Friday, November 21, 2008

I-phone? Pah, US-phone!

The I-phone is a beautiful thing. And I don't have one yet, so if you're drawing up a Christmas list remember me. But while the I-phone looks nice, it's causing all sorts of problems for those people who don't conform to a "standard accent". And because the I-phone's new voice recognition programme has been based on an American accent (which variety of US accent, I don't know), some British users are getting their wires crossed.

The Telegraph reports on it here. We covered a similar story on the blog way back in 2005 when Alex Ferguson, manager of a little-known Northern soccer club, had to return his posh car to be "fixed" as it couldn't understand his melodious tones.

But beyond the silly aspects of these stories, there is serious issue about the whole idea of what is "standard" and what's not. Who decides on what is a "normal" accent? Well, usually those who feel they have the right and the power to make their own accent the norm. So if it's north American software developers today using their own accents as the norm, five hundred years ago it was William Caxton and his printer chums who settled on the dialect of south east England as the standard of their era.

Me, I'm waiting for the cockney phone, which responds to any voice with a slap round the face and a shout of "Millwall".

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Variation
ENGA3 - Language Explorations

Let's sort these parasites out

If you haven't already seen Barnardo's shocking film in defence of children's rights, you really should. It's here on the Barnardo's website and makes excellent material for looking at how language is used to represent young people. Remember, all the dialogue in the film is taken from UK newspaper websites: in other words, these are all things members of the British public have said about young people. Scary stuff.

Useful for:
ENGA2 - Investigating Representation

When is a word not a word?

When is a word not a word? Well, if you believe some people, the answer is when it's meh.

We covered meh a while ago on this blog post, picking up on an article in The Guardian and a discussion on the ace linguistics blog Language Log, but it's been made a new entry in the latest edition of the Collins English Dictionary. The story is reported here in The Times and discussed in the subsequent comments from readers.

What is meh? According to the The Times article the story goes like this:

Meh” started out in the US and Canada as an interjection signifying mediocrity or indifference and has evolved, via the internet and an episode of The Simpsons, into a common adjective meaning boring, apathetic or unimpressive in British English.

So, you might describe something as meh in an adjectival way ("That was just so meh".) or as an interjection (Your mum*: "We're going to Aunty Betty's for lunch" You: "Meh".), but is it really a word? And should it be in the dictionary?

Ben Zimmer follows the discussion here on his Visual Thesaurus site, and it's worth a read as he tracks the development of the word and the debate about what "words" actually are.

And for a taste of a prescriptive versus descriptive take on language change, try these two Times comments for size:

1.No wonder we have such a slip in standards in this country, this word and the others being cited to appear in the Collins Dictionary, are slang and i don't think that slang has any place in a dictionary of our English words, why don't they just put them in a Slang Dictionary,

marina, Hemel Hempstead, Herts

2.Language is fluid and constantly evolving. Many of the words we use today would have been considered slang in the past but we don't know the difference as we have always used them. The way we adopt new words and how they shape & reflect our understanding of the world fascinates me, i'm all for it!

Stephanie Barnett, Sheffield, UK

Go, Stephanie, go Stephanie, go Stephanie....

Useful for:

ENA5 - Contemporary Language Change

ENGA3 - Language Explorations

*Yes, I said "your mum" and I'm proud of it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Grammar rock

Still struggling with word classes? Do you get your adjectives and adverbs mixed up? Try these videos from the Grammar Rock series in the USA...

First off, here are nouns:


Children in trouble

"What is happening to our children? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets."A quote from the Telegraph newspaper in 2008?

No, that quote is attributed to the philosopher Plato, born more than 400 years before Christ. Let's try another.

"The manners of children are deteriorating... the child of today is coarser more vulgar... than his parents were."

A leader from the Daily Mail in 2008? No, that was CG Heathcote, the stipendiary magistrate for Brighton in 1898, giving evidence to an inquiry on juvenile delinquency.

Representation of young people in the media is a topic we've looked at in AS classes this term and there are some A2 students covering it for their Language Investigations too, so this story on the BBC website is pretty good for focussing your thinking on the key issues.

