Saturday, November 07, 2015

A Word of Warning

While some changes to language are roundly condemned by pedants, purists and prescriptivists - creaky voice, rising intonation, split infinitives and literally not actually meaning LITERALLY AT ALL - new words often get an easy ride. People generally like new words and can see why they appear in the language, even if some of them seem a bit silly (Awesome sauce and amazeballs? Really?) or likely to last as long as a David Cameron promise on tax credits (dadbod and mantihose?). In fact, new words now get wall-to-wall media coverage.

So, this week we have seen the latest additions to the Collins Dictionary feature in pieces such as this (from the Dictionary-makers themselves), this from The Guardianthis from the BBC and this from the Daily Fail.

But among the hype and the celebration of an evolving and vibrant language, naysayers complain that some of the new entries are just trendy fads, too ephemeral to be included in esteemed dictionaries.

As Robert Lane Greene explains in a blog for The Economist, the whole process of putting new words in a dictionary is quite an intensive exercise, admittedly now made much easier by the internet: something that early lexicographers could have only dreamt of. A further explanation is given in this helpful video clip from Oxford University Press, which describes how a new word (in this case selfie) might enter their dictionaries. As the clip explains, the naysayers are partly right that things have been changing faster than before, because the new words don't have to have had a very long existence before being added to the online versions of the dictionaries. But in a way, that just reflects the rapid pace of lexical change these days. Perhaps, as John Sutherland argues in this article, language is "evolving at a faster rate now than at any other time in history because of social media and instant messaging".

Is this rapid change leaving some behind? One argument often put forward by more prescriptively-minded people is that if language changes too fast, we lose mutual intelligibility; in other words, one generation may not understand the language of another. Older people (anyone over 30) will lose any semblance of understanding of what young people are talking about, goes the argument, and that will lead to social breakdown and chaos. Indeed, this is the argument peddled in rather dubious articles like this one in yesterday's Daily Fail which claims that parents haven't a clue what their kids are saying because they're using a secret sex and drugs code, grandad!

For example, the seemingly innocuous "netflix and chill" now takes on much more sinister connotations. The innocent Snapchat message from your teenage daughter to her bae saying "Do you want to come over? We could Netflix and chill." actually means "Buy drugs, come to my boudoir and let's have hours of dangerous chemsex". Apparently.

The fear that young people's language is constantly evolving as a nefarious means of hoodwinking their prying parents or to hide other dubious activities (smoking tobacco, drinking alcopops and playing CoD until after bedtime) is one that has been around forever. This piece in The Daily Telegraph from 2013, this one from the Daily Fail (again... almost like they don't like young people), or even these from as far back as the 17th Century, all say similar things.

And if people have been complaining about it and we still manage to communicate fairly effectively with each other after all this time, surely the doom-mongers are barking up the wrong tree.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

I wonder if we can talk about requests...

Last night I went to a talk, and today I’m blogging about it. The University of York Linguistics Society hosted a talk by Professor Paul Drew from Loughborough University, and since he’s a bit of a big deal in Conversation Analysis, I thought I’d go along. Some of the talk’s content might be of some use to A-Level English Language analyses, so here (in some shape or form) are my generalisations.


The theme of the evening was ‘requests’ (so, aiming to get someone else to do something for us, like asking for a lift), specifically in conversation. Towards the beginning of his talk, Paul quoted Levinson: “language delivers action, not meaning”. It was a little mysterious at first, but it was fascinating to witness this quote unravel throughout the course of the evening. Obviously, language does carry meaning, but it was implied that its primary purpose is to act in some way.


Drew has done a lot of research on telephone call interaction, and therefore we are talking about these requests in the context of telephone conversations. He compared two types of context where we might be making phone calls: informal contexts (e.g. among friends) vs. more formal institutional contexts (key examples of these he gave were out-of-hours calls to doctors and calls to the police).


Broadly speaking, Drew claimed that we tend to begin our requests in an informal context with a modal form (like ‘Could you…’/‘Can you…’), whereas we often tend to go for ‘I wonder if…’ in the institutional context. This comparison can be explained with a continuum of request forms he then went on to talk about…


Continuum of request forms


High entitlement/Low contingency High contingency/Low entitlement


Imperatives I need you to.. Modals (Could../Can..) I wonder if…


As we can see from the above continuum, we can talk about request contexts in terms of degrees of entitlement and contingency. Contingency, in this setting, is about the requester’s knowledge or awareness of the difficulties that might be involved if the ‘requestee’ were to carry out the action.


If we start at one end of the scale (the left side), in high entitlement and low contingency contexts, we can appropriately find imperatives. The simple example Drew gave was in a lecturer-student context. It might be fine to say ‘Pass me that pen’. In that kind of scenario, there is a power relationship where there may be a high level of entitlement. The low contingency might come from the fact that there’s a pen lying on the desk which isn’t being used, and so it isn’t seen as much of a sacrifice to the student to carry out the requested action. Basically, the requester is in a more powerful position, and the request isn’t seen to be a big deal.


On the other side of the spectrum (the right side), we have high contingency and low entitlement. Here, the out-of-hours doctor calls can demonstrate this kind of context. The example Drew provided us with was a man calling with back pain and requesting a doctor to come and visit him with ‘I wonder if you’d come out’. In this kind of scenario, the requester is not necessarily familiar with what’s involved and so quite a conservative (high contingency) form of request has been used, along with the low entitlement, because the doctor, in this case, is seen to be the more knowledgeable party.


Having briefly explored this continuum, we can return to the broad claim Drew made early on, which generalised over the request forms we might make with friends versus those we might make in an institutional context. We’ve just seen an example of an informal setting where ‘I wonder if…’ was used. When we are requesting among friends or family, often we have a better idea of what is involved for that person if the action was carried out, and the power distance is likely to diminish. This means that we can see many situations among friends, where ‘Could you…’/‘Can you..’ might be appropriate, because they are a little further up the scale.

Drew explored a number of telephone calls where these sorts of situations were evaluated and the request form was analysed in relation to it. Of course exceptions were pointed out and more discussion followed, but I think this is a great framework to start us off when we’re looking at requests.