Monday, September 10, 2018

Getting involved in some research

Welcome back to all of you picking up your A level English Language studies from last year and hello to all new students of the best A level course*. There will be a few new posts this term about different areas of the course and lots of stuff on the @EngLangBlog Twitter account, but this post is about a project that linguists at Lancaster University need your help with.

Researchers there are currently putting together a 100-million word corpus of written language. A corpus is basically a well-organised database of language that then provides a body of material to be explored and analysed in different ways later on. Because the ways we write and the devices we use to write on and with have changed over time, linguists need examples of electronic language from actual, real-life users of it to build up a better picture of what's happening. Which is where you come in.

Extracts of emails, online conversations, WhatsApp messages and the like are all needed, so if you can help feed data into this project, have a look at the instructions here and take part. If you are a teacher, you might also want to build some of this in to your work on language change and technology.

Once the data has been collected and analysed, the linguists at Lancaster will be writing an article for the English and Media Centre's emagazine, which will take a look at how the corpus is tracking changing language and what the data tells us about the directions the English language is taking.


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Investigating Language - ideas for projects

As I'm currently holed up in my marking bunker with only a red pen, a bag of Monster Munch and a 2L bottle of Diet Coke, I've not got time for a full blog post on the NEA Language Investigation, but here's a thread on Twitter where teachers talk about some of their favourite and most interesting NEA projects of recent years. See what you think.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Telling porkies about gammon

If you're thinking ahead to Paper 2 at the end of the week and wondering about potential case studies to use for the language change question or even for debates about language for Section B, gammon might be a good place to look. It's one of those words that's been around for a while with one main meaning (a kind of smoked ham) but it's recently developed a newer and more controversial meaning that's been used online and debated in various newspapers by some of the most high profile columnists and sharpest minds of our generation (and Brendan O'Neill from the appalling Spiked Online). It's a neat example of semantic change, polysemy and debates about the potential of language to cause offence. It also ties in quite nicely with the sample paper on 'literally' and attitudes to language change.

'Gammon' has meant other things too and you can find definitions that relate to the police (presumably a link to the pejorative slang terms 'pigs'), to telling lies (probably because of the link to Cockney rhyming slang and 'porkie pies' for 'lies') and a few that are a bit rude about women's body parts that I won't repeat here, as this is a family publication.

So what does this new type of 'gammon' mean? It first appeared on Twitter in 2016 in association with David Cameron, whose face was on occasion described as resembling a boiled ham (and after *that* story about Cameron and a pig's head had been circulated, it took on a slightly more disturbing tinge). But it was in 2017 that it really took off when it was used to describe a post-Brexit vote phenomenon that many had observed but few had been able to nail so accurately: namely, a certain type of man whose anger about the modern world had made them turn the colour of ham or what Urban Dictionary's (now mysteriously removed) top definition describes as "a particular type of Brexit-voting, middle-aged white male, whose meat-faced complexion suggests they are perilously close to a stroke".

You might have seen the "wall of gammon" assembled from the faces of Question Time audience members judged to fit the criteria.

So far so good. You might argue that there's a clear resemblance to a smoked ham product in all those faces and if they're ranting about "Brexit meaning Brexit", immigration and/or EU fishing quotas, then - as the saying goes - if the caps fits... On the other hand, if that's you, your dad or your Uncle Barry, it might not go down so well.

But wait: aren't these all white men? And doesn't that mean that 'gammon' therefore must be a racial slur? That was certainly the argument put forward by the DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly who claimed that 'gammon' was a term 'based on skin colour and age' and therefore a slur that should not be used. You can read more about it here and about the subsequent debate over the term.

Use of the term has spiked in the last few weeks. And while the original meaning of gammon seems to have been on the decline since its peak in around 1820 as the Google n-gram below shows, its more recent meaning has spread far and wide.

