Sunday, December 29, 2013

WOTY FTW

It's that time of year again when the newspapers are full of end of year lists, and it wouldn't be complete without their favourite words of the year. So here are a few of them for your delectation and delight (and your ENGA3 and ENGB3 Language Change knowledge).

The Independent charts the events of the year through its new words
Ben Zimmer - linguist and columnist - takes a look for The Wall Street Journal
Steven Poole in The Guardian
The Daily Telegraph on Collins Dictionary's new words of 2013


And to cap it all, here's a best of for a decade from the excellent Kerry Maxwell who charts new words and their meanings for the MacMillan Dictionary blog.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Uptalk top-ranking

Uptalk is on the rise? And it's not just girls who are using it; it's boys as well? A BBC programme called Inside Science covered this last week (available here and from about 23 minutes in) and it has been picked up by the BBC's own Science writers in this article.

Uptalk - or what linguists often call HRT (High Rising Terminals) or HRI (High Rising Intonation) - is a feature in which the usual falling cadence at the end of a statement is replaced with a rising intonation, so that - to some listeners, at least - the tone sounds more like a question. Like y'know, one time at band camp?



In previous research, the phenomenon was shown to be spreading out of the USA and Australia where it might have originated (although views are mixed on exactly where) and into the language of younger British people, mostly young females. But work done by Amalia Arvanati, from the University of Kent suggests that uptalk is spreading into male speech too, although its use may be under-reported by males because it's felt to be a female feature or perhaps because it carries connotations of insecurity.

Uptalk is a useful feature of language, because it can signal a desire for the interlocutor (conversational partner) to confirm something that a speaker has said, but it can also grate on some listeners, because of this perceived lack of self-belief and certainty. As Arvanati explains on the programme, "It grates on people - some people think it sounds really ditzy or insecure".

We looked at uptalk back here in 2010 and you can find a lot more about it in this article from 2001 by Matt Seaton and in this piece by the linguist Mark Liberman on Language Log (which suggests, incidentally, that HRT is not a good term to describe uptalk). If you want to track uptalk back to its origins then this piece in the New York Times by James Gorman is credited (by Liberman, at least) as being the first recorded reference to it (from 1993).



Put up or shut up


We're all aware that people from the different regions around the UK tend to use certain words and meanings, pronunciation and even grammatical structures in different ways: that's a basic principle of geographical variation and has its roots in the history of Britain. But a new study at the University of Manchester has identified some interesting trends which suggest that some regional variations - particularly in word choice (lexis) - might be disappearing as southern terms spread north.

I'd call them Vans, myself
The research is reported on in the Daily Telegraph and the Mail Online, but if you want the real detail and a full look at the language maps that have been created by Laurel Mackenzie and her team at Manchester, go straight to the Multilingual Manchester website. Here you can look at the questions that were asked of the 1400 respondents throughout the UK: questions such as "What word would you use to describe the footwear featured in this picture?". The most popular answer for this question is pumps, followed in descending order of popularity by plimsolls, trainers, daps and shoes. With many of the other questions, the results can be compared with previous research findings, allowing a diachronic study (i.e. a study over time) to be made.

Interestingly, some of the questions also assess attitudes to what is standard and non-standard, asking respondents to say whether they think expressions such as "Give it me" or "I done it" are acceptable.

We'll be looking at this whole area in more detail when we go back to ENGA3 and Language Variation and Discourses after Christmas.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Representing Mandela

Picture from: http://www.freedomarchives.org/audio_samples/Nelson_Mandela.html
With the sad, but sadly inevitable, death yesterday of one of the greatest political figures of the last hundred years it might be a good time to look at how language shapes different representations and how those representations change over time.

For many, Nelson Mandela was always a hero: a man fighting injustice and racial intolerance in a country that had institutionalised racial separatism like no other. Given the almost-universal praise and warmth for Mandela upon his death, you might have thought that this was what people felt at the time, but it wasn't always like this.

While the Special AKA recorded the magnificent single Free Nelson Mandela, making the point that Mandela was not just a figurehead but  - as they put it "only one man in a large army" -  young Conservative Party activists designed tasteless Hang Nelson Mandela t-shirts and posters - an early form of trolling, no doubt - and leading Tory ministers actively campaigned against economic sanctions (probably the same ones who would now support harsher sanctions on Iran) or even (in the case of the current Prime Minister, David Cameron) went to South Africa on a jolly, paid for by an anti sanctions company.

