Thursday, October 28, 2010

Attitudes to foreign accents

With the post earlier today focussing on changing English accents and pronunciation, here's something different. A piece of psychological research from the USA and covered on the BPS research digest shows that in a study of "believability" heavier foreign accents came out lower in their score than light accents or "normal" ones.

The researchers suggest that it isn't just down to prejudice, but might have something to do with what they refer to as the "fluency effect" (Wikipedia defines and explains it here). Perhaps if we struggle to process a heavier, less familiar accent, we tend to believe the content of it less. The study referred to by the BPS seems to suggest that the fluency effect really has an impact.

A while ago (1971 to be precise) Howard Giles carried out a famous sociolinguistic study when he looked at attitudes towards different accents in the UK. He used a matched guise structure for his study (read more about this methodology here) and the American study is similar in many respects.

Edited on 26.11.10 to add:
This piece of research into the brain's activity when faced with foreign accents is also quite interesting.

Why we love i and simples

There's lots of good stuff for students of language change in today's papers and online, with the latest additions to the Collins English Dictionary getting some coverage. The Scotsman gets some expert opinion from Edinburgh University's Geoff Pullum on the new entries to the dictionary and you can read more here. Elsewhere, the BBC covers it here and The Guardian here.

For many of these articles, the highlight is the inclusion of a humorous Russian meerkat and his use of "simples". Linked to new words and their formation, the BBC News magazine also has an interesting look at the way i- has entered the language as a kind of trendy prefix. According to the article, now we have the iPod, the i-Player and the i-Phone (well I don't have an i-Phone but I wish I did) but soon we will have i-everything. In the same way that e took off as a briefly funky prefix to add to anything you wanted to pretend was modern (e-commerce, e-marketing, email...) i- has become the new must-have prefix. It's a good read and features the wisdom of Tony Thorne from King's College, London, a man who knows his onions when it comes to language change and new words.

Getting in a pickle with lickle Mr Tickle

The forthcoming British Library Evolving English exhibition is looking like a brilliant event for anyone who is interested in our language, and it's receiving some national coverage today for its focus on our evolving accents.

This morning's Radio 4 Today programme featured Jonnie Robinson from the British Library and John Wells, the UCL phonetician, talking about how our pronunciation of different words changes and how people feel about those changes. You can listen to it on i-Player here and if you're an SFX student try the link through Moodle that will appear later this week.

The BBC News website covers the exhibition's focus on collecting pronunciation here and they explain how the Mr Men story, Mr Tickle, is being used to collect our regional, social and ethnic differences in pronunciation.

So, how do you say little? Is it li??el (with glottal stops), littel (with Ts in your mouth), lickle (if you're Jamaican...or Tim Westwood)? And what about the eighth letter in our alphabet: is it Haitch or Aitch? The British Library wants to know. There's more about it here as well.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

So, farewell then, Melissa. Those who dissed you will be retributed.

It's with great sadness that we wave farewell to Melissa from this season's Apprentice. Not only did she have the charisma of a young Amy Winehouse, the self-belief of Gordon Gecko and the haircut of a porcupine, but she also changed our language.

Today's fantastic moments included (following on from the other week's comfortability where adding an "-ity" suffix to a word makes it even more serious than just plain comfort) professionality , manoeuvrement (not manoeuvrability)and (at the end of the show where she claimed to have been ganged up against by her fellow boardroom candidates) the bloodcurdling threat that for their behaviour... "karmically they'll be retributed".WTF?

Goodbye, Melissa. We salute you for making up random new words.

edited the morning after to add:
...but are they random? A colleague says that, while they appear random, Melissa is actually following some rules with her use of -ity and -ment. But what are those rules and why should professional, the adjective, take -ism to make it a noun, or manoeuvre, the verb, take -ability rather than -ment?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Representation of celebrities

There's a good piece in today's Independent about the ways in which celebrities are represented in the media. It looks at the cycles of build-em-up-and-knock-em-down that are so common in the press and focuses particularly on Cheryl Cole and Wayne Rooney.

Definitely some good material here for an ENGA2 Investigating Representations task, I think.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The mode map

While it doesn't quite cover all modes, this map by the cartoonist, Randall Munroe, is a really great way of visualising the different forms of communication available to us in 2010. He's chosen to make the land masses' sizes proportional to their number of users, as this article in The Independent explains.

The full image of the map can be found here. You'll see me bobbing up and down in the Gulf of Lag, just off the south coast of the MMO Isle.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


I nearly choked on my Chilean Merlot last night (drunk to celebrate the rescue of the trapped Chilean miners rather than out of any dependence on the tranquilising effects of alcohol, honest) when Apprentice contestant Melissa used the expression "to find comfortability" while referring to her team's hopeless product the Book-Eze, designed to make reading on the beach less onerous (watch from about 30-31 minutes into this episode if you want to hear it for yourself).Am I getting prescriptive in my old age?

