Saturday, November 07, 2015

A Word of Warning

While some changes to language are roundly condemned by pedants, purists and prescriptivists - creaky voice, rising intonation, split infinitives and literally not actually meaning LITERALLY AT ALL - new words often get an easy ride. People generally like new words and can see why they appear in the language, even if some of them seem a bit silly (Awesome sauce and amazeballs? Really?) or likely to last as long as a David Cameron promise on tax credits (dadbod and mantihose?). In fact, new words now get wall-to-wall media coverage.

So, this week we have seen the latest additions to the Collins Dictionary feature in pieces such as this (from the Dictionary-makers themselves), this from The Guardianthis from the BBC and this from the Daily Fail.

But among the hype and the celebration of an evolving and vibrant language, naysayers complain that some of the new entries are just trendy fads, too ephemeral to be included in esteemed dictionaries.

As Robert Lane Greene explains in a blog for The Economist, the whole process of putting new words in a dictionary is quite an intensive exercise, admittedly now made much easier by the internet: something that early lexicographers could have only dreamt of. A further explanation is given in this helpful video clip from Oxford University Press, which describes how a new word (in this case selfie) might enter their dictionaries. As the clip explains, the naysayers are partly right that things have been changing faster than before, because the new words don't have to have had a very long existence before being added to the online versions of the dictionaries. But in a way, that just reflects the rapid pace of lexical change these days. Perhaps, as John Sutherland argues in this article, language is "evolving at a faster rate now than at any other time in history because of social media and instant messaging".

Is this rapid change leaving some behind? One argument often put forward by more prescriptively-minded people is that if language changes too fast, we lose mutual intelligibility; in other words, one generation may not understand the language of another. Older people (anyone over 30) will lose any semblance of understanding of what young people are talking about, goes the argument, and that will lead to social breakdown and chaos. Indeed, this is the argument peddled in rather dubious articles like this one in yesterday's Daily Fail which claims that parents haven't a clue what their kids are saying because they're using a secret sex and drugs code, grandad!

For example, the seemingly innocuous "netflix and chill" now takes on much more sinister connotations. The innocent Snapchat message from your teenage daughter to her bae saying "Do you want to come over? We could Netflix and chill." actually means "Buy drugs, come to my boudoir and let's have hours of dangerous chemsex". Apparently.

The fear that young people's language is constantly evolving as a nefarious means of hoodwinking their prying parents or to hide other dubious activities (smoking tobacco, drinking alcopops and playing CoD until after bedtime) is one that has been around forever. This piece in The Daily Telegraph from 2013, this one from the Daily Fail (again... almost like they don't like young people), or even these from as far back as the 17th Century, all say similar things.

And if people have been complaining about it and we still manage to communicate fairly effectively with each other after all this time, surely the doom-mongers are barking up the wrong tree.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

I wonder if we can talk about requests...

Last night I went to a talk, and today I’m blogging about it. The University of York Linguistics Society hosted a talk by Professor Paul Drew from Loughborough University, and since he’s a bit of a big deal in Conversation Analysis, I thought I’d go along. Some of the talk’s content might be of some use to A-Level English Language analyses, so here (in some shape or form) are my generalisations.

The theme of the evening was ‘requests’ (so, aiming to get someone else to do something for us, like asking for a lift), specifically in conversation. Towards the beginning of his talk, Paul quoted Levinson: “language delivers action, not meaning”. It was a little mysterious at first, but it was fascinating to witness this quote unravel throughout the course of the evening. Obviously, language does carry meaning, but it was implied that its primary purpose is to act in some way.

Drew has done a lot of research on telephone call interaction, and therefore we are talking about these requests in the context of telephone conversations. He compared two types of context where we might be making phone calls: informal contexts (e.g. among friends) vs. more formal institutional contexts (key examples of these he gave were out-of-hours calls to doctors and calls to the police).

Broadly speaking, Drew claimed that we tend to begin our requests in an informal context with a modal form (like ‘Could you…’/‘Can you…’), whereas we often tend to go for ‘I wonder if…’ in the institutional context. This comparison can be explained with a continuum of request forms he then went on to talk about…

Continuum of request forms

High entitlement/Low contingency High contingency/Low entitlement

Imperatives I need you to.. Modals (Could../Can..) I wonder if…

As we can see from the above continuum, we can talk about request contexts in terms of degrees of entitlement and contingency. Contingency, in this setting, is about the requester’s knowledge or awareness of the difficulties that might be involved if the ‘requestee’ were to carry out the action.

If we start at one end of the scale (the left side), in high entitlement and low contingency contexts, we can appropriately find imperatives. The simple example Drew gave was in a lecturer-student context. It might be fine to say ‘Pass me that pen’. In that kind of scenario, there is a power relationship where there may be a high level of entitlement. The low contingency might come from the fact that there’s a pen lying on the desk which isn’t being used, and so it isn’t seen as much of a sacrifice to the student to carry out the requested action. Basically, the requester is in a more powerful position, and the request isn’t seen to be a big deal.

On the other side of the spectrum (the right side), we have high contingency and low entitlement. Here, the out-of-hours doctor calls can demonstrate this kind of context. The example Drew provided us with was a man calling with back pain and requesting a doctor to come and visit him with ‘I wonder if you’d come out’. In this kind of scenario, the requester is not necessarily familiar with what’s involved and so quite a conservative (high contingency) form of request has been used, along with the low entitlement, because the doctor, in this case, is seen to be the more knowledgeable party.

