Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Ning, nang, nong

Another day and another article about teen slang, delivered this time from the perspective of trying to translate this bizarre alien language into Standard English for a middle class audience. In The Times yesterday, Michele Kirsch talks about the "scary bitches" on the back seats of the bus, the "nang", "buff" and "grimy" slang terms being chucked around by them and then makes some vaguely patronising comments about mixed race girls before retiring to her Hamsptead home to share her gritty, urban experience with her chums over a nice glass of Chablis.

This time round, much of the slang identified is fairly accurately noted - she talked to some real teenagers as part of the article's research - but it's the representation of the users of slang that might be more interesting to consider from an A Level English Language perspective. Is it just me, or is she treating these teenagers as exotic beasts that she barely understands? Have a read for yourself and see what you think...

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change & Varieties
ENA6 - Language Debates

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Unpredictable texts

The main causes of language change are generally supposed to be technological advances, the spread of the media and its influence, changing patterns in youth culture, education, movement of peoples, blah blah blah, but what about the influence of technology and its limitations? In an article in today's Observer, Euan Ferguson looks at the ways in which his mobile's predictive text dictionary affects his messages and the wider impact this might have on how we use language. It's an interesting idea, that language change is being driven by almost random forces as well as those well-documented trends above.

E-Julie's Language Legend blog has run some good pieces on this topic, so here are the links to her articles: gobbledegook & kiss/lips

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

Thursday, January 26, 2006

"Ay oop, we're t'monkeys"

...and people say we monkey around.

It can't have escaped the attention of any of you that spotty South Yorkshire teenage ragamuffins are storming the so-called pop charts at the moment. Yes, it's those crazy Arctic Monkeys again. And this time, rather than trying to claim some spurious youth credibility by featuring them on this here blog and pretending I like their music (but I do, dammit: 36 isn't too old to rock out, man) I'd like to look at their fantastic use of regional accent and dialect.

Take, for example, their mighty tune "Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secure" on their number 1 album: delivered in a proud Sheffield accent, the lyrics contain a mass of non-standard grammar and lexis and are all the better for it. This stuff is so much better than the focus group-led bobbins that passes for mainstream pop, or the miserable cliche-ridden angst rock of emo no-hopers, or dumb gangstas like 50 Cent and his idiotic tales of crack-slinging in da hood, or da club, or wherever:

Ask if we can have six in, if not we'll have to have 2
You're coming up our end aren't you? So I'll get one with you
Oh won't he let us have six in? especially not with the food
He coulda just told us no though, he dint have to be rude

See her in the green dress? She talked to me at the bar
How come its already two pound fifty? We've only gone about a yard
Dint ya see she were gorgeous, she was beyond belief
But this lad at the side drinking a Smirnoff ice came and paid for her tropical Reef

And I'm sitting going backwards, and I didn't want to leave
It's high green mate, via hillsborough please

How funny was that sketch earlier, up near that taxi rank
Oh no you will have missed it, think it was when you went to the bank
These two lads squaring up proper shouting, bout who was next in the queue The kind of thing that would seem so silly but not when they've both had a few

Calm down temper temper, you shouldn't get so annoyed
You're acting like a silly little boy
They wanted to be men and do some fighting in the street
No surrender, no chance of retreat

Drunken plots hatched to jump it, ask around are ya sure?
Went for it but the red light was showing
And the red light indicates doors are secured

Have a look at the subject - verb agreements of "she were", the lexical choice of "our end" for a start. Meanwhile, any band that can rhyme "Ford Mondeo" with "don't have to say 'owt" gets my vote as best lyricists of the decade. It's almost enough to get me nostalgiac about the glory days of Shed Seven.

Useful for:
nowt but a bit of a laff and ENA5 Language Varieties

Government leaflets "lack sense"

It's shocking and surprising I know, but a story on the BBC news website claims that the government is talking sh*te.

In this article, the Department for Work and Pensions is criticised for spending £31m on publishing 250 different leaflets last year, most of them incomprehensible to their target audiences.

Apparently, "The NAO found people often needed a reading ability above the national average to understand the leaflets, with words such as "disability, incapacity and entitlement" causing difficulties." while they also add that "about 16% of UK adults - or five million people - have literacy skills equivalent to those expected of an 11-year-old, according to official figures".

So is it intentional? Some have argued that these leaflets are deliberately designed to confuse, so government money can go unclaimed and be spent on more exciting projects like John Prescott's council tax bill or Cherie Blair's lifestyle coach.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Pubic speaking (sorry...)

Firstly, I must apologise for the title of this post, but it's been a long day and I need to entertain myself.

