Friday, January 28, 2011

Like being flogged with a warm lettuce

some budgie smugglers in action
Australian English is often held up as an example of a variety of English that is full of invention and wit, and I'm not going to argue with that because Australians are also very good at insults. We'll get to the insults in a minute, but for invention and wit, how about taking a look at these Macmillan Dictionary blog posts - one, two and three - and this Oxford Dictionaries article. There are some fantastic turns of phrase here, like tight swimming trunks being referred to as budgie smugglers. The image is an enduring one and reminds me of family holidays in Holland back in the late 1970s where hairy-chested German tourists would strut around the poolside in unfortunately tight Speedos.

Keeping up the theme of tight-fitting garments, the Australian English thong is a particularly dangerous term that gets lost in translation. If I were to get all Sisqo and ask to see you wear that thong-tha-thong-thong-thong, I'd be presented with a flip flop. And rightly so, because in Australian English thong refers to an item of footwear not a cheesewire between the buttocks.

The articles and blog posts above will give you many more excellent examples, including some fantastically rude ones, as well as some fairly obvious abbreviations (beaut, arvo and convo).

Moving on to insults, my colleague Jill (of Australian background herself) has passed on this link to an archive of abuse from the ex-Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating, whose way with words puts the tame banter in our own Houses of Parliament to shame.

World Englishes are part of the AQA A English Language course (unit ENGA3) and not just a bit of fun, so you can actually use some of this in your exam.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

n00bs and netizens

Technology has given us masses of new words, blends and compounds of old ones, as well as complete semantic shifts (cookie, menu, desktop, virus and spam all being good examples of semantic change) and this fun quiz on the Oxford Dictionaries site gives you the chance to test your knowledge of some of the more recent expressions.

It's always handy to have a range of good, recent examples to use in exams when you're talking about language change, so have a look here and make a note.

Word clouds and sputnik moments

The US President's State of the Union address always attracts a fair bit of media analysis, but in recent years the analysis has taken on an apparently more linguistic angle. Thanks to cool tools like Wordle and Concordle which allow you to paste in text and then create word clouds based on lexical frequency (see the graphic above, for a word cloud of this blog post), many commentators have started to argue that key themes can be discerned, and from these patterns judgements can be made about the president's concerns.

This link from the BBC news site gives us a chance to examine the relative frequency of 10 words over the last 220 years. Meanwhile, this piece from the BBC last year takes a look at the frequency of particular words in British political parties' election manifestos from 1945 to 2010.

On the surface this sort of analysis makes sense, but as linguists point out, just because you use a word many times doesn't necessarily mean that that specific word reveals a great deal about you. For example, I really dislike Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. The reasons are numerous and varied, ranging from a knee-jerk dislike of Gove's posh Tory background, through to Gove's dogmatic belief that all schools should become "free" schools or academies, Gove's scrapping of the EMA and his bizarre insistence that state schools' problems can be solved by frisking teenagers for porn and putting ex-soldiers in classrooms. But it doesn't stop there: I also have (an admittedly childish) dislike of his resemblance to Dobbie from Harry Potter. Now, if you were to create a word cloud of this post, I'm sure the words Michael and Gove would crop up quite frequently, leading some to suggest that this post is all about Michael Gove. It's not. It's about language, not about Gove at all. But presumably, you can see my point by now...

 This blog entry by the Lousy Linguist puts it more analytically (and more sensibly), so is well worth a read.

Arguably, one of the most telling moments in President Obama's speech this week was his use of the phrase Sputnik moment to draw a parallel between the US's economic and technological status in the world now  - and the need for a reinvention of the USA's research and development programmes - compared to the moment in the last century when the Soviet Union gave the USA a nasty shock by successfully launching the world's first satellite. However, he used the word sputnik only twice in his address, so such an interesting image is unlikely to be identified in a basic crunching of the data.
So, in short, word clouds and simple crunching tools such as those mentioned above can be really helpful for carrying out what corpus linguists like to call "quick and dirty" breakdowns of word frequencies in texts, but we always need to be aware of context and meaning if we're to avoid drawing unhelpful conclusions from the data. In many ways, a quick corpus analysis using something like Wordle can be a brilliant way of opening up new ways into a text, be it a speech, a poem or an extract from a novel, but it's not a substitute for detailed analysis.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Dear blog, cheers xxx

Hey...
          ...Hi...
                     ...Yo...
                                 ...Wassup...
                                                   ...Wagwan...
                                                                     ...Hello...
                                                                                   ...Dear ...

