Saturday, December 19, 2009

English: refreshing the lexical gaps that other languages cannot reach

“If a language is not capable of creating new words to describe new advances, it will die.” These are the words of Alfred Gilder, terminology chief at the French finance ministry, speaking at a recent Swiss conference about the spread of English around Europe and the state of the continent's native languages. "Modernise or die!" was his message. There is a growing concern in many countries about the seemingly unstoppable rise of English as a global language and the effect that this is having on the health and integrity of other languages. So, when words like laptop and roaming, and a phrase like last but not least make it into another language - be it Swiss, German, French or Turkish - the native language takes another step towards losing part of its identity and global English takes another step into another nation's territory.

But why are speakers of other languages using these English words? Why don't they come up with their own new expressions in their own mother tongues? Well that's what Alfred Gilder would like to see, but it's hard to imagine it happening when English has become so ubiquitous and so, With English being spread through technology, commerce and culture around the world, it's hard to resist its influence. But perhaps there's something about the language itself that makes it attractive - something internal, rather than external - such as its adaptability and tendency to innovate. In short, the fact that English is constantly adding new words and phrases to its vocabulary could be the reason why it's spreading so quickly: it's refreshing the lexical gaps that other languages cannot reach, to nick Heineken's old advertising slogan. In effect, language change - so often derided by prescriptivists as leading to the degradation of our language - has helped push English to the forefront of world languages.

And returning to the article in The Journal of Turkish Weekly, where this conference was covered (linked from Macmillan Dictionary's language in the news roundup), there is recognition that this isn't a new thing, but it's something that is happening at a much swifter pace than ever before:

Of course borrowing words and expressions from other languages is a natural function of language development and English itself has absorbed countless influences in its history – from Latin, French and Hindi, to name but a few. What is different about the current dominance of English is that it is the first truly global language and it is spewing out words at a pace that other languages have no chance to compete with. This rapid evolution favours those who can ride the English wave but creates a language divide, akin to the digital divide, for those who are poor in English.

Where will this lead? At worst, it could lead to the deaths of certain languages around the world, some of which are nearly on their last legs, if this report is anything to go by.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

10 years of new words

Top lexicographer (and frequent visitor to SFX) Kerry Maxwell, has put together a list of the most interesting words of the decade on the excellent Macmillan Dictionary blog. So in the spirit of Christmas and all that, the first three people to identify the word formation/language change processes (blending, compounding, borrowing, affixation etc.) behind these new words will get a bag of Haribo/alternative organic foodstuff when term begins.

Here they are:

  1. Staycation
  2. WAG
  3. blog
  4. slow food
  5. sudoku

Add your attempt as a comment with your name and class, and the best 3 answers will win. If you enter and you're not an SFX student, you win eternal pride and a few bluetooth high fives.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Weapons of mass distraction?

The USA is a few years behind Britain with texting and the moral panics around it, but there has been a recent upsurge in reports of texting damaging literacy skills, textisms working their evil way into students' written work and suchlike. So, this article from Science Daily is a nice counter to those stories and a very helpful one to have a look at for the Language Discourses part of the A2 exam. Phones, therefore, aren't really weapons of mass distraction, more like tools of mass engagement. Or something like that...

Here's a quick snippet of what Carol L. Tilley, professor of library and information science at Illinois says about using texts and tweets in lessons:
"There's always that danger when embracing something in a school setting that you kill it for the students," Tilley said. "But helping kids understand the social and contextual role that texting plays in their lives I think is one possible justification. If there are ways educators can incorporate it in providing homework support or building dialogue out of school hours, then I think it could be a useful communications tool."

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Slanguage reviewed

Not that I'm obsessed, but here's another link to something about the Radio 4 programme that SFX students took part in. This time it's a positive review of the programme from today's Guardian.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Slagging slang

The Mind Your Slanguage programme on Radio 4 today, which SFX students and staff contributed to, has kicked off an interesting debate about slang on the BBC news site today. We've got the usual prescriptive arguments: things were better in my day...these young people are just using broken's all the fault of those black people with their ghetto talk...slang is "contaminating" Standard's lazy and ugly talk... you know the kind of thing. But there are also some more sensible and well-formulated positions, which might also be termed prescriptive too.

Perhaps there is some truth in the argument that language is changing so rapidly now - faster than ever before - that it's too much to cope with for many people. Perhaps too, there's some truth in the claim that young people don't recognise that they're using slang some of the time, and that it's inappropriate in formal settings. But isn't that also the case for older people too and their own slang and idiomatic expressions?

Have a look and see what you make of it all. But remember, this is a great opportunity to be part of a language debate and even intervene in it yourselves. Many of you have already, by being part of the programme, so big up yourselves and that, bang bang etc.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Noughty words

With 2009 drawing to a close, nearly every newspaper and magazine in existence is currently filling its pages with end of decade lists: films, albums, influential political figures, artists, you know the sort of list. But BBC news magazine also offers us some good language discussion as it looks for the most important words of the noughties.

The language expert and author, Susie Dent (who has written some really good books on language change, the annual Language Report) offers a few suggestions - chav, green, tweet and poking among others - but the BBC also wants your suggestions. Have a look here for more. And my personal favourite has to be (drum roll)... celebutard: a blend of (I think) celebrity + d├ębutante + retard, a nice and catty term of abuse for a recently semi-famous nonentity.

Elsewhere, if you're interested in new words and where they come from - and you should be 'cos you're an English Language student, innit - then you can do much much worse than Buzzword on the excellent Macmillan Dictionary pages here.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Mind your slanguage

Tuesday 8th December, 11am on Radio 4 is when Mind Your Slanguage is broadcast. It features lots of good stuff about how people use and feel about slang, including interviews with Tony Thorne and Paul Kerswill. But most importantly it features lots of SFX students talking about the slang they use, don't use and how they feel about it. Huzzah!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The unseemly stalkers of youth slang

In this comment piece in The Guardian, Shirley Dent takes a swipe at "the rush to relevance" that she argues is reducing classic literature to a series of empty gestures, designed to attract fickle youth audiences who can't cope with proper English. Swear down.

Dent, in particular, doesn't like the idea of Julius Caesar being adapted to include street slang:
Not only is it patronising to those it hopes to welcome, but it entirely
misses the literary purpose and value of slang, usually utilising the lamest,
least challenging has-been manifestations of "cutting-edge,
fresh-from-the-street" talk. Take a line from the street slang Julius Caesar: "I
come to bury Caesar, not big him up." Are you kidding me? Even to an old fogey
such as myself, this sounds dated. When well-meaning literary professionals seek
to get down with the kids in this way, the world really is turned upside down.
On one side, those who should know better abdicate their duty to introduce the
next generation – wherever they come from – to the very best of literature; on
the other, you have a misplaced scramble to latch on to and leech off the
knowing cool of youth.

I've got mixed feelings about this view. On one hand, the students involved in the Wasted production, deserve to be applauded for their hard work and dynamism ( I've got to say that as well because I teach some of them and I don't want to get slapped up by an angry gangsta-thespian at registration), and you can see that the use of language that they are familiar with from the colloquial discourse around them is one way of opening up the text to different audiences. But, on the other hand, is it just a cheesy, patronising and craven attempt to bring a hint of ghetto colour to a pedestrian adaptation of a great play? Is slang being used because the actors don't actually understand the original words and meanings?