Having briefly explored this continuum, we can return to the broad claim Drew made early on, which generalised over the request forms we might make with friends versus those we might make in an institutional context. We’ve just seen an example of an informal setting where ‘I wonder if…’ was used. When we are requesting among friends or family, often we have a better idea of what is involved for that person if the action was carried out, and the power distance is likely to diminish. This means that we can see many situations among friends, where ‘Could you…’/‘Can you..’ might be appropriate, because they are a little further up the scale.

Drew explored a number of telephone calls where these sorts of situations were evaluated and the request form was analysed in relation to it. Of course exceptions were pointed out and more discussion followed, but I think this is a great framework to start us off when we’re looking at requests.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Accent’s Place and Placing Accent in Forensic Science

This post aims to bring some application value to the accent strand newly introduced to A’Level English Language. Accent and dialect differences are of course interesting in their own right. However, they can also be useful to real-life applications. Here, I’m going to shed light on just one of these: forensic speech science.

Forensic speech practitioners analyse recordings which might feature as evidence in legal casework. Often, it’ll be telephone calls and we want to answer various questions about the speaker or what was said. One task analysts might be asked to do is called ‘speaker profiling’. Speaker profiling is the task of extracting various identifying information about the speaker in the recording. We could think about this in the context of a ransom telephone call, for example, where we don’t have any information about the speaker, but we want to narrow down the pool of possibilities to assist investigative teams. Information like where the speaker is from, or what speech community he/she belongs to, could be really useful to a cause. A thorough analysis of the speaker’s accent can help us to do this. Outlined below are a couple of real-life cases where speaker profiling/accent analysis played a part.

Case 1: The Yorkshire Ripper
The most famous case involving forensic speaker profiling dates back to the late 1970s - The Yorkshire Ripper case. Around this time, and over a the course of a few years, a serial killer was at large, brutally murdering women across Yorkshire. The lead investigator for the case, George Oldfield, received a recorded message from a male claiming to be the Yorkshire Ripper. Below is what the speaker in the recording said:

I’m Jack. I see you have no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you, George, but, Lord, you are no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started. I reckon your boys are letting you down, George. They can’t be much good, can they? The only time they came near catching me was a few months back in Chapeltown when I was disturbed. Even then it was a uniformed copper, not a detective. I warned you in March that I’d strike again. Sorry it wasn’t Bradford, I did promise you that I couldn’t get there. I’m not quite sure when I’ll strike again but it will be definitely some time this year, maybe September or October, even sooner if I get the chance. I’m not sure where. Maybe Manchester, I like it there, there’s plenty of them knocking about. They never learn, do they, George? I bet you’ve warned them, but they never listen. At the rate I’m going, I should be in the book of records. I think it’s eleven up to now, isn’t it? Well, I’ll keep on going for quite a while yet. I can’t see myself being nicked just yet. Even if you do get near, I’ll probably top myself first. Well, it’s been nice chatting to you, George. Yours, Jack the Ripper. No good looking for fingerprints, you should know by now it’s clean as a whistle. See you soon. Bye. Hope you like the catchy tune at the end. Ha Ha.

This is when Stanley Ellis, a leading dialectologist, was brought in to lend a hand with some expert analysis. With the belief that they had a recording of the perpetrator, they thought that they could identify him. Stanley Ellis’s spanning experience in dialectology and fieldwork equipped him to be able to make an initial broad diagnosis of the speaker’s accent, saying that the speaker sounded like he was from the general Sunderland area in the North-East of England. Using various cues from the recording, Ellis was able to pinpoint, to a finer degree, where he believed the speaker in the recording was from. In his account of the case, here are some cues Ellis used to do this (remember that these were of relevance to these particular varieties back in the 1970s - accent features may have changed since then):

  • The vowel quality of the pronoun ‘I’ suggested that Ellis could perhaps eliminate Tyneside or North Yorkshire as possible areas. If the speaker were from Tyneside or Yorkshire, we could perhaps expect an elongated version of the vowel we find in ‘cat’.
  • The word ‘strike’ was another useful clue. The speaker’s pronunciation of the vowel in this word was closer to what we would expect in, say, Received Pronunciation, than what we might expect from the spoken variety in the north of County Durham. Typically, speakers in this area would produce a similar vowel to what we might hear in RP ‘steak’ (roughly speaking). This observation therefore meant that the speaker was unlikely to be from north County Durham.
  • Also of note was the fact that the speaker in our mysterious recording h-dropped (so, not pronouncing the /h/ in the words ‘have’ and ‘hope’). Having researched this area, Ellis was able to suggest that this means that the speaker is unlikely to be from areas north of the River Wear, where h-dropping is less common.

All kinds of these sorts of cues came together, along with further data collection from this part of the country, to home in on two possible areas: Southwick or Castletown. It is important to note that these kinds of analyses only offer an indication, rather than ground truth results. Forensic analysts present their conclusions in terms of likelihoods.

Based on the outcomes of Ellis’s analysis, police investigation efforts targeted Southwick and Castletown, but there was no luck in identifying a specific individual. However, in 1981, police arrested Peter Sutcliffe, a lorry driver from Bradford (with a Bradford accent), who, it turned out, was responsible for the murders. The tape recording was a hoax, and it wasn’t revealed who the hoaxer was until 2006 - John Humble.  Because of advances in techniques, forensic scientists were able to find a DNA match that police had stored from a minor incident Humble was involved in in 1991. It turned out that Humble was indeed from near the areas Ellis had identified. Unfortunately, however, the distraction this hoax created at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper investigation meant that the Yorkshire Ripper was able to go on to murder three more women.

