Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Rules" rule, OK?

For those of you doing A2 English Language, the big debate between prescriptivist and descriptivist attitudes to language is a central plank of the course. The terms themselves are a little problematic, as you'll no doubt see for yourselves as the course goes on, but in this article from the New York Times last week, two writers from opposing sides - Robert Lane Greene and Bryan A. Garner - slug it out, arguing about the "rules" of English and how we should  talk about usage. Can a native speaker ever really be "wrong", or should the "rules" always reflect the usage?

It's a well-argued piece, on both sides, and offers plenty of ammunition for those of you putting together Language Interventions for coursework, and material for discussion in class as we move into ENGA3 exam topics later in the year.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Bitch bad, woman good

Rap's never really had a good reputation for its representation of women. Bitches, hos, big booties bouncing and lollipops getting licked seem to be where it's at for a lot of rappers. But Lupe Fiasco isn't your average rapper and his latest album features a track called Bitch Bad, which pulls apart the construction of the word, its representation of women, its reflection of a materialistic society and its influence on malleable minds.

You can see the video here if it's not embedded above, and read the lyrics here. It's worth looking at how he pulls apart the assumptions and associations around the word, as it's a key part of what we do on ENGA2 when we look at the Investigating Representation task for coursework. Areas like how gender, ethnicity and sexuality are constructed and reflected through language are central to the unit, and it's worth spreading your net wide to gather language examples to focus on and write about.

If you're interested in other areas around words related to gender, try looking for material on this blog last year about Slutwalks. If the language used to describe disability is more your thing then you may want to look at the arguments here about the words mong and spastic.

The Brits are Coming

The language traffic between the USA and UK is often portrayed as only working in one direction. We get hos, feds, bling, couch and candy while they get Harry Styles and his semi-pubescent chums. But is it really one way traffic? Not really, according to various linguists and language watchers.

The BBC has just run a feature on what they call the Britishisation of American English (note the stiff upper lipness of their -isation rather than limp yankee -ization) and it would appear that some speakers in the USA are picking up terms from here and sprinkling them into their vernacular, without so much as a by your leave or missing you already. So words like snog and ginger have crept up the usage charts (and may even rival 1D's chart positions soon) and fixed expressions like go missing and chat up are also gaining popularity.

The usage graphs themselves are interesting things to have a look at because they show the increasingly scientific approach taken to language study that the digitisation of newspapers and books has given us. Plus, they reflect the influence of UK cultural exports like Harry Potter (and perhaps more precisely, in the case of ginger, Ron Weasley).

Of course, the media love to stoke friendly rivalries between the old colonial masters and their upstart offspring, with articles like this by Matthew Engle kicking off some hardcore peeving over the infectious disease of American English (which we covered on this blog here), but the picture has always been more varied than the caricatures suggest, and with linguistics now taking a much more nuanced turn towards language as performance and a marker of identity rather than simply reflecting fixed categories we fall into (British, American, male, female, working class, posh etc.) it's clear that more attention can be given to individual reasons why some British words might take off in the USA and others not.

All of this is a topic that we'll cover in ENGA3 as part of World Englishes and Language Discourses, because it's a debate about language use and its users that provokes so many different opinions. In the meantime, before we get to studying this in class, I'd recommend Lynne Murphy's excellent blog Separated by a Common Language and reading a bit of David Crystal's Encyclopedia of the English Language to see how American English developed its own distinct identity and continues to be the dominant English form spoken all over the world.

Edited on 28th September to add:
The Guardian have also run a comment piece on this topic today.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Say Yah to the Rahs

It's that time of year again, when new students are starting to flock to universities for their two weeks of seminars before it's reading week and then Christmas holidays, so it must also be time for the student-friendly Guardian to run its dictionary of student slang. So, here it is.

Given that today's students are from a much more representative demographic than twenty or thirty years ago, the slang is not really limited to just the upper middle classes any more, and now draws on much more eclectic influences - Caribbean patois, US teenspeak and TOWIE - so it could be argued that what students speak isn't really their slang at all. Then again, there are some examples - BNOC and chundergrad - which seem fairly restricted to campus life, so do seem to fit a strict definition of student slang.

And while we're on the subject of slang, a really excellent new book called The Life of Slang: A History of Slang by Professor Julie Coleman of Leicester University, is definitely worth a read for anyone thinking of investigating the topic further. It's funny, informative and frankly possesses a level of bare teckers that is hard to match in this field.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tory toffs, plod and plebs

Tory Minister, Andrew Mitchell is in hot water over his alleged outburst to police officers at the Houses of Parliament. It is reported that he swore at them, using the dreaded f-word, but much worse than that for a Tory government consisting largely of ex-public schoolboys who are generally seen to be aloof, arrogant and out of touch (even by their own nannies), he called the police plebs. Worse than the f-word? Really? Well, it depends on what you think of its significance. Some describe it as "politically toxic".

