Friday, December 21, 2007

Are those some pentapeptides in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

Jargon is a strange thing. It's usually defined as a kind of specialist or technical language used only by a particular group. The jargon of different groups can be baffling to outsiders, but that's usually part of its appeal: if they don't know what you're on about, you might be able to say rude things without them finding out. It can also be used to create the impression that you know what you're on about. (If I start calling pictures graphology, or words lexis, I might start fooling someone that I know what I'm on about...)

So, this report in The Daily Mail (I promise I didn't buy it - I saw a woman from Chingford reading it on the train) about cosmetics companies' using pseudo-scientific jargon to bamboozle unsuspecting readers is quite a good read. According to some experts, the cosmetics firms are making up their own words to try and make their products sound more high-tech than they really are.

Elsewhere, this article about in-group medical jargon includes such gems as "doing a Hasselhof" - inflicting a bizarre and possibly alcohol-related injury to yourself - and being a Jack Bauer - a doctor still standing after 24 hours.

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

Thursday, December 20, 2007

More on w00t...

Today's Guardian features a beginner's guide to what they term "Geekspeak", or what others term "Leetspeak". The Merriam Webster US Dictionary has chosen w00t as its word of the year, but as this article points out, w00t has been around for a long time in gaming and hacker circles.

Some of the other terms covered are LOLcats, teh and LQTM, all of which are interesting examples of language change processes in action (acronyms and compounds in the case of LOLcats, random fluctuation for teh and initialism for LQTM).

Useful for:
ENA5 - Contemporary Language Change
ENGA3 (new spec) - Language Explorations

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

More sluts and faggots

The newspaper response to the Radio 1 "faggot" ban is covered here: Daily Mirror The Sun (also features some humorous PC Christmas Carols)

The backdown came after a day of scathing attacks by critics including Jean MacColl – the mum of Kirsty, who died in 2000 aged 41. Jean said: “It’s pathetic, absolute nonsense. Today we have a lot of gratuitous vulgarity, which I think is quite unnecessary. “But these people in the song are characters and they speak like that. It’s a great song – it’s like a play.” Enraged fans also bombarded BBC radio, television and websites – as well as The Sun.

The Guardian (comment piece by Peter Tatchell)
What concerns me is not so much the use of the word "faggot" as the hypocritical condemnations of Radio 1's original decision to bleep it out. They wouldn't endorse the use of the n-word and p-word, "yid" or "spastic". For the sake of consistency, either the f-word should be disallowed too or these other bigoted words should also be permitted. It's the inconsistency that grates. Let's also remember that in Fairytale of New York the word "faggot" is being sung as an insult, alongside the words scumbag and maggot. In this abusive context, it difficult to feel comfortable about its usage. But the crunch issue is double-standards. I challenge those who defend the use of the word faggot in these lyrics to state publicly that they would also defend the right of white singers to use the n-word as a term of abuse in a song. They won't and that makes them cowardly homophobic hypocrites.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot... what my Mrs yells at me every morning when I check for blog posts rather than feed the children their breakfast. But this post's not really about that, but Radio 1's insane decision to bleep out the words faggot and slut from the greatest Christmas song ever recorded, The Pogues' and Kirsty MacColl's Fairytale of New York.

They've now gone back on their bleep ban and decided the full unexpurgated lyrics can be heard. Huzzah! The controversy isn't that new though - as this posting from last year shows - and the words faggot and slut have clearly got very negative connotations. But if a song that so painfully and wittily tells the story of a couple whose dreams of a new life have gone down the pan can't use a bit of rough-edged vernacular, what's the world coming to? Should we paint over the breasts on Old Masters' nudes? Should we put loin cloths over the naughty bits of ancient statues?

You can do your bit to make the world a better place by downloading the Pogues' track and preventing that zero-talented no-mark Leon from claiming the Christmas number one slot.

On a more serious level, the argument about banning words is picked up here in The Times and here in Spiked Online.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

New words scrapbook revisited

Given the very limited success of the New Words Scrapbook post back in October (a massive 5 entries, 2 of which are mine and one from another teacher at a different college), I'm going to attempt to revive it here. Now we're doing more work on Language Change and less on coursework, you might actually have some time to post examples of new words you've come across.

My favourites so far are "bluetooth high-five" and "Co-D", the definitions of which can be seen on the original post.

Post your new words here and you can win packets of Asda's Whatevers (the sweets like Lovehearts but with chavvier messages).

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

Friday, December 07, 2007


For a bit of light entertainment, here's a video of Armstrong & Miller repping their endz (if you will) as World War Two fighter pilots. There is a serious linguistic point in here somewhere about code switching (moving between varieties/dialects of English) and context, but just enjoy it...

A peculiar evolution

Following on from our work on Language and Representation and the use and abuse of "the n-word" the other week, Michael in D block AS Language sent me these links to Def Jam Poetry videos on You Tube, the best of which (in my opinion) is Dahlak Brathwaite's Peculiar Evolution which contains this tongue-twisting and mind-bending analysis of the n-word:
a word used to exclude is now exclusively used by the excluded, and with it excluding its original excluders, who use the slang to now gain inclusion into the group their group wanted to be removed from
You get a better idea of what he's on about by watching it
here. And these other links are worth a look too: Julian Curry and Red Storm. Useful for: ENA1 - Language & Representation

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Words of War

Here's a link to a good piece from the always interesting BBC News Magazine on the way wars have led to the creation of new words or adaptation of older ones. It's not so long ago that a "tank" was something you kept water in, rather than a large metal thing with a big cannon.

This could be handy for anyone looking at the ways in which social change and historical events have affected language change, and also help any AQA A spec teachers preparing for next year's new spec with its focus on Investigating Representations.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA2 (from 2008) - Investigating Representations

Friday, November 23, 2007

Nang slang

"Don't be prang; be nang. And use slang. Bang bang" as the lyrics to my latest release on BaldNinjaRecordings go. Not really*

But "nang slang"- one of the names given to the youth slang influenced by Bangladeshi young people in east London - is covered in real depth in this programme from the BBC Asian Network. If you can get past the first couple of minutes of rather self-conscious attempts at uber-hipness, it's a really good programme, with guest appearances by Tony Thorne (who'll be one of the speakers at our English Language Workshops for teachers in June) and Sue Fox (who spoke about her research into this dialect at our last student conference) among others.

