Wednesday, September 28, 2005


So, the hot-off-the-press book that is catching the attention of the media's reviewers this week is The Meaning of Tingo. This details words from languages all over the world which express a concept it would take several, if not many, words to say in English. The articles linked below give lots of examples, including the entirely fascinating fact that there are 27 words in Albanian for different types of facial hair.

This book is interesting from a number of points of view. Firstly, it gives us a perspective on the relationship between the rampant spread of global English and other languages of the world. It's dead easy to think of the benefits of global English (particularly if you are a native speaker of any of its varieties...) but these curious words show very clearly how language encodes cultural values and outlooks. When we lose a language we lose a window on the world.

It's also interesting in terms of language change. Shedloads of words from other languages have found a home in the English lexicon. My particular favourite is karoshi, from the Japanese, which means to die while working at one's desk. There's a word for that?!! The words are likely to undergo anglicisation of spelling and pronunciation, and if they stick around long enough they often start mutating more via the processes of lexical change - prefixes and suffixes added, conversion into other word classes, etc.

It would be worth taking one of the languages mentioned in the book, exploring what words have already entered English from this source (use the online Oxford English Dictionary if you have access to it), and then trying to predict which of the Tingo words might be most likely to enter English at a future stage. Or are the words the writer has collected too weird for that? Is there any pattern to the types of words that do and don't get adopted?... Or how about this? If you want to check out how language forms spread, take one of the words that you think it would actually be useful to have in English, and start spreading it. It's like one of those balloon races - see how far your word will fly in a set period of time. Hmmm.... Crazy but interesting...

Okay, check out the links below, plus the author's blog is linked in the blogosphere section on the right hand side here.

Weird and wonderful vocabulary from around the world

Tingo, nakkele and other wonders

Friday, September 23, 2005

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

I don't generally take a lot of notice of super-models because if I do I have a weird rush of otherwise completely unknown maternal instinct, during which all I want to do is bake them cakes and rice pudding. But it seems one can't avoid the scrawny half-starved Kate Moss this week, so before I pop my pinny on, it's worth thinking about her apology.

Apologies are interesting speech acts. There's Kate Moss saying sorry like there's no tomorrow, every cancelled contract worth at least £200,000. But is sorry enough? Does she mean it? Is it just a cynical media ploy to save her career? Well, we probably all have opinions on these questions, depending on our attitudes to supermodels, the media and cocaine. But it's also very rewarding to take a closer language look at the whole sorry business.

What we're dealing with here is speech acts - how we use language to perform acts such as making vows and promises, naming ships and babies, and giving apologies. Apologies are an expressive speech act, one in which the speaker expresses a particular attitude. In Kate's case, an air of penitence. However, what's really interesting about speech acts is that in order for them to work out there in the real world, there are certain rules they have to play by. These are called felicity conditions.

So what are the rules for apology? Well, one of them is that you are supposed to mean it, that there is a real truth at the heart of it. You can see what a thorny issue this is in practice if you watch Supernanny. She unfailingly gets the kids to apologise, but do they mean it? Like hell they do!! But they quickly learn that the sooner you say it, the sooner you get off the naughty step/corner/cushion. I think we know what TV Kate Moss has been watching!

And that brings us to the other part of the bargain. An apology has to be accepted by its recipient(s). Just saying it isn't always enough. But, as we can again see from Supernanny, sometimes as recipients we choose to accept varying degrees of truth for the sake of social harmony. It's not an open and closed case.

So, back to Kate Moss and her career. Whether or not she now bombs out of the modelling world will depend on decisions about whether the face that launched a thousand mascaras is now an economic liability. And that decision may at least partly be based on whether or not her corporate sugar-Daddies think her apology will be accepted by us punters. Because let's face it, most of them won't give a flying monkeys what she snorts.

Check out the links. Do we accept her apology?

Kate's cocaine apology

Model apology

The breaking of Kate

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Joy-riding a Porsche

There are so many language stories running in the papers this week that I'm hard pushed to choose. But because it never fails to get my goat, let's go with the never-ending story of how appalling the youth of today is. News from the report by the Edexcel Chief Examiner for GCSE English that young people don't know how to write properly. Far too many shoudas, ain'ts, m8s, and uncapitalised first person pronouns. It's the age old epic battle between written and spoken forms of the language, between precriptive accounts of what is 'proper' and descriptive accounts of what is 'real' language use. But what I particularly like is the quotation from the chief examiner's report:

"Many concerns were expressed by examiners about elementary errors, often appearing in the work of apparently able candidates"

Hmmm, so, a few tell-tale signs there, then, about which side of the fence the examiner's sitting on. After all, one man's "elementary errors" are another man's evidence of dynamic language change amongst young people reflecting the far freer and more diverse contexts in which their language use takes place as a result of global communications technologies. Okay, okay, so they shoulda (oops, that's me stripped of my O level English...) done the honourable thing in there (their goes my A Level) GCSE exam, but if i (now they've binned my degree certificate) don't capitalise my first person pronoun does that make me any less intelligent?! Am I suddenly only "apparently" intelligent?! Well, "apparently" so if you were to believe this report...

