Friday, November 26, 2010

Right-sizing the workforce

I used to try to add regular blog posts about the evils of corporate and management jargon, but in many ways this kind of language has become so mainstream that it's often no longer jargon. Sadly, the jargon has won. This article from today's Guardian takes a look at the jargon used in corporate law and it's a depressing read. If you thought Melissa from The Apprentice had swallowed a dictionary of drivel and was talking utter nonsense, then some of the expressions mentioned in the article will probably make you think she was actually normal.

One example is particularly egregious: right-sizing. When used as a noun - "We have to implement some right-sizing to meet our profit forecast" (or some such cobblers) it both hides and confuses meaning. What it really means, of course, is cutting staff - making them redundant - and cutting them to the level that is "right" for the business, or more accurately, the business's profits.

Grammatically, it seems to be a form of nominalisation: a term used to describe a process, that usually involves a verb, becoming a noun. So instead of it being an action or ongoing process, the noun becomes the label for the entire end result.

An simple example might be something like describing a person as a "stabbing victim" - a noun phrase which basically carries the information that the person being talked about is the victim of the process of the verb "to stab". By using nominalisation, the focus is taken away from the process or the action itself, and switched to the person affected by the action. By doing so, in a way, the process itself becomes wrapped up with the person who has experienced it: they become bound together.

Why does this matter? Well, a bit like with the passive voice, if agency (i.e. who did what to who) is hidden, we don't get a full picture of events. We see an end result, but not the process that led us there. It could even be argued that by doing this we are less likely to be able to challenge or prevent the process - we may not even see it - and that hides responsibility and the bigger picture of cause and effect. Still with me? No... Oh well.

In the case of right-sizing, the process of cutting jobs is condensed into the idea of "sizing" - which almost inevitably means making something smaller - but even more devious is the use of "right" which carries with it connotations of correctness and even virtue. But of course, it's only "right" for the person who makes money out of cutting a job. For the person who has been a victim of right-sizing, it's probably very wrong!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Rage, riots and representation

The student demonstrations in London the other week, and all over Britain yesterday are not only (in my personal view) a positive sign of resistance to massive cuts in education, which students should be proud of themselves for taking part in, but a great chance for language students to look at how the media represents protests, protesters and police.

Today's Daily Mail for example, has decided that the most notable thing about yesterday's demonstration was not the fact that it involved university, sixth form and school students in many different cities and towns across the UK, but that girls were involved in violence and vandalism. Under the headline Rage of the Girl Rioters, they describe female protesters as "the disturbing new face of the riots". So, they seem to be suggesting that if you're a male protester who gets a bit angry and launches a flying kick at a police van it's par for the course, but if you're a girl, that's simply unladylike. Unless of course, Facebook is involved, in which case the females were not "the disturbing new face of the riots" but frivolous young floozies, there only to take a few pictures and pose fashionably amid scenes of urban vandalism. Girls, know your place!

What's interesting from a language point of view is how grammatical and lexical choices can be used to offer very different representations of events.

Take these two lines from the Mail's coverage and have a look at the use of active and passive voice:


(Rioting girls) threatened to overturn a police riot squad van as they smashed windows, looted riot shields, uniforms and helmets and daubed the sides with graffiti.
Here, the girls are the subject and agent of the sentence, responsible for four verbs (threaten to overturn, smash, loot and daub), which themselves are chosen to represent wild and unrestrained behaviour.

As tensions ran high, police were forced to ‘kettle’ 5,000 protesters for hours just a short distance from the Houses of Parliament.
But in this example, the subject of the sentence - the noun phrase police - is receiving the action of the verb ("to force"), suggesting that they were not responsible for the kettling taking place (itself an interesting noun- verb conversion). So, who was? We don't know because there isn't an agent in this sentence: the sentence seems to be suggesting that a mighty force beyond the police's control (God...Doctor Evil...Jay-Z) might have forced them to comply. But no, it was probably the senior police officer who was responsible.

