Saturday, December 23, 2006

OMG it's the new OED

The Oxford English Dictionary is having a major overhaul and the full story is covered here in a Guardian article from last week which features an interview with one of its top bods, John Simpson. Dictionaries may not seem the most exciting things in the world, but for English Language students they should be mines of fascinating detail, and barometers of social change.

The whole process of putting new words into the OED is discussed in this article, including the growing range of sources from which they acquire citations for new words - blogs, websites, rap lyrics - and the new ways of searching it online to find histories to individual words, but wider patterns as well. The college has a subscription to the OED online, so make it your New Year's resolution to look up a word a week and refer to it whenever you get set a homework on Language Change.

Useful for:
all units but especially ENA5

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Christmas is cancelled...

...except it isn't. The tabloid press (especially The Sun) has been running a campaign against the politically correct nutters who want to ban the term "Christmas" for fear of offending Muslims, Hindus, Pagans and err...turkeys. The Sun even ran a front page "Kick Them in the Baubles!" urging on the Great British public in their attempts to stop this politically correct madness. But it's all a load of rubbish!

No one has tried to ban Christmas, just like no one has seriously tried to ban Baa Baa Black Sheep. And, in a more serious incident last year, a judge in Manchester bleated about political correctness gone mad when a white boy was brought to court for calling a class mate a "paki". Except it wasn't just the one-off name calling event that led to his prosecution, but what appeared to have been a long campaign of abuse and intimidation. So, it wasn't really political correctness gone mad at all.

And what's this got to do with language? Well, lots really: various myths abound about the ways in which the Political Correctness movement has forced ludicrous language changes upon us, but so many of them just aren't true, and reflect a staggeringly conservative - and often reactionary & racist - worldview.

So, be careful when you write your language & representation answers. And if you want to go on to do journalism as a career, be prepared to do some research. Unlike the lazy b*stards on The Sun.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Teenage twits


It's the news that all parents of 15 year olds already know: teenagers have poor language skills and need to stop mumbling. According to a report on the BBC website, based on research done for Tesco Mobile Phones by Lancaster University linguist Professor Tony McEnery, "teenagers used half the words of average 25 to 34-year-olds".

His analysis of a database of teenage speech suggested teenagers had a vocabulary of just over 12,600 words compared with the nearly 21,400 words that the average person aged 25 to 34 uses. Prof McEnery said in his report: "Of note when examining the word 'no' is the frequency with which the word is accompanied by the word 'but'. These words occur in the sequence 'but no' or 'no but' almost twice as frequently in teenage speech as it does in young adult or middle aged speech."

Employers often complained that new employees were unable to answer the telephone in the formal way required of them for work and that they were also intimidated by speaking formally in meetings, the professor added. He put this down to a lack of training and the overuse of technologies such as computer games and MP3 players. "This trend, known as technology isolation syndrome, could lead to problems in the classroom and then later in life. Employers are already complaining that first jobbers are lacking basic verbal communication and it seems things could be set to get worse. Kids need to get talking and develop their vocabulary."

Fair points or gross generalisation? Is it fair to lump all teenagers together, in the same way that some peopel generalise about all men and all women and their speech styles? And what about different communities of practice? Maybe Emo teens and goths have a wider and more sophisticated vocabulary (misery, suffering, pain) than hip hoppers and ravers (choong, merked, tune)... or maybe not.

What do you think? Can you even string a sentence together to comment? And can we honestly believe a report sponsored by a mobile phone company whose aim is to make us talk more so they can make money from our chat?

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties and Change
ENA3 - Interacting Through Language

Monday, December 11, 2006

Talk to me, baby

As AS students are well into their study of Child Language Acquisition and A2ers will be revising it in the Spring term for ENA6 preparation, I thought it might be handy to flag up some useful links to child language resources.

First off, Chas Blacker from City of Bristol College has put some new resources up on his website here and you'll find them handy for revision and a few extra ideas.

Also, the National Literacy Trust's Talk To Your Baby project has some nice links to projects on child language, with a good section on theories of CLA here.

Then, Beth Kemp's website here has plenty of revision material for all sorts of English Language topics, including CLA.

Finally, teachit's resource site has plenty of material on CLA, primarily aimed at teachers but containing plenty of child language data for those of you seeking out examples to explore.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition, obviously...

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The cockney sparrow?

Following on from last week's post about the changes in the Queen's accent (apparently downwardly converging to the likes of us), Simon Jenkins in The Guardian links the story to another one about how birds' songs are changing (No, not Girls Aloud, sadly.) because of the noise in their urban environments. Just like birds have to change their songs to communicate in an ever-noisier world, so the royals have to change their tune to mingle with us.

Tenuous connection? Maybe, but it's an interesting thought, and makes me wonder how much our accents and dialects change due to physical factors such as noisy city streets, cramped working conditions, the urbansied environment we're increasingly living in. We all know that mobiles and computers are changing the way we communicate, but are these other factors affecting us too? Is language evolving to suit our environment?

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change & Varieties

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The power of powerless speech

A piece of research carried out by psychologists at the University of North Carolina has identified that some people respond more positively to leaders and managers who express doubt and hesitation in their language, than to those who sound confident and certain.