Case 2: Mysterious Bomb Threats to Mr HOW

This case is about 40 year-old Richard Carl who lived 12 miles away from Philadelphia in the US. This case brings together elements of speaker profiling, as well as more specific speaker comparison elements. His wife had been laid off from her job at a company called Mr HOW. Richard Carl called the company and spoke to the supervisor to express that he thought his wife had been unfairly treated. Within a short period of time after this phone call, four phone calls were made to the local police and fire departments claiming that there were bombs and fires at Mr HOW. Richard Carl was accused of making these obscene phone calls, and at this point, Sharon Ash was brought in to make an analysis of the recorded threatening calls with Richard Carl’s speech.

Having closely analysed Carl’s vowels, Ash could confidently express that Carl showed the details of a typical speaker of Philadelphia English. Ash could then analyse the speech of the bomb threat caller and compare the two speakers’ pronunciations. One example of the sort of features Ash looked at was the vowel in ‘gonna’. Ash was able to compare the pronunciation of the first vowel in this word for both the bomb threat caller and Carl. She spotted that while Carl’s vowel matched with the vowels you would find in ‘on’ or ‘off’, the bomb threat caller produced something more like ‘gunna’.

This analysis contributed to Carl’s overall case, and he was acquitted (as a result of a combination of factors).

Practical Challenges
For both Case 1 and Case 2, the accents involved had been previously studied and documented in academic research. We don’t always have access to the sociolinguistic expertise to indicate the specific featural diagnostics which point us towards an overall accent label. For example, in a case, we might have accent varieties which have never been visited in academic research before. Forensic casework, in its nature, is very unpredictable, and caseworkers could be asked to work on anything. As well as this, we know that accents and dialects change, and they change rapidly. This means that our documentation of varieties becomes outdated, and therefore invalid, quite quickly.

My own research aims to make improvements to the way forensic practitioners conduct the speaker profiling task. I have developed the Y-ACCDIST system. Y-ACCDIST is a software tool which can be trained on a database of accents, to then identify what the systematic differences are between these varieties. Given a speech sample of interest, Y-ACCDIST will then process and classify the unknown speaker into one of the previously trained accents. It doesn’t work 100% of the time (I’m not completely deluded), but technological developments are (hopefully) being made in the right direction. The intention is not to replace the forensic analyst in these speaker profiling tasks, but to have the analyst and Y-ACCDIST work in conjunction with one another.

When attitudes to accent might matter
The cases above illustrate how, by being analytical about speakers’ accents, we can perhaps provide an evidential contribution. However, our attitudes to accents can also be significant in a legal context. James Tompkinson and Katherine Weinberg at the University of York are currently researching into this nook of the field. James is looking into listeners perceiving threats. More specifically, he’s looking into how the speaker’s accent affects how threatening the listener finds certain utterances. For example, does a speaker with a Cockney accent come across as more threatening than a speaker of RP? Developing our understanding of this could be valuable to court cases where threats are involved.

Katherine has been looking at threatening speech/language in the context of Anglo Americans’ perceptions of African Americans. Recent relevant cases might include the shooting of Walter Scott, an African American who was shot by law enforcement. It was claimed the the officer responsible felt threatened. However, video footage did not indicate that the victim was threatening the officer in any way. Removing physical appearances from the equation, are there elements of African American speech that Anglo Americans perceive as threatening? Katherine has been analysing phonetic, lexical and grammatical aspects of African American speech and what listeners may associate with these.

With any luck, this post has provided some insight into the murky world of forensic speech science, with particular attention paid to accent analysis. There are many more types of task which forensic analysts have to contend with, but I think this post offers some justification to studying accents. They’re not just interesting, but studying them can also be useful.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Paper 2: accent, dialect, sociolect and occupational discourse

If you're looking for material on the topics for paper 2 of the new AQA English Language spec, there'll be some posts coming up after half-term. There's plenty on the blog already, though but it's labelled using the old specifications.

  • So, if you're looking for stuff on regional variation, try here.
  • Accent material can be found here.
  • For social variation - class and social groups, try here and here.
  • For occupation and language, try here and here.
  • And for gender and language, try here.
  • And for Language Discourses and attitudes to variation try here and here (but be aware that language change, ethnicity and world Englishes are A-level only topics and don't appear in the AS level).

Analysing meanings and representations 2

In the textual analysis post yesterday I focused on how to analyse language to look at meanings and representations. In this post, I'll take a look at the ways in which you can explore how different opinions and views are put forward in texts and how you can start to do good AO1 and AO3 work on different kinds of texts.

Again, this focuses primarily on Questions 1 and 2, where you are encouraged to look closely at how language creates meanings and representations. On one level, as I said in yesterday's post, this means getting a sense of how the overall subject of each text is being represented. If the topic of the text is the natural environment, how is this topic being represented?

Here is an example taken from a Wildlife Trust leaflet:

Here, you might make the point that the environment is being represented as under threat. How is this achieved? Through a series of different language choices, all contributing their own meanings to an overall representation.

For example:

  • the graphology anchors the themes being talked about and presents us with a clear picture of what is under threat
  • the vocabulary uses a lexical field of nature and keeps the focus squarely on key areas, while there are quite specific references to breeds of bird, types of environment and precise figures
  • vocabulary choices like the adjective 'iconic' help to represent the natural environment as part of the UK's heritage
  • the grammar helps to present the threat as current and ongoing through the present progressive verb phrase "are disappearing" and as a victim of external forces through the passive voice in the second box "...has been lost"

Overall, these combine to create a particular set of ideas about the situation.