Thanks to my bredren Tony C, aka MC Fruityloops, for this link.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change & Varieties

*I have to say this because I told one class last year that the linguist Pamela Fishman was half man half fish and several students believed me.

What should we call the people who want to kill us...

"... Islamofascists? Islamists? Jihadists? Or just plain murderers?" begins Timothy Garton-Ash in a comment piece in yesterday's Guardian. I know what I'd like to call urban 4x4 drivers doing 50mph in a 30mph zone next to my kids' school, but the swearing filter would kick in.

Aside from the fairly provocative use of inclusive pronouns to start the piece (Who are "we" and "us"?) which, to be fair, he attempts to clarify later on, it's a considered reflection on the importance of language labels in identifying "the enemy".

As he goes on to explain, "You might say it doesn't matter that much; the point is to stop them. But finding the right words is part of stopping them. It means we've correctly identified our real enemies. It also means we don't unnecessarily create new enemies by making all Muslims feel that they're being treated as terrorists".

In the topic of Language & Representation we're studying in AS at the moment, the debate over the importance of labels is central. Whether it be ethnic groups, the opposite sex, people of different sexuality, people with disabilities, members of different social classes, subcultures or age groups, labels are part of the way we define others and ourselves. As Garton-Ash points out, if we choose the wrong label we run the risk of alienating a particular group, or choosing the wrong way to deal with them - you can presumably negotiate with a freedom fighter but not a terrorist - but beyond that, the human need to label and to work with stereotypes is worth thinking about in more detail.

Do these labels affect the way we view different people? Do the words actually exert some influence on the way we think, or are the labels just a reflection of our views about the people being labelled? And why do we tend to be so quick to use stereotypes when dealing with members of different social groups?

More questions than answers...

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language and Representation

Hit me baby one more time

No, it's not a story about how Britney Spears has become rhyming slang for beers, but a link to different stories about the intelligence and education of young children.

In this report on the BBC website, researchers at Yale University claim to have discovered that babies show "social intelligence" - a pre-linguistic ability to judge others' intentions - by about 6 months of age.

As we're looking at Child Language Acquisition in AS classes at the moment, and considering different case studies like the wugs test, it's interesting to see how this experiment was designed to rule out other factors, but it's also interesting to see how far cognitive abilities can develop before language appears.

Here's an extract from the report on the BBC website:

Kiley Hamlin and colleagues at Yale University devised experiments to test whether babies aged six and 10 months were able to evaluate the behaviour of others. They used wooden toys of different shapes that were designed to appeal to babies.

The babies were sat on their parents' laps and shown a display representing a character trying to climb a hill.

The climbing character, which had eyes to make it human-like, was either knocked down the hill by an unhelpful character (a toy of a different shape and colour) or pushed up the hill by a helper cartoon figure (another shape and colour).

After watching the "puppet show" several times, each baby was presented with the helper and hinderer toys and asked to pick one.

All of the 12 six-month-old babies tested and 14 of the 16 10-month-olds reached out to touch the helper character rather than the anti-social one.

Further experiments were carried out to rule out other explanations for the behaviour - such as a preference for pushing up or down actions or the appearance of certain characters.

Part of the debate about language development concerns whether children's language develops alongside cognitive skills like a grasp of object permanence, relative size (seriation) and time. Some theorists have suggested that language comes after cognition - once a concept has been understood, the language to label it will follow - while others have suggested that the two develop alongside each other, with language labels helping children place concepts into mental categories more easily.

Behind it all lies a wider debate about the link between language and thought, which the psychologist Steven Pinker has explored in great depth in his latest book The Stuff of Thought.

A different article in yesterday's Guardian suggests that however clever babies of six months are, children of 5 and 6 are too young to be formally taught reading and that pushing children to read at too early an age can affect their confidence and later reading skills.

Children in British schools are taught phonics from the age of four or five and then more formal reading skills in Year 1, but critics argue that the British education system starts kids off too early compared to other European countries with higher literacy rates.

While you don't have to study children's reading and writing for our syllabus, it's a good area to investigate in your second year coursework.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Looking down the barrel of a gun

Rap lyrics have been blamed for many things - promoting sexist attitudes towards women, celebrating criminality and stoking anti-police attitudes, among other claims - but the link between lyrics and gun crime has been discussed at some length recently and with a little more sense.

Last year we covered this story on the blog and the same arguments are floating around now. And David Cameron - ever the soundbite-hungry attention-seeker - had criticisms to make about Radio 1's lyrical output in this link.

Meanwhile, this thoughtful article on the BBC website explores some of the issues around lyrics and their influence (or not) on young people.

Those of you doing A2 coursework which focuses on rap lyrics might want to have a look at some of the links from these articles, or contribute your own views as comments below.

And to lighten the mood, you can win a bag of Haribo if you can correctly identify the rappers who originally wrote and recorded the track "Looking down the barrel of a gun"... 1st come first served.

Useful for:
EA4C Language Investigation

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The cultural capital of the urban youth

Ever wondered why some white kids in the sticks want to "talk black" when the nearest they've been to a pimped ride is their uncle's tractor, or why middle class professionals come over all geezerish when they're talking to a plumber who's come to fix their corner bath, or why some young black people in South Africa dress and talk like Californian gangstas? It's cultural capital innit?

It's an idea first put forward by the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu and it relates to a commodity which someone possesses - usually money, education or connections to a social network, but possibly something less tangible too, such as "cool" or "prestige" - which others value and want. Wikipedia will tell you more here.

So it's interesting to read this article in last week's Times which explains how a particular variety of street slang spoken in working class urban areas of France is influencing the mainstream. I know this is an English Language blog, but if it's happening in France it's probably happening in some ways here too... fo shizzle.

What is it about non-standard varieties that makes Standard English users want to adopt it? And does this mean that non-standard varieties are being looked on more favourably than in the past? It's a tricky one to answer.

