Friday, May 27, 2005

Elementary, my dear Watson

So, I reckon I've missed my vocation in life, but when I saw the Careers teacher aged 15 they didn't tell me I could be a forensic linguist. Which obviously means that one of you guys has to do it in my place...

If you trawl back through the archives here (I know, I know, I must put a search function on or an index or something - summer holidays project, methinks) you'll find pieces about the linguistic tracking down of the Belle Du Jour blogger, the Unabomber, and various attempts to determine whether or not the Osama bin Laden tapes are authentic. And now here comes another major case, the quashing of Paul Blackburn's life sentence for attempted murder of a 9 year old boy. Bit late as he served 25 years in prison before new linguistic evidence came to light to mount another appeal...

Browse through the Guardian article below (and those in other papers) and you'll pick up the general story that it's linguistic evidence at the heart of the case, but, frustratingly, none of them provide any further detail. So, you'll need to check out the second bit of linkylovin' for that. This is a fascinating, very chatty account, written by a researcher who worked on Paul Blackburn's case for a TV documentary about alleged miscarriages of justice. I'd still like to see all the evidence, but the researcher explains a few details. Notably, that although the police said the defendant wrote his confession while they sat around polishing their nails, there is no way the word "ejaculated" would be used by a lad with a teenage working class sociolect, let alone be spelled correctly. Equally unlikely that he would describe being "in a frenzy".

That's as close as I've been able to get to the actual linguistic evidence, though I'd dearly love to see it all. If any of you guys who are studying law can think of a way of eyeballing it, do let me know, eh?...

Appeal victory after 25 years' jail

Trial and Error

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Blame it on your mother...

So, here goes, deep breath, I'm going to post on the subject of child language acquisition. I was kinda hoping no-one would notice that I never write about this, but last week I was rumbled. In my defence, I just don't do pets and babies, and having scarred one set of students for life with my teaching of the subject, I've avoided the subject ever since. And besides, it goes like this doesn't it? Baby gets born, copes with the trauma remarkably well, and then ingeniously learns to speak a language or three. A little bit, then a bit more, and before you know it, s/he's doing an A Level in it. Okay, so you get to laugh at children, but it's not very exciting really, is it?...

So, having uttered those dreadful heresies, here's this week's news, from that fine bastion of balanced unbiased journalism, The Daily Mail, of research that claims to show that language development will be maximised where there is a close intuitive connection between mother and child. But as I know so little about the subject, you guys are all going to have to help me out here by posting your comments on these findings. After all, they say the best way of learning something is to teach it - and if you can teach me this, you'll surely be on for an A grade!

Mother does know best!

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


So, this week's post offers a slightly different look at language. Different in that it involves biological rather than language science - or rather, that it connects the two in fascinating ways. Know that experience of making a sarcastic comment, and the other person not realising and taking you literally? (Or the other way round, as is more often the case for me....) Well, in considering the social dynamics of that language situation, we are firmly into the business of examining the pragmatic encoding of attitudes between the participants in the exchange. We expect the other person to be able to decode the signs, and if they don't, we might take them to be autistic, or we might think they are wilfully picking a fight. Either way, we know there is something not quite right.

Well, some scientists have now investigated what goes on in the brain when decoding of the pragmatic signals associated with sarcasm and irony should be taking place. And it turns out it's all to do with the state of your prefrontal lobe. Damage that and your right ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and your ability to detect sarcasm is drastically reduced. Interesting for those of you interested in speech therapy or medicine as a future career; also interesting in helping us to see that our language production isn't just a consequence of social contextual factors, but also of complex biological processes too. The complexity of what we do every time we open our mouths never fails to amaze me.

Check it out.

Highest functions of brain produce lowest form of wit

The human brain

Friday, May 20, 2005

The mother of all smokescreens

So, whatever you think about the political stance of the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, George Galloway, as a student of the English language you've just gotta admire his style - er, especially if you're about to take an exam in language and power! Called to stand before the US Senate, arguably one of the most powerful institutions in the world, he was accused of the kind of fraternising with Saddam Hussein that could land him in prison. Scary stuff. And how did the honourable gentleman react to that? Did he offer his interlocutors any kind of verbal respect, any kind of linguistic convergence, to try and appease them? Did he hell!!

His speech is an exercise in powerful language use. Never once weasling with his words, he directly accuses the Senator conducting the enquiry of being "cavalier with any idea of justice", his government of human rights abuses, and their decision to go to war with Iraq based on a "pack of lies". In two places his use of American expressions - "a thin dime" and "the mother of all..." - might make you think he is trying to accommodate the speech style of his hosts, but when you read these in context, his utter contempt for them is so plain that these apparent accommodations are a form of ridicule.