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Sun comments on 'silliness that is attempt to change the way we think'

Bold print stating BAN ON WORD 'YOUTH' could be seen on the front cover of The Sun on Saturday Nov 28th. The article on p4 expanded on the 'potty language changes' in the code of practice issued by the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Children, Schools and Families on how to give out conditional cautions. According to the Sun, it reads: 'A number of responses suggested the term 'youth' had negative connotations and should be replaced by 'young person'. Therefore throughout the code (with the exception of the term 'Youth Conditional Caution') 'youth' has been replaced.'
Interestingly, the article itself refers to the young people as 'yobs' and shows a picture of a 'hoodie!' The writer states: 'Politically-correct penpushers have banned calling yobs 'youths' - so as not to hurt their feelings.'
What terms are acceptable when referring to teenage criminals? How is the Sun reader being encouraged to think about young people? Is there any difference implied or stated between young people and young offenders (or are you all the same?)
The topic is expanded upon in the Sun's editorial exploring other aspects of extreme political correctness such as 'winterval' which 'is making a mockery of Christmas.' It goes on to say that 'This stupidity is no joke. It prevents us dealing with real problems in society because people feel nervous talking bluntly about their causes.' After quoting extreme PC examples such as 'Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep' it states:' but behind all this silliness is an attempt to change the way we think.' A familiar theory?
After 'banging on about this' in class today (quote from Ben -thanks!) there was some discussion about whether I should have written 'youth language' on the board as a cause of language change or whether I should have reworded it! What do you think?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Words of warning

Two rappers have apparently been jailed for issuing blood-curdling death threats to potential witnesses in a murder case, according to the BBC news website.

"Its connection to this case and its chilling message were immediately obvious to the officers," Mr Glasgow told the court. The video had but one purpose - to threaten any witness to this incident to frighten them to such an extent that they would refuse to co-operate with the police. They made it clear exactly what it was they wanted to do to them.

"Namely, kill them or to use their own words, 'I can't wait for the snitch to drop, I still show up at his wake just to see him off'."

Old Bailey Judge Richard Hone said the lyrics meant: "Those who went chitter-chattering to police were themselves in danger of being shot."

It's a strange story and one that might be of use to anyone working on material for political correctness and language on ENGA3/4. How far does freedom of speech extend? Should we be able to say whatever we want, or can certain pronouncements put us at risk of a prison sentence?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Crippled by language

G.P. Doctor Crippen, a Guardian columnist, makes some good points about how language can be used to define people by their illnesses in yesterday's G2 section. In his column he points out that adjectives used to describe medical conditions (e.g. "schizophrenic") can be problematic when applied as nouns to the people who have these conditions (e.g. "he is a schizophrenic").

He points out:

the thoughtless use of words may indicate an underlying iceberg of prejudice and
misunderstanding. I was taken to task a few days ago by a psychiatrist colleague
for using the word "schizophrenic" as a noun. "It is not a noun, and
schizophrenics are people," he said. Technically the psychiatrist is wrong. Like
"diabetic" and "asthmatic", schizophrenic was always meant to be an adjective,
but common usage has made it a noun.

It's the same with other adjectives as nouns too. We've discussed in class how people feel about adjectives used to label ethnic and other social groups (the blacks, the Asians, the disabled) and this seems to be part of the same issue. So, now we know that David Beckham has asthma, is he an asthmatic (noun)? Or should we say David Beckham is asthmatic (adjective)? Or perhaps, an excellent footballer and fashion icon who happens to excel despite his asthma?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Acting like a bardboy

This article in today's Evening Standard tells us about a new version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar which is being performed by a cast of young actors in London. Not exactly much news there you might think, but what's piqued the interest of the Standard is the fact that part of the script adapts the words of the bard (Shakespeare to you and me) and renders them in "street slang". Oh and the play is being rebranded as the "ultimate knife crime". D'ya get me?

Cue righteous indignation from some Evening Standard readers and probably a couple of letters in tomorrow's edition.

+++stop press+++ SFX students are actually involved in this play, so if I may "big you up" that would be splendid+++stop press+++

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


The Daily Mail is angry and this time it's not immigrants, youth gangs or single mothers who are to blame, but the evil empire that is the exam board AQA and its decision to put text messaging on the curriculum. Have a look at this article to get an idea of what it's all about. But also have a read of some of these really sensible and funny comments from readers (possibly not your average Daily Mail readers, but those who've followed Twitter feeds and email links to it, I would guess). Have a look at Chris's comment below and then the excellent response from luvu2h8me:

Well, Your "language skills" will not score with me or my customers, that's for sure... After all, I'm one of those old buzzards that knows nothing and should shut up, just accepting the blazing communication skills of yours, take you on, and happily accept that the very same skill of yours will put us both out of a job sooner rather than later, as long as you get your great pay for your extraordinary language knowledge and communication skills.
Realize that your txtspk skills has no real worth.
- Chris, Ayr, Scotland, 16/11/2009 13:43

1. Why did you capitalise "Your" in your first sentence?
2. Why did you spell "realise" as "realize"?
3. Why did you have a run-on sentence instead of punctuating it correctly?
4. Why did you say "your txtspk skills has no" instead of "your txtspk skills HAVE no". Didn't you realise that you were referring to a plural when you typed "skills"?

I'd advise you to keep away from txtspk until you master English correctly! ;)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why do we talk?

There was a really good documentary about children's language development on BBC2's Horizon programme last night, called Why Do We Talk? Have a look here on BBC's i-player this week to watch it. And the BBC magazine has an article about it here.

And there's more on Deb Roy's massive child language data experiment here on a blog post back in July of this year. Meanwhile, have a look at this TED online lecture by the mighty Steven Pinker for his view on "the blank slate". But first, make yourself a nice cup of tea and put on your thinking cap (rather than your dodgy New Era hat).

Friday, November 06, 2009


Hoodies, thugs, yobs, feral youths, louts and scum. That's what many readers of this blog are, if you subscribe to the popular view that all young people (particularly if they're from the inner city and/or black and/or working class) are unruly troublemakers.

Jane Graham writing in today's Guardian, in a piece mainly about the new Michael Caine film, Harry Brown*, points out that the hooded youth or "hoodie" has now become a kind of visual or linguistic shorthand for a new kind of folk devil, a new bogeyman for the twenty first century. As Graham points out, hoodies are "defined by their class (perceived as being bottom of the heap) and their social standing (their relationship to society is always seen as being oppositional). Hoodies aren't "kids" or "youngsters" or even "rebels" – in fact, recent research by Women in Journalism on regional and national newspaper reporting of hoodies shows that the word is most commonly interchanged with (in order of popularity) "yob", "thug", "lout" and "scum"".

And the research by Women in Journalism referred to above makes for some fascinating reading. The headline statistics that they use in the report "Hoodies or Altar Boys?" are as follows:

* 85% of teen boys said newspapers portray them in a bad light
* Reality TV was seen as portraying teen boys most fairly
* Media stories about yobs and hoodies are the main reason why teen
boys are wary of other teenagers
* 80% of teen boys think adults are more wary of them now than they were a year ago.
* Terms used in newspaper stories about teen boys included thugs, yobs, hoodies, feral, evil, lout, monsters, brutes, scum, menace, heartless, sick, menacing and inhuman
* Over the past year, there were more newspaper stories about teens and crime (as victims or offenders) than about teens and all other subjects put together

* Even on subjects other than crime, few newspaper stories show teen boys in a good light: only 24% of stories about teens and sport were positive about teenage boys; only 16% of stories about teens and entertainment were positive.
Fiona Bawdon, the WiJ committee member who will be presenting the research, says: “When a photo of a group of perfectly ordinary lads standing around wearing hooded tops has become visual shorthand for urban menace, or even the breakdown of society, it's clear that teenage boys have a serious image problem. The teen boys' "brand" has become toxic. Media coverage of boys is unrelentingly negative, focusing almost entirely on them as victims or perpetrators of crime - and our research shows that the media is helping make teenage boys fearful of each other.”

