Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Swearing in the classroom

Well, I don't know about your classroom, but there's always lots of swearing in mine. Indeed, my old desk-buddies frequently fell about laughing as students and I engaged in serious academic discussion of the role of different morphological derivations of the f-word in their coursework data.

But this week the issue is getting the Daily Mail a bit hot under the collar. It's an outrage! What are teachers coming to? Standards are falling! The end of the world is nigh! Why? Because one school, clearly vexed to breaking point with a couple of "challenging" classes, has made a new rule. The f-word is to be allowed in the classroom, but only five times per lesson amongst the whole class.

Well, thank goodness I don't teach there, because I suspect that faced with such vexations, I'd be the first person to be expelled for using the f-word more than 5 times an hour. And that was all I thought when I read this article. I'd decided it was such a classic Daily Mail rant-fest that I wouldn't even bother posting it here. But the story has suddenly become much more interesting because the Scotsman has picked up on the story north of the border, where the Scottish Parent Teacher Council is saying that swearing in the classroom is okay. In an interesting take on the subject, they claim classroom behaviour is made worse by over-reactions to what has become a feature of everyday language.

So, now we have a real fight on our hands and material here of interest for language change (is the f-word now a non-taboo feature of everyday language?), language and occupation (should teachers control their own and others' langauge use in this way?), and language debates (check out the opposing points of view). Read it and then come back and vote in the poll on this.

You can use the f-word in class (but only five times)

Let pupils swear in school, argues parents' group

Sunday, August 28, 2005

How to spend £97,500

No, don't blow it all on CDs like I probably would; spend it on a Maths text book! That's what the British Library has just quite rightly done. Seems a lot, I know, to pay for a load of sums, but then this is not just any old Maths text book - it's the earliest English one known, published in 1536, and published in English.

That it has survived 469 years is amazing. That would be a major achievement for any book, but the writer of the article explains that practical books have not often survived, simply because they were used so much that they eventually just fell to bits. Why? Because books were very time consuming and labour intensive to print, and therefore they were expensive and had to be used and re-used many times over.

The British Library spokeswoman also draws our attention to the significance of the book being in English, when Latin was still very important in the world of education, and to the importance of this kind of book at a time when English commerce was really taking off. That wouldn't have got very far if no-one could add up...

At the end of the article there is an extract from the book - top language change stuff. Try comparing it with a modern basic Maths text book.

Ye olde Maths textbooke found after 470 years

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Kill me if you can

No, I don't mean that literally... It's the title of this week's watercooler programme - y'know, the one where everyone's going, "did you see xxx on TV last night?!" So, did you see it?! Channel 4 on Tuesday night, and incredible viewing. Check out the channel 4 blurb below if you didn't...

Kill me if you can

So, why is this interesting to the student of the English language? Well, firstly, it's another example in the growing list of legal cases solved through forensic linguistics. The police finally twigged, having ploughed their way through reams and reams of transcripts, that all of the people in this surreal chatroom were actually just fictional projections of the same person, because they all used the unique language form "mybye". It was this one tiny detail that revealed all. All the other features of the fictional characters' language use were sufficiently convincing for the police to have believed they were looking for real people, going as far as arresting a real shop assistant they thought fitted the bill.

It's also really interesting to think about this case in relation to language and technology. Although many of the chatroom conversations had been deleted, the police still had 58,000 lines of text left to work on. Given that the lads were often in the chatroom all night, and that this scenario took place over many months, a gargantuan amount of language was obviously produced. It is hard to imagine that being possible in any other way than with instant messaging software. Had they been on the phone, their parents would have been bankrupted; had they been talking face to face, their parents would have told them to quit yakking and get to bed! And the product of so much language being generated was that it constructed a whole world of words that became more real than the living breathing one beyond the PC screen.

It's very easy to read about this case, and to pass the lads off as a bit odd, a bit vulnerable, etc. But the most interesting comment quoted in the article comes from the lad 'John' who was stabbed. In therapy he described how the conversations he had in this virtual world had given him a stronger sense of emotional intimacy than he'd ever had before. In internet chat there is a gratifying immediacy, the heady freedom to say things you might not ordinarily say, and a sense that language and identity are far less fixed. Which of us hasn't felt that to some extent?... It's all just a question of how far we are prepared to go with that freedom.