Plebs is a back-formation from a Latin word plebeian used in ancient Rome, basically meaning "of the common people" as opposed to being from the ruling aritocracy. As this BBC News Magazine article explains, the word gained currency in British public schools which often modelled themselves on ancient classical tradition and in the class divide that such an education created.

Given the timing too - in a week where two police constables were shot dead in what appears to have been an ambush in Manchester - it's not really a great week for a Tory MP to belittle the men and women who are protecting them and shows again the power of language to reflect social attitudes when it's used.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

#TOMA, ITKers and WUMs

If you are unlucky enough to be a fellow Leeds United supporter, then this summer will have introduced you to a whole new world of anxiety, anticipation and moments of near-euphoria followed by crushing disappointment. And that's before you even go to a game, watch Ross McCormack get scythed down,  or see the "highlights" of another dreary defeat on TV. For this summer has been #TOMA summer.

TOMA? Yes TOMA. Take Over? My Arse. With the proposed takeover of Leeds United by a Bahraini/Saudi Arabian consortium now into its well over one hundredth day of negotiations and no deal with megalomaniac owner Ken Bates yet signed, Leeds fans have become used to TOMA fever. It consists of dripfeeds of information from ITKers (In The Know people) on WACCOE (We Are the Champions Champions Of Europe chat forum) who often turn out to be WUMs (Wind Up Merchants), campaign updates from LUST (Leeds United Supprters Trust) and the constant hitting of F5 (refresh).As well as nail-biting tension (and inevitable despair) it's been a hotbed of linguistic innovation.

The flexibility of initialisms and acronyms gives language the chance to express ideas very quickly and it's a really productive area of word formation. What's also interesting from a linguistic point of view is the ones which stay in use and the ones that don't. Will we still be ROFLing and LOLing in ten years, for example? Do we even realise that Radar, Laser and Scuba were once acronyms? And will we ever find out who was really ITK and who was just a WUM?

A f**king swearfest

As mentioned a few weeks back, Lexicon Valley is a regular language podcast from Slate magazine. The latest edition is great if you're a fan of profanity, obscenity and vulgarity. And let's face it, if you aren't, you really should be, you dumb fu....sorry, getting carried away there. In this edition, the guest linguist is Geoff Nunberg who talks at length about the word asshole: where it comes from, what it means and who can be one.

He argues that a child can't be an asshole; only a person who knows better can be one. But what is an asshole? It appears to be a term applied to someone (almost always a man) who is arrogant, unpleasant, and showing an overblown sense of entitlement. Does it really have anything to do with the body part it refers to? Well, yes and no. And that's why the word is so interesting, because like so many other swear words, it appears to have slipped its mooring and drifted into completely new territory, referring to things it never used to.

But does it have the same meaning in the UK? To me, it seems to be a specifically American term and  - as this article makes clear - ass and arse aren't quite the same thing, meaning that asshole and arsehole aren't necessarily the same thing either. After all, why say asshole when you can say dickhead, which is a much more British word?

Anyway, swearing aside, the interview sheds plenty of light on how swearing is used, its roots in culture and society and people's attitudes to it. Go on. Don't be an asshole. Give it a listen.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

ENGA2 Investigating Representation

I'm going to be teaching the investigation coursework part of the AS course for the first time in a few years, so have been looking around for ideas that might work. What I am hoping is that this post can become a bit more collaborative than the usual ones, with students and teachers suggesting topics and approaches that have worked for them. So, if you are an A2 student who did an interesting topic last year or a teacher of the A spec who has some good ideas about topics from work you've set/seen, please add your comments.

Conscious of the fact that lots of students have gone for celebrity profiles in the past (representation of individuals) and that these are often a bit pedestrian, I've tried to suggest a couple of issue-based topics below, so any other ideas would be very welcome.

Page 3
Institution: is it an institution? Should it even exist?
Issue: sexism, pornography
Social group: women and representation of gender
Suggested text to start off with: Deborah Orr in The Guardian

Event: comparison of reporting on event then and now, with The Sun's coverage being of particular interest.
Social groups: football fans, Liverpool fans/Scousers (regional stereotyping)
Institution: the police
Suggested texts to look at: Neil Warnock on memories of the disaster, The Sun's front pages then and now:

Football fans
Following on from coverage of the Hillsborough inquiry, it could also be worth looking at changing representations of football fans, from the hooligans of the 1970s and 80s through to the prawn sandwich munchers of the 2000s.
Social group: football fans
BBC News magazine article on this
Football Supporters Federation - representing fans

Some other possibilities (updated Friday 28th September):

Pussy Riot
Event: jailing of the band
Individuals: as band members
Issue: protest, feminism
Social group: women, activists
There are some sharply contrasting representations of them in the media too.
The Economist covers it here.
Guardian comment piece.
NME interview with jailed band members
Bad taste tweets?

