Sunday, October 31, 2004

Power to the people!

Hmm, so, no comments in the box last week must mean that you were all out surfing real waves in half term instead of cyberwaves, and definitely not that I'm sitting here talking to myself. (Doesn't it?....)

Anyway, this week sees the venerable political journalist John Humphreys touting his new book, Lost for Words: the Use and Abuse of the English Language. In the extract published in The Times and linked below, he gives some interesting examples of the mangling of meanings by politicians, and goes on to consider what powers could be used to stop this.

He first considers the kind of power that could be vested in a formal language authority, like the Académie française. This would have the power to make laws to regulate acceptable language usage. He also considers the kind of power that could be derived by reference to the usage of the greatest writers in the language. He regards both as fraught with difficulty.

Instead, Humphreys argues that the only way to prevent the 'use and abuse' of language, and to moderate what he assumes readers agree are the excesses of contemporary language change, is reasoned debate - by the people, for the people - about what langauge usage is acceptable. He places this squarely within democratic tradition.

This democratic tradition is of course a fine thing, but if you could just give your teachers a break by not inviting them to debate the use of the word 'innit' as used throughout your next essay, I know they'd really appreciate it!

Click on the link below to go to The Times home page; type 'disinterested' into the search box; click on 'search the site'; then click on the article's title. Remember that with The (stingy) Times you can only read this article for free within seven days of its publication.

You're a disinterested ****!

Académie française

Thursday, October 21, 2004

The empire strikes back

One last little post before my brain goes in for a half term service and my PC gets upgraded so it can handle my newly arrived i-Pod (techno-swoon....).

This week David Crystal has been in India lecturing on the Futures of English. According to reports in the papers, he believes that the varieties of English spoken in countries where the language is most people's mother tongue have had their day. English may be a global language, but it won't be British English or American English dominating the world, but varieties like Hinglish, spoken in India. And with the popularity of Bollywood, the thriving computer software industry in India, and booming business generally, this variety could soon rule the world.

Check it out. I was going to link to the article in The Times of London, but as they're tight-wads who only let us read free for a week, I've gone global and we're making linkylove with the Times of India. Long live the internet!

The world'll speak in Hinglish

Indian English

Tuesday, October 19, 2004


Phew! So much language news this week I'm running to keep up! Hot off the press today is a report in the Times that the word "chav" has been nominated as buzzword of the year. Nothing like a bit of self-publicity, the nominator just happens to have a book out covering buzzwords of the twentieth century. But those nice people at The Times have helpfully provided an extract from it, a table showing a key buzzword from every year since 1904. The article also explores how the word "chav" is evolving, with "chavster", "chavspotting" and "chavtastic" now gracing the English lexicon. Check it out quick cos those nice people at The Times aren't that nice really, cos you can only read their online articles for free for seven days after publication.

Good news for chavs: they may be cool people soon

Monday, October 18, 2004

A complete horlicks!

Ah, deep joy this week to discover that in my choice of relaxing bedtime beverage, I've suddenly become a trend-setter! Who says? Well, the manufacturer of Horlicks. Don't believe me? Well, check out the link...

Because this week's news item is that the aforementioned drinks manufacturer is having to employ a PR company to help resolve the problem that its brand name has long been part of the English lexicon as a slang term for a complete mess of a situation. It had almost completely died out, though - well, until the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, used it to describe the situation surrounding the WMD dossiers, and "bang" the word came back to life with a vengeance! Just type "Horlicks" into Google and see the impact for yourself.

To check it out you need to fill in a little Telegraph registration form but it's all free - just don't tick the boxes offering you junkmail.

The second link is a little something I found whilst flirting around with Mr Google. It's a British food and drink dictionary for Americans. A useful perspective on regional variation in the lexicon of English (especially if you just did that in class with me today!).

Steaming Horlicks fed up with slang use of its name

The very best of British - food and drink

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Hot-blooded Latin?

Though it's never unpleasant to think of Italian men in tight t-shirts lounging carelessly on Vespas at the foot of the Colosseum, that's not actually what I'm planning to talk about here... No, this week's top topic in the news is the Latin language. Once considered as good as dead and buried as an academic subject, especially in state schools and colleges, it is now undergoing something of a resurrection.

This resurrection is partly because of a project that has created very cool interactive online learning materials that young people really want to use, but also because it is starting to be perceived as a MORE useful language to learn than, say, French or German.

Why? Well, because the Roman Empire had such a massive influence across our part of the world, from Hadrian's Wall in the North of Britain down to Egypt in the south, Latin has had a huge linguistic influence. Modern Spanish and Italian are directly derived from it, whilst its continuation as an academic lingua franca in Europe right through until the 18th century ensured that it played an important role in elaborating many other languages. Learn Latin, the idea goes, and you will have an important foundation level knowledge of lots of languages, from which you can quickly pick others up as you need them.