Another kind of text offers you different angles to explore. The text above represents an idea with just one voice, but many texts - for example, spoken conversations and online message boards - give you different people's views, and these are worth looking at in more detail because they might use language in different ways to represent different ideas. Equally, they might share similar views and put them forward with a degree of similarity.

Here's an example of a couple of posts on the Mumsnet forum, that are about school proms (the same topic as the sample AQA AS paper for Paper 1). Look at how the opinions are expressed here, how the posters create particular meanings and offer different representations of their views and the topic as a whole:


The poster 'mumblechum' expresses her (appalled) view of the picture that has been posted using the adjective phrase "utterly chavtastic" in an exclamative sentence, while 'thursdaynamechange' makes use of the emojis on the forum to put forward a representation of her own face (a bit like you might do in a spoken conversation) before ending with a simple sentence that also makes use of a negative adjective phrase "utterly ridiculous".

They both have a very negative view of the lengths to which some people go to impress others at a school prom and make their views very clear with these language choices. What does 'chavtastic' mean? Why choose that adjective, rather than (say) 'chavvy'? Why has the second poster emboldened "primary school" and put scare-quotes around 'environmental'? What do these mean? And how do they work together to represent a view?

There are quite a few other things that you could look at here, as the two posters are not just talking about school proms and how much money some people spend on them, but are also representing themselves (and their daughters) as particular kinds of people. They are using language not just to express ideas, but to position themselves too. This is something we'll have a look at in more detail in some posts later this week.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Meanings and representations

Paper 1 of the new AQA AS and A level focuses on ideas about how language creates meanings and representations, so I thought it might be useful to look at what could be meant by these terms and what the difference might be.

I suppose the first point to make is that the focus of the first two questions is now very much on how language is used (AO1) to create meanings and represent the topic (AO3), rather than on the types of texts they are (which now comes under the remit of Question 3 and the new AO4).

AO1 and AO3 are quite distinct on the new specification, so you can pick up AO1 marks for labelling  and exemplifying word classes, sentence functions and higher level grammar features such as the passive voice, progressive aspect verbs and clause types, but to get AO3 marks you need to explain what these language features do.

For example, you could get yourself a Level 5 mark (9 or 10 AO1 marks) by identifying (correctly!) something like the following range of language features: noun, verb, adjective, 2nd person pronoun, present tense verb, simple sentence, a minor sentence and a relative clause. But if you left it at that, you'd probably get something like 2-3 marks out of 15 for AO3 at best. What we need to see is some useful discussion of what each of these actually means in its context - not just catch-all generalisations such as "The 2nd person pronoun makes the text more personal." - and (crucially) how they help create a representation of whatever it is that's being discussed. Take the example from a Cancer Research UK below:

If you describe the first sentence as a simple sentence that uses the present progressive, you'll get some good AO1 marks. But to get some AO3 marks, think about what this helps represent: the charity is shown as engaged in an ongoing battle, a fight that they are now taking to the disease and its effects on people. The whole idea of finding cures and treatments for cancer is represented (unhelpfully perhaps?) as a war and the charity and disease as two opposing forces.

If you start with AO3 this time, you might then move on to talk about how time is represented in the rest of the extract above. Several adverbials of time are used: "for a long time", "someday soon" and "anymore". Why are these important? They seem to suggest that time is important and that a turning point is about to be reached.

There's plenty more you could look at in this short extract or in other parts of the ad (like below) but this is a start and (I hope) illustrates what's needed at this level.

So, what's the difference between meanings and representation? To my mind, it's the difference between looking at the possible effect of a single language choice (e.g. the use of different pronouns to show separate sides) and the overall effect of a number of these choices on how the topics are shown to us (cancer as an opponent in a battle; Cancer Research as an organisation fighting on our behalf).

There will be another post soon, looking at other approaches to meanings and representations.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Fry up

Over the summer, you might have read about vocal fry; that’s the kind of deliberately croaky voice demonstrated here by my favourite sit-com teenager, Dalia in Suburgatory.  Recent coverage of vocal fry has all the features of typical media stories on language and gender, and is a great example of why we should be sceptical when reading mainstream media coverage of linguistic issues.   Reading and analysing mainstream media coverage of linguistic issues is, of course, something  A2 students will need to do in your exam; you’ll also need to create your own piece for your intervention coursework.
First, newspapers will pick up on a recent bit of linguistic research, or maybe something they've seen mentioned on Twitter or YouTube.  Journalists are particularly keen on using headlines which express a clear and simple difference between men and women, so they will either reduce complex, nuanced findings to simplistic ‘men do this/women do that’ headlines like this, or base an article around a flawed bit of research like this.   The wonderful Deborah Cameron outlines this process at length in her snappily titled blog post (which btw would make a great style model for your intervention) ‘How to Write a Bullshit Article About Women’s Language’.

In the case of vocal fry, it seems that reporters noticed a story in the academic publication ‘Journal of Voice’.    Enterprising journalists realised they could write a story that combined celebrity click-bait with a ‘men-and-women-are-different’ story and so produced headlines like this featuring tabloid darlings like Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears.   There was even more mileage in the story when media outlets realised they could use the story to lecture women about how they need to speak more like men, and to blame their failure to do this for inequalities in education and the workplace.  Even feminist writers in respected, ‘serious’ newspapers got in on the act, presenting the story as a rallying call to young women; stop talking like a weak and feeble girl!

Never mind the fact that the original research only looked at young women, and so provided no evidence that only young women use vocal fry.   Never mind the easily demonstrable fact that men use vocal fry too, as shown in this brilliant post.   Never mind the fact that the original research only looked at young women, and so provided no evidence that only young women use vocal fry.  Never mind the fact that vocal fry is only seen as a sign of weakness when women use it.

