Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Licking the lollipop

An Independent article from Monday takes aim at rap music's potential to influence young people into degrading and unpleasant behaviour. And they're not referring to your mum trying to bogle to Elephant Man either. Research from the University of Pittsburgh showed a link between teenagers who listen to music which features "degrading" lyrics of a sexual nature and younger sexual activity. They don't claim that the lyrics cause this earlier sexual activity, but that the two go hand in hand. Or gland in hand, if you prefer.

Two criteria were used in establishing whether lyrics were degrading. The words
had to be based on a purely physical, non-emotional description of sexual
activity and there had to be a “power differential”, with one sex expressing
physical dominance over another, Professor Primack said. An example of a non-degrading sexual lyric was: “Come a litter closer baby, I feel like srippin’ it down.” While a degrading lyric would be: “After you work up a sweat you can play with the

We looked at the lyrics of rap here a while ago on this blog and it's always been an interesting topic for language investigations over the years, but maybe the language angle is what makes this interesting for us on this course: can lyrics actually influence or shape our behaviour? Does language control us or is it a lot more complicated than that? I suppose one argument against this determinist position would be that young people who listen to music with such lyrics may already have different, more accepting, attitudes to "degrading" sexual imagery and therefore be more likely to seek out such music. Then again, we might argue that our perceptions about what's an acceptable way to treat our bitches - sorry, I mean life partners and Strong Independent Black Females - might be skewed by exposure to such lyrics. Perhaps they naturalise certain types of behaviour which we would previously have seen as wrong or demeaning.
This blog post about an article by Zoe Williams in The Guardian is worth a link if you want to follow it up. It also featured on last summer's ENA6 paper, so it's good practice for those of you looking to get some work done for June 18th and the dreaded ENA6 exam.

GR8 news 4 ur kids

Catching on to texting a few years after the UK, the USA is now going through the same kind of media hysteria about texting destroying literacy and language skills that we had. In this brief article on an American news website and this from the BBC website research from Coventry University (whose similar research we covered here in 2006) creates a good news story about the link between texting and literacy.

But not everyone's convinced: have a look at the comments after the article for a prescriptivist angle.

This is the sort of language debate you should be ready for on ENA6. Is texting ruining our language? Is texting just another style we can switch in and out of in different contexts? Do teh arguments against language change have any kind of logic to them or are they less to do with language and more to do with fear of change?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Cunning stunts and gran slang

Last week's Sun has a fairly hopeless guide to teen slang (see picture) which not only puts slang words together in a silly order but also stereotypes teenagers as Vicky Pollard wannabes.

So we get lots of terms like fam, breh, bare and hater which have been knocking around for years (probably centuries in the case of breh), and others which I've not come across like piff (good), stunting (showing off) and shifted (arrested).

But what I want to know is,where does bare come from and what's its etymology? Is it anything to do with the American expression "loaded for bear" (see here). And secondly, why do young south Londoners pronounce seen as skeen? Is it anything to do with the original 1960s (?) slang word being spelt as scene and the new way of saying it just a deviant, phonetic pronunciation? These are proper questions, so if you've got any ideas please say...

And in today's Telegraph there's a story about a new dictionary aimed at young people, designed to help them understand "gran slang". As the article points out "Many of the words used by teenagers today are incomprehensible to older generations, but it must be equally baffling for younger people trying to get to grips with the lexicon of their grandparents" and the creator of the dictionary wittily adds "No longer will the word mint, used by young people to denote approval, be confused with a request for a hard-boiled, peppermint-flavoured sweet". The wag...

Edited 16.03.11 to add:
Jonathon Green, the famous slang lexicographer, has offered the following etymology of bare on The Dabbler's website:

bare, which is also found as bere, is an import from the Caribbean. It began life as a Bajan (Barbados) word meaning ‘nothing but’, i.e. ‘too much of’ and links back to and plays on the standard English barely (enough). It seems to have emerged in the UK in the late Nineties, first among black and then all teens, who use it to mean ‘many’ or ‘lots of’. 

For ‘bare’ examples, I offer a 2003 interview with Dizzee Rascal in Vice Magazine:
I got kicked out of bare schools. [...] Bare people were getting pregnant around me in the manor, getme? Bare girls were getting breeded up. [...] There’s just so many talented people but road gets a hold of them, bare people I know could have made it. [...] One little thing gets out, gets changed, changed, by the time it goes from two people to bare people. [...] Oh yeah I’ve heard bare times that I’ve been shot.

Gestures point to a baby's success

Research from the University of Chicago reported here and here suggests that parents who use gesture with their children in the early stages of language development are more likely to see their kids grow up to have higher productive vocabularies and be better prepared for school.

