Saturday, April 25, 2009

Our magnificent bastard tongue...

...is an ace phrase and also the name of a book by American linguist John McWhorter who is one of several writers contributing to a special edition of Forbes magazine. In it (click here for the link) various experts and lexophiles have a good look at the growth of the English language as it (apparently and rather controversially) heads towards its 1 millionth word.

Among the articles are some really good pieces on how language changes and spreads, new words that have come from internet gaming, how new types of prefixes and suffixes have arisen, and loads, loads more.

I've picked out a few extracts below to give you a taste of what's covered, and I'm sure we'll be using some of this in class in the next two weeks (which is all we have left before study leave...woohoo! Sorry, I mean dammit).

On the millionth word topic:

An outfit called the Global Language Monitor claims that English is about to add its millionth word, boldly (and absurdly) projecting the event to transpire some time around June 8, 2009. But that gives the patina of precision to the ultimately subjective task of determining what counts as "English" nowadays--and what counts as a "word." Even if we content ourselves with the paltry number of neologisms that get included in dictionary updates, it's instructive to see which words make the cut. Recent additions to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, include biosignature, botnet, locavore, mocktail, plus-one and vanity sizing. In some cases we know exactly where these words are coming from. Locavore, meaning "a person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food," was coined in 2005 by a group of four San Francisco women who challenged local residents to eat only food grown within a 100-mile radius. It was then picked up by like-minded activists around the country.

On new prefixes and suffixes:

Suffixes and prefixes are the Legos of word-making, handy attachments we slap onto words as needed. Most don't make us blink: like the "pre" and "s" in "prefixes" itself.

Others are a little more creative, gaudy and eye-catching. It's no longer unusual to spot "-y" suffixed words like "women's magazine-y" and "false-prophet-y" or words with " 'tude" such as "braindead-itude," "poor-human-being-itude" and "warlorditude." There's nothing new about "nano" in conjunction with a very small iPod or scientific words like "nanotubes," but slangy, informal words like "nano-brained" are adding fancy new features to the insulter's toolbox. The celebutante-inspired prefix "celebu-" has spawned many recent coinages such as "celebu-tats," "celebu-chefs," "celebu-ooops," and "celebu-scent."


On gaming words:

Sometimes new words are not invented, but are crafted from old words. In gaming, a "griefer" is a player who intentionally disrupts the gameplay of other players--a griefer gives other players grief. Gamers took a word that already existed and added the highly productive suffix "-er" to make a word that fit their language needs.


On the history of new words:
Shakespeare popped off hundreds of neologisms, such as "excellent," "lonely" and "leapfrog," that have long been accepted as words, but which, if dictionaries were being written in Elizabethan times, would have been flagged as suspiciously colloquial. Given that it is nearly impossible to create a word for something out of thin air and see it adopted by the rest of the English-speaking world--i.e., if you randomly decided to call the cover for your memory stick a "verch," no one else would join in--most of the words that have accreted in the vast English vocabulary over the 2000-plus years of the language's existence have been created in various ways.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Twitter gives descriptivists a treat...

...or a tweet. In this article from the Greensboro News Record, Mike Clark takes a look at arguments about outside influences on our own ways of communicating: be they accents in new areas we move to, or technologies like texting and Twitter. He makes a number of interesting points for English Language students about how our individual language (idiolect) changes based on the contexts we're using it in and goes on to suggest that we'll switch between different types of language:

How you talk is often influenced by where you are, by the context of the communication, and that’s just fine. Kids who are born and spend a few years in one part of the country and then move with their families to another will often become bi-dialectal. They’ll play with their new neighbors outdoors, speaking with the patois of those new friends, and revert to the dialect of their own family when they’re in the house. I feel pretty confident that the same transformation can occur, will occur, in fact, does occur with today’s young people as they move from technology-based talking to formal writing, from daily talk to giving a speech, and so on.


