Friday, December 30, 2005

A brain like Albert Einstein and a voice like Vera Duckworth

A bizarre combination, but one introduced by Khalid Aziz whose Aziz Corporation has carried out a survey of businesspeople to explore attitudes to accents in the workplace.

"Even if you think like Albert Einstein, the reality is that if you sound like Vera Duckworth you will face prejudices in the business world," claims Aziz, before going on to say, "Experience shows that the key is to avoid using localised vocabulary, which others may not recognise".

So, do prejudices to accent and dialect exist in our society, and if so will they really hold you back? It's an interesting question and one that is probably not best answered by businesspeople themselves. Who are the Aziz Corporation? They sound a bit like a group of James Bond supervillains to me... And is the focus of their survey accent or dialect (the way we speak or what we say)? It seems a touch unclear.

Howard Giles once carried out a telling piece of research - the matched guise experiment - that has been replicated by students all over the country in coursework investigations. He found that while many respondents claimed to like regional accents for their warmth and friendliness (both rather vague judgements about the personality of the speakers who used them) they were much more likely to regard the speakers of RP as having more authority and expertise. (I've summarised this a little loosely, but that's the gist of it: a more detailed look at regional variations can be found in this extract from Peter Trudgill's book.)

So, is this what's happening with attitudes to regional and national accents in Aziz's survey? It seems to be, but we'd need to know more about the way the survey was conducted and the nature of the responses. I might just follow this up with him...

Meanwhile, for all the talk of multi-ethnic youth dialect and growing tolerance towards non-standard varieties, are we maybe kidding ourselves that the people who make the big decisions that really affect us (like giving us a job, a mortgage or a payrise) are as fair as we might want them to be? Perhaps there's still a huge reservoir of prejudice towards accents that aren't seen as "normal" - whatever that might be.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Balderdash & Piffle

Just a quick plug, for a new programme called Balderdash & Piffle on BBC2 next week (Monday 9pm) about origins of words and phrases in English, produced in association with the Oxford English Dictionary. Could be very handy for studying Language Change units.

Festive language round-up

I hope everyone who reads this blog has had a good Christmas break (so far). I'll keep this post brief as there are lots of other things to do.

A couple of articles which have appeared over the last week or so are worth a look at: first off is the list of most popular baby names for the year. According to the Guardian and Independent, it's back to the future with these: old-fashioned names top the list, while those influenced by celebrity births and popular TV characters show a rise as well (although I should add that we called our daughter Ruby well before we realised she was a character in Eastenders, and she's named after our favourite food, in cockney rhyming slang, or something like that...).

'New old-fashioned' Jack is most popular name for 11th year
Jessica and Jack are top baby names

Second up is the news that predictive text dictionaries are being updated to include new words and phrases. Like traditional lexicographers, the firms who create dictionaries for new technologies are having to keep pace with lexical change in English. But what's driving these changes and is new technology causing some of these changes? Someone told me recently of an appearance of the word "book" as a new slang term for "cool" because it's what appears in predictive text when you type the latter. We're all aware of processes like blending, conversion, compounding and borrowing in language change, but what do we call it when it's just a technological blip?

At a stroke: Asbo, smlirt, podcast enter predictive text dictionary

And finally (as Trevor McDonald used to say), to the word "Christmas" itself. Has political correctness "gone crazy" (copyright Daily Mail mentalist posse) again? The Sun - always a bastion of accurate reporting and fairmindedness - has been crusading against "loony" councils who have allegedly banned the word "Christmas" so as not to offend religious minorities. Except, they're struggling to find that many examples of it happening and not quite getting it right even when they do find examples. There is a similar trend in the USA media, but perhaps with a slightly different slant. Have a look at the selection of articles here and make up your own mind! And have a Happy New Year.

Pupils in 'c'-word ban
Nativity scenes are out, carols are banned, and don't dare wish anyone merry Christmas: the festive season, US-style
Don't mention the C-word
Christmas under threat from political correctness

Friday, December 16, 2005

Multi-ethnic youth dialect - thanks!

Thanks for all the completed questionnaires already posted or emailed. This is going to be a much bigger project than I'd originally envisaged but it should prove very interesting as a result.


