Thursday, April 28, 2011

Media Texts and Language Interventions: helpful article

It's probably too late for this year's A2 students to get much out of this link, because you really should have handed in your coursework by now, but this article (which I've nabbed from a suggestion by Julie Blake on the Teachit Language Sputnik) offers a very readable explanation of what's needed in good science journalism.

As Julie points out over on her site, a Media Text (B spec) or Language Intervention (A spec) is often concerned with making a difficult, quite specialist idea accessible for a mainstream, non-specialist audience, very much like science journalism has to do. The article gives some helpful pointers as to what you can do.

I'll explain everything to the geeks

If there has been a theme to recent postings (and there doesn't have to be, of course)  it's probably something to do with new words, language change and lexicography, so here's a quick link to an OED article by John List about words that don't make it into the dictionary and how they're still words.

Elsewhere on the Oxford Dictionaries site (which is becoming a useful A level Language resource these days) are some good pages on recent lexical and semantic changes, with some interesting discussion of geek, viral and meme, all good examples of how technology and social networking are affecting the language we use and the lifestyles we live.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

From punk'd to skunked...

...and following on from the earlier post about Urban Dictionary and the role of dictionaries in charting language change, here's a link to a really good Ben Zimmer post on Visual Thesaurus about the "skunking" of words. He talks about it in relation to shifts in meaning for the words nonplussed and bemused.

As Ben points out In the case of nonplussed, the old meaning is "bewildered," while the new meaning is "unfazed". And with bemused, it's perhaps a more significant shift:

As the Visual Thesaurus wordmap for bemused indicates, the two primary meanings of bemused are "deeply absorbed in thought" or "perplexed by many conflicting situations or statements." The way that political reporters have used it about Obama, however, is "above it all, with a trace of amusement," in the words of New York Times deputy news editor Philip B. Corbett. Corbett adds, "but that's not what bemused means." Well, it's not what the word has historically meant, but the newer sense, influenced by amused, has become mainstream enough to enter some dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster's Collegiate.

"Skunked" seems like a good way of describing words that have two slightly different meanings for different groups of people at the same time. Perhaps they are words that are in the process of shifting from meaning 1 to meaning 2 but now just cause confusion because of this ongoing shift, and therefore should be a skunk.

Of course, to loads of teenagers in the UK, the word "skunk" has totally different connotations (think "herbal" cigarettes and glazed expressions), so is that a "skunked" meaning itself?

Seeing language change actually happen in front of us is a fascinating thing and should be a reminder to us that language isn't about black and white but gradience. If you're an A level student revising for your Language Change exam, bear in mind that while we often teach you about periods of change (Early Modern English, Middle English etc.) the divides between these periods and the consistency of usage of a particular form at a particular time have never been that smooth. Above all, language is used by real - and often very different - people who don't all act or speak in the same way.

Keeping it real or just making it up?

This article from last week's Guardian takes a good look at the rise of Urban Dictionary and its approach to gathering new words compared to that of more established dictionaries like the OED and Collins. This brief extract puts it nicely:

Now, you are unlikely ever to confuse the OED with Urban Dictionary – one is the definitive record of the English language, the other is a rambling free-for-all largely compiled by teenagers making stuff up – but the comparison remains. Until relatively recently a word wasn't recognised as such until it was recorded in a proper dictionary. Now neologisms are pouring into the language like never before; our vocabulary is being reshaped by texters, tweeters, bloggers, marketeers and have-a-go contributors. Slang used to take decades to cross the Atlantic; now it takes minutes.

The article offers some debate (good for ENGA3 Language Discourses) about the importance and authority of Urban Dictionary, with slang specialist and lexicographer Jonathon Green arguing that it's quite a fun resource, but not one which we should rely on for authenticity and accuracy, while the dictionary's founder, Aaron Peckham, argues that it's an evolving and multifaceted document of our times. There are other arguments too about the rights and wrongs of putting what might be ephemeral, vogue words into a dictionary of the OED's standing, with some arguing that muffin-top and OMG have no real place in such an authoritative tome.

The best line in the whole feature has to belong to Green though, who states: "My response to people saying slang destroys the language is: bollocks.You always see the same themes: drugs, drink, sex, parts of the body and what people do with them, being nasty to each other, racist stuff. It doesn't do compassion very well. But slang is lively, exciting and very creative". Amen to that.