As you'll probably have looked at with interactional theories of language development - Jerome Bruner, Catherine Snow et al. - there's a belief on the part of many child language experts that parents and caregivers can use body language and gesture to help children develop their language skills.

The Guardian report explains:

Meredith Rowe and Susan Goldin-Meadow, from the University of Chicago, worked with 50 young families from different socio-economic backgrounds to investigate why some toddlers seemed to grasp language more quickly than others.

They filmed 14-month-old children during an hour and a half of play with their parents and noted down the words and gestures that were used. Later, when the children were aged four and a half, they were given a vocabulary test to assess their language skills.

The video sessions showed that better-educated parents used gestures more often, and as a result, their children learned to use hand signals themselves in a variety of ways. On average, toddlers from well-educated families used gestures to convey 24 different meanings during a 90-minute play session. Toddlers from less-educated families used gestures to convey only 13.

They go on to add, "By learning to gesture, toddlers pick up new words more quickly because it prompts parents to name the object the gesture is directed at. For example, if a child points at a doll, the parent might repeat the word "doll" a few times, boosting the child's chances of remembering the word".

But is it as simple as that? Socio-economic status is very important in this study and it's pretty clear that children from higher income backgrounds tend to have more communication and interaction with their parents (...he says while tapping at a keyboard ignoring his 3 kids who are watching TV or playing on a DS...) as this 2004 Guardian article by Polly Toynbee points out in its reference to research by Hart and Risley into social class and language.

I'm sure the researchers will have looked at this issue and I'm probably missing something obvious, but from the reports printed here I can't see any reason to think that gesture has that much to do with anything: just because a child from a higher income family uses more gesture at 14 months and then goes on to have a higher productive vocabulary at 54 months, doesn't necessarily mean that any improvement is down to gesture. Surely the socio-economic status of the child is what is really influencing the leap? And while there's clearly a case for arguing that gesture can help improve children's language development, is it really more important than the child's opportunities for communication, the level of interaction they receive from parents and the environment the child grows up in? I'm not so sure...

n00bs get pwned

At the root of all internet dialects is leet, the most impenetrable of them all. Leet was what hackers and gamers spoke to each other on bulletin boards back in the 1990s. Since then, it has grown and morphed, hitting a peak in 2005. “Leet”, often spelt “l33t”, is, as mentioned, a phonetic version of the word “elite”, a reference to the technocrats who used it. Leet grew in chat rooms as a means of creating a linguistic in-crowd that excluded uninitiated newcomers, or “n00bs”.

This is how leetspeak (l33tsp34k) is explained by Anna Leach in a fascinating article in yesterday's Independent. With internet slang becoming mainstream and even your granny knowing something about LOLcats and perhaps even having her own level 27 Nightelf hunter in World of Warcraft, the article takes a look at where it's all come from and how it connects to other forms of slang.

As the lexicographer Jonathan Green (speaker at next June's SFX Language workshops, fact fans!) explains "BBC English is what the establishment speaks. Slang is the language that intentionally does the opposite. We are hard-wired as humans to take the piss – we do it politically and socially, and we do it linguistically". And internet slang is very much part of this.

David Crystal (another speaker in June) adds “Fifty years ago, if you invented a word it would take approximately 20 years to get it into the dictionary. Now you can invent something and it’s all over the net in days,” making it clear that while many of the sources of slang are not new - abuse, in-group markers of identity, terms of approval and excitement - that the speed at which they proliferate is something we haven't seen before.

The article goes on to explain how l33t words are often formed and how they are used:
A combination of typos, computer-game references and tech jargon, leet is intentionally baffling. It is also the common ancestor of lolspeak and snark: lolspeak has inherited its linguistic tinkering, while snark has taken on the ethos of the egotistical put-down. “To make leet,” says Kat Hannaford, news editor of T3 magazine’s website, “you manipulate language by adding -xor or -age on the end of words.” Some leet words, such as “w00t” (hooray) and “I have skillz” are becoming mainstream, while other words and phrases reflect the preoccupation of the √©lite with putting down n00bs, or the analogous pleasure-rush of hacking someone else’s computer system. “Elite speakers are arrogant,” Hannaford says. “There’s a lot of ego in leetspeak.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Battle of the texters

Gender and text messaging come under the spotlight in a recent piece of research from Indiana University carried out by Susan Herring and Asta Zelenkauskaite, reported here in Science Daily.

According to the summary on Science Daily, the usual patterns of gender interaction* - men talking for longer and using more non-standard forms - are reversed when men and women use text messaging to interact in public forums.

