Thursday, March 31, 2005

Stand up the real Language Legend

Nah, nothing to do with me. Actually, the real Language Legend can't stand up because he's been dead several centuries but you wouldn't know that from this week's papers which are busy paying tribute to Dr Samuel Johnson. Who? Why?

Dr Samuel Johnson is the founding father of English lexicography (dictionary writing). Nine years in the making - er, only six years past the deadline (beat that!) - his dictionary was finally published on April 15th 1755. It's the 250th anniversary of this momentous occasion that has got the scribblers and the coin-stampers so hard at work now.

Johnson's dictionary was not the first, but it was equally the product of 18th century discourse about language. Like many, he started with the optimistic desire to 'fix' the language, so that a definitive 'proper' English could be shared and understood by members of the literate middle class, and anyone else aspiring to such dizzy social heights. He soon realised the impossibility of this position due to the ever-changing nature of language, and is famously quoted as saying "to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride".

Two things marked Johnson's dictionary out, making him a hot celebrity in town at the time, and a man and a work still celebrated today. Firstly, although other dictionaries had been produced, nothing on this scale had ever been seen before. It weighed 20lb - or about 40 kilos - and included 42,773 entries. It was also the first to use historical principles, citing real examples of the words from texts published in the past, and using these as the evidence from which to derive meanings. When, in the 19th century, the Oxford English Dictionary took on the mammoth task of producing the most comprehensive English dictionary ever, it was Johnson's lexicographical method and ambition that they adopted. It is still the underlying principle of the OED today. And he did it pretty much all by himself...

The links below will fill you in on more of the details.
  • These A-Zs are fairly lightweight commemorative markers, but of some interest nonetheless.

BBC: The A-Z of Samuel Johnson

Indy: The A-Z of Dr Johnson's Dictionary

  • You can read Johnson's preface here to see what he thought of it, and practise your language change analysis.

Johnson's Preface to the Dictionary, 1755

  • This Times review of a new biography of Johnson is very useful, particularly as it draws attention to the important fact that dictionaries are not neutral, but are as much based on the attitudes and assumptions of their writers as any other text. Think about this...

Times Review: Dr Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings

  • And finally, look out for the new Johnson's dictionary 50p pieces - they've got Johnson's entries for 'fifty' and 'pence' on them!

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Agents of Domination

Oh dear, I seem to have become Q to a class full of James Bonds. (Hmmm, that's a good image, surely?...) There was me thinking I was just being a helpful English teacher, going around telling my students that if they want to travel the world and meet interesting people, they could do far worse than go to Japan to teach English as a Foreign Language. But I find this morning that what I have really been doing is recruiting Agents of Domination, trained in English grammar to go out and kill renegade cultures.

Well, I can see the point, and it's this: that in teaching EFL, native speakers tend to impose their own cultural values through the language they teach. And in this, a lecturer from Lincoln University argues, there may be "a social, cultural and pragmatic mismatch in the ethnographic rules of language use". Because English is the most powerful language on earth, this exerts a pressure on second language learners to adopt the ideology underpinning those ethnographic rules. English lessons become cultural propaganda.

It's an important issue for native speakers of English. With power comes responsibility. My classes have long argued that their 1970s Coca-Cola ad vision of all the world singing in perfect (English) harmony is a beautiful ambition, but do we really want a world with only one way of looking at it?

Check it out (and when you go to Japan to teach English, don't make your class sing Beatles' songs).

English belongs to the whole world

Friday, March 25, 2005

E-Julie and the Eejits?...

Now, please don't let on to the students I've just cruelly abandoned, but, contrary to what I've told them, I'm not really taking up a new post somewhere in the Fens. No, I'm actually about to embark on my long-planned career as an international rock guitarist. Can't play a single chord? Can't sing? Well, I see that as no reason whatsoever not to give it a go, though maybe I'll make one tiny concession and go buy a guitar tomorrow...

Okay, so maybe that's just my secret fantasy, but it was all sparked off by today's article in the Guardian about the best band names ever. The muso-journalist explains his method of filtering hundreds of demo CDs a week according to their linguistic value, though he has to confess to having got it badly wrong on occasion, ditching Oasis cos the name's lame (fair dos, I say).

"Hmmm, that's a nice little kicked-back language legend article for the holidays", I was thinking; and, maybe I'll say, "hey, this'd make a pretty funky language investigation". And just as I was thinking that, I clicked on the "related articles" link and lo and behold someone's not only done it but very conveniently published it in the Guardian. Cool analysis. Check 'em both out.

Branding the band

A guide to weird and wonderful band names

Monday, March 21, 2005

Gone with the raggle-taggle gypsies-oh

So, fond as I am of traditional English folk music (in small doses, and not in the company of beardy blokes), I'm quite happy with the word "gypsies". For me, and in this context, it invokes fabulously romantic scenarios, in which women run away on wild nights with ravishing strangers, their shoes and their oppression quite cast off and their hair streaming freely down their backs. Then there's the "gyptians" variation of the word used by Philip Pullman in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and again it has positive connotations, as these characters are portrayed as courageous salts of the earth, in touch with the spiritual world, and living freely and fairly in close communities.

