Saturday, December 23, 2006

OMG it's the new OED

The Oxford English Dictionary is having a major overhaul and the full story is covered here in a Guardian article from last week which features an interview with one of its top bods, John Simpson. Dictionaries may not seem the most exciting things in the world, but for English Language students they should be mines of fascinating detail, and barometers of social change.

The whole process of putting new words into the OED is discussed in this article, including the growing range of sources from which they acquire citations for new words - blogs, websites, rap lyrics - and the new ways of searching it online to find histories to individual words, but wider patterns as well. The college has a subscription to the OED online, so make it your New Year's resolution to look up a word a week and refer to it whenever you get set a homework on Language Change.

Useful for:
all units but especially ENA5

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Christmas is cancelled...

...except it isn't. The tabloid press (especially The Sun) has been running a campaign against the politically correct nutters who want to ban the term "Christmas" for fear of offending Muslims, Hindus, Pagans and err...turkeys. The Sun even ran a front page "Kick Them in the Baubles!" urging on the Great British public in their attempts to stop this politically correct madness. But it's all a load of rubbish! No one has tried to ban Christmas, just like no one has seriously tried to ban Baa Baa Black Sheep. And, in a more serious incident last year, a judge in Manchester bleated about political correctness gone mad when a white boy was brought to court for calling a class mate a "p*ki". Except it wasn't just the one-off name calling event that led to his prosecution, but what appeared to have been a long campaign of abuse and intimidation. So, it wasn't really political correctness gone mad at all. And what's this got to do with language? Well, lots really: various myths abound about the ways in which the Political Correctness movement has forced ludicrous language changes upon us, but so many of them just aren't true, and reflect a staggeringly conservative - and often reactionary & racist - worldview. So, be careful when you write your language & representation answers. And if you want to go on to do journalism as a career, be prepared to do some research. Unlike the lazy b*stards on The Sun. Useful for: ENA1 - Language & Representation

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Teenage twits

It's the news that all parents of 15 year olds already know: teenagers have poor language skills and need to stop mumbling. According to a report on the BBC website, based on research done for Tesco Mobile Phones by Lancaster University linguist Professor Tony McEnery, "teenagers used half the words of average 25 to 34-year-olds".

His analysis of a database of teenage speech suggested teenagers had a vocabulary of just over 12,600 words compared with the nearly 21,400 words that the average person aged 25 to 34 uses. Prof McEnery said in his report: "Of note when examining the word 'no' is the frequency with which the word is accompanied by the word 'but'. These words occur in the sequence 'but no' or 'no but' almost twice as frequently in teenage speech as it does in young adult or middle aged speech."

Employers often complained that new employees were unable to answer the telephone in the formal way required of them for work and that they were also intimidated by speaking formally in meetings, the professor added. He put this down to a lack of training and the overuse of technologies such as computer games and MP3 players. "This trend, known as technology isolation syndrome, could lead to problems in the classroom and then later in life. Employers are already complaining that first jobbers are lacking basic verbal communication and it seems things could be set to get worse. Kids need to get talking and develop their vocabulary."

Fair points or gross generalisation? Is it fair to lump all teenagers together, in the same way that some peopel generalise about all men and all women and their speech styles? And what about different communities of practice? Maybe Emo teens and goths have a wider and more sophisticated vocabulary (misery, suffering, pain) than hip hoppers and ravers (choong, merked, tune)... or maybe not.

What do you think? Can you even string a sentence together to comment? And can we honestly believe a report sponsored by a mobile phone company whose aim is to make us talk more so they can make money from our chat?

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties and Change
ENA3 - Interacting Through Language

Monday, December 11, 2006

Talk to me, baby

As AS students are well into their study of Child Language Acquisition and A2ers will be revising it in the Spring term for ENA6 preparation, I thought it might be handy to flag up some useful links to child language resources.

First off, Chas Blacker from City of Bristol College has put some new resources up on his website here and you'll find them handy for revision and a few extra ideas.

Also, the National Literacy Trust's Talk To Your Baby project has some nice links to projects on child language, with a good section on theories of CLA here.

Then, Beth Kemp's website here has plenty of revision material for all sorts of English Language topics, including CLA.

Finally, teachit's resource site has plenty of material on CLA, primarily aimed at teachers but containing plenty of child language data for those of you seeking out examples to explore.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition, obviously...

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The cockney sparrow?

Following on from last week's post about the changes in the Queen's accent (apparently downwardly converging to the likes of us), Simon Jenkins in The Guardian links the story to another one about how birds' songs are changing (No, not Girls Aloud, sadly.) because of the noise in their urban environments. Just like birds have to change their songs to communicate in an ever-noisier world, so the royals have to change their tune to mingle with us.

Tenuous connection? Maybe, but it's an interesting thought, and makes me wonder how much our accents and dialects change due to physical factors such as noisy city streets, cramped working conditions, the urbansied environment we're increasingly living in. We all know that mobiles and computers are changing the way we communicate, but are these other factors affecting us too? Is language evolving to suit our environment?

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change & Varieties

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The power of powerless speech

A piece of research carried out by psychologists at the University of North Carolina has identified that some people respond more positively to leaders and managers who express doubt and hesitation in their language, than to those who sound confident and certain.

The research is reported in the BPS's weekly digest (subscribe here) and on their blog here. The researchers set up an experiment in which two transcripts of an employee making a phonecall were read by 54 partcipants, who had previously been shown one of two different versions of what the company valued: the need to work independently or the need to work co-operatively. The participants were then asked to rate the telephone transcripts in terms of the feelings they had towards each speakern. The crucial difference between the transcripts was that one version had been read in a hesitant way, with pauses, hedges and indirect structures, while the other had been read in a more confident and succinct fashion. The BPS story explains:
As you might expect, participants who read that the company valued people’s ability to work alone, were more likely to recommend Richard for a high status promotion if they’d read the telephone transcript in which he had spoken assertively and without hesitation. More surprisingly, among the participants who read that the company cherished cooperation among staff, those who read the transcript in which Richard spoke with doubt and hesitation were more likely to recommend him for promotion than were the participants who read the transcript in which he was assertive and confident. The explanation for this probably lies in the fact the participants who read the ‘hesitant’ transcript rated Richard as more likeable and tolerant than the participants who read the ‘confident’ transcript.

It was O'Barr and Atkins who first looked at the idea of "powerless language", making the point that hesitation and tentativeness were not exclusively features of female language,as Robin Lakoff had proposed, but were common to all people in situations where a power differential was apparent: defendants in court, police suspects, students being admonished by teachers etc.

This research seems to suggest that our responses to hesitation aren't quite as clear cut as some might say, and that good leadership & management skills can be inclusive and tentative, as well as assertive.

Useful for:
ENA3 - Interacting Through Language

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

'Er Royal 'Ighness goes all Cockernee

Or "Gor Blimey, Guvnor, Betty Gets on her Plates of Meat and does the Lambeth Walk"...

