Friday, 20 November 2015

On grammatical facts, fictions, and The Spectator

A correspondent writes to ask if I’d seen the silly test from the grammar pedant N M Gwynne in The Spectator (17 October), as she’d had a problem with it. Not only had I seen it, I’d already written a letter to the magazine about it - but they didn’t publish it. The Spectator seems to be only interested in opinion, not facts, linguistic or otherwise.

I’m not at all surprised my correspondent had a problem. The test asked readers to ‘give the parts of speech, including the grammatical part of any verbs, of “boiling” and every instance of “washing” in the sentence, “She is washing in boiling water yesterday’s washing in the washing machine that she uses for washing clothes”.’

Gwynne provided the answers in the letters column of the 7 November (I give his exact words):

Boiling: present participle (verb-adjective)
First ‘washing’: taken with ‘is’, continuous present tense, active voice and indicative mood. By itself, present participle.
Second ‘washing’: either gerund (verbal noun) or gerundive.
Third ‘washing’: noun acting as an adjective (‘noun-adjective’).
Fourth ‘washing’: gerund, acting both as a noun and as a transitive verb.

A letter in the issue of 14 November tells us that only 29 people attempted it and only one got the above answers. This didn’t surprise me either. I suspect most readers of the Spectator were sensible enough to see through the artificial nature of the exercise, with English being forced into the categories devised for Latin. Gerunds and gerundives have no place in an English grammar. And doubtless there were those, whose grammatical knowledge is better than Gwynne’s, who were marked wrong because they didn’t conform to Gwynne’s own misanalysis of ‘washing machine’. This, of course, is a compound noun - recognized as such in every dictionary - so the first element shouldn’t be classed as a separate part of speech at all.

Heaven knows how people are supposed to make sense of the jumble of terms in the answers. A present participle is a verb-adjective. One ‘washing’ is either a gerund, or a gerundive - though it can hardly be both at the same time. Another is apparently both a noun and an adjective. Another is both a noun and a verb. No wonder people are put off grammar when presented with this kind of thing.

Fortunately, modern approaches - as opposed to these resurrected Victorian ones - present English in a much more straightforward way. ‘Boiling’ is an adjective; ‘washing’ in ‘yesterday’s washing’ is a noun; ‘washing’ in ‘washing clothes’ is a verb; and so on. That is all that needs to be said, when first introducing word classes. Introducing imagined parallels - for instance, that ‘boiling’ is an adjective that reminds you of a verb - is an unnecessary confusion when identifying parts of speech.

Gwynne is so out of touch with what is actually happening in schools today. He says on his website that grammar ‘has by now been almost entirely abolished’. Tell that to Buckinghamshire teachers, with their splendid Grammar Project - to name just one of many initiatives taking place around the country. Yes, the kind of grammar presented in Gwynne’s Grammar has indeed been almost entirely abolished in schools, and that’s a very good thing. But it’s been replaced by an approach which respects English for what it is, and doesn’t try to treat it as if it were a bastardized form of Latin.

By the way, while I’m in this mood, I have a second piece of evidence to support my contention that the Spectator isn’t interested in facts. A few weeks earlier (24 October), a writer penned a travel piece on Anglesey, where I live, praising its natural splendour but denying that that there were any art galleries on the island, and saying it was impossible to go to an opera there. I wrote a letter pointing out that Llangefni has a fine art gallery, Oriel, with a stunning Tunnicliffe collection, and that the Ucheldre Centre in Holyhead has art exhibitions all year round. And Ucheldre regularly presents operas - Wales National Opera and Swansea City Opera, to name just two - as well as giving people the chance to see Covent Garden et al there too, thanks to streaming, at a fraction of the London prices.

They didn’t publish that one either. I think I'll stick to blogging.

Friday, 30 October 2015

On a one-word reaction to reports about drunken Aussie accents

So the phone rings and it's a journalist from the Daily Mirror, wanting me to comment on the story circulating in the press this week, that the origin of the Australian accent lies in the drunken speech of the first convicts. I commented, all right. I used an ancient linguistic technical term: it's complete bollocks. Rubbish, I added, helpfully.

