Monday, November 28, 2016

Texts in Time - Analysing the Language of the Past

Although many students (and quite a few teachers!) might disagree, analysing historical texts is one of the great joys of studying A-Level English Language. Admittedly, picking your way through the archaic lexis, grammar and orthography isn't always easy - especially with texts written before the 18th century - but once you're in, you enter a different world. 

The trick to analysing such texts well is to avoid saying boring stuff about certain words not existing any more or that they don't have any grammar. Words don't vanish, they just 'fall from mainstream usage' and the only texts without grammar are ones without any words! You need to get a feel for the texts as living things. They were written by real people with real feelings about the subjects they were discussing. More significantly, the words on the page were as relevant to them at that point in history as the WhatsApp or Snapchat you sent five minutes ago. Importantly, language should not be regarded as more or less important - or superior or inferior - based on when it was produced. Simply, it is what it is.

I especially enjoy diary entries and letters from the past because they were intensely personal. They had no intended audience (at least, not a mass audience) and so they were written frankly, honestly and without affectation. They weren't trying (in most cases) to influence the reader. That said, a letter from a monarch to a politician would probably have contained some ulterior motive. 

The other things that trip students up are the attitudes expressed. It's all too easy to write an essay dismissing a text as sexist, racist, superstitious or ignorant in some way, but this can be a misrepresentation. These texts shouldn't be analysed in terms of social attitudes today or how we think today; they need to be considered as a reflection of the time at which they were composed. Back then, attitudes based on gender, sexual orientation, race, social status, religion, the supernatural and so on were different. Centuries ago, there were no such things as political correctness, equality awareness or cultural sensitivity (as we understand them today) operating in the mainstream arena. Often, people were simply writing what was generally held to be true or, at least, acceptable at the time. There are exceptions of course. Nobody could read the vile rantings of a madman like Hitler and dismiss his words as culturally uninformed just because they written almost a century ago. There are some things that common sense alone leads us to recognise plainly as being only evil and wrong. 

More often than not, you can discern much about the text you are analysing by reading the contextual information provided by the examiner and looking at the year of publication or origin. Sometimes you will see that a text was written in or around a significant year. If so, ask yourself if there are any parallels that can be drawn between the attitudes expressed and the point in history that it was written. Above all, just remember that the attitudes and ideas expressed may only seem ignorant or offensive when weighed against today's knowledge and social values. As ever, historical knowledge is important and context is everything. 

The one piece of advice I would leave you with is this: don't be scared of an old text. Trust your revision and remember that the examiner won't ever ask you to analyse something inaccessible. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Talking English

Thanks to the British Library Learning Team for putting on such a great day for English Language teachers yesterday. I'll post a few quick things about it over the weekend and a few reflections on what was said by various speakers, but if you are reading this and were there, hello!

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Analysing Graphology

Getting the most from Graphology

Whatever exam board you are studying for English Language A-Level, you need to remember that Graphology is not, in itself, one of the higher scoring key constituents / frameworks when it comes to textual analysis. Observations such as, "The text is written in red because it is about donating blood" might well be accurate, but it's also not rocket science. 

Personally, I like Graphology to be described in terms of Text-Image Cohesion. In short, how visual devices or aids are used to support the text in achieving its purpose, appealing to its audience or how it works in tandem with other key constituents / frameworks of language. Let's look at a simple example. 

An early reader book for young children may have limited text on the page, with a sketch of the scene dominating the space. Here we have text-image cohesion because the picture is replicating the actions described by the simple sentences which comprise high frequency, low register lexis. Already, we have linked graphology, syntax and lexis. Now let's add purpose. 

This meets the needs of the reader as it helps to place the actions described in a more familiar context. The young reader's limited experience of life and language is being taken into consideration and the text-image cohesion adds to their understanding of events and sequencing. 

We can extend this to older readers who may enjoy comic strips or graphic novels. Perhaps the call-outs or text use exclamative forms or incorporate non-standard orthography to create phonological effects (think about Batman's famous fight scenes where punches are accompanied with lexical coinages such as 'thwack!'; 'kaboosh'; 'schlumpf'... The list is endless. Here the text-image cohesion allows us to better engage with the text as a 'realistic' recreation of a fight, or it might create humour in terms of the hyperbolic language which accompanies such pained facial expressions. 

In this example, we have managed to squeeze in orthography and phonology. In doing this, we have elevated the status of graphology to a potentially high scoring point of observation. Why? Because we are not analysing it in isolation, but as a component of the text. Ideally, texts should always be made up of complementary techniques. The trick for candidates is to join the dots between each. 

This is not to say that we can't be simplistic in order to bag a few easy points. If a text about an aquarium is predominantly blue and turquoise, it would be foolish to ignore the observation and the reasons for it. Likewise, if a text uses a high incidence of emojis (emoticons, or whatever they're called this week), then make the observation that the text is probably targeting a younger audience familiar with the phenomenon or that it is trying to convey a sense of face to face communication by expressing, visually, ideas that brief words alone cannot convey adequately. 

Graphology can take many forms - even something as obvious as pictorial representations to support instructions on something like a diagram from IKEA. Just try to link your observations to the text as a whole or, at the very least, as something which complements or makes possible another linguistic technique present in the text.