Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Children’s book funding fiasco

A few days before Christmas, the Government announced it was removing funding for Booktrust, a charity which gives free books to children.

This resulted in an outcry from everyone who understands the social, cultural and economic value of reading. Former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion warned of “an act of gross cultural vandalism” whilst children’s author Philip Pullman told BBC News that it would be an “unforgivable disgrace” if the charity could not continue.

The Government is now reported to have performed a U-Turn. Talking to the BBC, Viv Bird, chief executive of Booktrust, says that she will be meeting with Education Secretary Michael Gove in the New Year to discuss funding. However she refused to state categorically whether she had received an assurance that the charity would continue to receive the full level of state support as previously.

Michael Gove wrote an article for today’s Daily Telegraph in which he stressed the importance of raising education standards in the UK. Instilling children with a love of reading must surely be the first step to achieving this aim.

We all know and understand the need for the Government to reduce the national deficit. But whilst taxpayers money continues to be wasted on bureaucracy and pointless schemes of dubious merit, it would be nothing short of a scandal if the very youngest members of society, who quite coincidentally of course cannot vote, are forced to pay the price of our previous profligacy.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Puns upon a time

An interesting article on the BBC website about the return of puns in comedy. The author, Gareth Edwards, describes a pun as the “moment when the beautifully knitted cardigan of language catches on the nail of reality and ever-so-slightly unravels.”

I once entered a pun contest. I submitted ten entries in the hope of winning a prize. Unfortunately, no pun in ten did.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Strictly English

Simon Heffer, Associate Editor of the Daily Telegraph, has published a new book entitled ‘Strictly English. The correct way to write…and why it matters.’

According to the blurb on the inside cover, Heffer “makes an impassioned case for an end to the sloppiness that has become such a hallmark of everyday speech and writing, and shows how accuracy and clarity are within the grasp of anyone who is prepared to take the time to master a few simple rules.”

This is an extract from a recent interview with self-appointed media expert Iain Dale.

Q. At what point did the English language reach perfection beyond which further evolution is unacceptable?”

A. When all ambiguities, in grammatical terms, were eliminated. Which I think, really, by the early nineteenth century, they were. It was when we invented the passive voice, when we stopped saying ‘a house is building’, you would say: “well building what?” We now say the house is being built. In Jane Austen, it’s always ‘the house is building’, or ‘was building’. I think that grammatically we had got it pretty well sorted out by the middle of the nineteenth century. Note I said ‘sorted out’, not ‘sorted’. We don’t want to go into this... ‘innit’. The meaning of words always evolves, and I don’t object to that. It’s one thing for words to evolve where something needs a new meaning, where you have something that there’s no word to describe it so you borrow a word to do it. What I don’t accept is that for reasons of ignorance we should use a word that we shouldn’t use. I heard a man on the BBC when I was writing the book about seven or eight months ago, say: “Yet again they are flaunting the rules”. And I thought: “You don’t mean that. You mean flouting the rules”. I remember looking it up in the Oxford English dictionary, which I invite any of you to do, and it does say that in recent years flaunt has often been used for flout. Well why? Flout’s a perfectly good word. If you can’t be bothered to use flout or can’t be bothered just to sharpen your brain to the extent that you can pick the word flout out of a box and use it instead of the word flaunt.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Monday, 20 December 2010

Children cannot understand Enid Blyton

According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, Enid Blyton has fallen out of the top ten list of children's authors for the first time in decades because, supposedly, youngsters cannot relate to her language.

Revised editions of the Famous Five have modernised some of the language and names used in order to attract a new generation of readers. “Mother” and “Daddy” have been replaced with “Mum” and “Dad” and words such as “golly”, “rather” and “awfully” have been removed completely.

Where will such wanton sacrilege end? Will Shakespeare have to get down wiv da kidz?

Rather than dumbing down the language of story telling, perhaps we should consider raising children’s reading standards instead?

