Saturday, July 23, 2005

Birds'n'words?

An article on the University of Toronto website points towards young women being trendsetters in language change. According to Professor Sali Tagliamonte "women lead the change" when it comes to new slang terms and that girls' language changes as they grow older to include more terms such as "like", "so" and "just".

But is this true? And if it is true, is it down to the fact that these expressions gain some sort of cultural currency that doesn't apply to male slang (often so coarse and vulgar as to never make it into respectable print, apparently)?

Perhaps it goes deeper and it's down to the fact that these terms are actually useful, often serving as adverbials, intensifying or diminishing effects of verbs or adjectives, or allowing speakers to relate more accurately how someone else has spoken. But, like, whatever...

article

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Blogs, podcasts and camera phones

An article in today's Guardian heralds a new era of "consumers" like you and me changing the way we communicate and access information through the new technologies of Blogs (like what you're reading now), podcasts (you'd better read it, as I'm a bit slow on this and my MP3 stores a grand total of 30 tracks, all of them angst-rock and stuff I should have grown out of when I was 15) and camera phones (I have one and can even use it!).

Is this technology really transforming the way we communicate or are we being duped by big business into thinking that the more new gadgets we buy, the more cutting edge we are? It's a tricky one. David Crystal in this link on the Bangor University website and in this longer article seems to think language is changing because of technologies like the internet, and I'm not going to argue with him (after all, he has a beard and looks like God) but not only changing English, but preserving smaller, threatened languages by creating a virtual community for users of that language.

But is this change for the better or is our language shifting into a new era of laziness and ambiguity? Sounds like the prescripitivist vs. descriptivist debate all over again...

Useful for:
ENA5 Language Change (esp. essay question on Contemporary Language Change, attitudes towards language change, influence of technology on language change)
ENA6 Language Debates (attitudes towards language change)
EA4C Language Investigation (how different styles of language are used on the internet, the language of texting, the language of discussion boards/chatsites/MSN etc)

Brain sex

No, not a dyslexic Westlife fan's lustful desires (Brain - Brian - geddit? Oh dear...) but the catchy title given to the BBC's new webpages based on their Secrets of the Sexes series.

The first programme in the series focussed on the differences between how men and women responded emotionally and linguistically to a whole series of stimulae, and proved interesting for those of us who like to look at how gender influences communication. According to the programme, men and women often use completely different parts of the brain when processing words, and even "hear" words differently when two sounds are sent through different channels on headphones.

So is it all in our genes - and maybe our jeans - or can we break the mould and behave in other ways? It's worth thinking about all of this in the context of Roehampton University professor, Jennifer Coates's, most recent book
Men Talk. She set out to explore how men communicate with each other (following on from her earlier book, Women Talk) and found that men from all social backgrounds and age groups tended to fulfil the stereotypes that are expected of us: competitive; bantering over topics like beer, sex and actions of dubious legality; and unwilling to share emotions openly unless with very close friends.

So are we bound by our genes or is it a matter of socialisation? Jennifer Coates also looked at this in an earlier study of how boys and girls pick up gendered characteristics in their speech very early on in their lives (I think it can be found in A Feminist Critique of Language).

For some light relief, you could also have a look at the other episodes of the BBC series which will cover attraction and love, including the importance of language (body language and spoken language) in flirting (or "chirpsing" as I believe some young whippersnappers in south London call it).

Hubba hubba.

Useful for:
ENA3 Gender & Spoken Language
ENA6 Language Debates (male and female communication)
EA4C Language Investigation (lots of good possibilities for investigations into how men and women "perform" - or flout - their gender identities in conversations, in their writing etc. )

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Straight from the heart

It's difficult to know how to approach something as horrific as last week's bombings in London, or today's news of 24 children killed in Baghdad in a terrorist attack, so the article linked to below contains one person's attempt to make sense of it all.

In it
is the transcript of the speech given by Marie Fatayi-Williams, whose son Anthony has probably died in the bus bomb, and comment by Tim Collins, the British army colonel who himself gave a powerful speech on the eve of the Iraq war. From a linguistic point of view, looking at the differences in the two speeches gives us a chance to see the variety of emotions and ideas that can be expressed through different rhetorical styles, ideolects and motivations; on a political level it's maybe grimly ironic that the war that followed the speech by Tim Collins could be one of the main reasons why suicide bombers are now targetting Britain.