The number of searches for 'gammon' as an insult or 'gammon' as slang can be tracked through Google Trends and they show a spike in 2018.

gammon as slang (via Google Trends)

gammon as an insult (via Google Trends)

So, have we reached peak gammon? Probably, if these charts are anything to go by. And that's an interesting case study in itself, because tracing the spread of a new slang term, or an old word that's been given a new meaning, is a fascinating way of looking at what language is and how it works.

But what about the wider debate about gammon as an insult? Is it - as several have claimed - a racist slur? Is it (sharp intake of breath) as bad as the n-word? This tweeter thinks not and I'd tend to agree with him.

But that's Twitter and people are often very rude on Twitter. I try to stay off it these days (and fail most of the time). What about other commentators? And what about the wider language debate about what constitutes a slur? One accusation is that gammon has been used by left-wingers to attack their political opponents when reasoned argument fails. It sits alongside centrist dad and melt as terms that left-wingers use to abuse those to their right and perhaps equates with the kind of jibes that right-wingers have been chucking at the left for even longer: snowflake and remaintard, for example. Matt Zarb-Cousin is one such left-winger and he argues in Huck magazine that it can't be racist as it's directed at a group of people who choose to behave in a certain way.

It isn’t racist to say someone looks like gammon, as while there are striking aesthetic resemblances across the gammon constituency, gammon isn’t a race, it’s a lifestyle choice driven by warm ale. It’s a state of mind, driven in no small part by a regular spoon feeding from the trashy tabloids.

On the other hand, Lucy Fisher in The Times argues a different line:

Whether or not the trope is a statement about race, it is obviously a statement about culture and class. Gammons are backward, provincial embarrassments. They may be unskilled workers or small business owners or wealthy aristocrats. If that sounds a confused mix, it’s because the term has already met the fate of most political insults: stretched beyond coherence to encompass as many people as possible who vote the “wrong” way and hold the “wrong” views.
No debate about politics would be complete without Owen Jones of The Guardian getting a word in.

Gammon is a racist slur, we are told. Let me put this gently: affluent white men with reactionary opinions are not a race. White people mocking other white people over their skin colour is not racism. Inherent in the term is how a certain type of golf-club bore can go somewhere between a shade of pink and crimson red as they froth about gays having more rights than them these days, and only Jacob Rees-Mogg can be trusted to deal with the remoaners and leftie terrorist supporters. It is a term about political views and how they are expressed.
And others have gone on about it too. Gamm-on and on, in fact.

Suzanne Moore
Tanya Gold
Steven Poole
Michael Henderson
Anoosh Chakelian

And many many more...

The debate for Language Discourses is an interesting one, I think because we can all argue about the offensiveness of terms that we think might be applied to different people, but to my mind 'gammon' is hardly in the same league as racial slurs. It might have an element of classism to it - although I'd contend that it's used to describe the wealthy as well as the working class - and it might be childish, but that's not a crime.

Is there a double-standard at work here too? We often hear complaints from the right that Political Correctness means "you can't say anything any more", but it's now the right who are complaining about a term that's used to describe them. Meanwhile, some on the left have long complained about the coarsening of public discourse and the need for sensitivity in language, but shouting "Button it you brexit gammon!" is hardly likely to add nuance to the discussion.

But what it does show - and I think this is brilliant - is that language is at the heart of so many of the debates around us. Whatever you think of the term (and obviously, I like it) it shows that language is a subject for debate; it's worth discussing and analysing because it's relevant to our daily lives. That's great for you if you are an A level English Language student or teacher because it gives you so much to write about and think about for Paper 2.

So on that positive note about what an ace subject English Language is (and I genuinely hope that despite all the hard work - maybe even because of it - you've found things to enjoy and interest you on the course), I'll wish you the best of luck for Wednesday's Paper 1 and Friday's Paper 2.

(Edited on 24.07.18 to change link to now (mysteriously) removed top definitions on Urban Dictionary.)

(Edited again on 23.08.18 to add this link to Tony Thorne's article on 'gammon'.)

