Wednesday, February 03, 2016

AS Directed Writing - finding style models

Section B on Paper 2 of the new AQA AS-level sets a directed writing task which means that students will need to get used to writing in a different way about language topics. In Section A of the paper, they will be writing an essay in response to some stimulus data and a "Discuss the idea..." essay prompt.

The sample material on the AQA site has one task (you can find it here and a student response to it with examiner commentary here) asking students to "Write an opinion article in which you discuss the issues surrounding people changing their accents". The stimulus text is a short extract from the Mail Online looking at media celebrity Donna Air changing her working class Geordie accent to something closer to her posh boyfriend's accent and it's pretty clear that this is not the kind of article that students will need to write for themselves, because a) it's very light on language issues (and AO2 is worth half the marks here) and b) it's a very short extract.

We've just been looking in class at possible style models for opinion pieces and come up with a few possibilities for the kinds of articles that appear in the broadsheet press or on their websites, and which offer some solid language content as well as arguing a case effectively. Here are a few ideas:

Julia Snell in The Independent responds to the Sacred Heart School dialect row: plenty of serious language content for AO2 and some nice shaping of an argument for AO5.

Michael Rosen in The Guardian taking on grammar pedants and those who teach a "right and wrong" way of dealing with grammar: a strongly argued piece that picks up a debate from elsewhere and explains the ins and outs of it, making language ideas accessible to a non-specialist but interested reader.

Robert Lane Greene in The Economist's language blog looking at accent prejudice: a range of linguistic references integrated effectively into a clear explanation of the main issues for a non-specialist audience.

In many ways, the kinds of opinion piece that appear as potential Media Texts for the old ENGB4 and Language Interventions for ENGA4 are also worth a look. Various examples of these have been collected here and here on this blog.

If you have found any others that you think are worth a look, please let us know via @EngLangBlog.

Saturday, January 30, 2016


One of the big topic areas on the new AQA English Language AS level (and the A level) is Language Diversity, in which we look at how language varies from person to person and place to place. Much of the work done on this topic has focused on spoken language - accents and dialects, for example - but language can vary in written and electronic forms too.

Twitter has proved a really useful way of both producing and collecting this kind of data and more is explained in an article looking at the work of Brice Russ at Ohio University, who examined the language in some 400,000 tweets, looking initially for how people in different parts of the USA used either soda or pop to describe fizzy drinks.

Gabriel Doyle explains some of the ways in which Twitter can be used to chart change in language and how changes in language spread in this lecture clip.

Rachael Tatman, blogging from the Northwest Linguistics Conference in April of 2015, also noted how Twitter cold be used to identify not just lexical but phonological differences in how people used Twitter: in other words, the ways in which people used different spellings on Twitter to represent the ways they spoke with an accent:

Ok, so people will sometimes spell things differently on Twitter based on their spoken language dialect. What’s the big deal? Well, for linguists this is pretty exciting. There’s a lot of language data available on Twitter and my research suggests that we can use it to look at variation in sound patterns.

So, how is this relevant to those us doing English Language at A level? Here's the plan...

With #TwitterTwang we'll try to gather data from UK A level students using Twitter and a few helpful teachers. Over a 3-4 week period before the end of the Spring term, we'll identify a handful of ways in which data can be elicited in similar ways from students in different places and ask each group of students to hashtag their tweets with #TwitterTwang and a number to indicate where they're from (Essex as 1, Leicester as 2, Hackney as 3, Southport as 4, East Norfolk as 5 etc.). We can then make use of the data collected to see if there are patterns in regional dialect and/or accent apparent in the tweets.

I'm still thinking about different elicitation techniques and open to ideas (so please tweet me @EngLangBlog) if you have good ideas or think mine are rubbish, but here's the tentative plan:

  • a post-lunch tweet to describe what each student has had for lunch
  • a Gogglebox-style tweet/series of tweets about a programme that everyone agrees to either watch at a given time or on catch-up (e.g. Britain's Got Talent, The Voice, Take Me Out etc.)
  • a tweet about a picture/photo that we can all agree on an share
If we can agree on exactly which of these (or all?) to use, we'll have something to start with. We then need to identify a time to get this started. One of the best things about using Twitter for this is that we don't necessarily have to deal with the data as it comes in but can catalogue it using the different hashtags and save it for later. We could even use it for different things (language change, gender, individual tweeting styles) as the course goes on, or use it to compare with data in future years to see if language styles change.

Anyway, that's a start, I hope. If we could work out a plan in more detail through @EngLangBlog that would be great.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Accent and Dialect essays

We're coming close to the end of our work on Accent and Dialect for the new Paper 2 of AQA AS specification and thinking a bit more about the kinds of questions that might appear and how to approach them. One area that we've considered is the issue of why certain dialects (and/or accents) seem to be valued more highly than others, so for this we have been looking at news stories from a few years ago about so-called 'slang bans'. You can find a load of them gathered here as links.