This is all part of the public discourse about language that equates the ability to use a certain set of language forms with intelligence, godliness, cleanliness and assorted other moral virtues. Which reminds me of Norman Tebbit, a former Conservative MP, who once rather famously said,

"If you allow standards to slip to the stage where good English is no better than bad English, where people turn up filthy to school...all these things tend to cause people to have no standards at all, and once you lose standards then there's no imperative to stay out of crime."

Well, excuse me while I go joy-ride a Porsche, but formal prose is just one variety with one set of language conventions. Yes, we should all learn to use that, and I have no objection to GCSE testing it, but it really ain't the be-all and end-all of sophisticated and intelligent communication.
GCSE English pupils shoulda done better, say examiners

And in other news, check out the research into Scots (hmm, I thought we'd decided that was a language now, not a dialect...) that also throws a light on Child Language Acquisition and how vernacular languages are transmitted.

And because I can't resist a George Bush language story, check out the leak about the leak and what graphological analysis has to say about it all.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Who are you calling English?

A year or so ago, I handed the wee Welsh nearly-new teacher at our college a copy of the unit guide for the bit of the course she was teaching.
"Let me know what you think needs changing", I said.
A few days later she thrust the guide back at me.
"I'm norr'avin' that!" she harumphed.
"You use the expression, 'stressing for England'. Some of us do come from other parts of the United Kingdom, y'know!"
And off she went with her mug of tea in hand, chuckling gleefully at my dismay at having been found out as a secret St George's flag tea-towel owner and therefore neo-Nazi skinhead football hooligan.

And I remembered that because rumbling away in the media of the other proud noble nations of the UK is the story of the Scottish councillor who has been fined £750 for a racially aggravated crime. Specifically, calling a Welsh man "boyo" in an argument. This story surfaced towards the end of August, but today's editorial comment in the Scottish paper The Herald is calling for a change in the law that allows this. The editorial line is that slurs based on matters of national identity is crossing the line between protecting people from racism and eroding free speech.

That's a serious philosophical and legal argument to be having over a matter of language use, yet you wouldn't know it from the London/England papers, most of which don't cover this story at all.

Check out the links. Where do you think the legal line should be drawn?

Vocabulary of racism

'If boyo is racist so is Jock'

And thanks to nic (see comments section below) for suggesting this link:

Police investigate anti-British e-mail

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Death sentences

No, not the kind of thing involving choosing your last meal and getting strapped into an electric chair, but sentences so bad they threaten the language with unnatural violence. My favourite has long been one from the dizzy heights of local newspaper journalism, the Eastbourne Herald. A description of a boy's cycling accident ended with the sentence, "He was rushed to casualty where doctors treated him but luckily he managed to avoid serious injury". I know doctors working 80 hours a week can make some dodgy judgements, but beating up small boys seems a bit extreme...

But nothing is so bad as the "death sentence" in the world of business, it seems. First up is news in the Financial Times that most people - especially young ones and women - would rather read the dietary information on the back of a cereal box than anything their bank sends them. Well, hello??! You needed a survey to find that out?! At least with a riboflavin in my Rice Crispies I know where I stand: no idea what on earth it looks like, but it's good for me, right? I didn't even bother opening the envelope that came yesterday from my new pension provider... No point cos it won't be written in any English I understand. Think of me when I'm living on dog food as a pensioner because of that envelope...

Don't believe me? Well, each year the Plain English Campaign awards a Golden Bull for appallingly unclear English in the public domain, and the Royal Bank of Scotland won it last year for a letter explaining that they had "retrocessed, reponed and restored executors and assignees, in and to their own right and place in the undernoted policy of assurance by our office...” Right, I see...

This is an issue of how language is used in a specific commercial sector - financial services. But the problem of language in the workplace is not restricted to this. In the second link, the writer notes many other examples of phrases used in management speak to try to make business processes and products sound more dynamic than they are. It reminded me of KwikFit's slogan "Our aim is customer delight". I always replace "customer" with "Angel" and only that makes the frustration of their extraordinarily slow fit of my tyres or exhaust bearable. Customer delight? That's actually a very scary prospect...

And finally, a piece in the Telegraph which touches on some of the communications issues that arise when British and American colleagues or companies work together. This covers a few examples of misunderstandings caused by words or phrases which have different meanings, but mainly focuses on business practices. But if you think about these, you will see how important they are in shaping the language. Look at the list at the bottom of the article and think about how each one would affect the use of politeness markers, the opening and closing sequences, the structure of the discourse.

Financial customers give financial know-how the heave-ho

Speak plainly

Two nations divided by a common language

Plain English Campaign

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Katrina And The Waves

Oh, I know, that is such a bad title for a post about the New Orleans disaster, but as it's questions of linguistic taste that are in the news this week, it's kind of appropriate. Kinda...

But anyway, The Guardian is reporting news of the arguments in the American news media about what to call the people of New Orleans who have been displaced by the hurricane. Those which favour using language to give a dramatic sense of events are describing them as "refugees", but there's a bit of a fist fight going on about whether or not this is (a) accurate and (b) racist.