Straight From The Heart
Tim Collins' speech to troops in Iraq

Monday, July 11, 2005

It is big and it is clever

As a teenager, I was constantly told off for swearing too much and told, "People who swear are just showing they have a small vocabulary". My own personal response was to prove this wrong and demonstrate that you could swear and have a big vocabulary, so I set out to find as many grossly offensive and fiendishly inventive swearwords as I could. I was helped in my quest by various foul-mouthed friends, Viz comic and the novels of Irvine Welsh. Obviously, I've matured since then and see a place for swearing in particular contexts and at particular moments. Ahem...

So imagine my joy when I discovered research in the British Psychological Society's weekly digest (available free from here), that suggests swearing is actually effective at making people believe what you're saying. The extract is copied below along with a couple of links to sites which look at the history of particular rude words:

Sir Bob Geldof's penchant for the odd swearword or two, might be a shrewder oratory strategy than we realise. Eric Rassin and Simon Van Der Heijden at Erasmus University in The Netherlands report evidence that people are more likely to rate a statement as believable when it contains swearwords.

First Rassin and Van Der Heijden asked 76 students whether they thought the inclusion of swearing in a statement would increase its credibility or reduce it. Forty-six per cent said it wouldn't make any difference, 36 per cent thought it would make a statement less credible, and only 16 per cent thought it would increase a statement's credibility.

But then the researchers asked 70 students to read a fictional account of a statement made by a suspect burglar during a police interview. The 35 students who read the version in which the suspect swore rated his statement as more believable than the 35 students who read a version that was identical in every respect but with the swearwords removed.

In a further study, 54 students read a statement made by an alleged robbery victim. Again, the students who read the version in which the victim swore rated his statements as more believable than the students who read a version without swearwords.

"If one wants to appear more credible, it is recommendable to utter an occasional swearword", the researchers advised.

Links to websites on swearing. Warning! These sites contain foul and abusive language. Look at them only in the spirit of linguistic exploration, not for cheap thrills!

The history of profanity
BBC - origins and common usage of British swear words
Mark Lawson article on Guardian on overuse of profanity

Useful for:
ENA5 Language Change (esp. essay question on Contemporary Language Change)
ENA1 Language and Representation (esp. linguistic reflectionism)
ENA3 Gender & Spoken Language
ENA6 Language Debates (attitudes towards language change, debates about language and society)
EA4C Language Investigation (students have done very good pieces of coursework on swearing, attitudes towards it and the histories of particular expressions)

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Forked tongues

A new book, reviewed in The Observer at the weekend, gives an account of how languages develop over time and why certain patterns always seem to emerge.

Language change is a topic that allows us to look at the origins and devlopment of English (and other languages) tracing the roots of the language, but it also allows us to see why the language is changing. Some theorists believe that the language is constantly altering to make it more streamlined, while others point to a degeneration in language over time (again, a bit like Aitchison's "Crumbling Castle" model of language) , but a more radical suggestion is that language has a parasitic relationship with humans and has evolved alongside us, constantly adapting to allow itself to be passed on through generations. Spooky stuff...and not something that Deutscher in his book, The Unfolding of Language, looks at in the review below, but an idea you'll find in a book called The Symbolic Species by Terence Deacon
(reviewed here and here).

Forked tongues

Deborah Cameron on Guy Deutscher's account of linguistic evolution, The Unfolding of Language

Deborah Cameron
Saturday July 2, 2005

Observer

The Unfolding of Language
by Guy Deutscher
360pp, William Heinemann, £20

"Language seems so skilfully crafted," writes Guy Deutscher, "that it appears to be the work of a master architect - and yet its complex structure must somehow have arisen of its own accord." Nobody ever invented human language: its structures are not the result of any purposeful design. The aim of this book is to explain how, in the absence of any architect or plan, complex linguistic systems develop.

Although there is no master plan driving the process, it is clear that language change is a universal phenomenon, and patterned rather than random: certain kinds of changes recur in widely separated languages. Deutscher seeks to explain the underlying principles at work here, drawing on evidence from both real and reconstructed "proto" languages. He also seeks to show how those principles could account for a much earlier development, one linguists can only speculate about, since if it happened it took place so far back in prehistory as to be beyond reconstruction - the formation of human languages as we know them from the simpler systems that were their hypothetical precursors.