Apparently, according to a story on the BBC news website, having sex helps us overcome stress and makes us more effective public speakers. Of course, with SFX being a catholic institution, I have to add that the pope only sanctions such behaviour between loving, married, opposite sex partners. So that rules out the Lib Dem leadership challengers...

But please don't use too little/too much sex as an excuse for not performing well in the forthcoming powerpoint presentations on child language or you'll get no sympathy from me.

Useful for:
ENA7 - persuading gullible members of the opposite/same sex to help you "do your homework"

Friday, January 20, 2006

Left right blue green

This is from the British Psychological Society's Research Digest, but should be of interest to Language students too, particularly those studying language & thought/ language & representation on ENA1. It relates to our old friends Sapir and Whorf...
Whereas I might say a jumper is blue or red, female acquaintances of
mine refer to all sorts of gradations in between, such as navy blue,
shocking pink, and many others that I can’t even recall. But does the
richness of their colour vocabulary mean they can actually see more
colours than me? This is the issue at the heart of the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis – the idea that our perception of the world is anchored in
the language that we use. Now Aubrey Gilbert and colleagues have tested
the suggestion that if language does affect perception, then it ought to
do so more on the right side of space than on the left, because it is
the language-dominant left-hemisphere with which we process the right
side of space.

In an initial experiment, 13 participants had to distinguish between
four similar shades of colour. In terms of wavelength, the shades
differed from each other in equally-sized, incremental steps, but two of
the shades were what we’d call ‘green’, whereas the other two shades
were ‘blue’. Consistent with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, participants
were quicker at distinguishing between a ‘green’ and a ‘blue’ than
between two ‘greens’ or two ‘blues’. Crucially, however, this advantage
only pertained when the colours appeared on the right-hand side of space.

A second experiment showed that this right-hand side advantage for
discriminating between shades on either side of the blue/green boundary
disappeared when participants were distracted by a simultaneous verbal
task, but not when they were distracted by a concurrent spatial task.
“The left hemisphere appears to sharpen visual distinctions between
lexically defined categories and to blur visual distinctions within
these categories, whereas the right hemisphere does so much less”, the
researchers said.

If these results can be generalised to the real world, the researchers
said “…our representation of the visual world may be, at one and the
same time, filtered and not filtered through the categories of language”
depending on whether we’re looking to the left or to the right.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Swearing like a bloody trooper

Swearing is neither big nor clever. Good, let's just get that out of the way. But sometimes it is funny... and inventive... and great to study in English Language. Sometimes - like outside the gates of a primary school and in front of lots of impressionable young kids - it's not a great idea to swear loudly and talk about how you're going to "land one on the f*cking bitch". That doesn't stop one mum at my sons' primary school though...

A piece in today's Guardian reports on guide books for foreign tourists which are now warning them about having their delicate sensibilities offended by the natives of London's swearing habits. Or, as the Lonely Planet website rather more eloquently puts it "London's contrasts and cacophonies both infuriate and seduce".

Read it here. But are we getting worse? Is swearing more common place than it used to be? Do we accept it more these days? And do we react to swearing more negatively when it comes from women rather than men? All valid and fascinating topics for a bit of further investigation...

Some links from a bit of googling throw up the following pieces of research that have already been done:
male/female talk in Nigerian students
differences in male female language styles used in online communication
Advertising Standards Authority survey of swearing from 2000

Useful for:
EA4C - Language Investigation
ENA3 - Male/female conversation

Sledging: bad. Carpet beating: bad

According to an article on the BBC website, many old laws still exist in the statute books, including the following gems: You must not wear armour to Parliament (Royal Prerogative 1279); fire a cannon close to a dwelling house (Met Police Act 1839); use any slide upon ice or snow (Town Police Clauses Act 1847). That's my weekend ruined then...

But what's this got to do with language? Well, many of these old laws are being displayed by the Law Society and the wording of them is something to behold. Perhaps an investigation into legal language would be an idea for coursework in A2? Maybe looking at changes (or perhaps a lack of any change) in the language of law would be an interesting focus.

On another level though, the laws of the time are a bit like the language: they reflect a society's concerns and preoccupations at a given time and are interesting to look at as a result.

Useful for:
EA4C - Language Investigation
ENA5 - Language Change

Saturday, January 14, 2006

H.E.I.D.I.s thrive while Ladults leer

This post started with an article in Michael Quinion's World Wide Words newsletter which got me chasing up some links. In it he reports on the rise of two new words, "Ladult" - a blend of "lad" and "adult" supposedly describing a particular type of bloke in 2005 - and "HEIDI" - an acronym standing for Highly Educated Independent, Degree-carrying Individuals, a particular type of woman.