The accuracy argument focuses on whether the word "refugee" only applies to people who have sought refuge across an international border, or whether it applies to people within a country. It depends which dictionary you use, so try looking it up in a load - is there any consensus? Is there an argument that the use of the word is changing to accommodate the latter meaning?

The racism argument is interesting. It focuses on the fact that most of the people caught up in the New Orleans catastrophe are black. But, because of the way the western media represents refugee situations - poor victims in third world countries who are somehow inferior and therefore incapable of controlling their lives/economies/weather (do not misread this as my opinion...) - these people do not want to be labelled in the same way. On the BBC ten o'clock news last night, one woman argued that they should be called "survivors" or "heroes". For many observers, the collocation of the word "American" and "refugee" just doesn't make sense. A word that initially seems entirely neutral has clearly undergone pejoration at the hands of the westerm media.

Check it out. The Guardian's report focuses on the US news media. Check out the British papers and see what they're doing about this in their reports.

Use of the Word 'Refugee' Stirs Debate

And if you want to know why this hurricane is called Katrina, type "hurricane" into the search the site box (here on the right hand side somewhere) and read my previous post and link.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The well spring of one's being

The high drama of England making headway in the Ashes and the start of the footie season has got the papers awash with loving defences of the functional importance of the f-word to sport. Now I know I was only chatting about the f-word the other day and here I am, with just a brief interlude for a bit of blasphemy, going on about it again. Don't blame me, I'm just telling you what's going on out there...

But as it just so happens that the history of swearing is going to be my Mastermind specialist subject, I'm delighted by news in the Telegraph that the BBC is just finishing a programme on this. Shame they didn't ask me to present it but we'll let that pass for now... The two articles linked below both explore the power and the passion of sport, and, between them, argue that the use of the f-word is not offensive but an entirely appropriate response to the communication situation. What's really interesting is that these articles are in the Times and the Telegraph, often the twin bastions of prescriptive attitudes to language and the general "declining standards, wasn't like that in my day, by jingo" hue and cry. Changing attitudes to language or just a sports journalist's leeway?

Anyway, next time I'm banned from the tennis club for hurling my racket over the fence in a torrent of (self-directed) "emotional" invective, I'll try explaining all this to the committee...

Cameras sworn in to expose a rash of expletives

You only **** when you're winning (unless you are Ponting, then you **** when you are losing)

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The rubber chicken?!...

Dunno why all these things to do with Jesus are suddenly crying out to be read, but following on from yesterday's post, check out the link below. Another example of an original piece of writing, this time with a mission to entertain. This is also a pretty smart piece of writing. It may initially look as though it's edging into blasphemy, but if you think about it, it actually has important stuff to say about how right wing American politicians use Christianity as an unassailable argument for their way of doing business in the world.

This is a parody of a political speech. Check out the way it uses rhetorical language, compare it with one of Bush's speeches (written by someone who can actually string a sentence together), and weep at the Bushisms website. And be kind to Americans - most of them didn't actually vote for him, after all...

The Parable of Jesus and the Rubber Chicken

American Rhetoric
(for rhetorical techniques and a shedload of speeches)



Friday, September 02, 2005

Jesus's body piercing

News today of an advertising poster campaign designed to encourage more people into church other than for weddings and funerals. It's by the same advertising agency that attempted to give Skoda an image makeover, so taking on the Church of England, and for free, one thing's for sure - they like a challenge at that firm. Worth hiring them just for their attitude.

So, why is this an English Language story? Well... First up, the approach that Fallon, the advertising agency, has taken is interesting, and the posters are worth analysing as short texts. Graphologically they are striking, while the message makes use of interesting lexical, pragmatic and semantic choices. Check 'em out. These are masterpieces of understated simplicity, clearing away the clutter of religion to give a message that is about the heart of community life. For all their simplicity, these posters are actually very clever. You'll find one reproduced visually in The Telegraph article below, while The Times quotes the slogans of a few more. If anyone finds a link to the full set somewhere out in cyberspace, gimme a shout so I can add it here.

But what's also interesting is how sharply the language used on these posters contrasts with the language used in more recent campaigns. These adapted all sorts of non-standard and/or "modern" language forms in a bid to present an image that would get punters under the age of 87 through the church door. These forms included:
  • Popular slogans, adapted to the church message "The Church is for life. Not just for Christians"
  • Slang expressions, such as describing the Virgin Mary as having a "bad hair day"
  • Text messaging language forms
  • References to drugs and, my favourite of all, body piercing - "Jesus had his done 2000 years ago"

It's as painful as a teacher with a mid-life crisis trying to use yoof slang.

So, if you have to create an original text for your coursework, you could do worse than put yourself in the shoes of a Fallon "creative", charged with creating an ad campaign to improve the public image of another PR disaster-zone. You'd need to do a whole series to get near the word count, but hey, that's what Fallon just did...

And if you have the Oxford English Dictionary online at your school/college, can you look up 'churchy' and let me know if they've got that word yet?...

Attempt to make church less 'churchy'

Skoda ad agency gives the Church a push

Catch the one about Jesus's body piercing

Getting into Advertising