Which is the right one to use in an email? This BBC News magazine piece about the correct way to address the recipient of an email is a really good read.

I've always been stuck somewhere between Hi for people I know and Dear for people I don't, but it feels really weird to me to type "Dear such and such" in an email. And while I like hey as a greeting, I feel too old to use it myself.

It's all part of a shift away from purely written forms of communication into the less regulated territories of blended modes, where the "rules", as much as there are ever rules, become less clearly defined.

And as for signing off an email, I've nearly always used cheers in private emails, thanks in more formal ones, but then cheers is described in less than glowing terms by Jean Broke-Smith who says "What is 'cheers'? Clinking a glass? It's an irrelevant word."

Cheers for that.

txtng: some more db8

Today's Daily Telegraph upsets its readers with a report on new research from Coventry University about the effects of texting and mobile phone use on young people's literacy, namely the beneficial effects texting can have.

The research comes from Clare Wood and her team at Coventry (members of which came to SFX two years ago to talk about their work) and is part of a series of projects they have been involved in. Click on the texting label underneath this post to find all the other SFX blog posts about their work (and related articles).

To give you a taste of the reaction to this research from the Daily Telegraph readership, or at least the part of it that feels compelled to contribute to a message board, have a look at these extracts:

Really? These academics need to get out more and see the result of the texting game, many young people are not only unable to spell and write but sometimes incapable of expressing themselves. Wossit', innit' wha'ever, shu'up!!! 

I can only assume the researchers are from the same genetic pool that fill in recruitment forms for my company!?

This is just an attempt to cover up the failure of the teaching community to teach correct spelling and grammar.

The bankers get (rightly) criticised for wasting our money, it's about time these pseudo-scientific research studies get stamped-out. 

How on EARTH can "U alrite m8" boost spelling SKILLS?
What a load of stupid HOGWASH. 

Luckily, there are also some sane readers (OK, ones that I agree with) who have made a few interesting points about prescriptive attitudes to language change and the influence of technology, or about phonetic spelling actually being any use to English:

There have been numerous historical examples of shorthand writing that are reminiscent of texting, without civilisation coming to an end. It's just nothing new.

...you can always be sure with any technology that some will view it as the end of all things, and future generations will laugh at them. 

If English was a vaguely phonetic language, the article might make some sense. However, since we have 40 sounds in English but more than 200 ways of spelling them, I very much doubt that texting helps. 

David Crystal's Txtng: the Gr8 Db8 is a good introduction to some of the arguments about technology and language change, and he is of course one of the speakers at the Emagazine A  level English Language conference in March. Have a look here for more details about the conference and here for more links to articles and arguments about texting.

And, of course, all of this glosses over the true dangers of texting that can be seen here.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Blood libel: language change in a heartbeat

Following on from the post about violent rhetoric and metaphors of conflict, Sarah Palin has now come out with a bizarre phrase - "blood libel" - to describe "slurs" upon her and her Tea Party movement by those who've linked their inflammatory language to the Arizona shootings.

"Blood libel", had until fairly recently, only ever been used as a term to describe the unpleasant myth that Jewish people killed Christian children as part of some bizarre ritual. It's one of many racist slurs that Jewish people have had to put up with during an extended period of persecution. So why did Palin choose to use such an esoteric expression to respond to her accusers?

This article offers some suggestions and makes some fascinating points about how language changes as a result of social networking technologies and the web.


The first use of the phrase I uncovered came on January 9, one day after the shooting, on the website Renew America. As conservative activist Adam Graham put it: “When someone on the left says that the Tea Party movement is responsible for the shooting in Tucson, they are leveling the political equivalent of a blood libel that blames an entire political movement for the actions of a person who in all likelihood had no connection to the movement.” Note that Graham links to the Wikipedia page on “blood libel,” demonstrating knowledge of the traditional meaning of the term.

