Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Some more Language Change work in progress (or decay)...

Following on from the last post about how I'm approaching the topic of Language Change, here's a rough plan of the question I'm setting as a way to build up skills and knowledge for Paper 2 of the A level and a few ideas that one of my A level classes came up with this afternoon.

We're heading towards an essay question "Evaluate the idea that language change is either a process of evolution or of decay" and we're trying to build a range of different case studies and examples along the way. As well as that, I'm trying to kill two birds with one stone by looking at some examples of older texts in preparation for Paper 1.

What I'm hoping is that this allows us to do some close work on short texts, thinking about how they use language to convey ideas and represent their subject matter (all part of Paper 1's textual analysis focus) and then the same texts can be sources of examples and evidence for the bigger Paper 2 essay questions. One thing that's different between Paper 2 at AS and A level is the absence of any data prompt with the "Evaluate the idea..." cue, so I think it's important for students to have lots of examples and extracts of data that they can use to illustrate their points.

That's the plan... Any ideas/further suggestions/criticisms welcome.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Some Language Change links

We've made a start on Language Change as an A level topic at our college and been thinking about the different phases the language has been through. While 1600 is the cut-off point for texts on Paper 1, it's useful to look back further to see how the language started and the processes it went through to help with Paper 2 and a better overview of the whole topic.

These links from the OED site are really good for explaining the main changes, while the British Library timeline is great for the bigger picture.

The approach I'm taking at the moment is to look through the changes to lexis (word formation), semantics (meaning changes), grammar, phonology and orthography/graphology framework by framework, stopping to focus on a few more detailed discussions of things like semantic reclamation and political correctness along the way.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Welcome to 'NEA', the component formerly known as 'coursework'

One of the new things in the A level, as opposed to the AS level, is the appearance of coursework. Except we're not supposed to call it 'coursework' any more and that's probably got something to do with political arguments about the validity of internally-assessed work in a high-stakes testing regime...but I'll save that discussion for another day and maybe some bright spark out there could do a language investigation into the semantic pejoration of the term 'coursework' in media discourses around education.

But anyway, here's a thing I've out together for our returning AS students, now embarking on the 2nd year of the A level course. It's not a complete explanation of what's involved in the Non-Exam Assessment (NEA) but sets a few starting points and offers some ideas for what you can do before you really get started.

We're not officially starting our NEA work until nearer Christmas (and just to mention Christmas seems obscene at this time of year!) but we'd like students to think ahead a bit and get some ideas ticking over.

You can find plenty of other ideas about language investigations from the blog here.

As part of the second year of your A level course, you will have two exam components and one that is called Non-Exam Assessment (i.e. coursework).

The aim of NEA component is to allow you to explore and analyse language data independently and develop and reflect upon your own writing expertise.

It requires you to carry out two different kinds of individual research:
a language investigation (2,000 words excluding data)
a piece of original writing and commentary (750 words each)

Language Investigation 

A project that involves you researching and investigating an area of language, setting your own questions, collecting your own data and then analysing your data and writing it all up. It’s not quite like anything you will have done before for English and requires a good chunk of time, some clear understanding of how language works and - perhaps, most importantly -  your own initiative. You will get more detailed information about the investigation as the term goes on, but will find it helpful to think about potential investigation topics as you look back at work from last year and develop your understanding of new topic areas this year.

A Language Investigation might look something like one of the examples below – which are based on topics you cover on the course – but could equally be about something we do not do on the course. As long as there is a language element to it and you can convince your teacher that it is a viable project, you can do it.

Example investigations

1. A study of the language techniques used by Great British Bake-Off judges when commenting on the cakes produced in the final rounds of the competition, focusing on politeness, directness and possible gender differences.
2. An investigation into the language of female boxers during interviews to see if stereotypes about female communication are true for these women.
3. A comparison of the language used by three children of different ages when responding to the same task, focusing particularly on the stages of development they are at and their ability to use vocabulary and grammar.
4. An investigation into the ways in which different political parties and pressure groups represented the EU during the 2016 referendum across their campaign literature.
5. A study of ways in which local newspapers in 3 different areas represent their local dialect and accent in reports about varieties of English.
6. A comparison of how Maybelline adverts change over a 75-year period in their representation of female beauty.
7. An investigation into the messaging styles of 3 different age groups when using WhatsApp.
8. An investigation into the ways that the language of Twitter arguments differs from those carried out face to face.
9. An exploration of the different language techniques used by three supermarkets to represent their values to the general public on their official websites.
10. A study of the linguistic techniques used by rugby commentators in a radio commentary compared to an online commentary from the BBC website.

This is not an exhaustive list and there are endless possibilities to explore, but you should be able to see that some of these link to areas you might already have studied, while others pick up on A level-only topics.