Deutscher imagines what he dubs a "Me Tarzan" stage of linguistic evolution, when humans communicated using a small number of words and some basic rules for ordering them, and applies what we know about language change to explain how such a "primitive" system might have acquired the complexity that is evident in even the oldest languages known to scholarship.

In fact, the most ancient languages for which we have records often look more grammatically complex than their modern descendants: think of Latin, with its profusion of case endings, compared with modern Italian or French. This observation led earlier scholars to argue that language change was essentially degeneration. August Schleicher declared in 1850: "The further back we can follow a language, the more perfect we find it ... languages as such go backwards." But more recent scholarship has rejected this view on the grounds that decay and renewal, creation and destruction, are two sides of a single coin: the same mechanisms are responsible for both.

Case endings, for instance, may be lost because of the tendency of speakers to follow an "economy" or "least effort" principle, lopping off final syllables or pronouncing them so indistinctly as to obscure whatever grammatical information they contain. In saving themselves the effort of pronouncing their endings clearly, speakers effectively destroy the case system. But as Deutscher explains, it was the same kind of laziness that created case endings in the first place. These endings were originally separate words, called postpositions (like prepositions, but placed after rather than before nouns). Speakers following the "least effort" principle simply fused postpositions with their preceding nouns, reducing two words (like "house to") to one ("house [dative]").

But if the principle of least effort were all there was to language change, we would presumably end up communicating in monosyllabic grunts. The reason this doesn't happen is that there are countervailing tendencies, among them what Deutscher calls the principle of expressiveness, the drive to extend a language's communicative range. One typical manifestation of this is the metaphorical use of concrete terms in more abstract senses. For instance, everyday discourse is full of body-part terms applied to concepts other than the body itself: we meet the "head of department", get to the "heart of the matter" and travel to the "back of beyond".

Expressiveness also lies behind the tendency to elaborate commonplace words and phrases in a bid to give them emphasis or freshness. Then, as the elaborated forms themselves become commonplace, the whole cycle begins again. Deutscher gives the example of the French word "aujourd'hui" ("today"). "Hui" is a reduced form of the Latin word "hodie", itself reduced from "hoc die", "this day". So "aujourd'hui" literally means "on the day of this day". But just as "hui" seemed insufficiently expressive to their ancestors, who added "au jour de", so present-day French speakers, unaware of its history, have become dissatisfied with the fused form "aujourd'hui". In colloquial speech people have started saying "au jour d'aujourd'- hui" - "on the day of on the day of this day".

The other principle Deutscher discusses is analogy, a tendency to create order by tidying up exceptions, anomalies and irregularities. In English, for instance, there are two kinds of verbs: "strong" ones which make past tenses by changing the vowel ("drink/drank") and "weak" ones which mark past tenses with the ending -ed. Since in modern English the weak type is commoner, it is not unusual for speakers to start putting weak past tense endings on historically strong verbs - saying "dreamed" instead of "dreamt", for instance. But the opposite may also happen: an example is the weak verb "dive", which has recently developed a strong past tense form, "dove", presumably on the analogy of "drive/drove". This illustrates the point that there is no overall design driving language change.

The subject matter of Deutscher's book is well chosen to engage a non-specialist audience, and his presentation is generally lucid. I was slightly disappointed by certain omissions: he does not discuss the role of social motivations in advancing or inhibiting change, nor - except in a footnote disputing their relevance - the auxiliary languages, jargons and pidgins, whose development might offer concrete historical evidence about the growth of grammatical complexity.

But my real reservations are more about manner than matter. A popular book on an academic subject must speak to the lay reader, but without talking down: Deutscher seems to find this a struggle. In his efforts to be entertaining he sometimes comes across as patronising. When he explains the principle of economy - scarcely a concept you need a degree in linguistics to grasp - by inventing little fables about the lazy inhabitants of "Idleford" and "Santa Siesta", the effect is laboured. I was also irritated by the prefatory warnings with which he flags certain topics as particularly demanding. We are advised that the Semitic verb "does not make for light bedtime reading", and that a discussion of the origins of syntax will be taxing enough to require special preparation: "So make yourself a strong cup of coffee, and read on."

The Unfolding of Language would be a much better book without these arch distractions; but for readers who want to know what modern scholarship has to say about the development of language, it is still an informative and thought-provoking guide.

· Deborah Cameron is professor of language and communication at Oxford University. To order The Unfolding of Language for £18 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875.