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

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...