Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Wow Factor

Into the last few weeks of term now, and I bet you're all sitting there worrying about how you're ever going to fill the long summer holidays with meaningful activity once English Language revision no longer fills your every waking moment. Well, fear not! Because here's your chance to earn 2.8 million quid. Think I'm joking? Well, that's what one writer of children's books has recently been paid to turn "Wolf Brother" into a six book series. And isn't J.K. Rowling now richer than the Queen?

The reason this has made the news is because a competition has been launched to find the next children's bestseller writer. Think this is only for older people? Well, you're wrong, because the entry details clearly state that writers should be aged 16 and over. So, that means you guys, right? The competition is called "The Wow Factor"; you get the application forms from Waterstones, the bookshop.

Linkyloved below is a good piece in The Times, which includes discussion with 3 top children's fiction writers. Whether you fancy having a crack at the prize money or not, they usefully explore some key issues in writing for children: about the drafting process, the pitfalls of using youth sociolect, the value of getting feedback from the intended audience, and the importance of really solid research. But best of all is a golden nugget of advice from the 2.8 million quid writer that every aspiring writer would do well to bear in mind (and especially when submitting pieces for exams/coursework!!):

"if you think your first draft is marvellous, you are probably not as talented as you need to be"

Think about it... And if you win the Wow Factor prize, I want a mention in the foreword for telling you about it! (and a share of the cash....)

Think you can write a children's bestseller?

Monday, June 27, 2005

You cannot be serious?!

In the spirit of sporting generosity and Scottish bonhomie, I'd like to offer Andy Murray my tennis coach, given that he's a bit short of one at the moment. I think my deliciously tattooed tennis pirate would do well with the young superstar as he's gained plenty of experience in the "emotional expression" school of tennis, what with me hurling my racket at him and all... And it's "emotional expression" that's been high on the Wimbledon news agenda in the last week.

First there's Tiger Tim. (Top tip to Andy: keep listening to the Black Eyed Peas and scowling then no-one will touch you with a dumb alliterative nickname that spells "Loser" with a big L.) It's not the balls or the grass that have done for Henman; more that he's just not with it linguistically. The genteel Oxfordshire squire's son doesn't say the F word with any conviction whatsoever, and in the modern game that has to be a major handicap. (And Tim, your whining in earlier tournaments that it's not fair because other players can swear undetected in their native tongue only makes it worse!) Nonetheless, you have to give him some credit for trying, and though his Wimbledon hopes may once again be dashed, he can at least console himself that his linguistic crimes against the All England Lawn Tennis Club are being investigated.

Henman serves up a volley of abuse

Tim faces fine for outburst

Also on the language and tennis radar this week is discussion in the Guardian of the standard of tennis commentary. This caught my attention because on a long drive during a big match the other day, I had to tune in to Radio 5 Live. And what a revelation! I had no idea that I would enjoy it so much! Without the pictures, the commentators have to work much harder, using words to describe vividly and immediately what is happening. You might think that the pressure this places the commentator under would make their work less detailed or less coherent, but you'd think wrongly. They have to draw more frequently on precise tennis jargon - "Federer plays a sliced backhand... Ferrero a heavy topspin forehand right onto the base line" - but as Radio 5 Live is for sports fans, that's a help not a hindrance.

But it also made me realise how much drivel many of the TV tennis commentators talk. Not McEnroe - he's as much a legend in the commentary box as he was in his time on court. But many of the others talk rubbish, especially when commenting on women's matches. You wanna investigate language and gender to see if sexist language use is dead? Try tennis commentary! And an entertaining piece in today's Guardian picks up on the worst offender of them all, the former British player, Andrew Castle. The writer picks out several linguistic issues, but the one that has me pointing a broom at my telly while making firing squad sounds is his use of the most crashing cliches to describe moments of sublime athletic performance. Read it and start thinking about applying to Brighton University for their Sports Journalism degree: one of you guys can DEFINITELY do better!

Never mind the Sex Pistols, here's Sue Barker

Radio Five Live

BA Sport Journalism at Brighton University

Thursday, June 23, 2005

And for seconds...

I couldn't resist this little item: an article that had me spluttering my tea all over the computer screen in a huge guffaw, and wondering if it was April Fools Day already. Y'see, potato farmers have been on the rampage, protesting outside Parliament - er, and outside the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary! I know, I know, this is already getting surreal... And why are the spud-munchers so unhappy with the twin bastions of civilisation? Well, they vehemently object to the word "couch-potato" because it conveys negative connotations of the healthy and nutritious root vegetable. Laughed at the ridiculousness of the campaign? I nearly died!!