That wasn't enough, it seemed. I then had to spend the best part of an hour doing my best to persuade the journalist, who had obviously fallen for this story hook, line and sinker, (a) that it had come from an Australian academic, Dean Frenkel, who, though described as a 'speech expert', doesn't seem to have any backround in the relevant disciplines of historical sociolingustics and phonetics (one web site describes him as a 'left field artist' among other things), (b) that it wasn't especially new - it turns up regularly, along with similar myths from other parts of the world (such as that the Liverpudilian accent is the result of fog in the Mersey, or the Welsh rising lilt is because they lived in the mountains, or that the Birmingham accent arose because people didn't open their mouths very much to avoid the dirty air), all equally rubbish, (c) that there isn't actually any evidence to show that convicts 200 years ago spoke drunkenly to their children on a regular basis, (d) that drunken speech actually has very little in common with the examples cited of the Australian accent, and (e) that if she examined those examples, she'd soon see that they don't support the case at all.

For instance, standing pronounced as stending is described as 'lazy'; but [e] is higher up in the mouth than [a], and actually takes more muscular energy to produce; it's the very opposite of lazy. The characteristic [ai] in words like day is similarly said to be the result of lazy drunkenness - in which case all Cockneys are drunk, for this diphthong is found in that accent too (among many others). (Cockney, along with some other British accents, is actually one of the real influencers of Australian pronunciation.) To call the accent a 'speech impediment' or the result of 'inferior brain functioning', as he's reported to have said, is absolutely extraordinary. On that basis every accent is an impediment - apart, of course, from the one Dean Frankel holds in his mind as some sort of speech ideal. It's the kind of thinking that was common in the early days of prescriptivism, and it's surprising to see it surfacing again now. And appalling that the media should so readily believe it.

Was my long conversation with the journalist worth it? Not in the slightest. When the article appeared, she quoted a couple of lines from me about the diversity of accents in the UK, and allowed the story to come across as if it were gospel. 'So if the Aussie accent is down to booze, why do other parts of the world speak English so differently?' The word 'rubbish' didn't appear at all. Nor the other word.

It's yet another example of how the tabloid media masquerades fiction as fact, in the interests of what they think is a good story. The Guardian, for example, ran a piece debunking the myth, but that will hardly have an impact on the many readers of the Mirror and the Daily Mail (which also ran the story prominently) who will have read it, believed it, and repeated it. It's really depressing. This kind of journalism makes the job of a linguist so much harder.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

On the latest Lingo

I'm aroused out of a period of bloglessness (explained below) by the arrival of the second issue of Lingo - the language magazine for young readers. This is the little sibling of Babel, that was aimed at older students, or indeed at anyone who has an interest in language and languages. It's not at all easy to present linguistic content to an age-range that is roughly top end of the juniors and low end of the seniors - Key Stage 3, as it were. But the editorial team at Huddersfield University have cracked it.

I got to appreciate the scale of the problem a few years ago when I was writing A Little Book of Language, aimed at young teenagers. To check I'd got the level right, I had my first draft read by a 12-year-old. She gave me a right beating up! 'Underline any bit you find unclear', I told her. And she did. She drew my attention to words and content that I had never dreamt would cause a problem. For example, in my chapter on professional pseudonyms, I had included examples like John Wayne. She underlined John Wayne. When I asked her why, she said she'd never heard of him. I had to find different examples (eg Eminem).

I see the Lingo team will be at the Language Show in Olympia, London, 16-18 October (stand 804). Well worth a visit, I'd've thought, if you are in the area. But if you're not, I would recommend anyone who's involved with teaching language (or languages) to youngsters to take a look at Lingo. I don't normally use my blog to advertise things, but I have to make an exception in this case, as it's the kind of product I've long been hoping to see getting into schools. It's visible online at