But things move on, and people's views evolve and perhaps mellow as time goes on. Cameron is now singing the praises of Mandela's integrity, leadership and forgiveness. I used to think the Conservative government should be hung, drawn and quartered for their support of apartheid South Africa. Now, just 2 out of those 3 would do for me...

For each person who saw Mandela as a freedom fighter, another saw him as a terrorist. I'd like to think that there were more of us in the former camp, but as this article by Peter Beinhart points out, powerful forces saw Mandela as a dangerous agitator. Even in 2008 - yes, 2008 - the ANC and Mandela were still on a USA terrorist watch-list!

Others, like the excellent Guardian journalist Gary Younge and writer Musa Okwonga offer alternative viewpoints. Younge describes Mandela as "never a revolutionary, always a radical" and Okwonga cautions against a revisionist, sanitised view of Mandela, which removes his anger and replaces it with sainthood.

So, for English Language students there's a lot to consider in the coverage of Mandela's death. If you look back through articles from the 1970s to 80s when he was still in prison and the ANC were seen by the South African state as  a terrorist organisation, the language may well strike you as less sympathetic: often related to violence, struggle and conflict. Fast forward to 1990 when the world's press watched him walk free from prison with all the hope, reconciliation and bridge-building that seemed to embody, and now on to the sanctifying of Mandela as a modern day saint and you'll find the language shifting into a whole range of other fields: tolerance, forgiveness, understanding, inspiration and harmony.

A great man and a great study in how perceptions can change and how language can change the way we see the world.

Edited on 06.12.13 to add link and correct error.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Gay abandon

What do words actually mean? When we want to work out what a word means, we tend to turn to a dictionary, but even in there we might find that multiple meanings are offered. And that's because semantic change - a gradual (or in some cases, very rapid) shift of meaning - occurs over time.

In a really interesting book called Words in Time, Geoffrey Hughes looks at how language change is linked to social change, and examines how words that we use now used to mean something very different a long time ago.

For example, in a section on what he calls the "moralization of status-words" he identifies a time in the Middle English period when "words such as noble and villain change from being terms denoting rank to terms which are evaluative of moral conduct". On the good side, we get noble, gentle, frank, free and liberal, but on the bad side, he goes on to explain, "words which originally denoted inferior social status become terms of disapproval", so we get villain, knave, blackguard, wretch, slave and churl.

Of course, what has driven these words to change is a link between someone's social rank in a hierarchical society and perceptions of those people as being good or bad because of their rank. In essence, if you were working class and poor, you tended to be seen as a lower, less moral kind of person, so the words used to label you tended to shift down the scale of meaning from neutral to pejorative as time went on, while the opposite was true for the richer and higher status people. Quite why an accident of birth should make you a good or a bad person is not clear, but as we know, judgements are easy to make and it's often simpler to denigrate people beneath you on the social ladder than those above who you might one day aspire to be part of.

That's why - to this very day - you will never hear me utter a bad word about David Cameron, George Osborne or those trust-fund Wurzels*, Mumford and Sons.

Not all meaning changes are linked to gradual processes of social change and shifts in attitudes; sometimes they are more rapid. The flipping of ill, sick, bad and wicked are all examples of where a more drastic change has occurred, with a deliberate effort to turn a word into its opposite. I'm old enough to remember genuine confusion on the faces of elderly relatives when they heard something good described as 'sick'. Nowadays, even your mum is demonstrating 'wicked tekkers' when she juggles an i-Phone in one hand and a glass of fizzy wine in the other.

But what about words which are contested? Some words have changed over time to pick up extremely negative connotations: words like hussy and slut, queer and gay. While gay has had quite a long association with sexual appetite, its widespread use as a term to describe (and put down) men who love other men is perhaps more recent, reaching a peak in the 1980s and 90s. Gay then moved on to be a catch-all term of abuse. Trousers were gay (maybe because they looked slightly feminine in style, or perhaps too tight). Chairs were gay (perhaps a bit wonky to sit on or defective in some way). I even set homeworks that were described by my classes as gay.

