Monday, September 15, 2014

What's proper?

Language debates are all over the media again and rarely seem to be too far aware, which is great news if you are an A level English Language student and looking for material to analyse, ideas to glean and references to add to your notes.

This article from Christian Rudder in The Huffington Post offers an analysis of Twitter language in response to the perception that social networking is degrading and/or destroying the English language. It's a common argument and one that has been knocking around for centuries. Ever since there has been technology to communicate - the pencil, the printing press, the mobile phone - there has been someone complaining about its disastrous effects on English.

This article challenges the declinist discourse and suggests that far from dumbing us down and forcing us to communicate very little in 140 characters, Twitter is not that different to other forms of communication:

A team at Arizona State was able to reach beyond word count and length, and into the sentiment and style of the writing, and they found several surprising things: first, Twitter does not change how a person writes. Among the many examples they tracked, if a writer uses “u” for the second person in e-mails or text messages, she will also use it on Twitter. But, likewise, if she generally spells out “you,” she does so every-where -- on Twitter, in texts, in e-mail, and so on. The decision to refer to the first-person singular as "I" or "i" follows the same pattern. That is, a person’s style doesn’t change from medium to medium; there is no “dumbing down.” You write how you write, wherever you write. The linguists also measured Twitter’s lexical density, its proportion of content-carrying words like verbs and nouns, and found it was not only higher than e-mail’s, but was comparable to the writing on Slate, the control used for magazine-level syntax. Everything points to the same conclusion: that Twitter hasn’t so much altered our writing as just gotten it to fit into a smaller place. 

Elsewhere, Ammon Shea, whose new book Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation looks well worth a read, has also written a piece for The Huffington Post, considering what's happened to the meanings of the words that were being worried about a hundred or so years ago. Shea finds that words like awful and talented rarely attract complaint these days, but were viewed by some as being totally unacceptable in the past. Meanings change: get over it, seems to be the key message here.

And if you want to help somebody who is actually researching attitudes to "proper" English for a PhD project, Carmen Ebner is collecting views through this link to her online questionnaire, so please take part and give your views. It's particularly good if you are an A2 English Language student and starting to look at language discourses and attitudes to change and variation as part of your second year work.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Welcome to EngLangBlog

With the new term underway, I thought I'd say welcome to the blog and introduce you to some of its main features.

First of all, the blog is designed to help you with your English Language A level. It's primarily aimed at the AQA A specification (as that's what I mostly teach and if you're a Colchester Sixth Form College student, that's the spec we do with you) but you'll find material here to help with AQA B, WJEC, EdExcel and OCR.

Most of the time, there will be posts on here about language in the news, so these will help you read around the subject and perhaps give you a few interesting angles and examples to get you thinking about different topics. At other times, there are longer posts which are tied to specific exam papers and questions. At exam time, I put up a lot of tips and hints about how to approach particular questions and topics for both AS and A2. There's already a big archive of these from previous years, so if you are looking for exam advice, try those. I'm an AQA examiner and moderator, but obviously I don't know what appears on the papers until you do, so none of this is inside information, just the ramblings of a sad language nerd.

If you've not used the blog before, you might find some of the following features helpful:

Labels can be found on each post and in a cloud on the right sidebar. If you are looking for all the posts on a particular exam paper, coursework topic or issue, just click on the label and you will be taken to all the posts with that label. So, if you're looking for Language Change, Child Language or Language Discourses, that's where you want to go.

The links bars take you to some good sites for English Language study. Emagazine and Babel are aimed at A level students and are both excellent reads. If you're a Colchester student, get the log-in details from your teachers.

The blog's Twitter account @EngLangBlog has lots of links and good ideas from linguists, students and other teachers, so it's a good idea to follow it. I've been posting short news items via Twitter more than the blog recently, so that's where to look for the latest news.

Finally, please contribute your own ideas, either through comments on blog posts or via Twitter. I'm always interested in hearing other points of view, finding out about language stories that I've missed or being shown links to interesting examples of language in use.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Feisty sluts being abrasive

There's been lots of good material in the papers recently about language and gender, so it's useful for anyone thinking of investigations at AS into representation of social groups & individuals.

The Telegraph looks at words which only seem to be used to label or describe women, while The Guardian has its own take on the issue. Fast Company also has a look at the ways in which language is used differently for men and women in their performance reviews, with abrasive being used to describe women much more than men.

Elsewhere, the discussion about what slut and sluttish mean - or has meant in the past - is picked up in The Guardian.

