Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Eurovision row

According to the BBC, Jacques Myard, a French MP, has said he is outraged that the song chosen to represent the nation in the Eurovision song contest contains (some) English lyrics. The politician's response seems the equivalent of the lingustic protectionism that is often expressed in the UK by groups such as The Queen's English Society. Such protectionsim reveals a paranoia arising from a view that language is like some delicate, rare orchid threatened by the strangulating weeds of 'inferior' linguistic forms. It seems to me that there is always the unpleasant presence of xenophobia and elitism in responses like these. Nonetheless the French should count themselves lucky. Ireland have a plastic Turkey called Dustin singing their entry - in English.

Update (21st May 2008) Sadly, Ireland's Dustin the Turkey didn't make it past the semi-finals.

Monday, 19 May 2008

How many times can a politician avoid answering the question?

Well, in this infamous interview of Michael Howard by Jeremy Paxman in 1997, the answer is twelve. The language of politics is a fascinating arena for language study. Most politicians are skilled in the art of manipulating language, usually (oh cynic that I am) to serve their own career driven interests. On this ocassion the effect is quite comic. Paxman later revealed that he only kept asking the question because he wanted to waste a bit of time before starting the next item.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Is "their" a possessive pronoun or a possessive adjective?

The English and Foreign Languages Departments at CTK are in disagreement - and students are joining in also. According to Ms Freestone and Ms Payne, their is a possessive adjective. It is not, they insist, a pronoun - posessive or otherwise. We in the English Department however are not convinced. In fact we tend to steer towards classifying "their" as a pronoun. So, Steve (English Language Guru) attempts to set the record straight...


c.1200, from O.N. þierra, gen. of þeir "they". Replaced O.E. hiera. Use with singular objects, scorned by grammarians, is attested from c.1300. Theirs (c.1300) is a double possessive. Alternate form theirn (1836) is attested in Midlands and southern dialect in U.K. and the Ozarks region of the U.S.


O.E. ure "of us," genitive plural of the first person pronoun, from P.Gmc. *ons (cf. O.S. usa, O.Fris. use, O.H.G. unsar, Ger. unser, Goth. unsar "our"). Ours, formed c.1300, is a double possessive, originating in northern England, and has taken over the absolute function of our. Ourselves (1495), modeled on yourselves, replaced original construction we selfe, us selfum, etc

Their and our are plural possessive pronouns which have a similar function / position to an adjective in standard English. But ‘their dog’ does not describe the dog but actually gives information about the people who own the dog. ‘their dog = the dog of them.

In English, the important function of our & their is that we can separate people grammatically for different purposes. For example, in George Bush’s speech after the attack in New York on 7/11, he is careful to use many pronouns to unite the people of America such as, ‘we, us, our’. He is also careful to distance the American people from ‘the attackers’ by always referring to ’them, they’. ‘Their actions’ does not – like an adjective – describe the actions. It means ‘the actions of the attackers’. In this way ‘their’ also acts like a determiner – pointing out whose actions are being referred to, but not modifying the actions in any way.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The Language of Tabloids - Analysis, anyone?

Pinko-liberal Guardianistas and Scousers the world over may (quite rightly) loathe The Sun, but to be fair when it comes to headlines The Sun has it down to a fine art. Following yesterday's High Court conclusion to the acrimonious divorce between Sir Paul 'Macca' McCartney and Heather 'Mucca' Mills, I was looking forward to what The Sun would come up with. They did not disappoint:

Mucca chucksa cuppa water over Macca's lawyer Shacka

Right: let's start with lexis...

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

The mad, bad and dangerous world of British-English Spelling

I think it was Mark Twain who once wrote 'I don't give a damn for a man who can only spell a word one way.' Often my problem has been that the one way I do know is, according to dictat, "incorrect." The irregularity of British-English spelling has tormented children (and adults like me) for years. Personally, I long for the days when you could spell a word according to the mood you were in - and no one cared! But if a rule must be applied - let it be the aphabetical principle, which dictates that generally you should spell a word the way it is pronounced. And if the pronunciation changes - so should the spelling! Unfortunately I can't see reform coming any time soon. But it should. And here is one reason why.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Language Topics - Showing enthusiasm?

Edexcel's Unit 6(b) for A2 English Language requires you to write for 45 minutes on a number of possible language related topics and issues - potentially on anything from 'political correctness' to the mad, bad and dangerous world of spelling. Personally I think there should be more of this in Language teaching - it is a welcome departure from the rigours of 'textual commentary.' It is refreshing because for once you have the opportunity to express your opinion. But how do you successfully display your knowledge of an issue or topic in a way that is enthusiastic, yet balanced? How, for example, might you convey the notion that Lynn Truss should be placed in stocks and endlessly taunted with examples of 'misplaced apostrophes' without sounding as pedantic and intolerant as she is? Well, I attach an example of a response that may give you an idea of what examiners are looking for here. In short it is knowledge - but knowledge with enthusiasm!

