Friday, February 25, 2011

Learning the language/s

The ways in which children acquire language have been thoroughly researched for the best part of a century now, and even before people like Piaget, Vygotsky and Chomsky arrived on the scene, there were many observations about how children picked up (or didn't pick up) features of language, and the issue exercised the minds of great thinkers such as Kant and Plato.

More recently, studies have tended to become more intensive and involve masses more data than the earlier studies which often consisted of researchers tracking their own kids' development (or in my case publicly humiliating my children by showing clips of them to my classes or writing about them in the textbook) . The Deb Roy study at MIT which was featured in the BBC Horizon Programme Why Do We Talk (see here and here for links and further reading) showed how huge amounts of data could be collected by filming a child through CCTV for literally years, and then processing that data to see exactly what happened when.

This study shows how another large scale investigation is shedding light on the acquisition of Standard English and African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) in children. The findings, as reported in Science Daily, show that African-American children arrive at school with quite a high incidence of vernacular features in their speech. This then drops off as they go through the first four years of school before spiking again at the end of elementary school and dipping as the children enter high school.

The article suggests that there are implications in these findings for the teaching of Standard English in schools, which might well be the case, but it would also appear that the data tells us a bit more about how young people feel about themselves and their vernacular forms as they get older. Language is of course part of a wider system of social signification as well as a set of words and structures to be acquired, so it's quite likely that as children get older their relationship with their own language will change, and as the research seems to suggest this isn't a regular, smooth process but one that goes in peaks and troughs.

It's interesting to see how children start to pick up slang from their peer group at school as they get older and how this sits with the different varieties of English they hear around them - at school and at home -  so it's no surprise that a variety as well-established and widely used in the USA as AAVE will go through cycles as its users negotiate the complex territory of age, ethnicity, individual identity and mainstream, standard language forms.

One of the implications for English teaching might be that studying AAVE (or in the case of the UK, British Black English and other dialects or sociolects) alongside the Standard forms helps to develop a better understanding of both forms and their suitability for different situations. After all, what is being talked about here is quite a positive thing: being fluent in two languages/ codes rather than just one.

Other research into bilingualism in the early years of childhood would seem to suggest that having two or more languages around you is actually a very positive thing, leading to enhanced flexibility in thinking and even health benefits in later years:

Studies of children who grow up as bilingual speakers indicate they are often better at perspective-taking tasks, such as prioritizing, than monolingual children. Experiments with older bilingual speakers indicate that the enhanced mental skills may protect them from problems associated with ageing, such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
So, as the report puts it, "juggling" two languages helps in many ways, and that doesn't just apply to recognised languages but also varieties of languages.

(If you can get hold of Graeme Trousdale's chapter Variation and Education in Analysing Variation in English (eds.Maguire, Warren & McMahon, April) you can find a clear explanation of how studying non-standard varieties is actually very good for our understanding of grammar in general, and helps with our grasp of standard forms too.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Word formation processes and language change

This piece by Stan Carey on the MacMillan Dictionary Blog is worth a look if you're trying to come up with examples of recently created new words. As he points out, with words like staycation and daycation, many of these new words are the result of similar processes, in this case the blending of  whole words or elements of existing words, so stay + vacation = staycation, while day + vacation = daycation.

You can also see some examples of new words that relate to specific events, such as flunami ("an extremely large increase in the number of people suffering from flu" formed by flu + tsunami) being linked to the recent spike in flu cases, while snowpocalypse (snow + apocalypse), snowmageddon (snow + armageddon) and blizzaster (blizzard + disaster) all relate to the USA's recent bad weather and increasingly inventive ways to describe its magnitude.

Of course, as we find ever more inventive ways to express the size of something massive, the original words that used to mean that something was impressive or big tend to get bleached, losing their power and forcing us to find an expression that's more powerful.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Don't be a mooncalf: learn some new (and old) words

If you're feeling a bit angry or irritated with someone, but are bored of using the same old words to describe them, why not flex your lexis and pick up a whole new vocabulary? It's fun and easy if you go to this link on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary site, and you'll be told a bit about each word too.

If you are interested in recent entries to various dictionaries, this link is helpful. Included among the latest entries are the blend Belieber (believer + Bieber), the intejection ew, which signifies disgust and should appear very close to Bieber's name every time it appears, and oneversation (a blend of one and conversation) which refers to a conversation where the other party doesn't listen to a word you say.