On one level, the middle and upper classes have always raided working class speech practices for a bit of "flavour" - hippies appropriating black American vernacular, skinheads staring at the rudebwoys, Tim Westwood being a dork - but it's often been a sort of class tourism (take some of the poor people's words for a bit of a jolly jape and then get the hell out of their ghetto, like man) in which the wealthy, comfortable classes can pick and mix before getting jobs with daddy's firm in the city. On another level, there's been a genuine cross-fertilisation of ideas and language from Joe Strummer of The Clash to recent collaborations between middle class indie rockers and grime artists like Lethal Bizzle.

So, does any of this matter? Yes and no. You still need Standard English to get ahead in this society, I would argue, but if you can code-switch into it from your normal sociolect - be that Cockney, Black British English or a multi-ethnic youth dialect (MEYD) - you'll probably be ok. And after all, there has to be something to be said for peppering your Standard English with a few markers of "realness" just to keep the middle classes on their toes...

For more on Verlan see here
For more on MEYD see here

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

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Zooks, Ziggies n Spliffs

Hey SFXians!

I assure you this is strictly for research purposes- I'm a big old third-year writing a real dissertation- so, in light of this... slang terms for marijuana anyone?!

I'm trying to compile a list of terms with possible dates and etymologies attached, so if anyone in this loving, caring and sharing community comes across links for bringing me closer to such revelations, do reply to my post!

Also, do feel free to explain why you think these terms exist (i.e. why a particular pronunciation? Does it have a link with another word you know?) and why they're changing all the time!

Eternally grateful,


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I don't want to talk about it...

There's an interesting article in today's Times about the ways in which men and women supposedly use language differently in arguments. Following on from Deborah Cameron's Myth of Mars and Venus work, I feel dubious of any claim that men do x and women do y, because as Cameron has persuasively put it, most of these claims are exaggerated and tend to generalise people's behaviour, without showing much awareness of context.

But one point that does emerge from this article is that even though it's daft to generalise, maybe there are some patterns of socialisation that influence some women's behaviour and some men's when it comes to arguments. As Christine Northam, a counsellor for Relate the marriage-guidance service says:

I do talk with men who find it very, very difficult to engage with their feelings. Women say: ‘He won’t respond to me, he won’t listen, he thinks he’s right all the time.’ Men have been socialised to think that they know what they are talking about. I know it’s changing, it’s really changing a lot. But that’s still around: ‘Men are powerful and what I say goes.’ Women internalise that too. It’s not just the blokes. Women get very frustrated, hysterical, when trying to get their point across because it seems that it just falls on the dead ground all the time. What they are saying is not being picked up and acknowledged and dealt with.

Certainly the younger men that I see tend to be much more willing to engage with their feelings, keen to understand them and talk about them. Older men find it slightly trickier or more than slightly trickier.

So how important are expectations of what's appropriate "masculine" or "feminine" behaviour to the way we argue? Are we influenced in different ways by our own parents and their arguments, by the way we want to appear to other men or other women?

The article makes interesting reading, even if it does quote a little too heavily from the John Gray book Men are from Mars, Women from Venus...

Useful for:
ENA3 - male/female conversation

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Yidiotic chanting

Tottenham Hotspur FC currently languish in the relegation spots of the Premier League and are going through yet more management upheavals, but the club and the fans are also suffering from a resurgent wave of anti-semitic abuse, if reports in today's Observer are to be believed. Spurs' reputation as a north London club with a high proportion of Jewish supporters has led to them being called the "Yids" - both by their own supporters as an affectionate self-labeling term and by others as a pejorative and racially offensive term - so-called because of the German word for Jewish ("Yiddish") which then went on to become the name of the language/dialect spoken by many Jews around the world.

While racist chanting against black players and fans has reportedly decreased since its miserable peak in the late 1970s, anti-Jewish chants have picked up in popularity again, as charming ditties like "Spurs are on their way to Belsen, Hitler's gonna gas 'em again..." might prove.

Read on...

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Yidiotic chanting

Tottenham Hotspur FC currently languish in the relegation spots of the Premier League and are going through yet more management upheavals, but the club and the fans are also suffering from a resurgent wave of anti-semitic abuse, if reports in today's Observer are to be believed. Spurs' reputation as a north London club with a high proportion of Jewish supporters has led to them being called the "Yids" - both by their own supporters as an affectionate self-labeling term and by others as a pejorative and racially offensive term - so-called because of the German word for Jewish ("Yiddish") which then went on to become the name of the language/dialect spoken by many Jews around the world.

While racist chanting against black players and fans has reportedly decreased since its miserable peak in the late 1970s, anti-Jewish chants have picked up in popularity again, as charming ditties like "Spurs are on their way to Belsen, Hitler's gonna gas 'em again..." might prove.

Read on...

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Put up your hands, for 'tis the grammar police

The prescriptivists are in action again, this time targeting the grammatical accuracy of the BBC's presenters. According to Ian Bruton-Simmonds (a member of the Queen's English Society) in a report in today's Observer, BBC presenters' standards are slipping:

Broadcasters are said to make mistakes such as mixing up singulars and plurals and using 'may' instead of 'might'. One of the most common mistakes cited by language campaigners is the incorrect use of the word refute. They point out that the word means to disprove, not deny.
Their solution?

100 unpaid 'monitors' working from home would note grammatical slips or badly chosen vocabulary. The checkers would then report to a central adviser, who would write to broadcasters outlining what was said and what should have been said.
Oh dear...

Fears about language change are nothing new. Two years ago, Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow was cited as a terrible example to children both linguistically and behaviourally, while about 800 years ago, a homesick Norman monk complained about the ghastly "teeth-grinding" sounds of the English language as spoken by its working and middle classes.

Prescriptivists argue that the language should be controlled and regulated to prevent its decay, while descriptivists would argue that change is inevitable and beyond the regulation of government and self-appointed guardians. A note of sanity is raised towards the end of the article when Adam Jacot de Boinod, author of The Meaning of Tingo says "Language evolves and we should evolve with it".

