Friday, September 30, 2005

In the name of God!

With new blasphemy laws coming into effect in Britain, where it becomes a form of hate crime to attack another person's religion, a website set out to find out if its predominantly Christian audience were as easily offended as the law suggests. The website asked its readers to send in the most offensive religious jokes they had heard, and were apparently gob-smacked (or god-smacked, perhaps) to discover how gross and outrageous many of the jokes were - but also how little their audience really seemed to care! So are we becoming a society that believes anything is fair game for humour?

In an article in The Guardian earlier this week, several of the jokes are reprinted, while in a follow-up article Emo Philips, the comedian whose joke topped the poll, talks about his response to winning such a high accolade.

So, moving to the serious language point about all of this, how offensive is blasphemy in this day and age? Taking a look at the history of offensive language, you can see that many of the strongest taboo terms used to be oaths and curses with a religious connection. Just take a look at Shakespeare's use of "S'blood!" and "Zounds!" (God's blood and God's wounds, respectively) and you'll see that thses were the strongest expressions of his day.

People nowadays seem more offended by racist terms than religious ones, but as ever this shifts as language and society changes. Perhaps a good topic for a language investigation, if you're still struggling to come up with an idea...

Useful for:
EA4C - Language Investigation

Goo goo ga ga go go?

It's an essential part of being a parent: "Who's a lubbly lickle bubba den?","Do you want some more bubba num nums?", "Oh, has diddums done a poo poo?" etc. ad nauseam...

But according to the BBC, a hospital in Yorkshire has banned people from cooing over babies as it infringes their human rights and might cause infections to spread. Is it "bureaucracy gone mad" as one critic has asserted, or a sensible precaution to prevent nosey visitors poking and prodding your little baby without so much as a by-your-leave?

The whole issue of talking to babies and engaging in what child language theorists call C.D.S. (Child-directed speech) is an important area of study. Many believe that early verbal interaction with a baby (even from a few days old) is crucial in helping them develop interactional skills of their own. Others argue that babies need time and space to develop, without constant gibberish being spouted at them by doting grannies and grandads. And what of the words and sounds we use towards babies? Should we offer them such "poverty of stimulus" as Noam Chomsky famously claimed back in the 1960s: in other words, should we feed babies a diet of broken, half-words and strange gurgling noises? Or should we - as some cultures around the world like those in Samoa - refuse to engage in babytalk and instead treat children as valid conversational partners only when they can speak properly themselves? Have a look at this entry in teh online encyclopedia Wikipedia for more information on this topic.

So is this decision based on sound behavioural and developmental criteria or a case of a hospital fearing litigation if a baby picks up a nasty infection from a flu-ridden visitor? You can follow the discussion on the BBC website and add your views too.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition
ENA6 - Language Debates

Sunday, September 25, 2005

It's all geek to me

Do you know the difference between fishing and phishing, a moose and a konglong, keylogging and Kenny Loggins? If you don't then maybe you are joining the ranks of the digital underclass: those people either too poor to get connected to a PC and the internet, or just those that are baffled by all this geeky jargon.

Two recent articles highlight the divide in this fascvinating area of language usage and change. In one, the BBC news website looks at how office workers find themselves baffled by the jargon around computer technology (although a quick look at some of the troublesome terms would suggest to me that they're just being a bit lazy!). An article back in April picks up some of the same themes and is a worthwhile read as background to the whole issue of jargon and occupational Englishes.

Meanwhile, in an article in The Independent about China - the world's most rapidly-developing economy - the divide between computer users and their new slanguage is causing concern to guardians of linguistic purity in the media and government:

As internet chat and instant messaging increasingly become a part of life for China's computer-literate youth, the use of internet slang has grown and adoption of the terms has permeated all areas of Chinese life.

On the Web, internet slang is convenient and satisfying, but the mainstream media have a responsibility to guide proper and legal language usage," the Shanghai Morning Post quoted Xia Xiurang, the chair of the culture committee of the Shanghai People's Congress, as saying.