The American Dialect Society voted app as its word of the year for 2010. Which would be great if I had an i-Phone but I don't.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Language change - a crash course

If you're struggling to work out what happened when in the history of English language change go no further than this handy webpage by Philip Durkin at the OED. It's called Five Events That Shaped the History of English and it's very good.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Rastamouse: rewind

This is just a quick post as I know we've covered Rastamouse a lot recently, and I don't want you to think I am obsessed.

This article on The Voice's website is worth a look if you want to see how its (mostly) black readership have responded to the appearance of the reggae-loving rodent.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Language wars: some reviews

Henry Hitchings' new book on debates about "proper English", Language Wars, is a must-read for any A level Language student doing the AQA A spec. It's full of excellent material for the ENGA3 Language Discourses question, and you'll get a good sense of the overall history of the language from reading it.

These reviews from The Independent, The Observer and from Deborah Cameron in The Guardian should give you a good idea of why it's essential reading.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Rastamouse: the bloodclart blacklash begins

It's only been a couple of days since we covered the mighty Rastamouse on this blog and, frankly, that is too long. As predicted here, there have been accusations that the programme encourages young children to use grievous grammar and patchy patois (admittedly, it was the Daily Telegraph that reported this, not the Daily Mail, but just wait...I wouldn't be too surprised if the Daily Star linked Rastamouse to an alleged plot to kill the EDL leader next week).

The other accusation seems to be that the programme stereotypes Jamaicans and the Jamaican English variety - some claiming that it will lead to racism because (wait for it) white kids will start talking in Rastamouse patois and get beaten up by actual Rastafarians. No, really.

While that argument strikes me as almost completely deranged (and full of stereotypes of its own e.g. that black people have such gigantic chips on their shoulder that they will respond aggressively to any perceived slight) the argument about stereotypes and mockery is more serious and probably needs to be looked at a bit more closely than just dismissing it out of hand.

So, what do you think? If you've seen Rastamouse, do you think the programme mocks Jamaican patois? Or instead is it celebrating the language? Vote now in the poll on the right.

What's really depressing is to see some of the comments added by readers of the Telegraph piece, some of whom seem to genuinely feel that by having Rastamouse on TV British values (whatever those might be) are being undermined. Some of them honestly believe that Rastamouse is part of a liberal conspiracy to impose multiculturalism on an unwilling population. I've got to stop reading and responding to these loons!

Friday, February 11, 2011


You may well be asking WTF? is this blog post about? But when you ask WTF?, do you actually say it out loud, or do you only think it? Is there ever an occasion when you would use it away from a keyboard? And if you do say the letters WTF out loud, do they mean the same thing as the words they stand for (which we all know is What The Flip?) or something a bit less rude? And furthermore, if we type or text these letters should it be WTF? (always with a question mark) or WTF (sometimes without)?

It seems odd to me that anyone would even say double-yew tee eff when they could say whatdaf**k so much more quickly - especially as speed and ease are usually the drivers of change with expressions like this - but if WTF? and what the f**k are actually quite different in meaning, then it makes a bit more sense.

These are important questions because we're increasingly hearing people using initialisms like ILY, OMG (thank you, Usher) and LOL (sometimes pronounced as L-O-L and sometimes as a word that sounds a bit like laaaaawwwwwllllll) and it's got linguists quite excited.

What we often see is the appropriation of words from spoken English into a written vocabulary - and some would argue, a casualisation or colloquialisation of the written word - but it's a bit rarer for words or groups of letters to go from a largely written or blended form into spoken usage. We've seen it on a smaller scale with pwn and n00b, but the more recent examples seem to have taken off among a much bigger part of the population.

In this article by Jocelyn Noveck, several linguists and commentators take a look at what's happening and consider the influence of age on this language use, as well as looking back at the history of acronyms and initialisms in language. It's an interesting read and offers some examples of usage that I'd not heard before (ILY = I love you, for example. Sob.).

Edited on 17.11.11 to change broken link to Noveck piece

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Make a bad ting good

Popular culture has a great way of feeding new words into our vocabularies, or helping resurrect older ones that have dropped out of use, so the mighty Rastamouse who is righteously rocking the airwaves on CBeebies is the latest to do this.

Among the Jamaican English terms he uses, irie has apparently been a big hit, according to this story. I remember it from my 80s youth as a term of approval, expressing happiness and calm. Some have claimed that it is a state of extreme relaxation brought about by medicinal herbs, but I think that might just be a step too far.

Urban Dictionary defines it in several ways, the most voted for being "to be at total peace with your current state of being. The way you feel when you have no worries" which sounds fine to me. Wordnik has it defined as:
Positive emotions or feelings, or anything that is good. To be at total peace with one's current state of being. Phonetical representation of "all right".

