Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Liar, liar, your pen's on fire

Forensic linguistics is a great area of language study. You can find out more about the range of activities the forensic linguists at Aston University do from their site here, but one of its many uses is to work out if someone is telling the truth or is who they say they are. This brief article from Physorg looks at new research into handwriting and truthfulness and links it to how the brain works when telling lies.

In short, "The researchers analyzed the writing and discovered that in the untrue paragraphs the subjects on average pressed down harder on the paper and made significantly longer strokes and taller letters than in the true paragraphs".

Getting the message

The debate about young people's literacy and the impact of electronically-mediated communication rumbles on. Many commentators argue that the use of texting, instant messaging, social networking sites and online chat forums is leading to poorer spelling, less confidence in standard grammar and shorter attention spans. Others make the pint that research into such areas hasn't thrown up any real evidence to back up these claims.

We have covered the Coventry University research into texting elsewhere on this blog, but a new piece of research from Canada authored by Connie Varnhagen (and reported here) seems to offer support to the idea that good spellers in formal written tests are often the ones who use online chat more than their poor spelling counterparts. But does it mean that chatspeak is actually having a positive impact on spelling habits, or are better spellers just the ones who communicate more often in all forms of written or blended modes? See what you think:

Varnhagen's findings come from a class-based study that was recently published in Reading and Writing. A group of third-year psychology students proposed and designed a study to test whether new Simple Messaging Service, or SMS, language—also known as chatspeak—which refers to the abbreviations and slang commonly used when texting, emailing or chatting online, had an influence on students' spelling habits. The group surveyed roughly 40 students from ages 12 to 17. The participants were asked to save their instant messages for a week. At the end of the study, the participants completed a standardized spelling test.

"Kids who are good spellers [academically] are good spellers in instant messaging," she said. "And kids who are poor spellers in English class are poor spellers in instant messaging."

Does this prove anything? Your comments would be welcome...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Teenglish? Allow that...

This article from Tuesday's Education Guardian is a good example of how some newspapers treat slang. While some of the definitions aren't exactly wrong (and it's tricky to say if a word meaning is ever really wrong if someone uses it in their own way with their peers) they're certainly only half the picture. To call these examples of "student slang", as Lucy Tobin does, seems to be forgetting that many of the terms (waste, wagwan, allow that/it, among others) originate specifically from young inner city (often black) roots. They might have spread to university campuses with the increasing numbers of working class and inner city students entering university over the last 10 years, but I suspect that only a handful originated on the campuses themselves.

However, grumbles aside, it's quite a good read as a source of inspiration for an ENGA3 Language Intervention (or even a B spec media text?) and there's even a quiz you can take here to test your skills.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Jolly Wicked Actually

Here's a link to a piece in last month's Sunday Times extracted from the linguist Tony Thorne's new book on British slang, Jolly Wicked Actually and how it reflects our national identity/ies. Tony did a great talk on slang at SFX last year and he is one of the top experts on the history and changing nature of British slang, so it's well worth a look.

Here's an extract about the expression innit:

By the end of the 1980s, innit — the unvarying question tag put on the end of sentences and used separately as an exclamation of agreement, “Innit!” — had become identified especially with black-British and later Asian-British speech patterns. So much so that, in the mid-1990s, my students at King’s College London were referring to their Asian fellows collectively as “the innit crowd”; and when Sacha Baron Cohen’s comic character Ali G parodied Asian and white “wiggas” (imitators of black styles), innit was incorporated in the title of a 1999 collection of TV shows. Since 2000, innit has been seen as one of the most recognisable features of “Hinglish” — south Asian English — and of multiethnic youth dialect, supposedly a new accent and vocabulary common to younger speakers across a range of ethnicities and mainly urban environments, which may eventually influence mainstream English. It is also seen as emblematic of the troublesome underclass known as chavs, and in 2005 jokes were circulating playing on the fact: “What do you call a chav in a box? Innit.” And: “What do you call an Eskimo chav? Inuinnit.”

And here's a link to arch-prescriptivist Lynne Truss's rather sniffy review of it.


Sitting in my swivel chair while rubbing chalk dust from my scruffy tweed jacket's leather elbow patches, I've often told my A level Language students that writing about graphology is the last refuge of the loser. That if you write about graphology in an exam you would be best to write "Loser" as your name on the paper and write in the words "epic fail" where examiners should put their marks. We can all see that a heading is in bold to make it stand out, that a picture is centred to give it prominence, that the font is Times New Roman: none of that is language analysis and it's not worth any marks in exams. Loser.

But with Language & Mode now an AS level topic area, perhaps that's no longer the case. Graphology - the layout of words, images and headings on a page, the way things look on the page - is actually quite important when looking at differences between written and blended mode texts. The fact that a word on a web page is underlined might mean that it's a clickable link and therefore an interactive feature. The choice of font might actually convey some kind of tone too. And this piece on the BBC News website makes a number of interesting points about what we think about capital letters in emails or on web forums. As the piece tells us:

Most web users know capital letters are a capital offence - they're commonly thought to be online shorthand for screaming. But how did they get this reputation?

Ultimately, in the rushed world of online communication, all-caps has become a
bit of a "lazy" shorthand for yelling - it's faster than finding another way to
convey excitement or agitation. But the recipient feels like they are being
shouted at.

