Sunday, July 31, 2005

Double clicking the mouse

One of my favourite A2 coursework projects this year was an investigation into the use of sexual slang amongst young people at our own (free) state sixth form college and our local (very expensive) private school. The student's hypothesis was that there would be a lot of difference, with the private school students having a highly distinctive slang of their own.

The findings showed that there were indeed many differences, but these were more curious than expected. There was one word used by the private school students that was never used by the sixth form college students, "cheesing" used for flirting, but the rest of the items were mutually comprehensible. However, state students generally used a much wider range of slang than the privately educated students and it tended to be more humorous. The privately educated students tended to use more clinically factual terminology, and there were some distinctly 'elevated' slang items drawn from French and Shakespeare. But the slang term that had me choking on my cuppa at the sheer genius of the data was this one: in response to the prompt, What word or phrase would you use to describe the manual stimulation of the clitoris? one of the sixth form college respondents wrote "double clicking the mouse". I still weep with uncontrollable laughter every time I look at my computer...

However, I don't suppose that one has made it into the new book of sexual slang, Dirty Words: The Story of Sex Talk by Mark Morton. It's in the nature of slang that it changes as fast as you can pin it down, and besides, that double clicking may just have been one student's moment of linguistic brilliance with no wider currency. I'd love to know... Anyway, check out these two reviews of the book.

The first, in the Guardian, is a little sniffy about Morton's prose style but at least opens with some delicious examples (though 'delicious' may be a very bad choice of word there once you've read what felching is...) and gives a link to a website that might be useful and/or banned by your school/college web-police.

The second, in the Times, is written from a rather different point of view, that of Belle du Jour the bestselling blogger who claimed to be a high class prostitute. Not much use as a book review, but a quirky and interesting take on it nonetheless - erm, especially the idea that a talent for wordplay makes you irresistible. Did you need another reason to study English Language?!!....

L is for lalochezia

I love it when you talk dirty

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Ah-oo, werewolves of London

School's out for summer and I've got my ten year old niece staying for a few days. Last time she came we watched School of Rock, and now we're working our way through a special iPod playlist as we drive here and there in the karaoke car. I'm teaching her the lyrics of really daft songs, especially ones with lots of "oos" and "woos". We're Gladys Knight's Pips doing the train noises on Midnight Train to Georgia. We're doing lupine howls to Warren Zevon's Werewolves of London. And we were doing do-do-do-doos with Lou Reed on Walk on the Wild Side until I remembered what the bits in between the chorus actually say...

So imagine my delight to find discussion of exactly this in today's Guardian. The article gives a shedload of examples from a wide range of musical styles and genres, and gets all quite language focused in places. First there are the words used to describe 'nonsense' in music, the sounds made when wordless singing is occurring - scat, doowop and an interesting suggestion of a new term 'rockolalia' (check that suffix out...). Then the writer explores the huge range of meanings that can be conveyed by the single simple 'word' - la.

But oh no, what's this?! At the end of the article the writer describes the use of these lyrical noises as "childlike" and "capable of bridging gaps and warming hearts". You don't think we're into some weird territory here where even the hardest thrash guitar bands are just desperately trying to hark back in their language use to baby babbling?!...

See what you all started?!... Now I can't stop thinking about child language acquisition...

La-la land

Stages of language acquisition in children
(Check out 'canonical babbling' and compare with sounds made in song lyrics!)

Monday, July 25, 2005

Because they are Cornish

It's July, I'm at work and it's raining outside but in an undaunted wave of summer holiday optimism, let's all think instead about Cornwall - the surfing, the clotted cream ice cream, the wind in your hair as you stride along the coastpath - ah, bliss... But hold on, what's this? Maybe because that's where all the Guardian journalists have decamped for the summer, but Cornwall is all over the paper in ways that are very interesting for language students.

First up is news that the ongoing plans to revive the Cornish language have hit a bit of a stumbling block. What Cornish language? Well, check out the first link for more, but in a nutshell it's one of Britain's ancient Celtic languages, as spoken by Britons before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. What's this got to do with English? Ah well, lots... Quite apart from the whole consideration of how minority languages interact with massive majority ones like English, there is fascinating material in the second piece of linkylovin' about the processes of standardisation in Cornish. These make for interesting comparison with the standardisation of English.