But is gay homophobic? In other words, can (as Ricky Gervais rather weakly argued with the term mong) the word gay now be seen as having moved so far away from its association with sexuality and negative judgements about others' sexual identities, that it's just another word? Stonewall, the gay rights charity, don't think so and their campaign to address homophobic name-calling and bullying aims to "get the meaning straight".

Brendan O'Neill, a man with a history of provocative articles to his name and a tendency to attack Political Correctness whenever he can, doesn't think so. He argues in today's Daily Telegraph that "gay now means rubbish"  and, echoing Stonewall's previous campaign, adds "Get over it".

Is it as simple as either side suggest? Language change doesn't happen at once. Most processes take a while to sink in. They tend to follow a pattern that we often see as a wave (as in C.J.Bailey's wave theory of 1973) with changes spreading out from one core group to wider society as time goes on, like ripples create by a stone thrown into a pond. This means that:
a) it takes time for a new meaning to spread to a group of people at the edge of the pond (perhaps older people who have a meaning that they grew up with - The Flintstones and having a "gay old time" perhaps)
and
b) by the time a change has spread to the edges, the frequency of the use might have dropped off in the centre and a new meaning started to emerge

Interestingly, as Justyna Robinson identifies in her paper on cognitive linguistics and semantic change, Awesome insights into semantic variation, "conceptual links" often exist between the successive senses of a word, so in this case, the semantic shift from gay as "Bright or lively-looking, esp. in colour; brilliant, showy" (OED 1225) has a clear link to "light-hearted, carefree; manifesting, characterized by, or disposed to joy and mirth; exuberantly cheerful, merry; sportive." (OED 1400) and "Originally of persons and later also more widely: dedicated to social pleasures; dissolute, promiscuous; frivolous, hedonistic. Also (esp. in to go gay ): uninhibited; wild, crazy; flamboyant." (OED 1597).

It doesn't take much of a conceptual leap to then get to gay as being involved in the selling of sex (OED 1795 -) and "(a) Of a person: homosexual; (b) (of a place, milieu, way of life, etc.) of or relating to homosexuals" (OED 1922-) before we reach gay as lame or crap via association with a stigmatised group in society.

While Brendan O'Neill claims we should so get over how gay has changed to mean something he views as largely inoffensive, I'd argue that it doesn't just mean one thing at all; it actually means many different things at the same time and that in a pluralistic society we need to be careful to think about how words might carry different meanings for different people.

So, where do you stand on this? Is gay now free of its abusive and homophobic connotations to most people? Is Stonewall just being too sensitive about offending people? Or is there a good argument for suggesting that gay is loaded with negative associations and not yet ready for rehabilitation as a general term of disapproval?

(*copyright Charlie Brooker)

HT to Clarissa for link to Pink News article.


Selfie

The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is selfie. Read all about it everywhere.

BBC News site
The Guardian
Oxford Dictionaries
Daily Mail

And Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian describes it as "like so much else in the digital world – all about "me," but revealing a sometimes desperate urge to find an "us"".

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Teacher told to "lose her northern accent"

Following on from Friday's post about another attempt to 'ban' students from using dialect and non-standard terms (and/or slang, depending on your definition of the term), another story - this time about accent - has appeared.

According to The Cumberland News and Star, a Cumbrian teacher has been told to ditch her regional accent and make it more 'southern' to suit her Berkshire pupils. Now it appears that it's not just students who are having their language policed, but teachers are also being told what to say and how to say it. Where will the language police strike next?

Back in 2010, Ofsted raised a similar issue at a school in Portsmouth which prompted this blog post and this response in the TES, among other things.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Dialect dissing

First it was slang getting slagged off and now it's dialect being dissed. Is this a slippery slope towards linguistic fascism?

We've reported several examples of so-called slang bans on this blog over the last few years - a few are listed below - but in many cases, the definition of what constitutes 'slang' has been pretty broad, and more often than not, just plain wrong. And that's before you even start to look at the whys and wherefores of imposing 'zero-tolerance' policies towards forms of non-standard English.

In The Daily Mirror yesterday, Martin Fricker reported on a school in Halesowen, part of the West Midlands' Black Country, where such a zero-tolerance approach to local dialect had been introduced.

The Daily Telegraph reported it as well, but what is striking in so many of the responses quoted from parents of children at the school is how insulted many of them feel at being told that their variety of English is sub-standard.

