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

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...