"Comfortability"? Is it a real word? When I type it wrongly, my Blogger spellcheck corrects it, so Blogger thinks it's real. I've checked it on WebCorp and it seems to appear on several US business websites and it gets used  by American footballer, Shawne Merriman here. But what does it mean? And why not just "comfort"?

This guy claims he coined it to refer to an ability to be "fully present/comfortable in an uncomfortable situation". I can't find it in the OED or Merriam-Webster, but it appears as long ago as 1984 as part of a medical test, "A Comfortability Level Scale for Performance of Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation". Weird...

So, is this like conversate: a word that might have originally just been a mistake, a slip of the tongue, and which gets picked up and spread into wider usage because of its apparently impressive sound? Is it better than "comfort", and, more importantly, will I be able to read my Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on Bognor beach in comfortability?

Tube tips for women revisited

Back in 2005, Transport For London issues a leaflet called Tube Tips For Women which set out to help women "get the most out of the tube and stay safe". It contained such brilliant and original advice as minding your step on the escalator if you're wearing "party shoes", always carry a cereal bar (fits well in even the tiniest of handbags, apparently) and capped it all with graphology straight from the high street perfume counters, all lippie and pink squiggles. Zoe Williams of The Guardian didn't like it and after a few complaints it was withdrawn.

The original link to the leaflet died after the leaflet was pulled, but I've uploaded it as a clickable image on the original post from 2005, which you can find here. If you're looking at representation of gender for ENGA2, the leaflet, Williams' response and 2 or 3 other short extracts about the same theme would probably make a good set of materials for an investigation.

Monday, October 11, 2010

More on slang and correcting dodgy grammar

Here's a couple of follow-ups to recent stories featured on this blog.

For starters, this is a comment piece by Bob Nicholson in The Guardian which looks at how Victorian English took in American slang, and how the Americanisation of English is hardly a recent phenomenon.

Then there's this piece by Belinda Webb, also from The Guardian, that takes a look at reactions to slang. It's not a particularly brilliant article as the writer appears to confuse dialect and slang, but it's an intervention in the debate about language, so worth a look.

Finally, there's this article about Queen's English Society arch-pedant, Bernard Lamb in last month's Times Higher.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The English Language: it's not doing great

Each day seems to bring another argument about language and how it should be used. It is a great time to be an English Language student, huzzah!

Today's Independent features an opinion piece by Dr. Bernard Lamb, the President of the Queen's English Society (Surely that's a dangerously republican title for a staunchly royalist organisation?) who argues, among other things, for an end to the inverted snobbery and deliberate dumbing down of language that have led to a generation of nitwits not knowing the difference between they're and their. He rails against many other things too: the glottal stop; the lack of capitalisation of proper nouns; using great as an adverb when it's an adjective (Stop press! It's been used as an adverb for a long time. Deal with it!).

And as a professor of genetics, he's obviously eminently qualified to talk about... genetics. So why is he holding forth about language?

Anyway, he does make some sensible points too. There is a really good argument that we all need Standard English as it is a mutually intelligible dialect for all English speakers. If we all have access to Standard English then we all have a chance to communicate with each other, regardless of the region, the social class, the ethnic group or the age group we come from. I wouldn't argue against any of that. But when the definition of Standard English (or the Queen's English as Lamb insists on calling it) spreads like a BP oil slick to cover strong regional accents, glottal stops and the "misuse" of literally, then it's no longer really about a mutually intelligible means of communication and much more to do with personal prejudices.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Slang: now the teachers don't know nuffink neither

Yesterday's Daily Mail featured a brief story about a school in Portsmouth where two teaching assistants have been criticised in an OFSTED report for their "poor grammar". As usual, the Daily Mail's message boards seem to act like a magnet to every droooling, knuckledragging dimwit in the universe (as well as the occasional rational human) so within a day 100 comments about the state of the British education system had been posted, ranging from those that blame Nigerians, Alesha Dixon and Tony Blair to those that are sure it's the fault of scruffy (male) teachers and Alan Sugar.

The story actually turns out to have very little to do with slang (despite the Mail and this blog's headline) and much more to do with dialect. The teaching assistants had apparently used the local construction "I likes football" (which shows a different subject verb agreement from Standard English's "I like football", or more accurately "I hate Millwall"). But again, and like so many other stories about aspects of language, the anger isn't really directed at the feature itself (which is pretty harmless) but at the users of it and those that are perceived as letting it ruin young people's education.

I've done a (slightly) more technical post about this over on the Teaching English Grammar in Schools blog if anyone's interested, but is it really such a bad thing to have a couple of teaching assistants using a local variety of English in the classrroom?

And wouldn't it be good if next time the Daily Mail ran a story like this, a mass language intervention of intelligent comments from A level English Language students drowned out the nutty ramblings of the usual message board trolls?

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...