Take for example, what parent Alana Willetts was reported as saying: "I got a double A in my English GCSE and I have a Black Country accent. I think it is patronising and insulting to say that people with a Black Country accent are disadvantaged. All the parents are outraged, English is a living language, we can't all talk the same, we don't all speak in ye olde English and new words are being added to the dictionary every day".

Compare that with the language being used to describe the local dialect: language such as "top ten most damaging phrases" and "zero-tolerance", which taps into discourses of punishment and destruction.

Even worse than what the school itself says, are the ways in which the comments below the line pick up the intolerant attitude towards non-standard forms and rapidly extend to damning whole groups of people, areas of the country and even races.

The delightful 'Stew' on The Daily Telegraph site comments "When so many childrens dialect is polluted with west indian slang!.", while 'Coley170'  from the Daily Mirror site gets their geography a tad confused and states "fair I think....they should speak proper English, they won't get anywhere in life speaking Cornish slang" and potential UN ambassador Chris Marshall decides that West Midlanders should be sent home to err....the West Midlands: "If you can not speak the English language then you should be deported".

Me, I'm with Alana Willetts on this, rather than the wrong-headed headteacher of Colley Lane or the backward bigots quoted above.

Edited on Monday 18th November 2013 to add Guardian link

Other links to "slang bans" and dialect discrimination:

Croydon
http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/another-slang-ban-attempted.html



Middlesbrough


Sheffield

Manchester

Basildon
 




 

Friday, November 08, 2013

Muslamic ray guns and the myth of Winterval

With Nigel Farage appearing on BBC's Question Time nearly every week, spouting his particular brand of ill-researched xenophobic scaremongering, you might be forgiven for thinking that the whole world has gone mad. But no, it's PC that's gone mad. And this time, we're not talking about PC as in Police Constables involved in Plebgate, but PC as in Political Correctness.

Nearly every year at about this time, a newspaper brings up the hoary old myth of Christmas being banned by some council or other to prevent offence to (take your pick) atheists, muslims, hindus, sikhs, buddhists or jedis. It forms part of a wider view that the traditions so long associated with this supposedly Christian country (of which a paltry 10% of the population actually go to church) are under threat from alien forces. Sometimes it's the forces of darkness (darker-skinned people with their strange religions), sometimes it's the reds (crazy communists trying to make us all equal), but often it's Brussels bureaucrats or local councils who are blamed.

The one prevalent myth is that of Winterval: a name so inoffensive to any minority group it must have been dreamt up by a committee of the most demented of liberals, and a name designed to replace the word Christmas which was felt to be too ...err.. Christian. But as both Kevin Arscott in today's Guardian and Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian in 2006 make perfectly clear, Winterval never happened, at least never in the way that the mainstream press reported it.

When the Birmingham Winterval story resurfaced in 2009, local Lib Dem activist, Mark Pack explained the distortions being peddled as truth on his political blog, laying into what he saw as a deliberate attempt to spread disinformation and a huge reluctance - particularly on the part of Christian news websites - to provide evidence and sources for their claims.

Of course, these stories - Winterval, Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep -  don't exist in a vacuum; they need a context to give them at least a fighting chance of survival. And that context is often a wider political discourse about social breakdown, immigration and crime - what might be called a declinist agenda, one that suggests everything is going down the drain and that society is doomed - peddled in the popular press and by populist politicians. So, having created fear and worry about the parlous state of traditional British values, created an enemy (East Europeans massing on our borders, just waiting for the EU to let them in and claim our benefits) and stoked paranoia about the (usually burkha-clad, or heavily-bearded) enemy within, it doesn't really take a lot to stir things up further with a few stories about Christmas being cancelled.

It's easy to laugh it off and say it doesn't matter, but it doesn't take much to translate the politics of fear into the politics of hate. First Winterval, then Kristallnacht? Hopefully not, but it's the kind of fear that poisons the debate and makes racism and prejudice more acceptable.

And while the clip below is clearly a bit of a cheap shot at a very inarticulate EDL supporter (his fear of "Iraqi law" and "Muslamic ray-guns" being a particular highlight), a quick glance around Facebook and Twitter reveals that there are many people all too willing to lap up such scare stories and use them to reinforce their prejudices.


