Thursday, September 29, 2011

New blog for English Language A level teachers and students

Sue Fox and Jenny Cheshire at Queen Mary University, London have set up a new blog to help students and teachers of A Level English Language. It's called the Linguistics Research Digest and is part of their From Sociolinguistic Research to English Language Teaching ESRC Knowledge Transfer Project (more details of which can be found here).

The blog features accessible summaries of recent research in linguistics and offers a way into some of the most relevant areas of recent study. Their plan is also to set up a resource site to run alongside the blog, but for the time being there's already some very useful material on there for teachers and students alike.

That's cool. No, that's kewl

The OED's latest online update has ruffled a few prescripivist feathers (again) by including kewl, "an affected or exaggerated pronunciation of cool".

A few months ago, elderly wing commanders in Surrey (and other Telegraph readers) were appalled to discover that the OED had included internet acronym LOL and vaguely blasphemous initialism OMG in its pages, so it's not as if the OED isn't used to causing a bit of controversy. But as Graeme Diamond, chief editor of new words, explains, adding words to the OED is not about trying to change the language but reflect actual usage: "You have to show that the word has been in usage for a decent length of time and, most importantly, that the word is used and understood by a wide audience".

Cool itself, in its original spelling, is a tenacious piece of slang that has been knocking around for a very long time, much longer than its groovy and rad  brothers as the slightly unscientific but helpful graphic on the right shows.

Michael Quinion has written about cool's development as a slang term here, and there's more from the British Library here, but it's clear that if cool is still evolving, with new uses and spellings, it's a healthy word in a healthy language.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Learn some proper Gypsy rokker, mush

With the Dale Farm eviction set to take place today, Gypsy life and culture is again in the spotlight, but this BBC Kent article takes a look at Gyspy language contributions to English, contributions that go back a long way and are quite deeply embedded in our common language.

A couple of these - mush and cushti - were just normal English slang as far as I was concerned growing up in Wiltshire in the 1980s and it didn't really cross my mind that it was Gypsy dialect/slang until much later.

This page from the BBC Voices site gives a bit more detail about the roots of Romany/Gyspsy/traveller dialects while this 1897 Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant features some great examples from Gypsy and other non-standard varieties.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Debate of the month: gender and language variation

One of the big topics for debate in English Language A level in recent years has been over whether women and men communicate differently. Since the early 1970s, with the publication of Robin Lakoff’s Language and Woman’s Place , there has been plenty of focus on what might be termed “women’s language” but as Lakoff herself was quick to point out, her observations weren’t based on empirical studies (systematic data collection) but “(data)... gathered mainly by introspection: I have examined my own speech and that of my acquaintances, and have used my own intuitions in analyzing it”.

Lakoff’s observations included some that have made it into pretty much every A level student’s (and teacher’s) list of key facts about gender and language: women use more precise colour terms, more tag questions and more evaluative adjectives than men. But of course, without any actual data to back these claims up, it was hard to work out whether what Lakoff was saying was perceptive and new or just the recycling of fairly standard stereotypes.

While Lakoff herself made some powerful points about the ways in which girls are socialised to behave in ways that are viewed as linguistically female - not talking rough or appearing "unladylike" - other linguists focused a little more on the conversational interactions between men and women. Some chose to look at interruptions and the dominance of men and submissiveness of women in conversational interaction (like Zimmerman and West – pdf here  - in 1975), others at power and status (O’Barr and Atkins - summary here  – in 1980), before Maltz and Borker (1982) started looking in a bit more detail at the ways in which men and women are socialised into different gender roles and how this might affect language patterns.

This was an approach that led to Deborah Tannen’s work – subsequently referred to as the Difference Model -  and her bestselling book You Just Don’t Understand (Tannen talks about it here).

Tannen’s approach focussed on what she called the “cross-cultural communication” between the genders:

For women, as for girls, intimacy is the fabric of relationships, and talk is the thread from which it is woven. Little girls create and maintain friendships by exchanging secrets; similarly, women regard conversation as the cornerstone of friendship. So a woman expects her husband to be a new and improved version of a best friend. What is important is not the individual subjects that are discussed but the sense of closeness, of a life shared, that emerges when people tell their thoughts, feelings, and impressions.

Bonds between boys can be as intense as girls', but they are based less on talking, more on doing things together. Since they don't assume talk is the cement that binds a relationship, men don't know what kind of talk women want, and they don't miss it when it isn't there.

Boys' groups are larger, more inclusive, and more hierarchical, so boys must struggle to avoid the subordinate position in the group. This may play a role in women's complaints that men don't listen to them. Some men really don't like to listen, because being the listener makes them feel one-down, like a child listening to adults or an employee to a boss.

However, Tannen’s approach came in for criticism from some for its broad-brush approach to gender, and the industry spawned by the Tannen book – John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus  being one big seller – dumbed everything down to a new low.

