Sunday, March 30, 2008

The spread of Scouse

The history and future of the Liverpool accent aka Scouse is discussed in two different articles linked to research being carried out by linguist Andrew Hamer. The BBC news website looks at the background to the accent, while today's Telegraph looks in more detail at its spread.

The Telegraph also features a leader article (editorial) which stops just short of patting the scousers on the head, rubbing their little chins and calling them "plucky little northern types", but does describe theirs as a "cute" accent. It's worth a read if you're thinking about the kinds of attitudes that are around to regional varieties of English, while the news story is a good read if you're looking at dialect levelling and accent change.

And don't forget that BBC Voices and the British Library Sounds Familiar sites have excellent material - including audio files - on all sorts of varieties of English.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Variation & Change
ENGA3 (new spec) - Language Explorations

Friday, March 28, 2008

Panglish and the future of English

The future of English is taking shape right now, in the mouths of billions of people who grew up speaking something else.


So ends an article about the changing English language in this week's New Scientist magazine. According to the article (which you can access if you use your college's Athens account log-in/ New Scientist subscription details), the English language is evolving at a much faster rate than ever before. The causes of this change remain broadly similar to those we always look at when we study this unit - technology, immigration, social change, the influence of the media etc. - but another major factor is the growth of English as a world language. The real drivers of change are not us - native speakers - but English speakers in China, Singapore and south America.

Linguist Suzette Haden Elgin sees two possible outcomes: "Panglish - a single English that would have dialects but would display at least a rough consensus about its grammar - or scores of wildly varying Englishes all around the globe, many or most of them heading toward mutual unintelligibility."

The article itself looks in detail at the ways in which English has developed to its current state, so it's excellent reading for anyone revising ENA5, but it also takes a longer term view about where English is going and what kinds of phonological, grammatical and semantic changes are occurring and where they might lead us.

The Daily Telegraph features a very brief article on the New Scientist piece here as well as The (spit) Daily Mail here.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENGA3 (new spec) - Language Explorations

This is why we need Deborah Cameron

As many of you are aware, Deborah Cameron's Myth of Mars and Venus is recommended reading for students taking ENA3. I reckon that her critique of the industry that has been built up around male and female speech differences is detailed, meticulously argued and convincing. In the words of Shakespeare "dis book is da shizzle". You can find extracts here and here and make up your own mind.

So, have a look at this dubious article from the BBC news website about how differences between male & female brains, male & female speech styles and male & female work patterns mean that women should be business managers. A large pack of Haribo goes to the most incisive analysis of this drivel!

Useful for:
ENA3 - Male/ female conversation

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Lies, lies, lies!!!

Her husband famously claimed "I did not have sexual relations with that woman", "that woman" being Monica Lewinsky, not the Mrs...obviously. Now Hillary Clinton's in the frame for telling porkies.

But it's OK. They weren't lies; she was just guilty of misspeaking. Have a look here for more about this great political euphemism and the history of the word.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Monday, March 24, 2008

Abusive acronyms

Acronyms are a great example of how language changes to reflect new social trends, or how government bodies and market researchers dream up new, crazy categories to place us in. So, TWUNCERS is new term for "two or more walkers using non-essential cars" as featured here in today's Telegraph.

It's not quite a full acronym, more an acronym with a suffix (the -er morpheme added to derive an easily usable noun) a bit like yuppie and buppy from the 1980s (young upwardly-mobile person + ie and black upwardly-mobile person + y respectively).

The article gives some silly examples of made up acronyms, such as banana and gravitas, so have a look if you want to see language being used inventively.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The changing face of "gay"

Here's an interesting article about playground and classroom insults on the BBC magazine site, tracing the nature of abuse and the ways in which gay has become the insult of choice for teenagers and younger kids. Linguists including Tony Thorne - an expert on slang usage - and Clive Upton explore the ways in which the word has changed meaning over time and how it's used today.

The word has had many meanings over the centuries, often sexual, says Clive Upton, professor of Modern English Language at Leeds University.

"In the early 19th Century it was used to refer to women who lived off immoral earnings," he says. Around the 1970s it was claimed by the homosexual community as a descriptive term for their sexual orientation, now its most popular meaning. By the 1980s it was finding its way into schools as a playground insult.

