Thursday, September 30, 2010

Slang: evil or nice?

Let's follow up the recent stories about Emma Thompson's views on slang with a quick poll. What's your view on the slang debate?

Does it make young people sound stupid, like Emma Thompson suggests?
Is it a normal part of language that we should accept and celebrate?
Is it only stupid when used by 40 year-old English Language teachers trying to like bond with da yoot dem, ya get me?

You can vote to the right of this post*.

Edited to add: The Observer has a debate on this very issue in today's paper. Have a look here.

*Calls cost 20 Czech Kroner and lines close at 8am. Calls after this time will not be counted towards the vote and you will be charged. Double.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The benefits of slang

Emma Thompson's attack on young people's slang has been covered in a range of newspapers and websites, with an interesting one here in today's Daily Telegraph and another here on the BBC News Magazine pages here. There was even a feature on Channel 4 news last night.

To listen to David Crystal talk about this story, go here (BBC World Service interview: about 10 mins 30seconds into it).

Edited to add this link from the Daily Mirror: quite a nice style model for a language intervention on ENGA4, or media text on ENGB4, perhaps.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Learn to code-switch or "look like a knob" says Emma Thompson, actor and ex-pupil of Camden School For Girls. Despite sounding like it should be an exclusive private school for the daughters of city bankers and royal equerries, CSFG is actually a north London comprehensive and therefore reflects - to some extent (exorbitant local house prices aside) - the social and ethnic make-up of that part of London. So when Emma Thompson went back there to a charity evening, she was struck by the slang being used by the pupils (says The Independent).

"I went to give a talk at my old school and the girls were all doing 'likes' and 'innits?' and 'it aint's', which drives me insane," she told the Radio Times. "I told them, 'Don't do it because it makes you sound stupid and you're not stupid.' There is the necessity to have two languages – one you use with your mates and the other that you need in any official capacity. Or you're going to sound like a knob."

Thompson's point about having two languages is a fair one, but to write off a few slang terms as  making you sound "stupid" seems to me to be a step or two too far. Fair enough, if you don't like those expressions, then you've got a right to say so, but to equate slang with stupidity is just narrow-minded. To make matters worse, Thompson then slips into her own generation's slang when she says that saying "like" and "innit" makes you "sound like a knob".

Why is it OK for Emma Thompson to mix her codes in the pages of a national publication, while it's apparently not OK for teenagers at her old school to switch codes? Sounds to me like the old prescriptivist stance that younger people's use of language is a degraded form: a crumbling castle idea, that Jean Aitchison effectively nails in her famous Reith Lectures.

The Independent has a good leader article on the story, which you can find here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

English RIP

If you're looking for style models to help you with media texts for ENGB4 or language interventions for ENGA4, this fake obituary for the English language is a nice example. While the content is pretty standard prescriptivist fare (The language is doomed! People make spelling errors! Newspapers print bad English!) the style in which it's written is quite interesting. Here's the first paragraph:

The English language, which arose from humble Anglo-Saxon roots to become the lingua franca of 600 million people worldwide and the dominant lexicon of international discourse, is dead. It succumbed last month at the age of 1,617 after a long illness. It is survived by an ignominiously diminished form of itself.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Has feminism caused obesity epidemic?

It's all too easy to mock the Daily Mail, but yesterday's headline about feminism killing home cooking and therefore being responsible for the current "obesity epidemic" was a gem. Elsewhere in the Mail, Philip Norman got very upset about some words and phrases - Americanisms and sloppy phrasing - that he doesn't like.

ROFLMAO @ attempts to use LOLspk in blog headlinez. WTF

Moderate (and sometimes vaguely illiterate) outrage has been sparked on message boards in the USA with the announcement that the latest edition of the Oxford American Dictionary will now include examples of webspeak, such as Twitter's mighty hashtag (#) and TTYL.

AOL news's Carl Frantzen has a look at the changes here and compares the new entries to those on the always interesting but sometimes stupid Urban Dictionary.

An Introduction to Language: David Crystal event in south London

David Crystal will be appearing at King's College (just near Waterloo) on the afternoon of October 20th and his publishers want A-level students to attend. He's being filmed for a new Routledge DVD called an Introduction To Language so it will be a lecture that will undoubtedly suit AS and A2 level students very well.

If you're interested in attending either as a student, or as teacher bringing students along, please email me through this link and I'll get back to you.