The lesson here is not to take media coverage of women’s language (or, indeed, any linguistic issue) at face value.    Instead, do a bit of digging and reading around.  And if you want a different perspective on women’s language, you can always rely on Professor Cameron.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

For Starters (part 1)

With the new term starting and new A and AS levels being taught for the first time, I thought it might be handy to think of ways to get classes starting to think about the kinds of things they'll be doing as the course goes on.

I'm sure lots of teachers already have plenty of starters and ice-breakers up their sleeves, but it might be worth thinking about tasks that link to some of the newer areas of the specification. For example, for the first time in ages, we'll be teaching accent, dialect and sociolect to AS/1st year A level students, so why not look at a couple of things connected to that? Here are two ideas based on Language Diversity and another on Textual Variation.

Language fingerprints: ask each student to think about what characteristics make up their own unique language identity. 

  • Where were they born? 
  • Where else have they lived? 
  • Which other languages or dialects have they spoken?
  • Where were their parents from?
  • Do they work part-time or do volunteering? 
  • Do they spend a lot of time doing certain activities: football, online gaming, going to gigs/festivals, writing, looking after younger children?

If each student maps out these ideas, they'll build up a bigger picture of the influences that affect their language. You can introduce social, ethnic and gender/sexuality influences too, if that seems appropriate, or at least flag those up as aspects for students to think about themselves. Each area can then be mapped to the course they are about to start.

Proper English: use some of the links on these posts to find relevant articles about slang bans and school policy on "proper English". 

  • Ask students to have a look at the lists of banned words/expressions that feature in many of these stories. 
  • What's "wrong" with these terms?
  • Why might they be used?
  • What alternatives are there and why might the schools see these as better?
  • Is it right to ban these terms and how can that be achieved?
  • What are the problems with trying to change people's language behaviour?
  • Is there such a thing as "proper" English and how might that be defined?

This can lead into discussion of attitudes to Language Diversity (on Paper 2 of the new AS and A levels) and Language Discourses (same).

Found texts: following on from ideas like this one, you might want to ask small groups of students to spend 10 minutes gathering "texts" from around the classroom or form their own pockets and bags before selecting 6 per group to start analysing in a fairly simple way:

  • Who is it by?
  • Who's it aimed at?
  • Why is it written in that way? 
  • How can you characterise the style?
  • What do you notice about language patterns?
  • What do you notice about visual design? 

Examples of texts might be:

  • a film poster on the wall of the classroom
  • a college diary with the code of conduct
  • a letter hone about book deposits
  • a book blurb
  • the writing on a packet of Wotsits
  • the writing on a tube of hand gel/chapstick/tin of vaseline

You can decide if you want to include electronic and spoken texts. At this stage, getting phones out and starting to read texts, Tweets, Snapchat messages and the like might not be the best starter in an early lesson, but you can play it by ear.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Graphic Language

As part of an effort to broaden the pool of writers for this blog and to cover some different areas of English Language study, there will be some new blog contributors posting soon and a few guest posts. In one such guest post by Nigel Ball, course leader for the BA (Hons) Graphic Design programmes at UCS, Ipswich, the focus is on the role of language in graphic design.

If you asked someone what is graphic design?, Id put money on most people mentioning something about images. And if someone from within the discipline itself were asked, the term visual communication would likely crop up. Both are obvious, and in and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with them. While it is undoubtedly hard to think of a piece of graphic design that isnt visual, what such beliefs overlook in my opinion is the importance of English language to the subject. What follows are some reasons I believe English language is (nearly) as important as good image-making abilities for graphic designers.

The Brief
There are some obvious reasons, even before you start designing, why English is a vital tool. First and foremost, the majority of design jobs will start with a brief. This will either be supplied by the client, or written by the designer themselves after meeting with a client. It will invariably need to be agreed by all parties before proceeding with the job inhand in order that there is no confusion about what is required by both parties. If there is confusion at the initial stage, then in all likelihood, the outcome will be confused and wont communicate effectively. Within the brief, (and notes from client meetings), designers will often search for important key words that indicate a clients values. These give measurable criteria that can be returned to as the design progresses.

Such importance is placed on the brief within design circles that even if a designer is working on a personal project they will invariably write their own brief in order to clarify their initial thoughts and set the parameters within which they intend to work.

After laying out the boundaries of a job, the designer will then typically move on to a research phase. While this will be dependent on what the brief is, common research themes for most jobs will include looking closely at who the client is and what they do, the clients competition, as well as all the contexts that surround the brief. It is important to note at this point that designers rarely only work for clients who have the same interests as them, meaning research is a vital part of the design process. For example, I know next-to-nothing about opera. Were I contacted by the English National Opera tomorrow to do a job for them, Id have to find out as much as I could about the subject in order to be able to do it justice.

Some of this research will be primary, some will be visual, but much will involve a lot of reading. This is one of the exciting things about being a designer: you get the opportunity to widen your personal knowledge on a huge range of interesting, (and sometimes boring), topics. But with any research comes a lot of searching for material, analysis and notation.

Once a designer starts the actual design, language may become less important as concepts are considered and visual ideas start to fly. However, there are many decisions to be made at this stage. Regardless of the idea, the sort of imagery to use needs consideration. Questions such as whether to follow a photographic or illustrative route arise. Even within these two choices there are a myriad of associated stylistic choices which can affect the way an image is interpreted. For example, a few years ago I ran a live project with students in collaboration with Suffolk County Council who were asked to create a recipe pack for food bank users. It was important in this instance that the design didnt look like a luxury cookery book with recipes that were out of the reach to the audience. At the same time it was equally as important that way the design was styled didnt visually talk down to those that would need to use it. While such thoughts may affect the image-making process, the background analysis that is involved to question a stylistic approach involves a degree of clarityany critical rationale for choice of imagery requires a core understanding of nuances of English language in order to clearly justify visual decisions.

