Friday, February 26, 2010

Having a bog shaker as you get decruited

Office slang is always an inventive source of new language and this piece in The Daily Telegraph gives some really good examples of new words and phrases.

Among my favourites are:
Cashanova (a blend of cash + Cassanova) : a person who brings in money to the business through using his charm
To be decruited (an application of a different prefix to recruit): to lose your job
Bog shaker (a compound of the slang word for toilet and shaker): an emotional breakdown in an office toilet cubicle.

For ENGA3 it's always helpful to have up to date examples of new words and an idea of the processes that lead to their creation. As Kerry Maxwell explains on the Kerboodle videos about new words and lexicography, lots of new words and phrases rely very heavily on existing patterns of word creation, as well as on existing words and phrases, so it's no surprise to see credit munch (a cheap meal) appearing as a response to credit crunch.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Revision help

Beth Kemp's site is a really good source of revision help for the ENGA1 exam and she has recently updated the frameworks pages, which can be found here.

ENGA1 Language & Mode quick revision task

Last year we put up some short extracts of texts from different modes for students to do a quick analysis of, and this year we'll do the same. If you need to refresh your memory of the Mode Continuum then click here.

So, with each extract what we're after are the following:

  1. Where would you place this extract on the mode continuum?
  2. Why?
  3. What language evidence can you produce for your decision?
Please post your answers as comments to this blog post. There'll be feedback given, but sadly no Haribo anymore.

The first extract this year is taken from the ICE-GB corpus which I'm now working with as part of my new job, and it's an extract from a football commentary on the radio. Ignore any underlining as that's not important here, and it's worth adding that the micropauses are indicated using <,> in this extract. Also it's just one speaker:

Click on the image if you want to make it bigger (as Ashley Cole might have said to his sexting "victims". Not really...).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The dangers of descriptivism

Descriptivist linguists tend to do what the label on their tin says: they describe the language they see and hear around them. They don't make value judgements about correct or incorrect English, but talk about what's grammatical and ungrammatical, what's standard and non-standard. But from the abuse they sometimes get you'd have thought they were ramming dodgy grammar and youth slang down our throats every day and forcing us to speak non-standard.

So, spare a thought for Professor Maurice Martinez at UNCW who endeavoured to teach his students a thing or two about what he called "Black English". We all know that the people who post comments on newspaper websites don't tend to be a representative cross-section of society (unless that society genuinely is full of rabies-ridden reactionary mouth-frothers), but some of the comments about Martinez's lessons are an interesting insight into how the minds of knee-jerk prescriptivists function. But it's also good to see some of his students getting on the case and responding with some well-argued justifications for the kind of work their professor is doing.

Have a look here if you'd like to see more.

Plenty of words for your honk

A level English Language students often complain that they don't get as many trips out of college or school as Literature or Drama or Classical Civilisation or even lowly Geography students. And this is probably true. But you get so much more excitement in your lessons as payback. For example, who could not get excited about relative clauses and present perfect verb phrases? Exactly.

Anyway, now there is a chance for you to go on a proper English Language outing and it might even be fun. This man - Alex Horne - is doing a stand-up comedy show around the country all about his attempts to get a load of made-up words into the dictionary. His website explains a bit more about it as does this post by MacMillan Dictionaries lexicographer, Kerry Maxwell, but the basic idea is that he has decided to plant "linguistic seeds" and see if they'll grow into widely-used terms. The words and phrases are here, along with explanations of how he wants them to be used (which word class they are and what they mean in context), but some examples are honk for money, games as a term of derision a bit like some people use "jokes" ("that's proper games that is", or "you're games") or the one that seems to be catching several people's imagination below:

mental safari (to go on)
idiom (slang). When someone goes mad for a few moments or gets ridiculously tongue tied, or does a series of rash acts. Over the past year it seems, Harry Redknapp has been on a mental safari, prior to his return to Fratton Park. Original and rare invention.

He appears in London towards the end of April and you can get more info from his website.

H9 > H8

That lethal combination of text messaging and young people has aroused the attention of several newspapers who are running stories on what they see as the latest developments in text language/netspeak. And the latest development is - wait for it - that parents are now using lots of textspeak themselves and that the youngers are finding this horribly embarrassing and creating new ways to express themselves to keep what they're really saying under wraps. It's revolutionary stuff, err... not.

The Mirror has a story here explaining some of the new text slang and one excellent example, which I will use from now on to annoy my own children, is H9, a term that is stronger than the letter & number homophone blend H8 (Hate) because 9 is one more than 8. Gettit? It's great, just like the bit in Spinal Tap with the amp that goes up to 11:(which you can watch here if you want to) it's one louder than an amp that goes up to 10. There's a bit more here too on a web news story.

There's nothing really new about all of this: young people (and all sorts of other groups of people) will always develop new ways of talking to each other  in order to conceal their activities from those who want to listen in. Slang's history is often connected to criminality and concealment as much as it is connected with lexical innovation and fun.

The whole debate about text slang and young people's literacy skills is picked up again here on The Sun's web forums with some interesting points about celebrities and a dumb culture that doesn't appear to reward intelligence.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Language development - revision help

Here are some (hopefully) useful links to material on children's language development (AQA A ENGA1 or AQA B ENGB3).

All of these are from this blog, which I wasn't aware of before, but is well worth a look at.

Let's get retarded...

