Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Yorkshire dialect: variation and social values

In this guest blog, Paul Cooper takes a look at Yorkshire dialect, how we identify whether someone 'sounds Yorkshire' and the variations that can be noticed within Yorkshire dialect. Dr Paul Cooper is a lecturer in English Language at the University of Liverpool. He's primarily interested in historical sociolinguistics and you can find more of his work here.

The idea that there is a Yorkshire dialect has been around for a very long time – since at least the seventeenth century, as evidenced by the anonymously-authored A Yorkshire Dialogue Between an Awd Wife, a Lass, and a Butcher (1673). Today, we can see examples of Yorkshire dialect in many different contexts including in dialect dictionaries, on commodities like t-shirts, tea towels, birthday cards, and coffee mugs, in media representations, as well as online in Facebook and Twitter posts, and people seem to have a reasonably good idea of what Yorkshire dialect is, where it is spoken, and what they think about it.

My research takes a language-ideological approach to analysing Yorkshire dialect which illustrates the specific language features people think of as being Yorkshire dialect, as well as the social values they associate with it. By doing this, I’ve been able to identify a repertoire of features that people broadly consider to be Yorkshire dialect, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Repertoire of Yorkshire dialect (see also Cooper 2019)
These features are most likely to make people think “Yorkshire” when they hear them, or if they wish to affect Yorkshire dialect they will employ these features. There is also wide awareness of these features – my research highlighted that people from all over the world could identify these features as Yorkshire dialect in some cases. This is because the repertoire has been enregistered, meaning that it has undergone ‘processes through which a linguistic repertoire becomes differentiable within a language as a socially recognized register of forms’ (Agha 2003: 231).

In the case of Yorkshire dialect, the linguistic repertoire is comprised of the features listed in Table 1. We can say that this repertoire has become differentiable and socially recognised by virtue of the fact that people identify it as Yorkshire, they can talk about it and they can provide commentary on it.

In order to investigate the kind of commentary we can see I conducted interviews with 19 speakers (10 female and 9 male) from across Yorkshire who had lived there all their lives and were highly familiar with the dialect. These interviews highlighted the social values linked to both Yorkshire dialect and Yorkshire speakers, which included ‘plain speaking’, ‘authenticity’, ‘independence’, ‘sense of humour’, ‘geniality’, ‘hospitable’, as well as the perception that the dialect is ‘unintelligible’ to outsiders, which is seen as a positive thing and adds to a sense of in-group membership for Yorkshire speakers. This came up in an interview (see Cooper 2019: 77) with Alfred (an older male speaker) who described the scenario in extract 1 where switching into ‘broad’ Yorkshire dialect meant that people who weren’t familiar with it couldn’t understand him:

1) Alfred: years and years ago me dad once went to Spain fishing sea fishing=
PC: =mhm=
Alfred: =and on this boat me dad and me brother there were two Spaniards on the boat and they were speaking Spanish
PC: yeah=
Alfred: =so me dad and me brother started talking Yorkshire broad Yorkshire they couldn’t understand they come up to ’em and said what language is that we don’t understand it and they’d no idea they said can you talk in English because we can’t understand

However, in addition to the social values listed above interviewees also perceived Yorkshire dialect to be internally varied, leading them to discuss features not included in the repertoire in Table 1. For instance, several speakers discussed notional differences between Sheffield and Barnsley (two urban areas in South Yorkshire that are roughly 16 miles apart), exemplified in extracts 2 and 3 where Nora (an older female speaker) and Esme (a young female speaker), both from South Yorkshire, highlight the distinctive nature of Barnsley dialect relative to Sheffield dialect:

2) Nora: yeah cos the Barnsley is the Barnsley accent’s totally different to t’ Sheffield
3) Esme: It’s true though innit because like from Barnsley and Barnsley’s still in Yorkshire but it’s still completely different to Sheffield

The main way in which they perceived Barnsley dialect to differ from other parts of Yorkshire was in the pronunciation of the name ‘Barnsley’ itself, which they demonstrated as having a different vowel to their own pronunciation, as illustrated in extracts 4 and 5:

4) Nora: if you ask somebody that comes from B[ɑː]nsley where they come from they’ll come from B[aː]nsley
5) Esme: We’d say B[ɑː]nsley they’d say B[aː]nsley

In the first instance the first syllable of B[ɑː]nsley would be pronounced the same as the word ‘barn’ in RP, whereas in the second, B[aː]nsley, features a more fronted vowel (which I call the ‘Barnsley vowel’), rendering it something more like ‘Baaarnsley’. This is a pronunciation that Barnsley speakers themselves appear to be aware of. For example, in the run up to the 2014 Tour de France, some of which passed through Barnsley, the Barnsley-based graphic design company Black Bee Creative posted a blog article which described how the word ‘Baaarnsley’ was written in large letters in a local field as ‘a pun on the local accent plus the noisy sheep in the field’ (Black Bee Creative 2014).

Ultimately, despite the long-standing nature of the dialect and the wide awareness of its enregistered repertoire, it seems that the term “Yorkshire dialect” only broadly applies to certain language features. When we look at the situation more closely we can see that there is more localised variation within Yorkshire that local speakers are aware of, and there are varieties within Yorkshire that are simultaneously associated with a particular town or city as well as Yorkshire itself, and may be distinguished from other areas by the pronunciation of a single vowel.

