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.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

On a question that (it) is hard to answer

A correspondent writes to ask about the use of it in relative clauses, in such sentences as the following (taken from Fowler and also a modern textbook). He finds its use unidiomatic in examples (3) and (5) in particular. Is the it omissible, he asks?

(1) This was a conference which it was my duty to attend.
(2) The debate on the bill produced a tangle of arguments which it required all Mr. Chamberlain's skill to untie.
(3) This is a thing which it is easy to say.
(4) The heaving and turbulent centuries which at one time it was the fashion to characterize the 'Dark Ages' have long had a peculiar fascination for historians.
(5) That is a question which it is very hard to answer.

These are quite complex syntactically, as they all have a nonfinite clause inside a cleft construction inside a relative clause. To see what's going on we need to simplify. Let's get rid of the clefting first.

(1) My duty was to attend (the conference).
(2) Mr Chamberlain's skill was required to untie (the tangle of arguments).

The semantic links are clear: duty goes primarily with attend, not conference. Skill goes primarily with untie, not arguments. If the it were omitted in the original examples, the force of the relative pronoun would be to point the listener/reader semantically backwards, towards the head noun. Duty would now seem to go with conference, and skill with arguments. The it restores the right semantic connection. So, in short: we avoid a potential ambiguity - though the fact that there's so much usage variation (the it often being omitted) suggests that it isn't one that causes much communicative difficulty.

The ambiguity is there in (3) and (5), but the shortness of the sentences, along with the clear meaning of the elements, makes the presence of it less needed - which is why my correspondent has noticed it when it's inserted.

It is easy to say (this thing).
It is hard to answer (the question).

It's obvious that things don't do the speaking or that questions don't do the answering, so semantically there's no need to reinforce the point when the clefts are restored.

This is a thing which is easy to say.
That is a question which is very hard to answer

Only someone ignoring the semantics would say there's a genuine ambiguity here. But traditional grammarians, obsessed with making a rule work in all cases, did regularly ignore semantics. And anyone following those rules will insist on inserting the it in these cases, probably on the grounds that it helps avoid a possible momentary distraction. From a psycholinguistic point of view, there may be a point here, but it's hardly one that's likely to cause communicative interference. I doubt whether most people would ever even notice that an it was omitted in (3) and (5). And some, such as my correspondent, evidently find the usage with it intrusive.

(4) is a special case, as it's a badly constructed sentence, which could do with being rephrased anyway! Try reducing the sentence to its basic form and you'll see what I mean.

Monday, 18 August 2014

On courtly OP

Following on from my last post, I've had several emails from correspondents asking the same question. Did the Elizabethan court have an upper-class accent like today? If not, how did the upper-class characters in the plays show they were different from the lower-class ones, if they were all using the same accent.

The actor playing the Prince asked exactly the same question, when we were mounting the Romeo production in 2004. Director Tim Carroll had a simple response: 'act'! Indeed, if actors rely on their accent alone to convey a character, something has gone badly wrong. That's one of the irritating stage legacies of Received Pronunciation: I've often been told about actor 'laziness' - that all one has to do to convey a posh character is to sound posh, and the accent will do all the work. And conversely, of course, that all an actor has to do to play a lower-class character is to sound rustic. There's so much more to it than that.

The question betrays a misunderstanding of what OP is. OP is a phonology, not a phonetics. In other words, it represents the sound system of an earlier period in the history of English. Just as Modern English phonology has an indefinite number of phonetic realizations, so does Early Modern English phonology. In other words, there are several accents in OP. When we performed Romeo at the Globe, we had a Scottish-tinged Juliet, a Cockney-tinged Nurse, a Northern Ireland-tinged Peter, and so on. But everyone reflected ths OP system in the way they spoke - for example, saying musician as 'mu-si-see-an', or pronouncing /r/ after vowels.