In response to the question, "Discuss the idea that some dialects are viewed more favourably than others" (which we came up with ourselves), we've used short extracts of data from different schools (such as Sacred Heart in Teesside and Colley Lane in Halesowen) for the AO1 part of the question and as a springboard into the wider issues and discussion for AO2.

In terms of how to structure an answer, we've worked on the principle that it's best to address the essay question straight away in the opening paragraph with something along the lines of "The idea that some dialects are viewed less favourably than others is probably true and this is often the result of some privileged forms of English - accents such as RP or a dialect such as Standard English - being valued highly by influential and powerful parts of the population..." before going into the data in more detail.

The data is there, I think, to provide you with the chance to explore different features of language and to be able to see examples that might link back to the wider question, but it's also there to help you get a few AO1 marks early on, so get linguistic on its ass. Use your understanding of language frameworks such as vocabulary, grammar and phonology to describe and label the features of dialect that are apparent, and think too of the wider implications of what the school is doing by presenting this in the way that they do.

Once you've worked on the data, the next job is probably to make some links from what's there to the wider question - the idea under discussion in the title - and from there into the range of knowledge about the topic that you have built up by studying it and reading about it.

AO2 isn't all about naming theorists and quoting case studies, but they are important and they often give you a peg to hang a bigger idea on. So, in a question about dialects, it makes sense to think about studies that have looked at non-standard English (Trudgill and Cheshire), studies that have explored different pronunciations (Petyt and Trudgill), studies and surveys about attitudes to accents (Giles, Ryan, ITV Com/Res, YouGov) and any particular examples you have found in your own research or experience. If you've done a study on the dialect of Manchester, Newcastle, the West Country, Essex or Birmingham, you'll have examples you can use of the features of the dialect but also media representations of it. Use them: they will help make your answer more individual and interesting. Equally, if you have a personal take on it - you have been judged for your dialect (and let's face it, if you're from Essex you probably have) or told to "put T-s, T-s, T-s in your mouth" as I was when I moved from school in London to Wiltshire - mention it and offer your considered linguistic perspective on it.

Another part of AO2 is to show an understanding of the wider language issues, so think about the role of Standard English and why it has such importance. Where is it from? Why does it have an important role to play? Does having a standard make us assume that everything else is sub-standard? These are all possible avenues to explore.

Anyway, that's a start, I hope and I'd be interested to see what others are doing for this.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

English language: the civilising force?

David Cameron's recent comments about the importance of the English language to people moving to, or already settled in, the UK have led to some interesting articles about the value of the language and its use as a political football. Many of Cameron's comments were directly addressed to one section of the community who have been given a kicking in the media in recent times: Muslim women. Cameron's logic goes like this, according to The Daily Telegraph: "one of the main reasons why young men are vulnerable to radicalisation is the "traditional submissiveness of Muslim women" (Cameron's words), which prevents them from speaking out against the influence of the radical Imams". So, is English a powerful force for integration, or is language being used as yet another stick to beat a minority group?

Many of the responses to the ideas concentrated on the fact that at the same time as Cameron is pushing for English to be learned, he has managed to slash budgets for ESOL teaching, thus reducing the chance of non-English speakers actually learning the language. Others noted that along with an encouragement to learn English, the threat of deportation was also lurking. They pointed to the line "We will now say if you don't improve your fluency, that could affect your ability to stay in the UK". Tied to the apparent encouragement for Muslim women to learn English was also a threat to punish them. And why single out Muslim women? Would English ex-pats who live in Spain but don't speak a word of the local language beyond "cerveza" be deported by the Spanish authorities for not speaking  a word? And would the knuckledragging keyboard warriors of far-right organisations - born, bred, and supposedly educated, in this country - be sent back to their mums for not being able to spell "Go hoam immagrnat"?

Finally, Anita Anand noted that the UK government website couldn't actually manage to spell "language" properly in its own tweet. D'oh!

Obviously, English can be a unifying and integrating force for good: if we can all talk to each other, the argument goes, we can all start to get along. But the imposition of English on people has a long history of problems. English is not just a language of the world because it's flexible and absorbent (like your favourite kitchen roll) but because it has often been accompanied with political and social systems that have forced it on others, often at the end of a gun. There's nothing intrinsically better about an English speaker than someone who speaks French, Cantonese or Yoruba, but many still cling to the colonial belief that English can be a "civilising force" on Johnny Foreigner.

But English can also be something that allows people to feel part of a wider community and that's why so many people want to learn it - in the UK and beyond - and one reason why teaching English as a second language is so important. If Cameron were really serious about the power of language, he wouldn't be singling out one group of people or cutting funding to ESOL and the FE sector that are so vital in its provision.

Edited to add:
Frank Monaghan has written an article here which is worth a read.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

A Word of Warning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

I wonder if we can talk about requests...

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

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

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

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

Continuum of request forms

High entitlement/Low contingency High contingency/Low entitlement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Accent’s Place and Placing Accent in Forensic Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case 2: Mysterious Bomb Threats to Mr HOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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