Working with copy
Theres no avoiding text as a graphic designer. In most cases copy is provided by the client or a copywriter. In the case of the latter, these are highly skilled professionals who have to do as much research as a designer to get the right tone of voice and ensure what they are writing is correct for the job-in-hand. Unfortunately, in the case of the former, many clients arent experts in English language, let alone understand that you cannot fit 1000 words of type into a space that is allocated for 250; unless you add more pages to a document for which clients are often unprepared to pay the extra printing costs. This means that as you type-set the words you are supplied, you inevitably have to edit, re-write and make alterations. If a designer does not have a good working knowledge of the English language and punctuation, they are going to struggle. Spelling mistakes and misplaced apostrophes could at best highlight poor attention to detail, and at worst cost you future work.

Aside from copy supplied to you, a starting point with many design ideas may be word play, and this can often drive graphic concepts. On these occasions it is vitally important to use the correct words in order that an audience interprets your design as you wish. For example, the Alan Fletcher poster above, designed as an ironic sideswipe at design rules for a Chartered Society of Designers event in Glasgow in 1993, specifically uses the word dogma. Firstly, dogma is slightly comicalit contains the word dog which conjures up thoughts of little Fido not letting go of something, which in turn perfectly complements the leaning of the word itself. Secondly, dogma has alliterative qualities when used with down’—the phrase runs off the tongue as if a chant or slogan. Thirdly, and more importantly in regard to clarifying meaning, if alternative words such as authority, rules or system had been used, these would have been too suggestive of a political stance and would overshadow the pieces intrinsic wit.

Selling your idea
Of great importance to any designer is convincing their client that their idea is the best idea. In contemporary practice this can often be through design studios pitching for a contract against each other. If you are lucky enough to be the sole company in line for a job, you will still need to communicate your ideas in a presentation or client meeting, treading the fine line between using design jargon and language a non-designer would understand. You may have a killer idea, but if the client is skeptical and you are unable to convince them otherwise, then you will either need to compromise your design integrity or the client may procure the services of someone else.

Degree study
I hope I have managed to set out what I believe is the importance of English language to graphic design. One of the ironies of the relationship between the two is that at degree level study, many of the students that come to this arts based discipline are dyslexic or have a fear of writing. It can then be a shock on starting a design degree at university to find out just how much of an equal emphasis is placed on research as on image making. As a counterpoint, those students who come to an arts-based degree with an excellent grasp (and/or love) of English languagemaybe because they chose English as one of their A level subjects alongside an arts disciplinedont always appreciate how this will benefit them as young designers. The realisation that their multiple skills can feed into a single interest can be a revelation: that their ability to think in words can be of equal use to them in the field of graphic design as it can to traditional A level progression route onto English related degree courses.

Further reading:  Website of creative team Nick Asbury, (a writer) and Sue Asbury, (a designer).
Heller S. (2012) Writing and Research for Graphic Designers: A Designers Manual to Strategic Communication and Presentation. Massachusetts : Rockport

Horberry R and Lingwood G. (2014) Read Me: 10 Lessons for Writing Great Copy. London : Laurence King

Nigel Ball is course leader for the BA (Hons) Graphic Design programmes at UCS, Ipswich, lecturing across both practical and contextual modules. Alongside teaching, Nigel takes on graphic design commissions, produces personal projects and writes a critical art and design blog under the moniker Dubdog. He has also written for the blog of respected graphic design publication Eye magazine; and peer-reviews publications for Bloomsbury art and design imprint Fairchild Books. Nigel is currently studying for his Masters in Arts Practice.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Join EngLangBlog

In September this blog will have be celebrating its 10 year anniversary, which makes me feel older than I normally do. Which is like bare old? And shown by my feeble attempts to use teen slang and MLE-style youth sociolect. And not write in full grammatical sentences?

Anyway, all of that aside, it would be good to expand the pool of people writing for the blog beyond the existing team (me and my dog). The launch of the new AQA English Language A level specification which kicks off in September 2015 seems like a good time to get new people involved, especially if you are a teacher of English Language A level or someone who is studying it/has studied it. So, if you fancy writing for the blog, just tweet me via @EngLangBlog and we can get you set up.

Monday, June 01, 2015

New AQA A level resources

If you are coming here to find new material for the September 2015 AQA English Language A level, it will be coming soon and labelled as "AQA new spec".

As the current spec is still running and students are doing exams at the moment, I don't want to post anything here that will confuse them, so will start posting new spec material later in the month.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Everybae People

The recent news stories about Scrabble are a gift to A2 students revising Language Change and Discourses, so have a look at these links for some good stuff on new words, and lots of "OMG, how can that even be called a word?!" reactions.

Here's Ben Farren of The Guardian listing lots of them.
Here's The Daily Telegraph looking at both sides: from Sue Bowman of the Association of British Scrabble Players who reckons it's "an abuse of the English language" to Gyles Brandreth, founder of the National Scrabble Competition who says "hang loose and get down on the street". Yeesh!
Meanwhile, Elaine Higgleton offers a staunchly descriptive defence of the new entries in this Radio 4 clip.

