Monday, September 29, 2008

Cool accents

A recent survey featured in The Sun (and other sources) rates the Birmingham accent as the least "cool", and R.P. (Received Pronunciation) as the most "cool". I don't know if "cool" has recently been redefined, because RP is clearly not cool in any world I've visited recently. But ho hum...

Adrian Chiles - semi-professional Brummie - defends his accent here, while more serious news outlets give the story a different slant here, here and here.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Variation
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Investigation ideas 1 - Team GB

This is the first of a series of short posts on Language Investigations to kick start some thinking on recent language issues in the news that might be worthy of investigation for the A2 coursework project, or possibly the ENGA2 Investigating Representations unit on the new spec.

Yesterday's Labour Party conference has had blanket coverage in the media, maybe because lots of media pundits expected Gordon Brown to fall flat on his face and be booed from the stage, but the coverage has been largely positive. His wife, Sarah Brown is also reported on quite favourably in many papers, while Brown's erstwhile leadership rival, David Milliband suffers a few digs.

So what could be done with this for an investigation? On one level, the different representations of the Browns and Milliband could make for a solid investigation, where lexical, semantic, grammatical and pragmatic frameworks could be applied to pull apart how they are presented to us. On another level, a corpus analysis could be carried out on some of the speeches. The frequency of terms like Labour, Tony, I, Britain, Cameron might be explored by feeding a digital copy of one of the speeches into something like Teachit's word cruncher software and then examining how many times the words appear and what they are appearing with.

The Guardian already has a running total of how many times certain words were used, so this could be a start:

I/I'm/My = 121
Britain = 25
Fair = 20
Labour = 20
NHS = 15
Conservatives = 10
Tough = 10
Together = 9
Markets = 5
Serious = 4
New Labour = 3
Harry Potter = 1
Tony = 1
Iraq = 1
Afghanistan = 1
Sorry = 0

The speech itself is here.

Out with the old, in with the new

When we look at Language Change we often get interested in new uses of words, or even new words which crop up. So, today we looked at semantic change in one class and thought about words like bitch, gay, moist, sick, grimy and beef which have changed meaning over time and the processes behind these semantic shifts. Last week we looked at new words and word formation processes: blending (moobs = man + boobs, autocutie = autocue + cutie); compounds (studmuffin = stud + muffin, muffintop = muffin + top); initialisms (FBI, BBC); acronyms (HEIDI = Highly Educated Independent Degree-carrying Individual, BOBFOC = Body Off Baywatch, Face Off Crimewatch, BOGOF = Buy One Get One Free).

But what about old words? In two articles in Monday's Times, old words get discussed and their inclusion in the dictionary debated. In this excellent article, David Crystal - all round language God and one of the speakers at next year's teacher workshops at SFX - talks about what happens when words stop being used or go out of fashion. In this article, The Times ask readers to vote for words they wish to keep in the dictionary and why.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Textual healing

Texting is destroying our language. Young people are using text language in their exam papers. English is being dumbed down thanks to Satan's little helper, SMS. These are all regular complaints about the vile disease that is texting (apart from the last one which I made up).

But it's all a load of cobblers, according to one of the world's top linguists, David Crystal. In an interview on the Visual Thesaurus website linked from an article on the excellent Language Log blog, he puts these "myths" to the sword:

Now, in the case of the text messaging scenario, none of that has happened. It's people imagining the situation. They say, "Text messages are full of abbreviations." These are people who may never have texted in their lives, and who have certainly never done any research to find out. They believe that this is the case. And of course one of the first planks of research that I did was to look at large quantities of text messages, as well as the research that other people have done, to find that typically less than 10 percent of the words in text messages are actually abbreviated in any way.

We've looked at texting before on this blog - use the search toolbar to find out where - and some of our students (hello A2 classes!) have been involved in Tim Shortis's latest research into text usage, which we hope to be able to bring you news of in the next few months . (His earlier observations on texting and the various assumptions about them can be found summarised here.) Crispin Thurlow's paper on the sociolinguistics of text messaging can also be found here.