So, there's stuff here to think about for graphology and what it tells us about how we're being addressed by the writer of a text. The article also goes on to talk about different fonts and the history of some of them, which is interesting in a bit of a nerdy way, but it's the discussion of email etiquette and caps which is most useful, I think. So, graphology might now become quite an intelligent thing to write about in such situations. I take it all back: graphology is no longer the last refuge of the loser. Sorry.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Weasel words

Today's Independent features an article by columnist Johann Hari on the euphemisms he would expunge from the English Language. As he puts it, "The English language needs periodically to be given a spring-clean, where we scrape off the phrases that have become stuck to the floor and toss out the rotting metaphors that have fallen down the back of the settee".

Among the expressions are "fair trade", of which he says:

This phrase suggests that paying desperately poor people a decent wage is a nice
ethical add-on, and a gratifying departure from the norm. In fact, it should be
taken for granted – the default position of civilised human beings. If we
believed that, the labelling would be reversed: it's all the other food that
should be labelled as "Unfair Trade", "Rapacious Trade", or
"Let's-Pay-a-Pittance Trade." The terrific comedian Andy Zaltzman suggests a sign
that could be on the packets: it is a silhouette of an obese businessman pissing
on an African child.

Fair enough. But several comments in response to the article accuse Hari of doing exactly the same thing that he's complaining about: giving a political spin to the language he uses and the meanings he creates. So, is any language genuinely neutral? Can we open our mouths and speak without allowing our language choices to inadvertently reflect our views and political/ philosophical outlooks?

Again, this is an interesting article not only for the language issues addressed but for its potential use as a style model for the text you'll be writing about a language issue in your ENGA4 coursework and the Language Discourses part of the ENGA3 exam paper.

For more on euphemisms - what they are, how they're often used and why they annoy people - try this 2007 post on the blog.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Texting is retarding our teens

It's true! It must be, because a neuroscientist is saying it's true. In this article by Michael Deacon from The Daily Telegraph, Baroness Greenfield is reported as blaming young people's alleged short attention spans on the brevity of text messaging. Deacon himself has strong views about texting, telling us that "If everyone in the world keeps texting, we'll all become as mentally stunted as each other, and so nobody will even notice that there's been a narrowing of the human attention span."

And in this piece from The Daily Mail, Greenfield offers more detail about her opinions. In one interesting part of it she says:
I believe that if the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of instant action and reaction with the press of a key, such rapid interchanges might accustom the brain to operate over the same timescales.
The young brain, particularly until the age of ten, is incredibly impressionable. It is without the yardsticks we gain on our way to adulthood and against which we measure information. The young brain simply absorbs information and is shaped by it.
That's why, if a child learns to express themselves through text messaging - and at the same time reads less, writes less and communicates face-to-face less often - there is a case for questioning how it will impact not only on the way they communicate in later life, but also on the way their brain matures.
So, what do you think? Can you think at all? Have you been exposed to so much text messaging and such short, undeveloped fragments of language that you can't express yourself in complex sentences any more? Have you even read this far?
I'd be interested what readers of this blog have to say on this issue, partly because blogs are about sharing ideas and learning collaboratively, but also because at the end of next year many of you will be taking ENGA3 in which you'll have to think about, analyse and critique language debates such as this one.
 Greenfield, in the Daily Mail, uses the metaphor of language being "eroded" by texting, eaten away, reduced in some way. It's a metaphor that will soon be familiar to A2 students as we look at models of language change and arguments about such change - prescriptive and descriptive - and how we can explore where English is heading.
Along with ENGA3, you'll also be doing ENGA4 in which you'll need to write a creative piece about one of the topics you've studied for ENGA3. So, the Michael Deacon article in the Telegraph or the Baroness Greenfield one in the Mail can be really helpful style models for how critics of language change structure and express their ideas and arguments.

Hey-ho, mwah, and furthermore meh

The internet, and social networking sites in particular, appear to be having an influence on the appearance of exclamations and noises making their way into dictionaries as "proper" words. At least, that's according to linguist Tony Thorne (who spoke last year at SFX's teacher conference). In this BBC news website article, it is reported that the expression hey-ho is set to join the airkiss word mwah (as in "Mwah darling, how are you? You simply must sample this fennel tagliatelle: it's to die for") and the Simpsons-esque meh (as in "It wasn't good, wasn't bad, just meh").

According to Thorne, the reasons for such sounds and gesture-accompanying expressions entering the language in written form is down to the nature of internet language as a mixed mode form of communication. As the article explains:

"A lot of internet communication is written speech, or transliterated speech," says Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King's College London. "Social media is all about nudging and poking. It's a more amplified conversation."

Ultimately, finding written ways to express the visual - like shrugging - is a key component of internet communication and social networks, says Mr Thorne. "People introduce these light hearted conversational things which normally you only find in speech," he says.

In that way, he suggests, "hey-ho" could just be the new emoticon.

We looked at meh on this blog a while back and you might find this link helpful to find out more.

Elsewhere, The Daily Telegraph tells us that other sounds are appearing as words too, including heh and hmm. And they blame young people (as they often do) as well as the usual suspects: Facebook, Bebo and Twitter.