Tuesday, 23 March 2010

On having done something yesterday

An Australian correspondent writes to say that he's encountered sentences like I have been to the cinema yesterday which, he says, would be 'completely out in British English'. It seems like a natural development, he adds, but asks: 'isn't this against the "rules" of simplicity, which languages are so keen to comply with? Isn't it more "economical" to use simple structures than complex ones and aren't languages prone to such economy?'

I don't think economy has anything to do with it. Simplicity is only one factor in promoting language change, and is not always the determining factor. Issues of identity and clarity, for example, can motivate the maintenance of a more complex construction.

'Completely out' in British English? Not so. I use this kind of construction regularly. All that has happened is that the aspect has shifted, which is perfectly normal in spontaneous speech. At the beginning of the sentence, the notion of current relevance is in the forefront of the speaker's mind; at the end of the sentence, it isn't, thus allowing the use of such adverbs as yesterday. One can even renew the current relevance meaning, as in a response to Have you been in touch with John about what he owes me? It could begin: Yes, I've spoken to John yesterday, and ... Now, what will come next? I've told him what you said or I told him what you said? It all depends on whether the have spoken bit is in the forefront of our mind (in which case we'll probably stay with the present perfect) or whether the yesterday bit is (in which case we'll probably switch to past).

All this is for spontaneous colloquial speech, of course, where sudden changes of thought are normal, but I think people are more likely to follow the traditional constraint in formal speech and in writing. I would myself. But even in everyday speech a lot depends on the semantics of the adverbial.

I've seen him yesterday.
I've seen him a day ago.
I've seen him a week ago.
I've seen him six months ago.
I've seen him last year.
I've seen him 10 years ago.

For me, these are increasingly unacceptable because increasing strain is being placed on the notion of current relevance.

The system does seem to be slowly changing. Or perhaps I should say 'reverting', for there are examples of ago with a present perfect in Middle English -in Chaucer, for instance. And there's probably some pressure coming from the modal construction (I should have done it yesterday).

Friday, 19 March 2010

On the dangers of Facebook

A correspondent writes to ask if linguistics has anything to offer in relation to the recent Facebook paedophile scandal and all the current discussion about panic buttons.

Of course it does. Indeed, the point has already come up on this blog, when I was talking about internet applications a few years ago (March 2007). In 2003 I developed an application called Chatsafe, using a technology I call a sense engine, which carried out a linguistic analysis of a conversation in order to identify dangerous or sensitive content. It worked fine. It processed a conversation in real time, and as dangerous content built up it would warn the user (or the user's parents) that there was a potential problem. The system needed a lot of testing, using real paedophile conversations, and as it's virtually impossible to get this kind of research done safely without clearance, I approached the Home Office. They said they'd get back to me but didn't. I approached a UK university department that specializes in such things and had a meeting with one of the researchers. No subsequent interest. I sent the idea to a mobile phone company after a scandal there. No response. A couple of years ago I sent it to a US child protection conference. Never heard anything further. I had hoped that someone somewhere would be following up the leads, but the Facebook disaster suggests not. I'd send it to Facebook now if I could work out how, but they hide their senior management contact procedure very well.

It's all very well offering a panic button, but how do you activate it? It's not enough to leave it up to the individual recipient, who may not be aware of a problem until it's too late. One needs an independent method. And as it's impossible for all conversations to be checked manually, it has to be done automatically.

Maybe that lass would be alive now if a system like Chatsafe had been used. That's why I'm writing this post. Maybe someone out there knows how to alert the social networking agencies to the relevance of a linguistic approach. It hasn't been for want of trying, on my part, and why the organizations most closely involved in this awful subject are ignoring the potential that linguistics has to offer is quite beyond me.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

On a forthcoming exhibition

A correspondent, having noticed February bloglessness, asks if I am still alive. Yes, but a combination of travelling and deadline has kept me out of the blogosphere for a while. The reason for the deadline is interesting, though, and readers of this blog might like an early alert to a forthcoming exciting event.

The British Library is presenting its first English language exhibition later this year. It will run from mid-November to early April. In fact, I don't know of any similar exhibition anywhere else in the world. This seems to be a genuine first.

'Similar' is the operative word. How could anything be 'similar' to the BL? I've been helping to curate the exhibition, and am putting together the book which will accompany it (hence the deadline), and one of the amazing perks has been the chance to go deep inside the Library, visiting areas that one normally never gets a chance to see. And seeing at first hand what an extraordinary collection it houses. The collections in the lower floor strongrooms seem to go on for ever - boxes, books, and box files of all shapes and sizes containing most of what you've ever heard of in British literary history.

It became surreal after a while. What did I think should be in the exhibition and the book? I reflected on all the major literary and linguistic moments in the history of the English language, such as the ones I talk about in The Stories of English - Beowulf, Aelfric's Colloquy, Caxton, Chaucer, Paston letters, Tyndale, First Folio... - and they are all there. I prepare a wish-list with one of the brilliant BL staff, and he makes arrangements for a visit to the relevant collection. There I meet the curator, who seems to know where everything is. 'You don't also happen to have...?' 'Oh yes that's over here somewhere...' and he is there unerringly. Moreover, he is able to take me through an old text with an awareness that saves huge amounts of time. Many early manuscripts have been bound into huge volumes, and he knows exactly where the particular text I'm interested in (such as the medieval poem 'The Owl and the Nightingale') is located. He also makes suggestions about pages of particular interest - pages which, as far as I know, have never been seen in public before. Several of these will be in the exhibition and the book.

Curators love a challenge. See a First Folio of Shakespeare? Bo-ring. A first edition of Caxton? Oh come on, ask me something difficult. All right, then, the unique copy of Tyndale's fragmentary bible, the one that survived the fires that burned all the others? That required a journey into the huge middle tower of the BL containing the King's Library (of George III), which is what visitors to the library see in front of them when they enter the building. But it was there, fragile, silent, open to view. I like to think I have molecules of some of these books on my hands still. I don't want to wash them off.

It's not just the famous items that are of interest, of course. The BL has amazing collections of ephemera, such as the Evanion collection of 19th century posters and advertisements. People sometimes forget that these are just as important, as a guide to linguistic history, as are the classical works of literature. They also have great collections of regional and world literary history, and, with such topics as dialects and global English important themes of the exhibition, it was important to explore some of those resources too.

The BL doesn't have everything. Cawdrey's 1604 Table Alphabeticall, the first English dictionary, is in the Bodleian at Oxford. But it will be borrowed to be a part of this exhibition. In some cases, though, borrowing isn't possible. The Exeter Book, which contains so much Anglo-Saxon material, has to remain safely in Exeter. But at least I'll be able to use a photograph of a page in the book. And a good-sized picture, too. That's the point of the book, to provide full-colour large illustrations of these iconic works, so that they can be read and used in a practical way by those wanting to really read them, or to study them as part of a course in the history of the language. I never saw pictures of most of the texts I was studying, when I was an undergraduate. Just the occasional black-and-white example, or a thumbnail size picture. I could only imagine what an Anglo-Saxon Chronicle really looked like. Or all the faces of the Franks Casket. Or a Paston letter. Things can be different today. There'll be an online presence too, whose character is still being decided.

English language scholars, students, and enthusiasts - which means most people - will be indebted to the British Library for its initiative in developing this exhibition. Yet I understand the Library is soon going to suffer from the same crazy preoccupation with cuts that is devastating the universities right now. Staff are going to go and services chopped. Any government that allows this to happen to a library service of such huge public significance has, to my mind, undoubtedly lost its way.