Linguist, writer and creator of the excellent Visual Thesaurus site, Ben Zimmer, reviews Jonathon Green's Slang Dictionary here, with a really insightful look at how Green traces the shifting meanings of the word punk. Evidence, if any were really needed, that analysing slang tells us a huge amount about the language we've used on the past and the ways in which language is shaped by social change and in turn contributes to our own social attitudes.

So, whether you prefer the OED's slow but steady approach or the quick fix of instant gratification that Urban Dictionary gives you, slang definitely needs a closer look as it's tied up with who we are, where we are from and where we are going. And slang is ace. Word to your mother, bro.

Edited on 3.05.11 to add link to Guardian article (durrrrrr)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The geeks shall inherit the earth

online standardisation or online gaming?
While the OED adds OMG and FYI to its (digital) pages and argument rages over where LOL was first used (was it among geeks on usenet, mobile phone text messagers or old ladies thinking it meant lots of love on messages to their grandchildren?) a whole area of abbreviation seems to have been overlooked.

This article on gamer slang which appears on Nerd Trek summarises some of the abbreviations used by online gamers who play World of Warcraft, Everquest and Lord of the Rings Online, among others. Like lots of these things, the abbreviations are a generally accepted shorthand (mostly initialisms and the odd acronym) designed to speed up communication between players when they're chatting to other players or cooperating at moments of high drama, like when you're you're about to take down Gamgee, the mystical dwarf of Nimbus 5 and haven't powered up your level 45 inferno spell.

We covered some gamer slang on this blog a while ago (here and here), but since I have regained control of my life by  stopping playing such games (all hail the Xbox 360 and two slipped discs for helping rid me of my crippling MMORPG addiction!) I've not really followed it as closely as I used to, but it looks like nothing much has changed in the language of online games in a little while. With the rise of VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) and programmes like Ventrilo, which allow you to talk to other gamers, perhaps the days of language innovation in online gamer chat are over?

Monday, April 11, 2011

LOL For The Win

The OED's decision to add LOL, OMG and the verb to heart to its latest update has already been covered here on this blog, but this BBC News Magazine piece about LOL is a really good read, not just for its content but also its form and style, which make it a neat example of how a Language Intervention (ENGA4) or Media Text (ENGB4) might work. It's also a good example of the sort of short article that can appear on the ENGA3 paper for Language Change, offering plenty of scope for discussion about attitudes to change, reasons for change and processes that help changes spread.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Listen up y'all

This post by Ben Trawick-Smith on Dialect Blog is a really concise and fascinating insight into the migration of a phrase from Scotland to Ireland and then to the south of the USA and up to the northern states, spreading out from its original usage base of poor white farmers to African American slaves and then into wider multiethnic usage.

The expression is y'all and it's a second person plural pronoun (as distinguished from you which acts as both 2nd person singular and plural in Standard British English). For a neat little case study into how language spreads, which could be perfect for A level, go no further.

ENGA3: some tips for success (part two)

Here's the second instalment of a series of posts designed to help you cope with the A2 exam in June (June 24th to be precise). Last time we looked at the Assessment Objectives on the paper and some ideas about approaches to AO2, and this time we'll have a fairly quick look at how to deal with AO3.

What is AO3? Well, on the mark scheme for ENGA3 it's described as follows:  "Analyse and evaluate the influence of contextual factors on the production and reception of spoken and written language". That's quite broad, so what are examiners really looking for when they award AO3 marks?

Looking in a bit more detail at the mark scheme, we can see the following descriptors in the top 2 bands (10-12 and 13-15):

  • Demonstrates analytical grasp of how language works across different levels.
  • Places analysis in wider contexts.
  • Shows perceptive/conceptualised/illuminating/ open-minded approach.
  • Uses interesting and judicious examples and quotation.
  • Evaluates appropriateness/success. 
  • Analyses language features, their explanatory context and their communicative impact confidently
  • Makes a subtle interpretation integrating various levels of description.
  • Explores texts' meaning, purpose and effects.
  • Makes evaluative comments which are well supported.
So, in essence, if AO1 is all about identifying and labelling significant language features, AO3 is more to do with working out what those language features do, what they mean and how they are used to represent what the writers/speakers think about their subject matter. Tied in with these is also a need to use appropriate examples to show where these things are happening, and also an awareness of the contexts the texts are from - whether they're spoken or written, produced for a specific or general audience, how the writers position themselves in relation to their audiences.