Friday, October 25, 2013

ENGA2 - tackling representation

There's never been a better time to be doing your ENGA2 Investigating Representations, I reckon. We've had some huge stories about not just individuals and events but institutions and issues too, even social groups.

Here's a quick list of suggestions for possible topics and a link or two to get you started.

INDIVIDUALS
Russell Brand calling for global revolution
Is he a trivial twit?
Capitalism is ace, says a capitalist.
Nafeez Ahmed takes a more positive view on Brand

ISSUES
Racism in football rearing its ugly head again
Kick It Out

SOCIAL GROUPS
The Gypsy (Roma) people getting it in the neck again and having their blonde-haired babies taken away from them.
Here's a brief history of the Roma

Muslims: a BBC Newsbeat survey showed polarised attitudes to Muslims.

INSTITUTIONS
The Police and how Plebgate has seen confidence in them fall to a new low.
How can we trust the police?
If the police can stitch up a Government minister, what can they do to the rest of us?

MILEY gets a category all of her own, obviously
Firestorm over twerking
Sinead O'Connor and Miley Cyrus have a row



Thursday, October 24, 2013

Slang ban debated

The recent slang ban in a London school was debated on a Canadian radio station recently and you can hear what was said through this link.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Another slang ban attempted

Basically, tings is getting bare random with this kind of shizzle, yeah?

In another (futile) attempt to control behaviour in a school - and language is clearly a powerful type of behaviour - the Harris Academy in Croydon has tried to implement a "slang ban".

The BBC covered it here, the Daily Mail here and The Guardian here. It was also discussed by the linguist Paul Kerswill on today's World At One (start listening after 13.30 to hear it).

We've gone over the arguments about this kind of ban on several occasions on this blog - first in London, then in Manchester, then Sheffield, and finally in Middlesbrough - so there's not much else to add.

Edited on 17.10.13 to correct Guardian link and add Guardian Comment is Free link to Will Coldwell article

Thursday, October 03, 2013

A war on the young? More like a unilateral assualt

In a week or so, we'll be looking at the representation of young people as a social group for our ENGA2 AS English Language lessons, so it's kind of nice of David Cameron to give us some extra ammunition for our classes, even if in the process he's basically sticking two fingers up to every under-25 in the country!

Here's Ally Fogg of The Guardian on Cameron's announcement yesterday:

It would be wrong to think of David Cameron's proposals to take key benefits away from the under-25s as a new initiative. They form merely the latest chapter in a chilling horror story that began shortly after the coalition took the reins, with the tripling of university tuition fees, the abolition of educational maintenance allowance and the future jobs fund, and was still under way this summer when the chancellor's spending review slashed another £260m from the further education budget.

It would be also be a mistake to describe this as a "war on the young" as many commentators have done. A war implies two sides vying for supremacy. This is a strictly unilateral assault, a grand act of persecution. Indeed watching the prime minister singling out unemployed youngsters for uniquely punitive measures while pretending it is for their own good, cheered on by a gang of braying chums, it looks less like the behaviour of a national statesman and more like the petty vindictiveness of a schoolyard bully.
 There's some lovely stuff to analyse in there, not just in the language used to characterise the policy announcement - playing on the semantic field/discourse associated with war and conflict - but in the way he represents Cameron and his "chums".

We'll have a look at the whole way in which discourses around young people are often based on fear, threat and otherness, but in the meantime, this makes a good read.

A culturally relativist academic speaks...

While I was tapping out a blog post about Lindsay Johns' Four Thought programme, the linguist Paul Kerswill was already on the case, writing a response directly to him, which he has kindly allowed us to post here.

As one of the linguists involved in the Linguistic Innovators project - the work that put Multicultural London English (MLE) on the map and kicked off so much discussion about slang, dialect and code-switching in the media - he's well placed to offer a more considered reflection on what Johns has presented in his programme.

Thank you for your Four Thought programme this evening, which taught me how linguistic action on the ground can make a difference to young people. But I feel I need to challenge you on several points. First (and let me get this off my chest straight away), exactly who are these middle-class, culturally relativist academics who wish to oppress young people by withholding Standard English from them? Maybe you are thinking of academic linguists like me or some of my colleagues, and if so I'd like to engage in debate with you to show that you are some way off the mark. I'm keen to understand why some young people are failing to get a good education and failing to get good jobs, and I have always believed that the use of Standard English is part of the solution.