So, as students of English Language, particularly if you're doing ENGA2 work on the representation of young people, this is fertile ground to investigate. The links on the Women in Journalism site are really helpful too, as they point us towards some particularly relevant articles such as Suzanne Moore's thoughtful piece in The Daily Mail here and The Labour MP David Lammy's excellent comment column here.

And just to remind you of how very similar students to yourselves are referred to in the national press and by members of the public, why not have a read of this appalling tripe from the Daily Mail and some of the deranged comments of its readers on a recent unpleasant incident linked to Orpington College, a "scum magnet" according to an equally unpleasant article in The Sun.

*set in Elephant and Castle, south London fact fans...and not a lot of people know that

Children's melodies

Recent German research into children's early exposure to sounds seems to suggest that newborn babies have noticeably different cries, with distinct intonation patterns linked to the sounds of their mothers' language. What is even more striking is that these patterns seem to become established before the child is even born:

The dramatic finding of this study is that not only are human neonates capable of producing different cry melodies, but they prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their fetal life, within the last trimester of gestation.

So in other words (and helped by a news piece on Radio 4 this morning that I'll try to link here later) a French baby's cries will be closer to the melodic patterns of the French language, while a German baby's will be closer to the intonation patterns of the German language, and these intonation patterns will have been developed while in the womb. The audio can be heard by going to this link on Billy Clark's London Language blog.

More on this story here. But in this report on the same story, some interesting reasons are suggested for not jumping to conclusions about what this experiment proves or disproves:

More work remains to be done to confirm that parental talk affects how babies cry, remarks psycholinguist D. Kimbrough Oller of the University of Memphis. Newborns cry differently depending on their emotional states, which may have differed for French and German babies, Oller says. Mothers of one nationality may have allowed babies to cry longer before picking them up. Or, recording devices may have been set up more intrusively in one country than in the other. Either situation would complicate an acoustic comparison of French and German newborns’ cries, Oller notes.A related scientific debate concerns whether parents’ native language influences how babies babble during the first year of life. Oller regards babies’ babbling as a universal set of sounds largely immune to cultural or linguistic influences.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Glaswegian translation

This news piece on the BBC site covers the recent story about a translation company in Scotland advertising for "Glaswegian English" speakers to help their clients understand the local dialect. There's more detailed analysis of the Glaswegian dialect here in the Telegraph and one academic, Dr Jane Stuart-Smith, a Reader in English Language at the University of Glasgow, makes the point that Glaswegian itself is quite a broad category:

The Glaswegian accent has a range of varieties, ranging from those close to standard English to those that are much closer to Scots, so the broad varieties of Glaswegian which are linguistically and structurally more different from standard English you would expect people to find harder to understand. Non-native English speakers or southern English people who are used to standard English or American find the sound system of Glaswegian different and these differences mean it will be difficult to understand.

Hate Mail

Stephen Gately was gay. And now he is dead. Therefore he must have died of being gay. Such is the deranged subtext of Jan Moir's Daily Mail opinion piece, which has apparently become the single most complained about newspaper article in the Press Complaints Commission's history.

In her column, originally entitled Why there was nothing "natural" about Stephen Gately's death, but later amended by a worried Daily Mail to A strange, lonely and troubling death..., Moir says:

Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one. Let us be absolutely clear about this. All that has been established so far is that Stephen Gately was not murdered. And I think if we are going to be honest, we would have to admit that the circumstances surrounding his death are more than a little sleazy.
She later goes on to claim that Gately's death "strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships", trying to link Gately's untimely death and Kevin McGee's suicide to a wider discourse about gay relationships being unnatural, phony and not equivalent to heterosexual relationships.

Whatever your views on homosexuality (and just to be clear, I believe that gay relationships should be treated in exactly the same way as heterosexual ones, and gay people afforded the same rights and respect as every other human being) it's pretty clear that in the way Moir has used language here she is consciously trying to associate Gately with some imagined seedy, hedonistic lifestyle while at the same time knowing literally nothing about the exact circumstances of his death. It just amounts to prurient and tasteless speculation, especially considering that the poor guy's body was not even cold in the grave when the article was published.

The Guardian's Charlie Brooker responded quickly to the Moir article in his customary style, describing it as "a gratuitous piece of gay-bashing" and adding:

It has been 20 minutes since I've read her now-notorious column, and I'm still struggling to absorb the sheer scope of its hateful idiocy. It's like gazing through a horrid little window into an awesome universe of pure blockheaded spite. Spiralling galaxies of ignorance roll majestically against a backdrop of what looks like dark prejudice, dotted hither and thither with winking stars of snide innuendo.

Elsewhere, thousands of online responses, the vast majority critical of Moir, were posted to the Mail's website, and many others complained to the PCC.

The recent killing of a gay man in Central London, for which three young people have been charged, should show that the distance between hateful words and hateful deeds is not that far. Words matter. Language matters. And I think there's a strong case for arguing that those who use hateful language ultimately bear some responsibility for what happens when words turn to deeds.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Happiness, suicide, Facebook and Bebo

Normally on this blog we've tried to cover material that's specifically about language topics that you study at A level or news stories that have relevance to wider issues about language that might interest us. The two main stories mentioned below are not really about language - and are genuinely sad, involving the deaths of three people - but have links to how we use language to express ourselves, so I hope that makes some sense.

In the first story, the death of Kevin McGee (Little Britain star, Matt Lucas's ex-partner) seems to have been widely reported with reference to his 21st century style suicide note: a Facebook update that read "Kevin McGee thinks that death is much better than life". When we look at the concept of mode and use it to think about differences between written and spoken texts, we've often considered the written mode to confer more seriousness, formality or permanence on its language, but what happens when you've got a blended mode form like Facebook profiles (typed on a keyboard, certainly not spoken, but not exactly written)?

I reckon the last thing on poor old Kevin McGee's mind was "where on the mode continuum will an English Language student place my suicide message", but doesn't this raise important issues about the status we give to social networking sites and the language we use on them?

Likewise, the pointless and tragic suicides of Niamh Lafferty and Georgia Rowe near Glasgow, earlier this week (and reported here) have led to many social networking tributes. And what's striking about these tributes is how different they are from the kinds of messages left engraved forever on tombstones. A message apparently left by Georgia's cousin reads "georgia a know we havent spoke in a very long time but u'll always be ma wee cousin an a love u. Hope ur in a better place now. R.I.P".

Again it may seem cold and callous to look at such a sad waste of young lives for the purposes of language analysis, but maybe this all tells us something about the society we live in, our reactions to the deaths of others and our changing attitudes to what is appropriate language in situations like this. After all, we're studying language not for its own sake but to give us an understanding of ourselves and others, aren't we? And maybe what's striking too about this particular "tribute" is its use of non-standard features - not just the fairly typical ones to do with abbreviation, letter homophones, clippings and non-capitalisation - but its apparently regional features of accent (a not i/I and ma not my) and dialect (we havent spoke not we haven't spoken). Does this make the tribute more "real"? Does the fact that it's written in a way that the speaker finds natural make it a less frozen, less formal, more genuine tribute to the person who's now gone?