Agha, A. 2003. The Social Life of Cultural Value. Language and Communication 23, 231-273.

Black Bee Creative. 2014. Putting baaarnsley on the map [Online]. Available at: http://www.blackbeecreative.com/putting-baaarnsley-map. [Accessed 12th October 2017].

Cooper, P. 2019. The enregisterment of ‘Barnsley’ dialect: Vowel fronting and being ‘broad’ in Yorkshire dialects. Language and Communication, 64, 68-80.

Kellett, A. 2007. Ee By Gum, Lord! The Gospels in Broad Yorkshire. Smith Settle, Skipton.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Language nuggets: boomer

If you are an English Language student, you are probably being reminded all the time that English is a vibrant, living, constantly evolving force that is always being discussed and debated. And that’s not just your English teacher loving their work and getting tripped out on linguistics: it’s true, dammit.

Stories about language are featured every day in various news outlets and – unlike in my early days of teaching this course – you don’t need to keep yellowing cuttings from newspapers in a folder, you can go on teh interwebz and save them for future reference or just share them via social media with other language nerds.

Sometimes though, the sheer volume of language stories is a bit much to cope with. “Where does it all fit in to what I’m studying?”, “What does this even mean?” and “Why is that pigeon staring at me?” might all be questions you ask yourself as you scan the stories. And I’d like to help you with two of those questions in the next few posts on EngLangBlog. 

What I’m hoping to do is take a few recent news stories about language and see what uses we can put them to. Some of them are just interesting stories about words, some are darker and more politically tinged (Don’t blame me: we’re living in dark times.) and others shed a bit of light on new ways of thinking about an aspect of the course. I used to do this quite a lot on the blog, back in the days before Twitter but gradually social media took over and became the more effective way of sharing such stories, but sometimes at the expense of a slightly more detailed and developed coverage of the story. 

Anyway, here's the first one, and others will (I hope…I plan, anyway…) follow in the next few posts.


While the English language is a rich and resourceful tool for expressing humanity’s many and complex needs and wants, it’s also great for slagging off people and calling them names. And ‘boomer’ is one of the latest terms to gain prominence. 

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, ‘boomer’ is short for ‘baby boomer’: “a person born in a time when there is a marked increase in population; the word is especially used to describe people born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964. It has been in use since the early 1960s”. 

So, it’s not a new word at all, but one that has been around for a while. If that’s the case, why is it now being used and argued about? Well, it’s the way it’s being used now by younger people (anyone not born between 1946 and 1964), be they millennials, Generation X or Gen Z-ers, to cast Baby Boomers as out-of-touch, easily duped, technologically-naïve, climate destroying, Trump/Brexit-voting, over-privileged idiots that seems to be the clincher. And its appearance in a kind of reflexive, stock retort of "OK Boomer" from young to old seems to have been the catalyst for its recent upsurge. You can read more on the OK Boomer meme here.

Rather like ‘gammon’ a year or two back, ‘boomer’ has become a disputed term. And rather like ‘gammon’, some have argued that using it is JUST AS BAD AS DOING A RACISM!!!

In fact, one tweet – ridiculously - likened it to the n-word. The comparison would be laughable had it not been offered so seriously (apparently, according to another source, by a man who had previous for using racial slurs that got him into trouble as a radio presenter). Dictionary.com thought it was a stupid tweet, anyway.

What does ‘boomer’ offer for discussion in the A level? I’d argue that it fits into two of the main areas of the course quite neatly, the first being ‘meanings and representations’. As part of your study of texts you’ll look at what words mean and how they are used, so thinking about the intention behind using certain terms is really important, and thinking about what words mean to different people runs alongside this. There’s nothing necessarily bad about the word ‘boomer’ – it’s been used as a fairly neutral label for well over 50 years with no overt ill-will apparent in many of its uses – so perhaps it’s the sense that now it’s being used by one group against another (or more accurately, I suppose, most other groups – including my own Generation X-ers – against a particular age group) that makes it seem worse now. Perhaps time has changed its meaning. 

We’re living in a time, you might argue, that could have been very different had the boomers behaved differently and shown some awareness of the impact of their actions on their children and the rest of the planet. Cheap air travel, booming (LOL) property prices meaning that very few young people can afford to buy their own homes and fetishizing gas-guzzling cars all seem to be a feature of the baby boomer generation. So why shouldn’t we blame them? 

Well, let’s have a think why there was a boom that they were part of. The Second World War ended in 1945 so the baby boomers were spawned in the aftermath of a truly global catastrophe that sent millions of people to their graves in a way that just hadn’t been seen before. Having just come out of that, isn’t there perhaps a slight excuse for wanting to live a different life to your parents’ generation? It doesn’t really excuse what many of them went on to do, but you might see a context for their actions. 

And of course, the other thing is that all these labels are completely crass generalisations. As we all know, not everyone born in the same year is going to exhibit the same personality traits or behaviours. We are all individuals with different forces motivating us and different factors influencing us. And that’s where this is relevant to another part of the course: language diversity, and more specifically how language represents different groups. Using any label to categorise a group is bound to be problematic, but we do it all the time. What we need to be careful about is how these labels represent those being labelled.

