Tuesday, 26 November 2013

On Accent Week

On Monday 14 November I was asked to comment on BBC Radio 4's PM programme about the case of a schoolteacher in Berkshire whose Cumbrian regional accent had been criticised by a school inspector. Although it was acknowledged by her school that her speech was perfectly intelligible, it seems she was told she should nonetheless adopt something more southern. The story was picked up by the media, and the PM discussion was one of the consequences.

I was horrified that this kind of comment might still be being made. It was common enough a few decades ago, but times have changed, and people value regional accents so much more these days. The BBC itself had its wonderful 'Voices' project in August 2005, when a whole week was devoted to celebrating English accents in the UK, with every local radio station contributing, along with several specially commissioned programmes on national radio and TV. And we do hear regional accents on air much more these days. Listen to Susan Rae's lovely Scottish tones when she reads the news on Radio 4, for example. Or Huw Edwards' Welsh accent on BBC 1.

Anyway... after talking about this and a few other things, and listening to an extract from Dickens read in three regional accents, I ended my contribution with a flip remark to Eddie Mair. 'Why not do the whole of PM in regional accents one day?' 'Well there's a challenge', he replied. And I thought no more about it.

But what do I hear this week on PM? The challenge is taken up, in a small but significant way. They're calling it 'Accents Week'. Every day the 5.30 news is being read out in a regional accent - one that would not normally be heard on national radio (though common enough in local radio stations, of course). Yesterday (Monday) it was a male presenter with a fairly mild Cumbrian accent, notable for its pure 'o' vowels in words like 'go' - very Shakespearean! Today it was a female presenter from Merseyside, with a much stronger accent - 'work' pronounced as 'weark', and suchlike. I found it all enthralling, and all praise I say to PM for engaging in the experiment. I've no idea what accents will be chosen for the remaining three programmes. Listen in at 5.30 each day (or to Listen Again online) and you'll find out.

When you do listen, make sure you make a distinction between accent and professional style. To my ear, the Merseyside presenter wasn't as familiar with the formal Radio 4 news-reading style as her Cumbrian predecessor. A few words were produced a little too rapidly, and the various items of news weren't as intonationally separate as they ought to be in a news summary, tending to run into each other a bit. This is nothing to do with the accent, of course, and it's important not to 'blame' an accent for an issue that is to do with other factors, such as speed of delivery. Even RP presenters swallow their words at times, or drop their voices at a crucial moment so that you can't hear what's being said.

But these presenters, and the PM producers, have made an important contribution to the evolution of a climate of accent tolerance, in which organizations such as the BBC play a hugely important role. I'm delighted that the programme has taken this small step, and I hope it will be repeated - and not just by PM.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

On language celebrations

A correspondent has sent me a very welcome present. Long-time readers of this blog will know that a recurring theme is my concern to get language, languages, and especially endangered and minority languages, the recognition they deserve. For a decade now, I've been arguing that the domain needs three things: a suitably prominent prize (a sort of Nobel Prize or Templeton Prize - but for language); a House of Languages in every major city (doing for languages what Natural History and Science Museums do for science and Art Galleries do for the arts); and, at an everyday level, the introduction of a language dimension to annual celebrations, such as Christmas, anniversaries, and birthdays.

I don't know of anything happening in relation to the first. There are several low-level national awards, but nothing yet on a major and truly international scale.

The second has had a chequered history. The front-runner was the Casa de les Llengües (House of Languages) in Barcelona, which was due to open soon, but the plug was pulled last year following the Spanish economic crisis. That was eight years of planning down the drain. I was chair of its international scientific advisory committee, and I can testify to the enormous amount of work and enthusiasm that the Catalans put into this project. They mounted a very successful touring exhibition on the languages of the Mediterranean, and they had even found a building and were beginning to refurbish it. I went to the opening. All history now. Maybe, when the economy improves...

In the meantime, other new 'museum' projects continue to bubble away, on a smaller scale. The National Museum of Languages in Maryland, USA - has big plans and is very active, but needs as many members as it can get to take these plans forward. 'Our mission is to inspire an appreciation for the magic and beauty of language'. Excellent. And several other language spaces already exist, such as in Germany, Belgium, Lithuania, Canada, and Iceland.

There are promising signs. Mundolingua opened in Paris last month. The Humbolt-Forum in Berlin is in its early stages of planning a major Welt der Sprachen (World of Languages). And people have written telling me of similar ideas in the Netherlands, Italy, and Greece. When the economy improves. The important thing in all these cases is the focus on language and languages in general, not just on an individual local or national language. Several countries of course have museums celebrating the history of their own language (e.g. in Hungary, Norway, Brazil).

Did you notice the place that was missing, in all of this? The UK. There have been a couple of successful local initiatives, but nothing national and permanent. I've written about the sorry saga of The World of Languages project elsewhere (see the article on 'A London Language Museum' on my website.

But to my present. I suggested to the UK's Association for Language Learning a few years ago that they have a competition to get schoolchildren to draw greetings cards celebrating languages, and that exercise resulted in some wonderful creations. It's the sort of thing any primary school can do - and why not secondary, too, with online creations? If only this kind of thing could be done professionally, I thought. And now it has.

Ilona Staples, a visual artist from Toronto in Canada, has produced a stunning collection of 28 cards for various occasions, and sent me a set. She calls the series 'Working Words'. They're a colourful and diverse collection, covering invitations, romance, birthdays, thanks, seasonal, congratulations, greetings, and sharing news. The languages are a glittering array. From Australia we have Wagiman, Mangarla, Gamilaraay, and Ngarluma. From Russia, Udege, Forest Enets, Negidal, and East Coast Yupik. From Brazil, Tariana, Cocama-Cocamilla, Kwazá, Kinikinau, and Chiquitano. From Canada and USA, Kwak'wala, Hän, Potawatomi, Eastern Aleut, Wyandot, Nuxalk, Sechelt, Tsek'ene, and Cayuga. Plus Gadaba (India) and Greater Andamanese (Andaman Is).

You want to congratulate someone? Why not in Tsek'ene - Shòwanjàh - in a joyful green? Or a 'love you' card in Mangarla - Nyunturnana pukarri mana ('I dreamt about you') - in a gentle blue? Or a happy birthday in Kwak-wala - ix kasalala xis ma'yudlamxdamus - in happy yellow?

You can see her work on her website, and obtain cards by writing to Ilona Staples.

I'm still waiting for a Google logo celebrating the two big days of the language calendar: International Mother Language Day is one, on 21 February. The European Day of Languages is another, on 26 September. One day, maybe...

Monday, 11 November 2013

On tour (twice)

A blog silence always means Something Is Up. And internet time seems to move faster than time in the real world. 'It's been a lifetime since your last post', said someone at a talk the other night. Really? I looked to see. She was right. No posts in October. Even by my blogilatory standards, that's a first. I usually manage to post something each month. But this last month has been rather exceptional.

The reason. Hilary and I have been on an author tour for Oxford University Press for the book Wordsmiths and Warriors: the English-Language Tourist's Guide to Britain, which came out at the end of September (in the UK - the beginning of December in the USA). In fact we're in the middle of it right now. But we have a few days off before the next leg. So: time for a post.

Why 'exceptional'? Because authors' tours are very rare these days. In fact it's been a decade since my last one, and - the general economy and the costs of publishing being the way they are these days - I thought they were a thing of the past. But OUP have breathed new life into the genre. We've been to about ten places so far and another ten or so to go, before things wind down before Christmas. Location details are on the website. The venues have been a mixture of bookshops and literary festivals, and audience numbers have varied enormously, from dozens to hundreds, but we've been delighted at the response to the book. Indeed, OUP have had to reprint after only a month.

And what have we learned from the tour? Well, in the book I make the point that the English language is always on your doorstep - in the sense that, within thirty or so miles of wherever you live in Britain, something important happened to influence the development or study of the language - and most people who live there have no idea. They know the place, of course, but they aren't aware of its linguistic significance. No reason why they should, necessarily, as hardly any of the places we visited explicitly recognize the presence of the linguistic event, in the form of a monument, a sign, a blue plaque, or whatever. There are occasional exceptions, of course - our favourite is the dialect writers' memorial in Rochdale, Lancashire - but in most places you'd never know that anything linguistic happened. That's why we made the journey in the first place, of course: to bring the landscape element to the fore. Topographical linguistics, if you like.