The issue, y'see, is that the architects of the Cornish revival cannot agree about how the language should be spelled. There are different options and each school of thought on the subject wants its version to be adopted as the standard. We're seeing the process of codification in living breathing action here, a process the English language went through in a less planned manner in the 18th century, but one that inspired equally heated debate.

Cornish language

Spelling row could see Cornish go west

Next up is an article about the 'war' being waged on the Cornish beaches. Well, North Cornwall to be precise, between 'locals' and 'rahs' - an interesting clipping of the first part of the slang term 'Hoorah Henries', a.k.a. 'snob-yobs'. This story has being doing the media rounds the last few summers, but what's interesting about this piece is that the journalist touches on some language issues. First she notes the downward convergence in the speech of the rahs and the effects this has on everyone else, from deeply insulting to strikingly insensitive. Then she reports the locals' account of the mockery they face for their West Country accents. When I read this, Labov's classic Martha's Vineyard study came immediately to mind, so if you're down in Cornwall, go check it out, will ya? This could make a fine A2 coursework project!

Wild, wild west

Labov's Martha's Vineyard study

Friday, July 22, 2005

The Singing Neanderthals?!

I've been feeling bad since my recent terrible admission that I don't do Child Language Acquisition. Under interrogation, I keep confessing to finding it deeply uninteresting, but that's such a lame thing to say I thought I'd better make a bit more effort. And hurrah! This week there's a review in The Telegraph of a new book which explores the relationship between music and language development. But oh no, not all that usual stuff about babies listening to Mozart in the womb and being born with their first novel already written - the usual deathly dull bilge that pops up periodically in the popular media. This is WAY cool!

Y'see, this book explores language development from a far more interesting perspective. Not just one baby's fairly inevitable journey through the well-documented stages of dribbling and babbling, but the journey of our ancestors from musically-minded Neanderthal to language-capable bipedal hominid. The connection with current Child Language Acquisition processes? Well, that connection comes from the way Infant Directed Speech in many very different languages, including English, shares a distinctive use of musical features such as rhythm and tempo. The writer's argument is that this musicality is part of our inherited brain circuitry. Now that's interesting...

Another interesting aspect of the article is its suggestion that language acquisition erodes perfect pitch in humans. The consequence drawn from this is that pre-linguistic humans may have been musically brilliant, in a way that most of us today can only dream of. How much credence you give this argument is up to you, but surely, at last, I have an explanation for why I'm only a rock guitar legend in the made up world inside my head. Too adept with words for my own good... Tragically...

But if I ever recover from the cruelty of language, my band will definitely be called 'The Singing Neanderthals'.

Baby's first tunes

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Don't mention the "T" word

Hmm, interesting reports this week that the BBC has issued a decree to its many reporters, insisting that phrases such as "misguided criminals" or "bombers" are used to describe the four men responsible for the recent London bombs. These instead of "terrorists", as a way of writing more factually and less emotively about the events.

It's a tricky language issue, this one. Makes no difference to the four men concerned, of course... And though I usually much prefer to call a spade a spade, I can see that a small semantic shift here might help to avoid fanning the flames of BNP-style hatred in the aftermath of the bombs. And if one of the men had been my son, it might help my terrrible grief not only that he died, and was willing to die, and was happy to take as many innocent people with him as possible, if somehow I could call it something other than terrorism. Euphemism can play a powerful social role in helping us cope with terrible taboos.

The question the first article explores is whether this is really about objectivity or sensitivity, or whether it is about avoiding stark moral reality and using language that is so empty of any meaning that clear well informed thought becomes almost impossible. If you're with the new pope on the modern curse of moral relativism, you might incline towards the view that this is empty political correctness. If you think political correctness has some value in making our social relationships more dignified, then you probably won't. Though it's a complex issue and either/or judgements are of little use.

Not that you'd know that from the American papers reporting this story!! Okay, so, to the best of my knowledge these papers are little more than chip wrappers, but it's nonethless interesting to see what the land of the free really thinks about our state media institution.