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

Thursday, October 25, 2007

n-word and music

According to the BBC 1 Xtra website on Weds., Nas is thinking of calling his new album the n-word. Should this cause consternation, or is it celebration of black culture, a reclamation of the racist slur, rather like gays have done with words like 'queer' and 'gay'? Read the piece and attendant thread of posts here:
There's a useful link on the same page to a half-hour audio documentary on the topic. Should prove interesting for language change, representation, social contexts - besides, it's a contentious subject. Search the BBC website for earlier items on this topic: it keeps cropping up. More material can be found in the archives of all the major newspapers. Btw, one of my last year's A2 students sent me this link. She's just started a degree in Graphic Design, but misses her linguistic forum on my college VLE; uplifting, don't you think?!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Christ on a Bike! Swearing is good for you

Research by the University of East Anglia has given swearing at work the green light. The Daily Mirror explains:

A study found workers are able to let off steam and defuse tension with a well-timed curse. And many younger staff communicate more effectively by using four letter words to express themselves. But the study found managers who swear in the workplace have a negative effect, damaging morale and making employees feel bullied.

But apparently it's bad for members of certain professions to swear, according to the report, "Clearly it is not right to swear if you are dealing with customers in a bank or if you are a doctor or nurse treating a patient". So, no mention of teachers there. Excellent! Let the swearing commence...or should I say continue?

The psychological and linguistic roots of swearing are also looked at in some detail in Steven Pinker's new book, The Stuff of Thought in which he likens it to the noises dogs make when you tread on their tails. Apparently, our brain circuitry treats swearing as very different from more eloquent forms of language - almost like a reflexive noise: a growl or a bark - which is one of the reasons why stroke victims can often utter swearwords even when other language is restricted, or Tourette's Syndrome patients use swear words almost like nervous twitches.

For those of you interested in swearing and taboo language, Geoffrey Hughes' Swearing: a Social History is a good read, while the Viz Profanisaurus Rex (reviewed on Michael Quinion's excellent World Wide Words site here) is one of the most comprehensive guides to offensive language that you could ever hope to read.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change & upsetting your maiden aunt

You're not being kicked off the course...we're thinning out the class

Euphemism is a wonderful thing. At least it is until you get shot by an American soldier and they call it friendly fire, or you lose your job and find you haven't been sacked but the company has downsized. But it can be great when you suffer memory failure over a piece of work you say you handed in but know that you didn't, or suffer a Janet Jackson-esque wardrobe malfunction which is actually a case of indecent exposure. Hiding the horrible truth of death, redundancy, toilet functions or prejudice is what euphemism is all about.

An article in yesterday's London Paper which is so cheap it doesn't actually feature the story online, and an article from last month's Times here take a look at euphemism and its uses. Quoting a new book by John Ayto on the topic of euphemism, The Times article gives some nice examples of business-speak which hide the truth under layers of verbal gibberish:

Rather than fire workers, a company “down-sizes”, “rationalises” or “implements a skills mix adjustment”. Rather than admit to losing money, the accountants will report “negative cash flow”, “net profit revenue deficiencies”, or the mind-bending “negative contributions to profits”. Businessmen talk about “preserving optionality” – finance-speak for “doing nothing”.
And for a view on euphemism from 20 years ago, try this link to an article from Bernard Levin

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

The origins of new words

An article in today's Independent follows up the story from earlier in the year about the Oxford English Dictionary's quest to find word origins by getting the public to help. This exercise in democratic etymology has proved pretty successful, with earlier than previously recorded citations for expressions like "Daft as a brush", "der-brain" and "the dog's bollocks" making appearances.

More here: Independent article

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Language Change timelines

As promised, here are links to Language Change timelines for use with ENA5. Remember that you are set texts from 1600-1950 as part of your exam, so do not need to know masses of details about pre-1600 change, but I've suggested some broad areas which are important to remember below.

BBC History timeline

British Library timeline

Important areas to have an understanding of in pre-1600 language change:

  • Word order becomes increasingly more important in controlling meaning as Old English (Anglo-Saxon) develops. The Norse influence has a part to play in this but the change is almost complete by Early Modern English.
  • "Layering" of words from other languages is a trend that starts with Norse, continues with Norman and into the present day.
  • Integration is vital to the development of the English Language from Anglo Saxon through to the present day: where peoples intermingle, languages start to influence each other.
  • Technology was changing language as far back as 1476 when Caxton brought the printing press from the Netherlands. This helped to cement the East Midlands and South East dialect as the standard and led to the diffusion of written English around the country.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Linguists on the Radio

I know Radio 4 is not the station of choice for most south London sixth formers, but it's worth a listen every now and then to help you pick up on how language issues are popularised and made accessible to mainstream audiences.

For example, in the last week, two linguists have featured on Radio 4 programmes. Deborah Cameron whose excellent new book The Myth of Mars and Venus challenges the stereotype that women speak more - and more articulately - than men is featured here in last Friday's Woman's Hour podcast. Steven Pinker, whose new book The Stuff of Thought explores the language universals that bind us all together as humans, is featured here in yesterday's Start The Week.

And while both interviews are interesting for their subject matter - which will undoubtedly help you do well in your exams if you use it - it's also worth thinking about how radio like this can be scripted. In your ENA6 paper next summer, you may well be asked to write a radio script about a topic just like these.

Useful for:
ENA3 - male female conversation
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA6 - Language Debates

New words scrapbook

New words are emerging all the time. Before you can say "Rarsclart rudebwoy, why you flexin me?" a new word has sprung up and worked its way into our language. And as part of your A2 work on ENA5 you'll need to have plenty of good examples at your disposal. So, this post is designed to help.

"How?" I hear you ask. "You haven't given us any new words here. What are you playing at, man?" I hear you continue.

Well, that's because it's your chance to add comments to this post about new words you've come across. Together we can build a new words scrapbook.

"Scrapbook? Crapbook!" I hear you respond, somewhat rudely.

Well, it doesn't have to be rubbish, but it largely depends on you and what you post. If you can send in new words or links to articles about new words we'll soon have some examples to be getting on with, Then I'll try to offer a bit of analysis of what we've got, you can chip in with your ideas and we'll all learn something together.