At one of these bookshop talks I was asked about the difference between the new book and a previous linguistic travelogue, By Hook or by Crook. Yes, there's a big difference. The subtitle of the earlier book (in the UK edition) was 'a journey in search of English'. In other words, I went around looking for interesting points to do with the language itself - accents, dialects, etymologies, or whatever, and did so in a very random way. When I began a chapter, I often didn't know where it would end, as a new train of linguistic associations would push the writing in unexpected directions. But for Wordsmiths, the choice of subject was dictated by the history, and the sequence by the chronology, and the focus was on the places and people who shaped the language rather than on the language itself. There's far more biography in here than in any of my previous writing, for example. And a huge amount of landscape description - or perhaps 'exploration' would be a better word, for finding some of these places took not a little research. Hence, at the end of each chapter, we tell you how to get there. No point in readers taking the same wrong turning that we sometimes did!

I leave our bookshop audiences with a challenge. I wrote the text for this book. Hilary took the photographs (apart from a handful of historical illustrations we had to buy in). In seven cases, she included me in the picture. You remember 'Where's Willy?' The challenge is: 'Where's David?' In six cases, the answer is obvious. But nobody has found all seven yet.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

On a not very bright grammar test

An English-teacher correspondent in the UK writes to tell me a very worrying - but totally to be expected - story emerging from the Key Stage 2 grammar test marking earlier this year. Question 16 asks children to complete the sentence 'The sun shone ________ in the sky.' and the mark scheme reads 'Accept any appropriate adverb, e.g. brightly, beautifully'.

A child presented the answer 'The sun shone bright in the sky', and this was marked wrong, on the grounds that it is 'not an adverb'.

This is the kind of nonsense up with which nobody should put. It is the response of a marker who is insecure about his/her grammatical knowledge, and who has a half-remembered history of faulty learning based on unauthentic prescriptive principles.

The devil, of course, lies in the detail - here, in the word 'appropriate'. If you interpret this word to mean 'appropriate to the rules prescriptive grammarians think operate in English', then brightly would of course be privileged. It has been the norm in formal written standard English for the last couple of centuries. But if you take 'appropriate' to mean 'in a way that makes sense', then bright is a perfectly normal alternative, used by hundreds of millions all over the English-speaking world, in writing as well as in speech. It has been a part of English since Anglo-Saxon times. You'll find an adverbial use of bright in Beowulf, in Chaucer, in Shakespeare (repeatedly - 'The moon shines bright', 'teach the torches to burn bright'...), and right down to the present day. Prescriptive grammarians took against it in the 18th century, but they were unable to stop the progress. The adverbial use of bright is used even by prescriptively minded people, when they say such things as 'I got up bright and early'. It is unequivocally an adverb when used in Question 16, and anyone who can't see this needs to take grammar lessons.

Even Fowler, beloved of prescriptivists, saw the nonsense. In the entry in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage on 'unidiomatic -ly' we find: 'much more to be deprecated ... is the growing notion that every monosyllabic adjective, if an adverb is to be made of it, must have a -ly clapped on it to proclaim the fact', and he condemns the 'ignorance' that leads people to think in this way. A 'growing notion'. That was in 1926. Topsy sure has growed now.

What is much more worrying is the marker who rejected dutifully as an appropriate answer. What on earth is wrong with 'The sun shone dutifully in the sky'? Now, we don't know why the child who gave this answer used this particular adverb. One of the ways in which the grammar tests would be made more meaningful and exciting would be if there was a space for kids to give explanations about why they made the choices they made - a pragmatic perspective. Context is ignored in these grammar tests, which is one of the basic problems with them (as I remarked in an earlier post). But, looking at it cold, dutifully to my mind is a lovely creative way of expressing a situation in a narrative where, for example, after a period of rain, someone begs the sun to appear and it 'dutifully did so'. If this turned up in a story by a well-known author it would be appreciated as an imaginative use of English and considered as perfectly appropriate. To reject it here is to convey to children and their teachers that the only kind of English that Mr Gove and his markers want to see in schools is of a predictable, cliched, and uninspiring kind.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

On OP place-names

A correspondent writes to ask about place-name pronunciation in OP. In the late 16th century, would the letters, silent today, have been articulated in such names as Norfolk, Warwick, Gloucester? The issue is important for Shakespearean OP, as these names are common in the plays.

The problem with place-names is that they tend to be highly conservative in their spelling, unlike common nouns, so that it's never clear exactly when a sound may have dropped out. Just occasionally there is orthographic evidence, and a good example is Gloucester. Was the modern pronunciation there in Shakespeare's time? The answer is definitely yes.

In the First Folio, Gloucester is spelled in three ways: as Gloucester (33 times), but much more often as Glouster (38), and Gloster (109). Sometimes you get the variant spellings within a few lines of each other. Similarly, Gloucestershire is spelled thus (3) alongside Gloustershire (2). And the fact that it was a disyllabic pronunciation is evidenced by the metre, as in Richard II (2.1.128), where we read: 'My brother Gloucester, plaine well meaning soule'.

No such evidence in the First Folio for Warwick, Norfolk, and Suffolk, unfortunately. Here one needs to look at other sources to see if there are spellings without the w or l. Certainly folk (as a common noun) was being spelled without the l from as early as 1400. Old place-name derived surnames, such as Worrick and Worricker, date from the Middle Ages. Informal texts, such as transcriptions of statements in court, are likely to show everyday pronunciations in the spelling. For instance, in Text 57 of Bridget Cusack's Everyday English 1500-1700 - a splendid resource - we find a 1628 presentment made by churchwardens from Stratford-upon-Avon where Warwick is spelled warrick.

Any other examples welcome.

Monday, 9 September 2013

On a burning poetic question

A correspondent writes to ask for an opinion about the pronunciation of the last word in the opening stanza of William Blake's 'The Tyger':

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It is, he says, a puzzle that has nagged at him for decades. Should it rhyme or not?

It's not just him. The couplet has generated quite a lot of ink. Some commentators say it is simply an eye-rhyme. That to my mind, is the lazy solution. At a time when the spelling system was becoming standardized, eye-rhymes were certainly a possibility, and some poets used them a lot, but why have just one eye-rhyme in a poem where all the other rhymes are exact phonological partners?

To my mind a phonological explanation is much more likely. Blake is recalling an earlier pronunciation of final -y which did in fact rhyme with words like eye. A classic example is Oberon's speech in A Midsummer Night's Dream (3.2.102), where we find dye, eye, espy, sky, and by intercalating with archery, gloriously, and remedy. Eye rhymes are not a viable explanation in Shakespeare's time, as the spelling system wasn't stable enough to guarantee them, and the writers on pronunciation at the time (the orthoepists) are always stressing the auditory value of rhyme.

Some of these writers actually try to capture the phonetic quality of those -y words. John Hart, for example, writing in the 1570s, transcribes boldy as boldlei, certainly as sertenlei, and so on. Clearly he is trying to convey some sort of diphthong here. In my work on Shakespearean Original Pronunciation, I transcribe this as a schwa + i. It is a pronunciation which lasted into the 18th century in educated speech, and of course can still be heard in some regional accents today.

By the time Blake was writing, the everyday pronunciation had shifted to its modern form, like a short 'ee'. This is how John Walker, for example, describes symmetry in his Pronouncing Dictionary, published just three years before Blake's poem: he rhymes it with me. The pronunciation with the final diphthong would have sounded distinctly old-fashioned by then. But wouldn't that suit someone who begins a poem with a spelling of tyger that was also archaic?

The phonaesthetics of the stanzas adds further support for a phonological rather than an orthographic explanation. That schwa + i diphthong turns up in Tyger, and is then echoed at the end of all eight lines of the opening two stanzas: bright, night, eye, symmetry, skies, eyes, aspire, fire. To my ear, this adds the same kind of mystical atmosphere that we hear when Oberon's speech is read in an OP way.