One of the dynamics you might have studied when looking at how language represents social groups is how much relative power there is between labeller and labelled. Historically - and perhaps a little simplistically for the space we have here -  the power dynamic between white and black, man and woman, straight and gay has been skewed towards the former of each pair (white, male and/or straight). This has often meant that the terms used to label the latter (black, female and/or gay) have been decided by the more powerful groups and have carried more power when used against the less powerful groups. If you take a look at the n-word and other racial terms, and 'slut' and 'faggot' as examples, they have often been powerful terms of abuse, not because of any inherent power in the word but the distance from which it's dropped.

When I used to teach this part of the course I used to compare it to someone chucking a stone from a tower block. It's going to hurt whoever it hits, but the higher you are when you chuck it, the more it's going to hurt. And that's why these terms have become so taboo, as we've seen the power balance shift and those who have previously been labelled gain more power in society and more say in the terms used around and about them.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I think that 'gammon' and 'boomer' are nothing like the racist, sexist and homophobic terms that they are sometimes compared to. If anything, the sting created from using these words against generally much more powerful and privileged groups, is the sting of surprise. They're shocked - shocked, I tell you - at being the victim of such cruel words when they've been the ones dishing out the abuse for decades previously.

Not all of them, obviously, #NotAllBoomers...

February emagazine conference - bookings open soon.

We've organised two emagazine English Language conferences for the 2019-20 academic year and the second one is about to be announced. The line-up is ace (even if I say so myself) and we're delighted to welcome David Crystal back for his 10th anniversary appearance at the conference, speaking on "What's New in the English Language?". There will be cake to celebrate. Unless you have an allergy, in which case there might be some fizzy water to celebrate. Let's see...

Anyway, other speakers are Carmen Llamas, Emma Moore and Erin Carrie who will each be addressing a different aspect of language variation and diversity, ranging from how we identify sounds that mark out people's regional and social identities and the many uses of non-standard grammar to the Manchester Voices project and how it's been collecting, documenting and celebrating the accents and dialects of Manchester. Lane Greene - one of our most popular speakers at the 2018 conference - will be back as well to talk about internet language.

Bookings open on Wednesday 6th November and you can find more details here. It will be on Thursday 27th February at the Friends Meeting House, Euston Road, London and we'd love to see you there.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Could you recognise an East Midlands accent?

In this guest post, Natalie Braber (@NatalieBraber) takes a look at a variety of English that sits somewhere in the middle of the North/South divide and a little to the east of its better known Brummie cousin. Natalie is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Nottingham Trent University and an expert on the accents and dialects of the East Midlands.

When we think about accents in the UK, there are some which we all think of straight away, for example, Scottish and Irish but also more local places such as Newcastle, London or Liverpool. But not all varieties have the same media exposure and this can make them harder to recognise, even for people who live there.

Perceptual dialectology - perceptions of local accents and dialects

My research examines language variation in the East Midlands which I think is a really interesting area of study. When linguists (and other people too!) think about the way people speak in the UK, they often think about the North/South divide and how that is reflected in language. For example, do you pronounce ‘bath’ with a long or short /a/? And do you pronounce ‘up’ as /ʌp/ or /ʊp/? But this divide is not straightforward – how do areas like the East Midlands fit into this picture? Although the East Midlands is the geographical centre of England, it certainly isn’t perceived as being a central part of England. It has been referred to as ‘neither here nor there’ and as a ‘no-man’s land’. Even the use of the term ‘East Midlands’ can be problematic – different researchers use terms such as ‘south Midlands’, 'North-west Midlands’, ‘Central Midlands’, ‘East-Central Midlands’ or just ‘Midlands’ but without explaining exactly what areas they are discussing.

Until I started work on them over the last few years, there hadn’t been a regional survey of the region since the Survey of English Dialects in the 1950s. However, I think these linguistic varieties are interesting. From its geographical position in England, we can see that these varieties share features with ‘northern’ speakers but there are also some features which are more typically found in ‘southern’ varieties. I wanted to find out more about what young people thought about language variation in the UK and whether they could recognise local accents. So I invited secondary schools from across the East Midlands to take part in my study. I asked permission to attend an hour-long class with students in year 13 in order to engage with their opinions on language variation in the UK and listen to some recorded voices to try to place particular accents.

In all, 327 students were involved in this study (of which 191 in Nottinghamshire, 85 in Derbyshire and 51 in Leicestershire). The first task was to ask these students about the North/South divide in the UK – where they thought it was and whether they felt they belonged to either region. Students used a map of the UK to draw a line where they felt this divide was and wrote next to this whether they thought they were northern, southern or neither. This task showed me that most students (99%) agree that there is such a divide but many did not have an expressed affiliation to either region. Almost a third of all participants left this blank and ‘neither’ was the second choice. Geographical location could play a role, because students from the most southern county in these samples, Leicestershire, were more likely to label themselves as ‘southern’, while those from Nottinghamshire were most likely to label themselves as ‘northern’ and for those who used the term ‘Midlander’ most were from Derbyshire.

