Friday, April 27, 2012

ENGA1: quick revision tips 1

This is the first in a series of very short revision tip posts on the AS exams for AQA A spec English Language.

Today, it's how to pick up marks by writing analytical sentences on the Language and Mode question.

This question is assessed using three Assessment Objectives (AOs):
  • AO1 Language analysis and written accuracy
  • AO3i Mode
  • AO3ii Meaning

If you develop a basic template for most of your sentences, you can get marks in all three AOs each time you say something. As you develop your approach, you can mix and match and start changing the order round a bit, adding a touch of stylistic variation.

The simple template is:
  • Identify a language feature to discuss (e.g. "Oh look, there's a modal verb...")
  • Label it accurately ("This is a modal auxiliary verb...")
  • Exemplify it ("The modal verb "must" is used in the first sentence of the article...")
  • Explain its effect and significance ("It is used to place responsibility and pressure on the reader of the text...")
  • Link to context and mode, if possible ("The genre of the piece - a written charity advertisement - lends itself to this use of modals. The text is designed to address the reader directly and place responsibility on the them to take action...")
The Principal Examiner's report for this unit often flags up points that need improvement each year, and one that is clearly important is how you talk about meaning, so when you analyse the texts for Language and Mode, try to think about what it is that is actually being talked about/written about in each text.

What is the subject matter and how is it being represented?
What language choices are being made to create this impression?
How are the writers/speakers in the texts positioning themselves in relation to the subject matter?
How are they positioning themselves in relation to the other participants/speakers or audience?

In other words, are there language choices being made which tell us something about what the writer/speaker thinks about (say) university, childcare, graffiti or (as in January 2012) the "Cultural Olympiad" (no, does exist)? Perhaps these language choices also tell us something about how we're being addressed and how the text producer/speaker wants us to view them.

We'll come back to this in a day or two as we move on to language featuresmode and meaning as separate AOs, but I hope that's at least a start for thinking about this question and how to answer it.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

ENGA3 revision planning

I've also had several requests for help with revision for ENGA3, so I'll be running a few blog posts on this unit in the weeks to come.

But, given that you still have a good 7 weeks until the exam (11th June, I think) a couple of things you can do now are:

Read Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars (accessible, packed full of knowledge for your exam, and very funny too)!
Read Deborah Cameron's The Myth of Mars and Venus (as above)!

Go on: I guarantee you that these will help.

I'm also happy to take questions about this unit if you have anything you want to ask. I'll try to answer... 

ENGA1 revision run-in

With ENGA1 only a couple of weeks away, I'll be running a few revision blog posts to help students focus their minds on the exam and what's involved.

First off, we'll look at Language and Mode and some of the ways to pick up plenty of marks across all the AOs, through using analytical sentences. Then we'll have a think about the notion of mode itself - what it is and what to say about it - before moving on to AO3ii's focus on meaning and how to deal with it.

We'll get cracking on these tomorrow...

I'm also happy to take questions about this unit if you have anything you want to ask. I'll try to answer...

Resources for teachers (and students)

There's a new site - set up by the people behind the Linguistics Research Digest blog - which aims to provide teachers of A level English Language (and GCSE Spoken Language Study) with resources for the study and investigation of spoken language. The material includes ideas for language investigations, explanations of terminology and features of spoken language and soundclips of London English.

they're still adding to it, but it's got the makings of a valuable resource.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Darwinian battle for existence

Another quick link, this time to an article about words and their "Darwinian" battle for survival. It's another one that I'll try to return to in the run-up to ENGA3 exam preparation posts in the next week or two.

Losing the language war

Just a quick link here to a BBC News Magazine piece on battles over usage. I'll come back to this in a post on ENGA3 Language Discourses exam preparation in a few days.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Boys will be boys, girls will be girls and hen will be both

Back in 1884, Charles Crozat Converse decided that English needed a new pronoun, a singular and gender neutral pronoun. He proposed it be called thon, apparently a blend of that + one. In 1971, Casey Miller and Kate Swift proposed that we introduce three new pronouns - tey, ter and tem (to operate as singular versions of they, their and them). In 2005, Dr Richard Neal applied for intellectual property rights over two similar pronouns hesh and hir (the former being an alternative to he and she or s/he, the latter her/his). None of these really caught on, as this 2007 OUP blog post by Ben Zimmer explains in more detail.

So, are all such attempts doomed to failure? If new words as varied and inconsequential as jeggings, upcycling, bromance and mankini can be readily accepted, why not new pronouns? Clearly these terms haven't entered standard usage, but there has been an increase (at least, anecdotally and in my own experience) in attempts at gender neutrality through s/he, he or she and the use of they.

Perhaps these words are harder to change because they are so common. Research a few years ago suggested that our most commonly used words are the most resistant to change, despite often being the most irregular. So, while we're happy to adopt jeggings as a word (although the day I wear the actual clothing is the day I die) but slow to adapt our pronoun use.

Perhaps we should all just give up and accept that English was historically built by men, written by men and is probably destined to reflect an imbalance that favours men? Perhaps not.

While prescriptivists will no doubt cry that changing or inventing pronouns to avoid gender bias is "PC gone mad", and pedants will argue that the current best-placed alternative they shouldn't be used for singular subjects (because it's always been a plural pronoun), we know from academic research that gendered terms (including pronouns) do matter.

