Monday, November 29, 2004

See, I told you so...

I've got sort of half a blogpost here, and half a warning. The Indy reports an interview with Mike Boston. "Who?", I hear you yell. Well, you want to get on the right side of this bloke, because he's in charge of QCA. "What's that and why should I care?", I hear you all mutter. Well, it's the government body to which all the exam boards are duty bound. What Mike Boston says, goes. And he thinks it's rubbish that A Level English students (Language and Literature) are getting top grades without being able to spell, punctuate, or write grammatically fluent sentences. He's about to act on this.

So, the half a blogpost is to consider the attitudes articulated in this perennial debate about the value and importance of using the forms of Standard English. The ones expressed here are perfectly straightforward, but there is an implicit criticism of English teaching methods over the last 25 years, which have often tended to value content and creative expression over technical accuracy. Whatever your opinion on this matter, here is my half a warning. Ken Boston says he will be directing examiners of English to reward good written expression and punish the poor stuff. You've got time before June to sort it out if you start now..... And don't say I never told you so!....

Bad spelling and punctuation to be penalised in exams

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Is that mother or mutha?...

There I am yesterday, hustling to get out of class before the corridors become impassable and all hope of a quick cappucino before my next meeting is dashed, when an A2 student with the strength and stamina to tag me says, "Julie, you should post this on the blog". So there goes that cappucino, cos I've just passed out with shock. Reading a broadsheet! Identifying articles relevant to the academic study of the English Language! Discussing why they merit blogspace! To the student concerned, you are officially forgiven all former homework crimes (er, though not future ones....) and this post is for you. Requests?? I feel cool as a DJ (not a fat balding one)....

So, check out the link below for the story about the British Council's survey of the world's favourite English word. 40,000 people in 102 non-English speaking countries were asked in a survey to choose their favourite English word. ("Non-English speaking" is obviously an illogical description - like, er, it might have been a teensy bit tricky to do the survey without some English speakers in those countries - but we'll let it pass for now...) This article presents the top 15 words and discusses the findings.

A few of the blacktops ran this story, but the one in the Indy is particularly good because of the range of language issues the writer explores. First up is the curious finding that "mother" is the world's favourite English word. I find this quite surprising. Fond as I am of my mum - see, look, I'm already avoiding "mother"! For me, it's one of those words I only ever use to articulate a sense of power, whether I'm the victim or the perpetrator. If I say "my mother's coming for Christmas" you can guarantee that I will be rolling my eyeballs at the same time. And if I say, as your teacher, "I'm going to ring your mother", you can equally guarantee that I am in an almighty tempestuous strop, which is likely to result in the removal of several of your body parts! I certainly don't see it as a warm, embracing womby word...

Which is interesting, uh? The Indy article writer is attuned to this, and cites a Kings College source who agrees with me. He suggests that the findings would be different in the "English-speaking" countries of the world. So that raises really interesting ideas about English as a global language for a start.

Secondly, the article explores the basis of "favourite" words - is it meaning, or sound, or both? Andrew Motion, our Poet Laureate, explains his liking of the top word by analysing its constituent sounds. Interesting analysis, though all the aural reasons he gives for liking the word are beyond me. I don't know about you, but that "emollient" mmmmm sound at the start bears no resemblance whatsoever to my fiery, feisty mum! What becomes interesting here, arguably, are the ways in which ideas about motherhood vary, and the ways in which we position ourselves towards these linguistically...

So, have a butcher's at the article and then let's have your favourite English words on the comments board. 2 English words - favourite word by meaning, and favourite word by sound. Let's see how close we can get to a survey of 40,000 people!!

Mother... is the most beautiful word in the English language...

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

May the blessing of almighty God rest upon your counsels

No, that's not me coming over all full of fervent piety after my recent admission that I swear far too much. It's what the Queen said at the end of her speech at the state opening of parliament today, and I'm really rather struck by it. You can take the Queen or leave her as you choose, but isn't that just a really nice thing to say to her hard-working minions? Maybe I'll say it to all my hard-working minions in class tomorrow!

Anyway, this week's link is to the full text of the Queen's speech, as it's a fascinating example of a very highly ritualised form of public language. Don't imagine for a second that this is how Elizabeth Windsor "really talks", or that she sat down with her laptop and a cup of PG Tips and bashed this out herself. In fact, the government writes it for her, and she just gets to read it out in her fancy robes. But do have a close look at it, and think about all the ways in which the language used encodes power, authority, status and control. And then consider the view that it successfully asserts all of these things without, as one commentator put it today, swinging a single vote in the country.

