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).

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.