People do remember long-gone pronunciations. If I pronounce the word 'lord' as 'lahd', perhaps in a parody of upper-class speech, I am actually producing the normal pronunciation of this word as it was a century ago. Daniel Jones, writing in the 1910s, locates it in the place where today (in RP) we would find the vowel of far. Nobody says 'lahd' any more, but if I were to write a rhyming poem in which I had the following lines, I think readers would have no difficulty in 'hearing' the old pronunciation despite the modern spelling:

The butler looked all round the yard:
'There's no-one in the grounds, my lord'.

Some writers would opt for a nonstandard spelling here (such as 'lahrd') but such alternatives are not often available in the orthography - as in the case of symmetry. There was no archaic spelling for Blake to fall back on, in this case, to help the reader. And so we have the spelling that has come down to us.

Monday, 26 August 2013

On looking very UK

A correspondent writes to my website but provides no contact email address in the relevant box, so I can't acknowledge other than via this blog. He has noticed the sentence, written as a response to a Facebook picture, 'You are looking very UK'. Apparently some people have said such a usage is incorrect, and he wants to know what I think.

The critics are living in the past. One of the most interesting contemporary trends in English syntax is the way the present progressive has been increasing in frequency in recent decades. The point has been well studied by corpus linguists. The steady rise of this form can be traced from the 17th century. There was a sharp rise in the 19th which continued into the 20th, with British English moving a tad faster than American. A famous example, which I've mentioned before, is the McDonald's slogan 'I'm lovin' it', which not so long ago would have appeared as 'I love it'.

The change is spreading through the lexicon, but with different rates for different verbs. The 'most stative' verbs, such as know and need, are taking up the usage more slowly - at least, in British English (compared, say, with Indian English, where cognitive verbs have been taking the progressive for a long time) - but verbs lower down any scale of stativity (such as love, want, enjoy) have been illustrating the usage for some time now. So I'm not at all surprised to see 'You are looking very UK' emerge alongside 'You look very UK', adding the kind of aspectual distinction that the progressive provides.

If anyone wants to follow this up in the research literature, a good source is here.

Monday, 29 July 2013

On on or in the Internet

A correspondent writes to ask about which preposition to use in relation to the Internet: is it on or in?

Both are used, but on is hugely predominant. This is to be expected: on is the normal preposition when talking about specific communications media that operate through transmission: on TV, on the radio, on the phone - and thus, on the Web, on Facebook, on Youtube - and on the Internet. Metaphorical expressions reinforce the usage: one surfs on the Internet. And the governing organizations, such as ICANN, all talk in this way.

The competition from in has come from the physical forms of communication where one can look 'inside'. So, one finds something in a book, in a magazine, in a newspaper, and so on. The metalanguage of the print medium early influenced the description of online outputs, with talk of 'pages', and the like, so it's easy to see how an alternative usage would develop. And if one looks in a book, then there is an analogy motivating doing something in a location named after a book - Facebook. This is reinforced by the actual process of opening up a website and looking inside it to find information.

I use both prepositions, in this respect, depending on the semantics of what I have in mind. I say to people that they will find something on my website and also in my website, depending on whether I am thinking of the website as a single location or as a container of data. Same applies to blogging: you will find this post on my blog as well as in my blog. This isn't the first time such an alternative has emerged in English: one can find a place on a map of Britain or in a map of Britain.

Two other factors have reinforced the growth of in. We see it when people think of the Internet as a physical phenomenon, such as when writing programmes - another application of the 'looking inside' motif. I'm less certain about the second point, but I have the impression that in has become the item of choice among non-native English-users who are uncertain of which preposition to use, and who see conflicting usage online. I'd be interested to hear opinions on this point.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

On ... ellipses ... in texts

A correspondent writes to ask about the increased use of ellipses in text messaging, emails, and the like. He illustrates with 'where are you.... been waiting. are you there......we have to go soon........'and wonders why people use them so much in texting. He asks: 'Is it merely laziness or something more strategic/functional having to do with tone/conversation? People seem to use ellipses as replacements for every form of punctuation under the sun (question mark, comma, period, etc.), which should in theory lead to confusion on the part of the reader, but is that actually the case?'

I haven't noticed this as much as my correspondent, actually, but that probably just reflects the kind of messages I get. There's the occasional use of ellipsis dots, certainly, but then there always was on the Internet (especially in chatroooms) and in informal writing the practice goes back centuries. There are many literary antecedents. In recent times, Harold Pinter was one of the masters of ellipses as an indication of an unfinished thought or an unstated implication. Take a look at The Caretaker. Here's Aston talking in Act Two:

'They weren't hallucinations, they ... I used to get the feeling I could see things ... very clearly ... everything ... was so clear ... everything used ... everything used to get very quiet ... everything got very quite ...'

And Davies ends the play on an ellipsis:

'Listen ... if I ... got down ... if I was to ... get my papers ... would you ... would you let ... would you ... if I got down ... and got my ...
Long silence. Curtain.'

All this before texting was ever invented.

I wouldn't call it laziness. There's certainly an element of convenience behind a typing usage, as a period is often easier to type than, for example, a question-mark (which may involve a shift key). But the usage is much more than that. It's a further example of the way informal expression on the internet is getting closer to what happens in speech.

Imagine I'm telling you, face-to-face, what I've just written. You'd hear the pauses, the continuative intonation patterns, the variations in tempo (allegro, lento) which would show me actively processing what I want to say. Prosody is the main way of showing people 'thinking on their feet'.

Writing displays none of this. You will never know what pauses I had between the various bits of a paragraph. In fact, if I recall correctly, the paragraph before last went something like this: 'I wouldn't call it laziness ... There's certainly an element of ... convenience behind a ... typing usage, as a period is often much easier to type than ... for example ... a question-mark (which may involve a shift key) ... But the usage is much more than that ... It's a further example of the way ... informal expression on the internet is getting closer ... to what happens in speech ... '

This is becoming Pinteresque. The ellipses reflect the thought process, the decision points, the places where I was thinking how exactly to put what I wanted to say. (In Pinter they usually have a more menacing purpose.) In speech, these decision points are there for everyone to hear. And if (unconsciously) you want your writing to reflect speech, ellipsis dots are an easy way to show it.

They also show that punctuation isn't as important as people sometimes claim it is. I know we all have to use standard English punctuation in our formal writing (and Gove help us if we don't!), but the informality of Internet expression shows that these are conventions of correctness that bear little relationship to clarity and ambiguity. There was little by way of punctuation in the earliest English writing, in Anglo-Saxon times, and the texts come across just fine. Indeed, one can dispense with all punctuation and still get one's meaning across, as has often been shown - though, because we're not used to such things, it does become more difficult to read. Take the present paragraph, for example:

'They also show that punctuation isnt as important as people sometimes claim it is I know we all have to use standard English punctuation in our formal writing and Gove help us if we dont but the informality of Internet expression shows that these are conventions of correctness that bear little relationship to clarity and ambiguity indeed one can dispense with all punctuation and still get one's meaning across ...'

It's like the end of Joyce's Ulysses. The main effect, in such rewriting, is phonetic, not semantic. We miss the guidance punctuation provides about where to pause and take a breath and thus (cognitively) to assimilate what is being said. That's why punctuation developed in the first place: to help people read aloud easily. Ellipses, I suspect, are there chiefly for phonetic reasons too, not semantic ones.

Given that character totals are at a premium in texting and Twitter, you might think it surprising that there are ellipses at all - often many more than three dots, with people just holding the period ley down for as long as they like ............ A lot of dots reduces your character count. This suggests that users see a real point (sorry) in using them. It probably doesn't affect their textingtweeting style too much, as most texts and tweets don't use the full 160/140 characters, so there's still plenty of opportunity to put in some extra periods. And maybe that's another factor: users know they have room to spare, in routine messages, so they let their periods roam. I bet there aren't so many when the content gets more complex and structured, as in ads or news announcements.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Tyndale OP

The OP 'movement' - I think one can call it that these days - gathers pace. Anyone who's been following activities via the dedicated website) will be aware that people all over the world have picked up the OP baton and started running with it. There have been several OP productions in the US. Early music people have been exploring OP in madrigals and other forms. There's the amazing John Donne reconstruction project that I've talked about before (in May this year). The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible brought a fresh interest in how that version would have sounded in 1611. And the Bible interest continues with Tyndale.