A report in The Independent on Sunday claims that the Queen's accent has taken a slide from its clipped RP tones in the 1950s to something much closer to the Estuary-influenced accents found in the London area. According to research by Jonathan Harrington in the latest Journal of Phonetics:

The Queen's accent has not become cockneyfied but it has shifted subtly towards an accent that is more typically spoken in the wider community. The changes also reflect the changing class structure over the last 50 years. In the 1950s, there was a much sharper distinction between the classes as well as accents that typified them. Since then, the class boundaries have become more blurred, and so have the accents. Fifty years ago, the idea that Queen's English could be influenced by cockney would have been unthinkable.
So, how do they know and why should we care? The research has been conducted by analysing changes in the Queen's voice on her annual Christmas broadcasts, so perhaps factors like performing to the camera and nervousness might be involved in the young Queen reverting to her upper class type and using the "cut glass" of marked RP; alternatively, it could all be a PR move by the royal family, a re-branding exercise to cast themselves as plain-speaking, normal people, rather than the overindulged, antiquated relics they so clearly are. It wouldn't be the first time, as this post on this blog in September 2005 relates.

But if you want to get a real taste for how upset some people are about this shift in accent, just take a look at this link to The Daily Telegraph's website (average age of reader: 121) where the palpitation-inducing horror at the desecration of HRH's RP is a true sight to behold.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties

Monday, December 04, 2006

Myths of Mars and Venus

Last week's Guardian featured a brilliant 8 page article on the perceived differences between how men and women talk. Focusing on a claim in a new book called The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, that women talk more, using on average 20,000 words to an average man's 7,000, the Guardian wires up two reporters - one male, one female - to see if it's all true.

And the result? Well, you can look for yourselves. But along the way, top linguist Deborah Cameron gets a look in with some incisive comments:

The degree to which this biological and linguistic battle is also a cultural and political one is striking. Deborah Cameron, Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at Oxford University, is sceptical about the claim that men and women are inherently different in the way they use language, and thinks such arguments find a receptive audience because people are scared of the growing similarities between the sexes.

"People want to believe there are clear-cut differences between men and women," she says, "because they are men and women. They don't want to think about the similarities, which outweigh the differences. The other thing they don't want to think about - which for a linguist like me is the most interesting thing - is the extent of variation within each gender group, which statistically is as great, or greater than, the variation between the two. Women are as different from each other as they are from men, and gender is about those differences, too. The way you think about yourself as a woman is not only about comparing yourself to the available men; it's about thinking about the kinds of women you are not."

So, it's no great surprise to find that Brizendine's claims are explored with critical reference to a whole range of popular stereotypes about how men can't talk about emotions, women like to gossip and all the rest of those sweeping generalisations that we try to (gently!) knock out of you when we study ENA3 in the Spring term.

But the article is not only great for challenging stereotypes; it's also excellent on investigation methodology and ways you can collect valid data.

Read it!

Useful for:
ENA3 - Interacting Through Language

Globish takes over the world

A new language termed Globish is taking over the world, and it looks remarkably like English. In an article in this week's Observer, Robert McCrum takes a look at this stripped down version of English and how it's being used to lubricate the wheels of business around the world. According to McCrum, "By some calculations, indeed, as many as a billion people, nearly a sixth of mankind, now use English as either a first or, more prevalently, second language. This used to be known as 'offshore English'. Globish, 'the international dialect of the third millennium', is a more apt description."

But, just because we speak English it doesn't mean we have an advantage. The idiomatic, figuarative ways in which many native-speakers of English communicate makes us harder to understand than the more literal-mineded speakers of Globish who strip the metaphors and jargon away to use English in a more streamlined way.

Useful for:
ENA5 Language Varieties

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

When is a war not a war?

Much media interest recently in the American media's language change in their reporting of the situation in Iraq. Is it an insurgency against a peace-keeping force? A legitimate imposition of democracy on a tryannical regime? The American national broadcasting network, NBC, announced a couple of days ago that its reporting of events in Iraq in future will refer to the violent events in Iraq as a 'civil war'. Here's an extract from the BBC story on this:

The New York Times is the latest publication to take the decision following the NBC network's highly-publicised move on Monday. The paper's executive editor, Bill Keller, said it is hard to argue that this war does not fit the generally accepted definition of civil war. The Bush administration maintains the term civil war is inappropriate.

'War of semantics'

In Washington, a war of semantics has broken out over whether the conflict in Iraq can be called a civil war. Just what is the definition of a civil war, of course, has been the subject of much debate since NBC's decision to defy White House objections and use the phrase.
President George Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, has said the Iraqi government does not see it in those terms, while the president himself described the latest attacks as part of an ongoing campaign by al-Qaeda militants.

One person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist; as Norman Fairclough has demonstrated in his work on language and power, the terms we use are not neutral when it comes to social, cultural and political events and concepts. Language is power, and its use is not benign.

This is language change in action. Here's the link to the whole story from the BBC:

Friday, November 24, 2006

There's a nip in the air

Radio One DJ Edith Bowman has landed herself in trouble for reading out an apparently racist email on air, according to The Independent . In a discussion about modern slang, Bowman is reported to have read out the email which stated "When the weather is a little cold, we say that it's a bit Pearl Harbor, meaning that there's a nasty Nip in the air". Why the fuss? Well, "nip" has long been a pejorative term for Japanese people in much the same way as "P*ki" has been for Asian people. And a little bit of History GCSE or a few Hollywood films will probably have informed you that Pearl Harbor was the scene of Japan's infamous air attack on the US Navy in the Second World War, hence "nip in the air". But does using a word like "nip" automatically make you a racist? Maybe not, particularly if you're not even clear it's racist in the first place, which is something that can't be said for the American actor, Michael Richards who has apologised for launching into a racist tirade on stage which included describing members of his unsympathetic audience as n-words, as reported in The Guardian. And not so long ago, it was Mel Gibson doing a Hitler impersonation by drunkenly rambling about Jews being sinister... So, why should we care? In this interesting series of essays on the BBC Voices website, Dr Emma Moore of Sheffield University looks at the significance of the labels we give to each other and why they make a difference. As she puts it in her second essay, Who Has the Power?:
What does the existence of terms like 'coloured', 'queer' and 'people with disabilities' tell us about the distribution of power? Basically it suggests that the people with the power to get their version of the world 'out there' are busy defining themselves as normal and marking out everyone else as different. We all define our world in relation to what's familiar to us. If something falls outside what we consider to be 'like us' (i.e. normal) - more likely than not - we'll find a way to define it as marked. So, if being black or Asian or gay or disabled is labelled as marked, we can be pretty sure that these groups represent individuals who haven't traditionally had the power to get their version of the world 'out there'.
So, coupled with linguistic theories that link the language we use to the attitudes we express (ideas like linguistic reflectionism and determinism) labels like nip, the n- and p-words, queer and white trash define these groups as outside the norm, somehow different, and may in fact influence our perception of the actual people. So no more nips in the air; let's stick to brass monkeys. Useful for: ENA1 - Language & Representation

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mind your language

Attitudes to language change have often been negative, with concerns about slipping standards and laziness not just limited to commentators in this century but ranging all the way back to the 14th Century and perhaps even further. As we've been looking at in A2 classes this week, one generation tends to look down its nose at that below it and their use of language. As one student said a couple of years ago, "Those Year 10s on the bus use bare slang."