Of course, it doesn't take a genius to know that the media would generally rather focus on a dramatic image of violence - a masked protester smashing a window, a fire extinguisher dangerously close to police lines, a student urinating on a police van - so it's also a good idea to look at how the largely peaceful and orderly protests in places like Leeds, Sheffield, Colchester and Winchester were reported upon in local papers, where a more balanced and thoughtful representation might be offered.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gang slang: a response

The article by Lindsay Johns in the Evening Standard the other week has already kicked up a fair bit of discussion here and elsewhere, but The Voice has a brief response to it here. As well as being an interesting debate about language, there's plenty of material in the original article, the comments after it and this piece to help any English Language A level student who's putting together a Language Intervention for ENGA4 or a Media Text for ENGB4.

A prescriptivist pot-pourri

Conservative governments - even ones that barely scraped into power and find themselves propped up by Lib Dem MPs - tend to like their pronouncements about "tradition", especially when it comes to cultural touchstones like the English language itself and the traditions of the language. So, it's not much of a surprise to find that Michael Gove, the Tory Education Minister, has started to talk tough about spelling and grammar in school students' work. According to Friday's Daily Telegraph, students will lose up to 5% of their marks at GCSE (in any subject) if their spelling, punctuation and grammar aren't up to scratch.

Now, you'd be hard-pressed to find an English teacher who doesn't think that clear communication is vital to the education of a student, and I think most students would probably agree too. But dig a little deeper into what Gove and his supporters say and you get a much more muddled picture of what "clear communication" means. Take the comments on this page of the Daily Telegraph's site, where posters bring up many of their own pet hates about language usage - "sloppy speech", innit, we was, slang of all colours (but mostly black and/or American), anyone who doesn't speak RP -  and you can see that to the Conservative Party's natural support base, the perception is that the English language has been wrested away from them and placed in the hands of the infidels and chavvy proletarians, but now they can claim it back as their own.

The horrible prescriptivist pot-pourri that appears on pages like this shows us what confusion there is about grammar and how we should be studying it in more detail: not studying it to be prescriptive and claim that one should never dangle a participle or split an infinitive, but to learn more about the language in all its fantastic variety. The approach I'd support is the one outlined here on the UCL project blog and here in an article for the TES that Professor Dick Hudson and I wrote the other week.

More grammar - yes please, but not the kind of "grammar" that should remain in the Victorian schoolbook or in the snug of some Surrey village pub where the bar is propped up by retired wing-commanders and investment bankers whose grammar is basically prejudice dressed up to look like knowledge.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An adapting language

Today's Independent celebrates the forthcoming World Languages Day by running a fascinating article about world languages and the "discovery" of a previously unknown language from the Himalayas. The article is well worth a read for its overview of the decline of world languages - it is estimated that about half of the world's 7,000 languages will be extinct by 2100 - but also because of the light it sheds on new theories of language acquisition.

One of the most striking bits of the article (for me, at least) is the suggestion from evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel that language is not a product of an inbuilt language acquisition device or language instinct, but should be viewed as similar to an organism in its own right, adapting to the human brain in order to survive:

All humans have the same brain, which is why successful languages tend to resemble one another, giving the illusion of a universal grammar. But, Pagel says, they may have arrived at that similarity via different routes, and solved the problem of being easy to learn in different ways. 

I'm not much an evolutionary linguist (or much of any sort of linguist, if truth be told) but this is a weird and rather wonderful idea that really appeals. There's some more about Pagel's research here and here, if you want to look further.

edited to add:
A colleague at UCL (thanks, Jill) tells me that Simon Kirby at Edinburgh is also interested in this language evolution approach. For those of you who have seen the excellent Why Do We Talk? Horizon documentary on language acquisition from last year (and available here last time I looked), Simon Kirby appears towards the end to talk about the experiment in which students are asked to name different coloured fruits. One of his papers is available here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hard-wired or softly spoken

The debate about gender and language use is one that has been a hot topic in linguistics for the best part of 40 years. From Robin Lakoff's "Women's Language Hypothesis", through to the staunchly feminist dominance model, into the difference model of Maltz & Borker popularised by Deborah Tannen and then John Gray, before recently heading into a discourse and diversity approach championed by Deborah Cameron, the debate has developed apace.