NEway (Ha ha, do you see what I did there?), what are your views on texting? Does it influence your written language? Does it make you spell badly? Can you no longer write you and have to write u? Text your responses to 22554 (texts will cost no less than £75).

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Phwoar, get a load of these

...these new entries into the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, that is. Sorry for the gratuitous picture of Barbara Windsor from the Carry On films (and more recently Eastenders) but phwoar was usually uttered when she was around.

The term phwoar was made famous in the 1960s and 70s by the legendary Sid James and has now made it, along with stud muffin and arm candy into this latest version of the slang dictionary . The story (all 4 paragraphs of it) is here on the Daily Mirror's website or covered in more detail in The Daily Mail here, and you can find out more about the new entries in the dictionary here.

And for this term's first Haribo competition, what word formation process is responsible for stud muffin, Glasgow kiss, happy slapping and arm candy? A bag of Haribo to the first 2 answers posted as comments here.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The A to Bee of spelling

Spelling and spelling reform have hit the news recently, with arguments over the English spelling system in several newspapers. If you believe popular opinion, we're all getting much worse at spelling and this is probably down to rubbish teachers, teenage fecklessness, utter indolence and text messaging. But as with much "popular opinion" or "it's obvious innit" schools of "common sense", it's not that simple.

The English spelling system is a strange beast and one that reflects a lot about the history of our language - its origins in other languages, its changes over time, and the influences of technology and social change - and a lot about the ways we pronounce words, or used to. And it's this mish mash of different influences that makes it such a difficult system for many people to master. Not only that, but to say it's a system implies there's a logical structure to it, and that's not always the case.

John Sutherland, in this article in The Independent, looks at the issue of spelling reform - changing the way we spell words - and the debates over it. Elsewhere, the views of John Wells, the President of the Spelling Society (there is indeed such a thing), the man who kick started this current debate about spelling by arguing that we should relax spelling rules, are covered in this Times piece, this Daily Mail article and this Guardian article which is good if you're looking for the historical background to some of our spelling patterns.

In a slightly different way, this article in yesterday's Guardian - a profile of the top linguist David Crystal - makes the point that texting isn't really the true villain in all this, as some commentators are claiming, but just the latest technological advance to carry the can for making us communicate more inaccurately.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Saturday, September 13, 2008

CSI Nokia

Forensic linguistics is a growing field and one that directly applies skills of textual analysis to a range of everyday communications - letters, texts, internet discussions, recordings of speech - in a bid to accurately trace the user's identity.

Science Daily reports on one particular case in which a man was convicted for the murder of his ex-partner largely through the evidence of messages sent on her mobile phone. Dr Tim Grant of Aston University explains:

‘Jenny Nicholl disappeared on 30th June 2005. A linguistic analysis showed that text messages sent from her phone were unlikely to have been written by her but, rather, were more likely to have been written by her ex-lover, David Hodgson. A number of stylistic points identified within texts known to have been written by Jenny Nicholl were not present in the suspect messages. Instead, these were stylistically close to the undisputed messages of David Hodgson.

Hodgson was convicted partly because, in text messages he sent on her phone after she disappeared, he spelled "myself" as "meself". In her own text messages, Nicholl had spelled the word "myself".

‘The kind of features we were interested in were the shortening of “im” in the texts from Nicholl contrasting with “I am” in the suspect messages and the lack of space after the digit substitution in items such as “go2shop” contrasting with “ave 2 go”’.

So, while your skills of textual analysis and understanding of new modes of technology will obviously help you do well in your A Levels, they might also help you become a crime-fighting super sleuth.

Useful for:
ENGA1 - Language and Mode
ENGA3 - Language Explorations
ENA5 (old spec) - Language Change

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The rents won't get it

A story in today's Daily Mail tells us all about a new guide to teen slang available from here on the Parentplus website. The guide is supposed to be a "jargon buster" for parents who can't understand the language their kids are using. The article uses the usual trick of journalists (and sad English teachers like me) of trying to insert slang terms into "normal" speech for comedy effect, but fails by trying too hard (like a sad English teacher). Have a look at some examples here for a taste of what's on offer.