Present-day English is being changed by technology. Whole new languages are being invented in internet chatrooms and via texting.

Using examples from language associated with new technology, describe and explain a range of changes which are taking place in language use. Give your views about whether an entirely new language is being invented.

During the past 15 to 20 years there has been a major communications revolution sparked by the emergence of new communication technologies. Mobile Phone and Internet technologies are arguably the most visible examples, at least in terms of popularity and regularity of use. Linguists and social commentators have been quick to explore the impact of this technology on language, with some even suggesting it to be as significant as
Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440[s1] . Another significant claim, as revealed in the essay question, suggests that these new technologies have even encouraged the emergence of ‘whole new languages.’

The invention of the printing press impacted so profoundly on language use because it enabled, for the first time, a medium of mass written communication. Its impact on the expansion of literacy and therefore the expansion of ideas helped stimulate the emergence of new thought, as well as helping to secure the eventual ‘standardisation’ of the written word.[s2] Similarly, the emergence of new communication technology has had no less an impact because it too has reached a mass audience. However unlike the printing press, the www and mobile phone appear to have encouraged an apparent departure from standardised linguistic forms. This irony can be largely attributed to the nature of the technology itself. Let me[s3] explain.

E-mailing (WWW) and texting (Mobile-phones) are mechanisms of instant communication. The medium of that communication however is not voice or even the pen, but the keyboard or keypad.
Once ‘sent’ the message arrives at its destination almost immediately – and the response can be equally speedy. [s4] Subsequently the technology encourages (and perhaps, determines) a language that is much more informal and colloquial. The language of text messages has for some become so distinct from standard linguistic forms that it has been given its own name – textese[s5] . What defines textese? It is evidently filled with non-standard spelling and grammar. It is generally colloquial and ignores the conventions of ‘traditional’ orthography. It is semantically loaded yet light in content – it is quick, instant and to the point. Similarly, emailing is equally ‘non-standard’ in its linguistic variety. Add to this the ‘instantaneous’, non-permanent characteristic of this digital dialogue and you have what appears to be the emergence of a truly new language. It lies somewhere between the spoken and the written. [s6] It has its own emerging lexicon – neologisms, acronyms and hieroglyphic codes that are really only meaningful to those competent enough to use the technology in the first place. This could perhaps be used as evidence to support the ‘new language’ assertion: like any language, there are those who can speak it (or should I say, text it?) and there are those who cannot.

The truth is, however, that whole new languages are not being invented at all. [s7]Textese’ is not a new language. It is a new form of English that has emerged in response to a technologically-determined medium of communication. The experience of language is the experience of social change. It is diachronic and evolutionary – language responds to a vast array of influences and adapts itself accordingly. Of course, how we interpret and respond to such changes is largely a reflection of our own attitudes to language[s8] and its use. For example, recent language commentators appear to be expressing a new ‘prescriptivism’ – in short a reaction by those who feel that technology is somehow ‘damaging’ language. Some of this conservatism may be in part due to a fear not so much of the technology, but its users. Texting is penmanship for illiterates!’ [s9] one commentator recently exclaimed. But this elitist hysteria is surely misplaced. Teenagers have always ‘broken the rules’ when writing (and speaking) to each other – the ‘thanx’ that may previously have been written in a letter between pen-pals now becomes the ‘thnx’ of a text or email. It is just now that the speed of communication is making non-standard spelling forms more visible, numerous and indeed imaginative – but this does not imply that the individual scripting the message is unaware of the standardised form – it is just not appropriate for them to use it at that point. Context, again, determines all[s10] .

A further irony becomes evident when we consider the emotive topic of spelling. Pedants who advocate blind conformity to ‘standard orthography’ are increasingly uncomfortable with any forms of language that ignore it – however the spelling that we often find in texts and emails is in fact closer to the original ‘alphabetic principle’ that characterised early English spelling in the first place – namely that it is phonetic and reflects pronunciation rather than the
arbitrary rules constructed by 18th century scholars[s11] who cared more for Latinate etymology than they did anything else. Any child learning to spell has to be told that they must place a ‘u’ in colour and ‘re’ at the end of centre regardless of the fact that this spelling has no relation whatsoever to their pronunciation. Why? Because Dr Johnson said so! In textese and in emails however, our technology literate children are, quite rightly, ignoring Dr Johnson and his like. As David Crystal [s12] points out, it is not a new language that has been born out of technology but a new language variety – and variety, surely, is to be celebrated. It is far more interesting.[s13]

[s1]Reveals historical knowledge (context)

[s2]Shows that technology is not ‘new’ and reveals that the relationship between it and language is “causal” – in other words, one impacts on the other.

