Monday, October 31, 2011


don't kill the spares
Just a quick link here to an article in The New York Times by Ben Zimmer of Language Log on the possibilities and pitfalls that Twitter offers for linguistic research. Given that there's been some grumbling and general grumpiness of late (from the man who plays Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films) about how Twitter is eroding English (and some neat counterarguments), it's really fascinating to see what potential this reactively new technology can offer us.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Twitter generation loses love of lexis"

...or so this story in today's Daily Mail would have you believe. According to the article, words like cripes, shenanigans and cad are all dying out because younger generations simply don't know what they bally mean (And it's perhaps not just the fault of the younger generation but technology as well because my spell-checker has just red-lined both cripes and bally.).

The story seems to be linked to the publication of a survey for the book Planet Word (presumably a tie-in to Stephen Fry's BBC series of the same name) and to be fair, the expert they quote, the author of the book JP Davidson, doesn't bemoan the alleged decline, but has this to say:

This could be viewed as regrettable, as there are some great descriptive words that are being lost and these words would make our everyday language much more colourful and fun if we were to use them.

'But it's only natural that with people trying to fit as much information in 140 characters that words are getting shortened and are even becoming redundant as a result.

'The folly is to try and stem the tide of the new whether they emerge from rap, technology, teenspeak, or the multitude of jargons that we invent to make shortcuts and communication more efficient between groups. 

This sounds like good sense and isn't in any way as prescriptive as the rest of the Mail's tone (managing of course to tie in some aspect of British identity being eroded as it always does), but the comments from Mail readers start to pour scorn on such descriptive views, arguing (among other things) that the once proud language of Shakespeare is now degenerating into a series of txt-grunts (a kind of Crumbling Castle model for the text generation) and that young people are doing it because they "are even allowed to use text speech in exams now", conveniently (or stupidly) misunderstanding the difference between studying and using. D'oh!

But, there is an interesting argument to be had here over the potentially limiting effects of technology on our lexicon - both individual and shared - because as this new app demonstrates, predictive texting has evolved to offer us predictive messaging. 
Swift Key screen
Instead of just predicting the word we are typing, this app starts to predict the next set of words, offering us phrases or even whole clauses, based on what we have typed before. There's an example here.

And it's even cleverer than it first appears because it can use your existing style from Facebook, email and your previous messages, building a mini-corpus of your own style and then suggesting these back to you when it is appropriate. 
So, what's the problem? If your own style is being reinforced, basically echoing your own lexical and grammatical choices, you might end up with an ever-decreasing range of language choices. If, every time you type a message, you're offered a set of choices influenced by your own database of language, will you be railroaded into a restricted set of words?

Ultimately, will this lead us into a reduced set of lexical and grammatical choices, fulfilling the Mail's to hell in a handcart predictions in the article above?

Spray tan, fake boobs and lots of stuff that's like reem.

Paul Kerswill, top linguist and one of the team behind this blog (which has been set up to help students and teachers of A level English Language keep up with the latest research into linguistics) has written a new piece for The Sun this week about the Essex dialect and the role of  The Only Way Is Essex (TOWIE) in spreading the region's twanging tones and lovely lexicon.

He takes a look at the ways in which TOWIE has popularised the adjective reem, the phrase shuuut uuup, and various other linguistic markers such as like and yous and offers a broader perspective on the ways the Essex dialect* has changed from its rural origins to a more cockneyfied sound and vocabulary.

As a (hopefully) soon-to-be Essex resident (and current Essex teacher) I've got to be careful about what I say about the Essex dialect, but as Paul Kerswill  says in the article "As with any accent, an Essex voice evokes an image, or a stereotype, of a certain sort of person — you can fill in what sort" so I'll leave it at that.

There's some debate on The Sun's messageboard about where reem derives from (or whether it should actually be spelt ream). Any ideas?

And as a quick aside, here's a link to an article in today's Metro about an ATM in Leytonstone, East London (original cockney territory) which offers you a choice of languages: English or Cockney. So you can withdraw a Lady Godiva (£5) or a pony (£25), but count your notes as some of these cockneys are proper dodgy geezers.

Thanks to emagazine's Facebook page for the Sun link and Gabriel Ozon at UCL for the Metro one. 

*Dialect here is being used in its broader sense of lexis, semantics, grammar and phonology (so including accent as part of it).