The best bit of all is the response given to the media by John Simpson, chief editor of the OED: "I think the potato has taken a bit of a mashing after the Atkins diet". Someone give that man the OBE now! That is priceless verbal wit!

Read it and rise up with me, sofa-lovers, to object to the equally negative connotations being accrued to the word "couch"!

Farmers demand a ban on the word 'couch-potato'

And join in the debate about alternative terms here:

What should we call couch potatoes now?

Where do you draw the line?

It's sunny, there's wall to wall Wimbledon on the telly, and those things have conspired to put me in such a good mood that you can have two posts today. Also, I can't decide between them!

First, the serious stuff: news in The Guardian that a foul mouthed abusive ranter has got away with it in court for a second time. His two year tirade to his MP against the government's policies on asylum seekers and immigrants brought him to the attention of the Crown. He was charged in his local magistrate's court with offences against the Telecoms Act, basically for using expletives and what any sane rational person would call explicitly racist language. However, the magistrates let him off on the grounds that although his language was "offensive" it was not "grossly offensive". Oh, so that's okay then...

The reason it's in the news today is because the case went to the appeal court. Now, a couple of high court judges have deemed that the magistrates made a legally correct decision. How so? Because out of the 3 people in the MP's office who had to deal with the calls, none of them were members of an ethnic community, and while one found the calls "upsetting", the other two did not. As the man's language hadn't actually caused any offence to these parties, it couldn't be deemed grossly offensive.

D'ya know what? It's stuff like this that made me decide to become a teacher and not a lawyer. If I'd been the prosecuting counsel, I'd have stabbed a few judges by now and would be spending time at Her Majesty's pleasure myself.

But there's something else that's interesting here, apart from where we choose, as a society, to draw the lines on language acceptability. What's also really intrigued me is exactly what the Telecoms Act is and how its instrumental power can be used by the courts to control our language use. I tried reading a bit of this Act but nearly died of brain ache, so if anyone with a legal turn of mind wants to give us the edited highlights, do post here - you can write loads more if you click comments at the bottom of the post than if you talk on the message board. Very interesting if you've been working on Language and Technology, or Language and Power...

Nationalist's phone rants 'not grossly offensive'

Telecoms regulation

Saturday, June 18, 2005


Being an English teacher can get you into the odd fight here and there. You wouldn't think it, would you? But I can distinctly recall several educated grown-ups asking me what I thought of Lynne Truss's rampant, best-selling book on "good English", Eats, Shoots and Leaves. And when I told them I hated it, they beat me up, yelling "you call yourself an English teacher and you don't care about the corruption and defilement of the language?!"
"No, not really", I whimpered through the storm of blows, "language change is exciting".

So, three loud reverberating cheers this week for Kate Burridge, professor of Lingusitics at Monash University, and her new book which celebrates language change. Wahey, I got a professor on my side! (Or maybe I'm on hers...) Only she's way cooler, because I only got duffed over in the staffroom whereas she's had death threats from the apostrophe support group for suggesting we should bin that annoying little curly thing. Now those people really do need to get out more...

So, check the article out, and in the spirit of linguistic liberation, what "weed words" would you add to the list, and what "rules" would you bin?

Lover of English slang takes on Truss and tradition

And here's a more detailed take on the same story:

On your marks

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Talking posh

A couple of years ago, I spent a week at Merton College, Oxford University. Part of the whole deal was dining with the dons, a ritual which included the imbibing of dry sherry, much to my delight. But on the first day I had the distinctly uncomfortable experience of being engaged in earnest conversation by a speaker of very strongly marked Received Pronunciation, and, er, having no idea what he was talking about!!

There were two problems in this situation. The first was that he kept using the word "zims", the meaning of which was central to what he was telling me about. The second was that the power dynamic was such that I felt too embarrassed to ask him for clarification. I perceived the power as being all in his court: he was my host so I had politeness obligations as his guest; he was an Oxford don and I was a teacher in a modest sixth form college; he spoke in RP, I speak in Estuary even when I'm doing my best posh voice. It just seemed too rude to say "oi, mate, talk in English, will ya?!"

So, I did the only sensible thing: I smiled, nodded, and frantically used all the other clues in his speech to decode the meaning of the word "zims" - er, "exams". And then spent the rest of the week wishing I had a hidden mike so I could tape this curious language variety.