Among the perennial concerns are that language is getting sloppy, lazy and unclear, that it's being too heavily influenced by American, Black or working class varieties, that it's basically going down the dumper. Julie Blake, in her lecture at the last SFX Language Conference, looked at exactly this strand of prescriptivism through time and reached the conclusion that people have always complained about language change, while more recently even those who ostensibly embrace it, tend to only like its novelty value.

But if these concerns are justified, and the English language has been going down the toilet since 1357 (or whenever), why aren't we grunting like cavemen? It's pretty simple really; most changes to the language are made to ease communication and make it quicker, more concise and efficient. Take new words (neologisms) for example; when we invent new words or create blends and compounds, we don't add archaic inflections such as -en plural endings or -dst 2nd person suffixes, we just add a simple -s to show plurality and -ed to indicate past tense. We've regularised and simplified the suffix system. Guy Deutscher in his excellent book, The Unfolding of Language, also points to this gradual erosion of unnecessary language features but also looks at how language change is also a creative process at the same time: in other words two processes of destruction and creation working side by side.

But, as we've seen, most negative attitudes to language change are only superficially about language itself, and often much more to do with the commentators' dislike of modern manners (or lack of them) , the education system (Why don't we cane these little ragamuffins any more?) and immigration (Those black people with their hippety hoppety language are destroying our beloved language!). So when Norman Tebbitt made his infamous remark in 1985 that bad grammar leads inevitably to a life of crime, you could see the real underlying concern was not language per se, but morality and standards of behaviour.

Which brings me on to John Humphrys. In an article in The Telegraph a week or two back, he launches into a broadside against language change and its impact on British culture. Parts of it sound like the bitter ramblings of an eccentric Wing Commander in a country pub, while others are couched in more rational and reasonable terms, but it's well worth a read to see what linguistic bugbears get his goat (to mix my metaphors). Take these for a start:

Word by word, we are at risk of dragging our language down to the lowest common denominator and we do so at the cost of its most precious qualities: subtlety and precision. If we're happy to let our common public language be used in this way, communication will be reduced to a narrow range of basic meanings...

...The supermarkets are masters of the art – always trying to persuade us how thrilling it will be if we share our shopping experience with them. Note "experience". We don't shop any longer. We have an "experience".

At the heart of this hype process, in which the "experience" is all, individual words are given an even sharper 180 degree change of direction. Take "enjoy". You're sitting in a restaurant, the waitress brings your meal and, with a sweet smile, says, "Enjoy!" I want to say: "Don't you know that 'enjoy' is a transitive not an intransitive verb? You should say, 'Enjoy it!' not 'Enjoy!'."

So, he has a range of targets in his sights; some of them I'd agree with too, especially when he remarks that language should make communication as clear as possible, but do we really care that "enjoy" is a transitive verb and shold take an object? Does it matter? It doesn't actually impede meaning, does it?

David Crystal attacks such nitpicking attitudes in his excellent book, The Fight For English and makes the point that many of the so-called rules of English are actually little more than the personal prejudices of a small group of 18th Century grammarians who tried to impose the rules of Latin upon the English Language. Other linguists and commentators have produced convincing arguments against the prescriptivist approach that Humphrys favours, and you can find a selection of them here and here.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"Coloured", the other c-word

A Conservative MP has got himself into trouble for using the word "coloured" to refer to people who aren't white. The BBC Magazine covers it here and it's got some interesting background on the word too. We've covered it here on this blog before so just do a quick search using the word in the search bar at the top.

So, what's wrong with it? Here are two points of view from the site:

The term was common parlance in the 1960s, but its origins are the problem, says Mr Agbetu. It comes from the ideology of racism, that white people are white, and everyone else is somehow other coloured. It fails to recognise that everyone has an ethnicity and is an inadequate "one-size-fits all" description.
When I was growing up in the 70s, "coloured" was considered by my white, middle-class demographic as the polite word for dark-skinned persons. To call someone "black", which is preferred by many people now, was extremely rude. In adulthood I see that we had this backwards, but it was well-intentioned. I sympathise a little with Mr Jenkin, as this minefield is being constantly re-laid. For Labour to take such gleeful advantage is shabby. But he does need to keep up. I understand why "coloured" is seen as offensive now and certainly wouldn't use it myself.
Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Before this item, a correction to my previous post: I inadvertently left in a floating line at the end, suggesting a link followed. Sorry, that was a typo. Bit late at night for thinking straight.
Here's an item I just posted on my college virtual noticeboard in Cornwall:
This is a link to an item about the Word of the Year in Webster's Dictionary: 'crackberry', used of those enthusiastic people who are addicted to their Blackberries or PDAs (note the absence of apostrophe there: see the Cambridge English Usage guide for info on when apostrophes are recommended in initialised terms like CDs, MPs, and when not, like 'dotting the i's'). Other contenders are mentioned there. Always an interesting activity, this, choosing the item most characteristic of a year, though linguistic purists and mavens might look askance. Take a look too at Susie Dent's 'Language Reports', where she examines whole ranges of such items each year. This year's came out recently; also great fun and wide-ranging are Kate Burridge's surveys of usage, named along horticultural-metaphorical lines - 'Blooming English' and 'Weeds in the Garden of Words' (all titles can be found by searching Amazon with the two authors' names).
Here's the link to the crackberry story:

Red sky thinking and herding dinosaurs: jargon again

These stories about office jargon and business speak just keep coming. After the post yesterday from Dan about getting your ducks in a row (which, weirdly, my wife used at the weekend before she went in to a meeting; she also used 'heads up', and I'm still not sure what that one means...), the BBC News Magazine invited suggestions and comments on its website. For example:
Promotion beyond your means is a fruitful bug bear for jargon. A polidiot is someone promoted beyond their abilities thanks to their political skills...Full-blown sarcasm and workplace resentment are a heady cocktail for some evidently long-suffering employees.
Nick W, dryly suggests new jargon definitions for his bosses: decision - the art of choosing between options without asking someone; responsibility - used with the above - and listening - if someone says it can't be done, there's a reason.
But spare a thought for Valerie; hard at work, but baffled. At her office, the mission is to herd the dinosaurs to the right end of the cricket green.
What does it mean? She has no idea.
Here's the link to the full item:

Here's the link to what came up:

Slang: bare swag or just repping your endz?