Does that make it a good speech or a bad speech?....

The Queen's speech in full

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Bunny hugs and superpowers

Don't panic - a bunny hug is not some perverse activity to go with last week's nude Scrabble concept... It's the phrase used in Saskatchewan, Canada, for a hoody! Isn't it fab?! In my mind's eye all the goths and sk8rboys of the world are now walking round in black "bunny hugs", all warm and fluffy and cosy... It's so incongruous that this little phrase could cause a fashion revolution!

Anyway, check it out in the link below - it's all about the new dictionary of Canadian words. This offers interesting insights into the world of lexicography. A must-have career choice, surely - wandering round the world reading junk and getting paid for it? It's my idea of heaven! It's also interesting because it distinguishes Canadian English very clearly from American English, whereas many people here tend to lump the two together because they aren't attuned to the differences. And with 648 references in the dictionary to skate, skating or hockey, you start to build an idea of the interesting connections between language and Canadian identity...

Made-In-Canada words get dictionary backing

The second link also concerns the development of international varieties of English. You may remember the post a little while back about David Crystal's tour of India. Well, in this article, the great man writes about his experiences there. It's a fascinating piece - he explores both synchronic and diachronic variations in Indian English, and gives the reasons why he thinks Indian English is well on the way to becoming a linguistic superpower.

Subcontinent raises its voice

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Scrabble to become part of National Curriculum!

As a former Association of British Scrabble Players ranked player (I've retired from competition now having been thrashed far too soundly by a bunch of 90 year olds...), I am delighted to find the game popping up in this week's media-murmurings about the English Language. Okay, so it's not ACTUALLY going to become part of the National Curriculum (shame...), it was just a suggestion, but it was all part of today's Guardian article about spelling.

This is in the news because of the BBC's new programme The Hard Spell - aka "Swot Idol"! Make sure you catch an episode and/or check out the movie "Spellbound" which documents the (barking mad?...) proceedings of the national American spelling bee. The article, meanwhile, raises some important issues about language, albeit in a very lighthearted way. It questions how much spelling accuracy matters, and laughs at the common assumption that spelling accuracy is somehow an indicator of intellectual ability, leadership potential, moral decency, and personal hygiene. It gives you a "do try this at home" spelling test of 10 really tricky words, and the results of 5 public figures who agreed to take the test. Their reactions to their results are also interesting in revealing the levels of anxiety we commonly have about our orthographic practice.

You'll like the bit about nude Scrabble too, so read it!!

"Ooh, I know this one!"

Results for Stephen Twigg, Jackie McLeod, Alain de Botton, A German, Joyce Cansfield

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Oh dear...

Regular readers of this blog will know, from the post about John Peel, that I was once young enough to listen to Radio 1, but sadly that is no longer true. So, forgive me for being a few days behind the news, but I only got to read about "Elton John's outburst" on that station today.

Outburst?! The Sex Pistols' use of one swear word on prime time TV was daring and innovative, but that was back in the 1970s when the BBC still confined wannabe presenters with anything as damning as a regional accent to boondocks radio. Elton John using the f-word today is hardly rock'n'roll when as a nation we barely batted an eyelid at the C-word on Sex And The City. (Though, isn't it weird that I'm coyly saying "F-word" and "C-word" in this post when anyone who knows me "live" knows I swear like a trooper. Discuss using examples from the text with reference to appropriate frameworks!)

What is also interesting is the way the BBC reacted. The DJ who was interviewing Sir Elton had to keep apologising and showed an awareness that he could lose his job over this (though how serious this was, I don't know...). Does this make the BBC upholders of appropriate linguistic standards, or defenders of a hopelessly outdated past? Should anything go?

This is a perennial debate about language, but there's another question to be asked here. That is: if we are so accustomed to the F-word and the C-word that we barely register them as swearing, what words are left for us to shock with? That's a serious question... Check out the links then give us your thoughts.

Elton's Radio 1 outburst

A bloody good thing too

Out of the mouths of babes

PS While browsing about for a link I can't now find, I learned that swearing is illegal on the Caribbean island of Nevis, and that 36 of the 40 people being held in the island's prison are inside for swearing offences. Now don't say I never tell you anything interesting...

