Sunday, December 29, 2013


It's that time of year again when the newspapers are full of end of year lists, and it wouldn't be complete without their favourite words of the year. So here are a few of them for your delectation and delight (and your ENGA3 and ENGB3 Language Change knowledge).

The Independent charts the events of the year through its new words
Ben Zimmer - linguist and columnist - takes a look for The Wall Street Journal
Steven Poole in The Guardian
The Daily Telegraph on Collins Dictionary's new words of 2013

And to cap it all, here's a best of for a decade from the excellent Kerry Maxwell who charts new words and their meanings for the MacMillan Dictionary blog.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Uptalk top-ranking

Uptalk is on the rise? And it's not just girls who are using it; it's boys as well? A BBC programme called Inside Science covered this last week (available here and from about 23 minutes in) and it has been picked up by the BBC's own Science writers in this article.

Uptalk - or what linguists often call HRT (High Rising Terminals) or HRI (High Rising Intonation) - is a feature in which the usual falling cadence at the end of a statement is replaced with a rising intonation, so that - to some listeners, at least - the tone sounds more like a question. Like y'know, one time at band camp?

In previous research, the phenomenon was shown to be spreading out of the USA and Australia where it might have originated (although views are mixed on exactly where) and into the language of younger British people, mostly young females. But work done by Amalia Arvanati, from the University of Kent suggests that uptalk is spreading into male speech too, although its use may be under-reported by males because it's felt to be a female feature or perhaps because it carries connotations of insecurity.

Uptalk is a useful feature of language, because it can signal a desire for the interlocutor (conversational partner) to confirm something that a speaker has said, but it can also grate on some listeners, because of this perceived lack of self-belief and certainty. As Arvanati explains on the programme, "It grates on people - some people think it sounds really ditzy or insecure".

We looked at uptalk back here in 2010 and you can find a lot more about it in this article from 2001 by Matt Seaton and in this piece by the linguist Mark Liberman on Language Log (which suggests, incidentally, that HRT is not a good term to describe uptalk). If you want to track uptalk back to its origins then this piece in the New York Times by James Gorman is credited (by Liberman, at least) as being the first recorded reference to it (from 1993).

Put up or shut up

We're all aware that people from the different regions around the UK tend to use certain words and meanings, pronunciation and even grammatical structures in different ways: that's a basic principle of geographical variation and has its roots in the history of Britain. But a new study at the University of Manchester has identified some interesting trends which suggest that some regional variations - particularly in word choice (lexis) - might be disappearing as southern terms spread north.

I'd call them Vans, myself
The research is reported on in the Daily Telegraph and the Mail Online, but if you want the real detail and a full look at the language maps that have been created by Laurel Mackenzie and her team at Manchester, go straight to the Multilingual Manchester website. Here you can look at the questions that were asked of the 1400 respondents throughout the UK: questions such as "What word would you use to describe the footwear featured in this picture?". The most popular answer for this question is pumps, followed in descending order of popularity by plimsolls, trainers, daps and shoes. With many of the other questions, the results can be compared with previous research findings, allowing a diachronic study (i.e. a study over time) to be made.

Interestingly, some of the questions also assess attitudes to what is standard and non-standard, asking respondents to say whether they think expressions such as "Give it me" or "I done it" are acceptable.

We'll be looking at this whole area in more detail when we go back to ENGA3 and Language Variation and Discourses after Christmas.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Representing Mandela

Picture from:
With the sad, but sadly inevitable, death yesterday of one of the greatest political figures of the last hundred years it might be a good time to look at how language shapes different representations and how those representations change over time.

For many, Nelson Mandela was always a hero: a man fighting injustice and racial intolerance in a country that had institutionalised racial separatism like no other. Given the almost-universal praise and warmth for Mandela upon his death, you might have thought that this was what people felt at the time, but it wasn't always like this.

While the Special AKA recorded the magnificent single Free Nelson Mandela, making the point that Mandela was not just a figurehead but  - as they put it "only one man in a large army" -  young Conservative Party activists designed tasteless Hang Nelson Mandela t-shirts and posters - an early form of trolling, no doubt - and leading Tory ministers actively campaigned against economic sanctions (probably the same ones who would now support harsher sanctions on Iran) or even (in the case of the current Prime Minister, David Cameron) went to South Africa on a jolly, paid for by an anti sanctions company.

But things move on, and people's views evolve and perhaps mellow as time goes on. Cameron is now singing the praises of Mandela's integrity, leadership and forgiveness. I used to think the Conservative government should be hung, drawn and quartered for their support of apartheid South Africa. Now, just 2 out of those 3 would do for me...

For each person who saw Mandela as a freedom fighter, another saw him as a terrorist. I'd like to think that there were more of us in the former camp, but as this article by Peter Beinhart points out, powerful forces saw Mandela as a dangerous agitator. Even in 2008 - yes, 2008 - the ANC and Mandela were still on a USA terrorist watch-list!

Others, like the excellent Guardian journalist Gary Younge and writer Musa Okwonga offer alternative viewpoints. Younge describes Mandela as "never a revolutionary, always a radical" and Okwonga cautions against a revisionist, sanitised view of Mandela, which removes his anger and replaces it with sainthood.

So, for English Language students there's a lot to consider in the coverage of Mandela's death. If you look back through articles from the 1970s to 80s when he was still in prison and the ANC were seen by the South African state as  a terrorist organisation, the language may well strike you as less sympathetic: often related to violence, struggle and conflict. Fast forward to 1990 when the world's press watched him walk free from prison with all the hope, reconciliation and bridge-building that seemed to embody, and now on to the sanctifying of Mandela as a modern day saint and you'll find the language shifting into a whole range of other fields: tolerance, forgiveness, understanding, inspiration and harmony.

A great man and a great study in how perceptions can change and how language can change the way we see the world.

Edited on 06.12.13 to add link and correct error.

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...