Monday, July 25, 2016

Why language is such good sport

Previously, I suggested that coffee chains and their pseudo-Italian-American lexicon provided possible evidence of the way that English was changing its attitudes when it came to borrowings. My argument was that asking for 'a triple-shot mocha with soya to go' made consumers feel part of something exclusive; that it somehow helped 20- and 30-somethings to rediscover the joys of using slang with their teenage friends. In short, coffee shops had become closed language communities of their own. This doesn't have quite the same socio-political implications of Milroy's study, but you get the idea. 

However, I'd hate to be thought of as an inverted coffee snob and so I turned my gaze elsewhere. 

Watching Chris Froome claim his third Tour de France title yesterday got me thinking about the language of sport in all its glorious vagary. It is every bit as elitist as coffee and fine dining in its choice of lexis, often seeming like a different language intended for the few, rather than the many. 

In cycling, it literally is a different a language, filled with borrowings of French origin. Why have a referee when you can have a commissaire? As a noun, it sounds so much more important and sophisticated. Then we have the collective noun for the main group of riders: peloton. And let's not forget that the peloton gets strung out into echelons in strong cross winds, aching to pass under the flame rouge as they go over the final classified climb, supported by their domestiques! It's a delightful lexicon, but what on earth does a novice make of it?

And what of tennis?

As Sue Barker rounds up the day's scores, she casually announces that Federer is through in straight sets with a triple bagel, while Djokovic battled through a five-setter, eventually triumphing three, six, six, two and six, breaking twice in the decider. What does this mean to anyone out of the loop?

Golf offers little reprieve. Spieth leads Day by a single shot at seven under after eagling the par five ninth, while a wild tee shot from Day saw him double bogey the par four eighth. From this, we are meant to know what their scores were before these shots! (Incidentally, it would've meant that Day had led on -8 with Spieth three behind on -5.) 

Of course, there are sports like football where everyone knows the terminology, even though they might not quite grasp the rules, but with the Olympics fast-approaching, viewers are sure to be treated to a whole new world of sporting jargon. The question is, why do we tolerate it?

Because we want to learn. We all want to sound like experts in any field, nodding sagely at the right moments. The commentators are our teachers, describing what we are seeing on our screens so that we can match the words (usually nouns) to the actions. If you don't listen hard, you'll loft one into the deep and find yourself caught out!

Once again, specialist, field specific lexis is a tool that helps us become a part of something from which we would otherwise be excluded. Is it so wrong to want to join the club? Language is used in a self-seeking way from the moment we are born, we just become better practitioners in the art of manipulation as we grow. The ability to feel comfortable on a shared topic in any company is incredibly beneficial, so let's not shun the language's ever-changing vocabulary...let's take in as much as we can and go for gold. Well, a podium finish at least. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Discussing language over a coffee...

Back when I was an A-Level student, I thought I had the concept of borrowings worked out. The textbook definition (as given by my teacher) was that a borrowing must either fill a gap in the borrowing language (usually an abstract concept), or it should name some kind of phenomenon that has gripped the culture of the borrowing language (a more concrete notion).

I suppose words like the German-derived abstract noun 'schadenfreude' (finding pleasure in the misfortune of others - usually a friend) and the Georgian abstract noun 'Shemomedjamo' (eating beyond the point of fullness because the food tastes so good) are fine examples of the first part of the definition because to find an English equivalent to describe such ideas would be too cumbersome. The second part of the definition is more straightforward. The borrowing of the Japanese noun 'karaoke' was beneficial as it gave a name to a new innovation on western shores. 

Where am I going with all this? Well, arguably the traditional circumstances related to borrowings no longer hold true. They appear to have become a cultural issue, designed to fit in with the British class system. Let me give you some examples. 

Two friends are having a tête-à-tête over their suburban garden fence, with one foreshadowing a juicy bit of gossip with the phrase "Strictly entre nous..." The first bit of French means 'head-to-head' (in a friendly sense) and the second means 'between us'. Can English express these ideas without recourse to the Romance languages and without ambiguity? Yes, ultimately making this a middle-class affectation. The late, great comedy writer, John Sullivan bestowed 
such character flaws(?) on Del Trotter as he described attractive women as 'fromage frais' and 

used exclamatives such as 'Chateau Neuf du Pape!' Del always had those middle-class yearnings and Sullivan captured them with warmth and incisive accuracy. 