Monday, June 02, 2014

ENGA3 - making your examiner happy

It's just one day until ENGA3, so here's a quick post to wish you luck and to offer a few suggestions to make your examiner look upon you favourably.

Quote helpfully 
You should be using quotations from the texts you're analysing in your answers, but make sure they're helpful quotations. What's the difference between 1 and 2 below?

  1. The writer uses the noun phrase "the foul degradation of our language continues apace" to support his prescriptive view of language change.
  2. The writer uses the noun phrase "the foul degradation of our language continues apace" to support his prescriptive view of language change.
In short, 1 is wrong and 2 is right. That's because the quote used in 1 isn't actually a noun phrase, but a whole simple sentence/independent clause, while the quote in 2 actually specifies which bit is the noun phrase. I don't doubt that the person answering in the first one knows what they mean, but they're not making it easy for the examiner to give them marks.

Use examples
It's good to know stuff, but it's even better to show you know stuff. While that's a good bit of advice for the exam tomorrow, it might not be great life advice: no one likes a know-it-all, so forget this after tomorrow. Right? Examples are important to developing arguments and showing a grasp of a topic. If a question on language change asks you about how and why language changes, the big picture is obviously very important, but the examples can be really significant too. Think about going off the beaten track to find a few examples of neologisms (try here for starters), or here for some discussion of South African English or here for Australian English. If everyone uses the same revision guides and textbook (however brilliant the latter might be, ahem) then the examiners will get used to them. Surprise them with a few exciting and original gems.

Keep up with the times, daddio
As with the advice on examples, try to find some recent news stories about language to help you offer a bit of originality and range. This may reflect poorly on my sad and empty life, but I was excited and delighted to read an answer a couple of years ago in which the student made reference to a recent news report on the apparent demise of the Queen's English Society. This was particularly good as the question on Language Discourses that year used extracts from the QES website. So, what news stories have there been recently? Maybe you could have a look at a few of these and see if you can find some interesting angles.

Anyway, that's it for revision tips for ENGA3 for this year. Good luck in the exam.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

ENGA3 June 2014 - revision tips part 5

Today's tediously titled top tips will focus on analytical frameworks for ENGA3, in particular the Section B Language Discourses question.

As I was saying in yesterday's post about Section B, the key difference between the two sections on the paper is that Section A deals with language as it's actually used - in different times, different places and by different people - while Section B deals with language as something to be discussed, argued about and debated. So, in terms of analysis, you can apply many of the same frameworks - word, phrase, clause and discourse analysis - to texts in both sections, but Section B really lends itself to a Critical Discourse Analysis approach.

In effect, this means that you're using language analysis to work out the ideological position a text producer is taking in discussing a language issue. So, this could mean you're using language analysis to work out how a writer is using the following:
  • pronouns to address the reader and position him/herself in relation to the ideal reader (direct 2nd person address, inclusive 1st person plural, maybe some synthetic personalisation)
  • lexical formality to suggest closeness to the ideal reader/distance and expertise
  • modality to suggest elements of certainty or doubt, sometimes in the form of modal verbs, but also modal adverbs
Norman Fairclough: the daddy of Critical Discourse Analysis
For example - and I've shamelessly nicked this from an article I did for emagazine last year - with last January's question on the supposed Americanisation of English, Matthew Engel positioned himself in particular ways: an article for The Daily Mail on Americanisms entering English, the columnist Matthew Engel, seems to humbly and self-mockingly position himself as out of touch by saying “Old buffers like me have always complained about the process, and we have always been defeated”. Should we take such a move at face value? Perhaps not. Engel goes on in the article to stridently berate the UK for adopting what he calls “ugly Americanisms”: “Nowadays, people have no idea where American ends and English begins. And that's a disaster for our national self-esteem. We are in danger of subordinating our language to someone else's - and with it large aspects of British life”. That doesn’t sound too much like the stance of a man who’s labelled himself an “old buffer”, but the words of a man who feels he’s still got battles to fight and wars to win (if not, home-runs to hit). His self-effacing positioning earlier on helps him appeal to his reader as a gentle, even rather defeated and pessimistic, sort of character, which his subsequent warnings and call to arms belie.
If you're still working on revision for this exam, you could do worse than look back through a few of the texts we've flagged up as being of Language Discourses interest and think about how you could analyse short chunks of them to see how the writers are positioning themselves through their language choices and how they're representing the particular language topic.