This link about Rastafarian vocabulary on Wikipedia makes interesting reading too. And reading the bit about Armagideon/Gideon times makes me wonder if that is why George Osborne changed his name from Gideon (It's true: check the peerage website.). Is it all a conspiracy to hide the fact that with all his cuts we are really entering Gideon Times?

Can Rastamouse save us and make a bad ting good?

Edited to add: I've done a bit more about the grammar of Rastamouse over on the Teaching English Grammar in Schools blog.

p.s. thanks to Martina (aka Miss Osbourne - no relation to Gideon - for this top viewing tip) 
p.p.s and apologies to my good friend Gideon "Gid" Calder for mocking a fine name. 

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Neither Hippy nor Hitler but intelligent descriptivism

While the title of this blog post is strange and obscure (unless you're a fan of 1980s anti-fascist skinhead socialist band, The Redskins and get the album title it refers to) it's kind of appropriate, because it's about extremes and finding a middle ground. The Redskins borrowed the "Neither Washington Nor Moscow but International Socialism" slogan from the Socialist Workers Party and I always thought that it was something to do with finding a position between the rampant capitalism espoused by the USA and the totalitarian state-socialism of the old Soviet Union. To be fair, the SWP were (and remain) much closer to Moscow than Washington, whichever way you look at them. And I try not to look at them for too long or they try to sell me a paper.

But what has this got to with language? This 2005 post on Language Log which I was alerted to by a tweet from Stan Carey of this excellent blog, makes a number of telling points about the debate between prescriptivists and descriptivists over what is "correct" English.

The normal model seems to be to say that a person is either one or the other. If you're a prescriptivist, you're telling other people how they should write and speak and telling them what's correct. If you're a descriptivist, you're happy to let it all hang out and just go with the flow...all change is good...whatever man...just allow it.

But that's a bit of a lazy caricature and it's probably better to see views distributed along a continuum line, where different shades of prescriptivism or descriptivism can be seen. For example, you might have very strong views on the use of the apostrophe in academic writing but be happy not to use it in your text messages or Facebook updates. That doesn't make you either a crazy hippy or a grammar nazi.

Geoff Pullum puts it more precisely than me - as he always does - when he talks about correctness conditions: the norms for your own language usage in your own variety of English:

If you typically say I ain't got no hammer to explain that you don't have a hammer, then the correctness conditions for your dialect probably include a condition classifying ain't as a negative auxiliary, and a condition specifying that indefinite noun phrases in negated clauses take negative determiners, and a condition specifying that the subject precedes the predicate, and so on.

He goes on to explain:

Descriptive linguists try to lay out a statement of what the conditions are for particular languages. And it is very important to note that the linguist can go wrong. A linguist can make a mistake in formulating correctness conditions. How would anyone know? Through a back and forth comparison between what the condition statements entail and what patterns are regularly observed in the use of the language by qualified speakers under conditions when they can be taken to be using their language without many errors (e.g., when they are sober, not too tired, not suffering from brain damage, have had a chance to review and edit what they said or wrote, etc.).

So, what linguists are not doing is just saying that whatever anyone says is right because they said it and therefore that's the way we talk. They're looking at specific situations and patterns and describing them grammatically. As Pullum goes on to say, sometimes people just make mistakes that, if they were to look back over, they'd probably choose to put in a clearer way. These could be features of grammar, punctuation, spelling or lexical choice. I'm sure many of us have looked back at things we've written and gone "Urgh". Linguists themselves might make mistakes by incorporating these errors into their sense of what the correctness conditions for a particular variety might be, so in turn build up an unrepresentative picture of that variety. So, as Pullum is at pains to point out, linguists can be wrong.

But equally, prescriptivists are often wrong (and more wrong!) when they claim that such-and-such a structure (a conjunction at the start of a sentence, preposition at the end, double negative etc.) is always wrong just because them's the rules.

So, to cut a long story short, the debate between what's correct or incorrect is actually much more to with context than it is to do with hard and fast rules. And for A level English Language, which is what this comes back to, finding a more nuanced position between the extremes of labelling a language commentator as either prescriptive or descriptive, is likely to get you a lot of credit in the ENGA3 exam. While it's not for everybody, this sort of discussion could be the difference between a top B and an A grade, or even that elusive A*.