Monday, June 04, 2018

Thinking about Paper 1

Paper 1 of the A level isn't that far away so here are a few suggestions about approaching the first 3 questions. I've posted in more detail about these in previous blogs which you can find here, here and here but here are some quick pointers:

  • It's all about meaning. Texts mean things and are made to mean by the people who produce them and the people who receive them. Think about what each text is actually about before you put pen to pen to paper. What are you being presented with? What's happened? Who is involved? What perspectives are being offered?
  • Meanings depend on contexts. You need to think about how meanings are being created in the texts in front of you. Look closely at how language is being used in particular places in the texts and how that relies on context. Is it the context of text being spoken, online or written? Is it the context of what has gone before in the text? Is it the context of who is saying or writing something?
  • Texts can be from all sorts of modes, genres, times and places, and for all sorts of audiences and purposes. Many of these will use language in recognisable ways that you'll be used to seeing and writing about. Some might be a bit less familiar - older, for example - but they'll still have been produced by a human being who's using language in ways that you'll recognise. 
  • Language is not just words. When you're analysing how language is used, look for what words mean, patterns of meaning, structures and visual design. Think about all the language levels or frameworks that you've been learning over the last two years and use the most appropriate ones for the texts in front of you. Graphology isn't an issue in a spoken text (it's not designed to be seen on the page, after all) but phonology might be. An online text might use visual design to structure ideas and create meanings, so that could be vital.
  • Structure is important. This could be grammatical structures (how phrases are put together, how words and clauses are placed in certain positions, how modal verbs, pronouns or tenses are used etc.) but also bigger, text-level, structures (beginnings, middles, ends...).
  • Don't write anything until you've read the texts and don't start writing your answers for Questions 1 and 2 until you have made notes and annotated your texts. 
  • Think about what you can include in your Question 3 answer while you're planning for Q1 and 2. It *is* OK to repeat yourself in Q3 but you need to explore connections and you need to think more carefully about the things that make the texts similar or different. One text will always be older and one contemporary - so there's your first difference -  but also think about organising your Q3 answer around things like audience, purpose and mode. 
  • Don't offload huge amounts of knowledge about language change when you think about the older text. Stick to discussing what's relevant to the text and its immediate context.
  • Be selective in what you write about and try to structure your answer clearly. There is no one right way to do this but it's best to avoid working your through a text in order ("In the first line there is a pronoun, in the second line there is an adjective, in the third line there is another adjective...") but to select the most useful parts to talk about and think about how they link together.
  • Don't write a long, rambling and generic intro. Get into the texts as quickly as you can with just a  short introduction.
I'm sure you will have lots of advice from your teachers about how to approach these questions, but these are things I've often told my students and I think they usually help. Best of luck.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Revision round-up 4: reading that works

You've still got over 2 weeks before you sit Paper 2 so there's still time to do some reading. In the last post I mentioned how it's important to read plenty of articles about language, but there's even time to read around the subject (or listen if that's what you prefer).

I posted these suggestions earlier in the year, but there's still time to dip in and out and these are all accessible for students if you've got a bit of time and patience.

My top tips are:

  • Deborah Cameron, The Myth of Mars and Venus - a brilliant, dry take on how women and men use language and the myths around it.
  • Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars - a readable and comprehensive overview of some of the ways in which English has been debated about and argued over ever since it came to be.
  • Jean Aitchison, Language Change: Progress or Decay? - excellent for how language changes and what people think about it. Essential reading for Paper 2.
  • Annabelle Mooney and Betsy Evans, Language, Society and Power (4th edition) - almost as useful as a 3rd textbook for this course.
  • English & Media Centre, Language: a Student Handbook of Key Topics and Theories (aka the little red book) - put together for you to offer new angles and key ideas for most of the main areas you cover. Buy it or my husky starves.
  • Susie Dent, Modern Tribes - a very accessible and readable book with lots of great examples for work you will do on social groups.Worth dipping in and out of.
  • Julie Coleman, The Life of Slang - while the slang material is really good in its own right, the discussion of how new language gets generated, how it spreads and why it gets picked up (or not) is very insightful.
For listening revision (always good for those tedious bus or train journeys, or Maths lessons):

Michael Rosen's Word of Mouth
Talk the Talk
The Vocal Fries
Lexicon Valley

And finally, the Cambridge Topics in English Language series that Marcello Giovanelli and I edited are all out now. We're chuffed with how they've come out and they seem to have been going down well. You can see more about them here.