So of course there would have been differences between different parts of the country, and between the way the court and city people spoke and the way people spoke in the countryside. Indeed, Shakespeare says as much, in As You Like It, when disguised Orlando notices the way Rosalind speaks: 'Your accent is something finer than you could purchase in so removed a dwelling' (3.2.329). But what was that court accent? Was it 'like today'?

It was nothing like RP. RP evolved as an upper-class accent towards the end of the 18th century. In Elizabethan times, you could have a strongly regional accent and still reach the highest levels in the kingdom. We don't know exactly how Elizabeth spoke, but Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh were from Devon, and the judge Thomas Malet observed of the latter: 'he spoke broad Devonshire to his dying day'. When James brought his court down from Scotland, suddenly Scottish accents were everywhere. Francis Bacon describes James's speech as 'swift and cursory, and in the full dialect of his country'. And we know from observations such as occur in John Day's satirical 'The Isle of Gulls' (1606) that people would copy the discourse of the court. That play may even have been presented with both Scottish and Southern accents, judging by the observation of Sir Edward Hoby, in a 1606 letter, that 'all men's parts were acted of two diverse nations', and that - evidently King James didn't like it - some of the actors ended up in prison for their pains.

At the same time, we know from a famous quotation in George Puttenham's Art of English Poesie (1589) that poets were recommended to use 'good southern' - 'the usual speech of the court' or of the surrounding area to about 60 miles, and to avoid those from the north and west who used 'strange accents or ill-shapen sounds'. If there was no RP, what might this have been? We get a clue from Holofernes, who is thought to be based on a real-life spelling reformer, such as Richard Mulcaster. He knows how to read and write, and insists on pronouncing every letter. It's a natural process, still encountered today, when people pronounce the /t/ in often because, they say, 'it's there in the spelling'. So, for example, a court accent would almost certainly have pronounced the /h/ at the beginning of a stressed syllable, because it's there in the spelling. And that assumption immediately allows us to explore some interesting dramatic contrasts in OP. When A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed in OP at Kansas University a few years ago, the court characters and lovers kept their /h/'s and the mechanicals dropped them (unless trying too hard, in their play scene), as did the fairies. That allows Puck to emphasise the /h/'s when he is copying Demetrius and Lysander - a posh 'manhood', for example.

What all this points to is the existence of 'educated regional' accents, much as we have today. 'Modified RP', as some would say - or, even more recently, modified 'General British'.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Read, OP Definitely Not Dead

Well, that's been a roller-coaster of an OP ride. Three events, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe. All three sold out, and hugely appreciative audiences. If you've been to the Globe, you'll know that audience reaction at the end of a play typically takes the form of a huge 'Globe roar' that I'm sure can be heard in St Paul's across the river. We got one too. But it didn't travel so far, because, of couse, we were indoors.

What an amazing space the Playhouse is. A replica, insofar as historical knowledge allows, of the indoor Blackfriars theatre, for which so many of the plays were designed. There were two reasons Ben and I were delighted to be presenting there. From my point of view, you could hear the OP perfectly. When we did Romeo and Troilus in the main house, back in 2005-6, the effect was diminished by the helicopters and general Thameside noise. In the Playhouse, you could hear pins dropping. Every OP feature, therefore, had to be top quality, and - thanks to the ensemble training in Ben's company - it was the best OP I've ever heard.

From Ben's point of view, it was an opportunity to explore the physicality and auditory dynamic of this, as he put it, 'new-old space'. Among the things we learned was the importance of the central corridor, if an actor was to be seen by all (including those in the steep upper-gallery), and the amazing opportunities for interaction provided by the balcony. At ground level, the need to keep moving if actors are not to block the view of those seated at the side stage-left and -right. The ensemble training enabled Ben's company to do this almost instinctively. Shakespeare's company had worked together for so many years that they would have known each other's acting style backwards. Ben's intention was to replicate this dynamic as far as possible, and I think it worked.

