Sunday, February 27, 2005

Terrace talk

So, it's not scientific, it won't pass an A Level, but there was a quirky anecdotal article in yesterday's Indy about the way fans use language on the terraces at football matches. Now here's an excellent idea for a language investigation coursework project! Not only is the topic interesting in terms of language variety, but Adrian Chiles, the writer of the article, has used a cool method for collecting data - he has clearly posted a message to an online fanzine and people have posted additional examples from their experience. Easy, or what?!

Check it out and let me know what you think - I'm off to play in the snow.

The things fans say at matches: are we witty or half-witted?

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The end is nigh?...

Talk about global English and everyone starts saying the same thing: it's taking over the world. Some people will be happy with that; some won't. We could, if we chose, spend several happy hours looking at examples, and considering the relevant relationships - contested or otherwise -between language, social prestige, economic power, migration, and political and cultural colonialism.

But hold up, what's this? Maybe the rise of English isn't inexorable after all! Maybe English has reached its global glittering peak, and the only way is down. Well, so speculates Nicholas Ostler in his book, Empires of the Word: a language history of the world.

In the review of the book linked below, a number of key factors are cited to support the potential demise of English. Firstly, the traditionally dominant countries in which English is used have aging populations. Think about it - who wants to talk like a bunch of old people?! So, the language loses its social prestige and goes into a zimmer-framed decline. People start choosing the language of the regions with the vibrant energy of a youthful population. China and the Far East is where it's at, folks. Ah yes, you say, but what about business and the internet as bastions of English communication, supported by all the economic power of the USA (and Britain, its 51st state). Well, yes, at the moment, but again, where are the fastest growing economies? What is true now may not be true tomorrow, and Ostler notes that businessmen are notoriously fickle - they go where the money is. I'd start learning Chinese now, if I were you.

What makes Ostler's speculations compelling is that he places them in the context of the history of the world and its languages. He considers the factors that have led languages and empires to rise and fall; he's looking at the big picture here, not giving us some knee-jerk reaction. Check out the review - this is a useful alternative perspective in the global English debate.

Watch your tongue

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

So help you God...

Well, goodness me, but there's hot stuff for you on the Language Legend today. 1903 pages of transcription of the Grand Jury proceedings that led to charges being brought against Michael Jackson for molestation and conspiracy have been published on the internet. With extraordinary levels of secrecy surrounding the trial, the authenticity of the documents has not formally been confirmed, but the website on which they are published believes they are genuine. As this is a website which frequently breaks important legal stories, I'm giving them at least the benefit of the doubt for now.

Naturally, I'm only interested in the transcripts from a purely linguistic point of view! First up, transcripts of legal proceedings are always fascinating for the insights they provide into the way that language encodes power. Look at how skilfully the interrogators manipulate language to get certain types of answer from the witnesses. Look at how they use language to establish their authority and to control the proceedings. But what is also interesting in this case is that many of the witnesses are children. Look at how language is used to try and make them feel comfortable. Look at how language is used to discuss difficult subjects, such as sex. Look at how clarification of a child's understanding of the meanings of words is sought to make sure there is no room for doubt. And look at how the children answer the questions. Loads there, eh?

Secondly, the participants in these proceedings are American. At 1903 pages, this is a rich resource for exploring differences between American English and British English, and in the way that language is used in the legal proceedings of the two countries. Are there differences in legal expressions and 'set pieces'? Are there differences in sentence construction, or lexis? What do you see here?

And thirdly, these transcripts throw up all sorts of interesting points about the relationship between language, technology and publishing. The internet makes it possible for these documents to be read worldwide within minutes of their publication. This is a situation that has never before been known. In the past, ordinary interested people have either had to go into court and listen to the proceedings, or, more usually, relied on reports in newspapers. Now, the actual transcripts can be presented to a reading public, from which they can come to their own conclusions. We don't get occasional quotations, or edited highlights - here we have all of the language, unedited and in the raw. That puts us, as readers, in a very powerful position.

It is a fundamental principle of civilised society that everybody deserves to have a fair trial, and is innocent until proven guilty. So, do let Wacko have his say in court before you judge him. I'll tell you this, though - I sure am glad I'm not doing jury service on this one...

Michael Jackson transcripts get published

The transcript

Saturday, February 19, 2005

William the Conqueror spins in his grave!

William the Conqueror, leader in 1066 of what came to be known as the Norman Conquest, is himself variously known - as "William the Bastard" in some historical accounts, and as "Norman the Conqueror" by my 2004 A2 class who were, by their own admission, rather historically challenged! But having been responsible for introducing not only the delights of French cuisine but also its lexicon, beef instead of a slab of cow, I have no doubt The Bastard is spinning helplessly in his grave this week.

