Saturday, October 29, 2005

Pick'n'mix sexuality

So, the thing that caught my eye in the papers this week is the discussion of the new book out, The Future of Men. The book itself is not really my cup of darjeeling, but the language that the writers use to describe different male sexualities is most intriguing. Using the kind of inflationary prefixes we looked at before, they have either coined, or at least popularised, the term "übersexual". Gone is yesterday's metrosexual and all your David Beckhams and Orlando Blooms; in come the George Clooneys and Bonos. The übersexual is "politically aware" and "passionate about real world causes"; he has male best friends, tasteful clothes and a well-read mind. Er, and given that Bill Clinton is in the frame here, a "complicated" but unashamed heterosexuality. Hmmm....

But anyway, this is interesting from a language change point of view. We create new words when a meaning becomes apparent that can't quite be expressed any other way. The articles point us to some interesting perspectives on this. The first article makes it clear that at least one of the writers is a global advertising executive. Well, that immediately begs the question about whether this is a real trend in our culture that needs a new word, or whether this is an image creation exercise designed to shift some "new" products. The quotations in the Tribune point well to this, telling us like it is:

“Frankly, this metrosexual-retrosexual talk has more takers among the Cosmo-reading girlie brigade. The average working guy hardly has time to mull over such fads.”

But my favourite piece on the issue is the third one, in which the writer plays with this idea, using the suffix "-sexual" to create a whole load of new words describing different kinds of sexuality. Check it out cos it's very funny.

Things to do...
1) How many other types of sexuality can you create with the "-sexual" suffix?
2) How many are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary?
3) I just googled "ubersexual" and got 53,000 hits. Will this word make it into the lexicon, or will it quickly die, a tragic victim of cultural faddism? Track its course!

The links...

Metrosexual man bows to red-blooded übersexuals

Male branding

Sexual identity is not just girls and boys any more

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Bumper edition

So, first up, I owe you guys an apology for my general tardiness in posting over the last couple of weeks. I've been on a bit of a UK tour involving Sheffield, Colchester, Norwich, Bath, Exeter and London - all, catastrophically, without a wi-fi laptop to help me keep up with the ever-changing world of words. Santa, if you're listening...

But to make up for it, here's a bumper edition of very interesting things just a single click away. "home page for the world's business leaders" is running a special on communication, with cool language stuff about chimps and aliens, lying and extracting confessions. It's got Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen Pinker and Noam Chomsky. Now if you can't find something interesting to read in all that lot, well, you're on the wrong course!

And you wanna know something freaky about language and technology? Well, I guess at some point in the Language Legend archive, I did some linky-flirting with Today I get an email from a bloke called Dave alerting me to their communication special because he likes my site. Yikes! There are, like, people out there?!!
(Hi Dave...)
(Though he could, of course, be a fictional cyber-person. I know that. Right?...)

Check it out.


Friday, October 21, 2005

You know who I am

So, at long last, the trial of Saddam Hussein gets under way, and for anyone studying language and power, cor, what a treat! Courtroom drama, or what?! In fact, I was reading the edited transcripts this morning and the dialogue is so good it could have been scripted for theatrical effect. Which is a point worth pondering, given that Saddam Hussein stated directly yesterday that all this was simply theatrical spectacle for George Bush and co.

So, think about the power dynamics that are expected in the courtroom - go and sit in on a trial if you can (they let the public in for nothing...). What we usually see is the power very squarely resting first of all with the judge, then with the lawyers, and also with the court officials as they direct the logistics of the proceedings. The ritualised aspects of the language use - "all rise!", addressing the judge as "your Honour" - enforce this power dynamic, but it also plays out in the trial itself. The defendant only generally gets to speak when spoken to, and then to answer the questions posed by prosecution and defence counsel. And these questions are hardly open, seeking to lead the defendant in one direction or another to draw out evidence upon which their case will rest.

So, Saddam Hussein. Check out the edited highlights on the links below, and see what he's up to in challenging those power dynamics. Note that the transcript used by the Times (first link) was provided to the press by the US military, and the bits about Bush's theatre have been removed. This bit of censorship, and the way the journalist from The Times presents this, is a mini-story about language and power in its own right... But never fear, that bit's in the (second) BBC link - hurrah for the BBC! Long may such freedoms of expression reign in these isles (she said nervously, waiting for her website to be closed down under new anti-terrorism measures.)

Think about turn taking, about Grice's maxims, about the language he uses to assert his own sense of power. And tune in to the news daily to see what twists and turns this particular linguistic plot takes.