How English evolved into a global language

From the BBC website, Michael Rosen gives a brief history of a language that has grown to world domination with phrases such as “cool” and “go to it”.

Friday, 17 December 2010

The English Vernacular

Another day, another seminar at the British Library! On Wednesday we were treated to a ‘celebration of swearing and profanity’ with Peter Silverton, author of Filthy English, Graham Dury and Simon Thorp from Viz magazine and Ian Martin, writer and swearing consultant on the TV series ‘The thick of it.’

There may well have been an educational aspect to this. Or it might just have been a good excuse to say f*ck and c*nt rather a lot!

On this occasion, the temptation to buy their books proved irresistible! The new Viz book is entitled Das Krapital - an updated version of Roger’s Profanisaurus with such entries as: Shatkins n. Rapid astonishingly affective diet based on the somewhat controversial theory that the most effective way to lose weight is to acquire a bacterial stomach infection by the intake of meat only, especially 2am burger bar fayre.”

Peter Silverton’s book is, according to the blurb, “the story of our bad language and its three-decade journey from the fringes of decency to the working centre of a more linguistically liberal nation.” Peter kindly gave me a free music CD, so with absolutely no risk to my integrity, and without breaking my non-endorsement rule, I am happy to urge you all to buy his book here!

Pastiche, Parody, Lampoon

Monday’s seminar at the British Library was somewhat tedious. Fortunately the opposite was true on Tuesday when the guest speakers were Craig Brown, who writes the diary page for Private Eye, and authors John Crace and Sebastian Faulks.

Yes, they all had books to plug, but they treated the audience to a reading of some of their best works and a discussion of how they set about writing their masterpieces. Pure genius.

Hopefully, the British Library will make a podcast available.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

English: The World’s Language?

As part of its Evolving English exhibition, the British Library held a seminar on 6th December 2010 to discuss the future of the English language. The guest speakers were Robert McCrum and Nicholas Ostler.

The seminar lasted 90 minutes and can be summarised as follows: Robert McCrum plugged his new book ‘Globish; How the English Language became the World’s Language’ and Nicholas Ostler plugged his book ‘The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel’.

On 13th December, Jonathon Green plugged his new book presented a talk on Slang. Perhaps for the people who stayed, the second half was more interesting.

The Stories of English

Talking to an audience at the British Library, Professor David Crystal explores the evolution of the English language, from everyday colloquial English to formal speech, regional dialects and international variants.

Download the podcast from the British Library here.

File size 32 Mb (approx). Talk duration: 1hr 25.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Any last words?

The Daily Telegraph reports that twenty languages used in Britain, including Old Kentish Sign Language, have become extinct or are in imminent danger of so doing.

Full story here and here.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

It's a Brum rap

Jeremy Vine discusses the distinctive Birmingham accent and considers whether Brummies are considered “thick” simply because of the way they speak.

Broadcast on BBC Radio 2, December 8th 2010. Split into two clips due to file size.

Monday, 6 December 2010

BBC English

What would Lord Reith have said about this unfortunate slip from the naughty James Naughtie?

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Happy December

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all … and a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2011, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make England great, (not to imply that England is necessarily greater than any other), and without regard to the race, creed, colour, age, physical ability, religious faith, choice of computer platform, or sexual preference of the wishee.


(By accepting this greeting, you are accepting these terms. This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal. It is freely transferable with no alteration to the original greeting. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for her/himself or others, and is void where prohibited by law, and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher. This wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year, or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first, and warranty is limited to replacement of this wish or issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wisher.)

Monday, 29 November 2010

The Naked Gun

Actor Leslie Nielsen has sadly died aged 84. He is best known for his starring roles in ‘Airplane!’ - widely considered to be the best spoof movie of all time - and the Naked Gun series, which are rarely shown these days due to his homicidal co-star O.J. Simpson.

Perhaps it was Nielsen's literal use of English, that made him so funny. Here are a few examples:

Airplane! (1980)

Nielsen (as Dr Rumack): “You’d better tell the captain we’ve got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.”