Et pourquoi? I hear you ask. Well, in order to show her 100% commitment to the London Olympics bid, what did the Queen's household do to impress the IOC judges but have the menu cards printed in English, instead of the French of every other state banquet in the history of the English monarchy. Okay, okay, I can hear you muttering "big deal" from here, but actually this is very interesting from a language point of view.

Et pourquoi? tu demands encore. Well, first up is the whole business about the relationship between the English monarchy and the French language. After the Norman Conquest, when William and his dukes took over the whole kit and caboodle, French was the language of power in this country for generations to come. Monarchs spent half their time in France and didn't bother too much with the language of the peasants. Well, okay, so maybe if you were a duke out in the middle of nowhere, you picked up a few words to get by, and then maybe you got a bit tired of being all on your lonesome so you shacked up with a nice local girl who taught you a few more, and then your kids went out playing and brought back all these trendy English words because French was just toff's-talk, and oh well, as long as they minded their manners that was okay... And then there was that pesky business of the Hundred Years War with France, and well, you'd forgotten what the old country was like anyway, and it didn't matter too much, and it definitely did make more sense to have the laws in English...

So, by the early Middle Ages we're at a situation where the monarch is once more an English speaker and the institutions of power are operating in English. But in the kind of mild-mannered compromise the English are noted for, the English lexicon has imported 20,000+ words from French, and French continues quite happily for centuries and centuries as the language of international diplomacy, of sophisticated romantic luuuurrrrve, and of fine dining. Traditionally at least, French is about class, prestige and elegance, whilst English is the robust country bumpkin of a cousin.

But hold on a second, where are we at now? It was also reported in the news this week that the number of candidates taking French exams in English schools is in decline, and you only need take one tiny peek at the world to see the apparently inexorable rise of English as a/the global language. So what is really interesting about the Queen's banqueting arrangements is that, until this week, she has ALWAYS had her banquet menus printed in French. Whilst English rules the waves out there in the real world, Her Brittanic Majesty sits at home insisting on her frites and her pain chocolat. Maybe this makes the Queen one of my linguistic freedom fighters, battling nobly against linguistic imperialism! Just how bizarre a concept is that?!....

However, I really can't help feeling that this decision may backfire. The IOC committee is a group of well-travelled, sophisticated, multi-lingual delegates. Want to present London as the kind of sophisticated multicultural place most likely to give athletes from all over the world a warm welcome? I know, let's force them all to speak English AND make a political point of doing so!! Hmmm....

What do you think?.......

Queen drops French for menus at IOC banquet

The influence of French on English in the Early Modern Period

Monday, February 14, 2005

In the mood for lurve?

My only concession to marking 14th February is to give thanks to St Valentine when the overhyped commercial rip-off undertaken in his name has fallen in half term, and I don't consequently have to face the horror of teaching period 1 on this day. When I do, my attempts to ignore it are swept aside as half the class get out their padded singing loveheart cards, and the other half slash their wrists. Valiantly attempting to calm this hotbed of emotion, I get a barrage of questions about my own love life. Like, how many times do I have to tell you guys, teachers don't have lives!

This time, however, I'm having fun on Valentine's day! Not only am I not teaching today, but also the Guardian has come up trumps, with two items that are really interesting on the language of love. Or language and technology. Or both...

First up is a link to an article about how "singles" are using MSN to get to know propsective lovers. It raises an interesting issue about the way this technology encourages or allows us to use language differently in a flirting situation. Some very interesting figures, too, about the number of people who are doing this - er, and they are not, contrary to popular belief in my classroom, all young people.

Next is an absolutely fantastic set of data if you want to look at how real people use text messaging. The Guardian provided a service by which readers could text in a Valentine's message for their loved one, and it appears on their website. Very cool! These are real live people and real live messages, so if you want to see a great big pile of authentic data, check it out.

Forget champagne, online chat is the way to woo

Finally this sock has found its missing pair

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Township talk

So, to celebrate the fact that I may finally have figured out how to link to articles in The Times without all that fiddling about with the search box on the home page, here's a groovy little number from that respected bastion of once-broadsheet journalism. It's an interesting piece about Scamto, the street slang of black young people in South Africa's cities. It's been around a while but was fuelled in the 1990s by the language used by the townships' hip hop stars.

The reason it's now in the news is that a dictionary has just been produced, and its writer seems pleased to be able to help advertising executives and government agencies with this important tool to facilitate inter-generational, inter-racial communication. However, if you read the post the other week about the street slang of black young people in London (look for 'The youth of today' in the January archive), you will immediately be laughing at the foolishness of such a move, because this completely misses the point of the function of slang. Still, I love the use of "g-string" for a car in the BMW3 series, so if I start asking you if you fancy a ride in my g-string, please don't take it the wrong way!

