Monday, March 27, 2006

Caribbean accent upsets Middle England

Just when you thought it was only regional accents like Brummie and Scouse that caused consternation for RP-speaking Middle Englanders, comes shocking news that Caribbean ones are unsettling too!

In a story in yesterday's Observer - and in various postings on a BBC message board - the true feelings of various Radio 4 listeners about presenter Neil Nunes' Jamaican accent are made clear. One listener comments, "BBC does stand for BRITISH Broadcasting Corporation, doesn't it? Do we really have to listen to this American drawl every time we hear an announcement?".

Perhaps this listener should take geography lessons - last time I looked, Jamaica was in the West Indies, not the USA.
Others have been quick to defend Nunes' accent, variously describing it as "refreshing" and "mellifluous".

So what is it about accents that makes us react so strongly? A casual listen to the adverts on any commercial radio station should let us know that certain regional and national accents are often associated with particular character traits. If you want wholesome and natural (like when selling wholemeal bread or organic vegetables) you employ a Yorkshire accent; if you want slightly dozy or slow-witted characters, you employ a Brummie or Black Country accent. Likewise, streetwise and slightly dodgy can be created through Scouse or Cockney, and rural trustworthiness, if a little dim, can be conveyed by Devon or Norfolk accents. And let's not forget those trustworthy financial adverts which seem to rely on the stereotypes of Scottish people being mean and stingy (and presumably therefore, good at looking after our cash for us).

Occasionally, you'll get a national accent used too: German accents are often used to convey stereotyped notions of discipline and organisation, French to convey sophistication and culture, Australian accents to convey mateyness and the common touch, Caribbean to signify laid back vibes, err, man. Lilt - it's the totally tropical taste, innit?

Of course, these are all bizarre and sweeping generalisations about people's characters based on their regional or national accents, but ones that appear to have some currency in the world of advertising...and beyond. Howard Giles' matched guise experiment (more available here about this line of research) tested people's responses to regional accents and found differing reactions to perceived qualities such as honesty and warmth, based on the accent used to deliver the same message, rather than the message itself.

You can read more about studies of accent (and dialect) in forthcoming E Magazine and E Magazine Extra articles written by ex-SFX students Charissa King & Anjuli Rogers, and myself, but there are also posts on here from last year which look at attitudes to accent. Try searching for "accent" as a key word in the search bar at the top of this page for some of these.

And just to round this off, if you've ever wanted to put a face to the voice that keeps you on hold when you phone up to pay bills, get help for your dodgy broadband connection, or whatever, have a look at this article in today's Guardian, and find out why having a regional accent makes you a "real person". Hmm....

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties and Change

Blogging in the library

The rather excellent staff in the LRC have set up their own blog to promote new books and films, and to encourage students to write their own reviews of these. So, don't miss this opportunity to get your writing in print and don't miss out on the latest top tips for new releases; visit the Books and Films at SFX blog as soon as you can and get involved.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

To boldly get it wrong

With the government's plans for "functional skills" hitting the news agenda and claims that students will fail their GCSEs if they can't accurately use commas and apostrophes (see here for Guardian article on it and QCA's own report here), it's good to see someone else putting the other side of the debate in today's Observer.

Michael McCarthy argues that many of our so-called "rules" are redundant and that we should instead think about what's clear and practical when we communicate, rather than trying to follow such rules.
People get upset about split infinitives, prepositions ending sentences, speech habits such as saying 'dunno' and 'gonna', the greengrocer's apostrophe ('carrot's 30p a pound'), using a singular verb when logic demands a plural ('there's five boys in the band'), double negatives ('I haven't done nothing') and so on. Most of these don't matter as long as they're used in appropriate contexts.

It's an interesting and provocative approach, and one that contrasts with that of Lynne Truss and her followers. Although, is that deliberately dodgy grammar in the second to last paragraph?

Useful for:
ENA6 - Language Debates

Friday, March 24, 2006

This week's competition

Congratulations to Andrea F and Evelyn O for winning last week's prize. Indeed, the Haribo shall be yours and lo, you shall enjoy it.

This week's quiz question requires the same type of response as last week. If you know the answer (or once you've found it) add a comment to this post and write your answer, making sure to leave a name. Once again two prizes are available.

The question this week is "What is etymology?".

A slip of the tongue?