"Yes, but where are the Haribo?" you ask.

Well, the Haribo prizes will be awarded to the top 5 most interesting new words posted as comments. There's no strict criteria for what makes an interesting new word, but if I like it I'll award you some Haribo. OK?

So to get the ball rolling, here's a link to something about
Susie Dent's new Language Report and the words of 2000 - 2007.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Contemporary Language Change

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The votes are in...

So thank you to all the (80) people who voted in the poll on the dreaded n-word. The results are quite interesting on a number of levels:
  1. Maths isn't my strong point but it adds up to 99%, so I guess there are stray decimal points somewhere.
  2. Lots of people from outside SFX have voted because there are only 13 (self-identified) black people in the poll and that's probably about 20% of the total number of black students we have in AS and A2.
  3. While 11% of respondents are black and don't use the n-word, 5% are black and do use it. The vast majority (88%) don't use it at all.
What does this tell us? Well not a lot. Some explanatory comments would be useful to go with this. For the 5 white or Asian respondents who say they *do* use the word, what context is it in? Are you marking out your affinity to black culture (whatever that means) or are you unreconstructed racists? And for the 9 black respondents who don't use the word, what are your objections? What it does tell us is that polls like this are only moderately helpful in gauging people's attitudes. So let that be a lesson to you when you do your language investigation coursework! Useful for: ENA1 - Language and Representation EA4C - Language Investigation

The Language Barrier?

There's a series of three extracts from Deborah Cameron's new book The Myth of Mars and Venus in The Guardian this week, which should be essential reading for all AS and A2 students (and teachers!).

As she outlined in this piece last year, Cameron isn't really a fan of those linguists who argue that there are inbuilt differences between male and female language. For one - she argues - there are more language differences between different men or women within their own sex than there are between the sexes. For two - she argues - the myth of gendered differences is being used to make women feel that they need to adjust their speech to become more "assertive" and "direct". For three - she argues - an industry has sprung up around the whole myth, crystallising these rather dubious ideas as scientific "fact".

They're convincingly researched and persuasively argued points, and part of a much wider debate about gender and language which affects us all. As Cameron puts it in today's extract:

The idea that men and women metaphorically "speak different languages" - that they use language in different ways and for different reasons - is one of the great myths of our time. Research debunks the various smaller myths that contribute to it: for instance, that women talk more than men (research suggests the opposite); that women's talk is cooperative and men's competitive (research shows that both sexes engage in both kinds of talk); that men and women systematically misunderstand one another (research has produced no good evidence that they do).

The three pieces can be found here, here and here.

Recent research detailed here supports Cameron's findings and suggests that males and females actually talk about as much as each other on average. But as Cameron is quick to point out in her book, what is an "average" male or "average" female? We are all different and use language in many different ways in different contexts.
Useful for:
ENA3 Male and female conversation
ENA6 Language Debates

Monday, October 01, 2007

Information for teachers of English Language

The course blog for our programme of English Language teacher workshops is now up and running at

We're still finalising the programme of speakers and presenters, but it's already looking like a really great line-up. If you're interested in attending please use the course blog to contact us.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Don't blame hip hop

Following on from what I thought was a rather good discussion this morning about the dreaded n-word, Asher D's Sticks and Stones programme, and the influence or otherwise of rap lyrics, I stumbled across this article in the New York Times. Given all the furore around the use of the n-word and the recent attempts by members of the black community in the USA to get the word taken out of circulation, the article points to the growth of more party-orientated lyrics in recent hip hop tracks and poses the interesting questions: "What if hip-hop’s lyrics shifted from tough talk and crude jokes to playful club exhortations — and it didn’t much matter? What if the controversial lyrics quieted down, but the problems didn’t? What if hip-hop didn’t matter that much, after all?" So, is hip hop really to blame for the growth in the n-word? Does it really matter? Will its recent resurgence die out naturally? Answers on the barrel of a Gloc 9mm... or posted as comments below might be nicer.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Say bye to the hyphen

Bye...hi...hyphen? Geddit? Oh, well.

The new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is out and instead of the usual media articles about all the funny new words included in it (WAGs, yummy mummies and size zero all make an appearance BTW, and there is at least one story about the new words here), the focus has this time been on a tiny little piece of punctuation: the hyphen ("-"). According to an analysis of the new dictionary, hyphens are dropping out of usage. So words that used to be hyphenated such as bumble-bee are now compounded into one single word, while others such as ice-cream and pot-belly are now written as noun phrases e.g. ice cream and pot belly.

As this interesting article on the BBC News Magazine site tells us, the blame is again being laid at the door of email and electronic communication. Others are arguing that the hyphen is not dying our but being re-purposed (or should that be repurposed) as part of emoticons like the smiley :-)

It's not the first time the decline of the hyphen has been noted, as this story in 2003 demonstrates in almost exactly the same terms. And for more detail on the whole story, have a look at The Language Log blog here.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Death to the emoticon ;-)

...the computer keyboard, especially for touch-typists, is an invisible piano on which we play instantly ... First musings race into fully-formed words and sentences with no pause for revision, let alone perfection. As soon as they are on screen they acquire validity. Over them hovers the dreaded send button, itching to be pressed and behind which lurk a hundred links, addresses and possible misdirections. Send is always pressed too soon.

So says Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins in a passionate attack on the language of emails. His comment piece begins by pointing out that emoticons (the little symbols which smile, frown, wink or glow with shame) are now 25 years old and that their use has spread with the growth of online communication. He then goes on to make the point that all mechanical or electronic forms of communication have used some form of abbreviation, but that emails are a blunt tool causing "unintentional pain and embarrassment" and that even emoticons can't make up for the lack of subtlety or nuance in email communication.

Jenkins' article is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, his argument that email is less subtle than the handwritten word is perhaps true, but then each serves a different purpose - for the time being anyway. The written word (pen on paper) is still given more credibility and status than the word processed or emailed word: take birthday cards, legal documents and contracts, for example. Perhaps all this will change as e-communications take over the world.