In the second task, students were asked to circle areas on the map where they thought distinct linguistic varieties were to be found, to label them with names if possible and to give any opinions they had about these varieties (what it sounded like, typical words or pronunciations, famous people who spoke with such an accent). The responses given by these students were very variable. Some included just one or two circles (e.g. Scottish, Geordie) whereas others drew very detailed analysis of different words used in areas and included many circles covering larger areas of the UK. The top five regions/cities labelled by the participants were Liverpool (by 90% of students); Birmingham (83%); Newcastle (81%), London (77%) and Scotland (62%).

Ringing & labelling UK dialects
Opinions & views about UK dialects

I was also interested in the way students labelled their own areas, and which areas they left blank. Nottingham was recognised in 10th position as a distinctive accent by students in all three counties (although it is important to remember that Nottinghamshire students made up a larger group in this sample). But even the students from Derbyshire and Leicestershire very rarely included their own areas as having an accent. Only eight participants labelled Leicester/Leicestershire as having a distinctive accent (and all of these students were from the schools in Leicestershire) and a further three had labelled Derby/Derbyshire (again all from schools in that county).

So it seems from this task that the East Midlands accent is not seen as being an obvious candidate for showing regional variation. This may be due to the age of the students as they may not be aware of having an accent themselves or it could be to do with the fact that East Midlands voices are not often heard in the media.

In the third task students were asked to listen to 14 different voices and to put a cross on the map where they thought the speaker was from – this included locations from around the UK (including Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh accents, as well Plymouth, Ashford (Kent), London, Newcastle, Birmingham, Burnley, Withernsea (East Yorkshire) and Liverpool and three ‘local’ dialects (Nottingham, Leicester and Derby). I was particularly interested in how well the students were able to recognise the ‘local’ voices. The results show that it seems that the dialects commonly named in the previous task were also accurately labelled in this task (particularly Liverpool, Newcastle, Birmingham and Wales). London, Glasgow and Northern Ireland as well as the local dialects were generally labelled less accurately. Previous research suggests that people tend to be better at recognising local accents. However, our participants were not very accurate at recognising the voices which were from the East Midlands and placed them all around the country, with locations being placed as far north as Manchester and Leeds, and as far south as Plymouth and London.

From this task we can see that some accents may be harder to recognise for these participants and local varieties are included in this. I did include discussion about local language with the participants and they were able to think of lots of different features to do with pronunciation, grammar and local words which they thought were ‘typical’ of the East Midlands. When we talked about local language, much of the discussion focused on its perceived ugliness. Students mentioned that it was lazy, slurred, chavvy, boring, rough, not proper, nothing unique, and some said that they did not like it or were trying to get rid of it. Only one or two students said that it was relatively easy to understand and one student that it was friendly. This raises questions about why there should be so much negativity surrounding local language. Even so, these participants were still not accurate in recognising these accents. It could be that the East Midlands is not immediately thought of as having a distinctive accent because there are no strong links with local famous people. For many of the other accents we could see that celebrities from a region may help with recognition.

I think more work is still needed – would older participants hold the same views? How good would people outside the East Midlands be at recognising or describing East Midlands voices? There are plenty of other varieties in the UK where this still needs to be done – why don’t you collect some data where you live and examine how it differs from other varieties? You could include pronunciation, morpho-syntactic structures or lexical variation. I think it is important to celebrate our own local accents and dialects – they are an important part of our identity and we should be proud to use them!

You can read more about Natalie Braber's work on East Midlands English, including 'pit talk', the language of East Midlands miners, here and East Midlands Voices here

Friday, October 18, 2019

Analysing patterns and structures

You might have seen Dan’s recent post for the Oxford Education blog; in it he distills the examiners reports on last year’s A-Level exams into some key advice.   Here’s what that post has to say about text analysis and patterns:

‘A key message in last year’s reports was that ‘patterns’ across texts were as important as – if not more important than – identifying isolated features of language. Both the Paper 1 and Paper 2 reports this year stress this again. So, for example, the feedback on Paper 1 states “examiners noticed that those students who had a clear sense of each of the texts as a whole were far more coherent in their responses” as that made them “better placed to identify patterns in language use” across the texts.’
I’ve been trying to encourage this in my own students; it’s more useful and interesting to focus textual analysis on structures and patterns than on single words or even single sentences, particularly when time is as limited as it is in an exam.  You should link these features to contexts, of course – ‘why’ is always more interesting than ‘what’ – so you need to think about what these patterns tell us about how a topic is represented, how genre conventions are used or challenged, how an audience is positioned, how this text can be related to wider discourses about the same topic, how the producer or participants represent themselves …

These are the kinds of features I’m suggesting that you could look for if you want to avoid the disjointed, one-word-at-a-time approach.

·       Semantic fields, extended metaphors or other patterns of imagery
For example, is that football match represented using the imagery of war with words like ‘fight’, ‘battle’, ‘attack’?  Or is it represented as a more scientific, thoughtful game with descriptions like ‘clinical’ and ‘precision’?

·       Lexical patterns and repetition
For example, are there lots of first person plural pronouns suggesting inclusivity or the attempt to create a pseudo community?  Lots of highly modified noun phrases suggesting that the producer is introducing a new topic to the audience?   Is a particular word or phrase often repeated, and what aspect of the topic does this foreground?