Air stewardess: “A hospital? What is it?”

Rumack: “It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.”

Rumack: “Can you fly this plane, and land it?”

Ted Striker: “Surely you can’t be serious?”

Rumack: “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”

Police Squad! (1982)

Neilsen (as Frank Drebin): “Do you think you can beat the champ?”

Briggs: “I can take him blindfolded.”

Drebin: “What if he’s not blindfolded?”

Briggs: “I can still beat him.”

Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991)

Drebin: “That’s the red light district. I wonder why Savage is hanging around down there.”

Ed Hocken: “Sex, Frank?”

Drebin: “Uh, no, not right now, Ed.”

Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994)

Drebin: “Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant, Police Squad.”

Security guard: “Yeah, and I’m Robert De Niro.”

Drebin: “Mr De Niro, we’ve got to get inside.”

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Stationary stationery

PoundStretcher stores are selling the paper shredder below for the bargain price of £9.99.

But looking at the top left hand corner of the box, they are probably not expecting them to fly off the shelves.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Language development in children

Professor of language and communication Deborah Cameron and neuroscientist Professor Simon Baron-Cohen discuss gender differences in neuroscience and psychology on the Today Programme, BBC Radio 4 (Tuesday, 16th November 2010)

Barnet Council’s Grammar Blunder

This poster has appeared on 189 sites across Barnet, having been approved by its communications and children’s services departments. Click on photo to enlarge.

It’s enough to make Lynne Truss spit out her cornflake’s!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Sublexical units and the split fovea

My previous blogpost was based on an e-mail which is currently doing the rounds. It purports to be based on research carried out at Cambridge University. According to the Snopes website, there does appear to be an element of truth to the story although they suggest that the research was carried out by Edinburgh University in a paper published in 2003 entitled: "Sublexical units and the split fovea."

As a first year undergraduate, this paper is way beyond my current level of knowledge, but I am looking forward to the lecture when we learn all about Wickelgraphs!

Monday, 15 November 2010

The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid!

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg.

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer inwaht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Amzanig huh? Yaeh, and I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt.

Back to the future

I received a corporate e-mail today advising of a change of telephone number. The message stated:

“Please ensure that the team number of ███ ████ is used going forward.”

Going forward? Who writes this nonsense? I was thinking of making a telephone call into the past, but thanks for reminding me not to do that!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

David Crystal Interview

An interview with Professor David Crystal on Simon Mayo’s Drivetime show (BBC Radio 2), 4th November 2010, about 'teenage speak' inflections.

Cameron gives succour to extremists

With all the publicity given to the student demonstrations last week, there has been little comment on Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to students at Peking University. He told them that by putting up the fees for British students, it would help keep the fees for overseas students under control.

Most people involved in education recognise the need to welcome overseas students to our shores. After all, we encourage British students to study abroad as part of their education and it is right and proper that we reciprocate.

But at a time when there is justifiable anger at the decision to treble university fees for British students, any suggestion by the Prime Minister that the increase will somehow be used to subsidise non British students is likely to be picked up by the nutters in the BNP or EDL and used to support their nefarious aims.

That was highly unlikely to have been his aim, but perhaps Mr Cameron could stop following in Tony Blair’s footsteps by telling local audiences what he thinks they want to hear, without consideration of the repercussions elsewhere.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Language of Terror

BOO!!! Did that frighten you? Of course not. It’s not very high up on the list of the scariest words in the English language. But what about: “You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high.”

Now that sounds quite threatening, and by Tweeting those words, Paul Chambers from Northern Ireland was convicted of sending a menacing electronic communication, fined £400 and ordered to pay £2,600 prosecution costs.

A threat to blow up an airport is hardly a joking matter and bomb hoaxes are not exactly a laugh-a-minute subject either, but the above comment was not intended as either. Chambers was upset that the closure of the airport due to bad weather might threaten his holiday and sent a private message to a tweet-mate which then became public due to the way Twitter operates.