One of the big problems for lots of candidates taking this paper is that there is a lot to do and explaining the effects of language can be harder for some people than just labelling a noun or a simple sentence. But then again, that's why it's an A level paper that you take in your second year rather than as AS one: it's supposed to be a challenge.

A key point to remember is that for AO3 you must have some idea about what the subject matter is and how the writer feels about it. For example, in the paper from June 2010, there were two language change texts - one a diary entry from a mother in World War 2 and the other a blog entry on a journalists' website - but it was quite rare to find candidates saying very much about how each writer felt towards the events and experiences they were describing. Plenty of people were good on talking about how the technological advances of the Twenty First Century allow bloggers to communicate with a global audience and keep audiences up to date with world events, or how the diary used an elliptical style, but there wasn't much on the emotions of the mother writing the diary entry or the way in which war reporting was being represented as fun and fashionable in the blog.

So, how do you write about this sort of thing? First of all, I'd suggest that you get a clear idea of what it is the writers are actually talking about. Read the texts carefully. Lots of students last year took a quick look at the blog and assumed it was about war: it wasn't; it was about the lifestyles of foreign correspondents and war reporters and the ways in which journalists view themselves and the work they do.

Secondly, once you're clear on what's really being addressed, try to identify the angle/s the writer is taking. In text A we could see that the mother felt restricted and unable to say much of importance in her letters to her prisoner-of-war son: "For one thing, news is scarce when one cuts out the war, and one may not say anything to give any information to the enemy. So things have to be carefully sifted till there is very little said.".

In the second text, the rather relaxed attitude of the blogger is revealed by his casual use of military metaphors "And we won’t just be blasting you blog style. Oh no, no, no... We’re coming at you with each and every social media gun blazing.".

So, in these two texts you could have picked up some solid AO3 marks if you compared the anxious, concerned stance of text A's writer with the laid-back approach of blogger B.

For Language Discourses - the second section of the paper - AO3 is actually a bit easier, I think. Because the whole point of section B is to make you look at arguments about language, the texts chosen will have identifiable viewpoints. Often, these viewpoints will be very clear to see and you'll be able to find plenty of evidence to back up your interpretation of (say) writer D as a strong prescriptivist or writer E as a more open-minded descriptivist. But it's not always that easy...

The writers may not be particularly consistent - they may shift between positions on different issues. The paper in January 2011 featured two articles about texting, one by Will Self and one by Lynne Truss. Both were quite anti-textspeak but were actually quite positive about technology and text messaging itself. In last June's paper, several of John Humphrys' points could be identified as being very prescriptive, but others are harder to place.

In these cases, this is where the "open-minded" descriptor of AO3 comes in. If you want to do well on the paper, show that you're not just making a blanket judgement about a writer's views, but point to where you think you see certain views and even how those views might shift as the text goes on or contradict each other.

Another key thing to remember with AO3 is how the author is positioning him/herself in relation to the reader. Are they trying to speak as one of "us" (whoever we are are...) or as an expert with specialist knowledge to impart? In John Humphrys' attack on descriptivist linguists in the June 2010 paper, he was cunning in his approach of distancing himself from linguists with their fancy ideas and academic viewpoints, and keen to represent himself as a "normal" person who speaks "common sense". But remember, "common sense" is only that which appears normal at a given time and it can be plain wrong. A hundred years ago it was "common sense" to smoke cigarettes because they were good for your lungs, apparently. Fifty years ago it was "common sense" to not give Black Americans equal rights...

That's it for now on this particular post, but we'll pick up Language Discourses in another post soon and also have a look at how to integrate theory and research into answers on language change and variation.


    As the proud father of twins (although not so proud now one has started claiming he's an Arsenal supporter), I really liked the clip of babbling twins that circulated on the web last week. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's here.

    There's also a nice bit of analysis of what's going on, provided by a child speech expert.

    Black British English vs MLE

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