·       Syntactic patterns
For example, are there a lot of conditional clauses suggesting a complex, nuanced topic and a tentative approach?  Is there syntactic parallelism for persuasive rhetorical effect?  Is the subject of the sentence missing or does the text use passive voice to conceal agency?

·       Modality
How much certainty, uncertainty or reliability is expressed?  Is it all about ‘slightly’ and ‘might’ or is it ‘must’ and ‘definitely’?  Did an event ‘definitely’ or ‘apparently’ happen? 

·       Whole text structure
For example, is there a problem/solution structure?  Are there any adjacency pairs? A circular structure?  Are there any narrative structural features such as binary oppositions?  What aspects of the topic are foregrounded?  How does the producer guide the audience and provide cohesion?

Here are the notes one of my classes came up with on structural features and patterns in a newspaper article – this one is from AQA Paper 1 in 2018, and you can find the rest of the paper here.

I’m sure you could add to these notes: my students didn’t get around to discussing discourse markers or modality, for instance.    But their notes would provide the basis of a fruitful, ‘big picture’ analysis of the text which I think could be much more successful than analysing the connotations of the specific adjective ‘smelly’, for instance.  Looking at patterns also provides a way into how the text fits into wider contexts. Once you’ve noticed the repeated binary opposition between past and present, for example, you can see that the article feeds into nostalgic discourses which see social change as decline; this could provide a big-picture focus for your analysis.

Monday, October 14, 2019

What the examiners said.

This is something that I put together for the Oxford Education Blog which summarises some of the main messages from the AQA AS and A level examiner/moderator reports. If you are a teacher, you should be able to access the full reports via e-AQA, but with this I've tried to distill a few of the key messages for teachers and students alike.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Like it or loathe it?

The first guest blog this term is from Jacky Glancey, an A level English Language teacher at Macmillan Academy and it's a great way to get students thinking about the ways in which language issues are reported on in the media.

ITV’s Reality TV show ‘Love Island’ never fails to spark debate. And whilst some commentators are concentrating on the six packs, the fashion choices and the high drama, others seem more interested in counting how many times the contestants use the word ‘like’. As you do.

Last year ITV’s Piers Morgan mocked Niall’s Coventry accent and use of six ‘likes’ in five seconds whilst in The Sun this year, it was reported that, the programme had prompted a primary school in Bradford to ban the word ‘like’ and condemn it to a ‘word jail’. Incarcerating part of someone’s speech may seem a tad extreme, but these reactions are not isolated incidents and can provide us with some interesting insight into attitudes towards both language and social groups and language change. All good stuff for Paper 2 responses. This little four letter word has a history of irking listeners and prompting public disapproval.

Back in 2010 Emma Thompson (aka Nanny McPhee) gave a talk at her old school and scolded the students for using words like ‘like’ and ‘innit’ because, in her opinion, it made them ‘sound stupid’. It’s not hard to find other comments that add to the discourse that suggests that using the word ‘like’ will severely hamper your chances in life. Telegraph columnist Max Davidson suggests that the increase in the use of ‘like’ in speech is an American affliction that makes the speaker sound, in his words, ‘educationally subnormal’. And Gyles Brandreth pipes up in his blog telling us that, ‘Like it or not, ‘like’ has become the lazy linguistic filler of our times’ .

It gets worse. According to Sankin Speech Improvement (a company that offers speech training) this linguistic phenomenon is a language infection that has reached epidemic proportions and threatens to ruin our careers. Yikes.

But language peeves are usually more than purely a dislike of language itself and it’s worth thinking about what these language commentators have in common and trying to unpick what attitudes towards society underpin their vehement disapproval of this dinky little lexical item.

All these language commentators are middle aged, are comfortably off and have a degree of power and standing in society. They all have set views on what is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ language use and feel that they are qualified to instruct others on their use of language: in short, linguistic prescriptivists. The groups of people whose language use they complain about are often, younger, or less wealthy and/or have less power and standing in society. Some modern linguists feel that language complaints are sometimes a proxy for social complaints. Deborah Cameron, suggests that, ‘panics about grammar can be viewed as the metaphorical expression of social anxieties concerning society’. So, complaining about young people using ‘like’ in a non-standard way might, in a less obvious way, stem from some of the older generations being concerned about young people not sharing some of their more traditional attitudes and ideas about life.

Descriptivist linguists, on the other hand, are often at pains to challenge what they see as linguistic pedantry, surrounding the hand wringing responses to the use of ‘like’ and other language choices in modern society. They are more interested in describing how language works in real interactions, than reiterating what can be seen as arbitrary rules dictating how we ‘should’ use language. Descriptivists are interested in how language is continuously reshaping to meet the needs and preferences of new speakers and for them, the use of ‘like’ is fertile and fascinating ground for study.

John McWhorter, author of ‘Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)’ describes how ‘like’, like so many other words, has become more flexible in its use over time and can signal pragmatic meanings, as well as hold onto its more traditional grammatical uses as, for example, a verb (I like her) or a preposition (He looks like his dog). He describes three interesting developments:

1. Like as a way of acknowledging unspoken objection at the same time as underlining one’s own point. So when we hear someone say, ‘I was like just about to call you’ we understand that on a pragmatic level the speaker is saying something like, ‘I know you might not believe this, and I understand that, but I was at this very second about to call you. The speaker is trying to convey the idea that they are being truthful and factual, despite the fact that their claims might be challenged by the listener. McWhorter calls this the ‘reinforcing like’.