In a thorough, well-researched and rather splendid article in The Independent, youth slang in London gets some extended coverage. Those of you who like these kinds of things - slang, "Jafaican", multi-ethnic youth dialect (MEYD) and the changing nature of London's language - might remember that Sue Fox did a talk in college earlier this year on Tower Hamlets accents changing as a result of the influence of Bangladeshi young people, and this article picks up on her and Paul Kerwill's latest research as part of Linguistics Innovators: The Language of Adolescents in London.

The article covers what MLE(Multicultural London English)/MEYD is, how it is developing and how it's being viewed by teachers, politicians and (most importantly) the users of it. In one section, Fox looks at the ways in which this variety of English is represented in the media and how she views it:
"The term Jafaican gives the impression that there's something fake about the dialect, which we would refute," she says. "As one young girl who lives in outer London said of her eight-year-old cousin who lives in inner London, 'People say he speaks like a black boy, but he just speaks like a London boy.' The message is that people are beginning to sound the same regardless of their colour or ethnic background. So we prefer to use the term Multicultural London English (MLE). It's perhaps not as catchy," she says, "but it comes closer to what we're trying to describe."

Elsewhere, Kerswill explores the social factors that influence whether or not young people continue to use the language as they grow older:
"We don't quite know whether kids will un-acquire MLE as fast as they've picked it up," concedes Kerswill. "The indications are that it depends very much on people's social networks and aspirations. Those who go into university or highly-paid jobs will change their speech. Those who remain where they are will most likely retain a lot of it. Most people are doubtless somewhere in the middle, and will change to some extent. But that will open the way for MLE to lead to changes in the English language in its spoken form, at least. One conclusion that we have definitely drawn from this study," he concludes, "is that English is one of the most dynamically protean of all languages."

All in all, it's a top read so have a look...

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change & Varieties


New varieties of English seem to be cropping up all over the place, as we've seen with multi-ethnic youth dialects (do a search in the toolbar above to find all the mentions of it), so it's no surprise to find that Britain's growing Asian population is having an impact on English. In particular, it's the Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi-speaking Indians and Pakistanis who are shaping a new cross-fertilised variety called Hinglish (a blend of Hindi and English).

As this article points out, "more people speak English in south Asia than in Britain and North America combined" so it's no surprise that local languages start to inflect the main, unifying language. Have a look at the examples given in the article, especially the shocking definition of ganja.

More about Indian English can be found here:
Guardian Education article
Times article
MacMillan Dictionaries article

...and another article from the BBC website

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties
(This topic focusses on English spoken in the British Isles, but you might be able to make a convincing case for Hinglish being spoken here if you can point to examples from your own transcripts and experience.)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Rhyming slang goes a bit Pete Tong

Rhyming slang is changing to include more up to date references to celebrities such as 1990s dance DJ Pete Tong, cartoon heroes Wallace and Gromit and Prime Minister Tony Blair. That's what a new Collins guide, Shame about the Boat Race claims. Cormac McKeown, a Collins editor states:
A lot of the celebrities in rhyming slang 100 years ago would have been music hall stars who would have been very famous but only in the confines of the London area. Now it's opened up with figures from around the world, such as Britney Spears. Much of the new rhyming slang is pretty coarse, revolving around drinking (Paul Weller/Stella; Winona Ryder/cider) and bodily functions (Wallace and Gromit/vomit).
And, as he goes on to say, rhyming slang (like lots of other forms of slang) has always been about hiding what you really want to say from unwanted listeners:
Its purpose has always been to disguise and spare blushes. In the past there were lots of racial slurs which were hidden by rhyming slang. Now it's fairly tongue-in-cheek and it's got a register of its own. People are often being ironic when they use it.
To find out more about Cockney Rhyming Slang have a look here or in one of the great books on slang in the library.

But more importantly, to win this week's Haribo prize, just answer this simple Cockney Conundrum: if I'm off down the fatboy to get Brad Pitt, what am I really doing? Post your answers as comments below and join the ranks of winners...

Useful for:
ENA1 Language & Representation
ENA5 Language Change

Jargon gets workers' ducks out of row

A survey by Investors in People* and reported here on the BBC website reveals that office workers feel baffled and irritated by the jargon their managers use. According to the article, expressions such as blue sky thinking and brain dump don't clearly communicate ideas and cause frustration.

So what is jargon and why does it annoy people so much? Wikipedia defines it as:
Jargon is terminology, much like slang, that relates to a specific activity, profession, or group. It develops as a kind of shorthand, to express ideas that are frequently discussed between members of a group, and also to distinguish those belonging to a group from those who are not.
One of the problems with office jargon is that it often appears to take the place of straightforward clear communication. Another problem is that it is used by some to indicate their "in the know" status and exclude others. Some argue that it's just silly and gets made up by managers with too much time on their hands.

But in the end, like slang, jargon is part of language change in action; it reflects the industry it comes from. So, out go words and phrases to do with actually making things (because we don't really do that anymore in the UK - we get all our products from China and Bangladesh) and in come words and phrases to do with the "creative industries", which are all about selling ideas and business models to other companies.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

*Investors in People is the government body that awards tacky little plaques to any organisation that "invests in its people", whatever that means: Burger King, Cash Converters in Walthamstow and err...SFX all have them on proud display - go figure.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Texting and spelling

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian has sparked heated debate on the subject of text message language and its impact on spelling. In his piece here, he argues that texting is driving us into a more logical and phonetically realistic system. He says:

Can texting finally spur revolution? Young people have evolved both a new script and a cost-effective reason for using it. They are breaking free of spelling dogma and expanding the alphabet with emoticons. Texting is the shorthand of the computer age. It is concise, cutting through the verbal jargon by which the professional classes seek to exclude the less educated.
I fully support his argument and have long felt that English spelling is bizarre and ludicrous. In his excellent book on arguments about the English language and the way it changes, The Fight for English, David Crystal points out that many English spellings were deliberately changed to remind us that they came from French, so it's no wonder that so many words have silent "k", "gh" and "h" sounds. No surprise then that so many English speakers struggle to spell. Have a look not just at the article but the hundreds of responses to it on the Guardian site.

Simon Lavery, who has posted the last couple of articles on the blog (cheers Simon!), has put together a set of links to this and related stories about texting, and I've included some of them below:

The Times on the Scottish exam board, SQA, allowing students taking the equivalent of GCSE Eng. Lit. to be rewarded for writing answers using text message language.

Next is a link to BBC Wales' message board discussion on texting.

This next BBC story from 2003 discusses the effect text talk might be having on people's ability to use Standard English in writing.

This story from BBC Scotland is from a woman complaining about the impact on children's literacy of text messaging.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

What's in a name?

A law in Oregon, USA that allows doctors to assist dying patients end their suffering has caused a stir linguistically as well as ethically. The state is changing the name of the law from 'physician-assisted suicide' to 'physician-assisted death'. The change is intended to reflect the more positive aspects of the statute. It is compared with the use of the term 'choice' instead of 'abortion'. Read the whole story in the link to the Salem Statesman Journal:
Relevant for: Lang. Change: use of euphemism and dysphemism (compare 'friendly fire', 'collateral damage' and 'ethnic cleansing' in recent years)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Veiled messages

With all the national debate over the wearing of the niqab centering on what the veil symbolises and its political & social significance, not much attention has been paid to the communicative problems it brings. In this article from the BBC website magazine, the non-verbal features of spoken language get some good coverage.