This feature article in today's Guardian takes a not very linguistic, but interestingly psychological approach to tribute websites like Gonetoosoon and lasting tribute too, and I think it's worth a look.

Elsewhere (and it's a desperate attempt to finish on a happy note) this bizarre piece of non-research seems to be trying to work out how happy Americans are by "analysing" their Facebook status updates. It's worth a quick look, if nothing else.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Poison pens and private eyes

Forensic linguistics is rapidly becoming my favourite thing in the world: what better way to combine a love of language and The Wire in one job? So, this story on the BBC news website about abusive letters being sent to religious and political figures and covered in this week's Crimewatch is very exciting.

Apparently, a total of 57 abusive, racist and sexually graphic letters have been sent to various religious and political figures from the Southampton & Portsmouth area, and forensic linguist Tim Grant from Aston University's Centre For Forensic Linguistics has been called in to look at who the sender/s might be.

The article raises a number of interesting questions to do with language, some of them about gender and language use. While the linguist, Deborah Cameron lays into the generalised "myths" of clear differences between male and female language use in conversation, Tim Grant seems to suggest that men and women often tend to have distinctive patterns of written language:

He said: "One of the things that were striking about the letters was the heavy use of expressive adjectives, which is more typical of women than men.

"You could say women use more adjectives because they can be more socially evaluative but we don't look at why rather than how the two different groups behave.

"We just know that's the case because we read a lot of letters and make statistical correlations. The words (in the letters) used were things like 'squalor', 'dirty' and some sexual adjectives which were suggestive of women's writing.

"Another thing we know is that women tend to use fewer first person pronouns, such as 'I'."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Liar, liar, your pen's on fire

Forensic linguistics is a great area of language study. You can find out more about the range of activities the forensic linguists at Aston University do from their site here, but one of its many uses is to work out if someone is telling the truth or is who they say they are. This brief article from Physorg looks at new research into handwriting and truthfulness and links it to how the brain works when telling lies.

In short, "The researchers analyzed the writing and discovered that in the untrue paragraphs the subjects on average pressed down harder on the paper and made significantly longer strokes and taller letters than in the true paragraphs".

Getting the message

The debate about young people's literacy and the impact of electronically-mediated communication rumbles on. Many commentators argue that the use of texting, instant messaging, social networking sites and online chat forums is leading to poorer spelling, less confidence in standard grammar and shorter attention spans. Others make the pint that research into such areas hasn't thrown up any real evidence to back up these claims.

We have covered the Coventry University research into texting elsewhere on this blog, but a new piece of research from Canada authored by Connie Varnhagen (and reported here) seems to offer support to the idea that good spellers in formal written tests are often the ones who use online chat more than their poor spelling counterparts. But does it mean that chatspeak is actually having a positive impact on spelling habits, or are better spellers just the ones who communicate more often in all forms of written or blended modes? See what you think:

Varnhagen's findings come from a class-based study that was recently published in Reading and Writing. A group of third-year psychology students proposed and designed a study to test whether new Simple Messaging Service, or SMS, language—also known as chatspeak—which refers to the abbreviations and slang commonly used when texting, emailing or chatting online, had an influence on students' spelling habits. The group surveyed roughly 40 students from ages 12 to 17. The participants were asked to save their instant messages for a week. At the end of the study, the participants completed a standardized spelling test.

"Kids who are good spellers [academically] are good spellers in instant messaging," she said. "And kids who are poor spellers in English class are poor spellers in instant messaging."

Does this prove anything? Your comments would be welcome...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Teenglish? Allow that...

This article from Tuesday's Education Guardian is a good example of how some newspapers treat slang. While some of the definitions aren't exactly wrong (and it's tricky to say if a word meaning is ever really wrong if someone uses it in their own way with their peers) they're certainly only half the picture. To call these examples of "student slang", as Lucy Tobin does, seems to be forgetting that many of the terms (waste, wagwan, allow that/it, among others) originate specifically from young inner city (often black) roots. They might have spread to university campuses with the increasing numbers of working class and inner city students entering university over the last 10 years, but I suspect that only a handful originated on the campuses themselves.

However, grumbles aside, it's quite a good read as a source of inspiration for an ENGA3 Language Intervention (or even a B spec media text?) and there's even a quiz you can take here to test your skills.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Jolly Wicked Actually

Here's a link to a piece in last month's Sunday Times extracted from the linguist Tony Thorne's new book on British slang, Jolly Wicked Actually and how it reflects our national identity/ies. Tony did a great talk on slang at SFX last year and he is one of the top experts on the history and changing nature of British slang, so it's well worth a look.

Here's an extract about the expression innit:

By the end of the 1980s, innit — the unvarying question tag put on the end of sentences and used separately as an exclamation of agreement, “Innit!” — had become identified especially with black-British and later Asian-British speech patterns. So much so that, in the mid-1990s, my students at King’s College London were referring to their Asian fellows collectively as “the innit crowd”; and when Sacha Baron Cohen’s comic character Ali G parodied Asian and white “wiggas” (imitators of black styles), innit was incorporated in the title of a 1999 collection of TV shows. Since 2000, innit has been seen as one of the most recognisable features of “Hinglish” — south Asian English — and of multiethnic youth dialect, supposedly a new accent and vocabulary common to younger speakers across a range of ethnicities and mainly urban environments, which may eventually influence mainstream English. It is also seen as emblematic of the troublesome underclass known as chavs, and in 2005 jokes were circulating playing on the fact: “What do you call a chav in a box? Innit.” And: “What do you call an Eskimo chav? Inuinnit.”

And here's a link to arch-prescriptivist Lynne Truss's rather sniffy review of it.


Sitting in my swivel chair while rubbing chalk dust from my scruffy tweed jacket's leather elbow patches, I've often told my A level Language students that writing about graphology is the last refuge of the loser. That if you write about graphology in an exam you would be best to write "Loser" as your name on the paper and write in the words "epic fail" where examiners should put their marks. We can all see that a heading is in bold to make it stand out, that a picture is centred to give it prominence, that the font is Times New Roman: none of that is language analysis and it's not worth any marks in exams. Loser.

But with Language & Mode now an AS level topic area, perhaps that's no longer the case. Graphology - the layout of words, images and headings on a page, the way things look on the page - is actually quite important when looking at differences between written and blended mode texts. The fact that a word on a web page is underlined might mean that it's a clickable link and therefore an interactive feature. The choice of font might actually convey some kind of tone too. And this piece on the BBC News website makes a number of interesting points about what we think about capital letters in emails or on web forums. As the piece tells us:

Most web users know capital letters are a capital offence - they're commonly thought to be online shorthand for screaming. But how did they get this reputation?

Ultimately, in the rushed world of online communication, all-caps has become a
bit of a "lazy" shorthand for yelling - it's faster than finding another way to
convey excitement or agitation. But the recipient feels like they are being
shouted at.

So, there's stuff here to think about for graphology and what it tells us about how we're being addressed by the writer of a text. The article also goes on to talk about different fonts and the history of some of them, which is interesting in a bit of a nerdy way, but it's the discussion of email etiquette and caps which is most useful, I think. So, graphology might now become quite an intelligent thing to write about in such situations. I take it all back: graphology is no longer the last refuge of the loser. Sorry.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Weasel words

Today's Independent features an article by columnist Johann Hari on the euphemisms he would expunge from the English Language. As he puts it, "The English language needs periodically to be given a spring-clean, where we scrape off the phrases that have become stuck to the floor and toss out the rotting metaphors that have fallen down the back of the settee".