Expecting findings consistent with past research on gender-patterned public communication, Herring and Zelenkauskaite were predicting men would post more and longer text messages, and that men would also employ more non-standard techniques. Instead, the opposite was true when it came to communication within a new, convergent medium that mixes interactive television (iTV) with SMS or texting.

The study found women used more non-standard language such as abbreviations or expressive insertions that represented characteristics including enthusiasm, sadness, emphasis and individuality. And while women were both more economical and expressive, they also came closer to maxing out, or did max out, on the 160-character message limit more often than their male counterparts.

So, according to this research, if the length of a text message equates to the length of an utterance in spoken mode, then it's actually women who are "saying" more and "saying" it more often. But of course, this isn't quite the texting we're used to here, because (as they explain in the article) the texts are used as part of an interactive TV forum, rather than phone to phone. Presumably you text in and your message appears on the screen.

Would the same patterns hold true in phone to phone texting or would the usual patterns* of gender and spoken language kick back in? And might this research throw up these findings because the nature of the text "conversation" is flirtatious and expressive in nature?

But whatever the quibbles over the possible differences between this and "proper" texting, it does raise lots of interesting questions about how we negotiate computer-mediated communication and blended modes, and whether the patterns sometimes noted in spoken interaction can be seen directly translated over onto these newer modes.

(*I'm using this term with some qualification, because as you can see here and here, generalising about gender and language is a bit of a mug's game)

Friday, February 06, 2009

Good golly Miss Carol

Carol Thatcher's recent use of the word "gollywog" to refer to a black tennis player and her subsequent sacking as a BBC presenter have sparked debate about racist language and Political Correctness. On one hand, you've got those who argue that the word "gollywog" has carried racist connotations for so long that its use can never be excused, and on the other hand you've got those who argue it's harmless - just a word used to refer to a cuddly children's toy - and that it's PC (quite literally) gone mad.

Yesterday's Daily Mail had an article about it (thanks to Miss "Smudger" Smith for this) and today has several articles ranting against the totalitarian media elite who run the BBC. "Bloody communists telling us we can't call darkies and wogs what we want to" seems to be the gist of Richard Littlejohn's and Mad Melanie Phillips' columns.

Today's Guardian runs several features about the word, the doll and the recent media outrage. In one, Mike Phillips argues that the history of racial stereotyping and racist attitudes expressed through language make the word a no-no. Here, Jon Henley charts the background to the toy and the word, and here Hannah Pool gives a personal view of the word and the toy. As she says:

When I hear the word a red mist descends: I don't want to see it, or even discuss it, all I want is for people to stop saying it and take the damn thing out of my sight. I do not care whether or not it was considered racist when it first appeared in 1873, a fact which is pretty weak as arguments go, I mean come on, how many black people do you think were asked about it then?

Elsewhere, a linguist from Language Log has drawn together this story, Princes Harry and Charles' recent racist remarks into an interesting post about attitudes to racist language and taboos.

And here's a link as suggested by Shane Kelly (see comment below) from today's Times, written by the Nigerian poet and author Lola Shoneyin.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The dictionary according to Charlie Brooker

Huzzah! College is closed because of snow, and Charlie Brooker has created lots of new words in his Monday column in The Guardian. Here are some of them:

broverkill (bro-verr-kill) n. To be almost, but not quite, as bored of listening to people talk about how they don't watch Big Brother as by the continued existence of the programme itself.

chudge (chudj) n. An underqualified judge on an underwhelming TV talent contest.

crotchdog (krotch-dog) n. Dismal paparazzo whose career consists of lying in the gutter desperately pointing his camera up the skirts of celebrities exiting limousines.

So, for this week's A2 Haribo/Maltesers prize, choose 3 other words from his article and label them with the correct word formation process (e.g. crotchdog = crotch + dog = compound).

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Keeping it bankster

Words pop in and out of our language as social conditions change. The American gangster, which is still with us, has been around as a noun and a reality since 1896 according to my Shorter Oxford, but it seems to have dropped another Americanism from the 1930s and I think now is the time to revive it. The word is bankster, derived by a marriage of banker and gangster.

So says Harold Evans in his Point of View piece for Radio 4. As he points out, we've absorbed loads of new words from American English, including hijack, hobo, rubbernecker and hitchhiker, but the time is maybe right to revive an older American blend that has dropped out of use: bankster.

It's an interesting article, as the fundamental point about language change reflecting social change is essential to an understanding of the ENA5 Contemporary Language Change essay question, which almost always asks for examples of new words and meanings, and a discussion about why language changes. All bankster needs now is an orthographic shift to become banksta and we'll have a really modern word. Keeping it real estate y'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...