(Did I just confess to being an online psycho?...)

U want me 2 kill him?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The forces of nang

Nope, that's not the title of a new episode of Star Wars, but part of the contemporary East London dialect that is strongly influenced by Bangladeshi language forms. Forget how they talk in EastEnders, that's a thing of the past - or at least a matter of migration into Essex. This is dialect change in action, and we know what we know about it because Dr Sue Fox spent nine months exploring the language use of young people at a Tower Hamlets youth club. Now that's what I call a language investigation!

The research itself is fascinating, showing as it does that this is not a dialect used solely by young people with a Bangladeshi background, but also by young white people in the area. It also identifies really interesting gender differences in this dialect use.

But what's also interesting is the way that this news has been reported, red and black tops alike, focusing on Cockney in an almost elegaic way, mourning its death as if glottal stops and dropped aitches were the last word in linguistic beauty. Just a bit of backward-looking nostalgic fondness for cheeky chappies and Pearly Queens? A game for journalists during the news doldrums, to see who can score the highest rhyming slang count? Or racist bullshit?

Forgive my language here, but the Telegraph really has plumbed new depths. Look at this: "The cockney sparrow accent is being chased out of its spiritual home in the East End of London by young people who copy the voices of Bangladeshi immigrants, research has claimed." The language use of white older working class people is represented as a small cheery songbird, one that is the victim of slavish young followers of a dangerous predatory interloper. Using the highly emotive phrase "spiritual home" make it sound as though this is all part of some jihadi mission. And I'll ask her when I see her, but I am absolutely certain that Sue Fox's research did not claim either of those things.

Bangney new voice of the East End

East End Cockney accent fading

Cockney takes on a new sound

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The nicest four letter word I've been called

Oh to be in Australia now that Spring is here. Or rather, now that its parliament is in session because, lawks a-mercy, the papers are having a field day over the attempted banning of the word 'mate'. Not a blanket ban, but one issued in a memo to security staff, instructing them not to greet MPs and their visitors with this or any other colloquialism because of the risk of causing offence. Result? Immediate offence caused to the entire nation. Never mind all that European bloody high mindedness, like the French with their "liberty, equality, fraternity", the Aussies have founded their state on the principle of "mateship". And if the current Prime Minister had had his way, that would actually have been written into the constitution.

Check out the print and broadcast features linked below for the full story. Some interesting things to note:
  • the connections made between this small word and patriotism
  • the claims made for this word as a gender-neutral form of address
  • the political connotations of egalitarianism and the importance of this to Australians
  • the very strong sense of the importance of vernacular langauge forms
  • the debate about what constitutes politeness in language
  • the issue about the level of intimacy conveyed by the word
  • and if you were thinking of becoming a "bone-head bloke politician" there's at least one top tip in there for you!

The ban got overturned a day later but I'm still intrigued... Is this just an Aussie thing or are we all using 'mate' more now?... How do you use it?... Check it out. The third link is a transcript from a radio show - either read or listen.

The spirit of mateship takes a blow at parliament

Australian ban on mate wins few friends

'Mate' banned from parliamentary parlance

Australian slang

Australian word map

Thursday, August 18, 2005

AS/A2 results day

To everyone who got their results today, here's hoping you got the grades you wished for.

To everyone in my A2 class, you guys are the best! I'm chuffed as monkeys with your results. Stay in touch, eh?

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

What's new?

Like I said, I've been tinkering around with the insides of this website, and you'll notice a few new things if you've been here before. Here's the list so far - check it out.

1) New colour scheme (okay, okay, it doesn't add anything to your knowledge of the English Language but I had fun choosing...)

2) Top new gizmo: a search the site function. Type in a key word - eg gender, power, language change - and the magic gizmo will find all previous posts that relate to it. Very handy for reference purposes when you're working on a topic in class or for coursework. Nah, it's okay, no need to thank me...

3) I tidied up the links section, making some new headings to keep them in some kind of order.

4) I put some more information about this site in my profile section, which is now enormous. This is a temporary measure until I find a bit of code for a FAQ section that is (a) free and (b) without advertising. No joy so far. If anyone out there wants to write me some, do feel free - email addy is in the profile.