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The English cultural avalanche

Being a soft south coast southerner, I can't claim to know much about snowflakes, let alone avalanches, and neither do I exactly have much contact with speakers of Celtic languages. But I am bothered that avalanche metaphors are applied to the destruction by English of the longest established languages in Britain. This is the subject of this week's link, and it's one that my students and I have discussed before.

Whenever we have this debate in class, my students roll their eyeballs at me and say "oh, get with it, will ya, English is the way of the future". And when I argue hard back at 'em about the value of linguistic diversity, the beauty of seeing the world from a different cultural point of view, and the loss of the planet's cultural heritage, they nod politely and say "uh-huh" and "mmm" as if they were waiting patiently to explain the blindingly obvious to a small, very sweet, but ignorant child. Then they get me with an argument I've never got a satisfactory answer to: "but isn't it wonderful to think that all the communication barriers between the world's peoples will at last come tumbling down?" And then I hear the 1970s "I'd like to teach the world to sing" Coca-Cola ad theme song playing and I have a heady rush of liberal idealism that makes my desire to cling to the past seem an embarrassing affliction.

But the heady rush goes and I am left unconvinced. So, if you are out there reading this and you are a speaker of a Celtic language, or you live somewhere where English dominance is something to be resisted, can you post your comments? Does it really not matter?................

Twilight of the Celts

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Do you come here often?

So, next on the agenda is the deeply joyous subject of chat-up lines. I've been scratching my head this morning trying to think of a methodologically sound way of collecting data for a project on this, but as chat-up lines are usually used in distinctly dodgy settings involving loud music and slurred speech, I have to confess I've not got very far and you'll have to make do with this article. For once, the Independent isn't charging for the privilege of reading it, so make the most of it! And if you can think of a way of collecting reliable and credible data, let me know... And do post your own favourite examples...

'Is that a ladder in your tights or a stairway to heaven?'

Oi, talk proper, wiwl ya?

Cor, keeping up with all the interesting language stories in the media at the moment is virtually a full time job! But first up is news that the Grand Dames of British Acting are frightfully upset about the parlous state of the nation's youth - specifically, the inability of young actors to speak Received Pronunciation. It's such an old gripe, based on a view that the English language is rapidly going to hell in a handcart, that I'm afraid I can't take it terribly seriously.

Well, that's one reason - the other is the fact that I can't speak RP either, and struggle a bit to understand speakers who use its most marked forms. Dining with a particular don at Oxford the other summer, I was alternately lifting my jaw back off the floor from sheer surprise that anybody alive today still spoke like that, and having to run a translation programme inside my head to replace all his short "e" sounds with the "a" sounds I use. Being a Mockney I say "exaaaams" with my mouth wide open for all the world to see my fillings and tonsils, whereas he was saying "exems" barely moving his lips. Fascinating to watch - I just hope I didn't stare too much...

So, if your average English language teacher struggles with it, it's hard not to have sympathy for the young drama students being lambasted by the Grand Dames. Their argument is that without RP, young actors will NEVER be able to play the great classical roles. Well, that's self-evidently a load of old poppycock, isn't it?!! Some of the best productions of Shakespeare's plays that I've seen have been ones where the actors have used their accents to accentuate the power dynamics, rather than squashing them all into some Ye Olde Englande vision of reality that only the tourists in Stratford-upon-Avon buy into. Large yawn. Leonardo di Caprio, with his American accent, made Romeo a major object of schoolgirl desire - can hardly see him having the same effect in RP, can you?...

Check it out. You have to register to read The Telegraph online, but it's free...

Estuary English 'is destroying British drama'

Received Pronunciation

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Genuinely genuine

Okay, so I'm slightly behind the times here, but let's talk about the death of John Peel, the radio 1 DJ and TV presenter. To old gits of my generation, he was a living legend, the king of cool, as we stayed up late in our unheated bedrooms listening to Echo and the Bunnymen on our rubbish non-digital radios in those dim pre-internet days. Pre-internet? - hah! I'm talking pre-home-computers!

But don't let that put you off this week's link. In it, Mark Lawson analyses Tony Blair's response to John Peel's death. He highlights the problem Blair faces in trying to express genuine sadness at someone's death. What words can he possibly use now having been an "over-enthusiastic eulogist" since Diana's death? Lawson offers a close analysis of Blair's repetition of the word "genuine" in his eulogy to John Peel, and draws some interesting conclusions about what Blair communicates about himself and his public image, whatever he may have consciously intended.

It's a fascinating insight and an interesting example of close language analysis. Click on the link below.

Really, truly genuine