Saturday, November 07, 2015

A Word of Warning

While some changes to language are roundly condemned by pedants, purists and prescriptivists - creaky voice, rising intonation, split infinitives and literally not actually meaning LITERALLY AT ALL - new words often get an easy ride. People generally like new words and can see why they appear in the language, even if some of them seem a bit silly (Awesome sauce and amazeballs? Really?) or likely to last as long as a David Cameron promise on tax credits (dadbod and mantihose?). In fact, new words now get wall-to-wall media coverage.

So, this week we have seen the latest additions to the Collins Dictionary feature in pieces such as this (from the Dictionary-makers themselves), this from The Guardianthis from the BBC and this from the Daily Fail.

But among the hype and the celebration of an evolving and vibrant language, naysayers complain that some of the new entries are just trendy fads, too ephemeral to be included in esteemed dictionaries.

As Robert Lane Greene explains in a blog for The Economist, the whole process of putting new words in a dictionary is quite an intensive exercise, admittedly now made much easier by the internet: something that early lexicographers could have only dreamt of. A further explanation is given in this helpful video clip from Oxford University Press, which describes how a new word (in this case selfie) might enter their dictionaries. As the clip explains, the naysayers are partly right that things have been changing faster than before, because the new words don't have to have had a very long existence before being added to the online versions of the dictionaries. But in a way, that just reflects the rapid pace of lexical change these days. Perhaps, as John Sutherland argues in this article, language is "evolving at a faster rate now than at any other time in history because of social media and instant messaging".

Is this rapid change leaving some behind? One argument often put forward by more prescriptively-minded people is that if language changes too fast, we lose mutual intelligibility; in other words, one generation may not understand the language of another. Older people (anyone over 30) will lose any semblance of understanding of what young people are talking about, goes the argument, and that will lead to social breakdown and chaos. Indeed, this is the argument peddled in rather dubious articles like this one in yesterday's Daily Fail which claims that parents haven't a clue what their kids are saying because they're using a secret sex and drugs code, grandad!

For example, the seemingly innocuous "netflix and chill" now takes on much more sinister connotations. The innocent Snapchat message from your teenage daughter to her bae saying "Do you want to come over? We could Netflix and chill." actually means "Buy drugs, come to my boudoir and let's have hours of dangerous chemsex". Apparently.

The fear that young people's language is constantly evolving as a nefarious means of hoodwinking their prying parents or to hide other dubious activities (smoking tobacco, drinking alcopops and playing CoD until after bedtime) is one that has been around forever. This piece in The Daily Telegraph from 2013, this one from the Daily Fail (again... almost like they don't like young people), or even these from as far back as the 17th Century, all say similar things.

And if people have been complaining about it and we still manage to communicate fairly effectively with each other after all this time, surely the doom-mongers are barking up the wrong tree.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

I wonder if we can talk about requests...

Last night I went to a talk, and today I’m blogging about it. The University of York Linguistics Society hosted a talk by Professor Paul Drew from Loughborough University, and since he’s a bit of a big deal in Conversation Analysis, I thought I’d go along. Some of the talk’s content might be of some use to A-Level English Language analyses, so here (in some shape or form) are my generalisations.

The theme of the evening was ‘requests’ (so, aiming to get someone else to do something for us, like asking for a lift), specifically in conversation. Towards the beginning of his talk, Paul quoted Levinson: “language delivers action, not meaning”. It was a little mysterious at first, but it was fascinating to witness this quote unravel throughout the course of the evening. Obviously, language does carry meaning, but it was implied that its primary purpose is to act in some way.

Drew has done a lot of research on telephone call interaction, and therefore we are talking about these requests in the context of telephone conversations. He compared two types of context where we might be making phone calls: informal contexts (e.g. among friends) vs. more formal institutional contexts (key examples of these he gave were out-of-hours calls to doctors and calls to the police).

Broadly speaking, Drew claimed that we tend to begin our requests in an informal context with a modal form (like ‘Could you…’/‘Can you…’), whereas we often tend to go for ‘I wonder if…’ in the institutional context. This comparison can be explained with a continuum of request forms he then went on to talk about…

Continuum of request forms

High entitlement/Low contingency High contingency/Low entitlement

Imperatives I need you to.. Modals (Could../Can..) I wonder if…

As we can see from the above continuum, we can talk about request contexts in terms of degrees of entitlement and contingency. Contingency, in this setting, is about the requester’s knowledge or awareness of the difficulties that might be involved if the ‘requestee’ were to carry out the action.