Monday, October 24, 2011

# hashtags - this year's LOL?

Following on from the post about changing punctuation, here's a guest post from Emma Bertouche who is an Online Marketing Executive for a language translations company and writes for several websites and blogs regarding language and social media.

Advances in technology have always added to and changed the way we use the English language. The rise of social media and the regular social network user is the latest example of the internet driving many new or distorted words and phrases into common language, infiltrating themselves into daily use in written and spoken communication.

Many blogs and articles are written every day on how this is perceived to be diluting and misusing the English language – and many other languages for that matter. One phenomenon that needs closer examination is the growing use of the lowly hashtag - ‘#’ – to emphasise an argument, feeling,  or solidarity with a group.

For those people unfamiliar with Twitter and the hashtag phenomenon, words or phrases are prefixed with a hash symbol (#), with multiple words concatenated, such as:
#RealAle is my favourite kind of #beer

Then, a person can search for the string #RealAle and this tagged word will appear in the search engine results. Hashtags are used by people to try and get a topic trending. A trending topic is a word, phrase or topic that is posted (tweeted) multiple times, these trending topics are then shown on websites, including Twitter's own front page. The aim is that  users can then search for any Tweets containing that specific term or phrase and read what other Twitter users across the globe are saying about it.

On the surface this seems to be another internet trend, spreading from person to person within the online culture, which originated on the Twitter social networking site. So when someone in the office recently described themselves (in the spoken word) as “hashtag smug” it was an example of how quickly the language of social media is making an appearance not only in other online communities, but also creeping into everyday spoken conversation.

The phenomenon has also been picked up by The New York Times, which wrote this interesting article about the hashtag making this way into our lives.  We increasingly see instances of the hashtag being implemented on other social networks, where characters are no longer capped(the internet equivalent of shouting)  yet people use it to stress a word or point that they are trying to make. Furthermore, unlike ‘text speak’ and the lingo of teenagers, this trend is not exclusive to a specific demographic of people, and can have universal appeal.

Twitter is, in essence, the 21st Century equivalent of William Tyndale, facilitating the mass distribution of the written word across an era-defining medium; in Tyndale's case, Caxton's printing press, and in the case of Twitter, social media. The messages they communicate may have been different (Tyndale translated the Bible, rather than screamed #WELOVEJUSTINBIEBER) but their aim is the same; for as many people to see their message as possible. Similar to Tyndale, however, there are many clamouring to cry heresy at the implementation of a new language variant, and opposition to the hashtag is growing to levels previously experienced as a result of the rise of texting and email. It is to be hoped those opposed don't follow Pope Clement VII's example, and seek to eradicate the problem as they see it. Thankfully, I don't think nouns are flammable. 

Of course as with any form of publicity, be it self promoting or for business there can often be a downside or even a backlash at attempts to use the hashtag for marketing purposes. People often see the opportunity to use trending topics to spam Twitter with unrelated topics but then include a popular hashtag to ensure their tweet gets seen be a decent number of Twitter users. One of the more documented mistakes was that of Habitat who used hashtags including #IranElection and #Mousavi to promote discounts on their products, making for some heroically non-sensical tweets. The idea behind the madness is not a particularly clever one at the best of times but linking a range of home furniture to  sensitive humanitarian crises is only ever going to anger people. .

Social media trends do not provide the first examples of  ‘moral panic’ regarding language change, either. In fact, there is a long history of alarm at evolving language trends. The rise of the postcard brought with it concerns that, due to the limited amount of space people had to write their messages, the use of the English language would be compromised. Comparisons between the post card and Twitter have already been made by The Daily Mail, back in 2009.

It will be interesting to learn what future language scholars make of the introduction of social media and its effects on the spoken word – there is already debate raging on what to call this new phenomenon.
While researching the hashtag I found a web forum where linguists were asking “Is there a linguistics term for glued-together Twitter hashtags, such as #vacationwishlist, #isawesome, and #wordsthatdescribeme?” The closest answer I could find was portmanteau but a hashtag doesn’t create new words; it just lumps existing words together.

 There doesn’t seem to be an agreed linguistic term for this yet, but people are still able to easily associate meaning to it. Unlike the controversy of ‘text speak’ entering the English Language, which seemed to scythe down language to its most basic construct,  would the inclusion of hashtag English (as indeed with other languages that communicate via Twitter) be as contentious?