One of his other points, that email doesn't provide an interaction is a little more dubious. While it's true that email isn't the same as face to face talk in its potential to be shaped and re-shaped depending on cues like facial expression, body language and eye contact, it is still pretty quick. Replies can zip across the internet backwards and forwards as quickly as you can read them and type them.

Then again, unlike MSN where conversations can be tracked in real time, there is often a time lag in reading and responding to emails which means that it can lead to misunderstandings and lost threads.

The discussion about Jenkins' views is taken up in a debate at the end of his article, and the responses are well worth looking at for some different angles.

Useful for:
ENA3 - spoken and written language
ENA5 - Language Change
2008 AQA A spec - Language & Mode

Mind the gap

Two articles on the psychologist and language guru, Steven Pinker appear in this week's papers ahead of the publication of his new book The Stuff of Thought. In The Times the focus is on how and why new words are created in the English language and what this tells us about human nature. the second is a more detailed survey of Pinker's career that takes in his views on child language acquisition and language and thought.

In the first article, an extract from his book, Pinker looks at the processes of new word creation, giving a range of interesting examples of compounds, conversions, metonyms, affixes and borrowings, all of which should help a student of language change. But maybe more interestingly, he starts to look at some of the reasons why these new words stick - or more usually don't stick - in the language.

In the second article, the focus is on Pinker's developing views on language acquisition, the connections between thought and language, and evolution. Pinker points to the central metaphors of language as evidence that we have an inborn structure to the way we think about the world:
There is an inborn structure to the way we think, he argues, and language offers us clues to it. Take metaphor: no matter what tongue we grow up speaking, we seem to come equipped with a large toolkit of ways to think about things in terms of other things. We talk about love as a journey, for example ("we've come a long way together"), and use space as a proxy for time ("let's push that meeting back an hour"). "Children will occasionally make errors like 'we better pack now, because tomorrow we won't have space to pack'," Pinker says. That sentence conforms to the basic rule - thinking of time in terms of space. But according to English convention, it's wrong; adults don't go around saying it, so children can't just be parroting their parents when they make that mistake. This, Pinker argues, points towards some kind of innate cognitive machinery, predisposing us to think of time as if it were space, and to make many similar transitions from the abstract to the more concrete.
So, are we all programmed to think the same way? Do we actually have any control over the way we perceive the world? Is language part of our cognitive machinery or a completely separate element of us? I'm confused and I need a man with big hair to explain it all.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition
ENA1 - Language and Representation

(thanks to Jason for tip on Times article)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Big brother is listening to you...

Can you tell that someone is lying to you from the way they talk? Birmingham City Council seem to think so and they're installing new Voice Risk Analysis software at their call centres dealing with unemployment benefits. According to this article on the BBC news website:

It works by measuring "micro-changes" to the frequency of the human voice and relaying to the operator, in real time, the level of risk that the speaker is being deceptive. At the start of the conversation, the software takes the caller's normal voice as the benchmark and accounts for the possibility that changes may be caused by nerves. If the caller is deemed by the operator to be low risk, using the test results to support their own judgement, they are fast-tracked and avoid more rigorous vetting. Those deemed to be at higher risk of lying must supply further evidence to support their claim.

So, is it a step forward in protecting honest tax payers' cash, or a decidedly dodgy attempt to jail the nervous?

Useful for:
ENA3 - spoken language

Sunday, September 09, 2007

New year begins

Hello, and sorry for the long silence. It's been a busy time at my college in Cornwall, with many changes taking place, interviews and enrolments to complete...So this is just a quick check-in to renew my acquaintance. Walking the dog along a quiet country lane today I spotted this intriguingly ambiguous sign at the gated entrance to a meadow: 'Electric fence and bull in field'. That's a bull to avoid. And the other day I saw a van, presumably belonging to a company connected with diving; its name painted on the side was '2 Dive For'...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Exam results

Thursday - as you know - is A Level results day. Good luck to you all and I hope you get the result you deserve. I mean that in a nice way, obviously. If you don't get what you want, don't panic. There are plenty of helpful people at college to point you in the right direction, so just ask.

I won't be around on results day as I'm going on holiday. Good luck!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Some child language stuff

Not much time to blog at the moment, so here are some links to recent articles on child language, just to keep up to date:
Psychologist explains secret of children's word explosion
Language DVDs can slow down baby talk, parents warned

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Say goodbye to the female brain. Say hi to the female mouth

If you're an avid blog-reader, you'll remember last year's Myths of Mars and Venus story in which top linguist Deborah Cameron tore into the American bestseller The Female Brain. To summarise it, the writer of The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine made a claim that women use some 6000 more words a day than men, while Cameron (who is writing her own Myths of Mars and Venus) makes the point that there can be no "average" man or woman, least of all an average number of words we speak, because we use language differently depending on who we are, what we do, where we go and why we're doing it, and while gender may have some part to play in our language, it's one of many many factors.

The latest take on this comes in last week's news stories on a piece of research in Science magazine, reported here and here. According to The Guardian's story on this, "Men and women talk as much as each other, suggests a study which says that, on average, both genders speak around 16,000 words a day - a fact challenging the traditional notion that girls are considerably more chatty than boys".

The research is covered in more detail in The Times article here:

The first rigorous study exploring the verbosity of men and women has found both sexes equally capable of irritating jabber. The typical woman speaks an average of 16,215 words a day, while an average of 15,669 words pass the lips of men, a difference so small it is not statistically significant.

The most loquacious people of all, indeed, tend to be men, but men are also the most taciturn. All three of the biggest talkers who took part in the research were male, the most prolific of whom yakked his way through 47,000 words in a day. The most effusive woman managed a mere 40,000.

At the other end of the spectrum, one man spoke an average of just over 500 words each day. There were nine men who spoke fewer than 2,000 a day, compared with only four women.

As an average of 16,000 words are spoken each day, people who talk at 120 words per minute — the speed at which the BBC’s Huw Edwards reads the news — would end up speaking for a little more than two hours of the 17 they typically spend awake.
The Little Britain character Vicky Pollard, by contrast, speaks at 330 words per minute, and would get through the average daily word allocation in just 49 minutes.

