Sunday, 21 June 2015

On being a pedant with power

'Michael Gove is instructing his civil servants on grammar' said the headline in today's Independent. And Mark Leftly went on to describe how instructions posted on the Ministry of Justice intranet, after Gove was appointed Lord Chancellor last month, warned officials about the kind of English they shouldn't be using. Nicholas Lezard in the Observer made a similar point. His headline read: 'Has Michael Gove dreamed up these grammar rules just for our entertainment?'

It would take a book to go through every point. Here is just one example of the bizarre and self-contradictory recommendations being reported.

Recommendation 1
'Read the great writers to improve your own prose – George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen and George Eliot, Matthew Parris and Christopher Hitchens.'

Recommendation 2
The Lord Chancellor has told officials that they must not start a sentence with 'however'.

So, let's take a look...

However, they must obtain food from the outside world somehow. (Orwell, Animal Farm)
However, helped by the smooth words of Squealer, she assumes that she must have been wrong... (Orwell, Animal Farm)

It is her nature to give people the benefit of the doubt. However, Mr. Wickham's account seems to leave no doubt that Mr. Darcy is intentionally unkind. (Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
Mrs. Elton is disappointed. However, she decides not to put off her plans. (Austen, Emma)

Celia, now, plays very prettily, and is always ready to play. However, since Casaubon does not like it, you are all right. (Eliot, Middlemarch)
When I was a girl, I was more admired than if I had been so very pretty. However, she's reason to be grateful... (Eliot, Adam Bede)

Laugh? I should have bust my pants. However, they've fixed things up without that. (Waugh, Scoop)
However, it was cheaper than the Crillon, costing in fact only 17 francs a night. (Waugh, Decline and Fall)

However, a problem presented itself at once. (Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger) However, let us not repine. (Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian)

I'll leave you to find examples in Matthew Parris - or, of course, in any modern writer.

Oh, and we mustn''t forget this one - one of several tracked down by the Independent journalist:

However, I was nudged out of my reverie by the reminder that it was indeed possible to send something through the post on Tuesday and be sure it arrived on Wednesday. (Gove, 2008)

It's linguistic hypocrisy. Do as I say, not as I do. It's usually not difficult to show how pedants use the very constructions they condemn, and normally one can quickly see through the hypocrisy and disregard them with impunity. But it's difficult when you're being paid by a pedant with political power. I pity the poor civil servants who have to waste their time (and taxpayers' money) trying to implement such unreal and eccentric prescriptions.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

On becoming a language teacher

The National College for Teaching and Leadership, part of the Department for Education, have just sent me an informative briefing document about their latest campaign to attract high-quality graduates into the language-teaching profession. It included several points I didn't know, and made me feel more optimistic than I was before about the future of modern language teaching in the UK. Some extracts...

The Initial Teacher Training census from 2014 showed that 73 percent of language teacher trainees had a 2.1 degree or better; 20 percent had firsts. It seems to be a myth that only low achievers go in for language teaching. And the numbers are more than I thought: over 1100 postgraduate trainees were recruited last year. The NCTL say they are keen to recruit both new graduates and experienced industry professionals who are looking for a fresh challenge and may be open to a career change. And - another thing I didn't know - they say that if trainees specialise in teaching languages at secondary level, they could qualify for a tax-free bursary of up to £25,000 while training. There's more information about the training options here.

Their document mentions in passing that the number of children taking a language GCSE in 2014 was almost a fifth higher than in 2012. Several leading organizations, such as the British Academy and ALL (the Association for Language Learning), have over the past few years been emphasizing the importance of multilingualism. Is the message at last getting across, that learning a foreign language puts you in a really strong position in an increasingly competitive marketing world? I really hope so.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

On archaeodialectology

Two dialect stories: one bad news, one good news.

Let me start with the bad. I read in the Guardian a little while ago that funding for the Dictionary of American Regional English - DARE, as it's known - is going to dry up this summer, unless something dramatic happens. This splendid project has been going since 1962 - a unique window into the lexical past of the USA. I gave it a double-page spread in my English Language encyclopedia. People have been fascinated by what it has already uncovered. Dialect words and idioms have universal appeal.

It would be tragic if the ongoing systematic recording of current US dialect change were to cease. People might not notice DARE's disappearance now. But in one or two generation's time, when people ask 'how was it in those days?', as they will, they will feel the loss keenly. For nobody will know. Like undocumented endangered languages, when dialect words die, if they've never been audio-recorded or written down, it is as if they have never been.