Useful for:
ENA3 - Interacting through Language

Thursday, October 19, 2006


I'm on a roll. Nothing from me for ages, then three posts come along! This is a lovely story from the Kenya Times about a dialect called Sheng used in that country.
Here's a taster: In the past few months, controversy has been rife over the issue of publishing books in Sheng, a slang believed to have originated from the Eastlands region of Nairobi. The language is a mixture of English, Kiswahili and coinage of other languages such as Kikuyu, Dholuo and Luhya...Critics have argued that Sheng is a language better left to touts...but on the other hand, proponents view it as a language that is set to have matured in the coming fifty years and that will give identity to Kenya. “Language cannot be separated from identity” argued Sam Mbure, adding that, writing in Sheng will give children and the youth a medium of communication in a language that they relate to and understand...But many questions remained unanswered. Original Sheng appears to be secretive and the slang seems to determined by virtue of its place of origin. A sheng from Maringo for instance, differs from that spoken in Korogocho so is the one from Mathare. Which one then will be adopted? Secondly, the language is very dynamic. You leave the estate in the morning knowing a baby’s Sheng name to be Mtoi and when you return in the evening, those left behind will have already invented a new name. Consequently, to a larger extent, it is a confused language...Some time last year, a motorcar was known as Motii, yet it now passes for Dinga. It is also common to find two or more words referring to the same thing. How then are the publishers going to cope with the ever changing words? Will there be consistency in words? Can someone read a book written today in Sheng and after twenty years re read and relate to it?
The writer goes on to discuss the problem of when a dialect becomes a language in its own right - subject of a recent posting here. Here's the link to the whole article:
Once you've read it, answer this if you can: what are 'matatus'? No, really, I don't know, and would like to!

Dingle link

Sorry, got a bit carried away in that last posting. Forgot to give the link to the Dingle renaming story. Here it is:,,1925422,00.html

Jargon, Dingle and Darwin

It's been a while since I posted, and I thought I'd lost the details of how to do it; now I seem to have found them, so this is a bit of an experiment to see if works - sorry, Dan, if I've caused you hassle unnecessarily!

Recent Guardian article about business jargon and euphemisms:
Shortcut to:,,1921678,00.html

This next piece is about the inhabitants of the town of Dingle on the delightful peninsula with the same name, who are about to vote on a proposal to revert to the town's original Irish name, An Daingean, dropping the anglicised 'Dingle'. The town is in the Gaeltacht, that part of the country which is still Irish-speaking. I can confirm this, having been there a couple of years ago, and heard young people in bookshops and bars chatting away happily in Irish. It's a compulsory subject in all Irish schools, too, as my Irish relatives in Dublin tell me. At my college in St Austell Brian Friel's play Translations is taught on the lang and lit course; it's a modern play set in the 1830's, dealing with the issue of the British Army surveying the country and rewriting the maps with anglicised or translated place-names - so this is a long-running linguistic issue. If you ever get the chance to read it or see it performed, do: it's powerful, funny and sad, with a Romeo and Juliet central plot.

Finally I can't resist giving this link to a story in today's Guardian:

Shortcut to:,,1925715,00.html

It has just been announced that the works of Charles Darwin, of Origin of Species fame, are to be made available on the net. The article has a link to the site, with sound files which I didn't check, but the link to the site wouldn't work when I tried it, so you might have to be resourceful. Might be of help with history of language topics, but is also worth a look just for the hell of it.

Sorry about the long absence from this site: been busy down in damp Cornwall!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Just a joke?

'Why is it the Irish and the blacks never get married? Because they are afraid their children will be too lazy to steal.' Is this joke racist? What does it depend on? If the person delivering the joke is Irish, does that make it any better? What if the joke teller is black? Mixed Irish/black heritage? Does it matter if the joke's told to white English people, Irish people, black people?

Many of these issues get an airing in an article by Simon Fanshawe in The Observer which looks at humour, political correctness and whether or not jokes about anybody - regardless of their ethnic background, ability/disability, sexuality, gender etc - are fair game. As it happens, the man who told that joke was Irish and the (gay) writer of the article goes on to look at The Sun's headline about Elton John marrying his gay lover David Furnish ("Elton takes David up the aisle"), the furore around the negative stereotyping of Kazakhstan in the new Borat film, and many other issues.

The article itself is thought-provoking and funny, but the readers' comments that follow it redress the balance a little and are worth a look too.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Communities of practice - fo' sheezy

One of the big ideas floating around linguistics at the moment is "communities of practice", something that I tried to define in a lesson the other week (probably unsuccessfully) when we were talking about slang and how it emerges and develops. But then an article turned up in The Guardian about the rapper E-40 and the slang around the San Francisco Bay Area hip hop scene and I thought, what better way to explain communities of practice and at the same time improve my ghetto report card (ha ha ha) than to look at the two ideas together? So here goes...

A community of practice is, according to Penelope Eckert (get ready for a long quotation):

an aggregate of people who come together around mutual engagement in some common endeavor. Ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, values, power relations - in short, practices - emerge in the course of their joint activity around that endeavor. A community of practice is different as a social construct from the traditional notion of community, primarily because it is defined simultaneously by its membership and by the practice in which that membership engages. And this practice involves the construction of a shared orientation to the world around them - a tacit definition of themselves in relation to each other, and in relation to other communities of practice. The individual constructs an identity - a sense of place in the social world - through participation in a variety of communities of practice, and in forms of participation in each of those communities. And key to this entire process of construction is stylistic practice.

And according to the article on Bay Area hip hop, these are all features that are apparent in the slang used in this "community of practice":

*Mutual engagement in some common endeavour - rapping or listening to it and being part of the culture around it.
* It is defined simultaneously by its membership and by the practice in which that membership engages - the rappers who created the scene, the fans and contributors to the scene, and the rapping and the language linked to it.
*This practice involves the construction of a shared orientation to the world around them - the slang defines an attitude to partying and life in general that is different to other genres of rap.
*A tacit definition of themselves in relation to each other - West Coast, East Coast, Bay Area, Dirty South: the style of music and the slang marks out the different sub-genres and outlooks on life.
*And key to this entire process of construction is stylistic practice - the language used in the songs and linked to the culture around it.

So, how does that sound?

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties and Language Change

Texting linked to high literacy skills

In a piece of news that will surprise those who argue that young people's use of mobile phones is making them illiterate, researchers at Coventry University have found that there is a link between those who use the most "text slang" and those who are the most able at writing and spelling.

