Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The age of the LOLcat is over; the time of Doge has come

Dogs are better than cats - it has been scientifically proven, by scientists using science - so it's no surprise that LOLcats are so last year when it comes to language memes and dogs are where it's at just now. Well, not dogs exactly, but Doge, a weird variant of English (some use of wow, a deliberate mis-spelling or two, a strange unnatural combination of an adverb plus a noun, for example) that exists on the internet in pictures like this one below.

If you're still not sure what Doge is or why you should care, you can have a look here for a more detailed update, read this link on Superlinguo, or listen to this clip from this morning's Radio 4 Today programme.

(HT to @suewalder for Toast link and @StanCarey for LOLcats article)

Friday, February 14, 2014

Evolution or decline?

If you are studying Language Change or Language Discourses for either AQA A or B A2 English Language, a recent run of articles should be really helpful to you. One of the big debates - probably the biggest, overarching debate of all - connected to this topic is over the ways in which people view language change. Is it a downward spiral of decline or a natural process of evolution and progression?

As you might expect, it's rarely a simple answer and opinions are often divided. For members of the declinist to-hell-in-a-handcart brigade (aka the prescriptivists), like Simon Heffer and Lynne Truss, our language (usually ours, not theirs) is permanently at risk from the eroding winds of change and the tides of textual degradation.

In a recent piece for The Daily Telegraph (which you'll be reading/working on now if you're in one of my A2 classes), Lynne Truss bemoaned what she saw as the increasingly blurred distinction between single and compound words such as any way/anyway and may be/maybe, declaring - in a slightly hyperbolic and tongue in cheek fashion, I hope -  that "the English language as we know it was hereby doomed, and we might as well all go off and kill ourselves". Furthermore, she blames it on technology and the Americanisation of English, those familiar enemies of traditional English throughout time (Remember how the printing press simply ruined English and how American English insists on having more logical spelling?).

Erin Brenner, writing for Visual Thesaurus magazine in the USA (subscription needed, so just a brief quote here) takes issue with Truss, stating that

Truss and other language commentators like her bug me. They make proclamations from on high that conform to their ideal of English but have no relationship with how we really use English. They make broad statements about the state of English without any evidence. They offer little to no reasoning for their preferences, and they offer no proof of their statements. 

In today's Guardian, David Marsh (author of For Who The Bell Tolls and one of The Guardian's style gurus)  contextualises clashes like those between Truss and Brenner within a much longer struggle between the descriptivists and prescriptivists. In his article, The Pedants' Revolt, he argues that

Conservatives long for a golden age, usually about 50 years in the past, when everyone knew their grammar and all was right with the world. "What is more, even Grammar, the basis of all education, baffles the brains of the younger generation today ... There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter" – not Michael Gove, but William Langland (born 1332!). Sadly, there never was a golden age.
For Truss and her prescriptivist pals, descriptivism is a form of laissez-faire, let-it-all-hang-out liberalism that has allowed the language to sink into disrepair and a car crash of OMGs and LOLs. In her Telegraph article she attacks descriptivism. Using not one, but two Jean Aitchison metaphors in the same paragraph, she says:

Imagine if other academic fields were dominated entirely by a “descriptive” ethos: we could have “descriptive” epidemiologists, perhaps, who just sat back with a clipboard and monitored the way we all died from contagious diseases. Or “descriptive” architects, who collected large salaries for watching and making detailed notes while all the buildings fell down.

So, is language like a disease? Or a crumbling castle? And where's the damp spoon? As Aitchison herself pointed out in her Reith Lecture A Web of Worries (still available here as an mp3) rigid systems aren't much help with a changing language and tend to stand in the way of the new language that we need to describe a changing world. As for language as a disease, Aitchison explains that we don't catch change like a nasty dose of flu, but we choose our language styles.
And do descriptivists sit back and allow change to take place, documenting it as everything goes to hell in a handcart or to sh*t in a shovel? Well, language is changing all the time - even the most ardent prescriptivist will acknowledge that - so why not learn to understand and describe those changes? Does doing so, amount to embracing those changes? Not really. Most descriptivists would still argue that Standard English is important because it allows mutual intelligibility (i.e a chance to understand each other through a shared language) but they might disagree that certain uses are 'correct' or 'incorrect'. They argue that it's not a clear cut, black and white distinction. Michael Rosen makes exactly this point in an article about grammar for The Guardian in 2012:

If we are serious about enabling those who want to acquire what we have called standard English then first we should be honest about change and its lack of encoded rules. Then, together with them, we should look closely at how such people's speech and writing diverges from the kind of English that they would like to acquire. There will always be social reasons for this and knowing these helps people take on the dialects they don't fully speak or write.This isn't easy. We shouldn't pretend it's easy.