"Every generation grows up with a whole lexicon of homosexual insults, in my day it was 'poofter' or 'bender'," says slang lexicographer Tony Thorne. "They were used much more because they were considered more offensive than 'gay', which is more neutral.

So, is gay used homophobically or is it now a generally pejorative term with no real link to sexuality? Can an essay be gay? Or is just people who can be gay?

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

Friday, March 21, 2008

Revision tips

Quite a few people have asked me about what to revise for the different exam units, so here are some links to advice on what to do for each one.

Lots of tips for ENA1, 3, 5 and 6
ENA5 and ENA6 advice
Top tips for all papers
Language Change timelines for ENA5

If you have any questions, please add a comment.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Language changes at the OED

The Oxford English Dictionary is a great book and its regular revisions have provided fascinating snapshots of how language has changed over the last few generations. But now, according to John Simpson at the OED, the ways in which they publish their revisions are being changed to pay particular attention to "important English words whose meanings or application have developed most over the past century".

Which means that in the latest set of revisions we get heaven and hell, computer, gay and that old favourite, f**k. The revisions include some interesting points about the words' etymologies (their origins and development over time) and give us a sense of how language changes to reflect a changing world.

The link to this update came from the excellent World Wide Words website, which itself has a very good piece on the origins of the verb to denigrate - literally to blacken - which has come in for some stick recently over its perceived racist connotations. Check here to find out more.

And this has also been covered here in The Guardian 24th March 2008.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Friday, March 14, 2008

To the barricades!

The French have long complained about the encroachment of English words into their language, and have had a running battle with terms like le weekend and le parking. Now they're using technology to fight the spread of English. Oh they're so cunning, these Johnny Foreigners.

According to an article in The Daily Telegraph, also covered here in The Mirror, a new French-friendly spell-checker has been devised to replace English words such as email and carjack with their proper French equivalents: courriel and piraterie routiere respectively. Even last year's big word, subprime (the apparent cause of our current world credit crunch and *apparently* the reason why some scrote at Abbey National won't let us get some extra money to double glaze our Dickensian windows) has a French equivalent, the catchy prix hypotecairé à risque. Mmmm, that'll catch on... like the colds my unfortunate offspring now have thanks to the *sniff* windows.

But while the French alternatives may seem a bit clunky and awkward, many French people see them as a necessary evil in the long war to defend their language, culture and identity from the spreading, globalising power of English, as the article reports:

"I think that the defence of a language is the sum of a multitude of small battles, and it's worth the fight", culture minister Christine Albanel told the Telegraph. Even if only two out of ten words stick, the language has moved and breathed and we have marked our territory", she said at a ceremony to launch the "week of French language". Each French ministry has its own commission of terminology and neologisms, whose job is to track down English terms and offer French alternatives. They send their proposals to the Académie Française, a council of guardians of the French language, who debate the new terms and rubber stamp them. Once published in the statutes book, French civil servants are obliged to use them. About 300 such official French terms appear each year.

But what of the significance of this to English Language students? After all, this is English Language at SFX, not Francais Parole à Sexytime (or whatever). Jonathan Swift tried to introduce an English Academy centuries ago, in an attempt to regulate the English language. As you know, it didn't happen, and the debates about our changing language have raged ever since. But would an Academy, along the lines of the French system, have any real impact on our language? Would it be a good idea for a government body to regulate our language, deciding on what's acceptable usage and which new words would be invented?

I don't think so. So much of our language change is actually very democratic: it's a bottom-up spread rather than a top-down imposition of government diktats. Just take a look at how slang evolves: the language of the streets gets picked up by older and more middle class users and then filters through the media into general usage.

But this article also flags up another issue around language change, that of technology and language. Many of us have as our default spell-checker US English - it looks like The Telegraph's sub-editor has it too, given their use of program (the American spelling) as opposed to programme (the English spelling) - and this is having some kind of impact on the way our language is evolving, as this link explains.

And it's not only American spellings - humor, color, recognize - but American lexis. I become a raging prescriptivist when I hear young people talking about the police as the Feds. The Feds?! We don't have a Federal Bureau of Investigation in this country dammit. We have cops. We have rozzers. We have the old bill.Get with the program already, or something...