Friday, September 17, 2010

More effin' Heffer

Just in case you've not had enough of this man's bumptious prescriptivism, here's a link to the fourth extract from his book and another link to a piece on Radio 4's site. And better still, here's a link to Bad Linguistics where the linguist, Pauline Foster, lays out her criticisms of Heffer's brand of dubious pedantry.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Destructivism: the death of languages

The BBC News Magazine (always a good source of language stories) has a feature on dying languages this week. It's a good read that starts to raise questions about the links between language, culture and identity. For example, when a language dies, does part of human culture go with it? Or should we just treat the death of an obscure language as an inevitable and unlamented consequence of progress?

Given the rise of English (or Globish...or ELF) around the world, it's a process that will occur more and more frequently as time goes by.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Two postscripts

Just two quick follow-ups to yesterday's posts.

Firstly, Kira Cochrane in The Guardian has picked up the David Haye "as one-sided as a gang-rape" story and put together a more wide-reaching piece on the word "rape" itself and its changing uses. It's an interesting read which touches on many issues to do with language reflecting and shaping social attitudes, while also making some good points about how the casual use of the word can both emphasise the horror of the act itself and also diminish its significance. The etymology of the word itself though is worth a look. According to Etymology online, the original (late 14th Century) meaning of "to rape" was to "seize" or "take by force" and it had no clear sexual connotation. It was only later (late 16th Century) that sexual meanings became applied to the word, and then in the sense that the woman was treated as any other "object" that had been taken by force, perhaps revealing the attitude that women were the property of men and the violation of a woman was actually a crime against the man who "owned" her.

Secondly, in response to the Simon Heffer piece on Radio 4's Today yesterday, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at UCL, Dick Hudson, points out that the example Heffer gives of "I will, you shall, he shall" is not actually right if he is talking about the rule of "simple futurity" that he has referred to seconds before. Was this dodgy editing by Radio 4, or should Mr Heffer go back to school? Where this stuff isn't actually taught anyway...

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The grumbling appendix of prescriptivism

"The teaching of English has left most pupils with nothing but a random and often erroneous understanding of the components of language." So began John Humphrys on this morning's Today programme on Radio 4* as he introduced an item about a man he clearly admires, Simon Heffer.

The opening quotation comes from Heffer's new book, Strictly English, published by Random House (I'm sure Heffer would be appalled at the fairly recent semantic change random has undergone.) and which Heffer's very own Daily Telegraph has been serialising over the last three weeks (part one, part two, part three).

In his book, and in the Radio 4 interview, Heffer SLAMS the teaching of grammar, RAGES against a generation of linguistic illiterates and BLASTS the exaggerated language of tabloids. He's quite angry, it's fair to say.

But he's also very big on "correctness", asserting on a number of occasions that we are judged by how we speak and write. This is no doubt true, but who is doing the judging? Heffer mostly. He comes from a long line of prescriptivists (one of whom is John Humphrys himself, whose books have recently appeared in extract in A level exam questions on Language Change) who see a general decline in literacy standards wherever they look. If it's not the tabloid press, then it's teachers wot carnt spell. And if it's not gangster rap, then it's those people who use literally when they don't really mean literally. He's literally frothing at the mouth over that one.

Clearly, some people do have problems switching between registers, while others aren't really that clear on word etymologies, and it's probably fair to say that, for a minority of young people, formal written English is not a very familiar or comfortable variety to use, but it's always been that way. This generation (or the last, or even mine) is not any worse than the others.

One point raised by Heffer in the Radio 4 interview is about the distinction between shall and will. He says, "To say I will do something is a statement of resolution: you're saying I am absolutely determined to do it. To say I shall do something is a statement of simple futurity: that it's going to happen. It's I will, you shall, he shall". Frankly, who cares?

Recent research by linguists suggests that this shall/will distinction is becoming increasingly redundant, with usage of shall falling between 40-50% over the last 30 years. Perhaps we now have other ways of expressing "resolution" and "futurity", and the rather antiquated "rule" - dreamt up by "experts" who based their rules on their own usage, funnily enough - is dying out. It's like the appendix: no one really knows what it does and it sometimes grumbles and causes us pain. A bit like Heffer and his ilk?

*Listen to it on i-Player here (from 2:36.44 - 2:41.38)
and thanks to Julia H for tipping me off about this great interview.

A simile too far

Boxers speak with their fists, but occasionally one comes out with something poetic and deep from his mouth - float like a butterfly & sting like a bee, maybe. David Haye is not one of those people. His recent comment that his fight with Audley Harrison would be "as one-sided as a gang rape" has been met with outrage. His defence via Twitter? "If I apologised for every stupid/ignorant thing i said, I wouldn't have time for anything else during the day!"

So that's OK then...

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

NY speak

There's a nifty article in last week's BBC News magazine about changing accents in New York which is well worth a look. While the AQA A spec hasn't tended to cover American varieties in the past, there is now a World Englishes topic on ENGA3 where this might come in handy. From a different perspective you can also see more general patterns of language change in the ways that the NYC accent is reported to have changed over time. Anyway, the story is here and there is some video to go with it.

