Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Wherever you are, whatever else you're half doing while reading this, stop; just take a moment to marvel at the huge splendid capacity of your brain. Not feeling too bright today?... Well, look on the bright side, compared to the virtual brain cell of the predictive text on your mobile phone, you're incredible!

Nice entertainingly frustrated piece on this in the recent Grauniad article linked below. The writer describes the bizarre non-words the predictive text on his phone suggests whenever he tries to type anything in: like, 'undu' for 'tofu' and 'flaunaue' for 'flatmate'. It borders on the surreal. The gobbledygook made me give up predictive texting a long time ago.

On the one hand, this issue of language and technology bugs me. It bugs me because it's not the mobile phone's fault that it's so dumb. It means there is dumb programming inside, based on some weird take on how language works. Looking for a career? Well, hey, there's one for you. On the other hand, I secretly like it that I'm cleverer than my phone...

So, check it out, and post the weirdest - true - bits of predictive texting you've come across.


Sunday, November 27, 2005

Songs from la-la land

So, okay, let me just come out and say it - I think Enya is bit nuts and all her songs with that intense Celtic swirliness make me laugh. But you've got to hand her the prize this week for best story about language. Because the Irish songstress (ooh, look, that's weird, I used one of those gendered diminutives...) is busy touting her new album, in which she uses Loxian, an invented alien language. Cooool.....

Enya has long been a bit of a linguist, singing in English, Gaelic, Latin and Japanese - er, and in Elvish on one of the Lord Of The Rings films. But this is a whole new departure, so check out the very interesting article in the Times, linked below. As my secret fantasy (apart from becoming a cookery teacher) is to be transported back to the 1940s to become a top codebreaker at Bletchley Park, I'm off to buy this album quick so I can crack the Loxian lyrics for myself and become a fluent translator should the aliens arrive with the snow today.

What's curious is the reason Enya gives for why she NEEDED this language. She says it's because the sounds of English (and presumably all the other languages she sings) are too obtrusive for the music. I wanna know more about that. Is that true? How different is the phonology of Loxian both from English and Enya's other languages? What new sounds and sound combinations are possible in Loxian?

The Times' visiting English professor doesn't cover phonology in his analysis. But his analysis is very interesting in other regards: he identifies lexical components from Anglo-Saxon, Hindi, Welsh - er, and Siberian Yupik. A rip-off?... Or a point about the connectedness of all languages?... Whatever you think, it points to the very considerable difficulty of creating a new language, and also the phenomenal achievement of Tolkien in creating his. Sounds like Enya's got a bit of a way to go on the grammar yet...

Enya sings in a tongue from a 'distant planet'

Interactive Elvish Translator
(because Xmas is coming and novelty toys are de rigeur)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Kryptonite accents

As a default mode, I generally speak the slush-mouthed Estuary variety of English. I didn't think it had got too bad, until one of my AS students from Manchester pointed out that I say eshchury without the faintest hint of a /t/, I only ever walk down shtreets (that's with a glottal stop...), and get frushchrated when things don't go my way. Naturally, it thus came as a shock to have a new American acquaintance I had met at a party declare that I sounded "just like Lady Di". This was before the people's princess died, I hasten to add. At this point I collapsed on the floor hyperventilating at the hilarious incongruity of the comparison and almost choked to my own death trying to explain why it was funny. The acquaintance was deeply offended...

So I thoroughly enjoyed today's piece in the Guardian about the perception of (straight) American women that men with British accents are cute/hot/adorable. It doesn't matter which accent - "they all sound freaking adorable". So there you have it. It's not in any way a scientific piece, and I'm sure the "studies" referred to are entirely made up, but as an anecdotal piece about perceptions of accents this still gives us food for thought, especially as it gives a different perspective to the UK-centric perceptions more frequently mentioned in text books. It might also be an interesting starting point for an investigation into the perceived sex appeal of different some of the accents of World English.

Check it out. Which accent does it for you?

America asks: cute, or British?

The speech accent archive

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Tinseltown talk

There was a story a while ago about a Russian who arrived in Britain, and after interrogation by immigration officials, was almost immediately sent packing on the next flight home. The reason she was deported was that the officials refused to believe her story, that she had come here to learn English in Glasgow. They simply couldn't believe that anyone would want to learn this variety of English.

