Friday, October 31, 2008

Early words

New research from the USA suggests that children's acquisition of vocabulary begins earlier than previously thought and relies more heavily on phonology (the sounds of a language) than expected. The report in Science Daily draws on research from University of Pennsylvania psychologist Daniel Swingley and suggests that children's comprehension of words starts at around 8 months, even though the average child will probably say his or her first word at about 12 months.

Infants have a unique ability to discriminate speech-sound (phonetic) differences, but over time they lose this skill for differentiating sounds in languages other than their native tongue. For example, 6 month old babies who were learning English were able to distinguish between similar-sounding Hindi consonants not found in English, but they lost this ability by 12 months of age. Since the 1980s it has been known that infants start focusing on their language’s consonants and vowels, sometimes to the exclusion of non-native sounds. More recently, researchers have increasingly focused on how infants handle whole words.

Recent research has shown that during infancy, babies learn not only individual speech sounds but also the auditory forms of words; that is, babies are not only aware of the pieces that make up a word, but they are aware of the entire word. These auditory forms of words allow children to increase their vocabulary and help them to eventually develop grammar. Although they may not know what the words mean, children as early as 8 months start learning the phonological (sound) forms of words and are able to recognize them—and just being familiar with the words helps increase the children’s vocabulary. Studies have shown that 18 month old children who are familiar with a word’s form are better at learning what it means and are also able to differentiate it from similar sounding words.

You'll be starting ENGA1 Language Development quite soon as part of your AQA A English Language AS (or will already have studied it as part of your ENA1 unit in AS last year), so keep an eye out for research into child language to help you understand the topic.

Useful for:
ENGA1 - Language Development

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Welcome to the "Croydon Facelift"

Or to put it more technically "a UK female hairstyle which pulls the hair back tightly from the face, supposedly giving the effect of a facelift; stereotyped as that of working-class young women". And how about prison whites: "expensive trainers favoured by rap stars and their acolytes; the implication is that such shoes are worn by young black men, who are de facto criminals".

These are new entries in Jonathon Green's Chambers Slang Dictionary (a reworking of his Cassell Dictionary of Slang, or "that big yellow swearing dictionary on the shelf" as it's become known in my classroom). The Daily Telegraph offers its views on the dictionary in an article here; it's a decent read, as it goes beyond the usual novelty take on new words and instead has a think about where the words come from and what this tells us about the English Language and its development over the last century, with a shift away from homegrown Cockney slang towards American influences:

But while the themes of slang have stayed much the same, the sources have changed hugely. Until the start of Second World War, slang in this country was basically home-grown. There was cockney rhyming slang, of course, with its cheery costermongers banging endlessly on about their 'apples and pears' and 'plates of meat'. But there were also numerous other secret languages, designed to be understood only by a small group of people. As words and expressions passed into more common usage, so slang evolved in order to retain its exclusivity.

All that changed, though, with the Second World War. 'After D-Day, American slang - principally black American slang - took over,' says Green. 'In the 1960s, middle-class white people used words like "cool" and "groovy" without realising that they were incredibly old black words. Actually, "groovy" started out in the early 20th century as an expression meaning "staid" or "unfashionable" - that is, stuck in a groove. By the 1940s, though, it was being used by jazz musicians to refer to "slipping into a groove" while they were playing.'

But whereas it used to take several years for new words or phrases to move into common usage, now it happens in a few days. 'That's been the biggest change recently. If you look at black rappers and hip-hop, which is undoubtedly the cutting edge of slang at the moment, they're coming up with words that the white middle classes in America and England are immediately trying out for themselves. That's why you get all those floppy-haired public schoolboys making complete idiots of themselves by referring to their girlfriends as "bitches".'

But the Telegraph article takes a bit of a strange sidetrack when it claims that Black British English (and to some extent Asian British English, if there is such a homogeneous thing) has lagged behind its US counterparts. Green seems to suggest that most Black British slang is just imported from the USA via rap music, but I'd argue that we still have a fairly healthy homegrown slang. Yes, it riles me (it vexes me even) to hear British teenagers describing the police as the "feds" (feds being a clipping of the full words of FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation, an organisation we don't have in the UK): why not stick to coppers, boy dem or the rozzers?

But then trying to impose rules on slang - or arguing with someone about the etymology of a particular slang term ("Listen here, my good man. This homework cannot be "gay", as you suggest, for it is an assignment without sexuality of any kind") - is pointless. Green is to be admired for his love of language and desire to find out more about it. Maybe next time round, we'll see some citations from our own students and your research into some of these words.

And here's a link to a video clip of Jonathon Green talking about his dictionary.