The Kinston Free Press manages to keep its contempt to an offhand sneer about the "oh-so-proper" BBC. But check out the Desert Dispatch and keep reminding me never to visit Barstow, California. Though I admire their use of the word 'expunged', you cannot be anything but gobsmacked by the fantastical leap from what the BBC actually decreed to the journalist's assertion that the BBC will also be calling rapists "unplanned lovers" - er, when nothing of the kind has been suggested. But worst of all is the description of the BBC as "terror-coddling". Now there's a new word to track, guys... "Terror-coddling"??!! Try and think about what that might actually mean and then watch as bits of your brain melt.

Oh the land of the free.... Thank the heavens above I don't have to live there.

Stop castrating the language

The ever-changing English language

Curse of the language corrupters

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Business bullshit

I have one small bone to pick with the writer of this week's top link, an article about the empty rhetoric of corporate-speak. I'll save that bone for a moment, as this is a useful piece, clearly identifying some good examples of business mumbo-jumbo - the blend "creovation" certainly had me vomiting in my Frosties at its mind-bending meaninglessness. My own personal favourites, from a college I couldn't possibly name, are the words "rebasing" and "reshaping", the former applied to college finances, the latter to college staffing. What do they mean? Well you might ask. "Rebasing" one's finances means slashing budgets until the staff managing them bleed; "reshaping" means sacking people. But in the context of this article, at least the words mean something!!

The other reason I like this article is because, despite its righteous anger at business bullshit, it takes an intelligent approach to the wider subject, explaining the useful purpose "empty language" has in some contexts. We can perfectly well recognise this phatic function and not call the Queen a heartless cow because she doesn't actually mean it when she asks us how we are. But when language is supposed to mean something, we're into dangerous territory.

So, what can we do about it? Well, the Campaign for Plain English is a good start so check them out. Orwell's essay that is referred to in the article is still a very fine read. And if you fancy a little light entertainment, check out the Business Buzzwords Bingo - a bit Yankee in places, but as most of our business mumbo-jumbo arrives on the redeye that makes it a pretty useful exercise in spotting what's coming next. Try playing it next time the Big Cheese at work holds a "feel the love" staff meeting; run some searches of a blacktop newspaper; read your staff handbook or company memos...

And the question I'm dying to know the answer to if anyone knows anyone who knows anyone - does corporate communication at Ronseal do what it says on the tin too?...

An empty language for empty headed executives

Plain English Campaign

Orwell - Politics and the English Language

Business Buzzwords Bingo

(And the bone-picking?... Read the bit about the bullshit and the candy floss and tell me you didn't immediately compare eating the two things - yeugh!......)

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The rest is silence

It's too soon yet to be thinking about the relationship between language and the appalling events in London last week, but today's Guardian carries both the truly remarkable speech made by Marie Fatayi-Williams in the intense grief for the loss of her son, and a moving analysis of its power. I post them here for when such a time comes.

Straight from the heart

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

1066 and all that

So, news this week of my favourite subject in the study of our language: Old English. No, I don't mean laughing-yer-arse-off old-fashioned English as spoken by your parents and teachers; I mean the English spoken by the Anglo-Saxon peoples in a period usually defined as ending round about 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. If you browse through text books on the topic it's very easy to end up thinking that the minute the Normans pulled the arrow out of Harold's eye, that was it for the English language, pretty much game over for a couple of centuries - particularly where written English is concerned. The usual curmudgeonly idea is that although the peasants carried on speaking English in their everyday lives, literature in English ended.

But hey, think about it logically - why would that happen?!... Unless the Normans had killed all the writers and burned all the manuscripts, why would a well developed cultural practice just stop overnight? Well, one reason might be a writer's desire to access the power and prestige of published work, and Latin and French language and literary forms were very much the key to success. But as a new project at the University of Leeds has set out to explore, trilingualism was an option and there is in fact a rich and varied vein of written texts in Old English during the period from 1066-1200, the one generally regarded as a kind of literary dark age. These may not have the high prestige value of the ruling class's literary tastes, drawing instead on older Anglo-Saxon textual traditions, but they exist nonetheless.

Now come on, how much fun would it be to work on that project, rediscovering texts so long forgotten that we don't even know they exist?! Call me weird if you will, but it's like Time Team for the English Language and I want to know what's down there! Check it out.

