Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Last words...

Today's newspapers report the dreadful details of the inquest into Julia Pemberton's murder. This woman and her son were gunned down by her estranged husband. This is a terrible crime and we must spare a thought for the daughter who survives them all. But the reason this catches the attention of the language legend is that many of the newspapers present the transcript of Julia Pemberton's desperate 999 call.

In studying AS/A2 English language we look at transcripts often, but, if I'm honest, they can be rather banal - a couple of parents talking about their children's homework, a train passengers' announcement, that kind of thing. Linguistically interesting as examples of speech, but without the striking immediacy of today's published transcript.

And what is particularly interesting about today's transcript is how far it is from our common expectations of spontaneous speech. We tend to think, based on our text book descriptions, that spontaneous speech is full of fillers and pauses, disjointed structures and repetition. But here, under the most extreme pressure imaginable, faced with certain death, we "hear" a woman whose speech is not like that at all.

It also raises an important issue about the way that technology is changing our experience of language. Call centres, including those of the emergency services, can record every interaction. Words we never expected anybody else to hear are available as evidence to an inquest. The desperate last cry for help is there, reproduced in black and white in our newspapers. It reminds me of 9/11, when the newspapers printed the last words of the people on the planes, recorded for posterity on answerphones and voicemails. It's chilling stuff.

And newspapers seem to be developing a fondness for the transcripts of speech. In addition to these two examples there was also the Ian Huntley murder trial last year. On one day, the Independent newspaper's front page was simply a transcript of Huntley's account in court of what happened on the day two little girls died in his house. This publishing fashion could be a cynical attempt merely to indulge a certain human fascination for gory detail; but maybe it's something quite different. Okay, so this is the written (and edited) representation of speech rather than speech itself, but the fact that the journalists in several national newspapers used it might perhaps suggest that we are in the process of coming to value firsthand oral accounts of events far more highly than secondhand written accounts.

Click on the link below for the news item and transcript. If you want to read the (edited) court transcript of part of the Ian Huntley trial, type in "Ian Huntley trial transcript" into the archive search box on the Independent's website. Unfortunately the article is premium rated which means you'll have to pay £1 to read it, but if you're interested, it's worth it.

Woman's final minutes captured in 999 call

Monday, September 27, 2004

The final frontier?

We know English is a global language, spoken with different degrees of fluency and in a wide range of varieties all over planet Earth. And now it is boldly going where no language has gone before - into space, the final frontier.

I know, I've gone all retro Captain Kirk Star Trek on you, but don't blame me, blame Richard Branson. Because today's news is that he's signed a deal to create the first fleet of spaceships for space tourism. Imagine that!... Providing you've got £115,000 handy, you too could be flying Virgin Galactic in as little as 3 years' time.

I hate flying at the best of times, so I'll not be fighting you for a ticket. Actually, I'm far more awed and impressed by our attempts to communicate with other linguistic beings. In 1977 Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, two spacecraft, set off for the outer reaches of space. They're still out there, and on board is a golden record. This was the 70s so we're not talking digital downloads here - we're talking about a round thing with grooves and a stylus. On it, there are recordings of the sounds of earth - a kiss, water, the wind - and people greeting the extra-terrestrials in 55 languages. The idea was that the record would help its finders to understand us.

In addition to the greetings, there is a longer welcome message from the United Nations Secretary-General at the time, Kurt Waldheim. Check out the link below to read it - it's in the middle of the page in italics. It's a moving piece of writing, but what's also significant is that it is in English. The collected dialects of a bunch of raiders in the 5th century becomes the language chosen to represent the planet in the 20th, and 21st, and for however much longer the spaceships last...

As achievements go, the beauty of the record's balance between linguistic diversity and a planetary lingua franca, and the enormous faith and hope with which this communication has been sent into the unknown - these things beat "space tourism" hands down. And I bet for £115,000 you still get rubbish in-flight food and headphones that don't work...