For more on each word, read on:

Enter the Ladult

A year after the wristband generation sought to Make Poverty History, we are on the brink of a nouveau hippy movement, combining spirituality, care for the environment and other people and a life code , says Ian Pearson, futurologist at BT. 'We've had Make Poverty History and this is part of the same trend. It only needs one or two charismatic people to trigger it, which could happen at any moment,' he said.

The New Man and the Metrosexual are dead. Long live the Ladult. He is single, assured, solvent and secure in his new-found masculinity. Aged between 25 and thirtysomething, the Ladult works moderately hard at middle management. His suits and shirts come from Paul Smith, Zegna, Thomas Pink and Reiss. He spends a lot on gadgets and DVDs, and enjoys poker, online gambling and even fly fishing. He irons his own shirts and can cook simple meals. He has no problem with the notion that women are his equals, but secretly thinks they are different.

Further up the age spectrum, the baby boomers are hitting 60, which could ignite generational conflict. 'They're the best-off, best-educated parents ever,' said Tom Bentley, director of the think-tank Demos. 'They have a postwar consensus mindset that tells them not to sink quickly into middle age. They want to make the most of the consumer and spending power they have. But the thirtysomething generation - the David Cameron generation - is moving into instrumental positions and has different priorities.' These include climate change; will the baby boomers do their bit, or turn into grumpy old men and women?

HEIDIS on the march

Highly Educated Independent, Degree-carrying Individuals, or HEIDIs, are set to become one of the most influential sectors in modern British society and any self-respecting brand ignores them at their peril. According to a 2005 study by Allegra Strategies and The Future Laboratory’s findings from its 2,500-strong LifeSigns Network, there are almost 7.2m HEIDIs in the UK.

They are in their late 20s and 30s and their contribution to the economy is vast. A typical HEIDI is selfmotivated, in control and articulate about herbespoke needs and brand-related purchases. Thanks to an affluence born of credit, lifestyle is her buzzword, and achieving one that is smooth, luxurious, immersive, hassle-free and aspirational is her goal.

So there you have it; if you exist as a human being, someone out there in focus group land has a word to label you with. But what's driving this language change? Are there really new "types" of people emerging who have to be labelled? Is this like the Industrial Revolution where new words sprung up to label the multitude of new products and inventions, or existing words were co-opted into employment? Hardly...

What seems to be driving this change is not supply and demand, but a very 21 st century phenomenen: consumerism and its reinvention of existing material, marketed in a new way, to sell us what we already have, or don't actually need. In other words, the creation of "new" social groups and their subsequent promotion in lifestyle magazines and newspaper articles is part of a process that targets us as consumers. So "new words" might be seen as complicit in all of this - they make these new classifications seem exciting or sexy.

Or am I being paranoid? Do we really take these words at face value and unthinkingly adopt them as part of our vocabulary? Probably not: we're clever enough to raise a quizzical eyebrow, laugh it off and get on with our lives most of the time. But it's an interesting idea, I think, that new words are being created as part of a commercial strategy.

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Politician in talking sense horror!

After this morning's narky post about Tony Blair's language, here's one to redress the balance and prove that not all politicians use weasel words and Nu-Labour jargon to hide the absence of any real policies (there I go again...).

Tony Banks, who died last week, was one of the few decent lefties left in the Labour Party, but more to the point a man that had a wicked way with words and was a master of put-downs. An article in The Guardian a couple of days ago reprinted some of his wittiest quips. Worth a look for a bit of entertainment and to see some good language play in action...

R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me...

When he's not steam-cleaning graffiti off estate walls, imposing ASBOs on 4 year olds with ADHD or strumming a Foreigner tune on his Stratocaster, Tony Blair is giving language enthusiasts exciting new meanings to words. Praise be to our glorious leader!

"Respect" is his latest one. Not that it's a new word:it briefly appeared as a slang term on the streets before Ali G made it fashionable as a parody of urban speech; George Galloway's bunch of Islamo-Trot chancers adopted it for their party a couple of years back (and now see Galloway showing no self-respect in the Big Brother house); but now it's different. Respect isn't just respect anymore. No, it's so much more.

As Simon Jenkins points out in today's Guardian, what are really needed are not new words and cryptic jargonistic phrases, but local communities having real power. What's the point of inventing a "Baby ASBO" or "Sin-bins" for anti-social families when people don't feel they actually have any say in how their local communities are run? I could go on, but I fear it will turn into a rant, so I'll just link to a site or two where people actually involve the local community in decision-making and leave it at that.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Defending PC

A report by the Civitas think tank earlier in the week about PC sparked debate on several radio stations and crowing articles in the right wing press. The main arguments can be found in this posting.