If we start at one end of the scale (the left side), in high entitlement and low contingency contexts, we can appropriately find imperatives. The simple example Drew gave was in a lecturer-student context. It might be fine to say ‘Pass me that pen’. In that kind of scenario, there is a power relationship where there may be a high level of entitlement. The low contingency might come from the fact that there’s a pen lying on the desk which isn’t being used, and so it isn’t seen as much of a sacrifice to the student to carry out the requested action. Basically, the requester is in a more powerful position, and the request isn’t seen to be a big deal.

On the other side of the spectrum (the right side), we have high contingency and low entitlement. Here, the out-of-hours doctor calls can demonstrate this kind of context. The example Drew provided us with was a man calling with back pain and requesting a doctor to come and visit him with ‘I wonder if you’d come out’. In this kind of scenario, the requester is not necessarily familiar with what’s involved and so quite a conservative (high contingency) form of request has been used, along with the low entitlement, because the doctor, in this case, is seen to be the more knowledgeable party.

Having briefly explored this continuum, we can return to the broad claim Drew made early on, which generalised over the request forms we might make with friends versus those we might make in an institutional context. We’ve just seen an example of an informal setting where ‘I wonder if…’ was used. When we are requesting among friends or family, often we have a better idea of what is involved for that person if the action was carried out, and the power distance is likely to diminish. This means that we can see many situations among friends, where ‘Could you…’/‘Can you..’ might be appropriate, because they are a little further up the scale.

Drew explored a number of telephone calls where these sorts of situations were evaluated and the request form was analysed in relation to it. Of course exceptions were pointed out and more discussion followed, but I think this is a great framework to start us off when we’re looking at requests.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Accent’s Place and Placing Accent in Forensic Science

This post aims to bring some application value to the accent strand newly introduced to A’Level English Language. Accent and dialect differences are of course interesting in their own right. However, they can also be useful to real-life applications. Here, I’m going to shed light on just one of these: forensic speech science.

Forensic speech practitioners analyse recordings which might feature as evidence in legal casework. Often, it’ll be telephone calls and we want to answer various questions about the speaker or what was said. One task analysts might be asked to do is called ‘speaker profiling’. Speaker profiling is the task of extracting various identifying information about the speaker in the recording. We could think about this in the context of a ransom telephone call, for example, where we don’t have any information about the speaker, but we want to narrow down the pool of possibilities to assist investigative teams. Information like where the speaker is from, or what speech community he/she belongs to, could be really useful to a cause. A thorough analysis of the speaker’s accent can help us to do this. Outlined below are a couple of real-life cases where speaker profiling/accent analysis played a part.

Case 1: The Yorkshire Ripper
The most famous case involving forensic speaker profiling dates back to the late 1970s - The Yorkshire Ripper case. Around this time, and over a the course of a few years, a serial killer was at large, brutally murdering women across Yorkshire. The lead investigator for the case, George Oldfield, received a recorded message from a male claiming to be the Yorkshire Ripper. Below is what the speaker in the recording said:

I’m Jack. I see you have no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you, George, but, Lord, you are no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started. I reckon your boys are letting you down, George. They can’t be much good, can they? The only time they came near catching me was a few months back in Chapeltown when I was disturbed. Even then it was a uniformed copper, not a detective. I warned you in March that I’d strike again. Sorry it wasn’t Bradford, I did promise you that I couldn’t get there. I’m not quite sure when I’ll strike again but it will be definitely some time this year, maybe September or October, even sooner if I get the chance. I’m not sure where. Maybe Manchester, I like it there, there’s plenty of them knocking about. They never learn, do they, George? I bet you’ve warned them, but they never listen. At the rate I’m going, I should be in the book of records. I think it’s eleven up to now, isn’t it? Well, I’ll keep on going for quite a while yet. I can’t see myself being nicked just yet. Even if you do get near, I’ll probably top myself first. Well, it’s been nice chatting to you, George. Yours, Jack the Ripper. No good looking for fingerprints, you should know by now it’s clean as a whistle. See you soon. Bye. Hope you like the catchy tune at the end. Ha Ha.