The British Library, as one would expect, is very interested in OP - which is, I suppose, the auditory equivalent of reading old tests in their original written form. When we put on the 'Evolving English' exhibition at the Library in 2011, one of the immediate impressions, as one entered the space, was the auditory atmosphere - voices resounding everywhere, and headphones inviting you to listen at several tables. Here you could hear reconstructions of Beowulf, Chaucer, Caxton, Paston, Shakespeare, and more. They proved to be one of the most popular exhibits. There were often queues to listen. And that exhibition proved to be the best-attended of the BL's winter exhbibitions. A definite win for the English language.

The BL followed it up in 2012 with a CD called 'Shakespeare's Original Pronunciation', and this year they have taken OP back almost a century with a CD of William Tyndale's St Matthews's Gospel. The BL has one of the two surviving copies of Tyndale's New Testament (1526) that have survived (the others were burned), and a beautifully produced full-colour facsimile was published by the BL in 2008. This is the version used for the CD. (I was allowed to hold that original edition when we were preparing the 'Evolving English' exhibition, and I was reluctant to wash my hands thereafter, not wanting to remove all traces of the molecules that must have transferred from its pages to me.)

I recorded the Matthew over two days at the BL just a year ago, and it was a very interesting experience. The tricky bit was making myself forget Shakespearean OP. Tyndale is midway between Chaucer and Shakespeare, and if you've ever heard texts from these two authors read in OP you will know just how much change there was in pronunciation at that time. Apart from anything else, there was the huge change in long-vowel phonetic qualities known as the Great Vowel Shift. So after Tyndale, several things happened to pronunciation before we arrive at Shakespeare. For example, the silent letters (in know, gnash, would, and so on) were on their way out by the time Shakespeare was writing, but they were very definitely around in Tyndale's day, so teeth 'guhnash' and people 'kuhnow'. Lots of differences to keep an eye on - too many to remember off the cuff - so it was necessary to transcribe the whole thing in a phonetic transcription before doing the reading. And, of course, as with Hamlet's 'the play's the thing', this was not to be an exercise in historical phonetics, but a genuine reading. I've done this once before, for the St John Gospel, but that was in modern English. An OP reading of any old text brings it to life in a new way, and I hope I was able to capture this in my reading. It's out now, anyway, and can be accessed via the British Library.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

26 IATEFL correspondents ask...

Most readers of this blog will not know that yesterday I took part in a webinar for the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL), an organization of which I am proud to be the current patron. It was the first of their new series of webinars, to be held at intervals, and in my case it took the form of a general Q & A. Several people asked questions in advance, and I responded to these during the 45 minutes. There was then a 15-minute period in which people could send in their questions live. I managed to deal with a few in the time available, but most remained forlornly on the waiting list. I therefore give brief responses to these below, reproduced exactly as submitted (you have to forgive the typos and at times odd constructions, as people are typing at top speed on such occasions). My answers are not full explorations of an issue (as I like to do on this blog), but off-the-cuff short responses in the manner of a live exchange. Some of them follow up points made in the webinar, so the comments may not always be clear to people who were not there. But using my blog seemed the only way to provide individuals with an immediate response.

And to those IATEFLers whose questions are not here: as I said in the webinar, I can't answer questions where I have no experience - those asking about teaching methods, for example, or asking me to comment on policies in individual countries.

1. Suchismita: how can i make it little easy for a student for whom english is a 3rd language to feel that learning english will not be that difficult?
Not a question for me, really. IATEFL has SIGs which focus on this kind of thing. But the first step must surely be to establish communicative needs and areas of learner interest, and introduce relevant language. The short-messaging services, such as texting and tweeting, also tend to use simpler constructions and vocabulary, and have the advantage of being 'cool'.

2. Tatiana Ivanova: What is the most difficult thing about the English language you had to explain to students?
I can't think of anything that really stands out. There are different kinds of difficulty. For example, in pronunciation, explaining what is going on in intonation etc depends on whether the students have a good ear. If they do, no problem; if they don't, problem. And because it is difficult to transcribe, it is difficult to 'see' what is going on. In orthography, it's really hard to show the system behind spelling irregularity without getting bogged down in detail (see my Spell It Out for an approach). Some people are naturally good spellers; some aren't. In grammar ... probably the semantics of model verbs.

3. Olga Kuznetsova: What is the role of pronunciation in the way a person speaks the words of a language?
Not sure exactly what you have in mind, but one way of looking at this is to note that pronunciation has more than one role. It acts to identify words and it acts to link words together in connected speech. A dictionary pronunciation captures the former, along with variants. No dictionary captures the latter, which involves taking into account the interaction between segmental (vowel and consonant) and nonsegmental (intonation, rhythm, etc) phonology. For example, it isn't enough to know that 'and' reduces to 'n' in expressions like 'fish and chips'; one has to say it at an appropriate speed and rhythm.

4. Arthur Edgar E. Smith: How have you managed to get the motivation, time and energy to research, write and publish so many books (over 100) and articles in a widening field of English Language Studies and Linguistics besides your onerous academic and social responsibilities?
Well, I don't have the academic ones. Indeed, the reason I left the full-time academic world back in 1984, to become an 'independent scholar', was to give myself time to write. You can read the full story in my autobiographical memoir, Just a Phrase I'm Going Through. The short answer, then, is 'it's what I do'. The long answer would focus on various things, such as the nature of the subject, language (which is always offering new topics to write about), and above all the support of Hilary, who somehow manages to handle all the administration of our business while maintaining her own writing (you can see news of her new children's novel on my website).

5. Riaz Hussain: Mr, David Crystal i am Riaz Hussain From Pakistan, and i just did master in English literature, Now either i want to get TEFL or PGD in linguistic, i can't decided my self, what do you think which is essential to be a better Teacher of English, i am puzzled now which one i get, eiher if i get TEFL WHY or i get Linguistic Why, which one build my career and to be the best, i hope sir, I must enjoy your Lecture on mention time. Good Luck
If you're planning to be a full-time teacher, then you need much more than a linguistics background, and you should get as much TEFL training inside you as you can. If you are more a researcher by inclination, then developing a sophisticated linguistic skill-set would be good. If you do both, you have the best of both worlds, but few people have the time (or money)!

6. joel: As a coach of 2nd language learners of English listening and pronunciation improvement I’m experimenting with an “ear training” approach, analogous to the way that fledgling, non-note reading music self-learners teach themselves to play their instrument. The language self-learners teach themselves to play the “music” of English on their “instrument” which is their aural perception/oral production feedback loop. Using a small digital voice recorder, the learners: 1. Listen several times to a short, simple sentence recorded by a model speaker; 2. Record the same sentence next to the model sentence; 3. Listen repeatedly for the differences between their speech and the model speech; 4. Re-record the sentence again, next to the model sentence, striving to get their pronunciation closer to the model speaker; 5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 many times; 6. Repeat steps 1 to 5 with several subsequent short, simple sentences.
I did something similar myself in the days when I taught phonetics classes. The problem with self-tuition is whether the learners are able to judge when they are 'closer to the model speaker'. I found they needed a lot of help. Some felt they'd 'got it' when they plainly hadn't. And some kept going at it when they plainly had. A development of this approach would be to have software which would do the 'identifying' task automatically - rating how close you are. I don't know if any such software exists.

7. How did language start? (don't know who asked this question)
Nobody knows. There are various views. One is that there was a single source out of which all languages developed (a monogenetic hypothesis). Another is that it started simultaneously in different parts of the world, as a particular evolutionary stage was reached (a polygenetic hypothesis).

8 Marjorie Rosenberg, Austria: How did Yiddish get status?
The status of a language is always related to the power of its speakers, which can mean different things at different times - military, political, industrial, technological, economic, cultural, religious... In the case of Yiddish, religious power is the preeminent factor, being so closely tied up with Ashkenazi Judaism. As Dovid Katz puts it, in his marvellous Words on Fire: the Unfinished Story of Yiddish, Yiddish is 'irreplaceable as the spoken realm of traditional Jewish spirit, culture, and mentality'.