Ms Xia said: "Our nation's language needs to develop, but it also needs to be regulated." Although she said there is no reason these words could not be used in other settings, she made it clear the use of the words in an official capacity will not be tolerated. She made no reference to how the ban, which is being drafted, would be enforced.

Like so many debates about language change, attitudes to change remain in an awkward flux, caught between embracing exciting new language - and the currency that holds in the world's marketplace - and an uneasiness about how the new language is altering the essence of the old language, and leaving a whole generation behind.

Useful for:

ENA5 - Language Change
ENA3 - Using Language
EA4C - Language Investigations

Friday, September 23, 2005


What's in a name? Well, judging by some people's attitudes, your whole personality. Reports in today's Times Educational Supplement and Daily Mirror claim that teachers on the TES message board have been exchanging less than complementary comments about the names they fear when they look at their new class lists.

Among the "offenders" are Liam, Ashley, Mason, Connor and Chantelle. Well that's me told then, with at least two of those appearing somewhere in my sons' first or middle names!

As you might expect, this brainless stereotyping hasn't gone down too well with parents, who have suggested that class snobbery and even racism might be behind these attitudes (Liam and Connor are Irish names, while Chantelle is popular among families of Afro-Caribbean backgrounds; Mason and Ashley might be seen by many as working class names).

Why we can't all call our children Tarquin and Gaylord and avoid these vulgar, oikish names, I don't know...

But names are an interesting area of English Language. A quick look at the article on this blog, Bloodlines, earlier this year tells us a lot about surnames and how they reflect family history and the prevalent attitudes of the time (as well as encoding such ideas as patriarchy and male ownership of women, some would argue), but first names are a different matter.

You might remember the jokes when the Beckhams named their son Brooklyn, but what about Britney's baby Preston (apparently?!). An article on the BBC website from last week takes a look at some of these strange celebrity names. Elsewhere on the same site, we have an article that examines some of the weird-and-not-so-wonderful names that celebrities have burdened their children with over the years. Dweezil and Moon Unit Zappa anyone?

Useful for:
EA4C - Language Investigation

Friday, September 16, 2005

Harry's bottom and the half-arsed prince

Apparently someone called Prince Harry is 21 this week. While my personal hope is that the only words I ever hear a member of the royal family say are "Where did that guillotine come from?", for purely linguistic reasons it's quite interesting to listen to his speech and the reaction to it.

Why? Well, Harry's arse has a lot to do with it. Yes that's right, I said "arse" - or rather that's what Prince Harry said. Such profanity has shocked some people who have commented that a member of the royal family should not be using such vulgar expressions. But as Mark Lawson's Front Row programme on Radio 4 was quick to point out yesterday, royals have been swearing for some time now. From "B*gger Bognor" to "Naff orf!" the royals have been swearing like troopers for centuries.

But, as Lawson points out on his show (which you can listen to here - the bit you want is 27 minutes into the programme), this outburst might have been more calculated than previous royal bloomers. Could it be that Prince Harry is swearing so he comes across as "one of us", a normal down-to-earth geezer, not some over-privileged, inbred good-for-nothing sponger (as I once heard someone describe him)?

For a different perspective on this and a quick look at the word he used, have a butcher's at this article by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian

To read more about Prince Harry's speech, check here and if you're interested in looking at how prestige forms of speech - both Standard English and Received Pronunciation - have lost part of their appeal, there's a very good piece on the BBC website which traces the rise and fall of RP.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties
ENA6 - Language Debates

Monday, September 12, 2005

From geek to god

Even though it's a bizarre and disturbing article in so many ways, this is worth a look. The Observer last weekend ran a feature in its magazine on Neil Strauss, author of a book called The Game, which claims to lift the lid on proven seduction and chat-up techniques for men to use on women. If this all sounds a bit too much like those annoying spam emails which promise "You to Can pull a sexie women in just FREE days if you give me your bank account detayls" (and they don't work, believe me) then you might be right.