But out there in the real world, it's by no means an easy word, and if you pay any attention whatsoever to the rampant electioneering all over the news, it's not hard to see why. The Conservative party has launched an election pledge to "crack down" on travellers and/or Travellers, gypsies and/or or gyptians, the Roma and/or the Romany. Each word, used to refer to more or less the same group of people, has different connotations, and although "travellers", capitalised or not, is the politically correct term used by local councils, education authorities and some newspapers, not everyone it refers to likes it, and there are whole minefields of deliberate or inadvertent offence in the use of the alternatives. And with the all the political and media election campaigns busy tooling up, both the word and its referents are hot potatoes. Check it out.

1) Click here Blurred history of Gypsy terms for the BBC's handy guide to the different words.
2) Surf the websites of the major newspapers (links are in the links section if you scroll down below here) for articles on this news item and see which words each of the papers uses most frequently.
3) Do a search in the British National Corpus (link also in the links section) to see how each of the words is used in this massive database of speech and writing.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

What do you call that?

If ever reasons were needed for not having children, number 7 on my list would definitely be the whole thorny issue of what to tell girls to call their genitals. And one of the writers in the Grauniad this week grapples nicely with this dilemma. Often, articles like this are just so much journalistic fluff, but the writer has done her homework, and invites us to look at the issue from a number of interesting perspectives.

First up, there is the whole business of how children acquire language, and how much influence parents have over its development. In one nice example, the parents have consistently insisted on 'vagina', but the little girl will use no word other than 'peanut'. Might be cute now, but imagine the problems with bar snacks later in life... The writer deals intelligently with the complexity of the issue. Whilst one word, or set of words, might be okay for adults, there are real issues about using the same words with children. So, we also get food for thought about the relationship between language, age and education.

Then we get to think about language and gender, and the ways in which English continues to encode negative semantic space where femininity is concerned. This is not a popular contemporary view - we're all equal now, aren't we? - but if we still haven't got a word that can be used by both men and women, without blushing at the pornographic connotations, or wincing at the cutesy tweeness, then feminism still has work to be done, surely? One suggestion made is 'yoni', a word with an 'eastern' etymology, meaning source, and with connotations of worship and the sacred origins of the world. But that is all way too New Age for my liking...

Check it out for yourself:

The vagina dialogues

Monday, March 14, 2005

Food for thought

So maybe The Times is a bit short of news today, but I'm delighted to see that the bastion of the social announcement is keeping up with important people's birthdays. Well, okay, they never remember mine, but today, they report, is Mrs Beeton's birthday.

Who is Mrs Beeton? Well, in 1836, a mere slip of a lass at 25 years old, she had just published a weighty tome on the proper subject for women, household management. It included all kinds of advice for dealing with chilblains and servants, as well as hundreds of recipes. You might not believe me, but she was knocking out chicken curry 169 years ago.

Why is this relevant to the study of English Language? Well, first up, Mrs Beeton's book is available online and makes for a fascinating exploration of how language, in a general sense, has changed over time. You could look, specifically, at how gendered issues and ideas, attitudes and values, are encoded in the way Mrs Beeton dishes out the advice. What's also interesting is how the language of cookery has changed over time.

Want to see this in action? The first link below will take you to today's article in The Times. Well sort of - you'll have to type Mrs Beeton into search box and follow the links cos The Times are being stingy with their linkylove this week. 'Fraid I can't give you the devilled chicken liver recipe from Mrs Beeton because that's in the later-updated 1900 edition and the only online one is the original from 1836. But the second link will take you to a section of that dealing with duck, and the third link will take you to the BBC's duck recipes page for some modern recipes for comparison.

Happy Birthday Mrs Beeton

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management

BBC - modern recipes

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Effin the ref

So, whilst I maintain my position that the discussion this weekend about the word "Paki" is far more interesting than this business about footballers' swearing, the British media either doesn't agree or had somewhere other to be on a Saturday night than on their sofas in front of the telly. Their loss...

So, a quick update on some of the media miles devoted to footballers' language. First link below is to an interesting piece in The Times, written by an ex-footballer, in which he argues quite cogently that this is an issue of what society wants technology to do, not what footballers should be held accountable for. This is all good stuff if, like my AS class, you're exploring the relationship between language and technology.

In the public spirited Sun, however, a campaign is under way to scrub out footballers' mouths with a bar of carbolic soap - and you too can take part. So get ringing the Sun's swearbox hotline to shop a player for swearing! And check out the Sun's soccer swearbox... Matches will be monitored, with a lip reader paid to judge any borderline cases, and then The good old Sun, those valiant upholders of the nation's moral scruples, will turn up at the ground ready to charge players and managers a fiver for every offending word. It's a curious world...