An American radio host has been fired after only 2 weeks in his job, for an alleged racial slur against Condoleezza Rice. In today's Guardian it's reported that the presenter used the word "coon" when he claimed he meant to say "coup". So was this a genuine mistake for which he should be forgiven, or a deliberate dig at an African-American politician? Looking at the word "coon" itself tells us quite a bit about the origins of racist terms used to label Black people in America. According to etymology online, the word "coon" is derived from a "barracoos", buildings constructed to house slaves. Looking at other terms like the n-word and "negro" tells us a great deal about the historical roots of racism and the shifts in semantics many words go through over time. You could do worse than look at this link from Ferris University which offers a history and wide-ranging discussion of the n-word. Given the sordid and shameful origins of many of these offensive words, is it therefore fair to castigate someone who uses them, regardless of their supposed intentions, or should we look at the intent behind a word's use before criticising? The case of the Leeds University lecturer, Frank Ellis who (it is claimed) believes white people are more intelligent than black people, and that the BNP are "too socialist", perhaps underlines this problem. His views are probably much more offensive to most people than what might have been an unintended slip of the tongue from the American radio host, but they are couched in a more academic language and avoid the crass shock value of racist epithets. Perhaps this makes his views more dangerous? This takes us into more theoretical areas of language and thought, which can be explored by looking at theories such as linguistic relativism and linguistic determinism, as well as the whole PC debate. Useful for: ENA1 - Language & Representation ENA6 - Language Debates

No jokes about tractors or turkeys, please

The Norfolk dialect is set to be taught in schools in an attempt to restore its status in the region and make its users more aware of their cultural heritage. A report in yesterday's Guardian tells us that funding has been given to a project which will "create exhibitions, performance pieces and dialect recordings to "reclaim" cultural heritage in Norfolk".

As the report says, the local dialect has been ridiculed by "urban" types (as in the old sense of the word "urban" not the more recent one) and looked down upon for generations.

It's an interesting attempt to halt dialect levelling, but will it work and does it have any precedents in other parts of the country or abroad? A quick look at the BBC Voices project reveals that local dialect is alive and well in many parts of the country, but - many argue - it's dying out among younger speakers and morphing into new multi-ethnic youth dialects or super-regional dialects.

Paul Kerswill of Lancaster University, and his team of researchers (including Sue Fox who'll be at our SFX Language Conference) have been looking at exactly this sort of language change and their findings are awaited with interest.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties and Change

The pen is not as mighty as Microsoft's word

A report on the BBC website today tells us that the art of handwriting is dying out, superseded by emails and text messaging. Apparently, only 5% of young people's communications regularly use pen and paper.

Is this the end for the pen? And if it is, what does this mean for the future of exams, which seem to be some of the very few occasions in young people's lives that they have to pick up a biro and write (often straining their delicate, unpractised wrists in the process)?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

We interrupt this transmission

If you're an A Level Language student, you may well be studying Media too, so this post is just to let you know that the SFX Media blog is now up and running and getting fairly regular updates here.

Recent posts give links to articles on New Media Technologies and Pop Music and Youth Culture (goths!).

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Gossip is good

We all do it, but we might not admit to it. So, research in today's Mirror is a relief to gossips. Apparently gossip keeps us healthy and human. Read on for more fascinating facts...

Useful for:
ENA3 - Interacting through Language

Friday, March 17, 2006

This week's competition

Following the runaway success of last week's competition (winners were Jocelyn, Evelyn, Rachel and Izonebi) my bank balance has been dented, so I'm only offering two prizes this week (the usual large pack of Haribo). The question is "What is pragmatics?". Get searching...

He- he- hemail is so not funny

“If comprehending human communication consisted merely of translating sentences and syntax into thoughts and ideas, there would be no room for misunderstanding. But it does not, and so there is.”

So say Justin Kruger and colleagues who have been researching the ambiguity of email communication. According to the research (full text available here) which is in the latest British Psychological Society research digest (you can subscribe here), "the ambiguity of email communication, stripped as it is of any extra-linguistic cues such as gestures and intonation" leads to misinterpretation and miscommunication.

When we study email communication as part of Language Change, we often focus on the variations in form between email language and its standard written equivalent, but as this research shows, there's a lot more to communication than structure and form: there's pragmatics, for a start, which is the study of what utterances or messages actually mean within their context. So, while we can merrily email away in a tone that we think is perfectly witty or obviously sarcastic, the reader of teh message may find it much trickier to decipher our intended meanings at the other end.

Even with smilies and other emoticons, email can be a blunt tool. But, like texting, for many of us it's a preferred method of communication and one that allows us to keep in touch with people we probably wouldn't bother to phone up or visit.

There's plenty here to follow up from a language perspective, and whole investigations for A2 coursework could explore different areas of this topic.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language frameworks (pragmatics)
ENA5 - Language Change
EA4C - Language Investigation

Football chants again...

And picking up the story of football chants from yesterday, the BBC website reports that FIFA, the world football governing body, have pledged to take more vigorous action against teams and whole Football associations in an attempt to crack down on racist chanting.