For example, this article by Lindsay Johns is fantastic for a bit of analysis, not only for the way he presents and positions himself but in the way he presents language to us as "an incredibly rich inheritance": a noun phrase that casts language as like a solid object passed unchanging from generation to generation. Is that the reality? Well, you might argue that it changes all the time and isn't something that is the gift of one person to give to another but something we should all share and contribute to.

In the simple sentence containing this phrase ("The English language is an incredibly rich inheritance.") there's no modality to suggest doubt, only certainty. This is the kind of analysis that can really help you in the first bullet point for Section B, because it links the AO1 language detail (words, phrases & sentences in this case) to the AO3 interpretation of meaning and discussion of representation.

There are plenty of good articles to practise this approach on, so have a look through the links here for a few examples.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Despicable Minecraft Minions in the Nether

And another quick link to a BBC Radio 4 Today clip about the changing language of children. Here, the OUP language expert Sam Armstrong and comedian & writer Charlie Higson discuss the influence of popular culture and video gaming on young people's language.

While the presenter is keen to get them moaning about young children using terms like minion, nether, LOL and OMG, the experts are good at seeing the benefits to young people of new forms of language and their ability to code-switch. Take that, Radio 4 curmudgeons!

Nice stuff on lexis, morphology, word formation processes and the joys of technology, too.

Beyond literally

Just a quick link to a potential Language Discourses argument about the use of literally and beyond (as in "It was beyond awful") from Radio 4's Today programme.

Warning! For listeners of a sensitive disposition and sound mind, Simon Heffer is featured.

ENGA3 June 2014 - revision tips part 4

To carry on the boring naming convention established earlier this week, this is part 4 of your ENGA3 June 2014 revision tips. So far we have looked at a bit of Section A Change and a bit of Section A variation, so now it's time for Section B Discourses.

One of the first things to remember is that Section B is different from Section A. In Section A the texts are based on language in use (language being used in different times and in different varieties) but in Section B the texts are about language. They will raise questions around how people feel about language and the way it changes and varies from time to time and person to person.

Last year's question was on Language and Gender, setting two extracts from a text which gave a very simplistic, difference model-style, interpretation of how women and men talk. It was there as a starting point for discussion, a springboard for offering a critique of such reductive models. If you 'd read Deborah Cameron's Myth of Mars and Venus, you'd have been laughing...

Back in January it was a question about American English and attitudes towards it. Again, the main text was provocative in its prescriptive outlook, giving students who knew their stuff a chance to argue against the author's anti-American views.

This time, it could be anything. All Change and Variation topics are fair game for this question, so make sure you have revised areas such as the following:
  • political correctness and language change: how "change from above" is implemented, theorised about and (sometimes) resisted
  • attitudes to different accents and dialects: the views people often have about different regional, social and national varieties
  • views about technology and language change: how people feel about social media and texting's influences upon language use
  • arguments about standard and non-standard English: what people say about slang, non-standard grammar and the social consequences of using non-standard forms
Of course, there could be plenty of others and we've covered a lot on this blog. Click here for all posts tagged as being to do with Language Discourses and you'll find plenty to mug up on.

The next post will offer a bit more focus on analytical frameworks for this question.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

ENGA3 June 2014 - revision tips part 3

So... here's a post to help you revise for ENGA3 Section A Language Variation. And if you're wondering why I'm starting this post with so, starting everything with so is apparently undergoing a boom. Just look here for something on this from 2010 and here for something even more recent.

And how is this relevant to your ENGA3 exam? Well, the questions on Language Variation don't have to be about regional or national variation - or even variation according to class, ethnicity or gender - as they have been in the last few years; they can also be about the ways in which language varies in other ways, like rising intonation (uptalk or HRT), the use of vocal fry or even something like so, or innit, or this is me. All of these are recent variations in the ways people use language to communicate and what's interesting about them is that they represent the intersection between so many different factors.

We're no longer in a world of language study where we say that x speaks y because she's z, but that x speaks y in one situation because she's sometimes like z, but often like a, b or c, but might also want to sound a bit like d, e or f. But never u, k, i  or p. many ways, with Language Variation, what makes a good answer is an awareness that people don't just use language because of some accident of birth (born male/female, white/black/Asian, to poor/rich parents in Birmingham/Bermondsey/Jaywick) but that language identity is so much more fluid. Good answers to questions on Language Variation will always acknowledge this.

There'll be more on Language Variation tomorrow, including the topic as a Language Discourses question for Section B.