Thursday, March 29, 2012

The death of Cockney (part 175)

a cockney geezer, yesterday
Today's Daily Mail provides a feast for those of you who like a bit of doom and gloom in the shape of "English being destroyed by text language" headlines. This time round, texting is not making us stupider (d'oh) or turning us into a nation of chavs, but destroying that loveable old variety, Cockney Rhyming Slang.

The article looks at a recent survey of 2000 people by the Museum of London which suggests that most of them don't encounter much Cockney rhyming slang and would be baffled by terms such as apples and pears for stairs or brown bread for dead (although genuine Cockneys would never use the rhyming part of the term and stick to apples or brown, to confuse the casual listener yet further). It's not really that much of a surprise because, after all, Cockney speakers are and have probably always been a small group, although admittedly one whose influence was greater than their number.

What helps the Mail turn this into a sad tale of prescriptivist woe is not that the dialect is dying a natural death, with its users shuffling off to Romford or drinking too many Britneys and keeling over, but that the good old Cockney dialect is being destroyed by textisms like LOL and OMG. This is the Cockney variety which, if you look back through the decades, has often been damned - by the selfsame mainstream media that now bemoans its loss - for its coarseness, vulgarity and general untrustworthiness. They're having a bubble. A couple of years ago, texting wasn't the threat to Cockney: Multicultural London English was, apparently.

For Language Change students this makes for a great example of a declinism discourse, with some of the "bottom half" - the comments below the story from Daily Mail readers - adding to the sense that this is yet another symptom of a language, a nation, a proud island race in decline. There's not much that doesn't upset some of these commenters: one day it's pasties, the next it's patois. But it's fantastically fertile ground for a bit of Language Discourses analysis...Look there's a Crumbling Castle! And there's an Infectious Disease! OMG, I can even see a Damp Spoon!

Thankfully, the Daily Telegraph takes a slightly more restrained view, quoting the world's favourite linguist, David Crystal who says "Cockney slang was never very widely known as it started as a secret way for people to talk to each other. As soon as the slang became known the Cockney’s stopped using it".

The elevation of Cockney to its place in a theme park of English identity is an odd one. In 1909, S.K.Ratcliffe of the English Association described it as a "debased dialect, which is spreading from our schools and training colleges all over the country", and he added, "in ten years' time the English language will not be worth speaking". Its origins lie in East End criminals developing a language of inclusion among their own (in-group language) and exclusion of outsiders (the out-group), so it was always meant to fox and confuse outsiders and keep the business of the insiders to themselves.

So, why celebrate such a dubious dialect? Will the Daily Mail in thirty years' time be running a headline "Innit dies. Arks is on its last legs. A nation mourns."? I doubt it...

Cockney has become part of a heritage industry, a set of linguistic markers of a passing (or in some cases, passed on to the other side) English identity which some still cling on to. In times of uncertainty over identity - globalisation, mass immigration, economic downturn, social change -  people often hang on to those things that signal tradition. And while RP might be a more prestigious marker of Englishness, Cockney has also developed a place in this theme park because it's associated with more innocent, more certain times.

But, as anyone who has looked at language change knows, these certainties, these notions of a shared and communal language identity are a myth. Language has always had different varieties which have pretty much universally been looked down upon by the ruling classes and their media: Cockney is no exception. Working class varieties like Cockney might well signal higher solidarity than more overtly prestigious forms like RP, and therefore trigger feelings of warmth and nostalgia, but when Cockney was in its prime, the users of it probably wouldn't have been looked on as cuddly old-fashioned figures, but unpleasant and antisocial criminals.

So, perhaps Cockney is on its way out - maybe it's been on its way out for a long time already - but if we look at why it's being mourned we can see that so many other strands of concern about change - not just language change - are apparent.

Edited on 30.03.12 to add this link: Take the Cockney Rhyming Slang quiz here.



Thursday, March 15, 2012

Literally the last word on "literally"

For literally gazillions of years pedants have complained that people use language "incorrectly". That is to say they don't use it in quite the same way as the pedants like to use it. And that's fine, because if we didn't have pedants we wouldn't have the tension between progress and conservatism that characterises so much of the history of English language, and our language would literally spiral out of control and become a garbled mishmash of slang, ghetto-speak and missing apostrophes. Or something...

Literally is one of those words that pedants have complained about. Critics argue that the word means "to the letter", so shouldn't be used as a figure of speech. It's a kind of anti-metaphor, if you like. When someone says "When she left me, she literally took a piece of my heart with her" a pedant might jump out of the bushes wagging a finger, responding "But she didn't literally remove part of your heart did she? She didn't actually take a bleeding chunk from your left ventricle and take it away". And you might respond, "Who are you and where did you come from? Put that wagging finger away; it's not even yours".

This piece on the BBC News Magazine's pages offers an enlightening insight into how literally has been used over the years and how it fits into a pattern of semantic shift that we see with many other words. If reading the article itself is too hard and literally going to ruin your day, then have a listen to the interview from Radio 4's Today programme, which is here.

Edited on 19.03.12 to add: Good link here to Polly Curtis in The Guardian discussing this.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Taking a Look at Slang over Time

Professor Julie Coleman's new book, The Life of Slang sounds like a great read. In it (innit? LOL!), she traces the origins of different slang terms and looks at slang's uses in society.

As part of the publicity for the book, she was interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme and you can hear part of it through this link. As you might imagine, some slang terms have had a longer life than most people think, so we find that chav has been knocking around since 1886, to hang out since 1811, and dope has been used to describe illicit drugs since 1872.

One interesting part of the Radio 4 segment is that it relates to arguments about banning slang, so Kathy August (referred to in Playground Prescriptivism) is interviewed about her views on slang and young people's education. Coleman's response produces a nifty quotation that I'm sure ENGA3 students can use in Language Discourses: "It's impossible to stigmatise a style of language without stigmatising the people who use it."

For a quick look at some of the other slang terms Coleman features in her book, have a look at this piece in The Sun.