The findings, from a team at the University of Arizona, overturn a notion that is not only popular with the public, but which has also found its way into scientific research.

The debate about male and female talk is continued here in a Times editorial, here on the BBC website and here in an article from today's Guardian. But as many commentators point out, the stereotype of women being chatterboxes is such a deeply ingrained social myth, that whatever the research presented to counter it, many refuse to accept it.

Useful for:
ENA3 - Male female conversation

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Ms - a missed opportunity?

The word Ms. - mostly used by women who don't see the need to reveal their marital status - gets extensive coverage in this Guardian article. The debate about Mr, Miss and Mrs goes to the heart of feminist linguistics.

Many (or should that be femy) argue that the titles given to women and men in English reflect a male dominated society in which women's status as married or unmarried is marked, while men have a single generic title. Some have argued that this shows that women's status in language is inferior. The article looks at the 40 year history of the word and attitudes towards it, commenting along the way that many young people have never heard of it, despite its prevalence in the 70s and 80s.

In my (obviously male) experience of attitudes to its use in English lessons, many students associate it stereotypically with either divorced women who wish to make a (possibly bitter) point about their new found single status, or more dismissively as referring to "those weird women" (probably feminists, possibly lesbians, maybe even wearing Nepalese yak-fur hoodies) who complain about everything and probably want to ban words like "history" and "human" for being too malecentric. But, this article explains exactly why Ms. is an important word and why it should be used. And it makes some much needed points about why language matters and how gender is often constructed through some of our language use.

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

Ee bah gum is ee bah gone

Yorkshire dialect is disappearing, I tell thee. At least, that's according to a report in today's Independent which reports on a new exhibition in the Yorkshire Dales that includes results of a local survey on people's use and recognition of dialect terms.

In the article, it's made clear that the Yorkshire accent is not under threat, but that the dialect (the lexis, semantics and grammar of the regional variety) is disappearing. The blame is placed squarely at the door of new technologies and the death of traditional farming industries, by the project's author Jo Cremins: old words associated with farming implements and practices have gone the way of the farms themselves, while the spread of new technology has speeded up the spread of standardised forms of the language, especially among younger people.

This story fits into the wider discourse around what's called dialect levelling, but as we have seen from the work of linguists such as Sue Fox and Paul Kerswill, dialects are also springing up as well as dying out. So, while some varieties of Yorkshire dialect may well be fading away, largely because their users no longer seem to need them or identify with them, others - often influenced by popular culture and Caribbean and American varieties of English - are growing and spreading.

And if you want more information about Yorkshire dialect try here and on the excellent BBC Voices website here (West Yorkshire) and here (North Yorkshire).

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Congratulations to all A2 students for a) turning up at the right time to sit ENA6, and b) appearing relatively happy with the paper. It's all over now, apart from those of you doing the AEA paper tomorrow morning, so well done and thanks for all the hard work, good times and ... sob... good luck to you all in the future.

I won't be around for A Level results day as I've decided to leave the country on that day (not that I'm worried or anything), so stay in touch, add your comments to the blog from wherever you go, and if you come back to get your certificates in December, I'll buy you a half of shandy.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

ENA5 and ENA6

Good luck with tomorrow's ENA5 exam, and ENA6 later in the week.

For tips on ENA5 exam technique and last minute revision on both units, have a look here:

and here:

and here:

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

And now it's time to reclaim the p-word

Following hot on the heels of debate about the dreaded n-word, this article in the BBC news magazine, takes a look at debate in the Asian community (Is there really such a "community" or is that a dubious label itself?) about the p-word "p*ki". Here's a brief excerpt:

The origins of the P-word, as its known in polite society, are far more recent than its black equivalent, which dates back to the 16th Century.

Its first recorded use was in 1964, when hostility in Britain to immigration from its former colonies in the Asian sub-continent, was beginning to find a voice.

Despite being an abbreviation for "Pakistani", its proponents tended to be less discriminating about its application - directing it against anyone with brown skin, be they Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. Sometimes even non-Asians who happened to have a dark complexion found themselves on the receiving end.

Forty years on, use of the word is still highly sensitive and has the potential to cause great offence. Earlier this year, it was alluded to in unbroadcast material from the Celebrity Big Brother house, when Indian housemate Shilpa Shetty became the target of racist abuse.

The whole issue of words being used by one group in an offensive way and by another group as a term of solidarity seems to be too much for some people's minds to cope with, and two responses to this article suggest that it's causing brain meltdown and hurrumphs about "political correctness gone too far" in sections of white society (Again, is there such a thing as white "society", or even a "white community"?):
I understand the sentiment, but surely it's mad to have a word thats "OK" for some groups to use, and highly offensive for everyone else? Either a word is offensive to some people, or it isn't. Andrew, Glasgow, Scotland It is racial discrimination for one race of people to be able to do something when others cannot. Either the terms are racist and should be condemned whenever used or everyone should be able to use them without fear of reproach. The current situation of supposed political correctness is illogical. Alex, Colchester, England
Useful for: ENA1 - Language & Representation ENA5 - Language Change

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Made up words and fruity phrases

Two interesting articles in The Independent last week take a look at how language changes and what we think of these changes. In the first article, Philip Hensher responds to the new words in the Collins Dictionary (as covered here) by asking if some of the new words featured actually exist in real usage, a question that students have asked every year when we’ve covered this topic in class. I mean, who uses bromance, manboobs and bobfoc?

Hensher’s article is worth a read for his wider take on the nature of language change:

Language is a living thing, not something to be entombed and frozen. One of the ways it changes most rapidly is through its vocabulary. It's not the only way novelty makes itself felt, but it's the easiest to grasp. A new term for an old thing emerges - "banging" for "excellent", taking over from "wicked". Or, occasionally, a new term for a new thing - no one knew any term for "carbon footprint" before that particular term, because nobody had the concept. The appeal of novelty demands to be recorded, however bogus the particular instance.