Jeremy Forrest and Megan Stammers
Perhaps a bit too soon to look at this dispassionately, but now they've been found (apparently alive and well), this case and its coverage - particularly the representation of Forrest in the tabloid press and in interviews with his parents - could be a very interesting one to explore.
This link to the press conference where his parents spoke might be a good place to look.
The Sun's coverage a few days into the story.
Event, Individuals, Social groups, Issues could all be covered here.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tweeps, LOLZ and the continuing bastardisation of English

Following on from the Collins new words post earlier today, here's one on August 2012's new additions to Oxford Dictionaries.

While the words aren't a great surprise to anyone who has kept their eyes and ears open over the last year or two (tweeps, ridic, hat tip and Essex's very own, vajazzle) the discussion that follows them in the comments section provides a nice snapshot of some of the arguments that rage about language usage (arguments we will look at when we do ENGA3 Language Discourses and ENGA4 Language Interventions).

Doughnut Guy is upset about the continuing "bastardisation" of the English language, while John List sees it all as part of language evolution, and the role of the dictionaries as being to reflect what's being written, said and tweeted out there in the real world.

So, in weeks to come we'll start this year's Heated Debates and kick off with the topic of new words, dictionaries and the changing face of English...

No, Chomsky

For a long time, Noam Chomsky has been viewed as one of the big hitters in linguistics. It's probably fair to say that he's one of its most influential thinkers, widely admired for his groundbreaking ideas on language acquisition and what he came to term Universal Grammar. But in recent years there's been a growing body of research to suggest that his nativist approach to language acquisition - that all children acquire language through an inbuilt ability to relate universal rules of grammar to the language that is used around them - is on shaky ground.

The argument gets quite heated (and frankly, for me at least, almost completely unfathomable) in some places (like the comments that follow this Geoff Pullum THE review of a recent Chomsky publication) and I don't have the intelligence to follow most of it, but this is an interesting and readable account of some of the recent criticisms of Chomsky's approach by Dorothy Bishop on her blog and worth a read if you've already studied child language acquisition at AS/A level or are interested in finding out more.

There's also a really good chapter in the forthcoming EMC Language handbook, written by Paul Ibbotson of Manchester University, on new approaches to child language research.

Dollops of proper rustic hipsters

Here are two quick links to things which might tickle your fancy. First, here's a list of words nabbed from Luke Wright's twitter feed, allegedly promoted in Jamie Oliver's restaurants to sell his food. Now, I'm a big fan of Jamie - to my mind, he's a national treasure with his fight for decent school meals and his obvious dislike of Michael 666ove - but aren't these words a bit daft? Presumably they fit with his image of effortless, commonsense cooking, but "proper rustic" sounds a bit like a dry biscuit or a six-fingered Norfolk farmer.

The second link is a Hipster translator. We may admire their Hoxton fins from a distance and their ridiculous trousers, but hipsters speak the same language the world over: and here you can learn what it means.


Sorry for the lack of regular blog updates since June. I spent most of June and July marking exams and moderating coursework, went on holiday to Italy (lovely, thanks) and then was busy writing and editing some stuff. If you want to read/buy any of it, check the sidebar "Books wot I have writ" and you can help feed my family (and keep me in red wine and Dime bars).

Regular service now resumed, I hope :-)

Texting does/doesn't affect* kids' language skills

*Delete as appropriate

Two conflicting studies have been published about the perils or potential of texting. In one US study, it is reported that "Tweens who frequently use language adaptations - techspeak - when they text performed poorly on a grammar test", and the summary on Science Daily suggests that this might be down to young people's exposure to, and then imitation of, abbreviated grammar and spelling in texts. There's more on the study here and here.

Elsewhere, it was reported in The Daily Telegraph that researchers from Coventry University (who have been studying texting and literacy for a good few years now) had looked at "the spelling, grammar, understanding of English and IQ of primary and secondary schoolchildren and compared those skills with a sample of their text messages" and found "no evidence of any significant relationships between poor grammar in text messages and their understanding of written or spoken grammar". This ties in with their previous findings (search under texting labels on this blog for links to their work) and seems to flatly contradict the findings of the Penn. State study above.

Bang tidy and totes amazeballs

Collins Dictionaries have been looking for innovative ways to develop their dictionary and have taken to crowdsourcing new entries over the last few months (as reported back in July in The Guardian). The latest version of their online dictionary can be seen here and includes 86 new words (or word senses) out of about 4000 entries submitted. Among the new words are amazeballs, hangry and K-pop, terms that we never knew we needed, but that will go on to become massive (or not, if you believe this cartoon)

You can still submit suggestions to them through this link. I'm waiting for my suggestion of wi-five to be approved.

The mainstream press have responded with various articles, including this one from The Daily Telegraph and this one from The Huffington Post which also poses the question, which words do we want to get rid of? You can submit your suggestions after the article.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Lexicon Valley podcasts

While I'm planning some longer posts to cover lots of different English Language stories that have happened over the summer, here's a quick link to a really great resource from Slate magazine in the USA. It's a regular podcast called Lexicon Valley and it covers different areas of English usage and debate, with discussions about Black English, forensic linguistics, gender and many other topics. They're definitely worth a listen and could be a handy teaching resource too.

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...