Monday, December 20, 2010

English, Englishes, Elves and Latin

There's a good introduction by Michael Rosen to the role of English as a world language in the BBC News magazine this week. He looks at the role of Latin as one of the first "world" languages (sort of...) before moving on to think about the ways in which English and its various Englishes have spread around the globe.

Some of the most recent debates around this issue have centred around the existence of a standard form of the language (Global English) or different versions of it (Global Englishes), or more recently around a phenomenon called ELF (English as a Lingua Franca). Anyway, Michael Rosen's article is a good start if you want to find out more about the background to the debate, and you can find some more discussion on this blog post.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Hit Me Up with some culturomics: new words for 2010

Moustache + November = Movember
As we get closer to New Year and the alcopocalypse that is the Christmas party season, many language enthusiasts like to have a look at the new words that have emerged or gained new prominence in the year so far.

It's been a good year for new words, with one of my favourites being a renaming of a whole month as Movember ( a blend of the clipped mo for moustache and November). Having spent a rare night out in Hoxton a few weeks ago, it was hard to distinguish the brave Movemberists from the usual hipsters who normally sport a pathetic caterpillar atop their upper lips.

Wiki- has grown in popularity as a prefix too, with Wikileaks being all across the news over the last month. We looked at the wiki- prefix a while ago on the SFX Moodle ENGA3 unit (and if you're an SFX student, it's still there and you can contribute to the new words wiki), but for those who aren't SFX students the etymology is here. At the other end of a word, you'll find a suffix, and the -gate suffix which first appeared, not as a separate morpheme but as part of the proper name Watergate, has been applied ever since as a suffix to any type of scandal. So earlier this year when the General Election was taking place (You must remember: it was when and Nick Clegg was telling students that he would scrap tuition fees and David Cameron promised that EMA was safe.) Gordon Brown got himself involved in Bigotgate. And connected to Wikileaks, we have cablegate, where the cables that were intercepted have had -gate tacked on the end.

Connected to Wikileaks again is hacktivism, which is a blend of hack (as in its computer hacker meaning rather than its other ones) and activism. The Visual Thesaurus article on new words has more on this and loads of other words, and, like most things on VT, is a really good read.

 The role of  social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter in spreading language and creating new trends (trending as a verb being revived thanks to Twitter) has continued to have power over many people, with the initialism HMU (Hit Me Up i.e. call me/contact me/ping me/BBM me/message me/give us a bell) coming top in the Facebook status updates top 10 list. Until the day I saw that report, I had never heard of or used HMU, but now I will. Every day.

Pamela Stephenson - a true GILF?
Another new word, which may well have existed for a little while, but came up at a recent teachers' reunion in a Soho pub (which probably tells you a lot about the ages and mental states of those involved) was GILF. If you already know what a MILF is then you should have a fairly good idea of what a GILF might be. And if you were to then think Pamela Stephenson on Strictly Come Dancing, you'd be close to the real meaning. What can I say? There are some sick people out there. I prefer the X Factor.

On a much bigger and more educationally respected scale, this report in today's Guardian reveals how a project at Harvard University is creating a database of billions of words by digitising more than 5 million books. They call  it culturomics: presumably a blend of culture and economics, with a bit of linguistics thrown in? a blend of culture and genomics (as pointed out by Ben Zimmer in his comment below).

What's particularly revealing from a lexical point of view is that the vocabulary of English is seen to be expanding rapidly. The figures quoted in the study show that in 1900 there were an estimated 544,000 words and then in 2000, 1,022,000 words, with an estimated growth of approximately 8500 words a year.  The report's abstract can be found here and there's a lot of good reading in there, including how grammar is changing over time. One of the most striking points about grammar is in the section on the regularization of past tense endings:

...each year, a population the size of Cambridge adopts “burned” in lieu of “burnt”...1% of the English speaking population switches from “sneaked” to “snuck” every year: someone will have snuck off while you read this sentence.

On that bombshell, I'll sign off. This will probably be the last blog post this year, so have a good Christmas break and New Year.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pim-holes and Jeremy Hunts

Swearing is all over the media, literally in the case of Radio 4 last week which delighted/shocked (delete as appropriate) its listeners with two unintended utterances of one of the rudest words in the English language. It's a word so rude that if I typed it here, you would never again be able to read this blog at a school or a college, so I won't*.

Anyway, the use of this dreaded word appeared to be a genuine mistake on the part of the Today programme's James Naughtie, as he tried to trail the appearance of Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary (as you can hear from this clip of his slip). Later that morning, on the same station, Andrew Marr repeated the word while talking about the error Naughtie had made. Naughtie later made an apology, claiming that the mistake was a Spoonerism, a substitution of initial sounds between two words (try swapping the initial consonants of "shining wit" or the name of circus accessories store, "Cunning stunts" and you'll see what I mean).

So, why the outrage? Well, swearing still upsets lots of people even though lots of us do it and have done for centuries. This article by Jonathan Margolis from back in 2002 looks at how attitudes to swearing have changed over the years and provides a bit of background, but if you want a really detailed look at bad language, you could do no worse than put Peter Silverton's Filthy English on your Christmas list.