But in yesterday's Observer, columnist Will Hutton makes a number of good points defending PC, or rather what he terms courtesy, arguing that we're not living under some liberal jackboot (a bizarre and distinctly unsexy image, like Simon Hughes in drag) but in a society where words matter and can create division and hatred.

Interestingly, Hutton ties in language used to label and discriminate with the racist or totalitarian societies that produced them, arguing:
"Derogatory words laden with prejudice not only degrade those they describe, who find themselves categorised in ways they do not deserve - they degrade the social currency. The aggressive, dysfunctional language of hatred of the American South, Nazi Germany or Mao's China helped both to create and sustain those societies. Words were crucial to the governing ideologies".
So, while the trendy argument on the right of the political spectrum seems to be that PC is taking away our rights to free speech, Hutton makes the persuasive point that PC is in fact defending our rights to live in a peaceful society free from abuse.

(Thanks to Anjuli for this link.)

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA6 - Language Debates

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ladies first

Today's Sunday Times runs a story reporting on the American Dialect Society's annual meeting. According to one of the speakers at the event, Sali Tagliamonte associate professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto, “Girls are the single most powerful force in the English language today”. Young women are leading the way when it comes to lexical change: in other words, girls are picking up on new words and coining new expressions much more readily than boys, leading the way in changing our language.

So are young women more innovative with language or do they just talk about each other more and therefore find new ways to bitch about each other? "Muffin top":a bulge of flesh over low-cut jeans, and "whale tail": the appearance of a thong above the waistband, are just great two great examples of phrases used to describe other women's appearance!

If girls are leading the way, how much of what they come up with will be picked up by boys? Will it be like the pattern that many linguists have noted in conversation between males and females, where women introduce many more topics than men, only to have men reject nearly every topic they start?

The implications for research into changing slang and varieties of English could be pretty interesting...

Friday, January 06, 2006

Az you like it

Last week's BBC article about a survey of businesspeople responding to accents started people thinking again about prejudices that lurk under the surface of our society towards people who speak in non-standard ways or with a pronounced regional accent.

According to the article, covered by this blog here, strong regional accents suggest a variety of negative impressions from untrustworthiness (Cockney and Scouse) to failure (Brummie and West Midlands).

I followed up my initial interest in this and emailed the Aziz Corporation to find out more about their survey, so here's what the helpful Elspeth sent back - I think it makes interesting reading. Obviously, the Aziz Corporation have a vested interest in making us feel like we're likely to be disregarded if we don't speak RP or softened versions of regional accents (they earn a living by coaching speakers) , but equally that doesn't mean prejudices aren't there. The extra detail provided here adds a bit weight to the media coverage last week:

We are a company that specialises in helping senior executives become stunning communicators (not really a group of James Bond supervillains - honest!) and we regularly undertake surveys about business behaviour. The respondents are senior business people who receive our monthly newsletter, e-communique.

For the purposes of this survey, we used a company called "Survey Monkey" - respondents were asked a simple series of questions that asked them to rate different accents. They were not given the opportunity to add any further comments. I guess what we're trying to say is, that although it's not politically correct to believe that accents matter nowadays, it's apparent from our research that certain prejudices still exist.

When it comes to doing business, the majority of British bosses regard someone with an overseas accent, including American, Continental European and Indian or Asian, as more likely to succeed than someone with an accent from the English regions. Businessmen with Indian or Asian accents are also considered by their peers to be more hardworking and reliable than any of their colleagues from the UK or overseas.

The survey, carried out by the UK’s leading executive communications consultancy The Aziz Corporation, reveals a strong prejudice against regional accents, with 79 per cent of business men and women believing that a strong regional accent is a disadvantage in business. Business people with a Home Counties accent are considered to be generally successful by 77 per cent of those in business, followed by those with an American accent (73 per cent), a Scottish accent (63 per cent), a Continental European accent (52 per cent) or an Indian or Asian accent (25 per cent).

By contrast 64 per cent of business people regard those with a Liverpudlian tone as being generally unsuccessful, closely followed by those with a Birmingham or West Midlands accent (63 per cent), a cockney accent (52 per cent) and Geordie or West Country accents (48 per cent). Businessmen who speak with an Indian or Asian accent are considered to be hardworking and reliable by 69 per cent of their peers, a higher rating than those with any other accent.