This is when Stanley Ellis, a leading dialectologist, was brought in to lend a hand with some expert analysis. With the belief that they had a recording of the perpetrator, they thought that they could identify him. Stanley Ellis’s spanning experience in dialectology and fieldwork equipped him to be able to make an initial broad diagnosis of the speaker’s accent, saying that the speaker sounded like he was from the general Sunderland area in the North-East of England. Using various cues from the recording, Ellis was able to pinpoint, to a finer degree, where he believed the speaker in the recording was from. In his account of the case, here are some cues Ellis used to do this (remember that these were of relevance to these particular varieties back in the 1970s - accent features may have changed since then):

  • The vowel quality of the pronoun ‘I’ suggested that Ellis could perhaps eliminate Tyneside or North Yorkshire as possible areas. If the speaker were from Tyneside or Yorkshire, we could perhaps expect an elongated version of the vowel we find in ‘cat’.
  • The word ‘strike’ was another useful clue. The speaker’s pronunciation of the vowel in this word was closer to what we would expect in, say, Received Pronunciation, than what we might expect from the spoken variety in the north of County Durham. Typically, speakers in this area would produce a similar vowel to what we might hear in RP ‘steak’ (roughly speaking). This observation therefore meant that the speaker was unlikely to be from north County Durham.
  • Also of note was the fact that the speaker in our mysterious recording h-dropped (so, not pronouncing the /h/ in the words ‘have’ and ‘hope’). Having researched this area, Ellis was able to suggest that this means that the speaker is unlikely to be from areas north of the River Wear, where h-dropping is less common.

All kinds of these sorts of cues came together, along with further data collection from this part of the country, to home in on two possible areas: Southwick or Castletown. It is important to note that these kinds of analyses only offer an indication, rather than ground truth results. Forensic analysts present their conclusions in terms of likelihoods.

Based on the outcomes of Ellis’s analysis, police investigation efforts targeted Southwick and Castletown, but there was no luck in identifying a specific individual. However, in 1981, police arrested Peter Sutcliffe, a lorry driver from Bradford (with a Bradford accent), who, it turned out, was responsible for the murders. The tape recording was a hoax, and it wasn’t revealed who the hoaxer was until 2006 - John Humble.  Because of advances in techniques, forensic scientists were able to find a DNA match that police had stored from a minor incident Humble was involved in in 1991. It turned out that Humble was indeed from near the areas Ellis had identified. Unfortunately, however, the distraction this hoax created at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper investigation meant that the Yorkshire Ripper was able to go on to murder three more women.

Case 2: Mysterious Bomb Threats to Mr HOW

This case is about 40 year-old Richard Carl who lived 12 miles away from Philadelphia in the US. This case brings together elements of speaker profiling, as well as more specific speaker comparison elements. His wife had been laid off from her job at a company called Mr HOW. Richard Carl called the company and spoke to the supervisor to express that he thought his wife had been unfairly treated. Within a short period of time after this phone call, four phone calls were made to the local police and fire departments claiming that there were bombs and fires at Mr HOW. Richard Carl was accused of making these obscene phone calls, and at this point, Sharon Ash was brought in to make an analysis of the recorded threatening calls with Richard Carl’s speech.

Having closely analysed Carl’s vowels, Ash could confidently express that Carl showed the details of a typical speaker of Philadelphia English. Ash could then analyse the speech of the bomb threat caller and compare the two speakers’ pronunciations. One example of the sort of features Ash looked at was the vowel in ‘gonna’. Ash was able to compare the pronunciation of the first vowel in this word for both the bomb threat caller and Carl. She spotted that while Carl’s vowel matched with the vowels you would find in ‘on’ or ‘off’, the bomb threat caller produced something more like ‘gunna’.

This analysis contributed to Carl’s overall case, and he was acquitted (as a result of a combination of factors).