Sometimes though, our willingness to be shocked can be rather odd. This report on the UK Polling Report site tells us that 61% of respondents in a recent survey thought that the word pim-hole should either never be broadcast on TV or only ever broadcast after the watershed. That's pim-hole. It doesn't actually exist as a real word, outside this 1990 Fry and Laurie sketch about swearing. The full report is available from YouGov here and contains strong language. Obviously.

We've looked at swearing before and you can find some interesting stuff here and here. Also, Steven Pinker's most recent book, The Stuff of Thought, features some really interesting stuff on the links between swearing and language evolution, which these short lectures throw a bit of light upon:


*But what I can tell you is that it's a word most sensible people say whenever George Osborne appears on TV.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Variety is the spice of language acquisition

Some new research into children's acquisition of language, reported here, suggests that children who are presented with more diverse objects of a similar type are quicker at developing their grasp of nouns than those who are shown a smaller range. The report explains further:

Two toddlers are learning the word "cup." One sees three nearly identical cups; the other sees a tea cup, a sippy cup and a Styrofoam cup. Chances are, the second child will have a better sense of what a cup is and -- according to a new University of Iowa study -- may even have an advantage as he learns new words.

This might not strike you as such a great surprise, but it's a study that sheds a bit of light on the processes children go through as they develop a sense of what a word means and the limits to which they can stretch that word's range of meanings. The linguist and child language expert, Jean Aitchison, talks about children acquiring words and their meanings as going through a process of labelling, packaging and network building. As you can probably see from this research, showing children a range of different objects, all with similar characteristics, seems to help them with the packaging and network building elements of their language acquisition.

The research goes on to suggest that a knock-on effect of this early boost to lexico-semantic acquisition is an enhanced ability to generalise. So, when children were later asked to identify objects that they hadn't seen before (or types of objects that they had seen in slightly different forms) they were better able to label them:

When tested on unfamiliar objects that fit into the categories they'd been taught -- such as a bucket they'd never seen before -- kids in the variable group performed better. This showed an ability to generalize the knowledge. "We believe the variable training gave them a better idea of what a bucket was. They discovered that the buckets were all alike in general shape, but that having a handle or being a particular texture didn't matter," Perry said. "In contrast, the children exposed to a tightly organized group of objects developed such strict criteria for what constitutes a bucket that they were reluctant to call it a bucket if it was different from what they'd learned."

Thursday, December 09, 2010

emagazine A Level Language Student Conference

Sorry for not posting much recently, but I've been busy with various things including some A level workshops, the day job (doing neeky grammar things) and organising (or organising how to avoid) trips to Mr Tumble in pantomine. The other thing I've been doing is helping the English and Media Centre organise what we hope will be a brilliant conference for A level English Language students.

All the details are here and if you want to attend as an A level student then badger your teacher to get a booking made. If you are a teacher, email Barbara Bleiman ( at the EMC to express your interest and provisionally book some places. If you are a university student, there will probably be individual tickets available and more details will be made available soon after Christmas.

The details:
Wednesday March 16th 2011 – with David Crystal, Deborah Cameron and others...
At the Logan Hall, Institute of Education, London WC1 (10 min walk from Euston)
Following the success of the Literature and Media Studies student conferences in the Autumn Term, emagazine is planning a conference for A Level Language students in the Spring Term, for AS and A2. We are working with Dan Clayton to plan the day.

The programme will include lectures, a session on approaches to investigation, with an interactive element, and a short session modelling how to respond to data in an exam. At lunchtime, we are hoping to organise a ‘Language Fair’, with stalls from one or two university departments, a surgery held by the emag editors for anyone wanting to write for the magazine and a ‘resident linguist’ who will answer students’ questions and chat to them. We’re also hoping to set up a Conference blog, in advance of the Conference, to get students involved before the day.

Speakers confirmed so far:
  • Deborah Cameron
  • David Crystal (including a Q&A session, with David Crystal, based on students’ questions, sent in advance, and submitted on the day)

Programme: 10.30 – 3.15 to allow for ease of travel
Cost: £20 per school/college student. 1 teacher per 10 students goes free. £50 for teachers wanting to attend without students, as CPD.
A conference website will be set up at the beginning of next term, (accessible from the EMC and emagazine websites) with full details and the facility to make provisional and confirmed bookings. In the meantime, put it in your diaries and if you would like us to keep you informed, please email ‘Emagazine Language A Level Conference’ in the subject line.

Hash, octothorpe or pound?

Several articles have picked up on the rebirth of the # symbol thanks to its use as a hashtag on Twitter. This article looks at its history and return to fame, while this brief piece in today's Guardian does something similar. It's also called a number sign on Wikipedia.

Other punctuation marks have had similar histories and undergone revivals thanks to multimodal forms of communication. Previously on this blog we've looked at the exclamation mark !!!, the l'il apostrophe , the hyphen and you can also read more about the @ here)