Among the expressions are "fair trade", of which he says:

This phrase suggests that paying desperately poor people a decent wage is a nice
ethical add-on, and a gratifying departure from the norm. In fact, it should be
taken for granted – the default position of civilised human beings. If we
believed that, the labelling would be reversed: it's all the other food that
should be labelled as "Unfair Trade", "Rapacious Trade", or
"Let's-Pay-a-Pittance Trade." The terrific comedian Andy Zaltzman suggests a sign
that could be on the packets: it is a silhouette of an obese businessman pissing
on an African child.

Fair enough. But several comments in response to the article accuse Hari of doing exactly the same thing that he's complaining about: giving a political spin to the language he uses and the meanings he creates. So, is any language genuinely neutral? Can we open our mouths and speak without allowing our language choices to inadvertently reflect our views and political/ philosophical outlooks?

Again, this is an interesting article not only for the language issues addressed but for its potential use as a style model for the text you'll be writing about a language issue in your ENGA4 coursework and the Language Discourses part of the ENGA3 exam paper.

For more on euphemisms - what they are, how they're often used and why they annoy people - try this 2007 post on the blog.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Texting is retarding our teens

It's true! It must be, because a neuroscientist is saying it's true. In this article by Michael Deacon from The Daily Telegraph, Baroness Greenfield is reported as blaming young people's alleged short attention spans on the brevity of text messaging. Deacon himself has strong views about texting, telling us that "If everyone in the world keeps texting, we'll all become as mentally stunted as each other, and so nobody will even notice that there's been a narrowing of the human attention span."

And in this piece from The Daily Mail, Greenfield offers more detail about her opinions. In one interesting part of it she says:
I believe that if the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of instant action and reaction with the press of a key, such rapid interchanges might accustom the brain to operate over the same timescales.
The young brain, particularly until the age of ten, is incredibly impressionable. It is without the yardsticks we gain on our way to adulthood and against which we measure information. The young brain simply absorbs information and is shaped by it.
That's why, if a child learns to express themselves through text messaging - and at the same time reads less, writes less and communicates face-to-face less often - there is a case for questioning how it will impact not only on the way they communicate in later life, but also on the way their brain matures.
So, what do you think? Can you think at all? Have you been exposed to so much text messaging and such short, undeveloped fragments of language that you can't express yourself in complex sentences any more? Have you even read this far?
I'd be interested what readers of this blog have to say on this issue, partly because blogs are about sharing ideas and learning collaboratively, but also because at the end of next year many of you will be taking ENGA3 in which you'll have to think about, analyse and critique language debates such as this one.
 Greenfield, in the Daily Mail, uses the metaphor of language being "eroded" by texting, eaten away, reduced in some way. It's a metaphor that will soon be familiar to A2 students as we look at models of language change and arguments about such change - prescriptive and descriptive - and how we can explore where English is heading.
Along with ENGA3, you'll also be doing ENGA4 in which you'll need to write a creative piece about one of the topics you've studied for ENGA3. So, the Michael Deacon article in the Telegraph or the Baroness Greenfield one in the Mail can be really helpful style models for how critics of language change structure and express their ideas and arguments.

Hey-ho, mwah, and furthermore meh

The internet, and social networking sites in particular, appear to be having an influence on the appearance of exclamations and noises making their way into dictionaries as "proper" words. At least, that's according to linguist Tony Thorne (who spoke last year at SFX's teacher conference). In this BBC news website article, it is reported that the expression hey-ho is set to join the airkiss word mwah (as in "Mwah darling, how are you? You simply must sample this fennel tagliatelle: it's to die for") and the Simpsons-esque meh (as in "It wasn't good, wasn't bad, just meh").

According to Thorne, the reasons for such sounds and gesture-accompanying expressions entering the language in written form is down to the nature of internet language as a mixed mode form of communication. As the article explains:

"A lot of internet communication is written speech, or transliterated speech," says Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King's College London. "Social media is all about nudging and poking. It's a more amplified conversation."

Ultimately, finding written ways to express the visual - like shrugging - is a key component of internet communication and social networks, says Mr Thorne. "People introduce these light hearted conversational things which normally you only find in speech," he says.

In that way, he suggests, "hey-ho" could just be the new emoticon.

We looked at meh on this blog a while back and you might find this link helpful to find out more.

Elsewhere, The Daily Telegraph tells us that other sounds are appearing as words too, including heh and hmm. And they blame young people (as they often do) as well as the usual suspects: Facebook, Bebo and Twitter.

Monday, August 31, 2009

English in China

This article from Sunday's Independent looks at how the English language is growing at a rapid pace in China.

"Chinese people are becoming more and more obsessed with speaking English, and efforts to improve their proficiency mean that at some stage this year, the world's most populous nation will become the world's largest English-speaking country. Two billion people are learning English worldwide, and a huge proportion of them are in China."

In a separate article from The Daily Telegraph, the growth of ungrammatical (and often very funny) Chinese English - sometimes called Chinglish - is looked at. And you can probably see from some of the ridiculous signs why so many Chinese people are keen to learn better English...

Hedging our bets

One popular stereotype about women and men's communication is that men are direct and confident in what they say and write, while women are more tentative and uncertain. Well, as Deborah Cameron is at pains to point out in her Myth of Mars and Venus (helpful extracts here), such stereotypes are a load of old cobblers: some women are tentative in certain situations, but so are some men. Gender isn't the main factor at all.

And now a piece of research from the USA into male and female writing styles appears to back up Cameron's points. Nicholas Palomares at the University of California found that given a written email task, both men and women used tentative constructions (hedges, disclaimers and tag questions). Here's a bit more detail:

"I found that women are more tentative than men sometimes, and men are more tentative than women sometimes," Palomares said. "It depends on the topic and whether you're communicating with someone of the same gender. Gender differences in language are not innate; they’re fickle."

In his study, Palomares asked nearly 300 UC Davis undergraduates -- about half of them female and half male -- to write e-mails explaining how to change a flat tire or buy make-up, among other gender-stereotyped and gender-neutral topics. Students were given the name and gender of the person they were e-mailing.

Men were tentative when writing about make-up or other stereotypically feminine topics, especially when they thought they were writing to a woman, he found. For example, one man, believing he was corresponding with a woman, wrote: "… maybe girls prefer the quality of products at Sephora over other major department stores? I don't know."

Women were tentative when writing about changing flat tires and other stereotypically masculine topics, especially when they thought they were writing to a man. For example, one woman, believing she was giving instructions to a man, wrote: "I think they start out by raising the whole car, or maybe just the one tire with a tire jack?"

Saturday, August 01, 2009

English around the world

Here's a quick link to an American article offering advice to American English speakers about how to avoid communication difficulties with other English speakers. It covers some of the main areas we'll look at in our A2 course when we look at Language Variation and how English is used around the world, specifically that the English used by non-native speakers is often a very different beast from what we use in the UK and USA. Here's an example:

Common colloquial American phrases will not mean much to a person who does not live in the United States. Telling a colleague that he or she should "go for it" will not take anyone anywhere and saying someone is "out of the loop" will likely put you there.

We've covered World Englishes (as they're often called) in previous posts, so if you want to stay ahead of the game...sorry, prepare so you are ready when we start this unit... have a look at these links:
The End of English - David Crystal's take on World English
French, English and American
Dirty English infects beautiful Italian

Friday, July 10, 2009

Vlogging a dead horse

The latest version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary is coming out and some of the words it has included are covered here in a Guardian piece.

