Friday, April 25, 2008

ENA6 - Investigating Attitudes to Offensive Language

OK, so no takers for the last one on Language Change, so how about this one?

How would you go about investigating people's attitudes to offensive language?

I'm after a 5 point answer using this structure:

...and it's completely up to you what you define as "offensive language"; in fact, that's part of what might make your answer a good one. The usual bag of Haribo goes to the best answer.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Filling column inches

No, not another spam email about "manhood enhancement", but a quick piece about fillers. You know, like...err fillers yeah? Ha ha, can you see what I did there? Sorry...

Anyway, The Daily Telegraph (which is normally really good on language stories) has this terrible non-story about how English language speakers use loads of fillers and how this reflects a lack of care for our language. According to Phillip Hodson, speech expert and Fellow for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (who may have been selectively quoted, it has to be said):

It seems to me that the Anglo Saxon countries - Britain and America - are the worst for using these filler words to pad out our conversations. I think it is because unlike other countries like France we do not protect our language. There is little teaching of best practice. Some say that fillers are a sign of intellect, used to consider what to say next. However, research shows that if your speech is full of padding, you’re harder to understand, which makes listeners tend to tune out.

Erm, not exactly true though is it? Fillers are just normal parts of our spoken language; we use them as a form of punctuation for the most part, and it's not really true that we associate fillers with padding and a lack of clarity. In fact, this piece of research suggests that fillers, hedges and indirect constructions actually make us more convincing in some situations, more human and likeable even.

Useful for:
ENA3 - Interacting Through Language

Sexist grammar?

A piece of psychological research covered on the BPS Research Digest takes a look at gender in grammar. In some languages (French and German for example) nouns possess gender: not gender in the sense of socially constructed sexual identities, but gender as a grammatical concept, in which certain nouns are classed as masculine (le chapeau = the hat) or feminine (la plage = the beach). But gender in a more conventional sense also applies to French nouns, so you get le chien for a male dog and la chienne for a female dog, spectateur for a male spectator and spectatrice for a female spectator. OK so far?

But when you get a mixed group and need to use a plural pronoun, the tradition in both French and German has been to use the male pronoun ils to refer to the group, regardless of the gender of the participants. But as ils is a masculine pronoun, does it actually convey a gender neutral meaning?

The equivalent in English is the false generic pronoun he, which many people have historically used to refer to both men and women, as in the rather odd statement "Like other mammals, mankind breastfeeds his young". But as we have looked at in ENA1 Language & Representation, there's a problem with these generic pronouns (and nouns like mankind) because they don't really bring to mind gender neutral identities and often exclude women.

So anyway, back to the research. The result appears to have been that when French or German listeners hear a male plural pronoun they tend to assume that it refers to males and take longer to process the words if they're followed by clearly feminine nouns. More detail here. But how is this relevant to ENA1? Well, it's a bit of a long shot, but it could be argued that this sort of research helps support the linguistic relativist or linguistic determinist perspectives, that language can control or shape our perceptions. It could also support the Dale Spender Man Made Language position that sexist attitudes have become encoded in the language we speak, reflecting the dominant positions of males in the history of society and language control.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Friday, April 11, 2008

What is genital flip flop?

You may well ask. Is it when you drink one too many pints of Stella and can't perform up to the usual standard? Or could it be some kind of Max Mosley-esque nazi spanking ritual involving beachwear? Actually it's a form of semantic change in which a word associated with "naughty body parts" (ie the genitals) changes meaning in different English-speaking cultures so that no one's really sure what the word means anymore. A good example is the word fanny which means one thing in American English and quite another in British English. I mean who, in the UK, would say "I tripped and fell on my fanny"? Exactly...

My usual obsession with rude things apart, why cover this on the blog? Well, it's all about euphemisms isn't it? We often avoid saying rude (or otherwise taboo words) by using euphemisms: sugar, oh my days, oh gord, little girls' room, a number two, Mr. Winkie will see you now, partying hard, jesus h price...and many more.

This week's edition of Michael Rosen's Word of Mouth programme on Radio 4 has a really interesting interview with Australian linguist Kate Burridge on the ways in which euphemisms develop and change over time. You can listen again to the whole programme here or hear just the Kate Burridge clip from here.