Language change hit the headlines a little while ago too in the aftermath of a thinly-disguised marketing exercise for a new Samsung phone, with several articles looking at how older generations claim to feel completely bamboozled about young people's new slang.

Here we have The Guardian explaining how language is changing faster than ever before.
Then, there's The Daily Telegraph saying the same thing in a slightly older and more baffled way.
The Daily Mail reckons it's all the fault of trades unions, gay marriage, Red Ed and immigrants (probably).
The Huffington Post keeps it fleek.

But just to prove that older people have always struggled with young people's language, here's Ben Zimmer looking at an American newspaper from 1911 saying nearly the same thing.

Thanks to various Twitter people for the links (@languagepigeon @agwilliams9 @tonythorne007 @bgzimmer)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Language Change: political correctness and technology

Recent Language Change questions on ENGA3 have featured pairs of texts (one old, one contemporary) on the same topic and offered you the chance to analyse how they use language to create different representations of whatever it is they are focusing on: rugby matches, the city of Bradford or coffee, in recent years. You are also expected to think about how the times the texts are from might have influenced their language. It's worth remembering though, that this isn't the only type of question for ENGA3, so you might want to think about some others. Remember too, that any topic that turns up in Section A of the paper can also appear on Section B as a Language Discourses question.

Political correctness (PC) is worth a look at as a language change topic. It's a movement to change language and redress some of the perceived inequalities in how language represents traditionally less powerful groups in society, but it's always controversial. A question on PC could offer you examples of words that have been changed to make them more inclusive and/or less discriminatory (like this) and perhaps extracts from a text like this one which offers a range of opinions and arguments about how homophobic language can affect people.

Even in Section A, it would be hard to avoid addressing attitudes to PC and there's no reason to steer clear of this kind of debate, because it is covered in the mark scheme. However, what you need to bear in mind is that it's Section B where you will find texts that offer opinions and discussions about language and this is where you can engage more fully with debates and discourses.

The following texts are worth a look to help you think about the arguments.
Gender-neutral language and arguments around PC
Simon Heffer gets wound up about PC (from this page)

Feminist academics upset the Daily Mail and its readers by suggesting that 'Miss' is less respectful than 'Sir'. Full story here.

The other kind of question that has cropped up before is where texts show evidence of the use of new language. Back in June 2011 the paper had an extract from a review of a digital camera. Here you would be looking at how new words are being used and how they reflect technological change (amongst other things), but as with any question on this paper, you're also looking at how language represents the topic, in this case, how the reviewer represents the digital camera. Don't forget either, that - as with the PC questions above or the ones on pairs of texts in recent years - any analysis of the text is also expected to cover how the writer represents him/herself and how s/he addresses the ideal reader. These ideas around positioning and stance are always worth mugging up on to help you secure AO3 marks, whatever kind of text you have to analyse.

It would be quite possible to get a question that had a text featuring a lot of slang and/or new words from popular culture, so you would apply the same analytical skills but perhaps focus in BP2 on a few other areas of language change. Have a look at these examples of news pieces on emojis for some ideas about this.
Emojis on the up
Emoticons are changing the language

As with PC, it's quite possible you could get a Language Discourses question on Technology and Language, so here are a few pieces to have a look at.
Is the internet destroying English?
A similar one from Steven Poole in The Guardian
Robert McCrum updates George Orwell's famous attack on poor English to cover the internet

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mode mini-moments mark 1

In the run-up to the ENGA1 exam in a couple of weeks, here's the first in a short series of short posts on Language and Mode. Today it's about Mode...

What is mode? If you can't answer that question by now, I'd respectfully suggest that you should do some basic work on the topic. After all, the first part of the paper is called "Language and Mode", so you might be advised to understand what it's all about.

So, what is it? Mode, on a really basic level, is how a text producer conveys something to a text receiver. The text producer could be a person writing, texting, tweeting, talking face-to-face or telephoning and the text receiver could be one person or a much bigger audience. So, the mode part of this is what is in the middle - how it gets from A to B. Historically, mode has been separated into spoken and written forms, based upon the channel through which the text is received (visual - i.e. read or auditory i.e. heard) but that's too binary, so the way we generally conceptualise mode for this course is along a continuum. This approach owes a lot to the linguists Doug Biber and Dick Hudson who have both written about the ways in which certain texts exhibit particular mode characteristics or dimensions.

Jarvis Cocker demonstrates his knowledge of 2nd person
pronouns & multi-modality through gesture
More recently, a wider view of mode has been suggested (by, among others, Gunther Kress) in which mode does not apply simply to speech and writing but to other forms of meaning making too, such as gesture and images. This means that a written text with pictures might be seen as multi-modal, as would a spoken lecture accompanied by a power point and gestures (not the kind of gestures I am fond of making to my students to demonstrate first and second person pronouns).

So, if you think about mode early on when addressing the texts you are given in the ENGA1 exam, you can start to make some useful observations about the nature of each text before you start considering more familiar elements such as genre, audience, subject and purpose.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

General Dejection

You might have missed it, but there was a General Election last week. While many of us in Sixth Form Colleges are still weeping, wailing and gnashing our teeth - not to mention drowning our sorrows in red red wine - at the prospect of another 5 years of underfunding and fragmentation, at least the election gave us some good stuff to look at for language analysis. Every cloud has a silver lining...

Anyway, here's a quick round-up of things that you could look at for English language A level related to the recent campaign.

First off, it's the rise of the hashtag #Milifandom. For a while, it looked like people might actually vote for Miliband, and the rise of the Milifandom hashtag seemed to crystallise the feeling among a (clearly deluded, in hindsight) minority that the time of the geek had come. Obviously, it hadn't...