2. His second category is termed the ‘easing like’ and describes situations when using ‘like’ helps to deliver unwelcome news, but helps to cushion the blow. So, when you are told that your phone repair will involve you not having your device for a week, you might be told, ‘That’s, like, your only option.’ Take the ‘like’ away from that utterance and it becomes a little more brutal. Pop the ‘like’ back in and you can feel some human understanding of the situation again.

3. A third category, in which ‘like’ is used in a very straightforward way, is ‘like’ as a ‘quotative marker’. Instead of hearing someone relay a conversation along these lines, ‘So I said, ‘You sure?’ and he said, ‘Well, yeah’.’ , you might hear something like, ‘So I’m like, ‘You sure?’ and he’s like, ‘Well, yeah’. Both ‘said’ and ‘like’ do exactly the same job, but one choice is standard and the other is non-standard.

And that brings us to the final point, one which is always worth considering in the study of language: context. Often newer language uses are created in informal contexts and are used quite happily without meaning breaking down. However, those that complain about these newer usages often warn of the dangers of losing the ability to use Standard English. Standards are slipping, they cry. The descriptivist response to this panic would be, ‘Yes, having knowledge and the ability to use Standard English is highly desirable in our society, but (and it’s a big but) this doesn’t mean that other non-standard uses are inferior. The choices we make are always context dependent and some, less standard choices can carry pragmatic meanings in a really concise way.’

Next time I smash my phone, I think I’d appreciate an ‘easing like’ with the bill.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Next conference on its way...

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Revision: for now and later

With the clocks going forward, beautiful blossom blooming on the trees and summer rapidly approaching, it's time to cast happy thoughts from your mind and think about the looming exams in June. Sorry.

There's still plenty of time to get revising (or just 'vising' if you haven't done some of the course content yet) but there are a few key things you can do now to make sure that what you are on the right lines for later on. We've already had a revision post from Olivia which focused on advice from her as a former student for students in the run-up to the exams, so this one takes a slightly different tack and thinks about the bigger picture and some suggested reading.

Big ideas
Think big, to begin with. Before you dive into the details of different topic areas and sections of exam papers, think about the big questions around English. How confident are you about them? Back in this blog post, I suggested that one of the ways to help understand the scope of areas such as language change and language diversity was to think about the big questions around how and why language changes and varies. To this, you can also add questions around children's language development. What are the main influences on children's spoken language development? How does children's writing development differ from their spoken development? Have some idea about the broad answers to these questions and then you can work out the ways in which the detail can be added as you work through the rest of your revision.

Read plenty of opinion pieces about language and get a good grasp of a) the language discourses used and replicated in them, and b) the style and structure of these pieces. Paper 2 Question 4 is where you need to write one of these yourself, so the more you have read and thought about, the better your chances of producing a good one of your own will be. You'll also be answering Question 3 on two texts that put forward views and opinions about language, so it'll help you with that.

Here are some suggestions for recent pieces that might help:
Regional Diversity
Meghan Markle's accent
The ugly rise of accent softening
Identity and International English

Get to grips with meanings
There's a worrying tendency in lots of English lessons these days, from Key Stage 2 to A level, to get completely obsessed with masses of literary and linguistic terms. You're doing an A level in which you need to show linguistic knowledge and expertise - and terminology has a role to play in that - but it's much more important to engage with what texts mean and then trace back how the language creates these meanings and representations.

In examiner-speak, this is an AO3-led approach. What is the text about? What is being said about this? How is the text producer using language to represent the issue, the events being described, the people or sources in the text, themselves, language? Once you can talk confidently about this, you can look at how the language - across all the levels of grammar, graphology, semantics and discourse - works and get more technical about it.

Using a deluge of technical terms is not a substitute for thinking deeply about a text's meanings, so revise by reading texts and immediately asking yourself quick-fire questions like "What is it about?", "What's being said about that?", "Who is saying these things?", "Why should I believe them?", "How are they trying to come across?". If you can't answer these confidently, read the text again. Practise with short texts and then build up to longer and more demanding ones as you get closer to the exams.

Work through your own ideas
As I said before (here), there's not an official list of theories and case studies that you can use as a tick-list, but there will be studies and theories you will have covered in class and through your own reading. Organise your notes on these and think through them. Be clear you know how you can use these ideas for different kinds of questions and pay particular attention to those studies that have multiple applications. Emma Moore's Eden Village Girls study in Bolton is a good one for this, because it opens up discussion about gender, region, class and friendship groups, and introduces ideas around 'communities of practice'. Likewise, Peter Trudgill's classic Norwich study takes the variable '-ing' and traces its pronunciation according to region (Norwich), class, gender and context (different kinds of speech formalities) while also considering how people tend to report on their own usage.

Understanding and exploring the intersection of different factors in people's language identities is a crucial part of doing well in the higher levels of AO2, so it makes sense to use studies that help address this, but equally, you can draw on any relevant research, so long as you use it intelligently (see the original blog).

