Thursday, June 30, 2011


I wasn't going to post on here today, in solidarity with my striking public sector colleagues, but it's not really the same as crossing a picket line, is it? Anyway, good luck to all the teachers out there, and other public sector workers defending their pension rights and the principles of public service.

Language investigation ideas: I am so liking "like"

Seeing as thousands of English Language students are currently being told to come up with great ideas for next year's investigation coursework, I thought I'd offer a series of occasional posts that might help kick start a few projects.

First of all, here's an interesting piece by Mark Liberman on Language Log about how he went about investigating the use of like in spoken language. He was inspired to look at like because of a post by Erin Gloria Ryan entitled My Love Affair With "Like" in which she speculated about how like is used differently depending on age and gender factors.

What could you do with like for an ENGA4/ENGB4 investigation? Well, it's worth thinking about what you'd like to achieve with an investigation like this. Liberman uses a corpus (basically, a database of language) to test out the hypothesis that young women use the discourse-particle like more than men, and he makes this clear from the outset. What he also establishes is that he's not looking at any old mention of like -  but a specific function of the word, and this is good advice for anyone about to set up an investigation. So, he's set a research question/ hypothesis and established a clear focus for his investigation.

Another key piece of advice is to approach the investigation with an open mind, and this is what he does: not trying to make his findings fit any preconceived pattern but to see if his original hypothesis was actually right. He says:

... there's no evidence that women insert non-traditional like into their conversation more often than men do. There may be specific syntactic or pragmatic contexts where this is true; there may be effects in some registers and not others. But so far, I'm inclined to think that this is one of those cases where congruence with pre-existing stereotypes (here that women are less assertive) leads to post-hoc rationalization and confirmation bias.

Interestingly, he puts forward suggestions here about why there might be a perception that women use like more, and that in turn opens up other areas of investigation. Are women generally seen as more tentative and therefore assumed to use markers of tentativeness more frequently? Are women less assertive in some conversational situations? Are women using a "double voice discourse" (as Judith Baxter suggests) and shying away from confrontational language because of how they will be perceived by men? There are loads of other questions linked to this that would be really fascinating to pursue.

But bringing this back to A level projects, what could you do with something like this?

Perhaps there's a feature of language that you've noticed being used by one group of people and not another. Maybe it's like, innit, awesome, gay, standard or mans and you want to find out more about its usage. You could go to a database of language as Liberman does, set your search terms and get looking, or you could gather your own data and see if there is a pattern.

Recording your own data creates its own issues - most of them easily addressed, if you plan ahead well enough - but it is a great way of getting hold of new material and adding to the store of language data that we can all learn from.

So, over to you: what areas would be potentially interesting to explore?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Performing mouth to mouth on grammar

If you're looking for more language discourses topics in readiness for tomorrow's ENGA3 exam, this might be a good link to have a look at. One of the debates that's been knocking around for a long time (probably forever) is that around the seemingly inevitable decline in standards of English grammar among the general population and whether or not we should care. In this article, the author, Barbara Gunn, suggests we need to "resuscitate" grammar.

As an English teacher, I think grammar is important, but perhaps not for the same reasons that Barbara Gunn puts forward in her article. I can't help but shudder when I read someone using  your instead of you're, or there instead of their, but perhaps that's my inner prescriptivist crying out and I should learn to ignore it, a bit like I ignore the cat as it mewls for food seconds after being fed. Prescriptivists have complained about the general public's inability to use grammar properly ever since English came into existence, but is it actually getting any worse?

Henry Hitchings - whose book, The Language Wars I've plugged endlessly on here - makes the point that people have been confusing should have and should of and you were and you was since the 17th Century. Perhaps it's because more of us write now than ever before (tweeting, emailing, texting and even blogging all being new forms of "writing") that these grammatical errors/non-standard forms are being noticed more. Maybe we are becoming less literate. I dont no.

If you have a look through this blog for posts about grammar usage (usually tagged prescriptivism or descriptivism) you'll find a number of articles about Simon Heffer's (appalling) Strictly English, and the Queen's English Society's most recent musings on our language going to the dogs, along with some descriptivist critiques of their arguments. As you're having a look at these, you'll probably notice the familiar models that Jean Aitchison pointed out in her classic Language Web lectures: the crumbling castle, the damp spoon and the infectious disease.