In the same way that people now question whether it is acceptable to include ‘smilies’ in emails to colleagues, the fact that the use of #hashtag  is up for discussion means that some people already find it acceptable and do use them - whether others like it or not.

Although I have only heard one example of ‘hashtag’ in spoken communication, it will be interesting to see if this catches on. Social media is presenting a whole new set of questions on the future of language for the students and tutors to solve, and who knows - maybe if I was ‘down with the kids’ I wouldn’t feel so #confused .

Language change: big pictures and little details

Two pieces on language change that have appeared in the press recently offer us a really neat contrast between the big picture of change - David Crystal's The Story of English in 100 Words - and the very small details of it - Henry Hitchings' Wall Street Journal piece on the history and future of punctuation.

Crystal picks one hundred English words and uses them to trace a history of the language, taking in foreign loan words like potato and trek, a homegrown Celtic term like brock or a Scots one like wee, as well as many more recent ones from internet culture, abbreviations and cultural shifts.

Hitchings takes a look at punctuation: where it comes from and where it's going. He considers archaic forms like the pilcrow and hedera, ones that he thinks are on their way out like the apostrophe and semi-colon and ones that are coming back in or just appearing, the snark and the interrobang.

Both articles are a good read and offer some excellent examples of how to take a particular element of language - lexis in Crystal's case, orthography in Hitchings' - and trace its changes over time.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Keeping it street

There's a new wave of TV dramas and UK films on the way which feature gangs, council estates and street crime. It's not surprising that given the summer riots and subsequent moral panic about the state of our nation (and more importantly the state of our estates) these programmes are taking a look at life on the fringes for young people, but what's apparent is that for many writers and directors the key way for them to make their visions of urban Britain look and sound authentic is to get the slang right.

A clued-up young urban audience is not going to believe that the people they see on the screen are genuinely like them unless they speak like them, you get me? So, in order to keep it real they've used slang consultants - what a great job that must be.

This piece on the BBC News magazine site takes a look at some of the slang and its uses among young people, while this is a short article I did for the MacMillan Dictionary blog earlier in the week, looking at how slang gets picked up and appropriated by mainstream society.

I'm not sure how I feel about slang being seen as the one, crucial marker of authenticity, because like so many other aspects of language use, slang is about identity and more than just a series of buzzwords for outsiders to pick up and use for a while. Then again, part of the joy of slang is that it's constantly reinventing itself, with slang innovators generating new words, new meanings all the time to keep a sense of individuality and identity even as their words start to seep into the mainstream.

Maybe it's that cycle of creation - appropriation - recreation that keeps them on their toes, feeding the new slang into the system.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Heated debates: mongs, spastics and housewives

The comedian Ricky Gervais has attracted criticism from a range of quarters for his use of the word mong in recent comments on Twitter. According to Radio 1 Newsbeat and  The Sun, Gervais's "jokes" have included  references to himself as being monged-up when pulling a face, welcoming his followers with good monging and many more hilarious quips that demonstrate his mastery of sophisticated wordplay.

Gervais claims that the word isn't offensive and has no connection to people who suffer from Down Syndrome (who back in my school days used to - cruelly - be called mongoloids, mongols or mongs, apparently because of the facial resemblance between sufferers and Mongolian people), but he's old enough and clever enough  to know that it is offensive for many many people. His argument - that language changes, get over it - is superficially attractive but ultimately disingenuous.

He knows that the word still carries connotations of abuse and is used to belittle and hurt, so why does he use it? Why not use twit, idiot or fool? And there are plenty of other ones to choose from too.

The Angry Mob blog runs a good feature on the story here and the comedian Richard Herring does a thoughtful post* about the language used to mock disabled people here:

I don't think any of them would do the same with the n-word  or "p*ki" but they're happy to use "mong" or "retard" as a means of getting a laugh. And audiences will laugh at those words too and rarely even complain about them. But I think they do equate with those racial and homophobic epithets that are rarely heard these days. They do confirm the stereotype of disabled people and contribute to their further isolation in a world that already tries to pretend they don't exist.