Accommodation was also under the spotlight: not the kind of accommodation that we need - you know, houses and stuff - but accommodation in the form of Howard Giles' Communication Accommodation Theory. A year or two ago, we looked on this blog at George Osborne's attempts to converge to working class speech but this time round it was Ed Miliband who was mocked for his apparent convergence to Russell Brand's Essex/mockney style.

Have a look at this piece which explains some of the background to the Milibrand interview and the ways in which such convergence can happen and is often viewed.

And in a separate article, David Shariatmadari looks at the glottal stop and its stigmatisation, making the following observation:

The glottal stop (more specifically, the glottalisation of “t”) is a feature traditionally associated with male, working-class speakers. But even as far back as 1982, linguist John Wells noticed it being picked up by young speakers of “prestige” British English – otherwise known as received pronunciation. It’s difficult to say exactly why that happened, but Labov’s idea of “covert prestige” makes intuitive sense. Some sounds, even though they’re generally regarded as markers of an “inferior” dialect, are nevertheless used to signal group membership, solidarity or cool.

Away from the two main male players in the General Election, Cameron and Miliband, the three female party leaders of the Greens, Plaid Cymru and SNP attracted much media coverage. Was this the first election since Thatcher's in 1979 that would see women making a splash? Well, yes and no, Sturgeon's splash appears to have seriously dampened Miliband's chances of taking power or exerting any influence on a hung parliament, with the SNP butchering Labour in Scotland and then Labour failing to make gains in England.

But what about the speech styles of the female party leaders? Were these women breaking the mould of adversarial Punch and Judy politics by injecting some much needed co-operation and civility into the debates? 

Deborah Cameron, ace linguist and author of The Myth of Mars and Venus, looked at this with a sceptical eye in this really interesting piece about gender and the debates, arguing that much of the coverage of the three female party leaders has succumbed to tedious stereotyping:

The specific ways in which women are said to differ from men (more supportive and less aggressive, more into consensus and less into point-scoring, etc.) could come straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. These are hoary old gender stereotypes, which in other contexts feminists would decry as crude and sexist. Yet in the context of the election campaign they are being dusted off and trotted out as if they constituted a feminist argument. ‘Look, women are different from men, that’s why we need more of them in politics’. There is an excellent feminist case for equal political representation. So why use an argument whose basic assumption is that women deserve a place because they’re from Venus rather than Mars?

As she points out elsewhere in her article, female speakers aren't all the same:

Some differences among women are produced by the intersection of gender with other social divisions like ethnicity and class; others reflect variation at the level of individual personality or life experience. It’s true that ‘female politicians’ is a much smaller and less internally diverse category than ‘women’. Even so, it cannot be assumed that they have a single style of speaking. In fact, it’s obvious they don’t: even among the three female party leaders I've been discussing there are clear individual differences.

Perhaps what has shaped so much of this coverage of the female party leaders and their 'female language style' is the sheer novelty of seeing women in power, and that is hugely depressing in 2015. As much as I detest pretty much everything Margaret Thatcher ever did, I can still recognise that having a female Prime Minister was still a pretty big moment in history, but 36 years later there still hasn't been another woman PM and we are still short of equality for the sexes in parliament. 

So, even when things look apparently very different, they actually stay the same. Or get worse...

Women lead the way

Yesterday's Word of Mouth on Radio 4 had a really good discussion of how language change around the world - and not just in English, but other languages, including Arabic - is being led by young women. It's definitely worth a listen if you're revising gender for ENGA3 Language Variation or even Language Change and reasons for change.

You can find it here.

The focus on women as linguistic innovators is also picked up in this 2012 New York Times article, which suggests that features as diverse as vocal fry (or 'creaky voice'), high rising terminals and new slang are all driven by young women. It's not just in spoken language that women are having an impact; in this Slate piece from 2013, Amanda Marcotte looks at how language styles on Twitter are often related to gender and speculates on how this might lead to men adopting a more 'female' style (more emojis, ellipses and exaggerated punctuation).

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Revision stuff coming soon...

Apologies for not updating the blog in recent months; other things have had to take priority for a bit, so I've not had as much time and energy to blog as I'd have liked. Anyway, with AS and A2 exams on the horizon, I'll be adding lots of new posts very soon.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Sweary Mary

If you are interested in swearing, profanity and the myriad, foul-mouthed joys of rude words, the Strong Language blog will be right up your strasse. Featuring articles on the wonderful pubic wig known as the merkin, DIY oath-making and a hugely impressive - nay fan-f***ing-tastic - resources archive, it really is the bee's knees, the mutt's nuts, the dog's bollocks and the ultimate shiznit.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Media Texts and Language Interventions updated

A year or two ago, I put up a list of links to articles that might be used as style models or sources of inspiration for the A2 writing coursework part of the AQA A (Language Intervention) and AQA B (Media Text) specifications. This has been updated a few times, thanks to links that colleagues and blog/Twitter people have sent me, but I thought it was probably time to add a few more, so here goes.

If you are a teacher reading this, you might also find this useful for the new AQA English Language A level that starts being taught in September 2015, where Paper 2 has a writing task similar to the media text and intervention.

Again, I'd be delighted to add any others if you want to suggest them, either as comments on this blog post or as tweets via @EngLangBlog.

Opinion pieces

Isabelle Kerr on silly new words and why they shouldn't be in the dictionary

David Marsh on arguments about language and The Pedants' Revolt

Feature articles

Rebecca Holman on ‘Menglish’ (gender and language)

Girls are way ahead of the linguistic curve (gender and language innovation)

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...