When you read the full comment in its proper context, it immediately loses any threatening intent: “Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!”

A real terrorist is hardly likely to make a bomb threat using an easily traceable Twitter account. The copious use of exclamation marks is a clear indication that this was someone simply someone letting off steam.

Whether justice has prevailed or the law is an ass is a matter for subjective comment. From a linguistic point of view, however, this seems to be a very good example of how context can dramatically affect the meaning of words.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

How does language shape the way we think?

An interesting article published on The Edge website by Lera Boroditsky, assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford University.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Haitch Bomb

Do you pronounce ‘aitch’ as ‘haitch’? Should ‘ate’ rhyme with ‘plate’?

Watch this clip from the BBC with David Sillito outside the British Library.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Speaking proper like

The broadsheet newspapers regularly print letters from disgruntled readers complaining about the (alleged) incorrect use of language.

The current focus of attention in the Daily Telegraph is pronunciation. A few sample letters below (click to enlarge).

When John Major was Prime Minister, he used to pronounce the word “want” as “wunt” (to rhyme with stunt). Fortunately, he did not suffer the same problem with the word “can’t”!

Friday, 5 November 2010

The lying liars who lie

The former Labour Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas, was today thrown out of Parliament after being found guilty by a special Election Court. The two Judges ruled that he had lied during the General Election campaign.

The complaint against Mr Woolas was made by the Liberal Democrats who also lied by telling people they would vote for the abolition of university tuition fees, but once in power decided to double them instead.

Perhaps they could all be thrown out of Parliament as well?

It ain’t what you say…

Christopher Howse writes in the Daily Telegraph about how the shifting usage of the English language defines class and culture.

On that theme, who can forget this classic advert for Heineken which was a brilliant spoof of the memorable scene from Pygmalion?

I'm Lovin' It!

I e-mailed a number of friends to let them know how I was getting on at University. I said: “I’m loving it”, which is the type of phrase to put prescriptive grammarists into apoplexy!

My American friend Rachel, however, pointed out: “You can say “I'm loving it” because love is a non-action verb that can be used in the present progressive/continuous form.”

If love is non-action, you're not doing it right!

A fine fauxmance

According to an article in the Daily Telegraph, the word Cleggmania has been included in the Collins English Dictionary along with “Big Society”, “bigotgate” and “fauxmance” - a fictitious romance between two celebrities in order to gain media coverage.

My definition of Cleggmania is: “Promising political career which sinks without trace after duplicitous act of betrayal”.

Boss-Speak Bingo

Going forward, we need to step up to the plate, give 110% and touch base so that the game plan can be actioned by close of play.

Home Made

I was in a restaurant last week and the waitress gave me a menu which stated: "Home Made Desserts Menu".

I decided against asking whether it was the menu or the desserts which were home made. Nobody likes a smart arse!

Eh up duck!

The current advertising campaign for Plusnet internet services includes billboards which proclaim: “Our broadband won’t be beat on price”. If you read the small print, you note that the company is based in Yorkshire which explains the headline.

People generally choose internet providers based on price, speed and reliability rather than geographic location.

According to ‘An introduction to Language’: “Writing follows certain prescriptive rules of grammar, usage and style that the spoken language does not, and is subject to little if any dialectal variation”. (Fromkin, Rodman, Hyams, 8th Edition, p.16)

Unless you read the small print, it remains to be seen whether people in the south will understand the joke. If they don’t, this advert could flop.

They're watching you

A recent report on the BBC discussed the measures some companies take to monitor any negative comments written about them on social networking sites. The problem is that the software has a fundamental flaw in that it cannot always interpret the language used. The article states:
“It's a crude science, with accuracy levels as low as 60%, as analysis falls victim to slang and subculture. "This movie kills" can mean something different in Bradford to Boston...

Some social media tools don't allow users to customise their "sentiment dictionaries"...