What you can do now

Think about potential language investigation topics (and possible methodologies i.e. how you might approach the topic) as this first term goes on
Start collecting data: saving articles, bookmarking links, making a note of interesting radio, TV or online shows
Start discussing ideas with your teacher
Read the material in you’re a level handbook (and in the OUP or CUP course textbooks) for ideas about how to approach the NEA

Original Writing

You will need to produce one piece of original writing based on one of the following three areas:
the power of persuasion
the power of storytelling
the power of information

The topic choice is down to you (in discussion with your teacher) but you must have looked at a range of style models and chosen one to comment on in more detail as part of your commentary. Again, you will do some of this in class, but it is a good idea to think about the kind of thing you can write and might enjoy doing. Some suggestions for original writing tasks might be:

The power of persuasion
A piece of investigative journalism.
A speech delivered on a controversial topic.
A letter to an MP.

The power of storytelling
A short story.
An extract from a biography.
A dramatic monologue.

The power of information
A piece of travel journalism.
A blog focusing on social issues.
A piece of local history.

Each folder submitted should contain:
a piece of original writing
an annotated style model
a reflective commentary references (paper and web-based)

What you can do now

Read and write. Find stories, articles and speeches to read. Practise writing in different styles. Use the time in class for Directed Writing tasks as part of the exam components to experiment with form, style and voice. This is one of the few areas on any A level that allows you to write what you like.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Welcome back to English Language

Welcome back to English Language A level if you are moving into the second year of your course and hello to new AS/A level students and teachers.

This year, I'm going to try to focus primarily on the material that's new for the AQA A level, so the areas of Language Change, Child Language Acquisition and Language Diversity, including World Englishes. There's already quite a lot of material on here from the old specifications, but I'll set up some new posts linking to the most useful material and then some suggestions for new idea and activities.

As ever, I'm keen to expand the pool of writers for the blog and you will have seen some contributions from a few different writers over the last year (thanks again to them) so if you are interested, contact me via the @EngLangBlog Twitter account.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Why language is such good sport

Previously, I suggested that coffee chains and their pseudo-Italian-American lexicon provided possible evidence of the way that English was changing its attitudes when it came to borrowings. My argument was that asking for 'a triple-shot mocha with soya to go' made consumers feel part of something exclusive; that it somehow helped 20- and 30-somethings to rediscover the joys of using slang with their teenage friends. In short, coffee shops had become closed language communities of their own. This doesn't have quite the same socio-political implications of Milroy's study, but you get the idea. 

However, I'd hate to be thought of as an inverted coffee snob and so I turned my gaze elsewhere. 

Watching Chris Froome claim his third Tour de France title yesterday got me thinking about the language of sport in all its glorious vagary. It is every bit as elitist as coffee and fine dining in its choice of lexis, often seeming like a different language intended for the few, rather than the many. 

In cycling, it literally is a different a language, filled with borrowings of French origin. Why have a referee when you can have a commissaire? As a noun, it sounds so much more important and sophisticated. Then we have the collective noun for the main group of riders: peloton. And let's not forget that the peloton gets strung out into echelons in strong cross winds, aching to pass under the flame rouge as they go over the final classified climb, supported by their domestiques! It's a delightful lexicon, but what on earth does a novice make of it?

And what of tennis?

As Sue Barker rounds up the day's scores, she casually announces that Federer is through in straight sets with a triple bagel, while Djokovic battled through a five-setter, eventually triumphing three, six, six, two and six, breaking twice in the decider. What does this mean to anyone out of the loop?

Golf offers little reprieve. Spieth leads Day by a single shot at seven under after eagling the par five ninth, while a wild tee shot from Day saw him double bogey the par four eighth. From this, we are meant to know what their scores were before these shots! (Incidentally, it would've meant that Day had led on -8 with Spieth three behind on -5.) 

Of course, there are sports like football where everyone knows the terminology, even though they might not quite grasp the rules, but with the Olympics fast-approaching, viewers are sure to be treated to a whole new world of sporting jargon. The question is, why do we tolerate it?

Because we want to learn. We all want to sound like experts in any field, nodding sagely at the right moments. The commentators are our teachers, describing what we are seeing on our screens so that we can match the words (usually nouns) to the actions. If you don't listen hard, you'll loft one into the deep and find yourself caught out!

Once again, specialist, field specific lexis is a tool that helps us become a part of something from which we would otherwise be excluded. Is it so wrong to want to join the club? Language is used in a self-seeking way from the moment we are born, we just become better practitioners in the art of manipulation as we grow. The ability to feel comfortable on a shared topic in any company is incredibly beneficial, so let's not shun the language's ever-changing vocabulary...let's take in as much as we can and go for gold. Well, a podium finish at least. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Discussing language over a coffee...

Back when I was an A-Level student, I thought I had the concept of borrowings worked out. The textbook definition (as given by my teacher) was that a borrowing must either fill a gap in the borrowing language (usually an abstract concept), or it should name some kind of phenomenon that has gripped the culture of the borrowing language (a more concrete notion).

I suppose words like the German-derived abstract noun 'schadenfreude' (finding pleasure in the misfortune of others - usually a friend) and the Georgian abstract noun 'Shemomedjamo' (eating beyond the point of fullness because the food tastes so good) are fine examples of the first part of the definition because to find an English equivalent to describe such ideas would be too cumbersome. The second part of the definition is more straightforward. The borrowing of the Japanese noun 'karaoke' was beneficial as it gave a name to a new innovation on western shores. 