Political Correctness: theories and debates

I wouldn't normally copy a comment from another post over as a new post, but I think this might be helpful for tomorrow's ENGA3 if PC comes up as a topic.

This is in response to a comment by Jessica on the ENGA3 Language Discourses post from earlier in the week, asking about which theorists might be helpful on a question about PC. She'd already mentioned Sapir & Whorf, Miller and Swift and Norman Fairclough.  This is just my take on the theories and concepts that might help, so please add any comments or observations/criticisms to it as comments. I'd be interested to hear what anyone else has to say on arguments around PC.

I think you're fine with those theorists really, so long as you're clear that the underpinnings of the PC movement come from a belief that if you remove sexist & racist words from the lexicon, you'll either a) remove the pejorative association of that term, or b) go some way towards changing the discourse around sexism and racism by drawing attention to the problems inherent in those words.

E.g. You could argue that the debate about "slutwalking" has polarised opinion about the word slut and "slutty" dressing, but on a very simple level it has at least made everyone think about the word, what it means and whether or not it should be used. It's also given young feminists the chance to enter the debate about women's rights in a way that might not have been open to them before, thus intervening in the discourse.

I think the other thing is that it's important to realise that PC is quite a rarity in linguistic terms in that there has been a degree of success in imposing a "top-down" model of language change. You could argue to what extent it's been successful, but in many ways it's one of the few attempts at linguistic engineering that's actually worked.

Most of the time, language change is bottom-up - usage leads to adoption and codification of patterns of lexis and grammar - and organic.

This of course means that there are some who would normally see themselves as descriptivists aligning themselves with a rather prescriptivist stance - PC, after all, is all about prescription. So it makes for some unlikely bedfellows: normally prescriptive language commentators arguing that PC is a bad thing because it's telling us what we should and shouldn't say; normally descriptive linguists arguing that PC is a force for good.

That's why I think it's such an interesting debate.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Women, Speak Your Mind

Sunday's Observer had an article about new work by the linguist Judith Baxter on speaking patterns of men and women in business. It's a good read and exactly the kind of article that often appears in the ENGA3 Language Discourses question.

What's particularly interesting about this article is that it's based on recent research by a respected linguist, but that it's also been given a populist spin through the incorporation of various quotations from other individuals, some of them non-linguists. It also links in wider discourses about women in the workplace and the impact of status and power.

If gender crops up again in ENGA3 (which I think is unlikely this year) this is the sort of article that I think would appear.

Monday, June 20, 2011

ENGA3 Language Discourses: some pointers

With ENGA3 coming up at the end of this week and several requests for help with section B of the paper, here are some pointers about the topics and what to revise. 

There have been three ENGA3 papers set so far, and the topics for language discourses have been as follows:

Jan 2010
Popular psychology/ linguistic self-help books looking at male and female communication
Jun 2010
John Humphrys arguing prescriptivist views about language change
Jan 2011
Will Self and Lynn Truss discussing their attitudes to texting and txt language

There’s no point trying to “question-spot” and putting all your eggs in one basket, by proclaiming that as regional accents haven’t turned up yet it’ll definitively be that topic, but it can be useful to think about the types of questions that have been asked and those that haven’t yet.

So, the topics that haven’t cropped up yet are:

Changing varieties of English. There’s been quite a lot of discussion about how regional accents are thriving and local accents dying out, as well as new ones (like MLE/MEYD/”Jafaican”) emerging, and whether this is a good or a bad thing.

World English/es. This hasn’t cropped up yet and could appear as it’s on the spec. What could be asked about this? Well, there have been quite big debates around the world about the role of Standard English and whether we should be imposing World English (one variety) or showing awareness and understanding of different varieties (World Englishes) and how English changes thanks to local language and culture. There are also several interesting historical angles about why English has spread and whether this will continue in the same way.

New words and attitudes to them. While language change has cropped up before in the form of John Humphrys bemoaning the state of our common language and Truss and Self talking about texting and its impact on language, there is also scope for something on new words. Many new words have entered dictionaries in recent years and some commentators find this deeply discombobulating. “How can OMG and LOL be “words”? “ they cry. Dictionary compilers have argued in response  that they’re reflecting the changing nature of our vocabulary and that they have a duty to record new words.