If you have any suggestions for things you've read or listened to recently that have been helpful, please add them to the discussion on Twitter here.

Revision round-up 3: being prescriptive (about being descriptive)

As you'll no doubt have studied on this course, descriptivists describe language while prescriptivists prescribe, telling us what we should (or shouldn't) be doing with language. After (nearly) two years of language study, you'll probably have got the general idea that we (your teachers) would prefer you to be descriptive rather than prescriptive about language. That's not (necessarily) because we want you in some kind of liberal-leftie lockstep in which anything goes, but because if you're studying language you really need to be able to do better than just say "I don't like X and that's why you shouldn't use it" (where X is vocal fry, 'Americanisms', rising intonation, 'like', (non-literal) 'literally' or 'bae'... Ok scrub that, no one should say 'bae').

Overall, what I think we want you to avoid is knee-jerk prescriptivism. And that doesn't mean you can't challenge language change and/or language diversity, or offer your own deeply-held views about language. I can think of plenty of cases where there's a really good argument to be had about the problems that might arise if language changes too quickly or becomes too diverse. There are arguments around intelligibility and how people are judged out there in the real world for their language use which could all be argued from a broadly prescriptive position.
There are also some compelling arguments around the top-down control of language and language engineering, with topics like political correctness and language reform that could be addressed from different positions and argued about with reference to all sorts of studies and linguistic debates.

For example, is political correctness an oppressive anti-free speech movement, or an attempt to make people more conscious and therefore more careful about language that can cause genuine upset?  Look at attempts to police and control language in the past: it's exactly the sort of debate that would have been relevant in last year's question about language change being "controlled or directed".

So, at the heart of this, I think we want you to show your knowledge about language and argue your own case, with supporting evidence. And because you have studied language, your arguments will probably be better supported than some of those you'll be asked to analyse and discuss on Paper 2. After all, many of the articles about language that are published in the media are written by people who may well love language and use it very effectively, but they probably haven't studied language change, diversity and the history of language complaints. You have, so you might come to these topics with a different insight.

While you might be able to offer a different perspective on the content of the articles/extracts you're given in Paper 2, what you can also do is learn from good writers how to put a case. You will have looked at lots of pieces of writing about language on this course - articles complaining about the modern use of 'literally' (even if it's not really that modern at all), self-help guides telling all you need to know about male-female conversation styles, online pieces about women needing to empower themselves by getting rid of vocal fry and uptalk - and hopefully you'll have picked up some of the techniques to write catchy headlines, helpful straplines and to structure your argument so it hits home, but you'll also have seen how writers make use of what's going on around them to link their arguments about language to wider points about society, and how sometimes they play the devil's advocate or use a running joke or metaphor as a way of guiding the reader.

As you're revising for Paper 2, don't forget that while content and knowledge are really important, practising writing opinion pieces that both inform and entertain is also part of your task and there's still time to get better at this by reading plenty of articles and identifying the techniques and approaches that you can make use of too.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Revision round-up 2 - metaphors about language

If you ask a linguist to describe a form of language, they'll probably focus on its features, its functions, its background and history. Ask a non-linguist and they'll probably describe it using evaluative terms such as ugly, broken, lazy or even beautiful (sometimes), or they'll reach for metaphor: language is an amazing tool; language is a beautiful building that needs to be protected; British English has to be defended against an invasion of awful Americanisms; urban slang is polluting our once proud language etc.

These metaphors are interesting because they often encode a way of seeing the world - and usefully for you, sitting the exam - a way of conceptualising language that you can analyse and discuss. What's important about these metaphors is that they will often seem quite appealing - or even perfectly natural - as an idea and you might even read them and think that it's quite neat way to describe language, but if you dig a bit deeper, you can often see that they are problematic.