And now, back to a blogless life, caused by a killer project - a dictionary. There's nothing like dictionary compilation to take you away from the real world. It's not like any other kind of writing, where you are in control of your content. In a dictionary, the content controls you, in the form of the alphabet. The object in question will be out in March, The Oxford Dictionary of Shakespearean Pronunciation. It's at the copy-editing stage, and next month I have to record the audio version and soon after go through the proofs. Believe me, there's nothing more blog-destroying than a set of dictionary proofs.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

On feeling closer, via Henry, to Shakespeare

The original pronunciation (OP) production of Henry V by Ben Crystal's Passion in Practice company went ahead on 26 July, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe. It was a sell-out, and warmly acclaimed by one of the most enthusiastic audiences I've ever encountered there. There were three more performances to enable those who couldn't get tickets to get a taste of the production, held in The Loft at Tanner Street, 3-5 August. The company used the occasion to launch a Passion in Practice patrons appeal, to help take the company forward, so if anyone fancies becoming a PiP well-willer, shoulder-clapper, bully-rook, complice, or yoke-fellow - a rather more appropriate set of funding names, I feel, than the usual boring bronze, silver, gold, etc acknowledgements I encounter in appeals - they can get information about it via the company website - or, for that matter, from me.

But, to the play... The production displayed the dramatic possibilites of OP in all sorts of fresh and unexpected ways. OP, it needs to be remembered, is just a tool, as any other original practice, and its effect on a production needs to be judged in terms of the vision of the play as a whole. Ben adapted his innovative production to suit the intimacy of the Wanamaker playhouse. Not for this space the Olivier-style fortissimos of 'Once more...' and 'Crispin's day', but an exhausted muted appeal for the first and a quietly executed cameraderie for the second, with the OP underscoring these famous speeches to make them unexpectedly moving.

Nothing in the Shakespeare canon matches the stylistic variability in this play, and the company brought the OP to life in ways I'd never heard on stage before. At one extreme, there is the colloquial banter of the Eastcheap characters, with lots of elided sounds; at the other, the rounded and resonant tones of the bishops. And in between, we have Henry himself, who we know from Henry IV has the ability to code-switch - able to talk to tapsters in their own language as well as to match diplomats in their linguistic games. Henry also knows that kings set fashions - he says as much to Kate - so his OP reflects a formal style - for example, with word-initial h's pronounced - that the other English nobles emulate.

The military scenes demand a different set of OP choices. We hear the articulatory exaggerations of the Celtic captains, which add a novel comic dimension to OP, with an energetic Welsh r-trilling Welshman, an explosively palatal Irishman, and a comically incomprehensible Scot whose speech left the other captains baffled. Then, when Henry walks around the camp, the night before the battle, he stumbles across a group of soldiers (Williams et al) being told a story to keep their spirits up: in an ingenious addition, we hear the Rumour speech from Henry IV Part 2, told in a mesmerising OP by a Caribbean performance-poet who had joined Passion in Practice for the occasion.

Chorus is distributed around members of the company, displaying OP in a wide variety of accents, from Lithuania to California. People sometimes forget that OP is not a single accent, but a sound system that allows many accents - just as there are in Modern English today - and it is important to hear it in all its variation. From a dramatic point of view, the vocal diversity to my mind strengthens the role of Chorus as a universal observer.

Several other innovations inform this unusual production. The quarrel between Nym and Pistol has the two men shouting at each other with their speeches overlapping - a technique used to great effect after Duncan's murder in Ben's Macbeth at the Wanamaker last year. Henry's mind wanders as he listens to the Archbishop's interminable exposition about Salic Law, so at one point his speech fades into the background and we hear characters whispering lines into his ear from earlier history plays. Then there are the songs.

Songs in Henry V? Ben found five references to contemporary songs in the play in Ross Duffin's Shakespeare's Songbook, and located them at appropriate points. Hazel Askew researched them and taught them to the company. From my point of view, this was a first, as I'd never adapted OP for singing in a Shakespeare play before - least of all in Latin and French, as well as English.