Closer to home, Latin has had a huge influence on English - first, from the words borrowed by Old English after the arrival of Christianity; later as a result of the Renaissance interest in classical art and literature; then as the rise of Science created a huge demand for new words, just at a time when it became politically fashionable to publish in the vernacular instead of in Latin. Where no words existed before, Latin ones that worked were borrowed by the cartload. The consequence is that our language is littered with thousands of words derived from Latin, and, indeed, whole Latin phrases such as "ad nauseum" and "post mortem". Learn Latin, the idea goes, and you learn about the history and development of your own language.

And besides, if you're planning to work in any kind of medical, legal or horticultural field, you're going to have to learn quite a bit of it anyway!

Check out the links...

The language that will never die

Latin phrases and words used in English

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Diplomatic language

Think of the word 'ambassador' and what do you see? I thought so, piles of Ferrero Rocher chocolates! And who's at the ambassador's party in that ad but other people in tuxes and ballgowns, sweeping gracefully along under the chandeliers, being wealthy, witty, charming and sophisticated. It's a stereotype, one that also implies Received Pronunciation, and a polite, reserved speech style that leaves unpleasant things unsaid.

I don't know how valid the stereotype still is, but the Foreign Office has certainly tried to get with it by appointing people from more diverse social and educational backgrounds. The trouble is that not all of these "new" people buy into the "stiff upper lip" style of speech, and this week's media has been buzzing with talk of the "undiplomatic" language of the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray.

You see, in October 2002, as British ambassador to Uzbekistan, he gave a very frank and forthright speech about human rights abuses in that country. He stated the corroborated facts of the situation directly and was unequivocal about the moral imperative for change - not something his host country's government were particularly keen to hear. His speech was dynamic, confrontational and impassioned - er, the opposite of what is regarded as "diplomatic".

It's all come to a head now because after some "diplomatic" time back in Britain, Craig Murray was due to return to Uzbekistan. But a confidential memo got itself leaked to the Financial Times and Craig Murray is in the news again. His language use in this is again dynamic, confrontational and impassioned. This time his career may be over.

Whatever you think of the politics, read the links. Read Murray's speech and think about the power of language to articulate human concerns in a way that can genuinely make people sit up and listen. Read the background articles and think about the power of language to so upset your bosses that they want to sack you for it. And if you're interested in language and international relations, check out the last link for a new journal on just that - interesting article about the term "suicide bombing". Check it out.

Speech by HM Ambassador, Craig Murray

Intelligence from tortured Uzbeks attacked

The envoy who said too much

The Journal of Diplomatic Language

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Who says dialect is dead?

Read more than a few things about dialect and they will tell you, on good authority, that traditional British dialects are on the way out. Down here on the Costa Del Sussex, the traditional local dialect has been little more than a historical curiosity for ever and a day, with only the word "twittern" for a back alley really having any modern currency. But it's not all bad news because shedloads of research also indicates that new dialects are emerging - in Milton Keynes, in Tower Hamlets, in the development of Estuary English.

But the people of Yorkshire are never ones to fit into the nice neat tidy patterns of the rest of the country. (Don't hit me - though I speak like a soft Southerner, my father was a Yorkshireman and his dying wish was that I be first in the queue for a passport when the People's Republic of Yorkshire declared its independence from the rest of Britain....) And what do we see in the papers this week, but evidence that traditional dialect is alive and vigorously kicking in the waiting rooms of doctors' surgeries in Doncaster and Barnsley.

As desperate to recruit doctors as any Health Authority in the land, Doncaster West Primary Care Trust recruited seven doctors from Austria. Fluent in advanced everyday and scientific English, and fancying the prospect of a plate of toasted teacakes and a walk on the Moors, they packed their bags and headed north. Only to find that they couldn't understand what on earth was wrong with their patients, as dialect words for varying degrees of feeling lousy, and for assorted body parts, got lost in translation.

Check out the links to read the story and find out more, then hey, let's do some cool online research - in your part of the country, what do you call the things identified as dialect terms in the article?

Guide helps GPs treat a noggling in the lugoil

Why Northern dialects are worth saving

Yorkshire dialect

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

You axing me?

Don't panic, I had enough brutal violence in last week's post, so this isn't anything to do with me getting either the literal or the figurative chop. Instead, the New York Times has been contemplating the way that Black English Vernacular is influencing the way that white Americans speak.

The article attached to the first link below is written for an American audience so you have to bear with some of the references to American people and TV shows that you might never have heard of. But it usefully explains how racial segregation in the US, the product of slavery, contributed to the development of this separate language variety; and then how, in the 20th century, racial desegregation caused different classes of black people to develop different relationships with Standard English.

But what the writer is most interested in is the way that the language variety of the poorest, most oppressed black people is the one that is becoming the "recreational lingua franca of white suburban youth". He notes how Clinton, Kerry and Bush have all used features of black vernacular speech. He asks, or even ax, whether white Americans now speak "black" better than black Americans speak "white".

Click on the links, read the articles... What do you think? Is this happening in the UK? How similar or different are British and American Black English Vernacular speech? Is "white suburban youth" adopting either? Have you heard British politicians at the party conferences speaking "like mike-masters at a hip-hop slam"?

Changing Places

Black English Vernacular - an explanation