Second, you don't consider why so many, particularly black, youngsters speak what my colleagues and I call Multicultural London English. The criminologist John Pitts (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gd3SJ6qakyY, 29 minutes in) locates the origin of it to the East End in the early 1980s, when young black people's deteriorating position in London was preventing them from living up to their parents' expectations for them. Pitts argues that the new dialect reflects a 'resistance identity'. As such it's akin to youth language the world over and in all historical times, and is a kind of 'anti-language'. In London, it's an expression of some young people’s feeling that they have nothing to gain from investment in society. So you risk putting the cart before the horse by fixing the language and not the social attitudes (amongst many other things) that hold them back.

Third, you may be underestimating the breadth of young people's linguistic repertoires. For some purposes, they need Standard English and an avoidance of slang, but that's precisely the point: they need to be linguistically flexible - code-switching, if you like - though I know you reject that notion. Teenagers have rather specific needs in terms of belonging, and language expresses that. Then they grow out of it, or rather change their needs, in adulthood. Linguistic flexibility can be taught, and I'm pretty sure most teachers are aware of this, and act accordingly.  
Fourth, you seem to equate this way of speaking with impoverished language. It's true that kids vary enormously in the size of their vocabulary. This has nothing to do with speaking Multicultural London English. It relates entirely to social class, not ethnicity, and so you might as well criticise any local accent or dialect in the same way. You also castigate the use of ‘ghetto language’ editions of Shakespeare: don't these merely demonstrate that language is infinitely flexible and rich? William Labov, way back in the 70s, proved that African American English, including that spoken by gang members, is grammatically precise and richly expressive.

Your language work with the kids in Peckham is reaping rewards for them. The life of the young man you mentioned is undoubtedly the better for it. But aren't you in danger of turning him against the music he (probably) identifies with and alienating him from the family and friends he loves? I would bet he is now a proficient code-switcher, not just linguistically but also culturally.

Thanks very much to Paul for letting us print his response. 

Dissing ghetto grammar to Mikey G and Funkmaster David C

Fresh from his appearance at the Conservative Party conference, where he angrily denounced "trendy teaching" and "hip hop Hamlet" productions as "viciously racist", while (not so freshly) trotting out a tired Stevie Wonder joke, Lindsay Johns made an appearance on Radio 4's Four Thought programme, with a 15 minute attack on his old favourite, "ghetto grammar"

We've looked at Johns' arguments about this subject - the need for Standard English and the dangers of street slang to inner city youths - on this blog before and, to be honest, much of what he says in the Four Thought lecture is a slightly reheated version of his older articles which you can find here and here.

Unlike Johns, who sees the issue in stark terms - Standard English = good, slang = bad - the issue is more complicated than he suggests. I think he probably realises that, but why let research, reality and facts gets in the way of a good rant? And hey, it seems to be doing him some good, as he gets to stand on stage among an overwhelmingly white, pensionable and right wing crowd and denounce lefties to big applause.

One of the stand-out moments in his Four Thought piece (apart from the Stevie Wonder joke - Stevie Wonder is blind? LOL!) is his hugely overstated attack on white, middle class liberals, who espouse a doctrine of "cultural relativism" in which all language styles are just as good as each other and where street slang is viewed as the authentic voice of the streets and therefore not to be discouraged.

Instructively, he doesn't name a single one of these sinister lefties, or tell us about a single paper, article or case study that they've produced to make such a claim, but he reaches heights of rhetorical flamboyance in making these claims:

Contrary to the risible notions promulgated by cultural relativists - often white, liberal, middle class ones - notions which are deeply patronising, obnoxious and offensive, not to mention viscerally racist, of accepting black kids from Peckham speaking in inchoate street slang because they deem it to be the "authentic rhythms of Africa", I tell my mentees "We don't live in Timbuktu, or the south Bronx; we live in England, so speak proper English".
For a man who likes teaching young people how to use adjectives, he sure uses a lot of adjectives...


But, as I stated back in 2011 in the response to his original ghetto grammar piece:

Firstly, you'd be pretty hard-pressed to find any linguist or educator who doesn't argue that a mastery of Standard English is a prerequisite of a good education. Who are these cultural relativists that Johns is referring to? It smacks of the right wing arguments about the "PC brigade": some nebulous and sinister cabal of liberals and lefties hell-bent on messing up everything about young people's education with their crazy commie views. They don't really exist...