But even the best software would probably judge the tweet "This board is really bad" as a negative comment, although it might be the ultimate praise among skateboarders.

One European clothing company, popular with inner city youth in the United States, admits privately that its social media team is baffled by its customers' ever changing slang, and even the online Urban Dictionary provides little help.”
I am particularly interested in the way certain words are used to mean the exact opposite of their intended/original meaning, For example, when a young person describes something as “wicked” they generally mean that it is “cool” - and that word itself has nothing to do with temperature!

Man Up!

There was a report on CBS News recently about the phrase “Man Up” which was used by political candidates in the run up to the Congressional elections.

It is a brilliant put-down. People instinctively understand what the phrase means, even if they have never heard it before. When used by a female politician, it completely emasculates her male opponent and creates the impression of him being weak and indecisive - traits which are not helpful for a politician.

Two small words - five letters in total - yet they deliver a mighty political punch. A good example of the old adage: “Less is more”.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

University Fees Scandal

This blog was originally posted on Not The Barnet Times.

It was Rog T who once wrote that Don’t Call Me Dave has made more comebacks than Status Quo. This is not a comeback! As regular readers will recall, DCMD decided to quit the blogosphere in preparation for his new life as a part-time University student. Over the course of 422 postings, he said pretty much everything there was to say about the greedy self serving parasites who run the Town Hall and the equally useless and ineffective Labour opposition.

Indeed, there is nothing that Barnet’s discredited Tories could ever do that would either surprise DCMD or induce him to resume writing about the council. Rather, this one-off posting has been prompted by the coalition Government’s announcement to hike University tuition fees to between £6,000 and £9,000 per annum.

The decision exposes the Liberal Democrats as the shameful two-faced hypocrites and liars that most of us already knew them to be. Perhaps they had simply become accustomed to making populist pledges in opposition without actually considering that one day they would have their grubby mitts on the reigns of power. They do not need to worry about voters making the same mistake again.

But worst of all, there is something deeply unpleasant about a group of privileged MPs, many of whom have benefited from a taxpayer funded University education, removing the very same privilege from future generations.

Now DCMD is well aware that the nation’s finances are in a perilous state thanks to Pa Broon’s near destruction of the economy, but when Tony Blair introduced University fees (having explicitly promised not to) the Conservatives bitterly opposed the plans - and for good reason. Put simply, it is surely better to have students in higher education than languishing on the dole with no prospects?

Of course, even in good economic times, not every degree leads to an automatic job, but it is certainly true that when times are hard, job applicants need every bit of assistance available and a degree gives students a far better chance than having no qualifications whatsoever.

In the run up to the last General Election, David Cameron said, correctly, that the country was living beyond its means and borrowing had to be brought under control. A generation has been raised on the concept of cheap and seemingly endless credit. Yet the very same person who was preaching financial prudence, is now telling students they have to rack up bills of tens of thousands of Pounds, to be paid back at a rate of interest above inflation.

Is it really wise or desirable to allow students to start out their working lives already up to their eye-balls in debt? Furthermore, students with the temerity to pay their loans off early will now have to pay punitive mortgage style redemption fees. Apparently, this proposal is a sop to the LibDems but it is hardly likely to encourage financial responsibility in later life.

A Government spokesman on the radio explained that during the review carried out by Lord Browne (he who lied during a court case a few years ago) it was discovered that when fees were first introduced, it had no noticeable effect on admissions. Well no shit Sherlock! School leavers have no concept of money or debt. They haven't had to pay a proper bill in their lives. But by the time they have to start repaying their student loans, it will be too late.

Many young students will be unable to pay the higher fees. These are the same people the country desperately needs to generate the future wealth necessary to pay the gold plated pensions for MPs and civil servants. It will be nothing less than a scandal of incalculable proportions if our best talent is excluded from higher education for short term financial savings.

The Education Minister, David Willetts, told the Commons that the proposals are in the best interest of Universities. It is not immediately clear how it can be of any benefit to society if only the richest students can afford to attend in future.