Do some reading
There's still time to get some reading done. I know it's English Language and you don't have set texts, but there are some really good, accessible and fascinating language books out there. Even just dipping in and out of a few chapters from some of these will give you some added insight into the debates and the history but also lots of original examples and perhaps a few nice quotations. Here are my current favourites:

  • Deborah Cameron: The Myth of Mars and Venus (how we talk and think about gender and speech)
  • Lynne Murphy: The Prodigal Tongue (history and debates about American English)
  • John McWhorter: Words on the Move (all about language change and how it happens)
  • Lane Greene: Talk on the Wild Side (how we think about language change and try to 'tame' the language)
  • Henry Hitchings: The Language Wars (the best book for understanding language discourses)
  • The EMC Language Handbook: 14 chapters on different language topics and areas of research, all designed for A level students.

There are plenty of blogs and sites produced by linguists and experts which can keep you up to date with language in the news and the latest research. Some of my suggestions are:

And then there's always emagazine from the English and Media Centre. Every issue has great articles for students on the course and you can access the digital archive with your school/college's user name and password.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Top student revision tips

In this blog post, we've invited former A level English Language student, Olivia to give some advice to students about how she revised and what her top tips are for students doing the course. Thanks to Olivia for writing this and for all the great ideas here.

Hi, I’m Olivia! Two years ago I sat the A Level English Language exams. I’m now at university and make and share English Language revision resources for ambitious students as @astarlevels on TES and Twitter.

With that in mind, in this post I’m sharing my revision tips for aiming high in A Level English Language. I’ve split it into four sections: learning theory, preparing for writing essays/ articles, tackling data and general revision tips.

Learning theory
The first step in preparing for the exam is to get familiar with the AO2 you’ll need. Go through your notes from the past two years and fish out all the bits that look interesting or important.

Work smart before you work hard. You don’t need to learn everything. Select the best bits from each theory or case study, maybe two or three sentences that focus on the main findings or key ideas. Forget about learning the exact number of participants, endless details of the procedure or how the results were analysed. Stick to what they did and what they found. These are the parts that will help you answer the question.

Once you’ve lifted this information from your notes, you need to think about it. This is the crucial bit: make sure you have something useful about every piece of AO2 you plan to use. Ask yourself these sorts of questions that will encourage you to evaluate the essay title you have been set:
  • What does it show about the broader topic?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What could the real life implication be?

It can also be useful to see how different studies and ideas link up and agree or disagree with each other. This is good preparation for evaluating ideas in the exam. Look at this example on language and gender:

  • Zimmerman and West found men do the majority of interrupting in mixed conversation suggesting men want to dominate conversation.
  • But Geoffrey Beattie suggested one man could have a disproportionate effect. His own research found the ratio of interrupting to be more or less equal.
  • Deborah Cameron suggested that our need to find differences between language used by men and women causes us to exaggerate certain perceptions and ignore others. This creates a distorted picture. 

Then, just like that, you have the foundation of three paragraphs that can clearly evaluate an idea about language and gender. It’s worth remembering that you will have looked at lots of different studies and that while there are common studies and ideas in the various textbooks, it’s what you do with ideas, research and theory that really matters.

Writing essays/ articles

One big piece of advice is don’t let the day of the exam be the first time you write an essay or an article! You’ll feel a lot more confident if you know you’ve already tackled everything in the exam at least once.

Practise planning or writing essay answers to a question asking you to evaluate an idea about accent/ gender/ social group/ etc. This will help you link up the studies and theories, and you’ll also get an idea of the lines of argument and structure you might be able to apply to the real exam question.

A simple bit of prep for writing an article on paper 2, is to think up some kind of headline that you can use. “Language and gender: its every man for himself” could really be the headline for any article on language and gender. Having something like this in mind for all the topics, before the exam, stops you panicking on the day desperately searching for something vaguely funny to open with.

Analysing data

To tackle the paper 1 questions, you need to be confident in identifying and analysing language, including patterns of vocabulary and grammar. To practise, there are lots of activities online that show you how to spot clauses and sentence types, as well as nouns, verbs and adjectives. It’s also worth looking on mark schemes to see what specific bits of grammar are classed as high level by the exam board. Analysing these in your answer is a quick way to climb the marks.

It can be tricky to come up with interpretations of the grammar. A tactic I devised to overcome this is to use synonyms as your AO3. Take the phrase “protestors poured onto the street” for example, here’s what you’d do with it:
  • Label interesting feature ‘poured’ = dynamic verb
  • Synonym for poured = gush, cascade, huge amounts moving quickly
  • Pull it together = the dynamic verb “poured” suggests the President is unpopular because huge numbers of people were surging through the streets to show their protest against him.

General tips

And finally, here is some general advice for revising for any A level…

  • Try not to talk about how much revision you’re doing with your friends. There’s no need to compare and this usually results in more stress.
  • Keep checking back to the specification, mark schemes and examiners reports – these are written by the exam board and are a good way to understand what they’re looking for.
  • Set realistic and worthwhile goals. No one can (or needs to) write six essays and memorise a textbook in a day. Also, creating a colour coded revision timetable isn’t the most beneficial use of time.

So, I think that’s everything for my student to student advice. I hope some of it will be useful in making your revision more efficient and effective.

Remember that you can find tried and tested resources to help you revise A Level English Language here.