But let's get to the real point. Return with me to my childhood...

When I was growing up in the 1970s and '80s, my family often popped into a traditional cafe for a drink. Usually, they had tea or coffee but, when feeling extravagant, they would opt for a milky coffee or, in moments of utter recklessness, a frothy coffee! Although you can still ask for such beverages in small tea shops, we know these drinks  better as lattes and cappuccinos today. That's right, I'm about to propose that coffee culture is proof of the changing nature of borrowings. 

Rewind 30 years, enter a cafe and ask for a tall, skinny macchiato with an extra shot to go. What kind of response would you receive? A look of incredulity followed by immediate arrest. Today, however, it's the norm. We speak a different language to many of our grandparents. What's wrong with requesting a small macchiato, made with skimmed milk with an extra drop of coffee thrown in that you wish to take away from the cafe? What's wrong is that, despite its clarity, it sounds like you don't understand; it isn't snappy enough; you're not part of the club - and belonging is everything in today's society. 

And who said size doesn't matter?

If we take the so-called big three coffee chains, we see huge variations in their use of Italio-American jargon to reference the size of drinks available. In Starbucks, you can have (from smallest to largest) short, tall, grande and venti. Meanwhile, Costa limits the choice to primo, medio and massimo while Caffe Nero offers just regular and grande. How do these sizes correlate? I reached the (not unreasonable) conclusion that grande, venti and massimo must all be Italian synonyms for 'large'. I put this to two friends, both fluent in Italian, who laughed at me explaining that the choice of size names were all style over substance. 

Therefore, There exists a reasonable possibility that social class and a desperation to be part of something (moderately) elite has become a factor in why the English language continues to borrow words - even though they don't necessarily mean what we think they do. Isn't it sufficient to ask for small, medium or large? Oh well, c'est la vie!

Friday, July 08, 2016

Brexit: the war of the words

By chance or design, our often fractious relationship with continental Europe has contributed significantly to our proverbial 'mongrel' language which is up there with Finnish and Welsh as one of the continent's most notoriously difficult languages to learn. As if this isn't bad enough, recent events, monolithic institutions and the pseudo-intellectuals in the media have saddled us with a whole new world of linguistic detritus.

Looking back, it was easy: David Cameron promised a straight in/out referendum that we could get our heads around. As time passed, factions emerged in the form of official (and unofficial) Remain or Leave camps. Sadly, as with Brangelina and Jedward, the media outlets needed something...sexier? They found it! After all, who could fail to be seduced after drinking the love potion that is the blended neologism (or blelologism)?

Suddenly, a reporter recalled that the Greek threat to leave the EU had been dubbed Grexit (Greek exit) and so, logically, the concept of Brexit (noun) was born. But Brexit versus Remain lacked balance and harmony. We had the Yin, but why borrow that when we had no Yang to complete the set?  Fortunately, help was forthcoming as a timid hand raised itself from beside the water cooler and suggested that Remain could be renamed Bremain. Everyone present knew it was rubbish, but the noun worked. Shrek had found his Fiona and the blended neologisms were settled upon as the official lexicon of the Breferendum.

From this point on, we saw linguistic change take place at light speed. You were either pro- or anti-Brexit. Already, the new noun had undergone affixation thanks to two tried and tested prefixes. As a consequence it had shifted semantically, evolving from noun to adjective as in the pre-modification present in, '...claimed the pro-Brexit camp.'  The same didn't happen with Bremain because, as a  
noun, it was still rubbish.

Then came the ever-so-slightly-tortured plural noun for the pro-Brexit bunch: Brexiteers. Ostensibly, this is affixation through the use of a a suffix but, however we perceive it, it is difficult to dissociate the connotation of -eers with The Musketeers. Fearless, selfless noblemen risking everything for the side of good? It makes for a compelling image. Meanwhile, The Bremain Camp continued to sound like a dodgy political remake of Carry on Camping.

In truth, it may well have been the war of semantics - not words - that decided the referendum. Brexit always had so much more potential than Bremain and, in the end, three noble horsemen from France contributed to a divorce from that same nation (amongst many others). A result that left many voters feeling a sense of Bregret or Branxiety. Really? The blended neologisms were now forming more abstract nouns. Where will it all Brend?

As for the matter of the the red tops taking the initialism EU and using it as a substitute for the second person pronoun you? We'll leave that abuse of orthography for another time. EU have probably had enough for today.

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...