Sunday, October 18, 2009

Glaswegian translation

This news piece on the BBC site covers the recent story about a translation company in Scotland advertising for "Glaswegian English" speakers to help their clients understand the local dialect. There's more detailed analysis of the Glaswegian dialect here in the Telegraph and one academic, Dr Jane Stuart-Smith, a Reader in English Language at the University of Glasgow, makes the point that Glaswegian itself is quite a broad category:

The Glaswegian accent has a range of varieties, ranging from those close to standard English to those that are much closer to Scots, so the broad varieties of Glaswegian which are linguistically and structurally more different from standard English you would expect people to find harder to understand. Non-native English speakers or southern English people who are used to standard English or American find the sound system of Glaswegian different and these differences mean it will be difficult to understand.

Hate Mail

Stephen Gately was gay. And now he is dead. Therefore he must have died of being gay. Such is the deranged subtext of Jan Moir's Daily Mail opinion piece, which has apparently become the single most complained about newspaper article in the Press Complaints Commission's history.

In her column, originally entitled Why there was nothing "natural" about Stephen Gately's death, but later amended by a worried Daily Mail to A strange, lonely and troubling death..., Moir says:

Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one. Let us be absolutely clear about this. All that has been established so far is that Stephen Gately was not murdered. And I think if we are going to be honest, we would have to admit that the circumstances surrounding his death are more than a little sleazy.
She later goes on to claim that Gately's death "strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships", trying to link Gately's untimely death and Kevin McGee's suicide to a wider discourse about gay relationships being unnatural, phony and not equivalent to heterosexual relationships.

Whatever your views on homosexuality (and just to be clear, I believe that gay relationships should be treated in exactly the same way as heterosexual ones, and gay people afforded the same rights and respect as every other human being) it's pretty clear that in the way Moir has used language here she is consciously trying to associate Gately with some imagined seedy, hedonistic lifestyle while at the same time knowing literally nothing about the exact circumstances of his death. It just amounts to prurient and tasteless speculation, especially considering that the poor guy's body was not even cold in the grave when the article was published.

The Guardian's Charlie Brooker responded quickly to the Moir article in his customary style, describing it as "a gratuitous piece of gay-bashing" and adding:

It has been 20 minutes since I've read her now-notorious column, and I'm still struggling to absorb the sheer scope of its hateful idiocy. It's like gazing through a horrid little window into an awesome universe of pure blockheaded spite. Spiralling galaxies of ignorance roll majestically against a backdrop of what looks like dark prejudice, dotted hither and thither with winking stars of snide innuendo.


Elsewhere, thousands of online responses, the vast majority critical of Moir, were posted to the Mail's website, and many others complained to the PCC.

The recent killing of a gay man in Central London, for which three young people have been charged, should show that the distance between hateful words and hateful deeds is not that far. Words matter. Language matters. And I think there's a strong case for arguing that those who use hateful language ultimately bear some responsibility for what happens when words turn to deeds.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Happiness, suicide, Facebook and Bebo

Normally on this blog we've tried to cover material that's specifically about language topics that you study at A level or news stories that have relevance to wider issues about language that might interest us. The two main stories mentioned below are not really about language - and are genuinely sad, involving the deaths of three people - but have links to how we use language to express ourselves, so I hope that makes some sense.

In the first story, the death of Kevin McGee (Little Britain star, Matt Lucas's ex-partner) seems to have been widely reported with reference to his 21st century style suicide note: a Facebook update that read "Kevin McGee thinks that death is much better than life". When we look at the concept of mode and use it to think about differences between written and spoken texts, we've often considered the written mode to confer more seriousness, formality or permanence on its language, but what happens when you've got a blended mode form like Facebook profiles (typed on a keyboard, certainly not spoken, but not exactly written)?

I reckon the last thing on poor old Kevin McGee's mind was "where on the mode continuum will an English Language student place my suicide message", but doesn't this raise important issues about the status we give to social networking sites and the language we use on them?

Likewise, the pointless and tragic suicides of Niamh Lafferty and Georgia Rowe near Glasgow, earlier this week (and reported here) have led to many social networking tributes. And what's striking about these tributes is how different they are from the kinds of messages left engraved forever on tombstones. A message apparently left by Georgia's cousin reads "georgia a know we havent spoke in a very long time but u'll always be ma wee cousin an a love u. Hope ur in a better place now. R.I.P".

Again it may seem cold and callous to look at such a sad waste of young lives for the purposes of language analysis, but maybe this all tells us something about the society we live in, our reactions to the deaths of others and our changing attitudes to what is appropriate language in situations like this. After all, we're studying language not for its own sake but to give us an understanding of ourselves and others, aren't we? And maybe what's striking too about this particular "tribute" is its use of non-standard features - not just the fairly typical ones to do with abbreviation, letter homophones, clippings and non-capitalisation - but its apparently regional features of accent (a not i/I and ma not my) and dialect (we havent spoke not we haven't spoken). Does this make the tribute more "real"? Does the fact that it's written in a way that the speaker finds natural make it a less frozen, less formal, more genuine tribute to the person who's now gone?

This feature article in today's Guardian takes a not very linguistic, but interestingly psychological approach to tribute websites like Gonetoosoon and lasting tribute too, and I think it's worth a look.

Elsewhere (and it's a desperate attempt to finish on a happy note) this bizarre piece of non-research seems to be trying to work out how happy Americans are by "analysing" their Facebook status updates. It's worth a quick look, if nothing else.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Poison pens and private eyes

Forensic linguistics is rapidly becoming my favourite thing in the world: what better way to combine a love of language and The Wire in one job? So, this story on the BBC news website about abusive letters being sent to religious and political figures and covered in this week's Crimewatch is very exciting.

Apparently, a total of 57 abusive, racist and sexually graphic letters have been sent to various religious and political figures from the Southampton & Portsmouth area, and forensic linguist Tim Grant from Aston University's Centre For Forensic Linguistics has been called in to look at who the sender/s might be.

The article raises a number of interesting questions to do with language, some of them about gender and language use. While the linguist, Deborah Cameron lays into the generalised "myths" of clear differences between male and female language use in conversation, Tim Grant seems to suggest that men and women often tend to have distinctive patterns of written language:

He said: "One of the things that were striking about the letters was the heavy use of expressive adjectives, which is more typical of women than men.

"You could say women use more adjectives because they can be more socially evaluative but we don't look at why rather than how the two different groups behave.

"We just know that's the case because we read a lot of letters and make statistical correlations. The words (in the letters) used were things like 'squalor', 'dirty' and some sexual adjectives which were suggestive of women's writing.

"Another thing we know is that women tend to use fewer first person pronouns, such as 'I'."