The character of Boy (Falstaff's page) was developed to join the pantheon of Shakespeare's later-play Clowns. Ben drew our attention to the fact that Boy does something very unusual in this play: he talks directly to the audience, in quite long speeches - just as Clown would. He therefore had him introduce the play, as a sort of Chorus-Clown, by speaking the anticipatory epilogue at the end of Henry IV ('our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katharine of France...'), leading directly into 'O for a Muse of fire...'. Boy-Clown is thereafter always around, hovering and observing, in the Eastcheap scenes. We see him killed, when left alone in the camp, and, in another innovative Ben Crystal twist, we see the dirty deed done by the Dolphin, disguised as Monsieur Le Fer.

The handling of the French OP was also a first. What surprised me here was its stylistic diversity, ranging from the lofty tones of the French King to the semi-French used by Henry when wooing Kate. In between, we have the genteel dialogue between Katherine and Alice, and the bonhomie among the French nobles, with the Dolphin in this production opting for a speech style as distinctive in its way as Pistol's. It proved quite difficult for me to develop a way of getting the actors to speak that sounded French yet avoided having them being pale imitations of Inspector Clouseau. My solution was to have them speak OP exactly as the English characters did, but with syllable-timing - the 'rat-a-tat' rhythm that is natural to French. This then allowed the Ambassadors and the Herald (Montjoy) - who in view of their calling would presumably have been more competent English speakers - to use an OP that was 'less French'.

All these choices resulted in an unprecedented kaleidoscope of OP - and revealed some new readings. For example, France is usually spelled France in the First Folio, but it is spelled Fraunce when the French are speaking (suggesting a pronunciation of 'frawnce'). Henry is also given this spelling when he is trying to speak French to Kate - and he has it just once when he is speaking English. At the point when Alice begins to interpret what Kate has said - that it isn't the fashion for ladies of 'Fraunce' to kiss - Henry interrupts with 'It is not a fashion for the maids in Fraunce to kiss before they are married, would she say?' The spelling suggests that he is mocking Alice's pronunciation. It's a tiny point, but it adds an extra nuance to the way Ben had this scene played, avoiding the lovey-dovey way it's often done, and underlining the fact that Kate is, after all, a political pawn. An interpretation where she is a reluctant player in the king's game, and where there is a great deal of tension in the room, seems wholly justified.

As with all OP productions, there were surprises on the opening night. I wasn't expecting Jamy to be quite so unintelligible, so the other captains were genuinely nonplussed, but the audience loved it. And the French nobles themselves decided that, when the Dolphin was praising his horse so fulsomely, there was sufficient closeness in OP between horse and arse to poke some extra fun at him. I never taught them that, but it worked!

Passion in Practice is a company devoted to recreating, as far as as is humanly possible, the work ethic of Shakespeare's company, cutting a play in the direction of 'two hours traffic', using cue-scripts, and not relying on weeks of rehearsal runs. It can be tricky when working in the Wanamaker, as - the space being so well-used - there is very limited opportunity for the actors to spend time there to see how to exploit it to best advantage. They had just the day before to explore the best ways of using the candles to point the night-time scenes and to implement one of the major insights of this production - the theme of shadows ('if we shadows have offended...'). Candles behind banners generated atmospheric silhouettes, creating the impression of many soldiers ('Into a thousand parts divide one man...'). Katherine did the whole of her English-learning scene behind a banner, as if in her boudoir, with the parts of her body displayed in silhouette ('the hand, the fingers...').

There was an opportunity on the day to 'top and tail' the scenes, so that the actors knew their entrances and exits; but the first time the company had the opportunity to present the play as a whole was when the audience was there. I was playing Fluellen, and after the battle there is a short scene where he talks to the king about them both being Welsh. The first time I had the chance to speak those lines to Henry and to hear how he would respond was during the performance. As I approached him verbosely ('Your grandfather of famous memory...'), he gave me a 'Oh no, not Fluellen going on and on again' reaction. It completely altered the way I then said the lines.

It must have been like this on the original Globe stage, with the actors surrounded by friends and family as well as the public at large. Not only did the audience not know what was going to happen next: the actors didn't either. Everyone was on their auditory toes, and the result must have been an electrifying freshness, which I sensed, at that moment, we were recreating with our OP production. It was the closest I've ever felt to Shakespeare.

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).