Dialect surveys are not that expensive, by contemporary standards. DARE's annual budget is $525,000 - tiny, compared with, say, the billion-dollar-plus daily profits of the world's oil companies. So I very much hope that funding will come from somewhere to safeguard the project. I don't want DARE to end up a distant memory, known only to archaeodialectologists.

This is my term for the study of past dialects through the systematic analysis of their material remains. I adapt the definition from the one given by my archaeology contributor to The Cambridge Encyclopedia, and - as with that subject - it explores not just old artefacts (linguistic, in this case), but the people, places, and methods used in the past to discover them. My own exercise in archaeodialectology is out this month, so for me that's the good news. It's called The Disappearing Dictionary, published by Macmillan, and it's an anthology of some of the words recorded by Joseph Wright in his amazing six-volume English Dialect Dictionary, published between 1898 and 1905. You can find more information about the book here.

Wright's dictionary, and the story behind it, has been forgotten by all but a few dialect specialists, which is a shame, as it's a treasure-trove of fascinating words and phrases. I tweeted last night that I was 'mortaciously betwittered' by the Waterstone's display of Crystalia in Gower Street, and I now see my message being retweeted and favourited all over the place. Mortacious - extremely, exceedingly. Do you know it? It was recorded by Wright in Cheshire, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Sussex, but I bet it had wider usage. Is it still being used anywhere, I wonder? The associated Macmillan website will give people the chance to say, when it's launched in a week or so. But already it seems to be obtaining a new lease of life. 'Mortaciously is now my favourite word', tweeted one. That's capadocious, I say (Devon, Yorkshire).

Friday, 24 April 2015

On cups and mugs

I wake up from a period of bard-hibernation to find a fascinating debate going on in social media about the distinction between cup and mug. It was started by Heinz, who used the word cup in its product name Heinz Cup Soup, and then cleverly got a PR campaign going by asking the question 'did we give it the wrong name?' A large survey of UK opinion showed that there is indeed a great deal of mixed usage. I wasn't surprised. Fuzzy boundaries between lexical items have a long history of study in linguistics. I have two examples in my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language - one about the definition of chair (in the Semantics chapter) and the other about the distinction between a cup and a glass (in the Semantic Development chapter). The PR company asked me for a comment about the sociolinguistic history of the two terms, and this is what I wrote.

In the beginning, there was only the cup. The Anglo-Saxon word was cuppe, a borrowed word from Latin cuppa, which entered many European languages (such as Spanish copa and French coupe). The original meaning was simply a drinking-vessel.

The form of the vessel developed in two directions: without a stem (as in the modern tea-cup) and with a stem and foot (as in a wine-cup or chalice, sometimes with a cover), reflecting an increasing diversity of functions. It first developed a strong religious connotation in Christianity, being used in the sense of 'chalice' in Wyclifffe's translation of the Bible (14th century), later in the Book of Common Prayer (16th century), and thus into modern usage (eg as communion cup). In the 17th century it also developed an ornamental sense, being used as a prize in a contest - initially, in horse-racing (the Doncaster Cup), which is the commonest modern application.

Cup then developed a very wide range of senses, in which its shape was applied to any rounded cavity, such as in plants (an acorn-cup), human anatomy (the cup of the hip-bone), golf (a depression in the ground), and clothing (in bras). The linguistic result was the formation of many compound words, such as cup-holder, cup-final, and cup-cake. Colloquially, it became a replacement for the liquid a cup might contain, as in cuppa (cup of tea) and to drink a cup (Auld Lang Syne), and that in turn led to further everyday usage. 'That's not my cup of tea.' 'He's in his cups.' It even generated a proverb: 'There's many a slip between cup and lip'.

The history of mug is totally different. The word arrived in English much later, in the Middle Ages. Nobody is quite sure where it came from. There are similar-sounding words in German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages, all referring to some sort of open can or jug. It may be an adaptation of a Latin word for a measuring vessel (modius), because the notion of measurement is found in the earliest recorded use of mug in English in 1400.

From the outset it seemed to be used more to refer to the physical object than to the content it might contain. It comes to be used with such adjectives as large and half-pint, and with words that describe its material, such as silver or stone. The fashion for ornamental and collectible mugs also drew attention to the mug as a physical object. We are also much more likely to find the word mug used in relation to a location - a steaming mug of tea was left 'on the bench', 'by the fire'... Cups weren't so often 'located' in this way.

