Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Say 'Hi' to Hinglish

For those of you doing the AQA A spec, World Englishes is a fairly new topic which appears as part of the ENGA3 exam. Today's BBC News Magazine has a story on the spread of English in India and the growth of what has been termed Hinglish, a new form of English, spoken there.

If you want to find out more about English around the world and issues around how it's viewed, differences in how it's spoken, arguments over intelligibility and influence,  I'd recommend Jane Setter's chapter on it in the EMC's Language Handbook (available here and here and currently helping contribute to my kids' xmas list) and to have a look at some of the other World Englishes links from the last couple of years.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Urban tweetz

As we saw last week, Twitter is proving to be a great way of tracking language change and variation, admittedly with a few limitations about tweeters' real identities and the like. This week, New Scientist reports on research by Jacob Eisenstein and his team at Georgia Institute of Technology which seems to indicate that new word formations and abbreviations of older ones are more likely to spread via Twitter from US urban areas with large African-American populations.

Slang - and some of these formations like CTFU (Cracking The F*** Up) and bruh (brother) probably fit under that umbrella term - has long had deep links with the black community. Julie Coleman's excellent book, The Life of Slang looks at how some forms of slang have been created and kept alive in African-American culture, so it's not a great surprise to find that this ethnic group is still leading the way in lexical innovation where a new technology is concerned.

There's more here too. 


Friday, November 16, 2012

The geeks shall inherit the earth

Sheldon Cooper - reclaiming 'nerd' and 'geek'?
In good news for nerds and geeks and those caught somewhere in the middle - neeks - Big Bang Theory has returned to E4's screens. But in even better news, the words themselves seem to have gone through a process of amelioration, gaining positive semantic associations from their initially rather negative origins.

In this piece for the BBC News Magazine, the history of the words is outlined and examined by lexo-boffins and neologo- nerds, who tell us that the words are subtly different in their meanings and even carry different connotations depending on which side of the Atlantic you live on:

It's easy to argue that "nerd" and "geek", with their very different roots, retain different meanings, arguably with the former still more derogatory than the latter. And some see a transatlantic divide, with "geek" used in US and UK, but "nerd" somehow feeling less British.

And as the writer of the article, Kathryn Westcott, goes on to say, the gradual shifts in meaning are not a new occurrence in language. Yesterday, we looked at the word yid and its changing meanings to Jews and non-Jews, and in other posts over the years, we've considered queer, the n-word, slut and bitch. Are geeks and nerds now reclaiming these once-negative labels and marching proudly under their new banner out of the labs and libraries and into the mainstream?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tracking tweets

Twitter is proving to be a fantastic resource for linguists and you can see several examples of what's been done with it in these previous blog posts.

More recently, researchers at UCL have been looking at what tweets in London reveal about patterns of language use. The people looking at it, Ed Manley and James Cheshire, aren't linguists but an engineer and spatial analysis lecturer (eh?) so they're more interested in where things happen rather than necessarily exploring why - which might be more interesting for English Language students - but it raises good questions about why certain languages don't appear as often as might be expected- Bengali and Somali, for example - while others do make an appearance - Haitian Creole, Basque and Swahili -among them.

But what might be of even greater interest to A level English Language students is how Twitter is proving to be a source of fantastic data on gender and language, and what we might term communities of practice: groups of people that you "do" language with in your various day to day activities and whose language styles influence your own.

This excellent article by Ben Zimmer in the Boston Globe gives you a clear introduction to what Twitter is offering linguists and you can see more of the work of Tyler Schnoebelen and his colleagues in this powerpoint of their presentation to #nwav41 (Warning! Contains advanced statistics to boggle the mind).

In other Twitter-related research, this link to a paper by Rebecca Maybaum  gives you a glimpse of how Twitter can be used to track evolving slang: in this case, the words used to describe people on Twitter. Tweeps? Twiends? Tweethearts?

Getting rid of 'Yid'

Football supporters aren't renowned for their delicacy when it comes to the chants 'sung' (or in Millwall's case, grunted) at games, so it's not much of a surprise to find that homophobic, sexist and racist abuse often plays a part in many of them.

Recent events involving Chelsea supporters monkey chanting at black Man Utd players, Leeds Utd supporters singing songs about Sheffield Wednesday's manager Dave Jones and (unfounded) allegations of child abuse against him, and Sheffield Wednesday supporters goading Leeds' fans with references to two murdered Leeds fans have been in the press recently, but another element of racist chanting is picked up in this great article by Anthony Clavane on the use of the word yid.