Steven Pinker, whose amazing hair is to heads what David Crystal's beard is to chins, argues in an article for The New Yorker, False Fronts in the Language Wars, that we shouldn't see the world in such simple terms as descriptivist versus prescriptivist:

According to the sadly standard dichotomy, prescriptivists believe that certain usages are inherently correct and others inherently incorrect, and that to promote correct forms is to uphold truth, morality, excellence, and a respect for the best of our civilization. To indulge incorrect ones, meanwhile, is to encourage relativism, vulgar populism, and the dumbing down of literate culture.

Descriptivists, according to this scheme, believe that norms of correctness are arbitrary shibboleths of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, and the people should be given the freedom to write however they please.

Instead he argues that - very much like David Marsh in The Guardian - once we accept that the "rules" are not rules at all and instead "tacit conventions", we realise that it's all a matter of taste and appropriacy. If we are educated to a certain level of literacy to make our choices about what we want to say - you and I, me and him, ain't doing nothing - then we have control over our own language and an understanding of others' language.

As Pinker goes on to say, "The rules of standard English are not legislated by a tribunal but emerge as an implicit consensus within a virtual community of writers, readers, and editors. That consensus can change over time in a process as unplanned and uncontrollable as the vagaries of fashion". For Pinker, there's a need for prescriptive rules to help police what has been agreed as being Standard English at a given time, but there's no need for prescriptive points-scoring or for claiming that one form is superior to another.

So, perhaps we should be pleased that there is a debate at all. The tension between prescriptivists and descriptivists is actually exerting a creative force over our language: the prescriptivist urge to keep things together, to make things stay the same, is constantly in opposition to the natural inclination of language to change and vary, and for descriptivists to document and recognise that change. Maybe one can't live without the other.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Speaking from Uranus about Mars and Venus

"Menglish". I'll just leave this new word with you for a moment so you can process it . If you're a male reader of this blog, then you might need a few more seconds to process it than a female, because you're designed to be a bit slower with language. Females, after all, are experts in language and just better designed to deal with fancy stuff like words. At least, that's what a reheated brand of Mars and Venus cobblers from Julie-Anne Shapiro would have us believe.

Menglish has been featured in the Telegraph and Mail this week, with the Mail accepting the banal generalities of Shapiro's "research" at face value and The Daily Telegraph's Rebecca Holman taking a much more sceptical view of it all.

Menglish then is the language that men speak. "What the actual flip?! I thought we spoke English!" you might cry, but no, you'd be wrong. If you're male you speak a completely different language from women and that's why err...chicks can't understand you, man. If this sounds like a bad joke that you've heard before then that's because it is.

Back in the 1990s, John Gray - a US relationship counsellor - made a fortune from his Mars and Venus books, in which he argued that men and women were (almost literally) from different planets and therefore spoke different languages. In his version of the universe, men would retreat to their caves to sit in silence, skin a caribou or play Xbox (or in the 1990s, a Sega Megadrive) while women would be nattering to each other around communal cooking pots. His books drew on ideas from what we tend to call the Difference Model in A2 English Language - an approach influenced by the work of linguists Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker who in 1982 published an article about male and female communication being akin to communication across different cultures (i.e. a British person trying to communicate with a Russian).

Their idea was that a form of crosstalk or miscommunication would arise: the males and females would use language in such ways that they wouldn't actually understand each other and would mistake each other's intentions. What Maltz & Borker suggested was that even the same linguistic feature - in the case of their article, what they called minimal responses (described by Deborah Cameron in The Myth of Mars and Venus as "brief acknowledgements of others' speech like 'yeah', 'uh huh' and 'mm'") - might be interpreted differently by the opposite sex.