What the research doesn't suggest is that texting improves spelling and writing, but rather that those who use the most text slang, such as "dat" for "that" or "fing" for "thing" are also the best spellers and writers. So, what does this mean? It could mean that articulate and communicative teens are drawn to the flexibility of text slang - perhaps because it's creative and logical - or that worries about texting leading to bad spelling are unfounded. What it does seem to do, is throw a spanner in the works of the "texting is bad, because it just is" brigade.

Wot do u fink? Add yr comments in dat box below...

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

Friday, October 13, 2006

How do we define Dialect? (Dialect versus SE)

A 'Non-Standard English' seminar on wednesday made me think, so I thought I'd share.
We were asked which of the three following descriptions best describes dialect:

  • 'One of the subordinate forms of varieties of a language arising from local peculiarities of pronunciation and idiom.' [OED]
  • 'Variety of a language spoken by a group of people and having features of vocabulary, grammar, and/or pronunciation that distinguish it from other varieties of the same language. Dialects usually develop as a result of geographic, social, political, or economic barriers between groups of people who speak the same language. When dialects diverge to the point that they are mutually incomprehensible, they become languages in their own right' [Encyclopedia Britannica]
  • 'A dialect is a complete system of verbal communication (oral or signed but not necessarily written) with its own vocabulary and/or grammar.' [Wikipedia]
Most chose the Encyclopedia Britannica version because it was more specific and we felt it encapsulated more about what dialect was. However, the issue was raised on further examining the OED *cough*crappy*cough* definition: can dialect be defined without explaining, comparing to or having some firm idea of the Standard?

Rather humourously (in a forced ha-ha type way i guess for uni), one of the guys in the class raised the 'very important' point, that in the animal kingdom, there isn't a standard form of species from which we define the other varieties (i.e. a mallard duck isn't described as a deviant form of the standard duck), so what makes English language any different?
(oh- apart from the fact that it's less visual seeing as it's the way we speak you buffoon? Guffaw, guffaw, you're hilarious.)

The OED obviously presents dialect as 'subordinate' and 'peculiar' in relation to SE; is it possible to understand dialect without having the idea of how lanuguage 'should' be in the prescriptive sense? Are we agreeing more with the Ency'Brit' definition because it's more descriptive and we think we should be descriptive more than judgemental? Think about it.

Without thinking about or using the phrase Standard English, define dialect. Doable or no?

Have fun..

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Am I bovvered?

There's more new words joy as this year's excellent Language Report comes out. The Language Report, put together by Susie Dent, covers changes to the language over the year and offers comment and analysis on new words and meanings. The last two - Larpers & Shroomers and Fanboys & Overdogs - have been great reads.

The latest word to be offered the accolade of Word of the Year in The language Report is Catherine Tate's teenage buzzword, "Bovvered?" which has according to the OED taken over from "whatever" as the signature phrase of teenagers. More in todays' Sun here (found on a train, not bought by me... honest).

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The return of the Haribo...

As promised, the mighty power of Haribo returns this week, with one competition open to AS students and another to those of you doing A2.

The answers need to be posted to the blog as comments and the first answer for each will win the tasty confectionary bag. Mmmm, Haribo...

AS question: where is the word "yob" believed to have come from?

A2 question: what is a "blend"?

Oh my god, I'm a celebutard

Celebrity + debutante + retard = celebutard, according to a new book entitled "I Smirt, You Stooze, They Krump". A 3 word blend, whatever next?

This article on the BBC website talks about a few other words featured in the book and is worth a quick look, along with this Guardian article but I'd save £7.99 and not buy the book if I were you. Instead have a look at this free resource from MacMillan Dictionaries, which gives a linguistic breakdown of a new word each week and offers a whole load of background to why new words appear and how they're formed.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

Friday, October 06, 2006

A yob is just a backwards boy

This week has seen lots of headlines along the lines of "These PC nutters are taking away our freedom of speech" and "PC PCs can't call yobs yobs" and other such things. So, what's the problem with Political Correctness this week?

Apparently, the Metropolitan Police Authority have rethought their use of the word "yob" in documents and reports relating to anti-social behaviour committed by young people. The word sets up a "them" and "us" mindset, according to Cindy Butts, the deputy chair of the MPA, and stereotypes groups of young people as troublemakers.

So, what is a yob? Etymologically, "yob" seems to come from cockney backslang: it's "boy" spelt backwards. Semantically, it seems to refer to any young person who behaves in a way that falls short of society's expectations of good behaviour, be that smashing up a bus shelter, shouting obscenities at old ladies who won't give a football back, or happyslapping on the escalators at Clapham South.

It's all a bit remiscent of the "hoodie" and "chav" debates of last year. If we use these labels do we run the risk of stereotyping all young people who wear hooded tops or sport knock-off Burberry clobber? Or if they're acting like yobs, should we just call them yobs? And does it matter? Well, I think it does, but I'd welcome your comments below...

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Dehumanising language

There's a brief story in The Guardian this week about NHS staff being told off for using "dehumanising and trivialising" language about their pateients. Expressions like "frequent flyer" and "dement" have come in for criticism. The full article can be found here.

And if you want to see some more medical slang and jargon, try here. It's not for the easily shocked, especially not "bobbing for apples".

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Friday, September 29, 2006

Island apes, white ghosts and poms...

...all words used to describe British people, apparently. The focus of a couple of recent articles in The Guardian and The Mirror has been on the use of the word "pom" by Australians to describe British people, and whether or not it's a racist term. There are various theories about the word "pom" - some arguing that it's from Prisoner Of Her Majesty and others that it's short for the fruit pomegranate and describes the bright red colour pasty white Brits turn when they get sunburnt - but most agree that if it's an insult it's hardly as bad as "p*ki" or "wog". So what makes a word offensive? An anti-racist saying from some twenty years ago was "power + prejudice = racism". If you have no power in society, you might be prejudiced in your attitudes, but it's only when you've got the power to apply that prejudice that it truly becomes racism. It's a partially persuasive argument and one that might explain why terms like "honky", "cracker" and "gora" don't really carry the same power as terms like "p*ki", the n-word and "jewboy". But is it the whole story? Perhaps the most offensive words have a history that develops like a snowball effect, which means that they pick up more and more negative associations over time and just keep getting worse. Maybe some of these words are linked to such barbaric times in history that their meanings are forever unpleasant. While you're pondering that, take a look at the range of imaginative and descriptive terms applied to white British people by their friends around the world. Useful for: ENA1 - Language & Representation

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Shoot the Puppy

In a great article from The Daily Telegraph over the summer, William Leith takes a detailed look at the language of IT workers and office staff, or what he calls New Office. To help him he uses Tony Thorne's new guide, Shoot the Puppy which gives definitions for the weird and bizarre language of the office (e.g. "having a salmon day" means to have worked hard, swimming upstream all day, only to be shafted at the end if it all).