...or rather, if you're the Black Eyed Peas and worried about not getting your single played "Let's get it started". The word "retard" has come under scrutiny in the USA with the debate about its offensiveness or otherwise gaining a political dimension recently. In this Washington Post article (a great style model for an AQA A Language Intervention or an AQA B Media Text) Christopher Fairman traces the word's history and the arguments about its use.

I don't know if this is something that the USA has been late to pick up on (a bit retarded, you could say) but retard has been pretty offensive in the UK for some time now. In much the same way that spastic was a term of playground abuse until we were all told off for using it, retard has always been a bit contentious. For example, I'd find it pretty hard to imagine a disability rights group in the UK calling itself the Association for Retarded Citizens. But then again, the expression spaz also hit the headlines a while ago in the USA, a good two decades after a school assembly from my old headteacher reminded us all that it was a bad word

In his article, Fairman makes some very good points about the cycles words go through and the euphemism treadmill that turns to generate new terms which - for a short time at least - avoid offence to different groups of people:

The irony is that the use of "mental retardation" and its variants was originally an attempt to convey greater dignity and respect than previous labels had. While the verb "retard" -- meaning to delay or hinder -- has roots in the 15th century, its use in reference to mental development didn't occur until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when medical texts began to describe children with "retarded mental development," "retarded children" and "mentally retarded patients." By the 1960s, "mental retardation" became the preferred medical term, gradually replacing previous diagnostic standards such as "idiot," "imbecile" and "moron" -- terms that had come to carry pejorative connotations. 

What's also interesting is the parallel Fairman draws with other potentially offensive words such as nigger, queer and gay. And while Fairman is sensitive to retard's offensiveness, his point is that we are grown up enough to show discretion and judgement in how we choose to use terms:

The current public awareness campaign surrounding the use of the word "gay" offers better lessons and parallels for the R-word debate. Advocacy groups contend that the phrase "that's so gay" fosters homophobia and that anti-gay language is directly related to violence and harassment against homosexuals. At the same time, there is recognition that much anti-gay language is uttered carelessly and isn't necessarily intended as hurtful -- as is probably the case with uses of "retard." The Ad Council and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network have developed a Web site,, that, much like, encourages the public to sign a pledge to cease using the phrase. (The slogan: "Saying that's so gay is so yesterday.")

By increasing sensitivity and awareness, the campaign hopes to encourage people to think about the possible consequences of their word choices. Such reflection would presumably lead individuals to censor themselves once they understand that others can be hurt by their language.

Inherent in this idea is the realization that words have multiple meanings and that those meanings depend on the context and circumstances surrounding any particular statement. For example, "gay" is a term of identification for homosexuals, but it also can be used as an all-purpose put-down: "That's so gay." Those using it as an insult don't intend to say "that's so homosexual," nor do they necessarily make the conscious leap that homosexuality is bad. (Indeed, the success of the campaign depends on this distinction.)

The class divide

The language that children are exposed to has long been thought to have some kind of influence upon their own lexico-semantic and grammatical development. But more importantly perhaps, the verbal interaction that children have with carers has often been thought to have a huge impact on the pace of a child's language development. A report, commissioned by the educational charity, The Sutton Trust suggests that the impact can be as much as one year's language development on a child by the time he or she is 5 years old. In other words, a child from a poor background - poor in terms of their family's income but poor too in terms of amount of contact time, reading time and time spent interacting verbally - could lag as far behind as a whole year compared to children of wealthier parents who spend more time reading to, talking with and generally interacting with their children.

The results might need a bit of unpicking, but there are some quite stark findings that the researchers, Jane Waldfogel and Elizabeth Washbrook, come up with:

Just under half (45%) of children from the poorest fifth of families were read to daily at age 3, compared with 8 in 10 (78%) of children from the richest fifth of families. Comparing children with the same family income, parental characteristics and home environments, those who were read to every day at age 3 had a vocabulary at age 5 nearly 2 months more advanced than those who were not read to every day.
Similarly, a child taken to the library on a monthly basis from ages 3 to 5 is two and a half months ahead of an equivalent child at age 5 who did not visit the library so frequently.

 Regular bedtimes at 3 and 5 are associated with gains of two and a half months at age 5.

At the end of the summary of their findings, the researchers rate the factors that they have found as more or less responsible for contributing to the gap in test scores between children and decide that the most significant influence is in the category of "parenting and the home environment" (which includes reading to your child, the nature of the social interaction you have with your child etc.) while "material circumstances" (income, savings, pressure of bills etc.) is the second most significant factor.

The full report can be found here, a summary here and a BBC news story about it here. For anyone interested in other studies into the role of interaction and the development of children's language, have a look here at a 2009 blog post about gestures, here for a Polly Toynbee article about Hart and Risley's influential research into American children's language development, and here for a link to the Children of the Code site where Todd Risley is interviewed about his work

Friday, February 12, 2010

British Library resources

I went to a workshop at the British Library last week and have been pointed towards some good links for A level English Language, so here you go:
Old English inflections (and how word order has now become more important in modern English)
Words for Time Travellers (good activities to help you find out more about language change over time)
Sounds Familiar (really good stuff on regional varieties of English)
Archival Sound Recordings (a searchable database of audio clips with regional accents from all over Britain and across the years - a top resource for ENGA3 work)
Accent map (a really good resource from which you can access audio clips of all sorts of regional accents)