Wednesday, 2 July 2014

On being at

A correspondent writes to ask about what she calls 'the rise of the unnecessary use of at on the end of questions, as in Where are you at?, and wonders what's going on. Is it simply a tautology?

There's more to it than that. Semantically, where is a very wide-ranging question-word, covering such meanings as general explanation ('Where will it all end?'), broad location ('Where is Denmark?'), specific location ('Where did I leave my glasses?'), intended destination ('Where are you headed?'), and point of origin ('Where have you been?'). Kids (and some adults) like to play with the ambiguity. Where do you live?' On planet Earth.

Particles help to sharpen the focus of the question. 'Where are you going?' means the same as 'Where are you going to?', but the to emphasises the sense of direction. Adverbs like exactly do the same thing: 'Where exactly...?' The motivation for 'Where are you at?' seems to be a a desire to establish more precisely the location of the addressee. We need to look carefully at contexts to see the motivation. Here's a case in point:

X is on the train, travelling to meet Y, and Y wants to check up on whether he'll be there in time. Y calls his mobile. 'Where are you?' X replies 'I'm on the train'. This isn't specific enough for Y, who can't now ask 'Yes but where are you?' as a follow-up question. He has to rephrase, and one of the ways, evidently, is to say 'Yes, but where are you at?' - where exactly have you reached? Or, of course, to start the conversation by asking the question in that way.

The usage is reinforced by other constructions with a similar end-placed particle, all of which sharpen the focus of the interrogative, such as 'Where are you up to?', 'Where are you from?', 'Where are you near to?', and so on. There may also be some reinforcement from the idiomatic use of the same construction, in which the enquiry is more about a person's state of mind or stage of achievement ('Where are you at?' 'I've nearly finished') or a fashionable event ('Market Street is where it's at'). I suspect most uses of 'Where are you at?' will contain a semantic nuance not present in the simple 'Where are you?' So it's not simply a tautology.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

On the next OP production

A correspondent writes to ask what's the latest on the OP ('original pronunciation') front. A timely question, as it happens, as next month sees Shakespeare's Globe renewing its association with OP for the first time in almost a decade. Readers with long memories will recall that the Globe initiated the modern OP movement (in relation to Shakespeare) with its productions of Romeo and Troilus in 2004-5. Since then, there have been several productions around the world, as well as applications to early music, the Bible, and other authors of the period, such as John Donne - details can be found in the Archive section of the OP website.

The Globe event in July is actually three events: an opening evening explaining the background to OP and illustrated by a range of extracts from texts of the period presented by me with illustrations from Ben Crystal's Passion in Practice company; an evening devoted to songs and sonnets; and a staged reading of Macbeth in the Globe's 'Read not Dead' series - a British first, as I'm not aware of an OP production of this play having been performed in this country before (at least, not since 1606). The series has been well received. Indeed, it's been a sell-out. They're planning to film the event, though, in the hope that this will enable a wider audience to appreciate what's been going on.

That's the good news. The bad news is that it was always going to be an expensive business, mounting a series like this, which involves a full theatre company as well as musicians and singers. The Globe has given us every imaginable help, including all its marketing resources and the space itself. But we want to do this properly, with actors paid for their time, and this works out to a significant amount - not huge, compared with some of the budgets in showbiz - but one we couldn't fund all by ourselves.

Thanks to the powerful commitment to performing original practices that Ben's built up in his company over the past few years, those involved are determined to make this series come off, even if their return is next to nothing. At the same time, I'd like to find the financial support to help them make this project work at the level originally intended, without having to cut too many corners. There are all kinds of costs (such as accommodation for actors coming in from abroad), in addition to basic wages during rehearsals and performances, and it all adds up.

So: if you're interested in OP and would like to act as a supporter for this venture and make a donation, or know of someone who might be interested, I'd very much like to hear from you, either through this forum or privately (to We're using the Shakespeare's Words website as the online mechanism for processing donations. Supporters will form the nucleus of an informal 'Friends of OP' group that will help shape the way things develop over the next few years.

As an indication of what's involved, here are some relative values:

£20 pays an actor's per diem for travel and subsistence.
£50 pays for an actor's accommodation for a night. .
£70 pays for a fight director for a day.
£150 pays for a decent rehearsal space for two days.
£430 pays an actor for a week.
£1000 pays a musician to work on the project.
£2000 pays for the commissioning of new musical scores written with OP in mind.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

On Tony Blair's 'look'

A correspondent writes to ask if I've done any research into the use of 'look...' or 'well look...' by politicians before going on to explain a point. She's thinking of Tony Blair, in particular, but feels it's become more widespread recently. She interprets it as carrying the pragmatic connotation of 'we're all friends - I'm telling you the truth just like a friend would - I'm one of the people - I know more than you so I can explain this to you - believe me' [her words].