Secondly, code-switching is not that difficult for young people. They do it all the time. But only if they have another form to switch into. That's essentially the point that Johns is missing. The young people he works with - if they have as poor a command of Standard English as he claims - don't have a problem with slang: they have a problem with basic literacy. To lay the blame for these young people's inability to write and speak clearly at the door of street slang and those people who don't condemn it out of hand is a very weak argument.
While Johns is clearly right to say in his articles and lectures (and yes, even his speech to the Tory conference) that "language is power" and that some of the most marginalised and underprivileged in our society desperately need that power more than their pampered Eton-educated counterparts (err, not that he said that at the Tory party conference), he's spectacularly wrong in claiming that slang is the problem.

Yes, there may be some young people who struggle to grasp a sophisticated level of Standard English - that has pretty much always been the case and we should strive to help them - but there are many many more young people who know exactly how to code switch when they use language in different situations and who know exactly when and when not to use slang and the value of that slang.

In attacking street slang, Johns misunderstands the real power of language: its ability to serve us in different situations and with different people and to convey a massive range of different, nuanced attitudes. Language is power, but rather like in the anecdote Johns tells us about being pulled over by the police and bamboozling the Met copper with the word "abstemious", Johns seems to equate power with the superficial quality of knowing a few more adjectives than the next guy. Really? Is that it? If anyone is patronising young people, it's not an anonymous collective of liberal lefties but Johns himself.

Putting up with prejudiced sit

Following on from last week's Tonight programme and its focus on attitudes to regional accents, here's a great piece by accent coach Erica Buist on what she describes as snobbery and disdain for foreign accents among many English people.

While accent prejudice is nothing new, it's troubling to see how it can apparently stand in the way of well qualified people getting jobs and being accepted. As Buist points out:


Even out-and-out xenophobes start sentences with, "I don't mind foreigners, but …" While it's tedious to hear bigotry tarted up as a point of view, at least the lie is an acknowledgement that xenophobia isn't acceptable. But companies don't start sentences with, "we're not xenophobic, but …" – they make it company policy.
Elsewhere in the piece she quotes research from the University of Chicago that suggests foreign accents undermine a speaker's credibility with listeners, even if the listeners aren't aware of it at the time. Rather like the ComRes survey for the ITV Tonight programme (also reported in The Telegraph) it appears that it's not just what you say but how you say it that affects how you're viewed by others.

Buist is going to have watch out, though - sounding a bit like a Jenny Foreigner and having the nerve to criticise anything to do with the UK -  while Paul Dacre's Daily Fail is still frothing at the mouth and accusing one and all of hating the country.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Grammar do and grammar don't

Last time there was a teachers' strike, I put the blog on strike for a day; this time round, I've decided not to. I'm on strike but have decided that the blog is a labour of love, for which I get no payment, and anyway, I update it so infrequently at the moment that nobody would be able to tell it's on strike. A bit like my teaching, in fact...

Anyway, today's post is a quick one about the rules of grammar - which ones to worry about and which ones not to - by The Guardian's Style Guide author David Marsh. In it he deals with some of the arguments people have about things like split infinitives, starting sentences with conjunctions, who/whom and all the rest of it.

It's a particularly useful article for A2 students looking at ENGA3 and Language Discourses, but is also handy for anyone who cares about writing clearly and how clarity can be improved with a a bit of careful thought.

Friday, September 27, 2013

When autocorrect attacks

The AS English Language course involves a pretty steep learning curve for many students coming from GCSE, what with its terminology, its theories, its terminology and its... err...terminology. But, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and no, it's not Noam Chomsky dancing with a glo-stick; we'll soon be looking at technology and communication and the ways in which technology offers us scope to communicate in new ways (its affordances) against the limitations that can sometimes be caused by the devices we use and the kittens - sorry, keyboards - we type on (i.e. the constraints of technology).

So, just for a taster of what can happen when technology constrains us more than usual, have a look at this link showing what can happen when autocorrect attacks.

"Prejudice about accents is alive and well."