This link takes you through to the Barnardo's website where their campaign in support of young people is discussed in more detail. Barnardo's have run some brilliant (and often disturbing) campaigns over the years and this one looks very interesting. Here's a link to the video for the campaign. This could make a really good focus for a coursework investigation on ENGA2.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Apostrophe's must go!

Today's Telegraph and last night's Newsnight have features on that old friend of ours (why not our's?): the apostrophe.

Why does this punctuation mark exist? How come about 50% of the population can't use it properly? Should we just say "pah" and get rid of it? The Newsnight link is very good as it's got a 4 minute of Jeremy Paxman and David Crystal discussing its (why not it's?) history and use. And, it has to be said, it's a slightly more enlightening interview than Paxman's one with Dizzee Rascal last week.

There's more about this debate here on The Register and here on the linguist, John Wells' excellent blog (scroll down to Friday 3rd for this). It's John Wells, of course, who kicked off this particular round of apostrophe uproar with his call to get rid of the apostrophe as part of a more straightforward system of spelling and punctuation (covered here and here).

It's all part of the prescriptivist versus descriptivist debate which features in ENA5 Language Change.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Yes we can

Can we analyse Obama's victory speech? Yes we can.

Like a lot of people, I'm still feeling a warm glow about Barack Obama's amazing victory in the US elections. And like a lot of people, I'm impressed with the victory speech he made in Chicago. But being a language nerd and teacher, that's not enough for me. I need analysis!

So, here's a link to The New York Times' video of the speech and their interactive transcript, a video of the whole speech from The Guardian website, and a link to an article in today's Times about the rhetorical techniques used in the speech.

Friday, November 07, 2008

F*ck you, you f*cking f*ck

Apparently the f-word is being overused on TV and it's all getting too much for some people. The Daily Mirror has even launched a campaign to "clean up" the airwaves, calling for swearing to have "a specific point".

So, why does swearing upset so many people? Some words have been normal, inoffensive expressions for centuries and then become taboo. The c-word (which I can't type here or the college filters will ban the blog) is one example of this. Even the old favourite sh-word had few offensive connotations back in Middle English. But it's clear that some words are just seen as ruder than others, and certainly not suitable for children to hear.

The recent debate has probably been sparked by the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross furore on Radio 2 the other week, where Ross claimed that Brand had "f*cked your grand-daughter" in a call to Andrew Sachs' ansaphone. But are we getting ruder and swearing more than we used to? We apparently send each other many more offensive greetings cards than we ever used to, according to this Guardian story earlier in the term. And an OFCOM survey of offensive language and behaviour in the media from 2005 made a range of interesting points about swearing:

  • Swearing and offensive language is considered to be widespread and to have increased over time by all groups
  • It was seen as a symptom of decline in public life, for which participants believed the media was partly responsible
  • All groups considered that the worst aspect of the increase in swearing was because of the example it sets to younger people/children
  • The use of offensive language by young people is most offensive overall as it is seen as indicating a lack of respect
  • Through the process of detailed discussion, swearing becomes a benchmark for underlying fears about society ‘breaking down’, or standards ‘slipping’.
  • Younger people were more likely to swear among their peer groups, and saw it as inoffensive in this context. However, there was a wide range of behaviours in relation to swearing across all groups.
Steven Pinker talks about swearing as an inbuilt language characteristic, something that in an animal might equate to a dog yelping when it gets its paw trodden on, or a cat hissing when it doesn't like the way you stroke it. He explains it in more detail here in a YouTube clip, or here in a Guardian podcast. And while we've evolved enough to have some control over swearing, Pinker makes it clear that part of the offensiveness of certain swearwords is down to their deep-rooted origins in our ancestors.

So, what's your take on swearing? A natural response to shock and way of venting anger, or a deplorable reflection of modern society's low moral standards?

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

At the end of the day, I personally shouldn't of done this

Can you spot the three irritating expressions and/or mistakes in that headline? Come on, it's not rocket science...

The people behind the Oxford English Corpus have drawn up a list of the top 10 irritating phrases in English, which is featured in today's Telegraph. That list in full:

1 - At the end of the day

2 - Fairly unique

3 - I personally

4 - At this moment in time

5 - With all due respect

6 - Absolutely

7 - It's a nightmare

8 - Shouldn't of

9 - 24/7

10 - It's not rocket science

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...