Branson reaches for the stars

Kurt Waldheim's Greeting

How the recordings were made

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Cheap date?

So how about this for a good deal? You go see a movie over the next few weeks. You write an original 250 word review of it. You stick it in the post. You stand a chance of winning a year's free cinema pass - for 2 people! You could take someone different every night of the week! (well, except nights when you're doing your English homework of course...)

Providing you meet the criteria of being aged 15-18, and studying in a UK school/college, it's that easy - click on the link below, then look in the bottom right corner of the page for the competition link. Just make sure you focus on that key word - ORIGINAL. A lot of film reviews are really lame - they just tell you a bit of the story, throw in something trivial about a celebrity, and end with marks out of ten. Boring, boring, boring! So, you've got to think of something a bit fresh, a bit "ooh" - something with edge.

If you want to get some ideas, check out Sight and Sound and The Guardian's film section. Read a whole pile of reviews and sort out the ones that are pedestrian, the ones that make you read all the words instead of skimming from title to star rating in one 3.43 nanosecond swoop. Think about the "ooh" factor - what causes it? Or are they all a big yawn? If so, why? How could you do it better?

Good luck!

Young Film Critic of the Year 2004

Sight and Sound

Guardian Unlimited Film

Saturday, September 18, 2004

The zinger ratio

If you watch any kind of news at all, it cannot possibly have escaped your attention that there is an American presidential election race on. Given the huge influence American politics is having on this country, we should all be taking an interest, though I do have to confess to finding my finger on the telly zapper every time Bush or Kerry appear on screen. I can't listen to any more jingoistic nonsense about Iraq and Vietnam, but what IS really interesting is the way that the campaigns are being fought linguistically.

In the first link here, Philip James analyses the two candidates' election speech styles. Though perhaps a little personal in tone, he's well on the way to an A Level in English Language with this - his comparison of the two men's average sentence lengths and the impacts these create, for example, is bang on the money. And given the fact that the guy is a former senior Democratic party strategist, I'm guessing he knows a thing or two about political speechwriting.

The second post is a truly bizarre account of how "gyno-talk" is being used in the election campaign to try and win women voters round to either side.
"Gyno-talk??!!??", I hear you shout. "What on earth is that?!"
Well, that's a very good question... But since you ask, "gyno" is a prefix denoting a female reproductive organ.
"But how on earth is that being used in an election campaign??!!"
Honestly, read the article and weep...

After that there is only one thing that will cure your mind - cheer from the rooftops, raise the flags, and kiss the ground before Aaron Sorkin's feet, because The West Wing is back on terrestrial TV. This is American politics I can cope with - the key players are witty, intelligent, articulate and sensitive; and difficult decisions are only made after much soul searching and debate. It is just about perfect scriptwriting - though check out the top tips in the last link for how not to tackle your Original Writing coursework! I also have it on very good authority that one of the consultants on last series was a real live speechwriter for Reagan and Bush - so grab the popcorn, kick back on the sofa and watch the magnificent Jed Bartlet in action! (And enjoy telling your mum it's your English homework.)

Plenty there - zap us your thoughts when you're done!

Rambling Kerry gets himself lost

Enough with the vaginas!

Next week on The West Wing - erm...

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Why can't anybody spell?

"Oh big yawn" was my first response when I read this question, the subtitle of a new book deliberately called Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary. "Surely not another shedload of crusty old farts moaning on about Young People Today, and Why Their EnglishTeachers Should All Be Sacked Immediately?", I mumbled to myself...

But hey, guess what, we're all doing fine, and this is an interesting read! It doesn't say that spelling doesn't matter - just that it tends to be overrated, and that the vast range of irregularities English spelling has are evidence of its multilingual tolerance, and its hugely creative potential.