Unchronicled Anglo Saxon

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The uncivil servant

So, three cheers for Louise Casey!! Who's that?... None other than the woman currently all over the news as the "foul-mouthed uncivil servant", the ASBO tsar who is apparently not averse to getting "hammered", and thinks all the fuss about hoodies is a waste of time. Well, hurrah. Someone in a position to influence political decision-making who is talking some sense!

But what's the connection to the study of language?... Well, this story is interesting on several counts. Firstly, there is the issue of how we know about it. Louise Casey was invited to give the after-dinner speech at an event for senior police officers. Now, after-dinner speeches and serious political speeches are not the same thing at all. There is a long tradition of political incorrectness, ribaldry and dodgy jokes in the after-dinner genre, and I would find it hard to imagine for so much as a second that senior police officers' dinners are any exception. Amongst a close-knit group, with the wine flowing nicely, many things may get said that wouldn't be said in other contexts. Them's the rules, and on those terms one might see Louise Casey's language choices as simply playing to the gallery - a bit of no-nonsense straight talk that police officers might be expected to appreciate, establishing her street cred with non-standard language forms, and getting them on board with a shared joke about the ineffectiveness of politicians. All in all, from what I can gather without reading the transcript of the speech, a pretty skilful use of language in a specific context.

But, the problem for Louise Casey is that this speech was secretly recorded by a guest at the dinner who clearly had no moral scruple about flogging it to the press, and some kind of personal or political axe to grind. Why else would you secretly tape the speech?... And quoted out of context in a media keen to milk the moral panic about sweatshirts with hoods, all the delicate pragmatic interplay between speaker and audience, and any understanding of language variation, is completely lost.

The other issue this raises is the fascinating but bordering on psychotic way that powerful institutions like the Civil Service want to control the way that its employees use language. Casey is now under official investigation because her language use may be regarded as bringing the Civil Service into disrepute with government ministers. Well, um, let's see now, a 38 year old woman has landed one of the highest profile jobs there is, without rising up through the ranks of the Civil Service or taking its entrance exams. And why was that? Because she has an impressive reputation for telling it like it is, and then cutting through layers of bullshit and bureaucracy to get things done in society. Sounds to me like the Civil Service punka-wallahs have got a mouthful of sour grapes...

This is perhaps also interesting from a language and gender point of view. Casey's speech is reported as a "foul-mouthed rant". Well, on the evidence quoted, that amounts to "bloody", "pissed" and one use of the vernacular verb, to "deck" someone. They think that's foul-mouthed?!! Well, my mum might still clip me round the ear for such "unladylike" language, but no-one else in the 21st century would. Would a bloke using these words be reported as "foul-mouthed"?... Dunno... What do you think?

And that is all quite aside from the equally fascinating way in which the word "binge" has become inextricably collocated with "drinking" and has had its meaning precisely defined as being "5 or more drinks in a row". Language change in action...

'Uncivil servant' embarrassed by remarks

Asbo adviser mocks drink campaign

Monday, July 04, 2005

Plate tectonics

So, for your delight and delectation this week, a nice little review in Sunday's Observer of a new book out on language change. Nice, because the reviewer (Deborah Cameron, high ranking B list celebrity linguist) gives a very lucid summary of some contemporary ideas about language change that the book covers. To summarise the summariser:

1) Language change is a universal phenomenon

2) It's patterned, not random, but doesn't conform to any strategic design principles and can work in opposing ways simultaneously

3) Simpler language systems, such as pidgins, evolve into more complex ones, but the fact that many ancient languages are more grammatically complex than now often gives rise to the opposite view, that languages have a natural tendency towards degeneration

4) This tendency can be seen in the 'economy' or 'least effort' principle of language change, in which the simplest possible form is adopted

5) But if that were the only principle at work, we would all be speaking in nothing other than monosyllabic grunts by now

6) Instead, degenerative forces constantly compete with creative ones, such as the 'expressiveness' principle of language change, in which the desire to make the language convey the constant shape-shift of human experience results in new language forms

7) Equally creative is the 'analogy' principle, in which the raggedy ends of language change get tidied up

I love this view of language change as one in which the natural forces of creation and destruction compete over the territory. It's exciting, like plate tectonics in Geography, with bits of language getting sucked under and melted down, and new bits spurting up through the crust and hardening into a useful little mountain range or two. Think about that...

Forked tongues