Among the words are vlog (video blog) which you will know all about if you attended Kerry Maxwell's sessions last week. Also featured is another blend, frenemy ( a sneaky snake who pretends to be your friend but is in fact your enemy).

For more detail on vlog check the Macmillan Dictionary Word of the Week page on it here.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


Ephebiphobia: fear of young people. Some of us might have experienced it; others might find it bizarre. Perhaps Michael Jackson would have benefitted from it. But in this article from back in March, psychologist Tanya Byron argues that it's skewing our perception of young people and society.

This is the sort of text we look at as part of ENGA2 Investigating Representations and it's one to which there are some really interesting and provocative online responses.

Investigating Language

Here are the suggestions for language investigations that we've come up with in our intro pack. If you've got any adaptations to these, or ideas of your own, please add them here. But remember, that on the new AQA A spec the focus has to be spoken language.

An investigation into the ways in which two children of different ages use spoken language in similar situations.

A study of the use of metaphor in a political speech

An investigation into how three different teenagers use language while involved in a puzzle solving task.

A study of the language used by gym instructors or football coaches

An investigation into how males and females use similar or different language when describing a picture.

An investigation into the language used by teachers in 2 different classes of similarly aged students/pupils.

An investigation into how candidates on The Apprentice use language in the boardroom.

A study of attitudes towards different regional or national accents.

An investigation into how different ethnic groups use particular slang expressions in conversation.

A study of how Creole is used in three different generations of the same family.

An investigation into the differences between how the same person tells a story in spoken English compared to in a written form.

A study of the language of cinema trailers

An investigation into the language used by a range of radio DJs to introduce songs

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Monkey magic

And following hot on the heels of the last post about research into child language and how it seems to support interactional theories of development, here's research on monkeys that seems to offer support to nativist theories. According to the BBC news website and New Scientist (quoted here) by playing repeated patterns of two syllable "words" to monkeys on one day and then mixing up the patterns on the second day, it could be observed that the monkeys were alert to differences in syllables:

The findings do not mean primates can communicate using language, but they do suggest that some of the skills required to use language may be linked to very basic memory functions.

One grammatical structure that is found across many languages is affixation: the addition of syllables, either at the beginning or at the end of a word, to modify its meaning.

For instance, in English, the suffix "–ed" is added to verbs to make the past tense. In German, the same effect is achieved by adding the prefix "ge–" to the front of verb stems.
What this doesn't "prove" (and to be fair, no one is claiming that it does) is that grammar is inbuilt. What it does seem to support is that some sort of learning process - which involves language in some form - is present is monkeys, our evolutionary relatives and that this process can be extended to "rules" of human languages.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Language development under the microscope

This article on the BBC news website offers an insight into one approach to researching children's language development at the moment. As part of the "speechome project", Professor Deb Roy and his colleagues are collecting a quarter of a million hours of data. And the other figures are equally staggering:

"The first task we set for ourselves was to transcribe everything my son heard
or said from nine to 24 months," he says. He estimates that there is somewhere
between 10 to 12 million words of speech to transcribe. "For anyone that has
transcribed speech, they will know that is a laborious and slow process," he
says, with a degree of understatement.

And some initial observations that Roy has made seem to offer support to social interactive theories of language development. The BBC site explains:

By analysing the length, and hence complexity, of sentences spoken by caregivers
to his son, he believes that he has shown that adults subconsciously simplify
sentences until the child understands the word. Once it has been understood, the
adults then build up the complexity of the sentences containing the word. "We
essentially meet him at this point of the birth of the word and gently pull him
into language," he says.

Elsewhere, there's more support for interactive models of language acquisition. A report from UCLA suggests that adult-child conversations can potentially offer six times as much language development improvement as talking at a child (parent monologues/reading) or the child watching TV.

"Talk is powerful, but what's even more powerful is engaging a child in
meaningful interactions — the 'give and take' that is so important to the
social, emotional and cognitive development of infants and toddlers," says Dr.
Jill Gilkerson, language research director at LENA Foundation and a study

"It is not enough to speak to children," Zimmerman adds.
"Parents should also engage them in conversation. Kids love to hear you speak,
but they thrive on trying speech out for themselves. Give them a chance to say
what's on their minds, even if it's 'goo goo gah.'"

And finally, in a piece of investigation that could win the No Sh*t Sherlock award for 2009, researchers at Seattle Children's Research Institute have discovered that when the TV is on people talk less and use fewer vocalisations, potentially harming the language development of children who are in the same environment. What is interesting about this is the observation that it's not so much the TV programmes that could damage the children's language (although In the Night Garden is the work of Satan as far as I'm concerned) but the effect watching TV has on the family's spoken interaction.

The study found that each hour of audible television was associated with
significant reductions in child vocalizations, vocalization duration, and
conversational turns. On average, each additional hour of television exposure
was also associated with a decrease of 770 words the child heard from an adult
during the recording session. This represented a seven percent decrease in words
heard, on average. There were significant reductions in both adult female and
male word counts. From 500 to 1,000 fewer adult words were spoken per hour of
audible television.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A2 coursework & contributions to the blog

Exams may be over but we're going to focus on A2 coursework projects in this blog from now on, as well as all the usual links to language stuff in the media.

If anyone who has been using the blog would like to become a contributor to it, please email me on d.clayton at (swapping the at for @). This would be especially good if you are planning to go on to university to study language or linguistics!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

ENA6 - good luck

There's been nearly 1000 views of this blog today (not that I check...ahem), so I hope it's been of some use to you if you're revising for ENA6.

It's probably worth saying that even though I teach the unit and mark it, I have as much idea as you about what will turn up on tomorrow's paper (honestly!), so even though I've suggested various topics, if they don't come up don't get stressed: just make sure you read the material properly, annotate it sensibly and know exactly what's required on each part of the paper.

Here's what i put on the blog this time last year about what to do...

There are plenty of tips on this blog for how to approach this paper, but remember that reading carefully, annotating well and thinking about the specific demands of each question are the keys to success.

Don't spend too long on parts 1a and 1b: you should be able to get 10 marks for these in about 10 minutes maximum, leaving you about 50 minutes to analyse and evaluate the text for 1c. Remember that you're not just feature spotting (although that is part of your job), but you're supposed to be evaluating how the writer of the text represents the issue he or she is talking about. In the texts we've looked at in class (the ones that haven't been past paper questions), think about how the rabidly anti-PC David Gelernter constructed his attack on the feminist "language rapists" as he termed them, or how Michael McCarthy in his "I'm Happy to Boldly Get it Wrong" argued against prescriptive views in grammar and language change. The title of the paper is Language Debates and you will get more marks if you write like you're contributing to , and care about, the debate.

With part 2a, selecting your relevant sources is important: use a range of texts from the paper (and your own ideas and other study) and don't rely too much on the one you've just analysed for 1c. If you feel confident, tie this debate into that of other language topics. PC and Language Change are closely linked. Accents and dialects are changing too - they could be linked into Language Change. It's a synoptic paper, so look for links with other areas. But, be careful not to confuse your reader. You will be writing for a non-specialist audience, so take care to explain technical ideas and don't assume they will know who particular linguists are.

As for my top tips for which topic it might be, I suspect (based on previous papers and topics, not any inside information obviously) it will be either Political Correctness/ Language and Representation or something about Accent and Dialect. For the latter, I'd say look at ideas like dialect levelling and the ways in which new varieties of English have grown - MEYD, Estuary English etc. I got it right last year (attitudes to Language Change) but hopelessly wrong the year before (the speech of chipmunks and cheerleaders) so don't bet everything you have on my predictions.