This issue of which variety of a language we (a) want to learn and (b) get to learn has cropped up in the papers again today. News in the New York Times today of a TV programme in China that is gaining cult status by teaching people the language they really want to learn. Not phrasebook English in which we're apparently always enquiring after each other's health, and making salient comments about the weather, but "movie English". The show runs nightly and features a word/phrase from a movie clip, explaining what it means and how it is used both in this context and more widely. Naturally, much of it is slang/vernacular forms. Great idea!

This gives us plenty of food for thought about the prestige of language varieties. The cult show is a hit because it draws on the covert prestige of contemporary American popular culture: learning this language might not help you get a job, but it sure is cool. Or at least perceived by its audience to be cool (you won't catch me using the phrase 'walking felony'!...)

Of course, it's also quite interesting if you've started wondering what to do when you've finished your AS/A2 English Language. Trip to China to teach English, anyone? Now that's cool...

And one final word about phrasebooks. Here's your mission: go into a bookshop; pick up any serious phrasebook; find the most ridiculous thing you are instructed to say, that you would never ever say in English let alone in a foreign language. Beat these (all genuine):
  • can you repair my dentures?
  • would you give me a discount?
  • do we need snow chains?

Movie English as a Third Language

English Learner Movie Guides

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


I spotted this story a week or two ago, but what with one thing and another I didn't get round to posting it. Good news, then, that The Telegraph has just run a reminder for me of the new book out which has collated photographs of bizarre signs from around the world. Not only are these often very funny, they are also very interesting from a language point of view. Natch...

Firstly, as many of the laughs are the product of things lost in translation between a local language and English, they give us an interesting window on translation, second language acquisition, and on how languages other than English construct the world in words. However, plenty of the signs in the book are written in English by English speakers in English speaking countries, and these are twice as funny. They also give us plenty of material for pragmatic analysis: it's all about the breakdown of the shared assumptions we expect of signs. We largely take those assumptions for granted, but these signs make us conscious of a level of language that can otherwise seem invisible.

Check out the story and the signspotting website (click on the 'view signs' tab on the homepage). Er, and if anyone was wondering what to get me for Christmas...

Getting lost in translation


Sunday, November 13, 2005

Talking Brooklynese

Now don't get excited, the title is not a hint that I'm about to start talking about Becks' boy and Child Language Acquisition, cos you know I only do that topic under duress. Nope, it's about the New York dialect and a talk William Labov ("the father of sociolinguistics") gave recently to coincide with the launch of his new book, The Atlas of North American English. The report on this gives us a fascinating look at historical and contemporary dialect change in the US - specifically in relation to changing phonological patterns (the sounds). Check it out - it's cool.

Talking the tawk

The Black Dog

Last week I bought a new gizmo for my laptop. It seemed such a simple thing to do at the time. I then spent several days effing and blinding alternately at the instructions that didn't mention all the connecting cables and adaptors you need that aren't actually provided, and at the blokes in PC World and/or Maplins who only ever managed to sell me one thing I needed at a time, resulting in three 24 mile round trips to get the three things I needed. Nice...

What's this got to do with language? Well, news out this week of a dodgy pseudo-survey (ie ostensibly legitimate research but paid for by a company that just happens to provide services to solve the problems the research finds) that shows the high level of abuse that IT users hurl at helpdesk workers. 81% of helpdesk workers had experienced verbal abuse, 22% had considered jacking in their job there and then because it was so bad. It's an interesting angle on both language and technology, and language in the workplace. Now I feel really bad about the polite strop I threw at the bloke in Maplins and I'm going to have to do another 24 mile round trip to go and apologise...

The survey also offers other tantalising suggestions about language. First of all that the level of verbal abuse is both gender related, age related and status related. How surprising do you find this? How does it compare with other research findings about the use of expletives? Would you expect members of senior management to be the most likely suspects? Older people rather than younger ones? How do you account for these differences? Is there something about the workplace that makes us behave differently, or is any or all of this research flawed?

Secondly, the survey shows that 80% of IT helpdesk users might keep their temper better if they didn't first have to get through the seven circles of hell, also known as the automated voice response system. Y'know, you ring up and a robot asks you to memorise 17 options and then press the correct code, then you get through to another robo-menu, and another, and.... So why, when this kind of technology-mediated language drives us all nuts, do so many companies use it? Well, with so many opportunities for an employee to screw up and lose customers in spontaneous conversations, they'd rather leave it to a machine. The survey suggests they're wrong, and although spending some cash on staff training might hurt their pockets in the short term, it might be worth it later in happier customers and staff who stick around longer.