9 Rachel: How has the increase of multilingualism affected children's literacy? Is learning to read and write more difficult for bilingual children? Do they mix the languages? Especially those that have different alphabets.
There are too many individual differences to make it easy to generalize. I have seen kids whose literacy has been enhanced by their bilinguality; and the opposite. It also depends on the age of the kids, the character of their bilingualism, and the kind of education they are getting. There is bound to be mixing, as there is in spoken language, but this resolves over time. My grandson is growing up in Amsterdam with Dutch as his first language in school and English as his first language at home. He is only seven, so there is a great deal of interference going on right now; but this won't be there for long. Just naming the letters of the alphabet caused a problem, for example, as they are pronounced differently in English and Dutch. His mum had to keep saying 'English a' or 'Dutch a', and the like, to get him through this stage. Maintaining a steady reading and writing experience in both languages will be the critical factor.

10 Brahim Ait Hammou: what decisions, besides the political one, does it take for a country to really move a language from a dialect situation to a full language status? I have seen cases where a language is considered "official" in the constitution; yet, it's still deliberately restricted in use.
I don't like to generalize, because situations vary greatly. But if we take Welsh in Wales as a case in point, what it took to get it to its present recognized state was two kinds of political movement: 'bottom-up' activism on the part of ordinary people who wanted to keep the language alive; and 'top-down' support from the national government, which introruced Language Acts, fostered TV broadcasting in Welsh, and so on. The third factor was economic: it costs money to support a multilingual policy - not huge amounts, but enough to often make implementation of an official policy a problem, especially in these cash-strapped days.

11 Gopal Prasad Bashyal - Nepal: Language and power connected. What shuld the powerless ones do to preserve their language? As far as possible, become part of the international community which privileges language diversity. Is a country a signatory to one of the various conventions safeguarding languages? Let one of the widely read online outlets know of what is going on (such as the Foundation for Endangered Languages in the UK). Use the Internet as much as possible. Above all, be proud of what the language represents, and try to institutionalise that pride in the form of literature, folklore, and other cultural activities. People in power will listen if there are economic benefits to be obtained - and a strong economic case can be made for the preservation of linguistic diversity. I live just a few miles down the road from the longest place-name in the UK, which is in Welsh, and every day hundreds of tourists visit the place just to read it and be photographed by it. Some days you can't get into the car park for the tourist buses. Just one example.

12 @heikephilp, Belgium: I just wonder why two people who understand each other's language tend to speak only one language?
Because identity is the driving force. There are always two factors underlying language use: intelligibility (to understand each other) and identity (to show who we are). And of the two, it is the latter which carries the greater emotional force. People will march, riot, and even die for their linguistic identity, as we have often seen.

13 Laxman Gnawali: The "Did you spot the gorrilla?" test claims that knowing more than one language makes our mind better at discriminating the facts. Is that proven otherwise?
The early 20th-century view that monolinguals always perform better than bilinguals was totally wrong, as the comparisons didn't control for age, sex, socioeconomic background, educational environment, or even the language ability of the people they were comparing. All the recent research I know shows that bilingual people come out better in all sorts of cognitive ways. You need to follow this up with a specialist, so go to Francois Grosjean's blog, which also deals with the question (from Claire Hart) of the meaning of bilingualism.

14 Rachel: Does bilingualism refer more to the spoken word than the written?
No. All four mediums are involved: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. And signing, of course, in the context of deafness. Fluency levels vary in respect of all four. There is no single measure of bilingualism.

15 Vinaya Kumari: what is the use of english language in business in developing countriers like libya?
The answer depends entirely on the nature of the development. As businesses develop a more international outlook, involving languages other than their own, the need for a lingua franca quickly becomes evident. The lingua franca could be anything - in some parts of the world, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Swahili, and other languages are useful lingua francas. But English is currently the one that gives the greatest access to the international business community, and I don't see any change in this role taking place in the foreseeable future.

16 Csilla Jaray-Benn, France: What's your view on whether English linguistically is adapted to be a global language? There is a whole debate about this in France and many say that it is not....
I don't know the debate you mean, and am not sure what exactly you mean by 'adapted'. But one of the big contrasts between French and English is the lack of anything remotely resembling an Academy in the latter. English has been allowed to adapt to the different cultural situations in which it finds itself, to meet local needs, without any attempt to control it from a central source. The interesting question, which we touched on briefly in the webinar, is how far these local adaptations will go, and whether any of them will influence the character of a putative 'world standard spoken English'. If you mean by adapted 'suitable', then it isn't a useful question, for two billion people have decided to use it in this way, so they have evidently found it so. The proof of the pudding, to adapt the old proverb, is in the speaking.

17 21685: Are African languages really an endangered species?
Depends where you mean. A large number of African languages (see the online figures at Ethnologue) are spoken by very small numbers, and several have died out in recent years, such as the example I cite of Kasabe (Cameroon) at the beginning of my Language Death. On the other hand, there are plenty left! There are still more languages spoken in Africa than anywhere else on the planet.

18 21685: English in Nigeria larely stifles the indigneous languages. Is there any way out? Nkem Okoh
See my response to 12 above. There is now a large literature showing various 'ways out' - that is, policies and strategies which can help to preserve and revitalize indigenous languages, in the face of a dominant language. Take a look at the FEL website and see whether a similar thing could be set up in Nigeria. Or perhaps something is already in place, but just not widely known. Linguists at Nigerian universities would be aware.

19 Eric Ekembe Enongene: Is your identity necessarily tempered with if you speak someone else's language or variety?
Not unless you want it to be. Some people who aspire to be 'citizens of the world' do end up with multiple identities, as they travel around, and their total personality is different from what it was - but they are happy about that. For the most part, what I see (and have experienced myself) is that the learning of a new language doesn't alter a source identity one bit. I have many friends who are as fluent in English as it is possible to get yet they remain resolutely Swedish, Dutch, or whatever.

20 Mike Hanacek (Austria): What I'm trying to say regarding deaf mutes is: what language do they use?
Few deaf people are actually mute. That is one of the myths. We find all possibilities. Many deaf people acquire excellent levels of spoken language. Many have poor spoken language. Many use one of the natural sign languages, such as British Sign Language or American Sign Language (which are not mutually intelligible, by the way). And some use one of the many artificial sign languages which have been invented for educational purposes (such as the Paget-Gorman Sign System in the UK). Many deaf people are multilingual, in exactly the same way as hearing people are.

21 Yulia Sergaeva: New words appear in English almost every day, especially now when many web resources encourage PC users to coin words. My question to Prof.Crystal and others is - in case of several coinages to nominate the same thing/concept, what linguistic and extralinguistic factors will help a new word to win in this "competition"? Why do some neologisms stay in language, while others are rejected?
That is one of the great mysteries, which has always been the case in the history of language. What was it that led discordant to survive from the 17th century when over a dozen other variants, such as discordable, discordic, and discordous, didn't? Many factors are involved, such as: use by a famous person (such as Shakespeare), use in an influential text (such as the Bible), euphony (some words sounding nicer than others), and avoidance of a clash with an already-existing similar-sounding word. Most neologisms disappear. Of the new words that came into English during the 1970s, for example, only about a quarter are still in use today.

22 Djalal Tebib (Algeria): Can multilingualism turn out to be a “linguistic schizophrenia”?
Not unless there are schizophrenic tendencies in place for other reasons. There is a huge myth abroad among monolingual people, that the brain cannot cope with multilingualism - that learning a new language threatens the quality of the one already there because there is limited brain space. The reality is that the brain can cope with an indefinitely large number of languages. With over 100 billion neurons available, a language takes up a relatively small amount of space (with just a few dozen sounds, a few thousand grammatical constructions, and a few tens of thousand words).

