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.