ITV's Tonight programme last night (available on ITV player) featured some good coverage of attitudes to different accents, including a survey by ComRes into how people rate certain regional varieties. The overall findings suggest that many people still feel that their accent pigeonholes them socially and that prejudice is often rife among some employers towards people with certain accents. As the programme blurb states:

...even in modern Britain, where equality is the new God, prejudice about accents is alive and well. And we often found it thriving most - along the north-south, “us and them” fault-lines of old.
Our research not only shows that more than a quarter of Britons (28%) feel they have been discriminated against because of their regional accent but also, according to another batch of research by the law firm Peninsular, that 80% of employers admit to making discriminating decisions based on regional accents.

As part of ENGA3 we've been looking at language variation and attitudes towards accents and dialects, and many of us will have been running through last summer's assignment on Victoria Coren's take on  George Osborne's downwards convergence towards Morrisons workers,  so this programme is well-timed from that point of view. It also offers plenty of extra ammunition for debate and discussion in the form of the survey results which you can find here on the ITV Tonight website.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Swears wot scare

If you like swearing - and frankly, who doesn't like to have a little swear when George Osborne appears on TV, a puppy does a poo on your favourite shoes, or a cold caller asks you about your pension plans while you're listening to Leeds United concede a 96th minute goal against an inferior team - then have a listen to Stephen Fry's Radio 4 show, Fry's English Delight.

This week he's been exploring the history of the multi-faceted F-word. It's not just a rude word; it's a flexible friend, functioning as a verb, a noun, an adverb and probably every other word class too, in some way or another. But you'll have to get an F-ing move on, because it's only on i-Player for a few more days.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Try being Jewish at a Chelsea match"

Following last year's heated debate about the use of the terms "yids" and "yid army" to describe Tottenham Hotspur's fans, the flames have been fanned further by interventions from both sides.

As The Guardian reports, both the Football Association and David Cameron have waded in, threatening to fine and ban fans on one hand, or to forgive them on the other. David Baddiel (who is Jewish) has also joined in with a provocative and interesting article in The Guardian and a radio discussion with David Aaronovitch (also Jewish) about whether "yid" is a race-hate term or a proud badge of solidarity among Jewish Tottenham fans and their fellow supporters (on this link from about 33 minutes in).

One of Baddiel's key points is that if you're Jewish and have suffered the abuse directed at Jews by some of the minority of racist scumbags from Chelsea, Arsenal and West Ham, you're unlikely to view "yid" as a friendly term, however it appears to be used by Tottenham fans, who are historically seen as a club with a strong Jewish following.

As we discussed back in November 2012, this is a language topic that crops up as part of ENGA3 and could well form a good topic for the Language Intervention part of the ENGA4 coursework. Have a look back at the longer post here to see where it all fits in.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Taking selfies while twerking off the food baby



It's new words time for Oxford Dictionaries Online and that means lots of media coverage for the new(ish) words that have been added to the dictionary. This is one of those areas of language change that often gets a good press (unlike other changes which tend to cause snorts of derision the press).

Here, Oxford Dictionaries Blog explain some of their new words, while The Guardian picks a few of them up in this piece and The Daily Telegraph has a look too. Elsewhere, twerking - recently popularised by Miley Cyrus, but disputed by several commentators - gets a more in depth look. My personal favourite so far (probably because I have developed a summer one of these) is food baby, which is defined as "a protruding stomach caused by eating a large quantity of food and supposedly resembling that of a woman in the early stages of pregnancy". Excuse me while I go and twerk it off.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Accents and dialects

Welcome back to blog followers from last year and hi to new people starting the course this year. I've tried to keep regular tweets going from the @EngLangBlog account over the summer holiday in place of blog posts and I've rounded up a few of the most interesting ones about accent and dialect here for you.

These should be particularly helpful if you're doing ENGA3 this year, especially those Colchester 6th Form College students doing the summer assignment in the packs from last term.

Lucy Mangan on accent adaptation and prejudice

A guide to Nottingham accent and dialect

A piece on the changing nature of the Leicester varieteh


Monday, June 24, 2013

Public service announcements

Colleagues at two universities have asked this blog to publicise a couple of things that might either be of interest to you, or that they need help with.

The first is a job opportunity at UCL, which involves working on the new Primary English part of the Englicious project. You can find more info on it here.

The second is from Sue Fox and Jenny Cheshire at QMUL. They would like feedback from students and teachers who have used their English Language Teaching Resources and Linguistics Research Digest and just need a few quick responses to this survey.