Lexical innovation

If you are studying Language Change for either ENGA3 (A spec) or ENGB3 (B spec) one of your most useful points of reference should be the Macmillan Dictionaries Buzzword pages. Every week, lexicographer and linguist Kerry Maxwell posts a new word or phrase that's recently appeared on the radar and talks about its origins and formation process. The words are logged in a very useful archive too, so you can see way back to the dawn of time (17th February 2003, to be precise) when textual harassment was all the rage or look at them alphabetically where you'll find at the top of the list a handy guide to the top 12 new words of 2010.

Kerry has done sessions at SFX for teachers and students in the last few years and her stuff is always clear, interesting and accessible for A level, so don't be scared. And remember that if you are doing anything on new words for your exam (or even your coursework intervention/media text) examiners and moderators get bored of the same old examples (Smog and motel are blends? Well I never!) and would much rather see some funky* new words that will really float their boats, and stuff.

*I know it's an old world. I'm sorry. I'm getting old.

"We Are All in This Together": analysing coalition cobblers

Today's Guardian features a great bit of polemic from George Monbiot that would make a nice bit of textual analysis for ENGA2. He starts with a reference to something David Cameron said about a tax cuts being off the agenda for the time being before looking at how a change in tax law means that some of the richest companies (the ones who got us in this mess) will now get exactly that. The whole piece is good (and pretty shocking) but it's the last two paragraphs that strike me as particularly effective:

Our political system protects and enriches a fantastically wealthy elite, much of whose money is, as a result of their interesting tax and transfer arrangements, in effect stolen from poorer countries, and poorer citizens of their own countries. Ours is a semi-criminal money-laundering economy, legitimised by the pomp of the lord mayor's show and multiple layers of defence in government. Politically irrelevant, economically invisible, the rest of us inhabit the margins of the system. Governments ensure that we are thrown enough scraps to keep us quiet, while the ultra-rich get on with the serious business of looting the global economy and crushing attempts to hold them to account.

And this government? It has learned the lesson that Thatcher never grasped. If you want to turn this country into another Mexico, where the ruling elite wallows in unimaginable, state-facilitated wealth while the rest can go to hell, you don't declare war on society, you don't lambast single mothers or refuse to apologise for Bloody Sunday. You assuage, reassure, conciliate, emote. Then you shaft us.

The use of pronouns, positioning of author, reader and government, the mixture of sentence lengths and syntactical patterns within them, all strike me as pretty effective and worth a closer look.

It's clear what Monbiot's agenda is here, so it's hardly what you'd call biased: he makes no attempt to hide his political colours, so it's not as if he's trying to trick us. Anyway, I think it's a neat example of how a writer deploys a whole range of linguistic techniques to make a convincing and passionate argument.

Below, I've put together a fairly simple list of bullet points for the kinds of language techniques you might want to look for in a text like this. If you're interested in finding out more about developing these approaches then have a look at emagazine 42 from December 2008 in which David Hyatt outlines a framework for critical literacy. Or go straight to the daddy of it all, Norman Fairclough, and his excellent book Language and Power.

A suggested framework for representation and language analysis

Pronoun use – which pronouns are used and how is the reader addressed? Are pronouns used to include and/or exclude? Is synthetic personalisation used to create a “faked” relationship with an imagined “ideal” reader?

Active/passive constructions – which voice is used within the text and how is agency handled? Can we see who is doing what to whom?

Modification – are adjectives used to evoke evaluation? How are adverbs used to present ideas? Are we being pushed in a particular direction by the ways in which nouns are modified?

Metaphor – are metaphors used in the text to present one idea in another’s terms?

Nominalisation – are processes and actions turned into nouns? Does this obscure agency (i.e. who carried out a process, or even that a process happened)?

Register and lexical choice – does technical, specialist or academic language create an impression of an educated and knowledgeable writer? Does a colloquial register seem to “bridge the gap” between reader and writer, creating a more believable tone?

Graphology – does the text present information in a graphical or pictorial form which might anchor particular meanings? Does the use of bullet points or headings “close down” other possibilities for discussion?

Rhetorical devices – does the author structure an argument and use language in such a way as to create a persuasive and convincing effect?

Sentence and clause linking – does the use of particular grammatical structures signal dependent relationships between elements in a sentence?

Sentence and clause structure – does the use or variation of particular sentence lengths and structures help create emphasis?

Tense and aspect – how does the use of past, present or future tense affect the meanings of the text? Does the use of aspect – progressive or perfective – affect meanings?

Subject positioning – from which perspective are events or issues perceived and recounted? Is one position given particular prominence and credibility?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Keeping it old school

Most of the links I put up here are to fairly recent news stories about language, but this one is nearly 16 years old. That means it's possibly older than some of you who use this blog for your AS levels. Wow.