Far from being responsible for the demise of formal written English that some prescriptivists have argued, texting and Twitter messages might actually help us develop clearer and more creative language styles:

And think about those parameters. Imagine what a good exercise it is to write something in 140 characters (including punctuation and spaces) max. I think it was Pascal who wrote: “I’m sorry for the long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.” If you’re a teacher, you must like that kind of discipline for your students; it forces them to focus, to write with attention and precision. The preceding sentence is 141 characters. Can you effectively remove one character? Twitter people can, even the young ones. Let’s say hello to a new age of talking.

Monday, April 13, 2009

ENA6 - 1a word formation processes

Here's a 1a style question for ENA6 based on the post below about words from politics, technology and economics.

Comment linguistically on three processes used to create the following examples of recent words and phrases:

  • credit crunch (a term used to describe the lack of credit or lending available in the current economic crisis)
  • zombie (originally a word used to describe a body brought back to life by magic, now used to describe a computer taken over by a hacker and used to perform illegal activity)
  • downturn (a word used to describe an economic decline)
  • bankster (a word used to equate bankers' behaviour with criminals')
  • virus (originally a term used for an infectious disease but now used to describe a code that affects a computer)
Best two answers get the Haribo...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Words of warcraft

Today's New York Times runs an article on the changing language of the Whitehouse under Barack Obama's administration. It's not "a war on terror" anymore; it's overseas contingency operations, and it's no longer "terrorist attacks" but man-caused disasters.

Why should we care? They're just words, aren't they? And words don't kill people: weapons do. Well, kind of, but words are part of war and the groundwork that goes into softening up a population for war, or in Obama's case (we hope) a step away from the deranged war his nutty predecessor decided to wage.

Peter Baker explains in his article:
Every White House picks its words carefully, using poll-tested, focus-grouped language to frame issues and ideas to advance its goals. Mr. Bush's team did that assertively. The initial legislation expanding government power after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was called the USA Patriot Act. The eavesdropping without warrants that became so controversial was rebranded the Terrorist Surveillance Program. The enemy was, for a time, dubbed ''Islamofascism,'' until that was deemed insensitive to Muslims.

And he goes on to argue that while Obama is keen to change perceptions about his policies, in Baker's view, the substance of Bush's policies actually remains in place:
He has made no move to revise the Patriot Act or the eavesdropping program. He has ordered the Guantánamo prison to be closed in a year but has not settled on an alternative way to house inmates deemed to be truly dangerous.
Are the Obama administration's words a whitewash then? Is the emphasis on a change of language just a way of hiding the fact that the policies remain the same, or does the shift in tone signal a profound shift in direction to come? The jury's out...

And how is this useful to you at A level? The contemporary language change question on ENA5 often asks you to consider how new words and phrases come into existence or how existing words change, and politics has been explicitly mentioned on a couple of occasions as an are to look at (along with technology, communication, youth culture, immigration and war), so it's worth trying to have a few examples from contemporary news stories at your fingertips.

You might also want to look at how the recent global economic crisis (a nice new noun phrase) has led to new expressions, or how technology has co-opted older expressions and recycled them. How about these examples:

  • credit crunch
  • financial liquidity
  • quantitative easing
  • fiscal stimulus package
  • avatar
  • icon
  • virus
  • bankster
  • menu
  • zombie
  • downturn

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Chatting gas

Here's a very dubious poll that claims men gossip more than women. It's not dubious because men don't gossip (they do, but they probably don't like to call it "gossip"), but it's dubious because it's such a rubbish set of questions and relies on such sketchy data. Have a look here for The Telegraph's take on it.

As Deborah Cameron points out so clearly in her excellent Myth of Mars and Venus (covered here), we shouldn't generalise about what men and women do in conversation, because there are so many different types of men and women and we all "do" masculinity and femininity in different ways depending on where we are and who we're with, but one big stereotype about gossip is that it's just a girl thing.