Practical Challenges
For both Case 1 and Case 2, the accents involved had been previously studied and documented in academic research. We don’t always have access to the sociolinguistic expertise to indicate the specific featural diagnostics which point us towards an overall accent label. For example, in a case, we might have accent varieties which have never been visited in academic research before. Forensic casework, in its nature, is very unpredictable, and caseworkers could be asked to work on anything. As well as this, we know that accents and dialects change, and they change rapidly. This means that our documentation of varieties becomes outdated, and therefore invalid, quite quickly.

My own research aims to make improvements to the way forensic practitioners conduct the speaker profiling task. I have developed the Y-ACCDIST system. Y-ACCDIST is a software tool which can be trained on a database of accents, to then identify what the systematic differences are between these varieties. Given a speech sample of interest, Y-ACCDIST will then process and classify the unknown speaker into one of the previously trained accents. It doesn’t work 100% of the time (I’m not completely deluded), but technological developments are (hopefully) being made in the right direction. The intention is not to replace the forensic analyst in these speaker profiling tasks, but to have the analyst and Y-ACCDIST work in conjunction with one another.

When attitudes to accent might matter
The cases above illustrate how, by being analytical about speakers’ accents, we can perhaps provide an evidential contribution. However, our attitudes to accents can also be significant in a legal context. James Tompkinson and Katherine Weinberg at the University of York are currently researching into this nook of the field. James is looking into listeners perceiving threats. More specifically, he’s looking into how the speaker’s accent affects how threatening the listener finds certain utterances. For example, does a speaker with a Cockney accent come across as more threatening than a speaker of RP? Developing our understanding of this could be valuable to court cases where threats are involved.

Katherine has been looking at threatening speech/language in the context of Anglo Americans’ perceptions of African Americans. Recent relevant cases might include the shooting of Walter Scott, an African American who was shot by law enforcement. It was claimed the the officer responsible felt threatened. However, video footage did not indicate that the victim was threatening the officer in any way. Removing physical appearances from the equation, are there elements of African American speech that Anglo Americans perceive as threatening? Katherine has been analysing phonetic, lexical and grammatical aspects of African American speech and what listeners may associate with these.

With any luck, this post has provided some insight into the murky world of forensic speech science, with particular attention paid to accent analysis. There are many more types of task which forensic analysts have to contend with, but I think this post offers some justification to studying accents. They’re not just interesting, but studying them can also be useful.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Paper 2: accent, dialect, sociolect and occupational discourse

If you're looking for material on the topics for paper 2 of the new AQA English Language spec, there'll be some posts coming up after half-term. There's plenty on the blog already, though but it's labelled using the old specifications.

  • So, if you're looking for stuff on regional variation, try here.
  • Accent material can be found here.
  • For social variation - class and social groups, try here and here.
  • For occupation and language, try here and here.
  • And for gender and language, try here.
  • And for Language Discourses and attitudes to variation try here and here (but be aware that language change, ethnicity and world Englishes are A-level only topics and don't appear in the AS level).

Analysing meanings and representations 2

In the textual analysis post yesterday I focused on how to analyse language to look at meanings and representations. In this post, I'll take a look at the ways in which you can explore how different opinions and views are put forward in texts and how you can start to do good AO1 and AO3 work on different kinds of texts.

Again, this focuses primarily on Questions 1 and 2, where you are encouraged to look closely at how language creates meanings and representations. On one level, as I said in yesterday's post, this means getting a sense of how the overall subject of each text is being represented. If the topic of the text is the natural environment, how is this topic being represented?

Here is an example taken from a Wildlife Trust leaflet:

Here, you might make the point that the environment is being represented as under threat. How is this achieved? Through a series of different language choices, all contributing their own meanings to an overall representation.

For example:

  • the graphology anchors the themes being talked about and presents us with a clear picture of what is under threat
  • the vocabulary uses a lexical field of nature and keeps the focus squarely on key areas, while there are quite specific references to breeds of bird, types of environment and precise figures
  • vocabulary choices like the adjective 'iconic' help to represent the natural environment as part of the UK's heritage
  • the grammar helps to present the threat as current and ongoing through the present progressive verb phrase "are disappearing" and as a victim of external forces through the passive voice in the second box "...has been lost"

Overall, these combine to create a particular set of ideas about the situation.

Another kind of text offers you different angles to explore. The text above represents an idea with just one voice, but many texts - for example, spoken conversations and online message boards - give you different people's views, and these are worth looking at in more detail because they might use language in different ways to represent different ideas. Equally, they might share similar views and put them forward with a degree of similarity.