I've noticed Tony Blair's use of this discourse feature, yes, but I don't have an impression that other people are using it any more frequently than it used to be. I haven't studied the matter, but - as always, when questions of this kind come up - a visit to the online OED generally provides some illumination.

There we find (under look v.4, 'idiomatic uses of the imperative') that this feature is as old as Old English. It turns up in Aelfric, and throughout history we see it in a variety of forms, such as look here, look you, look'ee, and looky here, as well as simple look. Shakespeare has 'Look you how he writes' (Henry IV Part 2) and 'Look thee here...' (A Winter's Tale). The tone varies greatly, from affability to annoyance.

The OED definition of look here is interesting - ' a brusque mode of address prefacing an order, expostulation, reprimand, etc' - as this very much relates to the Blair usage. My impression is that he uses look only when he's irritated by the way an interview is going, and wants to restate or amplify a point. He isn't saying to the interlocutor 'we're together on this' but 'you've got me wrong' or 'you're pushing me in the wrong direction'. Take these examples from a Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman in 2013 (transcript available online): the tone is moving towards exasperation - explicitly so, in the first instance:

'Oh rubbish. Come on Jeremy, look what do I stand for?'

'I don't know. Look, I am a Christian, I believe in it, but...'

'BLAIR: ... it doesn't inform every political decision I make in a very narrow way. PAXMAN: 
It doesn't? BLAIR:
Look, I'm a person, an individual...'

With a less aggressive interviewer, the looks virtually disappear. Well and you know are his main discourse features. In a 20-minute interview with Sian Williams on the Andrew Marr Show (9 February 2013, also viewable online), he hardly uses look at all. We don't hear one until 9 minutes in, and then it's almost inaudible in the middle of a sentence ('look, it's very hard...'). There are two more medially-placed examples, neither especially prominent, and we don't hear the prominent sentence-initial look until almost the very end of the interview (18 minutes in, when his voice is clearly tiring and the interviewer is still pressing a point). We then get two instances in quick succession. I think he wants the interview to end - and soon after, it does.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

On e-formality

A correspondent writes to ask about the register to be used in emails. He wonders if a formal style is possible, such as (in applying for a job) beginning with 'Dear Sir/Madam' and ending with 'Yours faithfully', or the like. He says he has never encountered such an email.

I have - though only in recent years. When emails began to be widely used, in the mid-1990s, the netiquette manuals stressed the new and informal character of the medium. Formality was to be avoided, so that even a 'Dear' opening was not recommended. However, these manuals were written in the early days of e-communication, and usually by younger and geekier people. As the age demographic of internet users changed, with older (and more conservative) people coming online, so the stylistic range of emails altered, as did the range of contexts in which it was felt emails were (or weren't) appropriate. For some time, for example, it was considered inappropriate to send condolences for a death by email, but this happens now. Similarly, firing people by email was widely criticised a decade ago. Not so much now.

Today we see the whole range of formality in email exchanges - from those that replicate letters in every formal detail to those that avoid all traditional letter-writing conventions. I have had emails beginning 'Dear Professor' and ending 'Yours faithfully', or the like. And mixed styles are encountered too, such as beginning with 'hi' and ending with something more formal. Computer-generated emails often mix things up: I got an email once which began 'Dear Professor Wales'.

It's difficult to work out what is going on because there is so much anonymity 'out there'. Sociolinguists rely on context for their observations - age, gender, language background, and so forth - and this is usually missing or unclear in internet exchanges, especially in forums and social media. So it's often impossible to interpret the factors that have led writers to make their formality decisions. And even if one knew, it would be too soon to generalize, with a medium that is still (for most users) less than twenty years old.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

On doing a job

A correspondent says he has been told that it is not correct to ask someone 'What's your job?' Rather, he should ask 'What do you do?' Is this so?

Usage has changed somewhat over the years. The OED has a nice example to show that there was once nothing wrong at all with the former question. Under sense 4b at job - defined as 'A paid position of regular employment, a post, a situation; an occupation, a profession' - we see from 1919 a quotation from the Times: ' ‘What is your job?’ You are a Judge—or a Painter—or a Solicitor—or a Doctor.'

But over the years, job has come to be used more in relation to subordinate roles - employees rather than employers - and especially to people in lower-paid work. It doesn't easily apply to people who don't get routinely paid, such as self-employed artists. I can readily answer the question 'What do you do?' But, as a freelance writer, I feel uncomfortable if someone asks me 'What's your job?' I've often heard people say, in response to this question, 'I don't have a job' or 'I don't have a job as such', or the like. And I've also encountered senior professionals who turn their noses up at the question, or who only use the word in a jocular way when referrring to themselves. I remember an occasion when a senior academic, who also happened to be a competent pianist, was playing a piece at a party. Someone asked him whether he was a professional pianist. No, he said, he worked at the university. 'That's my day job', he added, in a self-demeaning tone. Very British.