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Pryor Convictions

It was really sad to hear that the comedian Richard Pryor had died earlier this week. He was one of the most influential stand-up comedians of his generation and creator of some hilarious sketches and characters.

I can't really add anything to what's appeared in various obituaries and tributes, but it's maybe worth thinking about looking at some of his - and other stand-ups' - sketches as a source of data for linguistic analysis on research investigations.

For a study of laughter and what it does to us, check this Telegraph online article. Meanwhile have a look at some of the links to Richard Pryor websites for more info about this comic genius.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Multi-ethnic youth dialect (rewind)

Following on from yesterday's post about the rise of "multi-ethnic youth dialect" it would be good to have some responses to a little bit of data collection we've initiated. If you go to the SFX resources site, you can download a grid that asks you to fill in your colloquial version of various common expressions or phrases, such as greetings or words for things that are good or bad.

If you fill it in and return it to me at either the college email address or the address on the website. we'll crunch up the data and share the findings.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Multi-ethnic youth dialect

I don't know how many of you read this blog from beyond south London, where our college is based, but it would be handy to have as many of you contribute to this debate as possible, wherever you're from.

Various pieces of research and comment from linguists such as Roger Hewitt in the late 80s/early 90s, Roxy Harris in the 90s and Paul Kerswill, Sue Fox and David Britain this year, seem to be suggesting that there is a new youth dialect emerging in the UK. This dialect is not regionally based, as many have been in the past, but linked to a whole range of other factors: ethnicity, age, identification with a particular way of life or subculture (or "communities of practice" as linguists seem to be calling it now).

According to an article in today's Sunday Times (which, it has to be said, is a pretty badly cobbled together piece) this dialect is spreading far and wide. Read the article and let us know what you think. And more usefully, in weeks to come we'll be running our own research to see how well known certain slang terms are and what they mean to you around the country.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change and Varieties

Motherese, Parentese, Gesturese?

We all know that interaction with children is believed to help them with their language acquisition - Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner and loads of others tell us so - but did we know that our body language could affect this too?

An article in today's Scotsman newspaper, citing research from Maria O'Neill at Portsmouth University, suggests that simple non-verbal communication like "Pointing at objects such as a dog while repeating the name; Tapping when counting items; Nodding and head shaking when saying yes or no" can rapidly improve a child's understanding of language.

This may not sound like such a revolutionary concept (and maybe it isn't, but you can never rely on a newspaper to tell you the full story!) and it's fairly clear that you can't really help children label things around them without some body language to identify the things they're labelling, but the real success of this approach seems to be with kids who haven't developed as quickly as others. Maybe it means that certain "learning styles" (a trendy area of teaching at the moment) can be applied to one year olds as well as 14 year olds and the rest of us.

Or perhaps it just means that we should be careful about slapping our heads and miming "d'oh" when our children can't identify their names on a Christmas card and open their brother's instead...

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition

Friday, December 09, 2005

Boy George Savaged by Beast

Politics - and the language of political rhetoric - is back on the front pages of the national press (which makes a change from I’m A Celebrity and Robbie Williams in Not Gay Shocker), with David Cameron being elected to lead the Tory party and facing his first exchanges with Tony Blair in Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

But it’s an older fighter, rather than a new pretender, who hit the headlines yesterday: Dennis Skinner aka The Beast of Bolsover, a Labour MP known for his fierce socialism and hatred of the pampered rich,
got himself excluded from The House of Commons for goading the new Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, over his alleged use of cocaine.

In an exchange over rates of growth in the economy in the 1980s, Skinner commented "The only thing that was growing then was the lines of coke in front of Boy George and the rest of the Tories." Skinner wouldn’t retract his statement, so was excluded for the day.

Marginally higher up the scale of subtlety (but not much) was the playwright, Harold Pinter’s blistering attack on the USA and its foreign policy in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In The Guardian, Michael Billington, the newspaper's theatre critic, analyses the content and delivery of Pinter’s speech, commenting:

Warming to his theme, Pinter argued that while language is, for the dramatist, an ambiguous transaction, it is something that politicians distort for the sake of power. And, in making his point, Pinter deployed a variety of tactics: the charged pause, the tug at the glasses, the unremitting stare at the camera. I am told by Michael Kustow, who co-produced the lecture, that after a time he stopped giving Pinter any instructions. He simply allowed him to rely on his actor's instinct for knowing how to reinforce a line or heighten suspense.