The early use of mug was mainly in regional dialects, and especially in Scotland, for any earthenware bowl or pot. It began to be used routinely for a drinking vessel in the 17th century, and gradually came to be distinguished from the tapering cup by its cylindrical shape and larger size. But it was the social activity that led to the main difference between the two.

In the 18th century, the taking of tea became a mark of high society. The word tea-cup arrives in the language (earliest recorded usage in 1700). Saucers joined cups as the norm (to ensure that any spillage was contained). Mugs then became associated with lower-class activities, where spilling didn't matter so much, and where the larger size reflected the thirstiness of the drinker - always assumed to be a manual worker. Early examples of mug are almost all to do with beer. Mugs of tea were drunk by people who were either blue-collar workers or - later - those who wanted to be thought of as down-to-earth, ordinary types. These connotations remain today.

As the taking of tea became less class-conscious, and a more informal occasion, it led to the shortened form cuppa in British regional English. There seems to have been a need to get away from the formality of 'high tea'. By contrast, there is no word mugga in English - presumably because mug was always felt to be associated with less formal settings.

The usage of the two words now differs greatly, reflecting their different social history. When people talk of cups, they're more likely to be thinking of the contents rather than the object. One sips a cup of tea, one pours a cup of tea, one talks about a lovely cup of coffee, a perfect cup of tea. The cup is associated with drinking as a social event: one offers someone a cup of coffee, and people enjoy a cup of tea together. It marks the passing of time: we talk about an early morning cup of tea, my third cup of coffee. Try replacing the word cup with mug in these examples, and you can sense the difference. Mug is actually very rare in these circumstances: in an interesting study of the 650-million-word Bank of English corpus, carried out in 2009 by Brett Laybutt, cup of tea was found to be fifteen times more common than mug of tea. (There were also, incidentally, many examples of cup of soup, but none of mug of soup.)

Some results of the Heinz survey reinforce these historical trends. Cup generates more diverse forms and functions than mug. The informants use cup for purposes other than for tea/coffee/soup far more than for mug (in aggregate, 1952 vs 1440). They don't differentiate much between cup and mug when it comes to tea/coffee, but there's a huge difference when it comes to soup, with 1093 opting for mug vs 344 for cup. This, along with a clear preference for eating vs drinking soup (three out of four people prefer the former - a trend that is most noticeable in the north-east), suggests a strong linguistic expectation that eat and mug will go together, when it comes to soup, so that the collocation Heinz Cup Soup immediately stands out as a departure from the norm.

When people were shown pictures and asked to name them, most opted for simply cup or mug. But those who gave a longer description were nearly four times more likely to go for tea/coffee cup (95 instances) than tea/coffee mug (26 instances). There's little sign of significant regional difference any more, but a trend is very noticeable with reference to age: the younger you are, the more you're likely to use cup with diverse functions. For example, less than 4% of age 55+ use cup as a toothbrush holder, whereas 30% of age 18-24 do. Similarly, only 2% of age 55+ use cup to wash paintbrushes, whereas almost 18% of age 18-24 do. By contrast, there's no such noticeable difference across age for the uses of mug. For older people, the distinction in relation to soup is irrelevant. The older you are, the more likely you are to take your soup in a bowl.

And, as a footnote: When the Japanese wanted a word to name a drinking vessel that was neither a mug nor a cup, they borrowed both words from English, put them together, and came up with magukappu.

Friday, 20 February 2015

On bard-induced bloglessness

A few correspondents have asked what has happened to my blog, as there have been no posts for a while. The answer is simple, and consists of two words: Shakespeare dictionaries.

It was rather unkind of Shakespeare to have two anniversaries in such close proximity: the 450th of the birth in 2014 and the 400th of the death in 2016. The result was an astronomical growth in the Shakespeare industry, with publishers vying to get their books out in good time. The interest will disappear on 24 April next year, I imagine - until the next big anniversary comes along (2023, the First Folio).

I was caught up in this flurry, and still am, having accepted commissions for two new dictionaries. The first is almost out: an Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary for schools, co-written with Ben Crystal and stunningly illustrated by Kate Bellamy, published by OUP next month. This contains some 4000 of the words students find difficult, taken from the 12 most popular plays studied in schools. We've devised some new thesaural features for it and spent a lot of time creating contextual explanations, adding theatre notes, and the like. It's been a lot of fun.