Today's Guardian features a strong comment piece by Madeleine Bunting that focuses on the recent clashes between followers of a "hard-wired" approach to gender differences, and those who suggest that context and individual differences are more important. Deborah Cameron is a key reference point in the article and it's exactly the kind of debate about language (and other things) that underpins the ENGA3 unit on the AQA A spec, and the ENGA4 Language Intervention. It's also an interesting read for anyone who wants to mug up on some of the latest arguments about biological determinism and the influence of culture and upbringing.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Quick links

I'll be adding  a few more links to the sidebar soon, but until then, these websites and blogs are definitely worth a look.

BBC2's Culture Show featured a good segment on the British Library's Evolving English exhibition which you can find on YouTube here.

Ben Zimmer's On Language column in the New York Times is always a good read and he has recently looked at youth slang and the growth of the word relatable (which even as a self-proclaimed anything-goes-trendy-leftist-linguist bugs me more than I know it should).

Dennis Baron's The Web of Language site is new to me so I haven't got much to say about it yet, although I'm reading his A Better Pencil at the moment, a book about technology and writing, which is interesting for anyone looking at multimodal forms.

Stan Carey's Sentence First is already listed in our sidebar links, and it's a very informative blog.

Also, here's a link to the Daily Telegraph's review of the British Library Evolving English exhibition.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The decline and fall of English?

This morning's Radio 4 Today programme had a good segment on the future of the English language featuring expert opinion from top applied linguist, David Graddol (whose excellent Open University books on language change and diversity, I'd thoroughly recommend). Is English going to remain the world's favourite language, or will it decline as other world powers, like India and China, start to dominate the globe?

You can listen to the clip here.

The tweeting of birds (and blokes)

The MacMillan Dictionary blog has always got good stuff for English Language students and this post is particularly interesting if you're looking at Language and Gender on ENGB1 or Language Variation for ENGA3.

They link to a fascinating project at the University of Trento in Italy which analyses the lexis of Twitter tweets and breaks them down into gendered usage. So, you can search for Robin Lakoff's famous "women's language" features - words like adorable, gorgeous, lovely, divine - and even two word "compounds" - really gorgeous, so cute - to see which gender uses them more in their sample. They've also got a collocate tool that allows you to look for the most common words associated with other search items. So you could look for "pie" and find that on of its male users' most favoured collocates is the Homer Simpson-esque "pizza pie" (mmm... pizza) while one of the favourite female collocates is "sweetie pie".

Of course, all the usual caveats apply to this kind of broadbrush approach. We don't get much context, we don't get much sense of what types of men and women are tweeting and we don't get to see raw data to explore it further, but all in all it's an interesting approach and worth having a look at.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Woop woop - it's the sound of the gavvers/boy dem/po po/filth/coppers/babylon

Here's the real sound of the police, but for those of you who don't want to travel back in time to the prehistoric days when hip hop meant something, just go straight to yesterday's Guardian which ran a short item on the slang used by some British police: you can find it here.

The whole area of occupational language is a good one to study. Doctors, teachers, soldiers, call centre workers and firefighters are all likely to have their own occupational varieties, which themselves might be affected by the speech styles of the individuals in the job, or the geographical area that people work in. The police are no exception to this and their occupational variety is probably one of the more widely scrutinised forms because it often appears in transcript form in court, or (perhaps more glamorously) on TV dramas and even reality police shows.

So is this sort of occupational variety a slang or a form of jargon? To what extent might we call the police a "community of practice"? According to the definition given by Graeme Trousdale in his excellent new book, An Introduction to English Sociolinguistics, a community of practice is defined by three characteristics: mutual engagement, a jointly negotiated enterprise, and a shared repertoire. He uses the example of a school rock band to illustrate these characteristics.

Here, a number of individuals come together in face-to-face contact (mutual engagement) for a particular purpose, that is, to play music (jointly negotiated enterprise), often conversing using jargon common in discourse on popular music, such as riff, bridge, amp, bass guitar and so on (shared repertoire).