For those of you revising ENA6 and thinking about scripting radio shows, it's a good example again of how these things work, plus the content is suited to either ENA6 topics on Language Change or Language & Representation.

It's a good listen too for some silly euphemisms, and a prize of the usual Haribo goes to the first person to add the real meanings of these 3 euphemisms discussed on the show:
  1. "A patient who failed to fulfil his living potential"
  2. "Chronologically gifted"
  3. "To go to bed"

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

Thursday, April 10, 2008

ENA6 - Investigating Language Change

On the ENA6 A2 paper you're expected to answer a 5 mark question on your methodology for investigating a language issue. To help you revise and prepare for this, I'm going to set a question a week up, on a different topic each week, until the exam itself, asking you to explain how you'd investigate each topic.

The format I'd like you to follow in your answer is outlined here, so you need to give a 5 point answer which outlines your:

A packet of Haribo goes to the best answer each week.

So, to kick start it, this week's question is: How would you go about investigating people's attitudes to language change?

Useful for:
ENA6 - Language Debates

Friday, April 04, 2008

A brum deal

Speaking in a Birmingham accent gives a worse impression than saying nothing at all.

So say researchers at Bath Spa University who have been investigating stereotypes associated with accents. The BBC news website reveals more here.

The Daily Telegraph has a longer feature on the same story, adding that "People associate the Birmingham accent with criminal activity and that criminal activity is associated in people's mind with low intellect". But the accent that comes out on top is that of Yorkshire whose speakers are perceived to be wise and intelligent.

The Telegraph also has a feature here where you can contribute your views about accents and read what others have said.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties
ENA6 - Language Debates

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Rudeness, racism and religion

Michael Rosen's Word of Mouth programme on Radio 4 is a good source of news and debates about language, and the new series kicks off with a look at bad language: blasphemy, racial abuse, naughty words and all that stuff.

You can listen again by clicking on the relevant box, and I would suggest that you have a good listen to it as you're likely to face a radio script either in your mock ENA6 paper or the real thing in June.

Useful for:
ENA6 - Language Debates

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Potty mouths

"I know what the worst swear word is," said one of my boys the other night as I put him and his brother to bed.
"Oh yeah," I replied, expecting it to be something like bumhead or weeface, the recent phrases of choice to describe me when they don't get their way.
"It's f*cking," he replied with a smile.
"Yes, it's f*cking and you always say it," added his brother just to make sure.

Now, if this sounds exactly like the incident described in this link to the ways in which imitation works in children's language development, then that's probably because it happens to a lot of us. But as the article goes on to say, imitation is only part of the story. Kids will pick up swear words but it's the social interaction with parents and peer group that determines how swearing is used and whether or not children understand the impact of what they're saying.

As the article puts it, quoting psychologist Paul Bloom:

Another part of growing up is knowing how to speak with adults and in formal situations. "So we'd like our children to grow up knowing when it's appropriate to use these words," Bloom says.

As most parents come to recognize, teaching good judgement is not a one-time event; it's a process.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A nation ov illiterats and twitz

Texting is blamed for many of society's ills - repetitive strain injury to the thumb, lamppost accidents, car crashes - but its impact on the nation's literacy skills is always a hot topic.

The Daily Mail and The Guardian have picked up on a press release from an online parenting site, Bounty, who claim that parents are so crazed by text speak that they can't even spell their kids' names properly and are resorting to txt spk. So we're getting names like Flicity, Ana, Samiul, Conna, Lora and Cam'ron.

So, are these the result of grim educational standards brought about by text language, attempts to make otherwise dull kids' names sound so very special, or just the result of deranged parents being a bit dumb? The Guardian likes to think it's smarter than The Daily Mail - and of course, it is - so its writer Tim Dowling suggests that Cam'ron is actually named after a rapper, while Samiul is a fairly common Pakistani name. The Daily Mail, obsessed as it is with all things terrible in this society - teenagers who chew gum, crazy environmentalists who want to save the planet, nasty immigrants - sees the dark side: we're all doomed and its txspk wot dun it.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

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...