And here's a link to the Kick It Out! anti-racist website.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

10 German bombers

Returning briefly to football chants, there's a piece in today's Guardian by Nicky Campbell (of Radio 5 Live and Just the Two of Us fame) which looks at matters of nationalism, xenophobia and sensitivity in the run-up to this summer's World Cup in Germany (is it only Ghana and England supporters who are getting excited about this, or are Nigeria fans just keeping a dignified silence?).

Campbell (who I once bumped into in Marks and Spencers on Balham Hill, celebrity spotters!) actually does something which we're not supposed to do this summer: he mentions THE WAR. Now, it's not big or clever to link German people or the history of the whole country with just one (or maybe two) horrific conflicts, but where should we draw the line when looking for subject matter for football chants?

As Campbell points out, there's a world of difference between singing the Dambusters theme and chanting "I'd rather be a P*ki than a Turk", but what's acceptable and what's not? It brings up interesting debates about political correctness, the power that language has to offend and incite, and more complex questions about how we define who we are.

And just to lower the tone further, the most hits this blog has ever had was when I posted the story about anti-Sol Campbell chants from Tottenham supporters. According to the hit counter, the main searches that landed people on these pages contained the words "Sol" "gay" and "Campbell"! So maybe Ashley Cole was onto something after all when his solicitors got on the case with Google for linking his name to gay sex scandals involving premiership footballers.

But of course by putting those words in that order I've just guaranteed 1000 extra hits from salacious websearchers and a legal writ from Ashley Cole (who - celeb spotters - used to live on the estate just over the road from my house!). Oh well...

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Gadsbobs, zounds and by gum

A piece in today's Guardian bemoans the ubiquity of the naughty "f-word" in conversation today, not simply because it's rude but because its overuse seems to have made swearing and taboo language less inventive.

The author, David McKie argues, "Indeed, since today's universal F-words have largely surrendered their old power to shock or even, perhaps, to intensify, it would be good to see some of the old expletives creeping back into the language".

So, is he right? Have we lost the power to shock each other with our uses of swearing? Are we all growing more tolerant towards previously shocking words? Or is it a more complicated story of words shifting meaning over time: some losing their impact, some gaining offensive connotations? And if he is right, should we really be returning to old classics such as "By my troth!" and "Odds Bodkins"? Or would we get looked at strangely and locked up in a "special room"?

For another look at swearing on this blog, try one of these links:
Swearing like a bloody trooper
You f***ing beauty
It is big and it is clever

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
EA4C - Language Investigation

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

and the winners are (week 3)...

Congratulations to Jocelyn, Rachel and Evelyn for this week's correct answers. You are winners. Frankly, you should call yourselves "The A Team" or "Winners".

Friday, March 10, 2006

The second SFX English Language Conference

Or "SFX in the LDN (remix)", as... err... no one is calling it...

We put one of these on in September 2004 and it went very well, so we're doing another. It's aimed primarily at A2 students because the topics are mostly linked to Language Change and Varieties of English, but AS students from SFX will be more than welcome to come too as these are topics that could be part of your coursework (which you start in July after your AS exams).

There are four guest speakers and they'll each be doing lectures of about 40 minutes: 2 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon.

Check the flyer for more details, but don't worry about the £7.50 tickets as it's free to all SFX students. Don't say we never do nothing for you...

Vlogging a dead horse

New words, how they're created and why they come into existence are always popular subjects for discussion on the Language Change and Varieties paper (ENA5) so this site run by the MacMillan English Dictionary is a great way of keeping up with the latest new words and what they mean.

This week's new word is "vlog" and this week's prize of a packet of Haribo goes to the first 3 students who can tell me what it means. To enter this week's competition, just click on "comment" under this post, type your answer and make sure you leave your name.

And for more information on Haribo and my shares in it, click here.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Contemporary Language Change (essay question)

Exam dates

The provisional examinations timetable is now out and students will get a chance to note all of their exam dates in a tutorial coming up very soon, but for English Language the dates are as follows:

AS ENA1 - Tuesday 23rd May (pm) 1 hr 30 mins
AS ENA3 - Tuesday 23rd May (pm) 1 hr 30 mins
A2 ENA5 - Monday 26th June (pm) 1 hr 30 mins
A2 ENA6 - Wednesday 28th June (pm) 2 hr 30 mins

For a breakdown of what's on each paper, check with either Dan or Raj or have a look at the AQA A site here.

Get revising!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

And the winner is (week 2)...

... Sherelle in C block AS English Language. Congratulations! You are a winner!

She wins the Haribo this week with her lightning quick response of "John Barnes".

It really should be time for an A2 student to win next week. Are you out there? Or are these prizes too childish for the likes of you? Come on, as Michael Jackson might have once said "You're never too old for Haribo". Or something like that.