And later in the year, I will say that the second dictionary was a lot of fun - but not right now, while I'm still slogging through it. This is going to be the Oxford Dictionary of Shakespearean Pronunciation (also OUP) - a response to the extraordinary demand for OP materials that has emerged over the past couple of years. At least three plays are being performed in OP this year - Pericles (just happened in Stockholm, performed by Ben's Shakespeare Ensemble), The Merchant of Venice in Baltimore in March at the Shakespeare Factory, and Henry 5 at the Globe in July (Ben's Ensemble again). I've had hints of other productions from correspondents. And everyone is clamouring for help, in the form of recordings or transcriptions. The aim of the OP Dictionary is to enable people to cope with OPs for themselves. It will contain every word in the First Folio, along with the evidence from spellings and rhymes, so that people can see how I arrived at my recommendations. It's been a project that, on and off, I've been engaged in for the past ten years, but the last year has seen it come to the boil.

And when dictionaries approach boiling point, everything else that is optional stops. Dictionary compilation (and, I recall, encyclopedia compilation) is unlike any other kind of writing, as you are in the hands of an impassive and uncaring force: the alphabet. With an 'ordinary' book, the author is in control. I can choose how much to include or exclude. With a dictionary, you have to reach letter Z before you are done, and leave nothing out. If the aim is to include all words in the First Folio, then that is an absolute: no tolerances are possible. So, as one slogs through the big letters - C, P, and the gigantic S... - there is no time or energy available for luxuries such as blog posting. It would perhaps be different if I were blogging casually, on everyday topics. But my blog has always been a reactive one, responding to linguistic questions that I am sent. I choose topics where the answers are not already easily available online or in the literature, and so the posts are mini-research projects, with some taking many hours to write. That luxury disappeared towards the end of last year - in the middle of letter S, as I remember.

All being well, I hope to finish the OP Dictionary around Easter-time, and expect to resume posting then. In the meantime, for those who noticed my bloglessness, thank you for asking.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

On saying potato

You Say Potato is out today.

The associated 'record your accent' survey is gathering pace, with over a hundred recordings up already at this website. My idea is to collect as many versions of the way people say a single word ('potato') as possible, on a worldwide scale, so that we can hear the subtle gradations that occur from place to place, and of course even within a place.

My thanks especially to Stephen Fry, Michael Rosen, John Humphrys, Benjamin Zephaniah, Nicholas Parsons, Brian May, and Pam Ayres, who were among the first to let me know how they say potato - often with some unexpected additional remarks!

Friday, 26 September 2014

On word-cloud calligrams

My correspondent this time is Nicola Burton of Oxford University Press, who's been looking after the publicity for my recently published Words in Time and Place, and who has come up with a novel way of presenting the word-clusters in the book. She's taken the word-cloud motif on the cover - all the words for nose formed into the shape of a nose (with more than a passing resemblance to my own hooter) - and extended it to the other thematic categories covered by the book. You can see them here, but this is an example, using the words covered in the category 'terms of endearment'.

I've been wondering what to call them. They clearly fall into a tradition of visual poetry, sometimes called 'altar poems' (after the poem by George Herbert), and they are the hallmark of concrete poetry. But the practice of making words or sentences visually resemble entities in the real world goes well beyond poetry. Lewis Carroll's famous mouse-tail is an example. The term that is most obviously applicable is calligram - from calligraphy. I have examples in my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language of some of Apollinaire's. But word-cloud calligrams are so distinctive that I think they deserve a term of their own. Any suggestions?

Since the OUP blog post went up (yesterday), the calligrams have entered social media, and have been significantly retweeted. I sense a new art-form here. My book was commissioned to provide a general introduction to the enormous Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, and any semantic category of that work, large or small, could receive this treatment - and there are tens of thousands available. They can all be accessed through the OED online site, where there's a button allowing any word to be related to its location in the HTOED lists. Concrete words like nose or lavatory are likely to be relatively straightforward to handle (though they still need artistic ingenuity to be appealing). It'll be the abstract words that present the real challenge. But seeing as Nicola managed effectively to deal with death and endearment, I doubt whethere any word will be beyond the reach of the new generation of word-cloud calligrammers.