The argument over offensive words has previously included references the golfer Tiger Woods made about playing "like a spazz" - derived from the word spastic, another term that's been used offensively in playground abuse - terms like retard (a word that landed the Black-Eyed Peas in trouble, when really they should be in jail for their utterly appalling ear pollution, rather than linguistic crimes) and the long debate over the the n-word and its reclamation.

And of course, more recently we've had a big debate over the use of the word slut as part of the slutwalk movement and a revival of arguments over the word chav and its meanings.

Even apparently inoffensive terms like housewife have come in for criticism recently, with a Mothercare survey revealing that two thirds of mothers find the term insulting. In a response to this survey, Lucy Mangan of The Guardian** looks at (not very serious) alternatives to housewife, such as milch cow and baby wrangler, but serious alternatives have been considered in the past, as this story about the Women's Institute back from 2006 shows.

So, is Gervais the victim of the old PC brigade? Are the feminazi and do-gooding liberal elite stormtroopers of the Political Correctness massive swinging into action. Has, for probably the millionth time (if you read the Daily Mail), PC really gone too far this time?

Well, what is PC? Part of the problem with the whole debate around Political Correctness is that the term itself is troublesome and contested by different groups. PC was initially connected to the women's rights movements of the 1970s and sought to draw attention to the inequalities in language that seemed to exist between men and women, changing the language to avoid discrimination and offence. It later grew to take in terms connected to race, sexuality and disability.

Words like chairman were challenged, and uses of language that seemed to exclude or marginalise women and minority groups were discussed, and alternatives proposed. Many caught on in popular usage and have not been problematic since, but others proved more contentious. So when it was noted that a sentence like "Each student must bring his notes to class" might be perceived as sexist, the alternatives "their notes", or even invented gender-neutral pronouns like "hesh", attracted ridicule or grammatical pedantry ("How can their refer to one person when it it is a plural pronoun?" they asked).

As Deborah Cameron points out in her book on language intervention, Verbal Hygiene, the term Politically Correct was initially an ironic, self-mocking label applied by some feminists to poke gentle fun at their own "right-on-ness", but within the space of a few years opponents of PC - those who opposed changing some labels which might be considered offensive or insensitive, and who were often politically right wing and reactionary -  were using it as a term of abuse. In essence what the anti-PCers were arguing against was any attempt to reform the language, because they saw it as part of a radical political agenda with which they disagreed.

If the term PC is used now it's used very much as a term with negative associations. If you're PC you're humourless, probably militant and unbending in your views and more than likely want to ban Christmas and turn it into Winterval to avoid upsetting disabled lesbian Muslims. But regardless, arguments over sensitive and derogatory language usage still rage, and whether we call it PC or just linguistic sensitivity, people will still get upset about certain words and what they can mean, while others argue for their right to say anything they like.

So for this month's heated debate, where do you stand?

Can we control or influence which words are used in society?
Is it a positive step to challenge uses of words like mong and spastic?
Alternatively, is PC just a means of clamping down on freedom of expression?
Does changing language have any effect on wider social issues like racism and sexism?

Over to you...

* Thanks to @SFXEnglish for the link 
** and thanks to Jon Dolton for this one

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pragmatics: the missing link

We've done a bit on pragmatics in AS classes over the last few weeks, looking at how context often influences language and how language often depends on a grasp of context, but here's a quick round-up of ideas about pragmatics by Stan Carey which you'll definitely find helpful.

Hiding the agent

Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary who is embroiled in a scandal about his relationship with an "adviser", has made some mistakes apparently, not that he would put it that way. He would say "I accept that it was a mistake to allow distinctions to be blurred between my professional responsibilities and my personal loyalties to a friend". And that, as Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian says, is a pretty rubbish way of saying sorry.

Freedland's article looks closely at Fox's slippery language, particularly his abuse of the passive voice, a grammatical technique that he describes as "grammar's way of telling you somebody is hiding something", which is a neat turn of phrase. It's a good bit of textual analysis and something that would make a sound starting point for a language investigation.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Heated debates 2: the sequel

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the debate on gender and language variation. There'll be another heated debate coming up next week, this time on Political Correctness and language engineering.

This topic ties in with Language Change for A2 AQA A and AQA B, and also for Language Interventions (AQA A) and Language Investigations (AQA B).

If you've got any suggestions for links to articles or have any ideas to kick this off, please post them as comments.

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...