Their idea of crosstalk fed into the work of Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University in the USA who published several books (You Just Don't Understand and That's Not What I Meant! among them - the former being bought for me 20 years ago by a now long-ex-girlfriend...hrumph!). Tannen's take on it was that boys and girls are socialised into different types of language behaviour as they grow up and that's why there's miscommunication. More recent writers on the subject - Louanne Brizendine and Simon Baron-Cohen, for example - have claimed that the differences are hard-wired into us, but Tannen's was idea was more like soft-wiring.

So, Shapiro's take on relationships is really nothing new and her advice to women on how to understand their menfolk, is pretty vapid too. Men need time to process language; men need to feel appreciated; men like frequent sexytime...sorry that last one is made up, but you get the drift. Shapiro's dating consultancy (yes, she has something to sell us) is called Magnetizing Love, but Monetising Myths might be more appropriate. As always, her advice is mainly aimed at women, because they're the ones who need to change to understand their men. Men can't change; they're just too stupid.

But isn't all of this true? Aren't we actually different? You know...men have dangly bits and ladies have wobbly bits, so isn't it normal for our language styles to be different too? Shouldn't we embrace those difference and embrace each other? And have some sexytime? No, stop it.

As Deborah Cameron makes clear in her excellent and much-recommended Myth of Mars and Venus, the whole industry that has grown out of these "common-sense" differences between men and women is not only wrong-headed but dangerous to both sexes. In the third extract from her book, featured on The Guardian website, Cameron concludes by saying:

... if we want real understanding to take the place of mythology, we need to reject trite formulas and sweeping claims about male and female language use. The evidence is more in line with what it says on a postcard someone once sent me: "Men are from Earth. Women are from Earth. Deal with it." Clinging to myths about the way men and women communicate is no way to deal with it. To deal with the problems and opportunities facing men and women now, we must look beyond Mars and Venus.
Cameron makes many excellent point in her book, drawing on years of research, and outlines the Mars and Venus model as essentially consisting of 5 claims:

1 Language and communication matter more to women than to men; women talk more than men.
2 Women are more verbally skilled than men.
3 Men's goals in using language tend to be about getting things done, whereas women's tend to be about making connections to other people. Men talk more about things and facts, whereas women talk more about people, relationships and feelings.
4 Men's way of using language is competitive, reflecting their general interest in acquiring and maintaining status; women's use of language is cooperative, reflecting their preference for equality and harmony.
5 These differences routinely lead to "miscommunication" between the sexes, with each sex misinterpreting the other's intentions. This causes problems in contexts where men and women regularly interact, and especially in heterosexual relationships.
Referring to work carried out by Janet Hyde and Marcia Linn (featured here), Cameron tells us:

The conclusion they came to was that the difference between men and women amounted to "about one-tenth of one standard deviation" - statistician-speak for "negligible". Another scholar who has considered this question, the linguist Jack Chambers, suggests that the degree of non-overlap in the abilities of male and female speakers in any given population is "about 0.25%". That's an overlap of 99.75%. It follows that for any array of verbal abilities found in an individual woman, there will almost certainly be a man with exactly the same array.
In other words, once all the studies of communication and gender have themselves been studied (what we call a meta-study), there's very little difference between how men and women communicate. Yes, men may interrupt more and women self-disclose more (so Zimmerman and West and Jennifer Coates can rest easy...) but overall, there's probably more variation among men and among women than there is difference between the two sexes. But that doesn't really play into the Mars and Venus, worlds apart, battle of the sexes narrative that sells papers and racks up clicks.

So, it's refreshing to see that while the Daily Fail continues to reheat tired old Mars and Venus gumbo, the Telegraph's Rebecca Holman has a much more critical take on it all:

This press release has left me incoherent with rage – there’s a tiny grain of truth in it – enough that it doesn’t sound like total jibberish, but it reads like a pocket guide for women with no self-esteem. Don’t upset the apple cart by telling him what you’re actually thinking, or he might leave you. Don’t let him labour under the misapprehension that you’re an independent woman who won’t fall apart were he to leave you – he’ll fall unappreciated and…probably leave you. Supplant your needs, hopes, fears and dreams for his, and everything will be fine.
This is all great material for ENGA3's Language Discourses questions, so we'll look at these articles in class soon, but in the meantime, have  a good read of the other posts on here about Cameron's take on Mars and Venus and have a think about why such generalised, patronising, regurgitated cobblers is still picked up unchallenged by so many people.