The research is reported in the BPS's weekly digest (subscribe here) and on their blog here. The researchers set up an experiment in which two transcripts of an employee making a phonecall were read by 54 partcipants, who had previously been shown one of two different versions of what the company valued: the need to work independently or the need to work co-operatively. The participants were then asked to rate the telephone transcripts in terms of the feelings they had towards each speakern. The crucial difference between the transcripts was that one version had been read in a hesitant way, with pauses, hedges and indirect structures, while the other had been read in a more confident and succinct fashion. The BPS story explains:
As you might expect, participants who read that the company valued people’s ability to work alone, were more likely to recommend Richard for a high status promotion if they’d read the telephone transcript in which he had spoken assertively and without hesitation. More surprisingly, among the participants who read that the company cherished cooperation among staff, those who read the transcript in which Richard spoke with doubt and hesitation were more likely to recommend him for promotion than were the participants who read the transcript in which he was assertive and confident. The explanation for this probably lies in the fact the participants who read the ‘hesitant’ transcript rated Richard as more likeable and tolerant than the participants who read the ‘confident’ transcript.

It was O'Barr and Atkins who first looked at the idea of "powerless language", making the point that hesitation and tentativeness were not exclusively features of female language,as Robin Lakoff had proposed, but were common to all people in situations where a power differential was apparent: defendants in court, police suspects, students being admonished by teachers etc.

This research seems to suggest that our responses to hesitation aren't quite as clear cut as some might say, and that good leadership & management skills can be inclusive and tentative, as well as assertive.

Useful for:
ENA3 - Interacting Through Language

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

'Er Royal 'Ighness goes all Cockernee

Or "Gor Blimey, Guvnor, Betty Gets on her Plates of Meat and does the Lambeth Walk"...

A report in The Independent on Sunday claims that the Queen's accent has taken a slide from its clipped RP tones in the 1950s to something much closer to the Estuary-influenced accents found in the London area. According to research by Jonathan Harrington in the latest Journal of Phonetics:

The Queen's accent has not become cockneyfied but it has shifted subtly towards an accent that is more typically spoken in the wider community. The changes also reflect the changing class structure over the last 50 years. In the 1950s, there was a much sharper distinction between the classes as well as accents that typified them. Since then, the class boundaries have become more blurred, and so have the accents. Fifty years ago, the idea that Queen's English could be influenced by cockney would have been unthinkable.
So, how do they know and why should we care? The research has been conducted by analysing changes in the Queen's voice on her annual Christmas broadcasts, so perhaps factors like performing to the camera and nervousness might be involved in the young Queen reverting to her upper class type and using the "cut glass" of marked RP; alternatively, it could all be a PR move by the royal family, a re-branding exercise to cast themselves as plain-speaking, normal people, rather than the overindulged, antiquated relics they so clearly are. It wouldn't be the first time, as this post on this blog in September 2005 relates.

But if you want to get a real taste for how upset some people are about this shift in accent, just take a look at this link to The Daily Telegraph's website (average age of reader: 121) where the palpitation-inducing horror at the desecration of HRH's RP is a true sight to behold.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties

Monday, December 04, 2006

Myths of Mars and Venus

Last week's Guardian featured a brilliant 8 page article on the perceived differences between how men and women talk. Focusing on a claim in a new book called The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, that women talk more, using on average 20,000 words to an average man's 7,000, the Guardian wires up two reporters - one male, one female - to see if it's all true.

And the result? Well, you can look for yourselves. But along the way, top linguist Deborah Cameron gets a look in with some incisive comments:

The degree to which this biological and linguistic battle is also a cultural and political one is striking. Deborah Cameron, Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at Oxford University, is sceptical about the claim that men and women are inherently different in the way they use language, and thinks such arguments find a receptive audience because people are scared of the growing similarities between the sexes.

"People want to believe there are clear-cut differences between men and women," she says, "because they are men and women. They don't want to think about the similarities, which outweigh the differences. The other thing they don't want to think about - which for a linguist like me is the most interesting thing - is the extent of variation within each gender group, which statistically is as great, or greater than, the variation between the two. Women are as different from each other as they are from men, and gender is about those differences, too. The way you think about yourself as a woman is not only about comparing yourself to the available men; it's about thinking about the kinds of women you are not."

So, it's no great surprise to find that Brizendine's claims are explored with critical reference to a whole range of popular stereotypes about how men can't talk about emotions, women like to gossip and all the rest of those sweeping generalisations that we try to (gently!) knock out of you when we study ENA3 in the Spring term.

But the article is not only great for challenging stereotypes; it's also excellent on investigation methodology and ways you can collect valid data.

Read it!

Useful for:
ENA3 - Interacting Through Language

Globish takes over the world

A new language termed Globish is taking over the world, and it looks remarkably like English. In an article in this week's Observer, Robert McCrum takes a look at this stripped down version of English and how it's being used to lubricate the wheels of business around the world. According to McCrum, "By some calculations, indeed, as many as a billion people, nearly a sixth of mankind, now use English as either a first or, more prevalently, second language. This used to be known as 'offshore English'. Globish, 'the international dialect of the third millennium', is a more apt description."

But, just because we speak English it doesn't mean we have an advantage. The idiomatic, figuarative ways in which many native-speakers of English communicate makes us harder to understand than the more literal-mineded speakers of Globish who strip the metaphors and jargon away to use English in a more streamlined way.

Useful for:
ENA5 Language Varieties