Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On strike

This blog is officially on strike today in solidarity with striking public sector workers.

Do not cross the picket line by posting comments!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Big and clever, but not insulting

Swearing is bad, right? We're always told it's not big or clever to swear,  but I can't be the only person to find a well-chosen swearword hilariously funny.

Swearing has had a long and rich history in English, partly because of the changing social attitudes we've had to certain taboo terms and the ways in which swear words often reflect a changing world. Mark Lawson in today's Guardian* offers a look at this in the light of recent media worries over Strictly Come Dancing and the X Factor, but he raises other points about the history of swearing too.

Many words have, he points out with the help of Language God, David Crystal, changed from perfectly innocent usage to taboo terms over time (the c-word - the one that isn't Cameron - being a good example of this) but others have gone the other way and lessened in their impact (sod and bugger, for instance).

And it's changing social attitudes that are of interest to the High Court judge, Mister Justice Bean who has rules that police officers being told to "f**k off" are hardly likely to be insulted because they're so used to it, it's water of a f**k's back, sorry, duck's back.

This doesn't appeal to Janet Daley in the Daily Telegraph who sees swearing as a form of abuse and disrespect that our public servants shouldn't be subjected to. For her it's the tip of the iceberg: today swearing  tomorrow anarchy. And it's an argument that Mark Lawson alludes to in his piece as well. If swearing is so widespread that it's no longer insulting, or so ubiquitous that we don't even know we're doing it, what value does it actually have?

We've covered swearing on this blog many times previously, so just click on the label to see all the relevant posts about it.

* thanks to Jon D for the link

edited on  24.11.11 to add: 
My legal adviser (the Mrs) tells me that the issue over Mister Justice Bean's pronouncement is not really that new and is less connected to "insult" than it is to the "alarm, harassment and distress" in the wording of public order charges. 

She tells me that there is a big difference between swearing and swearing at someone in the eyes of the law, so if a suspect were to say "I've never seen that f**king flatscreen!", that would not generally considered to be something that would cause distress to an arresting officer (or imaginary bystander), while "F**k off you idiot; I've never seen that flatscreen before" might be perceived as causing distress as it is directed towards the officer.

This makes an interesting distinction between swearing in general and swearing at someone.

Technology and language change

There's an good article from Natasha Lomas of here which takes a look at how technology has influenced recent language change. It includes contributions from God of language, David Crystal and the OED's John Simpson, so it's got proper linguistics stuff there, plus it gives us some good techy insight into different fields such as text messaging, social networking and Lolcats.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tweet to speech

Ben Trawick-Smith's Dialect Blog has got a good range of posts on it about spoken language, often material on accents and dialects, but here he looks at how online language abbreviations such as OMG, LOL and WTF have worked their way into some people's spoken language.

We've had a look at this phenomenon on this blog before, here in a piece by Emma Bertouche on hashtag creeping into spoken forms, and here back in February this year.

Discussing disgusting

There's a good piece here on the BBC News magazine site about the word disgust and its changing meanings and usage in English. As well as being a good case study of semantic change, it offers an interesting angle on how new analytical methods can be used to track language change, in this case Google n-grams and digital corpus searches.

Convergence in action in Australia

There's a neat example here of how accommodation theory can work. When Barack Obama visited Australia he used a few Australianisms to help strike up a rapport with prime minister, Julia Gillard.

Accommodation theory, as theorised by Howard Giles, consists of convergence and divergence, the former involving speakers moving closer to each other in speech style (for example, a teacher downwardly converging with a younger student to speak more on their level), the latter showing the opposite (for example, a speaker deliberately altering their speech style to be more noticeably different from those around her).

Friday, November 04, 2011

English for the English; Englishes for the rest?

Does England have any control of what is called "English" or will, as one Telegraph reader wittily claims, "The English ... have as much control over English as the Italians have over pizza and Indians over chicken korma"?

It might seem like a strange question, given that the general consensus is that English (the language) derives from England (the nation), but it's one that is increasingly being asked as new varieties of English spring up all over the world, each with its own distinct character and linguistic identity.

We've already seen that many English speakers get very worked up about "their" language being taken over by Americanisms, but what about when their language is picked up by Malaysians, Indians, Nigerians, and Chinese? For many, these varieties of English are judged as inferior, broken, stripped down and poorly learnt versions of the original and best form, but that's a view that was never popular among linguists and has been the subject of some fairly strongly-worded arguments in English teaching circles over the last twenty or so years.

For a long time, this neo-colonialist view - that a world English (singular) should be taught and that English English was the gold standard - seemed to be the mindset of many English educators (and perhaps their students too) where the focus was very much on teaching Johnny Foreigner the right sort of English.

But then came along Braj Kachru with his circle model of World Englishes (Note the plural!):

The model has the "traditional bases" of English at its centre - the inner circle - and then widens to include countries in the outer circle where English has had an historical or political role, before moving into the expanding circle where English is generally used as a "lingua franca", a language of convenience to communicate between people who do not have English as their first language.

The model is not without its critics though, and some have argued that it neglects the "norms" of English and lets the Englishes at the fringes drift too far away from the core linguistic values of a standard Global English. In fact, Kachru debated this with Randolph (now Lord) Quirk (founder of the Survey of English Usage at UCL, where I work, so I must be careful what I say!).

From the other side of the linguistic divide, the model has been criticised for not being radical enough. It still places England and the USA at its heart and therefore creates the impression that the English language of the expanding circle orbits around them, that England is still at the centre of the universe.

Now, while Jeremy Clarkson and most of the Conservative Party would probably agree with that notion, sitting in the snug bar of a Tunbridge Wells gentleman's club and polishing their miniature soldier figurines,  it's hard to see how England can really claim any ownership over the Englishes spoken beyond its own borders. Even within those borders the language is in a state of constant flux and has a rich history of regional, social and ethnic variation, and that's before you even set foot on an ocean liner to cross the Atlantic or a prison ship to reach Australia.

The most recent debate has been over just this issue, with Dr. Mario Saraceni, a linguist from Portsmouth University, arguing in the September 2011 edition of Changing English (as reported here) that it's time to get away from the mindset that English is "spreading" and that "the psychological umbilical chord linking English in the world to its arbitrarily identified spatio-temporal and cultural centre be decidedly and conclusively severed". It's a bit of a mouthful, as you can see, but he's essentially calling for a clean break to be made between England and English.

To support his case, he quotes Henry Widdowson who said "How English develops in the world is no business whatever of native speakers in England, or the United States, or anywhere else. They have no say in the matter, no right to intervene or pass judgement. They are irrelevant."

In the interview below, Saraceni talks about a student of his, from Malaysia who says he feels like English is a "borrowed language", an idea that Saraceni develops in his paper, arguing that "Language is intimately connected to one's intellect and one's perception of Self and the idea of using a borrowed language, especially when this language is one's main language, has significant implications for the way one sees him/herself in relation to those considered to be the legitimate owners of that language".

In a sense (and I hope I'm getting this right) we shouldn't really be talking about anyone owning the language, that we should grow up and be less sentimental about what is essentially a tool for billions of people.

That's all well and good, but we know from previous language debates that arguments over language are rarely contained to the words, the sounds and the grammar of a language, but are much more often about our views of other people, their habits, their cultures and our own prejudices. So, in that context and to many linguistic nationalists on the comment pages of the Mail or the opinion pages of the Telegraph, what Saraceni says here is incendiary stuff.

Dr Mario Saraceni from University of Portsmouth on Vimeo.

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...