Next jobs are updating links and reading. Suggestions for this and any other features you think would be cool, just let me know...

London calling

Having spent part of the week tinkering around with the insides of this website, I'm feeling all kind of technical. And this week's language radar scan brought a new survey to my attention, one that focuses on language and technology. Oh, the serendipity of the universe...

Anyway, this survey is reported with great glee in The Register, first link below, making the most of the fact that one of the findings is that Londoners appear to behave differently in their use of email at work to people in other regions. The writer reports these findings in Mockney, a Jamie Oliver "pukka geezer" pseudo language variety only used by people whose idea of the East End is Michael Caine circa 1967. But that aside, the findings make curious reading, with differences also noted according to gender and age. Some of these are yawningly obvious - younger employeess are apparently more likely to send emails they later regret than older people. But some are quite intriguing - 5% of males but only 1% of females admit to emailing their company's intellectual property to other people. It's the sort of survey that makes me go "hmm, I want to know more".

So, check out the second link, which will take you to the press release of the company that commissioned the survey. Ah, well, wouldn't you know it - commissioned by a company specialising in corporate IT security. Good marketing idea, that - do a survey that shows how "dangerous" employees' habits are, and then flog software to spy on us and policies to sack us for it. But putting that teensy weensy bit of research bias aside, the press release gives some useful information about the size of the sample and that it was conducted online. Useful in pointing up how methodologically flawed much of the "research" quoted in daily life is. Here, facts are being asserted about corporate email use when about a third of the survey respondents were not email users in current employment.

But the fact that it is flawed and biased make this MORE interesting, because now I want to know how much truth there is in the claims that are being made. Though it would be a challenge to get hold of, I'd like to see actual language use in this context rather just people's perceptions of how they use it. I'm curious to know whether the "sneaky, foul-mouthed and malicious" Londoners are only using more "foul language" than Northerners in their emails, or whether it's a more general language consequence of living in the capital. Or maybe they're just more honest about it in surveys?... So, could some of you guys get on to that and let me know the answers?....

And as a Londoner (though neither Cockney nor Mockney, sneaky or malicious) Clearswift needn't think they're getting a Christmas card from me now...

Cockney suits abuse f**king email

Email users behaving badly…especially in the capital

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Hae a keek roon

Well, I can officially report that there is one place left on this earth where if you do your very best to speak in the local tongue, the natives still answer in it, instead of yawning loudly and doing so in fluent English. This, despite your complete inability to roll an 'r' and a head-to-toe blush every time you attempt the braggadocio intonation the language requires. Puglia in Italy... Ah, the olive groves, the wine, the t-shirts with really bizarre English slogans that would make an entirely intriguing coursework study...

But enough of that and back to reality... There have been a few languid language stories running while I've been away, but what really caught my eye is a small item in my inbox. Having years ago faced up to the fact that having a daily newspaper is merely paying to get my recycling delivered, I subscribe to the Wrap, the Guardian's email news service. It comes with a bonus extra, a weekly guide to some of the most interesting writing to be found online in other publications.

And there, on my return, one of the journalists had recommended the link below, the Scots language version of the Scottish parliament's website. Absolutely fascinating to see what has long been regarded as a dialect of English being treated, by a powerful institution of government, as a separate language on an equal footing with Urdu and Italian. Deciding what is a language and what is a dialect is a highly contentious issue (check out the second link for an explanation of this), but where Scots is concerned many A Level text books still suggest, by its inclusion, that it is a dialect of English. Check out the explanation of Scots in the third link, and decide - should it be included for A Level English Language study or not?....

The Scottish Parliament - in Scots

Wikipedia on dialect and language

Wikipedia on Scots

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Essential maintenance

To the 800+ readers, lurkers and bloggers who are now checking in here each month... or alternatively, to my 1 reader who is clicking in here 800 times a month... have a fantastic summer. I'm now off to the beach for a few weeks with a big pile of books and an iPod. Back later this month for site upgrade (or just a bit of tweaking, depending on how technical I'm feeling) and all the latest news from the world of words. Take it easy out there.