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'...

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...