Galloway's style is a really interesting mixture of high rhetorical device (go through and count them - they're all there!!), formal lexis "you have traduced my name", and vernacular idiom "cock-a-hoop", "heart and soul", "my life's blood". Your interpretation of those linguistic facts is likely to be coloured by your political judgement, but for me, the use of such vernacular grittiness in that context is a wholly admirable sticking up of two fingers to authority. Check it out and post us your thoughts...

Galloway v the US Senate: the transcript

More on rhetorical devices

Monday, May 16, 2005

More American translations...

So, following hard on the heels of the news that British Airways has produced a handy little guide for US travellers to the local dialect of these British shores, is news that the producers of the stage production of Billy Elliot have felt it necessary to follow suit. They've supplied our Yankee theatregoing tourist cousins with a glossary in the programme of some of the Geordie dialect used in the play. Handy if you're frantically working on accents and dialects of the British Isles for your forthcoming exam, but do make sure you think about this as a literary representation of Geordie dialect, not as authentic spoken data. Note that the producer's mam didn't think the actors were very Geordie at all!

Mebbies lost in translation: how wor Billy is ganun awa wi' morder

For a clear description of the traditional features of Geordie, check this out:

Language Varieties (Geordie)

And for a very useful analysis of how Geordie is changing (because dialects, like all forms of language, are not static but subject to constant change), try this:

How Geordie is changing

Friday, May 13, 2005

Horsing around?...

So, apologies for only one post last week. I'm currently enduring the trauma of having to wait 20 whole days for my broadband connection to be switched to my new house - the stuff of nightmares for a supergeek, let me tell you...

But here I am, and what's caught my eye this week is a quirky little piece about the way that the language of horses pervades common speech. I don't mean neighing and whinneying; I mean how the English language draws idiomatically on terms used in the world of horse-rearing and horse-riding.

Now the use of idioms is always interesting. My current A2 class did a piece of research last year which appeared to show that idiom use is age related: the older you get, the more you use. Whether this is due to a lifelong language acquisition process, or whether it is the product of language change, is something we never did manage to resolve, so all suggestions are gratefully received.

Check out the link. Slightly hyperbolic title, nuh?.... Explore other idiomatic patterns?...

Whether you are long in the tooth or full of beans, the language of horses dictates our lives

Wikipedia on idioms

Friday, May 06, 2005

Gor blimey, guv

Be afraid. Be very afraid. The Americans are coming! And despite the fact that their variety of English is creeping its way around the globe on the back of commercial hype and cultural imperialism, they still want to talk like us, here in the Old Country. Yep, this week, British Airways has launched an online dictionary for American travellers to the UK, to help them understand the strange regional variety known as British English.

The linkyloved Indy article presents a good analysis of the quirks of this dictionary: its odd lack of any distinction between terms that local speakers would find distinctly class marked; its exclusions of some double meanings of words that could create confusion; and the way that visitors are encouraged to use phrases and expressions - like "Get your mitts off my pint" - that would get them a smack in the face in most parts of the country.

It's fairly obvious that British Airways only intend this as a humorous little marketing device. However, given my experience of almost dying of laughter in New York when a terribly earnest American woman declared, awe-struck, "Gee, you sound just like Princess Diana" when I am instead (usually) a marked user of vernacular Estuary, I'm mildly alarmed that it won't actually be received in this context. I see American tourists with phrase books in Oxford Street...

This is interesting for a number of reasons. Interesting in considering the nature and function of dictionaries, and of the contexts in which they are read or used. Interesting in what it has to tell us about the relationship between different global varieties of English. Interesting in considering the fundamental slipperiness of any attempt to define vernacular speech. And that's just for starters.

Check it out. Then email British Airways with a better edition!

Get your mitts off our lingo (as they say in New York)

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Speaking in tongues?

So, what with last week's post and this one, it'd be perfectly reasonable to conclude that I've gone football crazy. I haven't, but with the season drawing to a close, the papers seem to be making the most of it, and related language stories are plentiful. So ubiquitous is the story that I shan't even bother to post you the link about Wayne Rooney no longer being welcome at a school he was due to appear at because of his much publicised use of vernacular language.

No, the curiosity I've chosen for our perusal this week is a piece from the East Anglian Daily Times. AFC Sudbury are due to play for the FA Vase (hope they get some nice spring flowers to put in that...) and one of their supporters has helpfully penned a motivational monologue for the team. What's interesting is that he has done so in Suffolk dialect. How linguistically accurate this is, I can't tell, having had only a fleeting relationship with that county, but it would be useful to explore this as a literary representation of one of the accents and dialects of the British Isles.

Can anyone find any links to linguistic information about the Suffolk dialect? Or is anybody out there a speaker who could enlighten us about this representation?

Check it out...

Thoird toime lucky for AFC Sudbury