Good luck!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Child Language Acquisition - mini-investigation

And here's a quick one in a 1b style for CLA.

Explain the methodology you would use to investigate how children acquire the sounds of English.

Remember to follow the 5 point plan as laid out below:

Child Language Acquisition - data set

And just to be on the safe side, here's a quick 1a style question on CLA. All you have to do is identify and label 3 "interesting" features from the data set below:

Data set:

  1. I readed that book yesterday.
  2. What that man doing?
  3. Dat's gusting. I not like that dinner.
  4. My tooth is hurty.
If you give your points as comments, I'll try to give you some feedback (my own child language data providers permitting).

ENA6 - revising dialects

Here's some stuff to help you revise dialect and accent.

Andrew Moore's pages on dialect levelling, Estuary and recent change
Features of traditional dialects
Features of modern dialects
Peter Trudgill on Language and Place

Monday, June 15, 2009

ENA6 - some language variation data

Here's a quick 1a style question for ENA6 using some examples of regional/social variation. The question (in the usual style) is "Comment linguistically on three features of non-standard language use in the data list below".

Data list

She were wearing a mask.
What are yous guys up to?
Second prize don't exist.
What's tha been doing?
There was bare mans.

If you post your 3 features as comments below, I'll give some feedback.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


This is a bit of a weird one, but if you're looking for examples of how different social groups use language to cement their in-group status, then have a look here for expressions used by fans of science fiction and fantasy.

It's quite interesting stuff from a Language Variation perspective (like how different social groups use language in their own communities of practice) and could also be useful for Language Change when thinking about how words go through processes of abbreviation in contexts like this. A good example of this is the suffix -zine, which itself derives from a clipping of magazine, but is now used in all sorts of contexts (fanzine, e-zine, crudzine).

Communities of practice
A community of practice is an aggregate of people who come together around mutual engagement in some common endeavor. Ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, values, power relations - in short, practices - emerge in the course of their joint activity around that endeavor. A community of practice is different as a social construct from the traditional notion of community,primarily because it is defined simultaneously by its membership and by the practice in which that membership engages. And this practice involves the construction of a shared orientation to the world around them - a tacit definition of themselves in relation to each other, and in relation to other communities of practice. The individual constructs an identity - a sense of place in the social world - through participation in a variety of communities of practice, and in forms of participation in each of those communities. And key to this entire process of construction is stylistic practice.

And it also gives me an excuse to use a picture of a cylon.

A post about the post

I've nicked this link from the Teachit Language sputnik (which is available to Teachit Language subscribers) as it's excellent material for revising the ENA5 Language Change texts from different times question. If you click here, you'll be taken to the British Postal Museum and Archive site from where you can download letters from different time periods - perfect for helping you see how similar themes are dealt with over the centuries.

For example, the 1750 - 1900 link has these letters: an early Valentine card, a letter from a slave owner in Jamaica and a soldier's letter from the Crimean War.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

ENA6 - the topics so far

It's always a fun way to pass an evening, guessing which topic will be on ENA6, but this year will be the last chance we have as it's the end of the AQA A spec as we know it. Here's what's been featured so far...

June 2008

Political correctness and slang

1c. Zoe Williams Guardian article on slang that demeans women

2a. Article for online newspaper responding to Zoe Williams

June 2007

Attitudes to Language Change

1c. Kate Burridge article

2a. Broadsheet editorial on views about Language Change

June 2006

Male/female conversation

1c. John and Barbara Pease self-help book

2a. Radio script on male female conversation

June 2005

Child Language Acquisition

1c. Baby and You magazine article

2a.Magazine article

Feb 2005

Language and Representation

1c. George Orwell extract from Politics and the English Language

2a. Broadsheet feature article on language and its effect on attitudes

June 2004

Development of new accents

1c. Daily Telegraph article

2a. Broadsheet feature article on high rising intonation

Jan 2004

Language of texting and emails

1c. Guardian article Cn u txt?

2a. Radio script on texting and email language and attitudes to these forms

June 2003

Political Correctness in Language

1c. Terry Deary extract from Wicked Words kids book

2a. Broadsheet editorial on PC and attitudes to it

Jan 2003

Child Language Acquisition - interaction

1c. extract from Baby Talk advice book

2a. Magazine article on role of verbal interaction

June 2002

Male/female conversation

1c. Extract from John Gray Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus

2a.Broadsheet newspaper article on male/female conversation styles

My guesses for this year’s paper:

Language Varieties and Slang - perhaps something looking at the changing face of Britain’s accents and dialects - Estuary English, MEYD, development of new slang, dialect levelling.

Language Change & Technology* - perhaps something about text messages, emails, social networking and language, and attitudes towards these forms.

Child Language* - hasn't turned up since 2005, but has been set twice before. I suspect it won't appear, but be ready just in case!

Form of question in 2a? Be ready for anything, but letters to the editor and website articles haven’t turned up yet and might do this year.

*Edited to change from my publishing last year's advice - sorry!

ENA5 revision reminders

Just in case you're revising for Friday's ENA5 exam, have a quick look at advice for this paper in these older blog posts from last year and the year before:

ENA5 advice from 2008
ENA5 Language Change timelines
Top tips for ENA5 & ENA6
And don't forget Beth Kemp's website which has loads of stuff for this unit here.

T-weet t-who?

Twitter has been big news for a while among media folk, with lots of celebrity tweeters singing its praises. If you're unfamiliar with what Twitter is and what it allows you to do, check here. And if you want to see how it's relevant to your study of language, have a look at this blog post from earlier in the year.

But a report on today's BBC news website, casts into doubt some of the hype around Twitter. Who' s actually tweeting who(m)? According to the Harvard research quoted in the article, 10% of Twitter users generate 90% of the content and most people who sign up only ever tweet once:

"Based on the numbers, Twitter is certainly not a service where everyone who has
seen it has instantly loved it," said Bill Heil, a graduate from Harvard
Business School who carried out the work. On a typical online social network, he
said, the top 10% of users accounted for 30% of all production. This implies
that Twitter's resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more
than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network," the team wrote in a blog

So, what are the implications of this research on our study of the language of Tweets and Twitter users? If it's less of a conversation and more of a broadcast or publication, then does this mean that it's more like a blog and less like email, text or MSN? In other words, is it less of a conversation and more of a series of monologues?

Perhaps more importantly, if it's all about numbers - as so much language change often is - and there's a limited core of Twitter users generating most of the content, will there be much of an impact on the language styles of the majority of Twitter users who don't tweet? In other words, will Twitter have much of an impact on the language styles of most of us? Probably not...

Sling some snout into the chokey

If you love slang and you love prison (and what south Londoner doesn't one day dream of slinging slang inside the glorious environs of Brikkie Pen?), then this is the story for you. It might also help you if you're looking for interesting examples of contemporary language change for Friday's ENA5 exam.

Yesterday's Daily Mail and today's Guardian feature articles on an apparently growing trend of prisoners reviving Early Modern English thieves' slang (or cant, as it's often called) to hide their illegal practices (mostly taking drugs and smuggling sim cards) from the ears of prison officers. As the Daily Mail explains, "The dialect, thought to originate from medieval gipsies, was used by all manner of villains in Shakespeare's England, becoming known as thieves' cant or rogues' cant. But it was thought to have become obsolete until its unexpected revival, believed to have been led by criminal members of the travelling community".