Words have a huge impact on how gender is constructed and words can often hold the key to how we define ourselves in so many different ways. Just have a look at a catalogue for children's toys and how gender roles are not only differentiated by colours and activities but by words and phrases.Then have a look at this piece of research from 1972:

In 1972… some three hundred college students were asked to select from magazines and newspapers a variety of pictures that would appropriately illustrate the different chapters of a sociology textbook being prepared for publication. Half the students were assigned chapter headings like “Social Man”, “Industrial Man”, and “Political Man”. The other half was given different but corresponding headings like “Society”, “Industrial Life”, and “Political Behavior”. Analysis of the pictures selected revealed that in the minds of students of both sexes use of the word man evoked, to a statistically significant degree, images of males only — filtering out recognition of women’s participation in these major areas of life — whereas the corresponding headings without man evoked images of both males and females…. The authors concluded, “This is rather convincing evidence that when you use the word man generically, people do tend to think male, and tend not to think female” ([Miller et al. 1980, pages 19-20], quoted by Spertus; emphasis added).
(source: )

Swift and Miller (referred to both in the first paragraph and in this quote) later went on to write their influential Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing which played a significant part in drawing attention to the systematic derogation (or outright denial of the existence) of women in some aspects of language. But in an earlier book, Words and Women, they set out to - in the words of Swift in this illuminating interview with the writers - draw attention to the imbalance in language:

All we wanted to do was to point out to people that ours was a male-centered language. We all have this male-imposed view when we first acquire language, and it gets reinforced in the recess of using language. We wanted people to think about this and then try to come up with their own ways of solving the problem. There is no set solution such as every 'man' should become 'person,' so we refused to make this a how-to-do-it book.

When it was released, it garnered favourable reviews and in the words of Benjamin DeMott of the New York Times was...

...a complacency shaker. It convinces you, if you need convincing, that belief in the inconsequentiality of many of the customs and conventions under examination is, in fact a species of complicity in the continual humiliation of half of the human world. 

So, why come back to this 2012? Hen, that's why. Swedish writers have now taken up the cause and produced their own new gender neutral pronoun, hen, which is explained in this Slate article. There's an interesting take on it from this blogger too, who argues that "It is simply another form of domination and since it lacks substantial support among grass roots it will not succeed".

Will hen catch on as thon, hesh, hir, tem, tey and ter failed to? God knows and hesh ain't letting on yet.

Having a LAFA

Language Variation around the world is the topic that I'm doing with my A2 (ENGA3) students at the moment, so this piece by Afua Hirsch in The Guardian from earlier in the week* is really timely.

In the article, Hirsch looks at the use of Ghanaian English and debates around it, particularly at the ways in which it is pronounced. She outlines the debate early on in the piece:

On one side of the fence are the old-school Ghanaians who were taught throughout their education to mimic received pronunciation – or BBC English, as it is popularly known – with varying degrees of success. On the other side, a backlash is growing against the old mentality of equating a British accent with prestige. Now the practice has a new acronym, LAFA, or "locally acquired foreign accent", and attracts derision rather than praise.

Conveniently for A level students, this is another very neat example of a language discourse or debate around a variety of English, so it's good territory for an ENGA3 paper. And while for many of my current students in Essex, Ghanaian English may seem a long way away, for my old SFX students in south London it was a lot more common. Even if you're not overly familiar with this particular variety of English and can't really tell your Nigerian pidgins from your Jamaican Creoles, the same bigger arguments are at play here: the same pushing and pulling between forces of change and forces of tradition.

Hirsch explains that part of the argument comes down to prestige:

...the idea that sounding "British" carries prestige also has a long history in Ghanaian society, manifesting itself in the country's struggle for independence in the 1940s and 50s, when an ideological difference emerged between an Oxbridge-educated Ghanaian elite and more radical, left-leaning leaders.
As with regional varieties and many other national varieties, the way you say something isn't always treated neutrally. While the sounds themselves don't really mean anything beyond the words they convey, they often signal much more - class, background, outlook and upbringing - so the arguments around how Ghanaian English is pronounced tap into all of these concerns.

 For Question 2 on the ENGA3 paper, the emphasis tends to be more to do with features of language rather than attitudes towards its use (although there is crossover) so this site, linked to in the article, gives an interesting (and bizarre) range of examples of Ghanaian English phrases for you to analyse.

(*thanks to @JaneSetter (blog here) for the link)

Updated on Monday 16th April to add:
This Pakistani-based newspaper website also refers to the Afua Hirsch article and adds its own local dimension to the argument. Definitely worth a read if you're working on World Englishes at the moment.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Rhyming slang: they haven't got a Scooby

There have been some interesting responses to last week's story about Cockney Rhyming Slang's supposed death. In The Independent the linguist, Tony Thorne questions whether it actually constituted a genuine dialect and looks at the new slang that's taken its place:

The cliques who occupy the high ground of cool these days, at least in their own minds, are the hipsters of Shoreditch and Hoxton, the patois-speaking street gangs and their imitators, Lady Gaga and Nicky Minaj-fixated teens, and their gloomy emo counterparts. These groups all have one thing in common: they completely lack humour, and rhyming slang is above all a joke, a feature of a mind-set for which cheerful irony, back-and-forth banter and self-mockery are mainstays.

He goes on to describe  the language of these "patois-speaking street gangs" as "pseudo-Afro-Caribbean 'Jafaican'", which I'd argue isn't really a good way of describing it, but he has a point about the constant reinvention of slang, and as an author and expert in the field, he knows his onions.

Elsewhere, Jenny McCartney in The Daily Telegraph laments the passing of Cockney Rhyming Slang describing it as "obscure and expansive, relishing the playful drawing-out of speech" (scroll down to last item here). This is worth considering from a Language Change (ENGA3 and ENGB3) perspective, as there are many reasons why people use language and they're not always related to making things quicker and simpler, often being connected to wordplay and acts of identity.

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...