They also link to this article which makes the intriguing suggestion that internet "memes" spread more like a heartbeat than a virus, a model for language change that might start to rival the traditional wave and S-curve models.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tired AF so just a short post

Computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have been analysing Twitter messages in the USA and found some interesting regional variations, which linguists have started to pick apart.

This report (which I found via this site) tells us more. It's no surprise that tweets reflect the regional, social, ethnic and age variations of the tweeter, but it's intriguing that such variations can be mapped so closely. For example, to find that intensifiers like hella, meaning really/very (as in hella tired) or dead ass (as in dead ass tired), or even a comparative version like AF (as in tired as f**k) can be traced to specific cities or states is quite a neat idea.

So, as we pointed out back here, Twitter is actually working to preserve some regional variation rather than lead to the dialect levelling that so many people predicted.

edited on 13.01.11 to add:
There's another blog post about Twitter that fits in with this recent research here.

edited later on 13.01.11 to add:
For an LA blog's take on their Twitter slang/dialect try here.

Murder and metaphor

The gun rampage in Arizona that has left six dead and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically injured has initiated a great deal of discussion in the media in the USA and elsewhere. Many commentators have focused on Arizona's gun laws, while others have chosen to focus on the language of political debate and whether or not the febrile atmosphere stoked up by the right wing Tea Party might have contributed to a climate in which such an attack was inevitable.

Today's Guardian features an article by Jonathan Freedland in which he explores the language of conflict and warfare that has been used in recent political discourse in the USA. He picks up on Sarah Palin's visual imagery of crosshairs targeting Giffords' congressional seat as well as the combative streak that runs through her rhetoric, including her exhortation for her supporters not to retreat but to "reload": a bit ironic really, given that for all her love of guns, Palin is reputed to be a hopeless shot (as well as an imbecile, obviously).

Freedland makes a number of interesting points about the language of politics, one of which being that politics is saturated with violent metaphors:

...Palin is hardly the first politician to use the language of combat. She could argue that anyone who has ever referred to "battleground" constituencies, talked of candidates "wounded" by "fatal blows" or arguments "shot down" is just as guilty as she is. In this, she could cite the unlikeliest examples. It was the sainted Obama who revved up a crowd in 2008 by declaring of his Republican opponents: "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun."

Elsewhere, the linguist John McWhorter  takes a look at the ways he thinks the internet is partly responsible for glib soundbites, rather than reasoned and nuanced rhetorical debate, taking hold of politics.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Emagazine conference site now up and running

The site to support the forthcoming Emagazine A level Language conference is now up and running. You can find it here.

At the moment, you can see the programme, the speakers' details and how to get there, and you can also book tickets for your school or college (if you are a teacher).

There is also a blog running alongside the site to help collect data from you for Jonnie Robinson's session and to submit your questions about language to David Crystal for his Q and A session. We'll be updating the blog regularly with information about each speaker, links to interesting research and some follow-up activities after the conference. You can find the blog here.

We're very excited about the conference, so get your tickets now!!!

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Media texts and Language interventions

As loads of A level Language students (and teachers) are currently looking for style models to use for the A and B spec A2 coursework, I thought I'd try to make the search a bit easier by pulling together links to articles and stories that might be good to use.

I'll try to group these into broad areas that have been helpful for me in the past, but if you'd like to suggest other categories or argue about how I've grouped or defined these, just say.

(Updated with new links on Monday 17th October 2011)

Op-eds (opinion/comment pieces by named writers)

News stories


Feature articles



    OK, that's a start for now, and I'll add more over the coming days. You can also look for the blog posts where these articles were first mentioned by putting various keywords and phrases such as language intervention, media text, style models, texting, slang, new words, political correctness in the search bar on the top left of the screen, or by clicking on the labels below.

    You might also find this link helpful as it gives more info about what an op-ed is. I've always told my students it's an opinion editorial, but this link says that's not the case. Ho hum.

    This is quite interesting on different types of feature article too.

    Tuesday, January 04, 2011

    All that junk inside your trunk

    Happy New Year and all that. Just a couple of quick links here about new words for 2010 (junk being a potential word of the year) and reasons for English's continuing lexical growth. And here's one from today's Independent about political and professional language.

    Normal service will be resumed once I've recovered from back to work depression and the experience of a Barbie Princess Castle alarm clock going off at 2am, causing my daughter to scream and think that the world had ended.