The Mail tells us that words like those featured on the list at the top are being used as code, while The Guardian goes into more detail about other types of slang (pig Latin and backslang) which help both exclude outsiders and foster in-group identity. What The Daily Mail doesn't really explain is how Elizabethan slang had words for crack cocaine and sim cards. Hmm...

As it happens, I'm reading a really excellent book on slang at the moment by Michael Adams, called Slang: The People's Poetry, which has some fascinating ideas about what slang is, how it's perceived and what it's used for. As Adams points out, slang has social value and he is concerned with finding out "how it marks groups off from one another and indicates group membership, its use among different races and genders, the extent to which it belongs to the young and eludes the old, and how we use it as social currency to negotiate our way through problems of living with others".

In this particular case, it would seem that an old form of slang has been revived as a means of eluding prison officers and fostering group identity among prisoners and their contacts on the outside, but also perhaps as a means of keeping a tradition alive. If, as the Daily Mail speculates, the slang being used has its roots in thieves' cant of the Sixteenth Century, perhaps it's part of a means of preserving a culture too.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Some more stuff on new words

Just a couple of quick things that might help with ENA5 Contemporary Language Change (or ENA6 if this topic turns up).

First up is glamping (glamorous + camping), a phenomenon of recent years in which people who wouldn't normally go camping (poshos) slum it with the rest of us and do it in typical middle class style (pink camouflage tents, flower design welly boots, wine cooler etc.).
So which word formation process has created this word?

Next come J-Lo (Jennifer Lopez), BoJo (Boris Johnson) and SuBo (Susan Boyle). There's been a trend to shorten celebrity names to these clipped versions, but the most recent one has to be rather ironic (and cruel, given her recently reported collapse). Any ideas what processes might be involved here?

And how about these words, all derived from the recent economic collapse (and found here): bailout, dead mall and green shoots. Could the first be a conversion from the verb phrase "to bail (someone) out"? What about the processes involved in the other two?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Attitudes to accents

Now the AS students have done their exams, we'll concentrate on the A2 units and here's a piece from The Guardian on Wednesday which looks at people's attitudes to regional accents. It's no great surprise that we all have different preferences and dislikes when it comes to accents, but what might be surprising is how little some people like their own accent.

Basing their research on government-funded radio and TV advertising, the Central Office of Information has found that respondents in some regions dislike the sound of their own regional accent when used as a voice-over, preferring other regional accents or even Received Pronunciation. In other areas, there's more warmth towards the local variety.

Tynesiders appear to be proud of their accents, according to the findings, but Brummies responded negatively to hearing their vowels on TV and radio, partly because they recognise they are ridiculed for them by some of their compatriots.

"The research clearly shows that the accent used in radio and TV advertising can have an impact on how the ad is received," said Brian Jenkins, the head of radio at the COI. "Regional accents can make a difference but not necessarily a positive one. There was quite a negative reaction from people in Birmingham and Bristol to their own accents," he said.

Jenkins added respondents in both cities were "very proud" of the way they spoke, but seem to have been affected by "other people's perceptions of their accent".

And it's this last point that's quite interesting as an explanation: that people perhaps internalise others' ridicule of their accent and feel less secure about their own voices as a result.

An article in The Guardian some 10 years ago (which I stumbled across while clearing out English Language coursework from 1999 in my classroom) sheds some light on historical attitudes to regional accents. In one part of the article, the link is made between region and social class:

Academic studies confirm that, socio-linguistically, Cockney has shared the bottom rung with Scouse, Glaswegian, West Midlands and Belfast. Almost certainly this is because, historically, they have all been essentially working-class accents - unlike Yorkshire, say, which might be middle class. This is one reason why Scots voices, and to a lesser extent Irish and Welsh ones, are different. A middle-class Scottish accent can signify a good education (lawyers, doctors).

So, how does this help with A2 English Language? Language variation is part of ENA5 and could also be a topic for ENA6 (Language Debates), so it's worth having a think about why certain accents give rise to certain attitudes, but it's also important to think about how regional varieties are changing and attitudes towards previously prestige forms (such as RP) are altering. In the COI survey above, it was noted that older respondents, and those who weren't "positively engaged with authority" (i.e. a hardened criminal or a junior gangbanger from some dodgy endz) had very different attitudes to RP:

Older people tend to be more accepting of ad campaigns featuring received pronunciation, perhaps because they grew up listening to the "cut-glass" English accents that featured on public information films of the past.

Younger people were more engaged by local accents, it found, but sometimes a more authoritative voice is more appropriate, according to the research.

Advertisements which encourage the public to comply with deadlines, including filling in tax returns, "need to impart trust and authority" the COI said, and are more effective when a Home Counties accent is used.

Local accents proved more persuasive in campaigns which include "credible real-life experiences" to try to change people's behaviour, perhaps to prevent drink driving or encourage homeowners to fix faulty smoke alarms.

The study also found that people who were already "positively engaged with authority" were more likely to absorb the message of campaigns using RP, while those who are not prefer to hear local accents.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Synecdoche SW12

Fancy stretching your vocabulary a bit further? Like a bit of lexical flexing? Try this 7 question quiz on the BBC website, inspired by the troublesome title of the latest Charlie Kaufman film, Synecdoche, New York.

There's also a brief article in today's Guardian about the word synecdoche, a term we've used in A2 lessons this term when looking at how some words and phrases used to label social groups have been formed ("Nice bit of ass" = an attractive woman etc.). Then there's metonymy, a similar process in which a metaphorical link is made between an object and the thing associated with it (e.g. "hoodie" becomes the person wearing it)

These are words that Sean and Gilberto already use with great perspicacity and aplomb, so see if you too can elevate your lexical performance to match their verbal gymnastics.

ENGA1 Language Development essay questions part 3

And here's another one we prepared earlier. It's a suggested approach to the phonology question (question 2 on the list below).

To use Teachit links you'll have to register on their site first, but it's still free. Go here, register, log in then follow the link above.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

ENGA1 mode exercise 3

And now try analysing this text, which is also about the singer mentioned in mode exercise 2, Regina Spektor. This extract is taken from a Guardian newspaper review of one of her live performances, written by Maddy Costa. If you feel brave, you could even have a go at comparing the two extracts...

What a canny operator Regina Spektor is. She scuttles on stage every bit the little-girl-lost, her bashful expression and cute outfit (sparkly top, puffball skirt, flat shoes) creating the impression that this venue is too big, too daunting for her. So daunting, in fact, that she must sing as if no one else is in the room, unselfconsciously burbling notes the way one might in the shower, barely saying a word between songs. Which just serves to underscore how capable she is of mesmerising an audience: her voice is so pure, so vital, she could play a venue four times this size and still have everyone rapt.

But everything Spektor does is poised between extremes. She is at once artful and artless, mannered and unmannerly. Her eccentricity can seem contrived: Poor Little Rich Boy, which Spektor plays with one hand on the piano, the other bashing at a chair with a drumstick, has an air of party piece about it. But the eccentricity can also seem wholly natural: in songs like Music Box and Baby Jesus, her voice flutters like a hummingbird, her melodies are staccato and forthright, and her lyrics inject barbed social commentary into fairytale flights of fancy. This oddball theatricality is not adopted; it is part of her Russian-Jewish-New-York-immigrant heritage.

There is canniness, too, in the way Spektor marries outlandishness with the kind of sentimental gush you would associate with Celine Dion. Watching her is a game; it is never clear what is coming next. A trickle of syrup or a dash of salt? An irritating, unnecessary scat vocal line, or a melody of such beauty you catch your breath? That ability to create wonder, in both senses of the word, is Spektor's smartest trick of all.

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...