Those with accents from America are considered to be diligent by 66 per cent of their peers, followed by those with a Scottish accent (61 per cent) and a Home Counties accent (50 per cent). By contrast, only 24 per cent of executives consider those with a Liverpudlian accent to be hardworking, with just 29 per cent viewing those with either a Welsh or West Country accent to be hardworking.

Khalid Aziz, Chairman of The Aziz Corporation, comments: “Although it may not be politically correct to believe that accents matter nowadays, it is very apparent from our research that popular prejudices still exist. If you want to get ahead in business and don’t speak the Queen’s English, it is better to sound as if you are from America, Europe, India or indeed Scotland than from any English region.

“Accents can speak louder than words. 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.”

The research also found that businessmen with certain accents face particularly strong prejudices. 27 per cent believe those with a Liverpudlian accent to be generally dishonest and untrustworthy, while 25 per cent think the same of those with a cockney accent. By contrast those with a Scottish accent are highly regarded, with 63 per cent viewing them as successful, 61 per cent as hardworking and reliable and 63 per cent as honest and trustworthy.

Khalid Aziz comments: “In the light of these results we would advise individuals to consider softening rather than changing broad accents. Experience shows that the key is to avoid using localised vocabulary, which others may not recognise. Sloppy speech can also be a major obstacle to making yourself understood and people of all accents can be guilty of this.”

Thursday, January 05, 2006

La meplu de ma tante est sous la bleta, innit?

With slang becoming a bit of an obsession on this blog, I'm grateful to Simon in Cornwall (off the excellent English Language List for A Level English Language teachers) for this link to articles about French street slang, and in particular the slang known as Verlan.

The word itself gives you something of a clue as to its meaning: it's an inversion of the syllables of "l'envers" or for English speakers, "the opposite" or "back to front". So what you do is switch syllables round (a bit like the weird backspeak some people use at school or college): famille (family) becomes "mifa"; bizous (kisses) becomes "zibou" etc.

According to an article in USA Today, Verlan has achieved some prominence as the slang of dispossessed urban youth in the banlieus (see the La Haine posts earlier in the year) despite the fact it's been knocking around for hundreds of years and is hardly a new phenomenen.

So what's this got to do with English Language? Well, lots obviously. Just because it's French doesn't mean it has to be rubbish, despite what I might claim drunkenly about their wine producers. The patterns at work with French slang seem to be the very same in our own - and that shouldn't really be a surprise, as slang is driven by the same social tides and ripples, whatever country you're from.

Looking at what the author of the USA Today report tells us about middle class youths picking up Verlan as a badge of "ghetto credentials" is a bit like hearing about "homies" from Norfolk who talk about "gats", "bitches" and "whips" when the nearest thing they've got to a "whip" is a Massey Ferguson tractor and the nearest thing they've got to a "gat" is a glimpse of their father's shotgun as he blasted a pheasant in the arse (for the sake of tradition, obviously).

Two other articles - Do you speak verlan? and Parlez-vous verlan? - also suggested by Simon in Cornwall, give you more details about Verlan and its roots and potential future.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Is political correctness destroying our culture?

We've looked at this argument before on the blog, but today a report from a right wing "think tank" (whatever that might be - probably a bloke down the pub) claims that Political Correctness is destroying British life and denying us freedoms. Radio 5 Live have been covering the report and adding to the debate this morning: you can listen again through this link. 

So what's under discussion? What is political correctness and is it really the scourge of civil liberties that some commentators are claiming? Part of the problem is the definition: many people are talking at cross purposes, conflating arguments about removing offensive terms from the language with arguments about what are acceptable topics for discussion in a multicultural society. 

So while most people are probably fine with the idea that calling people with cerebral palsy "spastics" or black people the n-word is unacceptable, and that PC alternatives should be found, many others would feel uncomfortable if they were told that it was offensive to discuss the problems of integrating white, black and Asian communities in inner city areas, or issues like treatment of women in different religions. 

For more on political correctness check this link from Wikipedia and follow the links from there. 

Useful for: ENA1 - Language & Representation ENA6 - Language Debates

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Class & accent

Another follow-up, this time to last week's post about the Aziz Corporation and their survey on regional accents and how businesspeople respond to them. Again, in today's Observer, diarist Cristina Odone writes about the link between accent and class in Britain. Good ammunition for debate on language varieties!

The ram's testicles

Following on from Thursday's plug for the Balderdash & Piffle programme (tomorrow 9pm on BBC2), here's a link to an article in today's Observer in which Victoria Coren makes a number of interesting points about what the current upsurge of interest in all matters English Language might tell us about our national identity. Plus there's some good stuff on etymology and more about what's shaping up to be a good programme.

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...