Here's an example of a couple of posts on the Mumsnet forum, that are about school proms (the same topic as the sample AQA AS paper for Paper 1). Look at how the opinions are expressed here, how the posters create particular meanings and offer different representations of their views and the topic as a whole:


The poster 'mumblechum' expresses her (appalled) view of the picture that has been posted using the adjective phrase "utterly chavtastic" in an exclamative sentence, while 'thursdaynamechange' makes use of the emojis on the forum to put forward a representation of her own face (a bit like you might do in a spoken conversation) before ending with a simple sentence that also makes use of a negative adjective phrase "utterly ridiculous".

They both have a very negative view of the lengths to which some people go to impress others at a school prom and make their views very clear with these language choices. What does 'chavtastic' mean? Why choose that adjective, rather than (say) 'chavvy'? Why has the second poster emboldened "primary school" and put scare-quotes around 'environmental'? What do these mean? And how do they work together to represent a view?

There are quite a few other things that you could look at here, as the two posters are not just talking about school proms and how much money some people spend on them, but are also representing themselves (and their daughters) as particular kinds of people. They are using language not just to express ideas, but to position themselves too. This is something we'll have a look at in more detail in some posts later this week.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Meanings and representations

Paper 1 of the new AQA AS and A level focuses on ideas about how language creates meanings and representations, so I thought it might be useful to look at what could be meant by these terms and what the difference might be.

I suppose the first point to make is that the focus of the first two questions is now very much on how language is used (AO1) to create meanings and represent the topic (AO3), rather than on the types of texts they are (which now comes under the remit of Question 3 and the new AO4).

AO1 and AO3 are quite distinct on the new specification, so you can pick up AO1 marks for labelling  and exemplifying word classes, sentence functions and higher level grammar features such as the passive voice, progressive aspect verbs and clause types, but to get AO3 marks you need to explain what these language features do.

For example, you could get yourself a Level 5 mark (9 or 10 AO1 marks) by identifying (correctly!) something like the following range of language features: noun, verb, adjective, 2nd person pronoun, present tense verb, simple sentence, a minor sentence and a relative clause. But if you left it at that, you'd probably get something like 2-3 marks out of 15 for AO3 at best. What we need to see is some useful discussion of what each of these actually means in its context - not just catch-all generalisations such as "The 2nd person pronoun makes the text more personal." - and (crucially) how they help create a representation of whatever it is that's being discussed. Take the example from a Cancer Research UK below:

If you describe the first sentence as a simple sentence that uses the present progressive, you'll get some good AO1 marks. But to get some AO3 marks, think about what this helps represent: the charity is shown as engaged in an ongoing battle, a fight that they are now taking to the disease and its effects on people. The whole idea of finding cures and treatments for cancer is represented (unhelpfully perhaps?) as a war and the charity and disease as two opposing forces.

If you start with AO3 this time, you might then move on to talk about how time is represented in the rest of the extract above. Several adverbials of time are used: "for a long time", "someday soon" and "anymore". Why are these important? They seem to suggest that time is important and that a turning point is about to be reached.

There's plenty more you could look at in this short extract or in other parts of the ad (like below) but this is a start and (I hope) illustrates what's needed at this level.

So, what's the difference between meanings and representation? To my mind, it's the difference between looking at the possible effect of a single language choice (e.g. the use of different pronouns to show separate sides) and the overall effect of a number of these choices on how the topics are shown to us (cancer as an opponent in a battle; Cancer Research as an organisation fighting on our behalf).

There will be another post soon, looking at other approaches to meanings and representations.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Fry up

Over the summer, you might have read about vocal fry; that’s the kind of deliberately croaky voice demonstrated here by my favourite sit-com teenager, Dalia in Suburgatory.  Recent coverage of vocal fry has all the features of typical media stories on language and gender, and is a great example of why we should be sceptical when reading mainstream media coverage of linguistic issues.   Reading and analysing mainstream media coverage of linguistic issues is, of course, something  A2 students will need to do in your exam; you’ll also need to create your own piece for your intervention coursework.
First, newspapers will pick up on a recent bit of linguistic research, or maybe something they've seen mentioned on Twitter or YouTube.  Journalists are particularly keen on using headlines which express a clear and simple difference between men and women, so they will either reduce complex, nuanced findings to simplistic ‘men do this/women do that’ headlines like this, or base an article around a flawed bit of research like this.   The wonderful Deborah Cameron outlines this process at length in her snappily titled blog post (which btw would make a great style model for your intervention) ‘How to Write a Bullshit Article About Women’s Language’.