Language students might argue about the use of the word jargon here - it's not really jargon as such (technical language associated with a given job or activity) but slang that they're really talking about. But it's an interesting snapshot of what's going on with slang at the moment and the influence of American English, London English and especially Black British English on mainstream language.

As with any guide to slang it's got a short shelflife, with new words rapidly appearing, to take the place of old ones. Words like ace and magic which were used as terms of approval when I was a kid (the 1970s if you must know...) got replaced by sick and wicked, and now words like nang, off the hook and gully (although they're probably out of date already).

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Dirty English infects beautiful Italian

It sounds like some obscene liaison between Russell Brand and Sophia Loren, but it's all about language really.

According to this story in The Daily Telegraph, language purists in Italy have had enough of English words being thrown into daily conversation and have said no to Anglitaliano. Words and phrases such as weekend, know how and cool have appeared on a list of "ugly English words" and are being derided as unpleasant and affected.

The French have usually been the ones who complain about this sort of thing, as this post from March illustrates, but it all seems part of a wider response among people in all societies who worry about language change and losing the "purity" of their language, be it Italians appalled at English words or English speakers sick of American phrases.

Are we bovvered?

A recent Telegraph report provoked 120 comments online. The views expressed ranged from angry to sarcastic and incredulous. The intensity of feeling was surprising and included harsh lexis such as: ‘nasty’ ‘scum’ ‘insanity’ ‘pompous little Hitlers’ ‘petty minded Fascists’ ‘halfwits’….. the list goes on.

So what stirred up such a reaction? In an attempt to be avoid offence and to be sensitive to individuals and certain groups Chichester District Council has written a 7 page booklet as a guide for their employees. The term ‘general public’ is promoted as a positive alternative to ‘Man on the street’ to avoid offending women.

How angry does this make you feel? Or does this not bother you at all?

Possibly the comments received online by the Telegraph are more interesting to debate than the leaflet alone. Here we see Political Correctness described as ‘highly offensive’ and ‘a sickness.’ The negative sexual connotations of ‘woman on the street’ are highlighted in more than one comment. Some historical context is given for the usage of ‘man’.

As English Language students you need to form views and express opinions on language issues both in Paper 5 and Paper 6. Exploring the comments expressed by ‘the man on the street’ in response to articles about language issues may help you to form a view. It is not just your teachers who get excited and passionate about language debates!

(Unfortunately my lack of technical ability prevented me from including a google image of a 'man on the street' that would definitely cause offence here in Chichester!)

Monday, September 08, 2008


Welcome to the blog, if you're a new student at SFX, or have just started this course at another school or college.

We're hoping to get a few more contributors to add posts this year and as ever we welcome your views. Please just click add comment on a post to give your own view or link to a story that interests you.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Grammar rage!

You know what really makes my blood boil? It's not knife crime, the prospect of David Cameron being the next Prime Minister or global warming: its people who dont no how to use proper grammer and spellings.

Have a look at this list of grammar crimes and feel your own blood boil...or not.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Fewer items, less trouble

Tesco have made grammar purists everywhere jump for joy by changing their "10 items or less" signs to "Up to 10 items". But why?

According to the BBC website it's all about the difference between less and fewer.

The new wording was suggested to Tesco by language watchdog The Plain English Campaign. Tesco said the change would be phased in across its stores."Saying up to 10 items is easy to understand and avoids any debate," said a spokesman for The Plain English Campaign.

"Fewer" should be used when you are talking about items that can be counted individually, for example, "fewer than 10 apples"."Less" is correct when quantities cannot be individually counted in that case, e.g. "I would like less water".

But is this change important? Does this distinction actually matter? Everyone knows what's meant by "10 items or less". In fact, isn't "Up to 10 items" actually less clear? Does it mean up to and including 10 items or up to the point where 9 becomes 10, but no further? In fact, does it matter at all when most people actually pretend they can't count and just take 20 items?

The debate - oh yes, there's a debate about this - is followed up in comments on the Daily Telegraph's website, where you can see some very poor spelling and grammar from those who claim to be grammar experts. Tut tut...

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

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...