Useful for:

ENA5 - Language Change

ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Friday, October 24, 2008

Pimping for beginners

Having looked at the semantic change of fail yesterday, I had a look at some more language articles on Slate and found this excellent one about the word pimp. Again, it's a word that's gone through an interesting process of semantic change, ameliorating into something with quite approving connotations and shifting its grammatical function from noun to verb, as well as broadening to encompass an almost entirely new set of meanings.

As the Slate article points out, the original meaning of pimp appears to be as a noun referring to a person (usually) male who solicits customers for prostitutes in return for a share of their money (from Etmology online suggests a possible origin for the term as the verb pimper from French meaning "to dress elegantly" or pimpreneau from French meaning "a knave, rascall, varlet, scoundrell" (ie a bad person). So far so good... or bad depending on whether you're the unfortunate prostitute renting out body parts to desperate men or the elegantly dressed arranger of the liaisons.

But as Slate goes on to discuss, the word has semantically shifted more significantly over recent decades:

But the word has seen a renaissance of sorts, with a strong increase in use in recent years. Media attention to (and glamorization of) the stereotype of the inner-city pimp brought such terms as pimpmobile and pimp walk—an ostentatious swagger affected chiefly by African-American men—to public attention in the 1970s. More recently, we've seen the advent of a range of benign figurative uses. We can now pimp our possessions, making them flashily decorated or customized, a use mainstreamed by MTV's car-detailing show, Pimp My Ride. An attractive or appealing man may be called a pimp, and this is viewed as a positive description. To describe something using the accolade pimping is to mark it as wonderful or exciting. Jay-Z's 2001 hit "Big Pimpin'" used the term as shorthand for a livin'-large lifestyle.

So, a more modern meaning of pimp appears to be as a term of approval for a sexually successful man (in the same way that stud, playa, cassanova, romeo have all been used too) , but the term has broadened in its verbal form to take in anything that is enhanced or made more attractive. But is this a good thing? Can we ever really say that language change is good or bad? (For a brief digression, have a look at this post on Language Log if you want to explore the idea of change being good, bad or just neutral.)

Some people, used to the older meaning of pimp as an immoral and uncaring man making money out of a woman's exploitation, object to the amelioration of the term. It's not a difficult point to understand: if the word pimp is used positively, does it now mean that the whole idea of pimping is seen more favourably? That it's ok to sell women's bodies? Or does it just mean that the word has changed and has little to do with its original meanings? Slate writer Jesse Sheidlower goes on to say:

Many younger speakers find these uses neutral and unobjectionable. Many older speakers think that any positive use of pimp is sexist or demeaning. But you can't make someone feel a certain way about a word. Younger people will continue to use suck ("to be notably bad") or gay ("lame, boring, terrible, stupid") heedless of what their elders think; it's just as hard to get people to reject something they think is OK as to get people to accept something they've been taught is wrong. (Though it's interesting to observe the online trend of writing the pejorative sense of gay as "ghey," to explicitly disassociate it from the homosexual sense.)

So, pimp, pimping, to pimp... what does it mean to you?

Useful for: ENA5 - Language Change ENGA2 - Investigating Representations ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The definition of FAIL... you. Ha ha. Or your mum to be more precise.

But no, what does FAIL mean these days? In this very good article from the American online magazine Slate, Christopher Beam traces the origins of this rather splendid word and how it has changed thanks to its appearance in obscure Japanese video games, online gamer chat and now a brilliant blog dedicated to the art of fail.

We all know what fail used to mean: it existed as a verb. I fail, you fail, she fails, we all fail: you get the general idea. But now it's undergone conversion and can be used as a noun - a fail, a total fail, an epic fail - or even an adjective - you are fail - but it's unclear whether this will last or if it's just another passing language fad.

Have you come across it? Is it part of your vocabulary? Or just another nerdy internet thing like w00t and pwned which two students (Leanne and Henrietta, hello!) and me (hello...oh hang on) know about from our mis-spent time on t'internet?

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

More word hating

The Oxford English Dictionary is running a vote (with a prize!) asking you to choose your least favourite word from their list. It's here if you want to vote.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Beware Barbie culture

According to this article in The Daily Mail
our society is in danger of being 'Barbie dolled'. This is interesting in a number of ways:

-it is a clear example of the process of conversion
- it sounds a little less violent than representations of 'knife crime' and 'hoodies'
- it is written by one half of a couple known as 'Barbie and Ken!' Her views are not taken seriously despite her Government position. (Take a look at the audience positioning).