And as a slight aside, you just gotta love The Sun website, eh?! You find the article you want to read; you get the first two paragraphs; and then you get the message "For full story and pictures buy the Sun newspaper". I'm just surprised the phrase "you tight-wad" isn't on the end of that imperative!

Check 'em out...

Watershed approaches for the badly behaved

Stop effin the ref

Monday, March 07, 2005

More effing and blinding

Hmm, so maybe I'm wrong. More media-miles so far on the broadcasting of foul-mouthed footballers, and one article in particular has caught my eye today. As well as reporting the basic story, the Indy journalist has gone the extra mile and given us a neat little analysis of all the swearing that could be seen/heard in Sunday's Everton Vs Blackburn match. Never mind the official score, Blackburn won 4-3 in swearing incidents. Check out the link.

TV urged to tackle foul-mouthed footballers

Sunday, March 06, 2005

And in the red corner...

So, this weekend, two related rows about language are simmering away. The first will be pretty much ignored, I reckon, but my money's on the second for turning into a right media punch-up. So, who's arguing about what?

First up is John Dunford, the leader of the Secondary Heads Association. He's made a speech saying that footballers swearing their faces off at referees should only be shown on TV after the 9pm watershed, so that young people stop thinking it's okay to tell figures of authority - er, like teachers - to "fuck off" whenever they feel a bit wound up by circumstances. As a teacher, I'm sympathetic to this. But what's interesting here is the response of the Football Association and the BBC/ITV. In a nutshell, they just laughed.

In a major report published in 2000 by the Independent Television Commission, the word "fuck" was ranked 3rd in terms of semantic severity. Have our attitudes to taboo language changed so much in 5 years that the BBC and ITV can just laugh John Dunford off? This is an interesting question, but this debate also gives us insights into the way that technology and language are inextricably linked. It may be that footballers are more foul-mouthed than in former days, but somehow I doubt it. To my mind, it has more to do with the fact that we are able to see and hear it more frequently, partly because of the technological wizardry that can put a camera and a microphone right up David Beckham's shorts when it wants to, and partly because our 24/7, zillion channel culture enables us to watch it pretty much on demand. From that perspective, there isn't really much of a fight to be had.

Foul! Time to send football's bad boys off TV

But, ooh, here's a real fight brewing. If you didn't watch last night's "British, Paki and Proud" programme on BBC2, then you missed a very interesting discussion about the word "Paki", ranked 10th in semantic severity in the ITC survey. Some of the young people in the programme who are of Pakistani origin were proud to be called "Pakis". Long regarded as an extremely offensive word, they are taking the well-trodden political path of "reclaiming" offensive words as positive expressions of identity. One groovy guy wearing the glasses I'm now definitely getting to replace my Harry Potters is printing "Pak1" t-shirts in this spirit. "Yeah, way to go", I'm cheering from my sofa as I watch members of a previously marginalised community talking with confidence and conviction about their place within multicultural Britain.

But I grew up in Hounslow and went to school with a lot of "Pakis" and oh, look, I can't actually say that word without putting it into inverted commas to show you I'm using it self-consciously, to assure you I'm not racist. Where and when I grew up, it wasn't just an offensive word, it was a rallying call to batter someone within an inch of their life. So, actually, I can't say it without feeling a whole web of emotions tied in with anger and shame that people who share my cultural heritage think this is okay.

And I'm not alone in thinking this. In today's Observer, one of the guys in the programme is furious that the BBC broadcast the programme with the title "British Paki and Proud", because he finds the word so offensive that he would not have agreed to appear in it had he known that title was going to be used. His views chime with my anxieties, but what is interesting is that he is, at a guess, as (youthfully) middle aged as me... And the people who are reclaiming the word are very definitely young people - teenagers. So, what we may be seeing here is snapshot of language change right at the moment when it is changing. So get tracking it and let's see what happens.

BBC attacked for 'Paki' title for show

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Sunshine on a snowy day

The last time it snowed so hard we had a snow day off college was about 7 years ago, being down here on the balmy, toboggan-free slopes of the South Downs. So to all the students in my classes who struggled in against the elements today in case I killed you for not turning up, and then promptly got sent home again, why, thank you - it was fun, wasn't it?!...

But there is some sunshine today. In Birmingham. Well, "sunshine language" to be precise, and news that a new course is starting this evening in Jamaican patois. A course leading to a qualification. For a start that's cool in itself, as it acknowledges that Jamaican patois is a language variation in its own right, with a place in our cultural heritage, and an importance to society. This contrasts with some commonly held prescriptive views that varieties like Jamaican patois are somehow substandard, "debased" forms of English. What is ultra cool is that students who pass this course can progress on to a diploma course in Public Service Interpreting. So not only cool, then, but genuinely useful in a multicultural society too.

Check it out (especially if you're in Birmingham...).

The language of sunshine