'What do you do?' is the safer option, therefore, because it covers all possibilities. But, as with all personal questions, it needs to be used sensitively, as some people could find it intrusive.

Monday, 12 May 2014

On dumbing up

I’ve been appalled, this week, as most language-aware practitioners have, with the misinformation being presented in the media about the proposal to use examples of celebrities’ language along with classical literature in the proposed Language and Literature A-level specification. Russell Brand seems to have been the focus of most of the comment, along with Dizzee Rascal, Jeremy Paxman, and others.

Excellent responses have already been forthcoming from the English and Media Centre and from the EngLangBlog, so I won’t repeat what is said there. But one example from the media illustrates the profound misunderstanding of what language study is all about. Dan Clayton shows how the Daily Mail is typical of the way the facts are being misrepresented by quoting an exam question. The Mail asserts the following:

One question simply states: 'Analyse the text on this Caffè Nero website'.

This is the question that actually appeared:

Text A, below, is an advertisement for coffee published during the Great Exhibition of 1851. Text B, on page 3, is a webpage produced by the coffee company Caffè Nero in 2012.

Analyse how language is used in Text A and Text B to represent the companies’ coffee.

With reference to Text A, Text B and your own studies, illustrate and evaluate different ways of explaining how language changes.

The Mail has omitted the crucial part of the question, which focuses the student's attention on the changes in language which have taken place during the past century or so. It's a brilliant question - and one that would have taken quite a bit of time to research. How many people would know where to look to find 19th-century coffee ads? And it gets to the heart of any language syllabus.

All language awareness, ultimately, is about contrast and change. You appreciate standard English by contrasting it with nonstandard English. You understand singulars by contrast with plurals, present tenses with past tenses, comparatives with superlatives... A friendly intonation contrasts with an aggressive one. A headline contrasts with a sub-heading, and with no heading at all. Usage today contrasts with usage yesterday, or last year, or last century.

The press juxtaposes Russell Brand and Shakespeare, and calls the process a dumbing down. But we appreciate Shakespeare by contrasting him with non-Shakespeare - both in his time (other dramatists, other prose-writers) or afterwards. The point is a general one: we appreciate literature by contrasting it with non-literature. The process can be unconscious - it usually is - but is enhanced when it is made conscious, which is what these A-level courses are all about. Celebrity use of language is not being promoted as literature. It is enabling students to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the language of literature. It is not dumbing down. It is actually dumbing up.

Friday, 4 April 2014

On talking about language to little ones

A correspondent tweeted a problem: 'My 5 year old keeps asking who decided all the words. Can you recommend any reading around this for her age?'

What a sharp 5-year-old! And a tricky one to answer. I've written about language for young people, but never as young as that. A Little Book of Language was primarily aimed at young teenagers - a memorable experience for me because, to check I'd got the level right, I had it read by a 12-year-old. I'd rather have a book critically reviewed by Chomsky! She pulled no punches.

In 2012 the NSPCC published a lovely little book called Big Questions from Little People. It took 100 questions asked by children and got experts to answer them. A few were linguistic:

Why can't animals talk like us? (Noam Chomsky)
Who wrote the first book ever? (Martin Lyons)
How did we first learn to write? (John Man)
Why do we have an alphabet? (John Man)
Who named all the cities? (Mark Forsyth)
Why do we speak English? (me)

It was so successful it published a sequel in 2013 called Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? This time the language questions were:

Do spiders speak? (George McGavin)
If you shouted in space, would you hear anything? (Ben Miller)
Do animals like cows and sheep have accents? (John Wells)
How do we learn to speak? (Gary Marcus)
Why do we have books? (Maria Popova)
Do babies think in words or their own language? (Charles Fernyhough)
If oranges are called oranges, why aren't bananas called yellows? (Philip Gooden)
Is silence a sound? (Quentin Cooper)
Why do cats 'miaow', cows 'moo' and sheep 'baa'? (David Bellos)
How many languages are there in the world? (me)

Some of these questions were asked by children as young as four. Finding a way to answer them that accommodates sucessfully to the age is really hard.

For 5s, the ideal approach, to my mind, is to create stories with appealing characters, plots, and illustrations, and I've not come across many cases where writers have tried to introduce linguistic metalanguage (basic notions, such as 'words') in a story-telling way. Usually, such writing is for older children (aka adults), such as James Thurber's The Wonderful O. I devised an entire programme on this basis once, called DIAL ('Developing Ideas About Language', aimed at primary kids, and entirely story-driven; but (this was the 1980s) the publisher who commissioned the idea never went ahead with it. I've since been keeping an eye open for similar material. A lovely example is Cynthia Rylant's The Old Woman Who Named Things (1996). Maybe readers of this post will be able to provide some further instances: the crucial point is that the story must focus on at least one metalinguistic term.