Barbara is accused of believing all girls are 'Vicky Pollards'.
So this is what Culture Ministers debate: WAGS, X-factor and Little Britain!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Word hating

As John McCain's ratings slide in American opinion polls and the election looms ever closer, the language of his supporters and even of McCain himself becomes more and more angry. According to various reports, including this one from the BBC, McCain's supporters have taken to shouting words like "terrorist", "Arab" and "traitor" whenever Obama's name is mentioned. Meanwhile, McCain himself has attracted criticism for referring to Obama as "that one" and gesturing in an offhand way towards him during a TV debate, and a black TV cameraman was told to "sit down, boy" by a white Republican supporter at a recent rally. Maybe he thought he was at a KKK rally. Veteran civil rights activist, John Lewis makes the point that "toxic language can lead to destructive behaviour" and the language of race and ethnic identity in the USA is fraught with painful history. Obviously, this blog is pro-Obama, so I'm biased, but the festering racism lurking under the surface of a lot of these increasingly desperate Republican yelps makes for interesting reading from a language point of view. Admittedly, no one from McCain's camp has gone on record as saying something as blatant as "lynch the n-word" or to describe Obama as "an uppity negro" - the bald racism of the segregation era - but the lack of respect in "that one" and "boy" can be decoded pretty quickly. On a different tack, here's a very good article on and interview with Sarah Silverman, the Jewish American comedian who is trying to rally support for Obama among one of its less obvious demographic targets, elderly Jewish people. Her use of racist language is set in the context of its anti-racist roots, making it clear that it's not the words you use but the way you use them which is really significant. Useful for: ENGA2 - Investigating Representation

Friday, October 10, 2008

Word loving

The BBC News Magazine has been inviting entries for its readers' favourite words. Have a look here for examples of some strange and beautiful words, including the verb to defenestrate and the noun slubberdegullion.

Next week, we'll be starting a new Moodle-based wiki, an interactive website which will allow its users (you and me) to add pages with new word definitions.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Ambient replenishment controllers...

...or to put it more clearly, shelf stackers. How about "Technical horticultural maintenance officers"? Gardeners. Or a "Knowledge navigator"? A teacher.

Jargon - technical language associated with specific occupations - can be completely baffling to lots of us, which is why the Plain English Campaign will be happy to see that some local councils have decided to ditch their insane obfuscations and ludicrous circumlocutions (look 'em up) in favour of clear and straightforward language. Huzzah!

This piece in The Daily Mirror gives some shocking examples of how local authorities and businesses dress up mundane jobs and activities in fancy language to make them look really important, and how some local authorities are deciding it's time to change their tune.

We've looked at jargon elsewhere on this blog - here and here - so have a look.

Useful for:
ENGA1 - Investigating Representation
ENA5 - Language Change

Saturday, October 04, 2008

In other words

A piece by John Walsh in The Independent a couple of days ago gives a new "visual dictionary" website, Wordia a bit of a savaging. Wordia claims to be "redefining the dictionary" but is described by Walsh as "misleading", which is no use for a dictionary, and he goes on to wonder...

...whether a dictionary can usefully be run by chat and semi-consensus; and whether it's right for readers to "select" a meaning they find "relevant", rather than one that's actually correct.

The idea behind Wordia is explained in the article:

The everyone-join-in dictionary is called, and is the joint offspring of the television producer Edward Baker and Michael Birch, the internet entrepreneur who founded Bebo, the social-networking site. They've linked up with HarperCollins, the blue-chip publisher owned by Rupert Murdoch, to make use of their electronic dictionary of 76,000 headwords and 120,000 definitions. But the unique selling proposition behind is visual: they want to compile an archive of videos in which thousands of members of the public will offer their own definitions of favourite words and have them posted on YouTube, with which Baker and Birch are also in partnership.

But, as Walsh points out, dictionary definitions aren't decided upon by random celebrities; they're decided upon by qualified language experts who know something about the language and where the actual words derive from. That's not to say that we can't have our own ideas about what certain words mean to us - they're more the connotations of words than their denotations - but that if we don't have accepted and agreed definitions to words we'll be left floundering in a sea of vagueness and, like...whatever.

The other point is that dictionaries do respond to new words and new meanings, but they're a bit more careful to source these than Wordia. Look here and here for more details about what lexicographers actually do.

But Walsh is not entirely negative about different approaches to dictionary compilation. He speaks more approvingly of Urban Dictionary, which collects different meanings from its contributors and is well known for its up to date slang definitions (and its rude words and thinly veiled personal insults e.g. "definition of gay = my stupid English teacher").

And if you think that's sad, have a read about this chap who has just read the OED from cover to cover.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Cripes! It's another article about new words

It's the 74th article this year about new words. Are you bored yet?

"No!" I hear you cry. "New words are a fascinating barometer of social change and I long to discover more about the formation processes behind them," you go on to say.

And yes, I agree with you. So, here's a piece from today's Daily Mail which features such gems as those in the image here and many others such as momnesia and nomophobia. And for this week's Haribo prize, what do these two words mean?

There is still 1 unclaimed prize from last week, so have a look at this post to get your prize and join Leanne in the happy land of Haribo.

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...