Twitter helps regions reign while twitz drop their slang

It's not every day that I get to write something that links Twitter, regional slang and N'Dubz, but here goes...

Research from Dr Eric Schleef at the University of Manchester, reported in the Telegraph and Guardian last week, suggests that regional dialects are not dying out quite as quickly as linguists thought they might a couple of decades ago. The argument - called dialect levelling - was that as society became more mobile and people shifted away from smaller communities to larger urban sprawls, their local varieties of language would fade away and in their place would rise regional varieties, and perhaps even ultimately just one homogenous national variety. To some extent, this has already happened, and the story here about regional "super-accents" seems to support it.

But Schleef argues that social networking and mass media have actually helped spread many regional terms - dialect words and slang - among the wider population. In The Daily Telegraph report he is quoted as saying the following:

Twitter, Facebook and texting all encourage speed and immediacy of understanding, meaning users type as they speak, using slang, dialect respellings and colloquialisms.The result is we are all becoming exposed to words we may not have otherwise encountered, while absorbing them into everyday speech."

He added that it was not now uncommon to hear a northerner utter words such as “tidy” or “lush” – Welsh terms for attractive - or to catch southerners describing something good as “mint”, a term coined in Manchester. 

Fair enough, but does this actually mean that local varieties are here to stay or that we're adopting a buffet-style approach to our language choices, picking words we like from the table (like nice, tasty, breaded prawns) and ignoring ones we find odd or unpleasant (bits of limp cheese flan)?

Meanwhile, in news that will upset 12 year old girls all over limited parts of north London, the poor man's answer to the Black-Eyed Peas, N'Dubz, have decided to drop some of their trademark slang in order to appeal to the American market. In this article from The Sun, you can find out more...admittedly not much more, as it's a very short article, but presumably the reporter couldn't understand much of what they were saying as Dappy only seems to communicate through an elaborate series of hand gestures these days.

Whatever you think of E3's finest export, Dizzee Rascal, and his rise to pop fame at the expense of some of his musical credibility, at least he's kept his linguistic identity. So what are N'Dubz playing at? Will they gain a bigger audience in the USA because they don't say "bruv" and "innit" in their lyrics, or will the American audience take one listen to their lyrics and turn to each other saying, "These lyrics are as characterless as the rather anodyne music that accompanies them. I shall no longer listen to the so-called N'Dubz and instead invest my hard-earned dollars in some Kano and Wiley, artists who remain true to their linguistic roots. And whose music is better. Bruv."? On a slightly more serious level, doesn't it suggest that even while we're quite happy to pick-n-mix our vocabulary in casual chats between friends or on social networking sites, when it comes to a wider audience, we accommodate to a more neutral register?

Of course, you have to be careful if you're being rude about N'Dubz or Dappy will send you a poorly-spelled threatening text message, but I say bring it on*.

*Not really

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Stop your bitchin' and get back in the kitchen... probably not the sort of headline Bidisha would like, and rightly so: it uses derogatory and belittling language about women and identifies them as complainers who are suited only to domestic roles. But I've used it for a cheap joke, so that's OK isn't it?

In this forthright and impassioned article about attitudes and words, the Guardian writer lays into the casual sexism of British society and the words that so often carry and propagate these attitudes. It's a provocative article and focusses on a language topic that has been debated before by English Language students, so it's definitely worth a read.

The writer refers to the "pyramid of egregiousness" - a chart of words offensive to women, ranked in order of their unpleasantness. You can find it here and also find out more about why feminists (and anyone with at least half a brain) find them objectionable.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

I would get NIFOC but PAW

If you know what the title of this blog post means then you should either be ashamed of yourself or get out more. The answer's at the bottom of the post if you want to know*.

Different generations have always created new slang terms and with the massive growth of the internet and other forms of electronic communication, the pace of change has been ramped up another level. As ever, those who aren't young (like me) start to get confused about what the yoot dem are saying and think they're up to no good. And if you look at a site like this one, you'd probably fear the worst: that your son/daughter is engaging in pervy behaviour on a webcam in their room while you're reading the paper and picking your bunions in the living room.

But is the slang of the internet and texting, with all its BRBs and LOLs and ASLs really that different from what different generations used in the past? David Crystal, the bearded God of English Language, thinks not and wrote several chapters in his Txting: the GR8 DB8 about just this. Elsewhere, Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus sees abbreviations in loads of older texts.

*NIFOC = Naked In Front Of Computer
PAW = Parents Are Watching

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...