Is the same true for the police? I think so. And like other communities of practice, there is pressure from within to use language in the accepted way, meaning that members of the community of practice become institutionalised in the language of the organisation.

Quite where this leaves the firearms police involved in this case, I don't know. they seem to have developed their own discourse, which apparently consists of slotting in as many song titles as possible into their witness testimony...

If you're interested in the language of the police, this link to a forum about police slang/jargon might be of interest.

Also, the many different words used to describe the police can be found here.

edited to add: 
While on the subject of communities of practice, this short article about the language used on message boards by divorced women discussing their relationships is quite a good one. There's the usual mix of acronyms and initialisms that we tend to see online (although I'm not sure LOL has been correctly defined here) along with a  smattering of new ones like STBXH (Soon to be ex-husband) and OW (other woman).

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Evolving English - lots of languagey stuff

The British Library's Evolving English exhibition starts next week and looks really amazing. Here's a link to the evening talks and events. There's slang, swearing, the language of the Bible, Multicultural London English, gender and language. It's all there and blooming exciting.

Gang slang is not nang but don't be prang...

...and other desperate attempts to use slang in a headline in a(nother) post about slang.

There's now quite a number of comments that have been added to the article in Yesterday's Evening Standard, and they make for an interesting read, especially if you are an AQA A spec student looking at Language Discourses on ENGA3.

We've got some fairly rabid anti-immigrant postings, where the link between young black people, slang and crime seems to have got a few EDL/BNP types all upset. We've got some "crumbling castle" views, suggesting that our once beautiful language has been reduced to a vile slang code understood only by debased urban raggamuffins. We've got some descriptivists arguing that slang has always been around and is just one code that people use in certain contexts. We've also got a few others arguing the toss over the meanings of certain slang terms that have appeared in the glossary in the article. It's quite a range. Why not contribute yourself and add to the debate?

The writer of the article, Lindsay Johns, has a track record of  attacking slang and defending what he calls "proper English", as you can see from this article from 2009.

Finally (until I get worked up again and start ranting about slang) I've added a poll to the right of the blog homepage where you can add your view to what "peak" actually means to you. If you feel particularly passionately about this latest bit of London slang you can add a comment too.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Gang slang: not peak, just moist

Today's Evening Standard features an article by Lindsay Johns which sports the terrible headline "The secret world of gang slang". It's a terrible headline for two reasons. Firstly, the article isn't really about "gang slang"  (whatever that is supposed to mean): it's more to do with youth slang in general. Secondly, the headline gives the impression that slang is linked to gangs and violence: it can be - as anyone who has studied slang should know, some forms of it have their origins in the secret language of criminals - but more often than not has nothing to do with criminal behaviour.

The article itself is a bit of a let-down. Instead of talking to linguists (you know, the people who actually spend their lives studying language and looking at its usage), instead of talking to slang lexicographers (the people who put together and research dictionaries about slang, people like Jonathon Green and Tony Thorne), the writer talks to people who have opinions about slang but don't really have much to say about it: people like Simon Heffer, a man who knows virtually nothing about slang but has lots of views about how awful teaching is these days and how slang is a bad thing.

What really bugs me about the article is that it casts young people as some kind of alien species, whose language is so different from that of mainstream society that they are unintelligible. That may be the case for one or two unfortunate individuals who can barely pass a bus without saying "Dat's peak, bruv" but for most young people this really isn't the case at all. Code-switching - moving between languages or registers of languages - is something that people do all the time. Young people are especially adept at it.

So, to cast youth slang as simply gang-related and sinister just adds another dimension to the alienation already felt by a lot of teenagers. But I'm 41 years old and a "trendy leftist", that breed of linguist that Simon Heffer blames for the collapse of standards in teaching, so what do I know?

To be fair, there are some interesting bits in the article, but I'm just a bit jaded after reading so many articles about slang that say the same thing. So have a read and see what you make of it yourselves, I suppose.