Next week's question will appear on Friday. It's all too exciting...

Baa baa rainbow sheep?

Political Correctness (P.C.) has been a target for the right wing press for a long time now. If it wasn't The Sun in the 1980s shouting "Pooftas on Parade" when gay men were allowed to join the army, it was the Daily Mail lambasting local councils over their supposed attempts to avoid ofending non-Christians by changing "Christmas" to "Winterval".

Now The Times is reporting that nursery schools in Oxford are changing the words of "Baa Baa Black Sheep" to "Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep" to avoid offending minority groups. But as with all these stories about PC, is it just an opportunity for a silly story, or are there really people out there with so much time on their hands and so little grasp of reality that they actually do think of these ideas?

According to The Times, the poor black sheep is not the only nursery rhyme character to be reassessed:

In keeping with the new approach, teachers at the nurseries have reportedly also changed the ending of Humpty Dumpty so as not to upset the children and dropped the seven dwarfs from the title of Snow White.

So, is there any evidence that this story is actually true? It's dubious. The quotes in the article purporting to come from the people who've changed the lyrics are so general that they could apply to any type of anti-discrimination policy, while the quotes from OFSTED are very similar. The BBC report it slightly differently, while The Express put it on their front page.

Many of the "truths" about P.C. are in fact myths, "P.C. satires" designed to denigrate the whole approach. But some are true, and have to make you wonder what on earth could be offensive about a blackboard, a black sheep or even a cracked egg...

It would be interesting to see how this story develops and if there's any right to reply for the supposed perpetrators of this act of "PC gone mad".

Edited to add: you can contribute to the debate on The Times site here.

Other links to PC:
Baa Baa Green Sheep

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

Friday, March 03, 2006

And the winner is...

Maidei in B block AS English Language wins the 2 packets of Skittles this week for mentioning Nicaraguan Deaf Schools during an English lesson. Woo hoo!

Next week's prize will be a packet of Haribo Fangtastic flavours for the first person to name the ex-England footballer who rapped on New Order's 1990 World Cup song, World In Motion.

The return of the mack daddy

Those of you too young to remember John Barnes' iconic rap on the 1990 New Order World Cup song, World in Motion should count yourselves lucky. But, oh dear, he's set to make a rapping comeback in this world cup year, according to this story on the BBC website, but only if the lyrics are "like Kanye West or Busta Rhymes".

So, let's remind ourselves of those mighty rhymes that John spat the last time he graced our airwaves:

You’ve got to hold and give
But do it at the right time
You can be slow or fast
But you must get to the line
They’ll always hit you and hurt you
Defend and attack
Theres only one way to beat them
Get round the back
Catch me if you can
Cos’ I’m the danger man
And what you’re looking at
Is the master plan
We ain’t no hooligans
This ain’t a football song
Three lions on my chest
I know we can’t go wrong

lyrics from

So let's see if we can provide a rap for this great man. Here's a start, "Brap brap, watch my shizzle as i dribble. Brap brap, it's the sound of my feet..." err or something...


There's a scary story for parents of twins everywhere, in today's Mirror. Apparently Jack and Luke Ryan, who are four years old, have developed a special twin language that only they can understand. Their mum can occasionally pick out words like "wawa" for "grandad" and "tee" for "cheese" but the rest is a mystery.

According to research in the Netherlands, 40% of twins develop their own language, or idioglossia as it's called (I thought that's what George Bush spoke), but grow out of it as they start to converse with a wider range of adults and children.

It raises interesting questions about the influence of interaction and the nature of children's language acquisition. Whose input has the most influence? Do twins get more input but of lower "quality" (a bit like Chomsky's poverty of the stimulus idea) because they hear each others' language more? According to the National Literacy Trust website there are various reasons for twins developing language in different ways:
Late onset of speech, and speech and language difficulties, including stuttering, are more common in twins than in singletons. This is because twins are frequently premature or low birth weight babies, and their parents may have less time to attend to them individually and to help them develop verbal skills... They used simple language and fewer words when they talked to each other. A British study showed that twin language is higher (around 50%) in twins with speech and language difficulties than for twins with normal language (11%).

I've not noticed my own twin sons speaking like this, but they do have a weird telepathy sometimes and know just when to get on the computer whenever I want to update this blog.

Meanwhile, here are some links to research and advice on twin speech:

First words on twin speech
Wikipedia - idioglossia
National Literacy Trust on twin language

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition
EA4C - Language Investigation (potential investigations could include comparative analysis of twins' language against singletons' language, or even analysis of differences between siblings)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Kidulthood revisited

Two more articles on this film, each with a few bits to say about its use of urban vernacular:

Observer article
Guardian article

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...