tool; language is a beautiful building that needs to be protected; British English has to be defended against an invasion of awful Americanisms; urban slang is polluting our once proud language etc.

These metaphors are interesting because they often encode a way of seeing the world - and usefully for you, sitting the exam - a way of conceptualising language that you can analyse and discuss. What's important about these metaphors is that they will often seem quite appealing - or even perfectly natural - as an idea and you might even read them and think that it's quite neat way to describe language, but if you dig a bit deeper, you can often see that they are problematic.

In fact, one of the big challenges of this part of Paper 2 is being able to see how these metaphors construct a way of seeing language change and/or diversity that affects the way we view language and the world around us. In short, these metaphors can change that we think. Norman Fairclough, one of the most influential linguists in the field of critical discourse analysis, makes the point that “Ideologies are closely linked to language, because using language is the commonest form of social behaviour, and the form of social behaviour where we rely most on ‘common-sense’ assumptions” and I think this is an important idea to understand.

Take a few of the headlines below, for example.



Each of these presents language as something other than language - rubbish, a damaging force, a killer or a fashion - and all shape the way we might think about it. 

Some of the most common metaphors work to make us think that 'traditional' English is under threat or at risk in some way and some of the most common language discourses are presented below. It''s not an exhaustive list by any stretch, but if you've been following stories about language during your time on the course, you'll probably have seen these time and time again.


One of the skills that comes in really useful on Paper 2, especially for Questions 3 and 4 in Section B, is being able to identify these discourses and see how the writers of the texts you are analysing might be making use of them to offer a particular angle or position on language. If you can see where they are being deployed and how they are tapping into wider ideas about language, society and people, you can interrogate them and see if the views they are offering can be looked at in another way, challenged or attacked.

Having tuned into the discourses being used, you can then make use of them for yourself when you come to write your Q4 response. And, as you've probably seen from the articles you've been reading to help you with Section B, writing a piece that makes use of some of these popular discourses is one way to make your piece read more like a genuine article. But of course, you'll also have the benefit of understanding how such metaphors work and be able to manipulate them for your own (hopefully more linguistically informed) arguments.