Word on the street is...Scamto

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Charles and Camilla

So, for everyone out there who thinks that only young people talk sex into their mobiles late at night, here's a reminder, on this, the day it was announced, at long last, that Prince Charles will finally make a decent woman of his lay-dee, a reminder of what a stud, what a steamy late night schmoozer, our future king is. Click on the link to read the full transcript of the 1989 "Camillagate" scandal. And what exactly, I hear you ask, has this to do with your serious pursuit of A Level English Language? Ah well, just look at it...

Language and power - is this the way you expect members of the aristocracy to speak? Is it really that different, phonology aside, from the language of any star-crossed lovers?

Language and technology - consider the implications of modern telecommunications on language... The question was often asked in the press at the time - and was again in relation to Beckham and his texts - don't these people realise how easy it is for their calls to be hacked into and recorded? Wouldn't they be a little more linguistically circumspect if they thought about this for even half a second? Can't wait to see HRH on MSN...

Read it and weep....

The Camillagate Transcript

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Site maintenance

Following assorted comments and suggestions, I'm now in the process of tinkering around with the site. It'll change over the next few days as I add bits back on and take other bits away (especially very cheesy profile...). Please feel free to email suggestions!

Do you speak American?

My answer to that question is "I try very hard not to". I wince every time my best friend, who is married to an American citizen, says "gotten" and "combo", and I STILL can't help making pathetic superhero jokes about people who wear their pants on the outside. But I'm not impervious - you guys know I use "you guys" all the time, but that's different in my book. Whilst I visualise all the other American expressions as barbaric raiders from the Evil Empire, their well-armed strongholds in Britain innocuously disguised as a chain of coffee bars with large sofas, "you guys" is actually pretty darned (yikes, they've got me!) useful as a second person plural pronoun. I've tried using "youse" from our native vernacular, but down here in the Estuary badlands I just get strange looks and/or death threats for that....

Anyway, apart from being a question that makes me twitch, "Do you speak American?" is also the title of a new book and TV series that explores American dialects. In it (apparently, because it's not yet published in the UK) the highly regarded journalist, Robert MacNeil, describes what he found on his journey round the States, visiting and talking to speakers of the very wide range of dialects that exist in the country for all kinds of social and historical reasons.

First check out the link below to the University of Chicago's student newspaper, which gives a very readable account of a spoken presentation Robert MacNeil gave in the city about his work.

Robert MacNeil defends American English

And once you've got that overview, check this cool stuff out - a transcript of an online discussion between Robert MacNeil and Washington Post readers.

Do you speak American?

And if, on the most optimistic off-chance that any of my students on the Media/Sociology trip to the USA are reading this in a cybercafe somewhere, please tell Tim and Steve that the book and DVD are what I want as my present for letting them take you! Er, that's a serious request!

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Freedom fighters?

In the long-running debate about whether or not the global spread of English is a good or a bad thing, my flaky old teacher arguments about the beauty of diversity tend to cut little mustard (note wilfully obscure but linguistically beautiful idiom use!). As reported here previously, my class consistently reduce me to tears with their CocaCola vision of all the peoples of the world singing in perfect (English) linguistic harmony. So this week, in a bid to get some perspective on the issue, I thought we'd take a look at what some of those peoples of the world think of the matter! Seems only fair, really....

And this week it seems that the linguistic freedom fighters have been hard at it, trying to liberate their languages from the influence of English. We're not talking polite letters to the editor of The Times here - we're talking direct action!

First up are the Welsh speakers who held up a train for 20 minutes to protest against the train company's attitude to the Welsh language, allowing it, in their opinion, to be dominated by English. The protesters tied themselves to the seats and refused to pay their fares - now that's what I call attitude!

Activists warn of new train demos

Then there are the Tamil political campaigners who are so angry about the use of English words in the titles of Tamil films that they are prepared to go on a 5 day march to protest about it. 5 days! And in response, the regional government has threatened 'severe action' against any of these people who engage in violence to prevent the screening of the films. Hot stuff or what?!

No compromise on English titles

In France, it's the government which is taking the action, this time attempting to insist that popular reality TV shows based on British or American models are given French names. Out goes 'Popstars'; in comes 'Vedettes de Varietes'. Not too much heavy stuff planned at the moment - just the threat of a reminder letter - but the French TV licensing authority does have the power to fine broadcasters and revoke their licences. Is Popstars really worth that?!!

No more Popstars for French telly

So, check out the links and post a comment. Where do you stand in this debate?