Take text messaging, for example, with all its abbreviations and "creative" spellings. Evidence of degenerate youths corrupting the language? Well, of course not - I'm not young, and I used to thoroughly enjoy spelling tests at school, but even I really can't be bothered to type whole words in when I'm poking at a tiny keypad with what suddenly seems a gigantic thumb. We are responding to technology, adapting language in a way that makes perfectly good sense to our audience (well, usually...).

What is interesting about the second link is that this is a response the English Language is able to make. I hadn't realised that not all languages cope as well with text messaging. How do you say 'kitten heels' in Russian? is an email conversation (edited for publication) between a novelist, Scarlett, and her Russian translator, Dennis. It contains some really interesting insights into the problems Dennis faced with idioms and culturally specific references, but he also explains how much more difficult text messaging ("es-em-esky") is in Russian than in English.

So, check 'em out and zap your thoughts on the board. And how 'bout you bilingual bods sharing your thoughts on es-em-esky in other languages?...

Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary

How do you say 'kitten heels' in Russian?

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Not taking it for granted

I was delighted to learn last week that one of my second year A Level students is applying to study Speech Therapy at University. I'm always delighted when students want to carry on with the best subject in the world, and this sounds a fascinating direction to go in. What with this, and having read the splendid The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time this summer, I thought we'd pause for a moment and think about people for whom language cannot be taken for granted. Food for thought, too, for those of you about to start your study of Language Acquisition for A2.

So, this week's post describes a new technique, called the Picture Exchange Communication System, which is being introduced in Britain to help young autistic children to communicate. Click on the first link to check out how 6 year old Alex Leese is getting on with it. Click on the others for related stuff.

New autistic language scheme

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

What do speech and language therapists do?

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Hot air?

One of my friends has just come back from Cuba, to a chorus of "oh my God, you're still alive, how was the hurricane?!" I've been watching the news updates from Florida with alarmed fascination, wondering how people cope so calmly with living in an area that periodically gets battered senseless. Me, I freaked every time someone twitched their nose when I was in Tokyo, so worried was I that I was going to find myself sitting at the epicentre of a major earthquake.

But for all my interest in Extreme Weather, it had never once crossed my mind to think about the names of hurricanes. Why is it Hurricane Frances and not Hurricane Julie or Hurricane Michael Antony? Well, now I know, and if you check out the link below, so will you.

Of course, now I'm wondering how the police make up their operation names, like Operation Bumblebee for a major drugs bust. Are they following a system like the meteorologists, or are they just making it up off the top of their heads? Does anybody know?...

The Perfect Storm Name

And if you want to know more about "the military's able-baker-charlie phonetic alphabet" referred to in the article, click below for an explanation.

The radiotelephony spelling alphabet

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Chickens and eggs

To everyone out there in cyberspace, welcome to the new academic year, and a special 'hey there' to all new browsers of The Language Legend. Scoot through the archives for all kinds of interesting stuff from last year; save us in your faves folder and come back often cos there's a new post most weeks. And do zap your thoughts, comments, questions and suggestions onto the message board cos otherwise I will actually get carted away by the men in white coats for spending way too much time talking to myself...

This week, we're delving deep into New Scientist, and what a great read that mag is! I'm one of the many people almost put off Science for life by a school curriculum of frog dissection and the reproductive habits of the amoeba, but here's a magazine that explains really cool stuff about transmissions from aliens and the language spoken by our Neanderthal ancestors in a totally accessible way.

You can check out those articles using the search facility on the New Scientist webapge, but the one I've been reading is about the old chicken and egg dilemma for linguists: does language have the ability to express anything we can think, or does the language available to us control our ability to think certain things?

That's a pretty hard question, and whilst there are theorists on both sides, proving either case is very tricky. Peter Gordon doesn't claim to have a coherent theory, but his research amongst members of a Brazilian hunter-gatherer tribe is really interesting. The tribe's language only has words for the numbers "one" and "two". Does this affect their ability to perceive different numbers of things? Go check out the link and post your thoughts...

Language may shape human thought