Political correctness and Linguistic engineering. The need (or otherwise) to impose changes on language and remove offensive terms is a very good topic for debate and leads to some very polarised opinions. One man’s throwaway remark about chavs is another’s systematic demonization of the working class. Likewise, terms for gender, race and sexuality have been discussed recently in regard to the changing roles and status of different groups in British society.

Variation that isn’t gender or region-related. The topic of language variation doesn’t just have to cover females and males or regions; other areas on the syllabus that could appear are age-related variation, work-related variation and what might broadly be termed “communities of practice”.

Technology and changing language. Texting cropped up recently, but other technological advances and forms of Computer-Mediated Communication, like Facebook and Twitter, could be a focus for debate. 

Knowing something about the topics is only part of the knack to doing well in this exam. Equally, if not more, importantly, you need to know about how to analyse the language used to construct the debates. What are the writers saying and how are they expressing their views? What kinds of wider debates are these discussions tapping into?

Over the next day or two, I'll add some points about what often works on this paper and give some examples of how good students have approached language discourses.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Placing the accent on bigotry

Articles about different accents are often full of judgemental adjectives like "lazy", "pleasant" and "harsh" (and you can see what genuine linguists  think of such vocabulary by having a look at Paul Kerswill and John Wells' comments about the recent Economist article on changing accents) but a piece by Telegraph journalist Ed West reaches some new lows.

For him, "Jafaican" (or Multicultural London English) is "rather unpleasant, sinister, idiotic and absurd". His entire premise seems to be built upon the wrongheaded notion that MLE is something people "put on" - that it's a fake accent and one that reflects a desire to be street. As he puts it, "In London the adoption of Jafaican, even among the privately-educated, reflects both a lack of confidence in British cultural values and an aspiration towards some form of ghetto authenticity".

Frankly, this is a pile of steaming cobblers. Underpinning it seems to be a profound dislike for the speakers of MLE and a simmering resentment that otherwise decent posh people (white people, dammit) are picking up this dirty ghetto accent. It's almost like they want to be black. Shame!

The article annoys me too much to string many more sentences together, so I'm glad that a more restrained and analytical response to it is presented here by Ben Trawick-Smith on Dialect blog. He ends by characterises the article as not "a writer bravely fighting against an increasingly “PC” world... just an ignorant rant".

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Greening the language

Stan Carey, whose stuff on Sentence First is always a good read for Language students, has written a short post about language and environmental concerns for MacMillan Dictionary's Language blog. He looks at how some companies are attempting to greenwash their image - make their public image appear more enviro-friendly than it really is.

As well as some interesting word formation processes for the A2 question on language change (ENGA3 or ENGB3) there's some food for thought about how gullible we might be as consumers when it comes to purchasing eco-products.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Berks versus w*nkers

Some appropriately named
"members of the Berkeley Hunt" in action
The always interesting Robert Lane Greene of The Economist's Johnson blog has written a good piece on prescriptivism versus descriptivism which is a good read for any A2 students revising Language Discourses.

In it, he quotes Kingsley Amis who split the world of language commentators up into berks and w*nkers. (I'm asterisking w*nker to avoid this blog getting blocked by various school and college filters, when the etymology of the Cockney rhyming slang berk - short for Berkeley hunt is much work out the rhyme or look here.)

It's a neat distinction and much more eloquently put than my own attempt on this blog post which used Hippies and Hitler at each extreme of the spectrum.

Greene concludes by saying

...that wherever we place ourselves on the berk-w*nker spectrum is arbitrary. It can only be defended with an appeal to a sense of style and taste, with a strong dash of self-deprecating humour. Anyone who gets red-faced insisting that their place on the berk-w*nker spectrum is the only place God intended language to be can be safely ignored.

 Wise words.

Changing accents

Several newspapers have picked up on an article* the research and ideas of Lancaster University linguist Paul Kerswill featured in an article for The Economist in which he talks about how accents are changing over time and speculates about what the country will sound like in years to come (2030, to be precise).

The original Economist article is here under the title Geordie's Still Alreet.  The Daily Mail jumped on the Geordie angle and the chance to print a picture of the delightful Cheryl Cole (whose recent tribulations with Simon Cowell and the US X Factor have been covered at length recently and at least partly blamed on her accent being tricky for Americans to understand) and featured the story under the title More than "Alreet".