Although the content of the speech was highly political, especially in its clinical dissection of post-war US foreign policy, it relied on Pinter's theatrical sense, in particular his ability to use irony, rhetoric and humour, to make its point. This was the speech of a man who knows what he wants to say but who also realises that the message is more effective if rabbinical fervour is combined with oratorical panache.

The full text of Pinter's speech can be read here.

A more – apparently – conciliatory approach was taken by David Cameron towards Tony Blair in PMQ on Wednesday, but
an article in The Independent takes a look at the pragmatics and hidden implicature present in the first bout between the two leaders. Reading between the lines they can see that Cameron's ostensibly affable style hides a sharper, steelier core:

David Cameron: "I want schools to control their own admissions. That's what's in the White Paper and let's see it turns into the Bill."

What he meant: I am going to do all that I can to drive a wedge between the Prime Minister and Labour backbenchers on the sensitive issue of admissions

Tony Blair: "It's obvious that we disagree on the issue of admissions. I think if schools are free to bring back selection at the age of 11 that would be regressive for our country. So I'm afraid in this grand new consensus we have to disagree on that point."

What he meant: Phew! Thank goodness I've found something to disagree with him on. Hopefully this will reassure some of the Labour doubters.

Useful for:
ENA1 – Language & Representation
ENA3 – Spoken Language

Friday, December 02, 2005

K - A - T

The government has ordered a shake-up of primary teaching, with more emphasis in the early years to be placed on the teaching of synthetic phonics. Just for once, this might be a good piece of government intervention (and you don't have to look too far to see that this isn't usually the case: city academies sponsored by religious fundamentalists; league tables; paying sixth form college teachers much less than their secondary counterparts etc).

Synthetic phonics is a relatively new way of teaching phonics, and one that has attracted some controversy as it does away with the names of letters and instead focuses on the sounds. Phonics themselves are generally seen to be a highly useful way of teaching the sounds of our language and helping children's phonological development, but it's their use in reading that has sparked debate. Many teachers have argued that teaching phonics on their own detracts from the joy of reading books and that synthetic phonics in particular is a very dry and joyless way of teaching children.

Personally I think they're wrong. As we've already seen, in the article last month about spelling reform, the English Language is a difficult and inconsistent beast for many people to master, so teaching the sounds of language - as they sound not how they are named (e.g. the letter "c" is learnt as a "k" sound) - seems a step in the right direction. Also, the teaching of synthetic phonics breaks down all words into these sounds and then allows children to blend sounds into more difficult patterns ("Sh" and "Ch"). This can be as exciting as the teachers (and resource makers!) allow it to be: there's no reason why this type of learning should be any more dry than learning to read through books and memorising the shapes and meanings of words as has been done for decades in British schools. It's also a bit like saying that English Language A Level is dry because it's analytical and strips language down to its syntax and morphology. Poppycock and balderdash, in other words (and there are other words, but they're a bit rude, so I'll stick to these old ones).

Giving people tools to either learn or dissect language is absolutely vital and (I would argue) truly democratic. Under the old system of teaching reading, many young children would miss out because they wouldn't be able to make the leap from seeing a word on the page to grasping how its sound was actually created: they might grasp the meaning but then that's probably down more to memeory than semantic or phonological understanding. Under synthetic phonics, every child can be taught the individual sounds and then blends, before being unleashed upon the slightly more baffling irregularity of the English spelling system.

My own boys are 4 now and learning synthetic phonics at their Tower Hamlets primary (a Local Education Authority that has been at the cutting edge of this style of teaching for a good few years now, and has shown huge increases in its English attainment - not bad for one of the most deprived boroughs in the whole country and one with a huge proportion of English as a second language kids in primary schools) and they love it. Now all I have to do is stop singing alphabet songs to them and learn the sounds of the words. After three, "K - A - T".

Interim Report (Word document)

Guardian Q&A on phonics

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition (although strudying reading and writing aren't AQA A requirements on this unit, the phonological development inspired by synthetic phonics could be fair game)

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...