Where am I going with all this? Well, arguably the traditional circumstances related to borrowings no longer hold true. They appear to have become a cultural issue, designed to fit in with the British class system. Let me give you some examples. 

Two friends are having a tête-à-tête over their suburban garden fence, with one foreshadowing a juicy bit of gossip with the phrase "Strictly entre nous..." The first bit of French means 'head-to-head' (in a friendly sense) and the second means 'between us'. Can English express these ideas without recourse to the Romance languages and without ambiguity? Yes, ultimately making this a middle-class affectation. The late, great comedy writer, John Sullivan bestowed 
such character flaws(?) on Del Trotter as he described attractive women as 'fromage frais' and 

used exclamatives such as 'Chateau Neuf du Pape!' Del always had those middle-class yearnings and Sullivan captured them with warmth and incisive accuracy. 

But let's get to the real point. Return with me to my childhood...

When I was growing up in the 1970s and '80s, my family often popped into a traditional cafe for a drink. Usually, they had tea or coffee but, when feeling extravagant, they would opt for a milky coffee or, in moments of utter recklessness, a frothy coffee! Although you can still ask for such beverages in small tea shops, we know these drinks  better as lattes and cappuccinos today. That's right, I'm about to propose that coffee culture is proof of the changing nature of borrowings. 

Rewind 30 years, enter a cafe and ask for a tall, skinny macchiato with an extra shot to go. What kind of response would you receive? A look of incredulity followed by immediate arrest. Today, however, it's the norm. We speak a different language to many of our grandparents. What's wrong with requesting a small macchiato, made with skimmed milk with an extra drop of coffee thrown in that you wish to take away from the cafe? What's wrong is that, despite its clarity, it sounds like you don't understand; it isn't snappy enough; you're not part of the club - and belonging is everything in today's society. 

And who said size doesn't matter?

If we take the so-called big three coffee chains, we see huge variations in their use of Italio-American jargon to reference the size of drinks available. In Starbucks, you can have (from smallest to largest) short, tall, grande and venti. Meanwhile, Costa limits the choice to primo, medio and massimo while Caffe Nero offers just regular and grande. How do these sizes correlate? I reached the (not unreasonable) conclusion that grande, venti and massimo must all be Italian synonyms for 'large'. I put this to two friends, both fluent in Italian, who laughed at me explaining that the choice of size names were all style over substance. 

Therefore, There exists a reasonable possibility that social class and a desperation to be part of something (moderately) elite has become a factor in why the English language continues to borrow words - even though they don't necessarily mean what we think they do. Isn't it sufficient to ask for small, medium or large? Oh well, c'est la vie!

Friday, July 08, 2016

Brexit: the war of the words

By chance or design, our often fractious relationship with continental Europe has contributed significantly to our proverbial 'mongrel' language which is up there with Finnish and Welsh as one of the continent's most notoriously difficult languages to learn. As if this isn't bad enough, recent events, monolithic institutions and the pseudo-intellectuals in the media have saddled us with a whole new world of linguistic detritus.

Looking back, it was easy: David Cameron promised a straight in/out referendum that we could get our heads around. As time passed, factions emerged in the form of official (and unofficial) Remain or Leave camps. Sadly, as with Brangelina and Jedward, the media outlets needed something...sexier? They found it! After all, who could fail to be seduced after drinking the love potion that is the blended neologism (or blelologism)?

Suddenly, a reporter recalled that the Greek threat to leave the EU had been dubbed Grexit (Greek exit) and so, logically, the concept of Brexit (noun) was born. But Brexit versus Remain lacked balance and harmony. We had the Yin, but why borrow that when we had no Yang to complete the set?  Fortunately, help was forthcoming as a timid hand raised itself from beside the water cooler and suggested that Remain could be renamed Bremain. Everyone present knew it was rubbish, but the noun worked. Shrek had found his Fiona and the blended neologisms were settled upon as the official lexicon of the Breferendum.

From this point on, we saw linguistic change take place at light speed. You were either pro- or anti-Brexit. Already, the new noun had undergone affixation thanks to two tried and tested prefixes. As a consequence it had shifted semantically, evolving from noun to adjective as in the pre-modification present in, '...claimed the pro-Brexit camp.'  The same didn't happen with Bremain because, as a  
noun, it was still rubbish.

Then came the ever-so-slightly-tortured plural noun for the pro-Brexit bunch: Brexiteers. Ostensibly, this is affixation through the use of a a suffix but, however we perceive it, it is difficult to dissociate the connotation of -eers with The Musketeers. Fearless, selfless noblemen risking everything for the side of good? It makes for a compelling image. Meanwhile, The Bremain Camp continued to sound like a dodgy political remake of Carry on Camping.

In truth, it may well have been the war of semantics - not words - that decided the referendum. Brexit always had so much more potential than Bremain and, in the end, three noble horsemen from France contributed to a divorce from that same nation (amongst many others). A result that left many voters feeling a sense of Bregret or Branxiety. Really? The blended neologisms were now forming more abstract nouns. Where will it all Brend?

As for the matter of the the red tops taking the initialism EU and using it as a substitute for the second person pronoun you? We'll leave that abuse of orthography for another time. EU have probably had enough for today.