So shooting the puppy is all about ultra-macho decision-making, several steps beyond 'grasping the nettle’ or ‘biting the bullet’. In a corporate climate,where downsizing has become capsizing (‘capping’ staff numbers until there’s no one left to steer the ship) and rightsizing has given way to downclosing, the idea is often invoked negatively: ‘I’m not going to be the one to shoot the puppy; we’d better hire in a consultant to recommend the restructuring.’

As funny and interesting as some of the slang or jargon is in its own right, two things about the article are particularly helpful for English Language students . Firstly it looks at specific linguistic processes that create the words (blending , affixation, metaphor etc.) and secondly it links the new words to the context that created them and how the new words reflect the attitudes and culture of a given time. So, Leith and Thorne pick out a whole range of new expressions that seem to suggest many people involved in these types of jobs are deeply fed up with their bosses, dismissive of their clients' intelligence and working in an industry that they feel doesn't value them. In other words, the jargon and the metaphors behind the new words reflect an attitude.

In one class last week we tried to update a slang dictionary from Live magazine (linked to this article) which many people felt was now a little out of date. Words and phrases such as "bullet bullet bullet" (uttered when a boy dances in a way that might be perceived as "gay"), "written off" (used to refer to someone who's been knocked out or beaten up) and "boomy" (used as an adjective to express approval of a girl's appearance) came up as new versions of slightly older expressions such as "merked" (injured/beaten up) and "tick" or "choong" (attractive). Maybe "bullet bullet bullet" is an updated version of the old homophobic "boom bye bye" refrain from an old dancehall track.

Again, while it's interesting to see the speed at which language changes and how quickly slang terms are discarded and new ones adopted, it's the pattern of meanings that point to deeper links between language and society. Many slang terms relate to the physical appearance of women, attitudes towards different lifestyles and violence - sometimes a mixture of the three.

So, if business slang and jargon is all to do with feeling miserable in a world that doesn't value you, is life for urban youths all about chirpsing chicks, abusing gay people and beating up rivals from different endz (or something like that, anyway)? I suspect that's not the whole picture, so please discuss...

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA5 - Language Change

Sunday, September 03, 2006

War of Words

It's all kicking off between David Crystal (language guru) and Lynne Truss (lover of apostrophes) in today's Observer. Attacking Truss's "zero tolerance approach to punctuation" made famous in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Crystal accuses Truss of "linguistic fundamentalism".

For those of you unfamiliar with Truss and her work, Eats, Shoots and Leaves laments the sorry understanding English users have of their own system of grammar and punctuation. Truss explains the "rules" as she sees them and tries to educate her readers about things like the "grocer's apostrophe" (often seen on signs in markets advertising banana's and apple's) and the possessive apostrophe (the man's hat). It has become a best-seller which either tells you lots about how eager we are to learn more about grammar, or how sad we are for not knowing what else to buy Aunty Mildred for Christmas...

Anyway, back to the battle between Crystal and Truss. In the article, Crystal is quoted as saying "Zero tolerance does not allow for flexibility. It is prescriptivism taken to extremes. It suggests that language is in a state where all the rules are established with 100 per cent certainty. The suggestion is false. We do not know what all the rules of punctuation are. And no rule of punctuation is followed by all of the people all of the time".

Interestingly, one of Crystal's other targets, John Humphrys of Radio 4, responds by saying "'I think David Crystal is making a fundamental mistake when he says rules don't matter that much. I say they matter enormously. Take the example we always use on both sides of the debate: the apostrophe. It is either right or wrong. We wouldn't accept something being wrong in any other walk of life, would we?".

What Humphrys seems to miss is the fact that many of these rules are little more than the prejudices of language "experts" in the Eighteenth Century whose ideas gained credibility once they were written down and widely circulated. They're not rules that are set in stone for any logical reason; although some would argue that a few of these rules are there to avoid confusion in communication.

For more on this debate, have a read of the article and search for Aitchison as a key word in the tool bar at the top of this page. You might also want to have a look at the Michael McCarthy articles linked here or here. Or have a look at the previous debates sparked by Lynne Truss's book here.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Goodbye Everard Willy, Farewell Cock and Cheerio Hugh G. Rection

Firstly, may I apologise for the title of this post. It's very immature and it won't happen again...

According to The Daily Mirror, "joke" surnames are fast disappearing as people change their embarrassing soubriquets through either marriage or deed poll. So, surnames like Smellie (popular in Glasgow), Pigg (popular in Newcastle) and Daft (big in Nottingham) are on the way out.

The article itself has many more terrible puns about men's anatomies than I can manage, so it's worth a read. And it's not too long (as it were).

But more seriously, names make the basis for some very interesting language investigations. There are obvious links between surnames and ethnic/geographical origins, as well as many that link to human characteristics. The significance of naming traditions in different societies is well worth a look at, with the whole issue of women taking their husbands' surnames central to many groups of people.

Then you have first names and the influence of a growing influence from foreign cultures and celebrities: Mohammed is in the top 20 for boys' names now, while Whitney is often a popular choice among girls. Jordan, Chantelle, Preston and Romeo could all be on the up too. A quick search of this blog (use the search bar at the top of the page) should take you to previous posts on this topic and links to top 20 lists of boys' and girls' names that might help you with some research.

Useful for:
EA4C - Language Investigations

Wrinkly coffin-dodgers need not apply

New legislation coming into force in October means that job adverts may need to be radically overhauled to avoid discrimination against older workers, according to the BBC News website. Terms such as "energetic" and "youthful" face the chop, and presumably "Must have own teeth" is set to go as well.

Age-related language is often overlooked when we focus on Language & Representation in ENA1, so this could prove a valuable area of research. Is there a tendency to label older people with demeaning terms such as "crumblies", "senile old gits" and "has beens"? And if so, are these labels out of proportion to those applied to younger people "hoodies", "yobs" etc. ?

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Muffin tops, salad dodgers and munters

With the new Chambers Dictionary released in a couple of weeks, there's an article in today's Guardian about some of the new (and not so new) words set to be included. What makes this article a bit more interesting than the usual spate of new words articles every time a dictionary comes out, is that it has a sociolinguistic spin at the end.

According to Dr Pia Pichler from Goldsmiths College, many of the new words betray a derogatory representation of women, far outnumbering the derogatory words for men. For those of you who have looked at Language and Representation in ENA1, the name Julia Stanley might ring bells. Her research in the 1970s suggested that the number of pejorative terms for women outweighed those for men by a factor of about 10 to 1. So for every "nobhead" there were ten "sluts", "hoes" and "mooses"...or something like that.

What this article seems to suggest is that this lexical over-representation is still evident: perhaps it's even increasing because of the huge amount of new words and phrases used to describe female bodies. So, the obsession with trying to look like an orange-skinned celebrity nonentity (like Jordan, Chantelle or those strange looking girls from Atomic Kitten) has led to all sorts of new words and phrases to describe processes of hair removal ("Brazilian"), breast enhancement ("tit tape") and skin colour ("permatan") but has also led to new terms for those women who don't make the grade or whose bodies don't fit the skinny, plastic template: "bingo wings" for wobbly bits on the underarm; "muffin tops" for those outpourings of flesh over the top of too-tight belts; "salad dodgers" for people who don't follow diets.