Clavane has written extensively on Jewish involvement in football, most recently in his book Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here?, but previously as part of his excellent book on the mighty Leeds United, Promised Land, so he knows his stuff. Clavane points out that there's a clear difference between non-Jewish rivals using the word yid, - as he puts it "a term of opprobrium equivalent to words like the n-word and “P*ki”" - and the Spurs fans themselves claiming the term as a badge of pride.

What makes this such a good topic for discussion within the English Language A level is that it's all about words, meanings, identity and context. Words themselves are rarely - ever? - bad in and of themselves, but some words can pick up such negative connotations that they rarely escape disapproval. With yid being a term used for so long by anti-Semites - Moseley's fascist blackshirts in England, Hitler's nazis in the 1930s and 40s and Chelsea's neo-nazi supporters in the 1980s and early 1990s - can it ever be used without carrying associations of prejudice and genocidal hatred?

Well, if the n-word is anything to go by, then yes. But only with some heavy qualification. Who is using the term? What do they intend by it? What position are they adopting when they use it - solidarity or opposition? What context is it being used in?

Spurs - a football club with a long history of Jewish involvement, but arguably as much a Jewish club these days as any other - has fans who may well see the word yid as their own and describe themselves as yiddos or the Yid army, but the chucking around of terms like this by a now largely gentile fanbase runs the risk of making the term seem acceptable for general use.

That's why, as this Mirror article explains, the Society of Black Lawyers has called for those chanting it to be prosecuted. But is the case as cut and dried,  as simple, as they say?  The Mirror reports that Tottenham Hotspur have released a statement which sounds more nuanced and intelligent than many of the bland club releases that generally reach the press:

"Our guiding principle in respect of the 'Y-word' is based on the point of law itself - the distinguishing factor is the intent with which it is used ie if it is used with the deliberate intention to cause offence. This has been the basis of prosecutions of fans of other teams to date.

"Our fans adopted the chant as a defence mechanism in order to own the term and thereby deflect anti-Semitic abuse. They do not use the term to others to cause any offence, they use it as a chant amongst themselves."
But how do we deal with this? Could, potentially, Jewish Spurs fans end up in court accused of racial chanting against themselves? That would seem ridiculous.

As Clavane points out, "In a perfect world, the Y-word would not be used. But it would be idiotic to report to the police any anti-Semitic chants heard at White Hart Lane. The real evil emanates from the anti-Semites who taunt Spurs – and, it should be noted, Jewish players and fans from other teams."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


It's reaching that time of year when the dictionary publishers and lexophiles start assessing the new words that have popped up and bobbed around in the public's consciousness over the last 12 months and select their favourites. There's often a difference between the ones that the UK and US dictionaries go for and so far we've had the following:

The Oxford English Dictionary has gone for Omnishambles which is also considered here on the BBC site.

Oxford Dictionaries USA have plumped, controversially and rather strangely, for the verb 'to gif' (an acronym to noun to verb conversion, apparently) which is a choice criticised here on Slate's website.

Meanwhile, the American Dialect Society get very serious about this (while enjoying the silliness too, I'm sure) and vote for their WOTY at a big ceremony/party. Last year they chose Occupy, and this year the contenders might be frankenstorm, romnesia and robama, among others.

Soon, we'll have plenty of lists appearing in the papers, so have a think back to the words (and by words we can actually include noun phrases like squeezed middle and fiscal cliff) that have made an impression on you. Perhaps it's going to be gangnam style or even an old word that has been made popular again, pleb.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The rise of the regions

A research project based at Aston University is finding that local varieties are on the up. This follows years of concern that local accents and dialects have been in decline as a result of people's increased mobility, the spread across regional and national boundaries of new media and technologies, and the belief that such changes might lead to dialect levelling (more here and here).

You can read more about it in The Daily Mail or go straight to the source at Aston University through this project site* or through Urszula Clark's summary, You Are What You Speak which raises lots of good points about accent, identity and class in the UK.

And for a lighter look at West Midlands accents, have a look at this piece from The Guardian**

(*Thanks to Jon H @ruchbah for this one and for doing it in the first place)
(**Thanks to Nicky W for link to this)

Emagazine English Language conference 2013

happy language students and teachers with the big DC last year

The details of February's 2013 English Language conference put on by emagazine at the Institute of Education in London have just been made available.

The speakers are David Crystal, Ron Carter, Sylvia Shaw and Marcello Giovanelli and it's set to be another great event.

The conference website is here and I'm running a supporting blog to offer teachers and students material in the run-up to the conference. There'll be a really good competition this year, with the prize presented by the great man himself, David Crystal.

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...