Strauss comes across like a once desperate loser who's since converted to a new religion and is now convinced that his is the one true path. He also sounds like he revels in his single-minded pursuit of some vulnerable and rather insecure women who don't feel very good about themselves (and that - to me at least - makes him a creepoid and freako).

So what has this to do with language? Everything, apparently: Strauss claims that men can follow a "yes ladder" to capture even a woman like Britney Spears. And he reprints the transcript of his interview to "prove" it! Don't worry though moral guardians, he got her number but didn't call her - phew!

The link to The Observer article is here while the new lexicon of lurve is covered here.

Useful for:
ENA3 - Male/ Female Conversation
ENA5 - Language Change

OK, yaar

No, not a throwback to the days of the 1980s Sloane Rangers and their ridiculously posh accents, but a reference to the changing nature of Indian English in India.

In an article supplied by the brilliant Language Feed (which you can subscibe to here), Ranjita Biswas talks about the way Indians have adapted to the influence of other languages upon their own version of English. As she says in the article:

If the UK takes pride in its multiculturalism, urban Indians are comfortable too with a language from across the seas becoming a part of their own day-to-day life. Indeed, any casual observer of the current social scenario would know that the language, which may not be Queen’s English, has become the communication language among young and old alike.

This article goes well with the Sue Fox research in the article Cockney Translation which looks at the influence of Bengali accent and dialect on East End English.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties and Language Change

Saturday, September 10, 2005


The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has stirred a linguistic debate about the term "refugee" and a range of other words that have been used in the reporting of the whole catastrophe. Here's a link to The Language Legend's piece on it, while below I've cut'n'pasted a few choice quotes from an article in Michael Quinion's World Wide Words newsletter which is a weekly round-up of discussions about the world of words.

Elsewhere, in an article called When Words Break Down, Geoffrey Nunberg looks at discussion around the words and phrases "Looting", "evacuee" and "act of God".

So, to Michael Quinion's article which looks at the terms "refugee", "evacuee" and "displaced persons":

Most early news reports called them refugees ("Astrodome to become
new home for storm refugees", USA Today, 1 Sep; "Bus refugees
overcome bureaucracy", the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 2 Sep;
"The refugee emergency is beginning to affect neighboring states,
Texas most of all", New York Times, 4 Sep - just three of many
hundreds of examples). This brought an angry response on CNN from
Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick that no US
citizen could be a refugee in his own country, a view supported by
a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Elijah Cummings. It was
echoed by Bruce Gordon, the president of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People, in an interview for the
Guardian: "I think it's an offensive term. These people are fellow
Americans. Using the word refugees makes it sound like they are not
of us." The Reverend Jesse Jackson called it "racist"; he and other
African-American leaders have even argued the word has criminal
connotations. President Bush also opposed the usage: "The people
we're talking about are not refugees. They are Americans."

"Evacuee" implies an orderly and organised process. "Refugee"
implies a desperate, involuntary and unplanned move. The former
doesn't have the emotive implications or emotional force of the
latter. Whatever its dictionary sense, or the definitions of the
international aid organisations, or the plaints of politicians, or
the lexical views of dictionaries and pedants, for most people
"refugee" sums up the situation of the sufferers more accurately
than any other.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

All in the mind?

The link between language and thought is a fascinating one. Linguists and psychologists have argued for decades about the effects of language on the way we think and the way we experience the world around us. Linguistic relativists like Sapir and Whorf argue that language can influence thought (so, according to Whorf who worked as a fire prevention officer, if we see a word like "empty" on a barrel we'll assume it contains nothing, even if we know it contains highly flammable petrol fumes, and our behaviour may become more reckless as a result). The relativists also argue that languages are different around the world and reflect different cultural outlooks, so a tribe in one area of the world whose environment contains little need for words describing knives and forks, won't have those words.

On the other side, linguistic universalists argue that all languages are linked by what Noam Chomsky calls a "deep structure", so however different languages like French, Cantonese and English might appear, they share linguistic universals. Universalists argue that the influence of language on thought is negligible, as thought controls language.