Elsewhere, Jennifer Coates produced masses of work on the dynamics of spoken interaction in her excellent books Women Talk and Men Talk, pinning down the details of talk among and between the sexes and interpreting the results with an open mind. It’s about as far removed from the hippy dippy generalisations of John Gray as you can get.

More recent work on gender and language has taken one of two approaches. With advances in neuroscience, some commentators have started to look at how certain characteristics might be hard-wired into us and how men and women might just be built genetically in certain ways that we can’t avoid.

This approach has attracted criticism – this article by Madeline Bunting of The Guardian is really good – and linguists such as Deborah Cameron have argued that gender is just one factor in many that might affect our conversational styles, and that anyway, there are more differences between different men or different women (within the sexes) than there are between most men and women.

Her excellent Myth of Mars and Venus lays into the gender difference industry with an accessible overview of research and an argument that suggests it’s not only women who suffer from the obsession with different speech styles, but men too.

So, over to you. What has your own study and research suggested about gender and language variation? Are you about to embark on an A2 Language Investigation into gender? If so, what are you going to look for and why?

  • What do you think of the whole debate?
  • Is it helpful to generalise about how men and women communicate or should we always look at specific contexts?
  • In your experience, do men and women, boys and girls talk differently?
  • If so, why might this be and how does it show itself in what they say and how they say it?
  • If not, what do you see happening instead?
  • How different are the speech styles within one gender group? Do all boys share similar speech characteristics....girls, football, beer and..err...meat?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Stoking up spelling trubble

Does spelling matter? Residents of Stoke-on-Trent seem to think so, because they're worried that people will think they're thick if they see the name of their new shopping development.

This report from the BBC News website suggests that some locals feel that the name will reflect badly on them, while the agency behind the name thinks it gives the development "stand out quality"...maybe like the "stand out quality" of turning up to a funeral in pink lurex batty-riders, or declaring that your football team's new strip will be birthday suits.

Lots of businesses create deliberately deviant spellings to offer "stand out quality". Take Kwiksave, Kwikfit, Krispy Kreme and my old favourite (sadly no longer with us) Mr Byrite. At some point, a creative in an advertising agency decided that Qu and C were just old-fashioned and that K was where it was happening. K was cool...sorry Kool. Is there something intrinsically more exciting about K than C, or is the act of mis-spelling something part of the rebellious appeal of a brand? Vodafone chooses to use f instead of ph and Toys'R'Us abbreviates too, but do we see them as edgy, unconventional brands? Maybe not.

But is it harmless fun, or is this trendy phonetic spelling something that sends out mixed messages to younger people? Is it leading to an acceptance of bad spelling? One teacher quoted in the BBC piece, Mark Rayner, seems to think so:

In terms of grammar we are fighting a battle on many fronts, from text speak, on the internet, even in emails now you find shortened words are creeping in. Pupils regularly write C for see and U for you. But one hopes schools can still teach the correct spelling and grammar.
The need for an agreed spelling system is something that lies at the heart of the notion of Standard English: an accepted and recognised way of using English that provides mutual intelligibility for all speakers and writers. As we've seen many times though, the discussion around what the standard and accepted rules should be is fraught with other, non-linguistic worries.

Some people see apparently declining spelling standards as a measure of a nation's moral collapse (one minute they're spelling Krispy Kreme wrong the next minute they're looting it) while others argue that the English spelling system is so messed up in the first place that it should be radically overhauled.

So, edgy branding or idiotic illiteracy? The last word goes to a resident of Stoke-on-Trent who just says "It makes us look like the people in Stoke are thick".

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Heated debates

Now the new term has started and I'm back teaching again (huzzah, I think) I'll try to update the blog with relevant material for AQA Language A and B specs a bit more frequently.

The first thing I'd like to set up is a Debate of the Month, which I hope will help A2 students with Language Intervention coursework and the Language Discourses part of the ENGA3 paper. The plan is to highlight a particular topic each month and look at different arguments around the issue, flagging up various style models for written pieces and offering suggestions for different angles on each debate.

I'm hoping that any keen followers of the blog (and I know there are some out there...mother, can you hear me?) will also chip in and join the debate by adding comments and links. We can all dream, I suppose.

The first topic will be gender differences in conversation and I'll kick it off next week with a quick survey of the different positions and some of the recent debates about how men and women are supposedly hard-wired to use different conversational styles and why this is a controversial (and rather dubious) position.

If anyone would like to suggest links to articles, case studies or just offer a view, I'd be interested to hear.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

His and hers

MacMillan Dictionary blog has been running a gender month, taking a look at how gender is represented, constructed and debated in language. If you're studying gender as part of the AQA B spec (ENGB1) you'll find good stuff here and here, and if you're looking at gender and variation for the AQA A spec (ENGA3) this one and this one might be of interest to you.

You can find a complete run-down of gender month posts here and there's lots of good stuff to look through.