Check it out below (and follow the related stories links at the bottom for other interesting stuff...). The survey is linked at the foot of the article if you want to read it - might be a useful starting point for an investigation into language and helpdesks.

The crap IT circle of abuse and despair

Thursday, November 10, 2005

At the first stroke...

News today that Pat Simmons, the voice of the speaking clock from 1963 to 1985, died recently aged 85. Who? What? Did you even know there was a speaking clock? Well, there is, though I'd vaguely assumed it had gone the way of directory enquiries and was now spoken by someone in Timbuctoo on a premium rate line costing several arms and a few legs. But, hey, I've just dialed 123, the number that's been used for this purpose since 1936, and there it is, still pipping away.

The current voice is that of Brian Cobby, and I find it deeply reassuring both in its deep rich tone, and its almost anachronistic Received Pronunciation. It's not strongly marked RP but listen very carefully to his long /ai/ sounds, as in 'five' and 'precisely' and you'll know what I mean. You can either dial 123 (though it is 10p a go) or you can click here if you've got QuickTime installed on your PC:

Brian Cobby speaking clock clip

If you click below you can also hear Brian Cobby doing the Thunderbirds countdown. Hard to believe it's the same guy, really, but it's him alright, doing an American accent. Can you hear the /r/ in 'four' that Labov also used as a variable in his New York Department Store Study?...

Brian Cobby Thunderbirds countdown clip

But anyway, back to Pat Simmons, who was the voice before BC, and if you listen carefully you can hear a more marked form of RP, much more common in earlier decades of the twentieth century. What differences can you hear?

Pat Simmons speaking clock clip

This is clearly interesting from a language change point of view, but there are other curious dimensions to this. One is the way that a particular variety of English has been selected for this authoritative, institutional function. That variety, RP, used to have a very high level of prestige, but that's changed considerably as society, and our attitude to formal authority, has changed. When both minor royals and Prime Ministers are said to have been spotted using features of Estuary English on occasion, and the main news programme on the BBC is read in a Welsh accent, it comes as something of a surprise to find the speaking clock hasn't followed suit.

Except that it has on two occasions. In 2003 a Scottish schoolgirl (with a Scottish accent) got to be the voice of the clock for a week, as did Lenny Henry (West Midlands accent) also in 2003. Both occasions were charity fundraising events, the former for Childline, the latter for Comic Relief. There's a whole interesting thing going on there - about only letting traditionally less prestigious accents into the bastion of chronological authority for specially licensed 'fun' fundraising... perhaps also about the value to charity fundraisers of using speakers with regional accents because they sound more friendly, more like someone you'd want to give your hard-earned cash to, rather than some posh geezer who already has a shedload...

Tantalisingly, The Mirror article says that Pat Simmons lived for 47 years in the same flat in the East End. Now I SO want to know more about this woman. Did she always talk like her speaking clock voice, or did she have a Cockney accent too? Someone needs to find out and publish her story in this weekend's papers - now there's an Original Writing coursework idea for you...

'Speaking Clock' Pat Simmons dies

Pip-pip to our polite speaking clock Pat

The BT Speaking Clock

Schoolgirl is new Speaking Clock

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

More bullshit

So, continuing my current preoccupation with the language of our workaday lives, I was both amused and interested by the article linked below. It's an extract from a new dictionary hot off the press, The Dictionary of Bullshit. Amused because I found myself guilty of two counts of bullshitting - I always call problems "challenges", and in management meetings I am regularly to be found banging on about the need for "vision". I do always mean something far more interesting than just a "plan", honest...

And interested? Well, first up there is mileage to be had in thinking about the kinds of words and phrases that are being used to bullshit. Then there is the question of how much validity this dictionary has. Has it been compiled using any meaningful technique, or is it just the author's pick'n'mix selection of favourite words? Is there scope for an investigation here into how frequently these words are actually used in the appropriate contexts? How could you find out? Then there are interesting questions about context. Was this dictionary written with any serious intent, or was it designed to be a humorous next-to-the-till Christmas stocking filler gift making wads of easy cash for its author/publisher?

It's easy to ignore the contextual factors shaping dictionaries, as we tend to see them as objective, factual, unassailable sources of truth, but with Viz's Profanisaurus on the bookshelves, a dictionary of new words seeming to come out every five minutes, and now this, we see how easily the public interest in language can be turned into juicy pound signs.