[s3]Perfectly acceptable to use personal pronoun – remember this is not a commentary. For once you have the chance to express an opinion!

[s4]Here I am trying to convey a sense of what is ‘new’ about this technology as far as communication is concerned.

[s5]Here I am using relevant terminology as well as reinforcing the idea that a new language is emerging.

[s6]Evidence for the ‘new language’ hypothesis.

[s7]My viewpoint – you may not agree with it, but whatever your position is you must support it with evidence.

[s8]Even though the question did not directly refer to ‘attitudes’, clearly it would be difficult not to consider the various ways in which people have responded to these new technologies and the impact they have had on how language is used.

[s9]Short, snappy quote. Lovely!

[s10]Which is at the heart of a descriptivist perspective

[s11]More historical knowledge.

[s12]Authoritative source – David Crystal is a linguist.

[s13]Try and finish with an enthusiastic assertion – but don’t be too dogmatic.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Death of a Language

The Guardian reports today on the death of Marie Smith Jones (above) in Alaska aged 89. Why is her death significant? Well, with her died her native language - Eyak. An indigenous tongue of southern Alaska, the language has no 'close linguistic relatives' and so with the death of its last speaker has no chance of any kind of revival. The event raises a whole number of questions and issues tied to language generally - most obviously concerning the impact of globalisation on local cultures. Indiginous languages are increasingly finding themselves 'extinct' and many more will be lost throughout the next century. But - is this a case of linguistic Darwinism (some languages survive because they are fitter than others) or, as Mark Abley in The Guardian suggests, a cultural disaster equivalent to the bombing of the Louvre? The issues are enormously complex but one can't help but feel that the world is a poorer place without Marie Smith Jones.

Useful for: Language Topics / Change

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

It's English Jim, but not as we know it.

Ever wondered what 'English' might have sounded like 1000 years ago? Well here is one interesting interpretation. Of course we can never know with any certainty how Anglo-Saxon would have really sounded. But we can guess. When I have played this clip to students here at CTK most have thought it to sound like German or Dutch, which given the Germanic roots of English is not surprising.

Useful for: Language Change

Taking Queen's English down under

The following is taken from today's Guardian travelogue. Written by Patrick Barkham, the piece offers an interesting insight into contemporary Australian slang - but of course, as is the way with slang, the terms may already be out of date.

Ever since a lunch when my Australian mate declared he could chew the leg off a skinny priest, I've realised that Australians are uniquely creative with the Queen's English.

Most Poms' hazy sense of the Australian vernacular stretches as far as strewth, dag or bonzer. But a competition by an online dictionary to find Australia's word of the year shows that the country is still chewing up English and spitting out something far more direct and interesting.

Have you always hated those tattoos hovering above the backside? Now you've got a name for them: arse antlers. Want a new euphemism for an obese person? Try salad dodger.

This kind of slang is not really surprising because Aussies have always excelled at insults, none more so than former prime minister Paul Keating, who liked to savage his parliamentary opponents as "gutless spivs" or "foul-mouthed grubs".

Most of the terms listed by the Macquarie Dictionary are gentler: tanorexics are people obsessed with sunbathing; Helengrad is the nickname for the New Zealand capital Wellington - implying it is dominated by their long-serving prime minister Helen Clark.

Many of Australia's 85 words of 2007, which you can vote for at the Macquarie Dictionary website, are typically dry observations about modern life, which apply across the western world. At work, we all suffer from password fatigue, having too many passwords to remember; infomania is that twitchy, distracted state brought on by constantly giving priority to the latest emails and text messages; pod slurping is the downloading of huge quantities of music or data onto an iPod or memory stick.

At home, you will find the floordrobe, an ironic term for that lazy kind of storage system which is actually a bedroom floor covered with discarded clothes; and Kippers, an acronym for adult children who refuse to leave home (Kids in Parents' Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings).

Some of these words are already gaining use around the world and may not even be uniquely Australian.

My friend who waxed lyrical about eating skinny priests and wrestling pigs in hallways has always worried that globalisation would herald the end of the Australian vernacular. He needn't be overly concerned, however. There are still plenty of new, uniquely Australian terms to play with - from toad juice, a liquid fertiliser made from crushed cane toads, to microgroms, those infuriatingly brilliant Aussie surfers who can't be more than 10 years old.

Useful for: Varieties of English / World Englishes