Thank you so much to Dan for inviting me to write this and good luck to everyone sitting exams in June!


Monday, January 14, 2019

World Englishes

When Dan asked what he should post about next on this blog, one of the most common responses was this, the World Englishes topic.  Maybe this is because it’s relatively new on the AQA spec, especially if you previously did Spec B; but actually many of the issues and debates involved should be familiar from other topics in language diversity or language and power.   I love teaching World Englishes because it’s the most summative of all the topics, so students can use all their knowledge of language diversity and change.  We teach it at the end of year 2 for this reason.  

These are the questions that we cover:

1.    How did English become such a dominant language in the world?

2.    What are the different ways of grouping English-using countries around the world?

3.    What are some characteristics of different global varieties of English and of English as a lingua franca (ELF)?

4.    Who controls the English Language?

5.    What are the political implications of the dominance of English?  Are all groups in English-using countries happy with it?  Why?  Why not?

6.    What effect is English having on languages around the world?  Is it responsible for “killing” other languages?

7.    What is the future of English around the world? 

For question 1, the simple answer (as with all dominant varieties of language) is power; in this case, the power of the British Empire and, later, the cultural, economic and political power of the USA.  David Crystal has a useful 3 minute discussion of this here, and there’s a great one minute animated film from the Open University here.  Depending on your students, you might need to do a bit of a history lesson on the British Empire at this point, but I usually find that at least some of my classes already know plenty about this. 

For question 2, there are several models which organise different global Englishes.  I use Strevens, which looks fairly hierarchical and is useful for showing how English spread around the world; Kachru’s norm providing, norm developing and norm dependent circles; and McArthur’s ‘different but equal’ wheel model.   Students should be able to discuss what these models imply about power and control of language, and all are very useful when discussing questions 3 to 7.

For question 3, there are great resources on ELF in the CUP book ‘Language Diversity and World Englishes’, but if you don’t have access to this or want something extra, there is a short intro from Jennifer Jenkins here  and a great article by Jenkins and Seidlhofer covering definitions, characteristics, issues and debates here.  Mario Saraceni also debates the issues around ELF, and I’ll return to his work when looking at question 7. 

When it comes to looking at varieties of global English, we research and discuss Englishes from India, China, the USA and Australia, then we do a detailed case study of Singapore.  This raises lots of relevant issues and debates about control and gatekeeping of English and about status versus identity; Singapore has a prescriptivist language policy which privileges British and US English as high prestige varieties, and rejects ‘Singlish’ as slang or ‘broken’ English which could adversely affect Singapore’s position as a centre of international trade.  Here’s a sick rap in Singlish so you can hear what it sounds like; an excellent Open University documentary covering the issues here; and a TEDx talk bigging up Singlish as the future of language in Singapore here.  At this point, we also come back to the models we looked at for question 2 to see how each could be applied to Singapore.  This case study also covers questions 4 and 5.  We also look at other language policies, including L’Academie Francais and the proposed language purity law in Germany; both of these are at least partly intended to stop English making inroads into other languages, and students might apply familiar concepts such as Aitchison’s infectious disease metaphors here.

Leading through question 5 and into question 6, we also cover the issue of linguistic imperialism and language death.  2 of the world’s 7000 or so languages die every month, and the power and dominance of super-languages such as English and Spanish shoulders much of the blame; your more ambitious students might want to read a transcript of David Crystal’s lecture on this.  The term linguistic imperialism was coined by Robert Philipson, and there’s an informative and interesting debate between him and Robert McCrum, who is far more upbeat about global Englishes, here.

Finally, for question 7, we look at possibilities for the future of World Englishes.  There’s a nice discussion by David Crystal in this video.

Mario Saraceni thinks that England should accept that we’ve lost control of the English language, and should now think in terms of Englishes, plural.   This means letting go of the idea of standard British English as the ideal ‘correct’ variety.   He uses a nice simile which students find easy to remember; we have as much control of English as Italians do of pizza – if someone wants to stick banana and bacon on it, we’re just going to have to let that go. 

Robert McCrum talks about ‘Globish’ (a term coined and monetised by Jean Paul Nerriere).  This is really a version of English as a lingua franca, and it raises some interesting debates; for example, are native English speakers likely to be disadvantaged by the spread of Globish because our use of idiom and complex grammar will make us difficult to understand? 

Maybe English as a native language will die and various World Englishes will remain; after all, this is what happened to previous lingua franca Latin.  Or perhaps, given the decline of Britain and the USA as global powers, another language such as Spanish or Mandarin will take over as a lingua franca.  Post-Brexit, English is certainly likely to lose some of its importance in Europe, as Juncker pointed out in 2017.

Finally, it’s well worth discussing the idea that elements of World Englishes are finding their way into varieties of British English as a result of globalisation and patterns of migration; we go back to our study of MLE/MUBE at this point.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

AQA A Level English Language Workbook

This is just a quick plug for the new AQA A Level English Language Workbook that was published by Oxford University Press before Christmas. We wrote it to give lots of texts and practice tasks to help with the A level and if you've been following this blog for a year or two, you might even recognise a few things that have been covered here in the past. Anyway, I hope it proves useful.

Book Depository link
Wordery link
Amazon link

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...