Anyway, I stumbled across this Miles Kington article from The Independent of December 1993 while doing some research on attitudes to grammatical errors (which more often than not, aren't really "errors" at all) and it's a good read.

It's about people's language peeves and how they are often not really very well rooted in linguistic reality. My favourite bit concerns the guidance that we're often given about the adjective unique. In Strictly English, Simon Heffer pompously tells us that phrases like almost unique or nearly unique are "vacuous" because "something is either unique or it is not". Kington sees it differently:

Now, this to me is the kind of pedantic rule-of-iron that a third- rate schoolteacher falls back on. Not only that, but it is demonstrably untrue. For example, if there were two unicorns left in the world, and one was very ill, then the other one would be nearly unique . . .

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A timely reminder about the Emagazine English Language conference

Apologies if you've already booked a place, or if you've had enough of the self-promotion, but our conference for A level students and teachers is still recruiting and we're heading towards capacity. Well over 600 students have signed up to attend - which is brilliant - and more are booking each day, so if you want to be sure of a place, get onto the English and Media Centre's site here and get your places booked!

We are also very keen to collect language data from those attending for use in Jonnie Robinson's session, so please add your data to the Survey Monkey questionnaire. You don't even have to attend to add your data: the more the merrier.

Hopefully, see you there.

Get a room

The language of lovers is often pretty sickening. It's even worse when you hear it murmured into a hands free mobile by the lovestruck man sitting next to you on a train, like I had to put up with this morning. But it's not just the babytalk-style phonology, or the wrinkling of the nose, or even the giggles of love, it's the vocabulary as well: snugglebunny, lickle lovebucket, poo poo poppet and agreeable bitch, being some examples. Actually the last two aren't his (and neither are the first two, to be fair) but Jonathan Swift's.

Now, some research  from psychologists in the USA suggests that people are attracted to those who have similar speech patterns. That may not be particularly surprising (unless you're Paula Abdul) but what's quite interesting about this is that the patterns seems to apply to online style as well as as spoken.

Research by the same team at the University of Texas has also indicated that language style matching (LSM) is apparent between couples when they're at their happiest in a relationship.

This is related to accommodation theory in sociolinguistics, where people change their speech style to either converge towards or diverge from other speakers around them. The extremes of divergence are noticeable in teenagers when they sometimes make deliberate efforts to avoid the speech styles of their parents, or in students with strong regional dialects who make a conscious effort not to blend in when they live in a different area, but it's not really much of a surprise to find that the closer we are emotionally, the closer we get linguistically.

This could make an interesting Language Investigation at A2: recording conversations between people who have been together for different lengths of time and identifying specific linguistic features that match or don't match.

"Crappy patois"

Yesterday's Evening Standard carried an op-ed by Henry Hitchings on the nature of changing London English. It's partly a response to Charles Moore's attack on changing English in the Telegraph and partly an advertisement for Hitchings' new book, which we mentioned on here yesterday.

Interestingly, Hitchings makes much of what linguists have called Multicultural London English, Multi-ethnic Youth Dialect, or what some journalists have called "Jafaican", which, as Hitchings points out, tends to cast it as an affectation or a fake dialect, rather than " an authentic, organic variety of English and it looks likely to become more prevalent". We've featured MEYD and MLE here on many occasions and if you click on the tabs at the bottom of this post you'll get some links to the research done by Sue Fox, Paul Kerswill, Jenny Cheshire (and others) into this fascinating area of sociolinguistics.

Sadly, anything about language change tends to aggravate those who see all change as a foul corruption of our beautiful tongue, or even (in the case of the Evening Standard article), deranged anti-Jamaican troglodytes who argue (or sneer, perhaps more accurately) that it's a "crappy patois" "derived from some of the most pointless countries in the world", and speaking it is likely to limit young people's life chances. Well, yes, but only if they speak it as their only variety, which is generally not the case, as Hitchings is at pains to point out. But why let a bit of reasoned argument get in the way of a good dose of prejudice?

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Language Wars

Henry Hitchings' new book, Language Wars is definitely worth a look for any AQA A spec students planning ahead for the ENGA3 exam in June. The whole book is about what constitutes "proper English", so should be ripe territory for the Language Discourses part of the paper.

It's been reviewed and commented upon here, and you can see Henry Hitchings debate the subject with Simon Heffer (author of the dreadful Strictly English) at the British Library next Monday (7th Feb 2011).

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...