In the case of vocal fry, it seems that reporters noticed a story in the academic publication ‘Journal of Voice’.    Enterprising journalists realised they could write a story that combined celebrity click-bait with a ‘men-and-women-are-different’ story and so produced headlines like this featuring tabloid darlings like Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears.   There was even more mileage in the story when media outlets realised they could use the story to lecture women about how they need to speak more like men, and to blame their failure to do this for inequalities in education and the workplace.  Even feminist writers in respected, ‘serious’ newspapers got in on the act, presenting the story as a rallying call to young women; stop talking like a weak and feeble girl!

Never mind the fact that the original research only looked at young women, and so provided no evidence that only young women use vocal fry.   Never mind the easily demonstrable fact that men use vocal fry too, as shown in this brilliant post.   Never mind the fact that the original research only looked at young women, and so provided no evidence that only young women use vocal fry.  Never mind the fact that vocal fry is only seen as a sign of weakness when women use it.

The lesson here is not to take media coverage of women’s language (or, indeed, any linguistic issue) at face value.    Instead, do a bit of digging and reading around.  And if you want a different perspective on women’s language, you can always rely on Professor Cameron.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

For Starters (part 1)

With the new term starting and new A and AS levels being taught for the first time, I thought it might be handy to think of ways to get classes starting to think about the kinds of things they'll be doing as the course goes on.

I'm sure lots of teachers already have plenty of starters and ice-breakers up their sleeves, but it might be worth thinking about tasks that link to some of the newer areas of the specification. For example, for the first time in ages, we'll be teaching accent, dialect and sociolect to AS/1st year A level students, so why not look at a couple of things connected to that? Here are two ideas based on Language Diversity and another on Textual Variation.

Language fingerprints: ask each student to think about what characteristics make up their own unique language identity. 

  • Where were they born? 
  • Where else have they lived? 
  • Which other languages or dialects have they spoken?
  • Where were their parents from?
  • Do they work part-time or do volunteering? 
  • Do they spend a lot of time doing certain activities: football, online gaming, going to gigs/festivals, writing, looking after younger children?

If each student maps out these ideas, they'll build up a bigger picture of the influences that affect their language. You can introduce social, ethnic and gender/sexuality influences too, if that seems appropriate, or at least flag those up as aspects for students to think about themselves. Each area can then be mapped to the course they are about to start.

Proper English: use some of the links on these posts to find relevant articles about slang bans and school policy on "proper English". 

  • Ask students to have a look at the lists of banned words/expressions that feature in many of these stories. 
  • What's "wrong" with these terms?
  • Why might they be used?
  • What alternatives are there and why might the schools see these as better?
  • Is it right to ban these terms and how can that be achieved?
  • What are the problems with trying to change people's language behaviour?
  • Is there such a thing as "proper" English and how might that be defined?

This can lead into discussion of attitudes to Language Diversity (on Paper 2 of the new AS and A levels) and Language Discourses (same).

Found texts: following on from ideas like this one, you might want to ask small groups of students to spend 10 minutes gathering "texts" from around the classroom or form their own pockets and bags before selecting 6 per group to start analysing in a fairly simple way:

  • Who is it by?
  • Who's it aimed at?
  • Why is it written in that way? 
  • How can you characterise the style?
  • What do you notice about language patterns?
  • What do you notice about visual design? 

Examples of texts might be:

  • a film poster on the wall of the classroom
  • a college diary with the code of conduct
  • a letter hone about book deposits
  • a book blurb
  • the writing on a packet of Wotsits
  • the writing on a tube of hand gel/chapstick/tin of vaseline

You can decide if you want to include electronic and spoken texts. At this stage, getting phones out and starting to read texts, Tweets, Snapchat messages and the like might not be the best starter in an early lesson, but you can play it by ear.