Tweets, Tweeps and Twerps

Any new technology that is used for communication is bound to lead to some concern about its impact on language use. In his book, A Better Pencil, the linguist Dennis Baron looks at how writing technologies such as the pencil, pen , typewriter and word processor developed and traces worries about these (then) new forms of communication. So it's not a great surprise to see that digital communication - text messaging, Facebook, MSN and Twitter being four recent examples - has spawned its own set of worries.

Twitter is often viewed as a fairly limited means of communication, forcing its users to transmit simple, terse 140-character messages to their followers, compressing and trimming language to create anodyne, bite-sized chunks, but in an article for The Guardian this week, the poet Carol Ann Duffy argues that texting and tweeting are brilliantly creative tools for helping people think more carefully about how they're communicating.

"The poem is a form of texting ... it's the original text," says Carol Ann Duffy. "It's a perfecting of a feeling in language – it's a way of saying more with less, just as texting is. We've got to realise that the Facebook generation is the future – and, oddly enough, poetry is the perfect form for them. It's a kind of time capsule – it allows feelings and ideas to travel big distances in a very condensed form."

It's an appealing argument and one that I think is very true. Writing creatively is not so much about writing as much as you can in as flowery and dense form as possible but finding the best ways to say what you want to say. Sometimes, the process of editing yourself down to fewer words, or finding a new combination of words, is exactly what you need to make yourself a clearer communicator. Poetry is often prized for its sparing use of telling words, and tweets can be like that too, honing the editing skills of their senders.

Inspired by this (if slightly confused: Duffy was talking more about texting than tweeting) The Guardian has launched its own Twitter poetry challenge which you can find here.

Another creative dimension to Twitter is covered by the BBC News magazine where the new words inspired by Twitter are surveyed. We get: tweeple (or tweeps), a blend of Twitter and people; tweet cred, a compound of tweet and street cred; and twisticuffs (my favourite), a blend of Twitter and fisticuffs, in other words a fight on Twitter.

Exploring the tw- unit (sound? morpheme?) in more depth, the article goes on to look at other words formed with the same letters and makes the point that many of them are deliberately playful, perhaps suggesting that there's something inherently silly in the sound.

Friday, September 02, 2011

iGE - interactive Grammar of English

I've not normally used this blog to plug commercial products and my income from Amazon ads has amounted to a massive 29 pence, but this product's been developed by colleagues of mine at UCL (and if they sell enough, I might just keep my job).

The interactive Grammar of English (iGE) is an app for the iPhone 3 and 4, iPod Touch and iPad, designed to help you develop your understanding of English grammar. It uses examples of real English from ICE-GB, the International Corpus of English and contains many interactive tests and tasks.

If you're looking for a way into understanding grammatical frameworks for A level English Language or for developing your grasp of higher end concepts for undergraduate or post-graduate study, it will definitely be really useful.

One interesting area of debate about language which has already been raised in a 3-star review of the app on the American i-Tunes site is about the use of "incorrect" English in examples of spoken language:

IGE English grammar - ★★★

I'm a substitute teacher and was looking for an app that I could quickly refresh my memory. This is an okay app but there are some errors. I was always taught to not use uhm and ah in a sentence, however, in the test areas the sentences often use uhm as if it had been created by someone dictating. There are also run on sentences and incorrect punctuation in the tests. The glossary seems to be correct and will be a good reference when I need it.

Should a grammar app use "good" English examples which avoid uhms and errs, and run on sentences? Well, we would argue that analysing grammar is not just about analysing "perfect" written English but about looking at all types of English - written and spoken - and studying their grammar. Part of the appeal of an app like this which uses a corpus of genuine English , rather than made-up examples, is that it allows us to look at how English is really used, and to describe its grammar rather than judge it.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Ringing the changes

Following on from the last post about new words, here's a link to an article in The Daily Telegraph by Henry Hitchings. It's a good antidote to the plethora of grumpy responses to any new words announcement...they're not real words...they'll disappear next year...I've never heard that word so it can't exist...young people these days need a good beating and a hefty dose of national know the kind of thing.

His argument is an interesting one which sees resistance to new vocabulary as a reflection of wider concerns:

Hostility to a new word (candidates from the latest Chambers might include “webisode” and “OMG”) is fraught with unarticulated concerns about class, politics, propriety and taste. Right now, the pace of linguistic change seems high, and those concerns are supercharged. Thanks to modern technology, the volume and rapidity of communication have increased, and the flow of information is constant.
If the comments after many of the recent articles about language change are anything to go by, Hitchings is spot on with his argument. A quick trawl of discussions about David Starkey's deluded comments on "Jafaican", or on the Daily Mail's coverage of Chambers Dictionary reveal racism, class snobbery and the casual denigration of single mothers and most young people, to name a few.

Hitchings is author of the excellent The Language Wars, which I've reviewed for emagazine here (and there's an interview with him in the latest edition if you have a subscription and want to read more about why his book is great for A level English Language students).

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...