So years on from Julia Stanley's research, do we still have the same level of over-representation for terms used to describe women and their bodies? How do we find out? Well, don't rely on other people's research. Do what Julie Blake has always suggested on her Language Legend blog and DIY! With all sorts of new ways of researching language - using google to find out the popularity of certain new words, or using online corpora to analyse language use in written or spoken texts - you can find out if particular patterns exist. And then you can work out if it means women are still the target of the arsenal of nasty words, or if men are finding themselves the victims of new pejorative terms as well.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
EA4C - Language Investigation
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

Monday, August 28, 2006


Well done to everyone who got their A Level results. I think this was the best set of results we've had so far, so thanks for all your hard work and good luck in the future! Many of you are going on to do English Language/ Linguistics at Uni so make sure you stay in touch and feed us your knowledge via the blog.

And well done to those of you who got your AS results. These were also very good overall, but not quite as many top grades as we'd have liked, so we'll go through these in detail with you when you get back. So don't worry just yet...

Monday, August 21, 2006

Accents hold the comedy key

In a piece of research carried out by linguists at Aberdeen University and reported here in The Guardian, it's been discovered that a person's regional accent can have a major influence on how funny they are perceived to be.

Rather like Howard Giles' famous matched guise experiment into accents, this research measures how "warm" or "cold" the speakers are perceived to be. As The Guardian reports, "After asking 4,000 people to listen to the same joke in 11 different regional accents, researchers from the University of Aberdeen concluded that the Brummie accent, as typified by the likes of Frank Skinner, Jasper Carrott and Lenny Henry, is Britain's funniest, appealing to more than a fifth of those questioned".

Received Pronunciation (R.P.) comes out at the bottom, below accents from Manchester and Glasgow. So it's not just the way you tell 'em, it's the voice you tell 'em in.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties

Friday, August 18, 2006

"PC gone mad" parts 301 & 302

Two stories in yesterday's papers re-hash that tired old phrase "Political Correctness gone mad". In one piece in the Daily Mirror, council workers in Newcastle have been "re-educated" about their use of terms such as "pet", "love" and "hinny" (Read the article for some more on this obscure northern lexeme! "This political correctness is getting ridiculous," claims one rent-a-quote Tory MP in response to the story. My normal reaction to stories like this is to see them as part of a right wing agenda which seeks to discredit any attempt to get people to look at the language they use and how it might offend others. "Common sense" ideas about "PC gone mad" are put forward, but really they're just reactionary ramblings that see any attempt to remove racist or sexist language as part of some weird communist plot. But is that all that's going on in this case? Another element to this story is the issue of dialect and identity. As one council worker puts it, "It's like they are trying to kill the Geordie language. It's totally bloody crackers". This point is developed later in the article:

But Peter Arnold, 62, chairman of the Northumbrian Language Society, said: "I am horrified that these words, which are part of the native language of people living in Northumbria, are to be banned. It is just part of the way ordinary people speak.

"Some think the Geordie dialect is sexist and male oriented. It then follows that people think Geordies are male chauvinist pigs. This is a mistake.

"People who use these words - hinny, which is a term of endearment whose origin is lost in time - are speaking what is to them the first language of many people from this part of the world. It is part of our heritage."

The connections between dialect and identity are riddled with issues of self-esteem, regional insecurities and perceptions of domination by metropolitan elites (in other words, that London's New Labour-supporting middle classes want to control the language we all speak).

So, should regional varieties of English be allowed to keep their old-fashioned and perhaps patronising terms? Is it even a good idea to try to regulate language use in this way? Can it even be done? And who is making these decisions anyway?

In another article, this time in The Guardian, an employee of Orange is being investigated for his remarks on a web discussion site in which he pokes fun at what he calls a "lefty lexicon" or what he sees as the abuse of language by "lefties" and especially the "rights industry", according to the article. Everyone's entitled to an opinion, you might say, but if you're the "community affairs manager" of a huge mobile phones company should you be able to vent your spleen about minority groups (many of whom are your customers)?

And in today's Mirror, there's a really great guide to the different terms of endearment used around the country. Click here for the online version (less impressive to look at than the print version which I'll try to scan and post up on the site in the next week or two).

Your views on this whole issue of patronising terms and language control would be welcome as comments (click below to add your points).

Useful for: ENA1 - Language & Representation ENA5 - Language Change

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


For those of you interested in Child Language, here's an extract from a piece of research reported in The British Psychological Society digest which gives some info about a boy of 4 with incredibly advanced reading skills yet a mental age of just one and a half.

If you remember the Cognitive theory as proposed by Piaget and his followers, language development occurs as part of a child's wider cognitive development. If that's the case then how does something like this occur?

Researchers at the University of London’s School of Languages have observed a four-year-old boy with autistic spectrum disorder who rarely speaks spontaneously and shows little evidence of verbal comprehension but who can read aloud precociously – a phenomenon that’s known as hyperlexia.

On psychological tests, the boy is found to have a mental age of just one and half years and yet he can correctly pronounce irregular words not normally encountered by children before the age of nine. Irregular words like ‘yacht’ don’t follow the usual letter-to-sound rules and his
correct pronunciation of them betrays a level of linguistic development far beyond that predicted by his mental age.

Even when presented with novel Greek letters, he attempts to read them as English letters and numbers. “This behaviour is possibly indicative of the type of driven, compulsive, and indiscriminate reading behaviour associated with hyperlexia”, the researchers said. Indeed, the boy’s mother recalled that her son looked through newspapers with an unusual intensity before he was even two years old.

Because the boy doesn’t communicate it is difficult to gauge his actual comprehension of the words he can read. Nonetheless it remains remarkable that his reading ability “just happened”, as his mother put it, and the researchers concluded “Existing cognitive accounts are inadequate to account for the development of literacy in this child”.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

"Your mum is a terrorist whore"...

...the words Marco Materazzi allegedly spoke to Zinedine Zidane, moments before getting butted in the chest by an international legend turned demented billygoat. Whatever happened to "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me"?

In a great article in today's Guardian, Stuart Jeffries looks at the background to "your mum" insults and asks why certain types of abuse are viewed as grossly offensive in certain cultures and societies. It's a well researched article with some good background from Deborah Cameron and discussion of "the dozens" and "yo momma" games in the USA. It even quotes from one of my favourite rap tracks of the 1990s, The Pharcyde's Yo Mama and one of my favourite comedy sketches, Newman and Baddiel's History Today professors ("You see your bike; it's a girl's bike. It's for girls.").

The article contains rude words, so don't let your mum catch you reading it. Oh I forgot, she can't catch you reading it: she's out buying crack/selling her body/eating food from bins (delete as inappropriate).

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
EA4C - Language Investigations

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...