Kerswill is one of the key linguists in the field and has been involved in a lot of recent work on Multicultural London English, among other things, so he knows what he's talking about. However, not all the articles based on his work are problem-free and it's interesting to see what Kerswill himself, and other linguists, have to say about the ways in which accents are described in the media. You can read more here on John Wells' phonetic blog.

Language Variation is one of the big areas for ENGA3 (sadly, it's not currently covered on the AQA B spec) and there's a decent chance of something about accent and dialect cropping up as a Language Discourses topic too this year. It's therefore worth looking at some of the complaints about the language used to represent different accents. Adjectives like sloppy, lazy, guttural and bland abound in many of these mainstream articles, and that's before you even get onto the readers' comments which are often laced with quite offensive stereotypes about the inhabitants of different regions and the way they speak.

We've covered the main thrust of Kerswill's argument here before, but it's certainly worth having a look at all of this again in preparation for the A2 exam later this month.

* edited on Thursday 9th June to reflect Paul Kerswill's comments below (sorry, Paul!)

Monday, June 06, 2011


The latest list of new additions to Oxford Dictionaries Online is a veritable smorgasbord of delights. You can find new words linked to the global economic crash, so you get casino banking and the bunch of banksters who got us into it. You get words and phrases to do with fashion and lifestyle - mani-pedi and awareness bracelet - but above all you get masses and masses of words to do with new technology - breadcrumb trail, NSFW and permalink being obvious examples.

The range of word formation processes is interesting too, with plenty of blends (bridezilla) and compounds (lifehack), a whole load of affixation taking place (cyber-, perma- and eco- being popular prefixes), and the odd shortening with silly addition at end (laptop becomes lappy).

The full list is here and the accompanying article here.

Edited to add: there's a piece by Lucy Tobin in yesterday's Evening Standard, featuring some dubious commentary from a certain "language researcher" at UCL. Is posting this here, the definition of egosurfing? I'm not sure I quite get why it's newlogism rather than neologism...

ENGA1: good luck today

Good luck to all AQA A English Language students taking ENGA1 this afternoon (especially SFX students). And good luck to any other Language students from other specs who have been using this blog.

Plan your answers, read the texts carefully and use your frameworks!

Edited to add: I know that last minute revision is bad for you, but if you want to double check theories for Child Language, I've added some twitpics of theory posters/sheets on the right navigation bar, at the very bottom of the screen.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Maximum chav-age

There's more on the word chav here on the BBC site, all inspired by the forthcoming book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by Owen Jones. It looks very promising, if this review by Labour MP John Cruddas is anything to go by.

Looking at arguments about language change and political correctness is all part of ENGA3 Language Discourses, while the language used to represent social groups - in this case, the working class, or sections of it - is covered in the coursework for ENGA2.

Maximum LOL-age

Unlike much of textspeak it fulfils a useful purpose, for which there was previously no word in the English language and thus earns its place.

David Mitchell's latest Soapbox is an inspired rant about the usefulness of LOL. It is very funny.

Get geeky

Thanks to the wonders of Twitter, I've come across this site which pulls together linguistics lectures from across the internet. I've not had time to use it yet, but there are links to lectures on language acquisition, swearing and language evolution, so they should be good for anyone interested in English Language and Linguistics.

At least be consistent

People have always complained about others' language use and it's probably part of human nature to find the accents, vocabulary and mannerisms of another group of people - Geordies, Brummies, Yardies, Americans, teenagers, poshos - upsetting and annoying. But when commentators set themselves up as linguistic authorities and tell other people that their language use is "wrong", they'd better make sure that they are actually right.

Kevin Myers, writing in today's Irish Independent, is not one of those people. In his article Omigod, this linguistic gibberish is, like, so gross he gets quite upset about what he calls the spread of "pseudo-American" English among the Irish middle classes and their teenage offspring, but he's initially exercised by the "common and lazy usage" of different than as opposed to different from, something he praises Michelle Obama for getting right while all around her everyone else is getting it wrong.

That's fair enough in many ways. Historically, there's been a pattern of usage that suggests different from is preferred to different than in formal English. However, that's changing and there appears to be a gradual shift taking place - perhaps through slips and errors, but perhaps through analogy with other, similar structures - towards different than. Language change is often a slippery beast and it can happen for all kinds of reasons.