Transcript of Saddam court hearing

Key excerpts from Saddam in court

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Gratuitous use of Buffy The Vampire Slayer

The story of the tragic but long predicted demise of the printed word has been running for a few days, but, to be honest, I've been trying to ignore it. That's because "life in 5/10/25/50 years" predictions always make me laugh because they are unfailingly wrong! If the things I was told as a child had been accurate we'd all now be wearing stretchy tin foil suits and eating food made from moon-algae. But in terms of language change, it's a really interesting story.

The story comes from a government exercise to find out what people think should be taught in English in the future. Many themes and issues were discussed, but the one the papers have really picked up on is the perceived need for young people to be equipped with language skills that are relevant to modern life and the modern workplace. In these contexts, it is argued, speech is far more important than writing, and online and on-screen forms of writing are far more important than the traditional written word. Hardly any surprises there, but a major issue for teacher training if this sort of language teaching policy is to be pursued.

That's one set of issues, drawing on ideas about language and technology - its plasticity and virtuality - and about language in the workplace - the pluri-lingual nature of global enterprise, the multi-modal nature of occupational discourse. But the other interesting aspect is what this has to tell us about language change. All over the news like a rash every results day are "shock! horror!" stories about young people using text messaging language forms in exams. Well, there's a time and a place for everything, but this is perhaps part of a bigger picture, one in which young people's language use is driving language change so hard and fast that it is now shaping a national discourse about how teaching should respond.

At the risk of becoming a tinfoil suit predictor, I would say that this is a really exciting period of language change. Whether it's good or bad, I don't know, but like Spike in the final episode of Buffy, I just wanna see what happens - so bring it on!

Print is not dead - but it is fast fading away

A national conversation on the future of the subject English

Saturday, October 15, 2005

A man of unclean lips

So, the Kate Moss story is barely cold and here we are again, on the subject of public statements on the use of drugs. This time it's the Tory leadership contender, David Cameron, who has found himself in the hot seat. No photos of him snorting lines of coke in a dodgy nightclub yet; indeed, no details at all other than a reluctance to answer a throwaway question from a journalist about whether or not he had taken drugs in his youth. He said simply, "I had a normal university experience."

It's a lesson in pragmatics. Work on the assumption that this means he studied hard and ate a lot of pot noodles, and his answer is incomprehensible, breaking Grice's maxim about relevance. That would make him a bit mad, which he doesn't seem to be, so what else could he mean? Well, he seems to be drawing indulgently on the rather quaint old idea that a "normal university experience" involves university students spending their days lounging around on beanbags experimenting with mind-altering substances. If that's what he did, and if it's really as normal as he asserts, what's with the euphemistic concealment? Clinton never really got away with saying he didn't inhale; maybe Cameron is hoping it'll be okay as long as he doesn't say "marijuana"?

It got even more interesting after that, as the second article points out. On Newsnight, when asked again about this, he said "We are all human and we err and stray". Still not a yes/no answer and, very curiously, his words echo the heightened language of the Bible, making it suggestive of a confession, and that in turn echoes the public apologies of a distinctly dodgy bunch of politicians caught in assorted trousers-down positions. Apology by association.

Of course, he could just be avoiding the question in a cynical bid to make himself sound a whole lot more interesting... What do you reckon?

The drugs questions that won't go away

He openeth not his mouth

Grice's conversational maxims

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The holy grail?...

So, news this week that researchers at the University of Hertforshire have discovered the holy grail. Yep, they've identified the ten magic words you should make sure you include on your UCAS form if you want to get in, and the ten magic words you should avoid like the plague. Now I'm not one to carp at an institution that is trying hard to help students with no family background of Higher Education - good on 'em, I say - but, hmmm, if everyone starts using these words, won't their currency be devalued?.....

The other thing that is interesting about this article is how this research was conducted. All we learn is that it was a joint effort of the Admissions department of the university and the Psychology department. That's it, but it's worth stopping and thinking about how we might have tackled the task if we'd been asked. There are several potential language investigations in here if you can get your hands on the data and the consent to use it. Analyse successful patterns of language in Oxbridge applications, job applications, etc - wherever the written language gets the applicant through the door for an interview. The Hertfordshire study focused on 10 key items of lexis, but are there other features that contribute to success?

Check it out. And think very carefully before using these ten words on your UCAS form - you want to stand out from the crowd, not be a Hertfordshire clone! Learn from the IDEA here - that some forms of expression represent you more positively than others. That's the trick, not the ten magic words...

Check it out.

The ten words that spell job success... and the others that mean failure

Say the magic words

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Freeing your inner creative genius

It's not often I focus on the creative writing side of the AS/A2 English Language course, but as I'm busy getting in the zone to teach it next week, here's something for all you guys wondering where to even start looking for your inner creative genius.