But my final question is this... What's the opposite of hot-desking? I don't mean opposite as in you've got your own desk with your name on it. I mean opposite as in you've got two "desks" (one is actually a chest of drawers) that you hot-foot between because one workstation is no longer enough. What's that called? Cos er, erm, um, that's what I do... Is that bad?...

What a load of bull!


Hot desk

Viz Profanisaurus

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Has the world gone mad?...

With this week's language stories in the papers, I think there's only one answer to that question - a big fat yes.

First up is news that the world of advertising is having an increasing impact on parents-to-be. We're not talking subliminal advertising of Huggies during Eastenders, we're talking the whole concept that in order for a product to succeed it most have a Unique Selling Point. Er, even when that product is your baby... So, a new piece of pseudo-research (done by some firm flogging baby-products) tells us that increasing numbers of parents are choosing successful brand names as names for their children.

I guess this is not that much different from the old way, really. I was named "Julie" after the hugely successful musical film icon Julie Andrews (think Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp...); and biblical names are trading on the enormous power and prestige of their source. (Though I've never thought the southern European penchant for calling boys Jesus was a terribly optimistic start for a child...) I suppose what I'm bridling at is the fact that these new sources of names are so blatantly worshipping Mammon, the god/demon of materialism.

Now is "Moet" a boy's name or a girl's name?....

Why the best start in life is a silly name

The next bonkers bit of language news concerns the language of dating. The Indie focuses on a study by psychologists into the relevant success of different chat-up lines, but my favourite for all round insanity is the piece in the Telegraph about the hostage negotiator who has written a book applying the same techniques to pulling women. It's all about how guys should treat women like crazy fanatics threatening to kill everyone unless their demands are met, using the same kind of language to coax them into submission. It's enough to turn a perfectly rational woman into a gun-toting maniac, quite frankly...

It's all stranger than fiction this week...

'Excuse me beautiful, do you have space in your handbag for my Merc keys' And if you think that's excruciating, you should hear the successful chat-up lines

Hostage to love

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Dealing with Mr Angry

I've been thinking a lot the last couple of days about language in the workplace. Partly because I'm teaching it next week, but partly because I've had a couple of customer service encounters recently that have stopped me in my tracks.

The first one made me laugh. I was down in Devon in half term and stopped one lunchtime in a bakers' cafe for a pasty and a cuppa. The woman who served me was perfectly pleasant and helpful. Then in came a group of four people looking for a spot of something warm on a wet and windy day.
"Mmmmm," one woman exhaled in excited anticipation. "Soup!"
Her friend looked sceptical. "Is it home made?"
The shop assistant shrugged.
"Well, we make it here but it's out of powder and water."
At which point her complete honesty made me choke so hard on my pasty I cried.

Now on one level that was good customer service. She gave the customers the information needed to make their decision. But her use of language was so forthright that it was surprising. We expect more indirection, more concealment of reality, especially in the catering industry.

The second one made me tear clumps of my hair out. I was at work when my mobile rang. It was after hours so I answered it, vaguely thinking it might be someone interesting. You never know your luck! But it was a customer service chap from ntl: (what's with that colon?!) with whom I have phone and broadband connections. He wanted to flog me digital TV too. It was an exercise in persuasive language and I wish I too could have recorded it for training purposes. When I had politely said "thanks but I'm going to have to think about it" at least five times, he still had another 12 persuasive tricks up his sleeve. He even tried saying "look love, I need the commission", for which, once again, I admired the honesty. But on the whole it was a verbal battering ram carefully designed not to take no for an answer, and that left me wanting to make a complaint to ntl:.

So, it's nice to see that one company at least is taking a more positive approach to training its front-line staff in how to handle spontaneous spoken interaction with customers. In the Telegraph today is an article about how South West Trains is using a realistic role play setting and actors to simulate difficult conversations. What's a bit spooky, though, is learning that they are taught to identify customers as one of four types: feelers, thinkers, entertainers, and controllers. They are then trained to respond accordingly, giving expressions of sympathy to feelers, for example. I'm dying to know which type of stroppy customer I am - and what words will allegedly soothe me.

So, check out the article, and more from Wikipedia on customer care. And if you've had customer care training at work, how have you been told to use language at work?

Try a little tenderness

Customer care