But why do I mention this now, I hear you ask? Well, it's the beginning of the posh season, innit? Ascot, Wimbledon (not that posh now I've got tickets...), Henley, Cowes. And to mark this, and the relocation of Royal Ascot oop North to York, the Times is running a humorous little piece today, in which a journalist purports to be writing in the sociolect of the upper class.

This is interesting because we spend a lot of time exploring other varieties of English, and there is no reason not to explore this one too. Indeed, by so doing we get away from the implict notion that this variety is somehow unremarkable and that non-standard varieties are "deviant". It's also interesting because it is a fictional representation of a language variety, a language variety that is changing, at least phonologically, and it would make an interesting investigation to find out how characteristic this really is of upper class speech patterns.

So, check out the links to read more, and if you live anywhere near any Wimbledon, Henley, or Cowes, get out this summer with a tape recorder!

But darling, how frightful it is to even consider leaving Berkshire

Routes of English Special - talking posh

Friday, June 10, 2005

Like a rash

So, maybe it's something to do with the Friday feeling at our nation's finest dailies, but news of the latest edition of the Collins English Dictionary is all over them like a rash. The esteemed publication has apparently added 1500 new words. This dictionary publishing phenomenon "hey, look what new words we've added" is very interesting. To what extent are the new words selected indicative of long-lasting lexical change? To what extent might they just be lexical flashes in the pan, mere linguistic whims, included more for their media-sexy appeal that might help the publishers flog a few more copies? As passionate as I am about dictionaries, even I have to concede that it must be one hell of a job having to shift them off the booksellers' shelves.

So, top of anyone's media-sexy list has to be anything to do with Hinglish, the product in this context of the roaring success of the Sanjeev Bhaskar-Meera Syal genius factory. From this source, we find "aunty-ji" and "chuddies" added.

Hmm, let's see... Next in the media-sexy line-up is anything to do with the beautiful game, and what do we find but Sir Alex Ferguson's rather quaint expression, "squeaky-bum-time". Now come on, Collins, are you really trying to tell me that this phrase has any kind of real currency?!!

The other major category identified in the papers is the "chav" phenomenon. This "new" word has been the subject of many a column inch, but what is interesting here is the way the word is allegedly spreading. We started with "chav", but also included are "chavtastic", "chavette" and "chavish". Think about what processes of lexical change are going on here...

Check it out. And if anyone can find the full list of 1500 words somewhere out there in cyberspace, do gimme a shout and I'll do the linkylove here.

Hinglish makes its debut in English dictionary

Chavs find place in dictionary

Collins English dictionary adds more Japanese words

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

From little acorns?

So, welcome back after half term, and for those of you busy tooling up for the A2 exams, here's wishing you all the very best luck in the world! And if you're in my class, DO SOME WORK!

I see that while I've been away, the debate about synthetic phonics has been rumbling on. If you've got Child Language Acquisition on your exam paper this month, type this phrase into the search engine on any of the national dailies and it'll reel out a shedload of debate about it. But I'm not putting it here cos you know that stuff just doesn't rock my boat...

No, catching my eye this week is an article in the Boston (USA) area newspaper, the Sentinel and Enterprise, about George Bush's latest favourite word, "suiciders", what you and I might more laboriously call "suicide bombers". Hmmm... so how do you view this lexical item? Is it a language change needed for linguistic efficiency, halving the number of words needed to convey the idea? Is it evidence of language decay, a debasement of a previous, superior form? Is it a creative generation of a new word to jolt us out of our complacency about this terrorist phenomenon? Is it wrong?

How you prefer to answer this question will depend upon which ideas about language change you subscribe to, but you should at least be aware of alternative ways of looking at it. Have a read of the article and identify which attitudes and ideas about language change are implicit in it.

The other interesting angle the article touches upon is whether or not this word is likely to become more widely used than just the current American president. Will the power and prestige of this role mean that Bush's lexical creation is adopted by people who admire and respect him? What impact will the global media have in making the word familiar through their reporting of his every public word? What other factors might cause it to spread?

However, according to the article, the associate editor of one of the main dictionaries in the USA isn't at all over-optimistic about the likelihood of the word spreading. Well, here's a test. Open Google. Type in "suicider" and see how many hits you get. Who's right?... And why?... Is Bush leading language change or following it? What's happening here?...

Check the link and leave your thoughts...

Not a good day for language use