Where Myers is on shakier ground though is in his insistence that "(Michelle Obama) correctly used the preposition rather than the relative conjunction, which -- for example -- the comparative adverb "better" would have attracted: hence, "different from" and "better than"." The problem here is that amid all his seemingly knowledgeable grammar talk, he comes up with a word class - relative conjunctions - that just doesn't exist. We've got relative pronouns (words like which and that, used to introduce relative clauses) and we've got conjunctions (and, but, because, if) but there's no such thing as a relative conjunction.

You could say that this just doesn't matter and I'd be tempted to agree. But if you're trying to come up with a rationale for a "rule" you follow - and more importantly, a prescriptivist rule you seem to want others to follow too - at least get it right.

For more on similar arguments about language usage (Language Discourses on ENGA3), you could have a look at this post about Simon Heffer's terrible Strictly English and this post about Henry Hitchings' excellent The Language Wars.

My get-out clause, before anyone points out any grammatical shortcomings in this (or any other) blog post, is that I'm not telling other people what they should or shouldn't do.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

ENGA1 June 2011: language development questions

Here are the titles of the essay questions set since June 2009 on spoken language development:

Jan 2011
To what extent does acquisition of language depend on children’s experiences of the world about them?

June 2010
How important is interaction between children and adult speakers in the process of language acquisition?

Jan 2010
Discuss the ways in which children develop their grammatical skills.

June 2009
Discuss what you have learnt about language acquisition from children’s early uses of words and meanings.

If you're looking for possible essay titles for June 2011, it's probably a good idea to look through the questions set on the old A spec which are very similar to what's on the current spec. You can find a set of them here.

ENGA1 June 2011 language development

Following on from this week's first revision post on ENGA1, here's a link to the collected language development posts on this blog for the last few years. You'll find revision and exam tips, as well as snippets of new research and links to discussions about theory and case studies.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The swag-curve model

Slang tends to spread in particular ways. First, a new slang term will appear in the language, perhaps coined by a smallish group of people; it might get picked up by a few more people - usually this will depend on the novelty value, flexibility and impact of the word itself, along with the influence of the original creators - and then it will spread (or not) to an ever-increasing number of users. Charles-James Bailey's wave and s-curve models represent such a spread over time very clearly, even if they were originally used to measure pronunciation differences as they spread across a country.

Of course, as the word gets picked up by a wider base of users, the original users of it, the originators, may stop using it. Once slang terms achieve mainstream usage, they often lose their appeal, their covert prestige, among the original users. Look at it this way: if your mum is talking about bling (and she is - I heard her on the bus to Peckham yesterday) then you probably won't be. Slang gets rinsed out. Bruv. Or is it cuz. Or should I say fam. Anyway, moving swiftly on....

The slang term will probably then reach a peak of use - the top curve of the S in Bailey's model - before flattening out and dipping down. After a period of time - it might be 5 years, 10 years or longer - the only person left saying the word will be your mum and your English teacher.

So, is this what has happened to swag? In this article by Jason Richards, the rise and rise of swag is charted and the question asked (of linguist Geoffrey Nunberg) if it will stay popular (like cool) or die away. His response is interesting:

Almost all of these words come in and then disappear. Because that's the point—high school freshmen and young management consultants spin off new words so that their language sounds different from [that of] the old boys. Obviously, some of them do persist, but it's very hard to predict which ones will.

What's odd about swag is that while it now has very positive connotations - to get your swag on is clearly a good thing by most people's standards - it had a previous life not that long ago as a derogatory term. Back in the mid-2000s, swag meant rubbish, crap and useless. As Urban Dictionary entries from 2006 and 2007 reveal, it wasn't a term of approval at all, and I remember SFX students (always leaders in lexical innovation) using it in this way from around that time.

But it's clear that there's now been either a shift, or (more likely) a completely new meaning, bulldozing  the older and more restricted usage of swag as crap into dust. Perhaps the usage of swag as crap was geographically restricted, or it never achieved the same level of acceptance among people with covert prestige to catch on more widely. Perhaps there was a word occupying that slot already that prevented swag from catching on as a derogatory term (perhaps waste, or moist took the title). Maybe, the support of the likes of MIA and Puff Daddy/Diddy/whatever he's called gave swag as stylish, good, cool the push it needed to take it into an upward trajectory. And the rest is history, but for how long?

Edited on 14.10.11 to add links to two Nancy Friedman pieces on swagger, swag and schwag