The Scotsman, the English Speaking Union and the National Galleries of Scotland have teamed up to run a competition for aspiring writers. This involves writing a poem or short story based on any of the art works in the National Galleries. That may not seem much use at all if you live outside Scotland, but hold on because the idea is cool.

Art works can inspire us to find all kinds of stories, or starting points of stories, characters and settings, moods and ideas - stories that can be told in all kinds of forms - short stories, monologues, poems, plays, TV shorts... I for one have got my eye on a kinda Ricky Gervais style stand-up routine based on some of the famous paintings that appeal to my sense of humour.

But that's not all the potential. Galleries themselves are places in and for which many different kinds of writing have a place - audio guides to exhibitions, education packs for schools visits, exhibition reviews, lunchtime lectures. There are also zillions of potential feature articles if you can find an unusual or interesting angle. What does a museum guard do all day, exactly?... Which gallery gift shop has the weirdest gifts? Which gallery has the best virtual reality visit?

Check the stuff out below and get writing... Never been in an art gallery? Well, now's the time to try something new! Don't stress about knowing nothing about art. Just aim to pick one piece of art - either the one thing you'd most like to take home with you, or the one you'd most like to give to your best friend/worst enemy - and see what stories it tells. One hour max then head to the shop for a postcard of your selected item and the cafe for a cup of tea. Easy!

So which picture paints 1000 words for you?

UK art galleries

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Supersize me

Following on from the last post about the bigging up of menus with fancy foreign talk, the Telegraph is reporting this as a more widespread language phenomenon. No longer content with regular, we want our language supersized too - with reference to food, jobs, and government gurus.

This is an interesting language change issue with a number of angles. Firstly, if language reflects our society and its concerns, what does this language change say about us? Why this need for a change in the way we express superlative quality or achievement? Were the previous forms of expression inadequate in some way, or is this a marker of some other kind of attitude to the world around us?

Then there's the issue of how these superlatives are being constructed. Many are formed by prefixing "mega", "ova" or "über" to existing words. I'm guilty as charged, describing myself not just as a geek but as an "übergeek". Geek would do just fine, I'm sure, but this technique has become the verbal equivalent of all those exclamation marks in emails. We clearly feel a need for more emphatic forms - but why?....

I'm also curious to know whether this phenomenon is a consequence of the enormous influence of American English on British English. The whole "supersize me" thing is an American cultural product, one that drives me nuts when I just want a normal cup of coffee and I've got to choose between "tall", "supergrande" and "absolutely impossible to drink without needing bladder reconstruction surgery afterwards". With the culture comes the language...

Check it out, and see how many other examples you can find...

English suffers hyper-inflation

Monday, October 03, 2005

Make mine a toastie

I laughed a lot at my room mate when we started university. She'd spent a gap year in Spain (a)learning the language from scratch and (b) acquiring a basic working knowledge of its food. She spent at least ten minutes one afternoon trying to persuade me that a bit of toast wiped with a garlic clove and a few bits of chopped up tomato counted as an exquisite culinary achievement, one highly suited to an Arts undergraduate with pretensions to the finer things in life. That'll be tomatoes on toast, then, I said.

I was reminded of this reading yesterday's Oberver. It seems that one chef and restaurant critic has simply had enough of restaurants jacking up their prices, reviews and own sense of self-importance through their use of language. Specifically, using words from other languages to make the dishes sound more exciting and exotic than they really are.

I take his point, and it would make an interesting language investigation to find out how far this practice has spread. Is it just expensive restaurants or is everyone at it? But it's also worth stopping to consider the wider questions surrounding this language issue.

It's partly an issue of how you see Britain's culinary culture. If you hold the common belief that Britain doesn't have a cuisine of its own, then this constant borrowing of words is a sort of linguistic sense of inadequacy to match its culinary one. If, however, you think Britain's culinary strength lies in its ability to take the best of the world's cuisine and make it its own, then this is a linguistic confidence to match the eclectic nature of the nation's taste. Either way, how you view the food will reflect how you view the language.

I'm torn... On the one hand, I'm a big fan of calling a spade a spade and I agree with the chef guy. On the other, a toastie is NOT a panini! A toastie is made in a Breville from two slices of Mother's Pride with some economy cheddar and a badly sliced onion (ie gorgeous); a panini is an entirely different kettle of fish and therefore sadly inferior. And with so many of the culinary words in English coming from other languages in the first place, it seems a bit picky to spend time worrying about the newest batch.

Check it out.

Garçon! There's a silly French word in my soup

UK food needs English menus

Language about food

Etymology of food