In fact, one of the big challenges of this part of Paper 2 is being able to see how these metaphors construct a way of seeing language change and/or diversity that affects the way we view language and the world around us. In short, these metaphors can change that we think. Norman Fairclough, one of the most influential linguists in the field of critical discourse analysis, makes the point that “Ideologies are closely linked to language, because using language is the commonest form of social behaviour, and the form of social behaviour where we rely most on ‘common-sense’ assumptions” and I think this is an important idea to understand.

Take a few of the headlines below, for example.

Each of these presents language as something other than language - rubbish, a damaging force, a killer or a fashion - and all shape the way we might think about it. 

Some of the most common metaphors work to make us think that 'traditional' English is under threat or at risk in some way and some of the most common language discourses are presented below. It''s not an exhaustive list by any stretch, but if you've been following stories about language during your time on the course, you'll probably have seen these time and time again.

One of the skills that comes in really useful on Paper 2, especially for Questions 3 and 4 in Section B, is being able to identify these discourses and see how the writers of the texts you are analysing might be making use of them to offer a particular angle or position on language. If you can see where they are being deployed and how they are tapping into wider ideas about language, society and people, you can interrogate them and see if the views they are offering can be looked at in another way, challenged or attacked.

Having tuned into the discourses being used, you can then make use of them for yourself when you come to write your Q4 response. And, as you've probably seen from the articles you've been reading to help you with Section B, writing a piece that makes use of some of these popular discourses is one way to make your piece read more like a genuine article. But of course, you'll also have the benefit of understanding how such metaphors work and be able to manipulate them for your own (hopefully more linguistically informed) arguments.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Revision round-up part 1

Apologies for the lack of posts on here this year. The new job and various other commitments (not Fortnite, honestly...) have meant that most of the A level Language stuff I've done has been via the @EngLangBlog Twitter account or for books and revision guides (coming soon!).

Anyway, I'll put a few short revision posts up in the weeks to come, focusing on areas to do with the A level. First off, some Language Discourses material and what to make of the whole idea of discussing how language is viewed and written about.

One of the first things to realise is that 'Language Discourses' can be relevant for all of Paper 2, not just Section B. Arguments about language diversity and language change apply just as much in Section A in the essay questions and if you've seen last year's paper (which you should have done by now), you'll see that arguments over the control and direction of English are central to one of the questions.

Don't be afraid to discuss attitudes to language change in the change question or even in ones about language diversity, because there are lots of reasons why they are a relevant part of the debate.

For example, articles and news items about regional accents or world varieties of English that claim some varieties are looked down upon or seen as 'ugly' are often part of the reason why people feel uncomfortable about their own accents. If Brummie or Scouse are reported as being viewed less favourably than other accents, that's bound to have some sort of impact on people with those accents, isn't it?

In some cases, it might mean that people try to lose or soften those accents. In other cases, and this tends to match what Kevin Watson found in his work on the Scouse accent, it might mean that people strengthen their accent to resist this negative representation and express a stronger sense of pride and local identity.

Attitudes to language can shape language use. The same is true for language change. Much of the debate over things like text messaging, online communication and the use of emojis is tied up with a sense on one side that language is changing too rapidly and on the other that these changes are perfectly natural and inevitable in any living language. The tension between those two positions - between the powers of innovation and conservatism - helps to keep language in the spotlight and might even affect the rate at which a language changes.

I think it's always been like this as well. When we look at the history of standardisation in English we can see a constant struggle between different forces - new words being welcomed by some and rebuffed by others, for example - and that struggle is what shapes how a language is used and how comfortable people feel with the language they are using.

The other part of Language Discourses is of course what you do in Section B, which is to analyse and discuss the ways in which people write about and view language change and diversity, so that's what I'll pick up in the next revision round-up post with some ideas about the kinds of metaphor used to describe language and some ways into the kinds of texts that are good for this sort of discussion.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Cambridge Topics in English Language

Just a quick plug for these books that have recently been published by Cambridge University Press and are suitable (more than suitable - really good, in fact) for A level English Language.

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...