A report in The Guardian yesterday (which doesn't seem to be online) offers support to the relativist position. Apparently patients who are told that they will receive "moderate" pain respond less to the pain administered to them than those patienst who are told they will receive "severe" pain. In other words, if you're getting the same amount of pain given to you, the language used to describe that pain seems to have an influence on what you feel. Quite who would want to volunteer for such a bizarre experiment I don't know...

This experiment is supported by another article (which is online - huzzah!) about language and asthma. Similar experiments by the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus also offer support to linguistic relativism:

For more than three decades, I have been studying memory and the ways it can go awry. My first studies of eyewitness testimony addressed several key questions: When someone sees a crime or accident, how accurate is his or her memory? What happens when this person is questioned by police officers, and what if those questions are leading in some way? While others in the field of memory were studying memory for words or nonsense syllables, or sometimes sentences, I began showing people films of traffic accidents and questioning them in various ways. The question “Did you see the broken headlight?” led to more false reports of a broken headlight than the same question asked with the verb hit. “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” led to higher estimates of speed than a more neutral question that used the verb hit. Moreover, the “smashed” question led more people to later falsely claim that they had seen broken glass when there was none. My early papers concluded that leading questions could contaminate or distort a witness’s memory (see Loftus, 1979/1996, for a summary of this early research).
Useful for:
ENA1 - Language and Representation
ENA6 - Language Debates (esp. Language & Ideology)

Friday, September 02, 2005

What's the point?

(No, it's not a beginning of term moan about the state of education, more an intro to what this weblog is about...)

With new students starting at college and current English Language students perhaps using this blog for the first time, I thought it would be useful to explain what the idea is behind it all.

The main idea is to pick out interesting items about English Language use (as reported in various media like the newspapers, radio, TV, websites etc) and post a brief comment on them to stimulate a bit of thought and discussion. I nicked the idea from Julie Blake's Language Legend (which is still the daddy of all language blogs!) but maybe the longer this one goes on and the more students and others contribute, the more this blog's identity will evolve.

Beyond this though, if you're stuck for ideas on your A Level project you can pick one of the topics here as the basis for exploration; or if you want to catch up on the latest research on conversation analysis or child language acquisition, then I'll try to keep you up to date with what's being discussed out there, beyond your text book!

So, if you're a new AS student looking at this for the first time, or a seasoned A2-er (or even someone who's done it all before and gone on to university) then your comments, links and ideas are welcome. Of course, many people outside SFX have been reading and posting here too, so you'll find loads of different ideas and opinions.

Anyway, happy reading - and if you find anything interesting about any aspect of language that you think is worth sharing, post a comment or email me.

Join the snoutcasts

When some lists of new words appear, it's interesting to see how many of them you've come across before and what kind of context they're used in, but sometimes lists appear and you have to assume that a group of workshy advertising executives have just sat themselves round a table at lunch, opened a few bottles of over-priced Canary Wharf Rioja and made up as many silly words as they could think of, in an attempt to market some non-descript company to the media. And (after a lengthy preamble...) that's what this article seems to be like.

Today's BBC website carries a feature on "Office Talk". Apparently office workers who have a crafty cigarette out the front of the building are "snoutcasts", while those who sip on a furtive coffee when they should be chained to their desks are "sneakaccinos". Hmm....

Whether you believe the provenance (or even existence!) of these words or not, there's always a bit of fun to be had dissecting them and looking at their etymologies. What's "snoutcast" derived from? Seems to be a blend of "outcast" and "snout" (East End/Cockney/Prison slang for tobacco). "Goodjobist" seems to be a rather clumsy morphological construction, chucking on an "-ist" suffix to the phrase "good job". Anyway, I'll leave the rest for you to work out...

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA3 - Spoken Language (power, identity, occupation etc.)

Black British English vs MLE

The latest episode of Lexis is out and it features an interview with Ife Thompson about lots of issues connected to Black British English, i...