23 Vinaya Kumari: zainab Al oujali. An asistant lecturer / faculty of Arts and Scinece Ajdabia. Which is it better to teach students \word-sress during the initial stages or the final stages of their language stages? I can't comment on teaching strategies, as I have no experience of them. But, unless one is teaching only the written language, I don't see how one can acquire a word without its associated stress pattern. Remember too that stress isn't simply a phonetic phenomenon. It can make semantic contrasts (as in record vs record), relate words (as in poetry), underscore sentence patterns, and so on. It plays an important psycholinguistic role. If you've ever had a word 'on the tip of your tongue', you may not recall the vowels and consonants in it, but you'll probably recall the stress pattern.

24 Laxmi Prasad Ojha: How serious the governments in the developing countries are about the language shift and change?
I see huge variation. Everyone recognizes it, of course, as it is one of the most obvious facts of linguistic life. But governments respond to it in various ways. A distinction has to be drawn between policies relating to languages and policies relating to an individual language. Most countries are now aware of the issues surrounding language shift - such as in relation to minority languages or to the loss of functions within a language (eg English being used in higher education at the expense of the indigenous language). How serious they are about dealing with the problems depends largely on the state of the economy. In relation to individual languages, at one extreme we see an attempt at centralized control, as in the various Academies; at the other, we see a totally laissez-faire attitude. In between, various kinds of ad hoc policy-making in response to popular mood (such as measures to deal with English loanwords).

25 Marija Liudvika Drazdauskiene, Lithuania/Poland: I would appreciate hearing from you whether investigation of idiom in American spoken English compared with the idiom of spoken British English would be of any general interest?
It would. It's been a remarkably neglected field, when one takes into account all the regional variations in both countries, as well as indigenous variations (eg the Celtic languages in the UK), ethnic variations (such as immigrants), and the whole range of figurative expression (metaphors, proverbs, similes). Gunnel Tottie's Introduction to American English has an interesting chapter on metaphors in US English, which illustrates the point.

26 Cristiane Corsetti, Brazil: Within a pragmatic perspective addressing the use competent, what does conversational competence in L2 encompass, in your opinion Professor?
I don't think it's possible to make a generalization, as everything depends (from a pragmatic point of view) on what choices you need to make, on the intentions behind those choices, and the effects that the choices convey. Some settings require a very limited competence; others require a great deal. I once met a beggar child whose total vocabulary was less than a dozen words (as far as I could judge), and whose grammar was limited to a couple of constructions; but that was all he needed. Once upon a time, my total conversational competence in Latin was restricted to the utterances I needed in order to serve Mass. Because I left Wales before I was a teenager, there are areas of conversational competence in Welsh that I cannot handle (such as formal interviews, which require a kind of intellectual sentence connectivity that I never learned), whereas my 'domestic' Welsh is fine. There may also be a mismatch between one's level of comprehension competence and one's production competence. One understands more than one speaks, usually, though that depends on the personality factors of the person one is talking to (such as speed of speech, regional accent, shared knowledge of subject matter, and so on). A pragmatic perspective is essential here, as with so many other areas of language analysis.

Friday, 24 May 2013

On a question that/which interests people

A correspondent writes to ask about an old chestnut which/that I realise I haven't discussed in my blog hitherto. He asks about the relative pronoun that/which should be used in the following sentence: 'I believe we sometimes worry about things -- are not within our power, and disease is one of them.' The answer is, of course, either. So the interesting question is: what are the factors that motivate the choice?

The fact that there is a choice at all upset prescriptive grammarians in the 18th century, and they spent a lot of futile energy trying to get rid of it. The usual line was to insist that that goes with restrictive relative clauses (as in the example above) and which goes with nonrestrictive ones (usually shown in writing by commas around the relative clause, and by a separate tone group in speech). So, the recommendation we get in traditional grammar is illustrated by:

The exam, which was taken by class 3, was difficult. (The speaker is talking about only one exam: nonrestrictive, nondefining)
The exam that was taken by class 3 was difficult. (The speaker is talking about several exams, one of which was taken by class 3: restrictive, defining)

Fowler spends six pages trying to sort things out in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (see the entry under THAT, REL), before throwing in the towel. It's a lovely instance where we see his underlying prescriptive temperament at odds with his awareness that usage is complex and divided:

'Relation between that & which. What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. ... The relations between that, who, & which, have come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble, & plainly show that the language has not been neatly constructed by a master-builder who could create each part to do the exact work required of it, neither overlapped nor overlapping; far from that, its parts have had to grow as they could.'

He goes on to recommend an ideal solution, while acknowledging that it won't work:

'if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, & which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity & in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend it was the practice either of most or of the best writers'.

Indeed. And when we look at the way modern corpora present the evidence, we can easily see the absurdity of the recommendation when it comes to restrictive clauses (the wh- set is definitely the preferred choice for nonrestrictives). Both grammatical and stylistic factors are involved. Here are some instances where that is preferred over which:

- in cleft sentences: I saw the car that was involved in the accident.
- in a noun phrase containing an ordinal number: the first incident that took place was recorded on film.
- in an indefinite noun phrase: Any letters that are received after Friday will not be read.
- in a noun phrase containing a superlative: The circus was the biggest attraction that had appeared in the town for many years.

That provides the solution when the antecedents are a mix of human and nonhuman: I saw the woman and the dogs that were rescued.

Similarly, that saves us worrying about whether we should use who or which in cases like The foetus -- is allowed to come to term.... And if you are uncertain about the distinction between who and whom, that helps you out too.

Among the stylistic factors, we need to note several points:

- which is weightier, taking up more visual space than that; that is often described as being a 'lighter' word to use, and preferred as sentences become more complex (or 'dense') in structure. (It can also often be informally omitted, of course.)
- considerations of euphony and ease of articulation affect both forms: people find the car that was... slightly easier to say than the car which was..., and the car which those people bought... easier than the car that those people bought...

A particularly important stylistic effect is to avoid repetition. If one of the words is already being used, people try to avoid repeating it: I would never write That is the answer that I prefer or Which is the answer which you prefer? Speech is less predictable in this respect.

It's difficult to generalize, therefore. But, on the whole, that is considered to be more informal than which, and corpus studies show that it is certainly far more frequent in conversation and in fiction, whereas which is far more often used in nonfiction and formal speech such as news reporting. But the prescriptive tradition continues to influence. If a style guide recommends a usage, many will simply follow it. This is probably one of the reasons why the preference for which is so much more noticeable in American English, because writers have been influenced by the Chicago Manual of Style, following the Fowlerian line.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

On Donne in OP

OP (‘original pronunciation’), as regular readers of these posts know, has so far been mainly directed at Shakespeare. But in the last year or so, people have shown interest in taking the approach in other directions, both before Shakespeare and after. Later this year I’ll post about a project to make William Tyndale available in c.1525 OP. Here I give some details about a John Donne project, capturing how he would have sounded in a 1622 sermon.

John N. Wall, Professor of English Literature at North Carolina State University, is the director of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, which uses visual and acoustic modeling technology to recreate the experience of listening to John Donne’s sermon at St Paul's Cross outside St Paul’s Cathedral on 5 November 1622. Much of what follows is taken directly from his summary of the project.

The goal is to integrate what we know, or can surmise, about the look and sound of this space, destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, and about the course of activities as they unfolded on the occasion of a Paul’s Cross sermon, so that we may experience a major public event of early modern London as it happened in real time and in the context of its original surroundings. It combines visual imagery from the 16th and 17th centuries with measurements of these buildings made during archaeological surveys of their foundations, still in the ground in London. The visual presentation also integrates into the appearance of the visual model the look of a London November day, with overcast skies and an atmosphere thick with smoke. The acoustic simulation recreates the acoustic properties of Paul’s Churchyard, incorporating information about the dispersive, absorptive, or reflective qualities of the buildings and the spaces between them.

The website allows us to explore the northeast corner of Paul’s Churchyard, and to hear John Donne’s sermon for Gunpowder Day, all two hours of it, in the space of its original delivery and in the context of church bells and the random ambient noises of dogs, birds, horses, and crowds of up to 5,000 people. In keeping with the desire for authenticity, the text of Donne’s sermon was taken from a manuscript prepared within days of the sermon’s original delivery, that contains corrections in Donne’s own handwriting. It was recorded by a professional actor using an original pronunciation script and interpreting contemporary accounts of Donne’s preaching style.