And he raises another possible take on new words when he says “You can't make up language as you go along; it would be truer to say that it invents you, the way you have of seeing the world as well as expressing it”

In a second article, Joan Bakewell looks at swearing and taboo language, especially the changing responses to “bad words” over time. This is made all the more relevant by the recent n-word and p-word scandals on Big Brother. And she links language change to the wider currents of change in society when she says,

Sexual words... now have a wider currency and acceptability. They crop up in the workplace, shops and offices, the school playground, and they litter the vocabularies of comedians and comic shows… With the loosening of sexual behaviour has gone the parallel freedom of language.

The rising taboo words are now concerned with race and discrimination. The BBC's survey found that "P*ki" was now rated the most offensive word of all, with the n-word a close second. And it was reportedly an untransmitted rhyme that used the P*ki word that invited Ofcom's most severe criticism of Big Brother. If swear words are those that have the most power to offend, then it appears we aren't really worried about religion and sex any more, but we do really care about racism.

So, if you use the New Words, New Woes post to mug up on processes of language change, these two articles give you a wider perspective and some useful material to look at the contexts to our language use.

Useful for:

ENA5 – Language Change

Thanks to Chas for these links

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Big Brother n-word fall-out continues

Predictably, the press are in uproar over Emily's use of the n-word on Big Brother and various articles have appeared about the history and use of the word itself. One is from today's Mirror, penned by DJ Spoony of Radio 1 fame. Others are easy to track down with the help of Google, even if you are unlucky enough to have the pitiful research skills of Tre from The Apprentice.

And for lots more on the dreaded n-word and its history, just type it in the search bar at the top of the page and Bob's your uncle.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Big Brother is watching the racists

After the Shilpa Shetty and Jade Goody racism debacle earlier this year, it doesn't come as much of a surprise to see that Channel 4's Big Brother is feeling a bit sensitive about accusations of racism. And in response to the use of the n-word by Emily Parr to a black housemate Charley Uchea last night, they've removed her from the house, according to this BBC news article. What was the context of the word? What was meant by it? Was Emily trying to get down with her "homegirl"? Or is she an ignorant racist bigot? Is it all a stitch-up by Endemol and Channel 4 to regain themselves a bit of respectability after their recent hammering by the Standards Authority. The Guardian is offering a "provisional transcript" here so have a look. Watch this space... Useful for: ENA1 - Language & Representation ENA5 - Language Change

Monday, June 04, 2007

New words, new woes

Just in time for ENA5 revision, here comes an article on the BBC news website all about new words that feature in the Collins Dictionary. Among the latest additions are WAGs, hoodies, man-bags, pro-ana and 7/7. Also making an appearance are carbon-offsetting, brainfood and Londonistan.

So, as a revision exercise (and this month’s Haribo prize-winning competition) how about finding 5 separate language change processes at work in the examples quoted in the BBC and newspaper articles and putting them as comments below. The first 3 correct responses will get a prize.

And for those of you interested in why these words are formed – the social and political background to language change – have a think about issues like the environment, celebrity culture and healthy eating, then try to group some of the new words into these categories.

These other articles in The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent feature the same story with some different examples, and might also offer you the chance to look at how the stories are handled by different broadsheets. If you remember that on ENA6 you may have to write a broadsheet article for question 2a, it's perhaps worth comparing these articles to see what kind of style devices are used and how the issue of language change is introduced to a non-specialist audience.

Useful for:

ENA5 – Language Change

ENA6 - Language Debates

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

When is a gang not a gang?

When it's a group, an anti-social gathering of hoodies, or a click/clique. That's what the Youth Justice Board are saying anyway, and they should know as they've been studying youth behaviour and crime and they think that labelling a gathering of youths as a "gang" actually makes the young people concerned more likely to see themselves as social outcasts and push them towards a genuine gang culture of organised crime, illegal cash and drug dealing.

And we all know where that leads, don't we? Rarely to the multi-million dollar incomes and uber-bling lifestyles of knuckleheaded gangstas like 50 Cent and The Game, but more often to Feltham, smelly stairwells in rundown towerblocks, crack pipes and the sharp end of another idiot's shank.

So, getting linguistic about this (and moving away from my pulpit) are the Youth Justice Board adopting a position of linguistic determinism? Is the label "gang" actually influencing young people's behaviour? Well, apparently it is. According to the BBC article about the YJB's report, they argue that "glamorising such offenders may encourage them to become involved in more serious criminal behaviour".

And it's a double-edged label too:

Young people themselves resent the way the word gang is used to describe any group behaving in an anti-social way. It suggests the term "group related" rather than "gang related" is a better way to describe their activities.

So, just a day after the ENA1 Language & Representation paper, why cover this? Well, I've always argued that English Language is for life not just for exams. Or was that dogs and Christmas... I get confused.

And if you want to read a genuinely well written account of London's gang/group-related culture then take a look at this article in today's Guardian.

And to find out more about the words "gang" and "clique", have a look at the OED online (if you use college computers, you'll be able to access it for free).

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

Monday, May 21, 2007

Good luck!

Good luck to everyone taking ENA1 and ENA3 tomorrow morning. Remember to eat some breakfast (to feed your brain!), to get there early, and to read the question papers properly. Stick to your timings and remember that the first question on each paper is worth twice as much as the essay question, but that you should give yourself enough time to answer both fully and a bit of time at the end to check those pesky apostrophes, spellings and sentence boundaries.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mental, bonkers, one sandwich short of a picnic

Just a quick link here to an article in last week's Guardian (that I was too buried in coursework marking to see at the time). It's about the language used to label people who might otherwise be known as "mad" or "crazy". As the writer Jo Brand explains:
The liberal consensus is that the careless and flippant use of words such as "fruitcake" and "wacko" reveals a disrespectful ignorance towards people with mental health problems. The Guardian's own in-house style guide counsels against using such "clearly offensive and unacceptable expressions as loony, maniac, nutter, psycho and schizo". But if you want to talk about mental incapacity in English you will not find yourself lost for words. This is one of the richest areas of our language, and we seem to revel in the joyful creativity of coining words that skip around, compartmentalise and poke fun at the serious issue of mental illness.

Another social group for your answers on ENA1, perhaps?

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...