But is American English really a threat to English as much as English is seen as a threat to French? We've been using American terms for a much longer time than many of us realise as this 1995 article by Henry Porter points out (and this worksheet goes with it if you're looking for a way to use it in a lesson or for revision) and our language has expanded to accommodate it. We may have our own personal prejudices about words that sound American, but that's probably a generational thing. In a sense, because we have no Academy to tell us what is right or wrong, we all have the choice for ourselves, to express ourselves in ways that we want and with whatever mixture of English English, American English or even Franglais (ooh la la) that we want.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Feminazis and language control

A recent post on Language Log blog discusses a mad anti-PC rant from a respected Yale University computer scientist. Among David Gelernter's concerns are the use of he/she or they to replace he, the replacement of fireman with firefighter and person or human to replace man.

Of course, the logic behind such gender-neutral alternatives should be fairly clear to most AS and A2 Language students. Linguists have for a long time argued that he is a "false generic": in other words it's believed by some to really mean both genders, but in reality is rarely interpreted as such. Man or mankind are the same: linguists have expressed concern that they exclude women or render them invisible.

Gelernter's arguments are nothing new. They're part of an anti-Political Correctness backlash which casts feminists as deranged, dungaree-clad thought fascists who are trying to destroy the traditions of our language with their crazy (and probably hairy-legged) new language. But as the erudite* linguists of Language Log point out, so many of these arguments about the language being changed are actually very dubious. There has been a long tradition of using the pronoun they to avoid assigning gender, and he has always been contested.

So for ENA6 students thinking about Language Debates for this June's paper, why not have a look at both Gelernter's rant and Language Log's great response, and then think about other arguments about Language and Representation that often crop up. You could always try searching this blog with key terms like Political Correctness, Sexism, Racism and even ENA6 for some links to good articles about these issues.

Go on, you know it makes sense...

Useful for:
ENA6 - Language Debates

*look it up for a bit of A2 vocabulary stretching, ENA6 students!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Cracking the drug slang

A quick link to an article which mentions drug slang helps to illustrate the different uses and purposes of slang, this time as a code to exclude outsiders and hide criminal, drug-related activity. Perhaps the rapid turnover of new words for drugs - tea, cabbage, burger - as quoted in this article, reflects the nature of language change and how the we create, discard and recycle words to keep up with society's changing needs.

The end of English?

A lecture by David Crystal (who shouldn't really need any introduction to English Language students, but is a top language expert if you haven't been paying attention) to mark the start of Project English (see here) has suggested that English is fragmenting into different global dialects. He argues that with English being spoken by so many different nationalities around the world and the spread of English as a world language, that Indian and Chinese varieties of English may well start to become the global "standard".

We've had different varieties of English since the time the language started to evolve from different versions of Angle, Saxon and Jute way back in the 5th Century, and American English has long been established as a variety of English with international power and prestige, but the sheer power of numbers is what Crystal thinks will drive the language change of the next part of this century.

"In language, numbers count. There are more people speaking English in India than in the rest of the native English-speaking world. Even now, if you ring a call centre, often it's an Indian voice you hear at the end of the phone. As the Indian economy grows, so might the influence of Indian English. There, people tend to use the present continuous where we would use the present simple. For example, where we would say: "I think, I feel, I see" a speaker of Indian English might say: "I am thinking, I am feeling, I am seeing". This way of speaking could easily become sexy and part of global Standard English."


While the focus of our A2 Language Change unit is strictly on English as spoken in the British Isles, the processes of change that are at work globally could well be related to how our language is shaped back here in Britain. And if you;'re a teacher reading this and planning ahead, next years' s new AQA A spec for students starting AS in 2008-9 has a focus on global English.

The comments posted by Daily Telegraph readers, at the end of the article, make for a really interesting read: a mixture of reactionary prescriptivism ("Nigerian English is just nasty" - possibly written by a bitter Ghanaian flushed with patriotic pride on their country's independence day) and expert inside views on global dialects like Singlish and Hinglish. Worth a read.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

New blends

Ever on the look out for new words, we bring you:

kindie = kid+indie

This is "Kindie" -- a combination of kids' and "indie" or independent music and a genre which is taking hold of British pre-schoolers and bidding to oust the grinding of "The Wheels on the Bus" from the family car CD player. Reuters

manorexia = man+anorexia


Medical researchers are discovering that anorexia is not limited to women and that the idea of starving yourself in order to achieve the perfect body is crossing gender lines. ABC news
Useful for:
ENA5 - Contemporary Language Change