On the website, the user can learn how the visual and acoustic models were created and explore the political and social background of Donne’s sermon. In addition to the complete recording of the sermon, one can also explore the question of audibility of the unamplified human voice in Paul’s Churchyard by sampling excerpts from the sermon as heard from eight different locations across the Churchyard and in the presence of four different sizes of crowd.

The website also houses an archive of materials that contributed to the recreation, including visual records of the buildings, high resolution files of the manuscript and first printed versions of Donne’s sermon for Gunpowder Day 1622, and contemporary accounts of Donne’s preaching style. In addition, the website includes an acoustic analysis of the Churchyard, discussion of the challenges of interpreting historic depictions of the Cathedral and its environs, and a review of the liturgical context of outdoor preaching in the early modern age.

I have to declare an interest: I know all about it as I was the one who made the OP transcription, and Ben was the actor who performed it – and what a task that was, doing a two-hour sermon in OP, chunk by chunk, on a flexible surface in an acoustic studio. But the result is remarkable and without precedent. There is a link to the whole site here, or (for a quick view) here.

Monday, 6 May 2013

On a pair of alternatives

A correspondent writes from Oman asking me to resolve a question that has apparently been much debated at his university recently. What is the correct concord in the sentence In the 1870's the 1st pair of denim jeans was / were made?

As with so many grammar questions, the answer is 'it depends'. If usage is split, there's invariably a reason for it. In this case, the issue is one of 'notional concord' - that is, the verb agrees with the part of the subject that is most important in the speaker's mind. If the sentence had been The jeans are on the table there would have been no problem. The subject consists of just one notion, so there is no choice to be made, and normal 'grammatical concord' operates, with the plural verb.

As soon as you say 'A pair of jeans' two notions are brought together and now there is a possible choice. If 'pair' is the notion the speaker is focusing on, the verb would be singular according to normal grammatical rules. But the question arises: why would anyone ever want to do that? Pair is simply a routine summation noun. There is no semantic contrast. One wouldn't normally try to say 'I have a pair of trousers, not a --- of trousers'.

But as soon as pair is modified, things change. The first pair of jeans allows a contrast with later pairs. Now speakers have a semantic choice to make. If the notion of 'first pair' is dominant in their minds, they will go for singular concord. If, notwithstanding the adjective, they are still thinking of the sentence as being about jeans, they will go for the second. But surely the reason for saying first pair is to make that notion semantically pre-eminent - otherwise why say it at all? In which case I'd expect to see singular concord following.

And what happens (I hear someone saying) if both notions are equally important in the mind? Well, semantic reasoning is now ruled out, and people have to resort to other factors. If you have been steeped in a prescriptive grammatical tradition, you will follow the traditional recommendation, and use the singular (as in a number of and other such phrases). In everyday speech, however, 'concord of proximity' is the main influence - that is, we make the verb agree with the nearest noun - so the concord will be plural. When a 'grammatical' user and a 'proximity' user meet each other - as sometimes happens in the usage column in a newspaper - then sparks can fly!

Sunday, 5 May 2013

On a testing time

A correspondent (well, several actually) writes to ask what I think about the proposed test for 'English grammar, punctuation and spelling' (KS2, levels 3-5 materials). It would take more than a blog post to answer this question. My basic view is that it, and the view of language lying behind it, turns the clock back half a century. Here are four examples of my worries.

Several questions are of the type 'circle all the X in the sentence below'. Q16 Circle all the adverbs... Q23 Circle the connectives... Q42 Circle the preposition... Q44 Circle the article... This is how grammar was taught before the 1960s. The approach used to be called (after the Henry Reed poem) 'naming of parts'. I spent hundreds of hours in the 1980s and 90s, along with examiners such as George Keith and John Shuttleworth, running in-service courses where the aim was to move away from that kind of thing, and I really thought we were getting somewhere. The right question, in their (and my) view was not: 'Circle all the passives in the paragraph' - end of story - but 'Identify the passives and say why they are there' - beginning of story. This semantic and pragmatic perspective I eventually wrote up in my Making Sense of Grammar (2004). It was the way grammar-teaching seemed to be going, and I was delighted to see the message being put into practice in schools. Teachers would take students 'on a passive hunt' (we're going to catch a big one) - finding real examples around the school, in newspapers, and on the high street, and discussing what the effect was of using a passive as opposed to an active. It could be quite exciting - a word not traditionally associated with the teaching of grammar - and it certainly gave them a good basis for using (or not using) passives in their own writing. And now we have a test where it is enough, once again, for the students to simply 'Circle the passives'. Q3 in Paper 2: 'Which sentence is the passive form of the sentence above?'

The second thing that worries me is that some of the sentences to be analysed present students with problems because they ignore context. What would you do with Q1 in Paper 2, for example? 'A pair of commas can be used to separate words or groups of words and to clarify the meaning of a sentence. 
Insert a pair of commas to clarify each sentence below. (a) My friend who is very fit won the 100-metre race. ...' Of course, anyone with a shred of knowledge about relative clauses can see straight away that this sentence is perfectly all right without commas - depending on the intended meaning. It's not a question of clarifying anything. It's the basic distinction between a restrictive and a non-restrictive relative clause. In My friend, who is very fit, ... I have one friend in mind. In My friend who is very fit... I have more than one friend (the other one, who isn't very fit, nonetheless managed to win the egg-and-spoon race). Out of context the question becomes artificial and largely meaningless.

My third worry is that several questions ignore changing usage, and try to impose a black-and-white distinction where there is none. Take Q15 in paper 1: 'Which of the sentences below uses commas correctly?' The correct answer is We’ll need a board, counters and a pair of dice. The other examples all have a comma before the word and (the so-called 'serial comma' or 'Oxford comma') and are viewed as wrong. In the guidance notes to Q27 'Insert three commas in the correct places in the sentence below' markers are told 'Do not accept' the serial comma. Evidently Mr Gove, or his advisory team, does not like serial commas. In which case that's me failed, as I regularly use them. And most of Oxford University press too. But how can (how dare?) examiners ignore the facts of educated usage in this way? This is the ugly face of prescriptivism - defined as the imposition of unauthentic rules on a language - and it shows behind several of the questions in these tests.

One more worry: conflicting advice about basic grammatical terms. Take the important distinction between word and phrase. Q35 is 'Write a different adverb in each space below to help describe what Josie did'. This is actually a useful question, as it elicits creative thinking about how language is really used. But the test guidance notes say that adverbial phrases will be accepted, despite the question asking for an adverb. So, does that mean that anywhere a question asks for an adverb, an adverb phrase will be accepted? What is the correct answer, then, to Q16? 'Circle all the adverbs in the sentences below'. The sentences are: 'Excitedly, Dan opened the heavy lid. He paused briefly and looked at the treasure. The intention is obviously to get the two -ly adverbs circled. But if students were to take at the treasure as an adverb phrase of place (answering the question 'where did he look?') would they get their marks?

I could go on, and on... I found myself making comments of this kind on about two-thirds of the sample questions. I feel very let down actually, especially as I was one of those asked to provide some initial perspective, in 2011, and spent a worthwhile day (as I thought) discussing principles and examples with the government team tasked with taking these things forward. I left at the end of the day feeling optimistic. But my optimism, I fear, was misplaced. I hope things will change - and I especially hope that there are enough linguistically aware teachers out there these days to see the limitations in tests of this kind and continue with the more informed approach to language study that I know exists in many schools. There's nothing wrong with being able to identify adverbs as long as this is not thought to be the end of the story. It would be like giving people a driving test where all they had to do was name the parts of the car. With a linguistically informed approach, one can do this, yes, but then go on to drive the language, as it were, and take it to all kinds of exciting places.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

On the birth of a new website

The pregnancy is over. The conception was nine months ago, and I have been observing the slow but steady progress of the foetal website ever since. Yesterday and today saw its birth - two days because of the time it takes for the server to point everything in the new direction. This post is the equivalent of a birth announcement, except there is no gender or weight. You will find the baby here.

And also a response to a few correspondents who have asked me why a new site was needed. The motivation was actually the idea which became the Crystal Books Project, a feature of the new site. I am frequently asked for ways of obtaining some of my books which have gone out of print, and there was no easy solution. So the CBP is a way of solving that problem. The intention is to make available, in electronic form, my out-of-print back list. It will take a while for them all to get up there, because in the case of the older books they have to be rekeyed. No convenient electronic files in the 1960s – or even the 80s. Indeed, in the case of one of my books, published in 1976, I see that my first draft is entirely in handwriting – something I find inconceivable now!

The first few books are now available, in e-book form, and will shortly also be available as pdfs and as print-on-demand copies. The publishing firm that has provided the platform for the website, Librios, is exploring the best options as I write. Four e-books are now ready: the two Language A-to-Z books for schools (student and teacher book), which went out of print about 15 years ago; the Penguin book Language Play, which went o/p in the UK somewhere around 2005; and Words on Words, the anthology of language quotations, which went o/p at more or less the same time. All have a search function added, in their e-book incarnations.

There is a complete bibliogaphical listing of books and articles on the new website, as there was on the old one, but with better search facilities. One can now order searches by title or by publication date. And there is a more sophisticated range of filters – for example, one can search for Shakespeare + books, or Shakespeare + articles, and so on. We’ll be refining the filter list in the light of experience.

You’ll notice that most of the articles are downloadable. The ones that aren’t are those I don’t have a copy of. So, if anyone ‘out there’ notices a missing download and realises they have a copy of it, would they let me know? We can then arrange a way of getting the text online?

And with a new website comes new e-publishing opportunities. I haven’t used the medium in this way myself yet, but I do have in mind some projects which simply would not work in traditional publishing terms, but which would suit an electronic medium. More on this in due course. In the meantime, Hilary Crystal has chosen e-publication for her first children’s novel, The Memors, and that is available on the site too. This is a techno-fantasy tale aimed chiefly at that awkward-to-write-for group, the 10-14-year-olds, or tweenagers, as they are so often called these days. This is very much an experiment on our part. For it to work, the news of the new product needs to travel. So, if readers of this blog have tweenage contacts, do tell them about it.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

On an uncountability

A correspondent writes about the use of the indefinite article before uncountable nouns. He has read (in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary) that they are 'used before uncountable nouns when these have an adjective in front of them, or phrase following them', and he cites as examples a good knowledge of French and a sadness that won't go away. He is surprised, as he had been taught that a cannot be used before uncountables, and he asks if it's always the case that the indefinite article can be used with uncountables if an adjective is present.

No, in short. But this is one of those cases where grammarians hedge. The big Quirk grammar says, at the relevant point (5.59) 'The conditions under which a/an occurs in such cases are unclear'.

Indeed they are. One of the problems is that many nouns in English can be either countable or uncountable, as in cake/a cake, coffee/a coffee, a tobacco (meaning 'a type of tobacco'), and so on. Here we are talking about nouns which are rarely if ever thought of as countable.

Quirk et al say two factors are relevant. Fist, there's likely to be a personal theme. The noun must refer to a quality or other abstraction which is attributed to a person. One of their examples is:

Mavis had a good education.

Nothing wrong with that. And we can talk about such qualities as annoyance, togetherness, and generosity in this way:

The late arrival of the train was a real annoyance.
John and Mary display a charming togetherness.
That's what I call a generosity of spirit.

But we can't do this with, say, progress, heraldry, and shoplifting:

*We made an important progress.
*I looked at an interesting heraldry.
*That was a shoplifting I disapprove of.

The other point Quirk et al make is that, the greater the amount of premodification or postmodification, the more likely we will find the indefinite article. So, to develop their example:

She played the oboe with sensitivity.
*She played the oboe with a sensitivity.
She played the oboe with a great sensitivity.
She played the oboe with a great and engaging sensitivity.
She played the oboe with a sensitivity that delighted the critics.
She played the oboe with a great and engaging sensitivity that delighted the critics.

The more we pre/postmodify, the more we allow the particularising function of the indefinite article to operate.

Having said all that, I'm not entirely sure which uncountables follow these trends. The semantic criterion (personal attribution) is inevitably a bit fuzzy. Is plagiarism included, for example? Would you accept The teacher discovered a fresh plagiarism? I think there might be quite a lot of divided usage here.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

On bringing books back from the grave

The correspondents that motivate these posts have multiplied over the past few weeks, as the realization dawns among teachers and students in the UK that grammar (or at least a Govian interpretation of grammar) is back. Leaving aside the question of how poorly the subject is being presented - that’s a topic for another day - I've been inundated with requests for advice about how to cope with the demands suddenly being placed upon teachers, many of whom have had little opportunity to accumulate the kind of knowledge they need to implement the directives. An email that came in this week was typical: its subject line was ‘The subjunctive - a cry for help’. And I write this post after talking to a ‘grammar day’ in Buckinghamshire - the first I suspect of several that will be organized this year, as English advisors try to assuage the grammar panic that I sense is widespread.

The first signs of this panic appeared following the publication of the draft documents last year. And it was then that I decided to reintroduce the wheel, in the form of the series I published at the request of Longman in the early 1990s, when the National Curriculum for English was first presented. It was called Language A to Z, and consisted of two student books (aimed at Key Stages 3 and 4) and a Teacher’s Book, containing an alphabetically ordered set of all the language terms mentioned in the government documents of the time - about 200 relating to grammar, and another 200 or so on other linguistic topics. In fact, the books ended up being used at all sort of levels, from KS2 to A-level. But this is all history, as Longman let them go out of print after a few years.

The situation today seems to be exactly the same as the situation in the early 1990s. There is a renewed concentration on terminology - ‘naming of parts’ - and a focus on structures, with a sad disregard for context, meaning, and use. Indeed, the clock has gone further back than that - more like it was in the 1960s. Regrettable as that is - and I don’t underestimate the importance (or the difficulty) of continuing to argue for change - the urgent question is how to help the situation for teachers right now. I've therefore spent the past few weeks revising and updating Language A to Z, and, thanks to the collaboration of the Librios publishing platform, making these available again as e-publications. The two e-books were launched today - a single integrated student book, and a companion teacher’s book - and they will also be shortly available as pdfs and as print-on-demand items.

My whole website is being redesigned, as a consequence, and things look a bit like a half-built house at the moment, but I wanted to get the books out there as quickly as possible, in the hope that they will help. They can be accessed here. In due course, other books requested from my out-of-print backlist will be made available in this way. The next two, which will be available later in March, will be Words on Words and Language Play. If the blogger link doesn't work, for inexplicable reasons, the URL is http://www.davidcrystal.community.librios.com.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

On the Linguistics Olympiad

A correspondent writes to ask about the linguistic equivalent of the Olympic Games. He means the International Linguistics Olympiad. This is one of 12 International Science Olympiads, held annually since 2003. Each year, teams of young linguists from around the world gather to solve puzzles in language and linguistics. The last one, the 10th, was held in Slovenia, when 131 contestants in 34 teams represented 26 countries. This year, the event will be hosted in Manchester, 22-27 July. Information can be found at Linguistics Olympiad.

The puzzles are great fun. What happens is that teams are presented with a chunk of linguistic data from a language - in the last Olympiad, data from Dyirbal, Umbu-Ungu, Basque, Teop, Rotuman, and Lao - and the challenge is to find the system behind the words. For example, you might be given a set of verbs containing regular and irregular forms, and you have to work out what's going on.You don't need to be a linguistics specialist to solve the problems. As the organizers say: ‘No prior knowledge of linguistics or languages is required: even the hardest problems require only your logical ability, patient work, and willingness to think around corners’. And there are some past problems at the website to illustrate the point.

Dick Hudson, who’s on the UK organizing committee, tells me that British involvement started only recently, but numbers of participants have hugely increased, from 500 in 2010 to nearly 6000 this year. The British Olympiad has three levels of difficulty, so it can reach pupils as young as 12 as well as the more advanced sixth-formers. There’s been a really enthusiastic response, apparently, but the event still isn't as widely known as it ought to be - hence this post.

When teaching linguistics at Bangor and Reading, we used to set ‘morphology problems’ each week. They’re fun, because they are a close encounter with the reality of languages, in all their glorious irregularity. And nothing, to my mind, beats the satisfaction of solving one.