This involves the use of cue-scripts. I'd never worked with them before, but they change your whole approach to a play. In a cue-script, the actors receive only their individual lines, plus a cue - the last few words of what the previous speaker has said. This makes you listen to your fellow-actors in a very different way, and introduces an alertness into the acting that is at times electrifying. The Playhouse is a hugely intimate space, with the actors' very close to the audience. The company learned that even the slightest of movements travelled - they compared it to acting for the screen - and of course the OP travelled too. No need for projection here. As Ben said at one point, 'the words and space will do all the work for you'.

This was especially important in the second event of the series, Songs and Sonnets. How do you read the sonnets aloud, so that they can be heard without having to belt them out? In this space, it was easy to generate a quiet, reflective, and moving style. But it took an afternoon of rehearsal for the actors to internalize this. And, at the other extreme, the space also allowed the rousing songs (such as the 'hey nonny nonny' chorus) to come across with a vivacity that almost forces the audience to join in.

The first event was a general introduction to OP. Now that was a delight for me. I've often introduced OP to an audience, but giving the examples myself. Sometimes I've had Ben with me to help. But here was a whole company at our disposal! As a result we could explore the effect of OP in texts that I've never heard it used in before. For example, we dramatized the First Folio prefaces by Ben Jonson and Heminge and Condell (the latter has some lovely humour - 'BUY IT'). And we did the 'four captains' scene from Henry V, where for the first time I heard OP in distinctively Welsh, Irish, and Scottish accents. People sometimes think of OP as if it was a single accent. Early Modern English of course had the same kind of accent diversity as we encounter in Modern English.

The final event in the series, Macbeth, was a huge success - according to the audience, who said so in the talkback session that followed, and also in the Twittersphere, and, already, in a review of the occasion by Eoin Price. This wasn't just because of the OP. Indeed, if people left the theatre saying 'Wasn't the OP interesting?' then we would have failed. No, as ever, the play's the thing. And there were so many fresh ideas in this production. And cheeky moments. The witches were like playful kids, yet full of powers and scared stiff of Hecate. In classic Globe style, they played hide-and-seek before their Hecate scene. The First Witch comes on and mouths 'Where are they?', prompting one member of the audience to shout 'She's behind you!'

Another one. This was a Read Not Dead production, which meant that all actors are obligated to have their scripts in front of them. There were some hilarious moments in rehearsal as a consquence. 'Dead Banquo arrives and asks plaintively, 'If I'm a Ghost do I still carry my script?' And in the final scene, when Macduff approaches the showdown with Macbeth, he begins his speech by saying 'I have no words' - and drops his script on the floor! Much appreciated by Globe aficionados.

But the impact of the production as a whole was as Ben and I wanted it to be. The freshness of the dramaturgy was enhanced by the stimulus of the OP. It made the actors see (or perhaps better, feel) their characters in a new light, and the way in which lines were being freshly heard sparked off interactions and interpretations that I found novel and enticing. Several theatre people who were present have since told me they want to explore OP in their own settings. And Ben's hoping to take the series on tour, though that all comes down to money in the end.

There's a brave new OP world out there awaiting exploration. A dozen Shakespeare plays have been done in OP to date. That leaves another 25 or so still do. Not to mention Jonson, Marlowe, Marston, Middleton...

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.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

On 'I would have liked to have studied'

A correspondent writes to ask if I could explain the difference in the meaning between the following sentences: (1) I would like to have studied philosophy. (2) I would have liked to study philosophy. (3) I would have liked to have studied philosophy.

The underlying issue is one of focus. Where is the perfective meaning inherent in the auxiliary verb have being focused? In (1) the liking is now and the studying is some time in the past. In (2) the liking is some time in the past (and thus the study). In (3) both the liking and the study are in the past.

Because, by implication, the study is in the past in (2), usage guides have taken against (3), on the grounds that it's unnecessary. Fowler, for example, was against it. In his article on the 'perfective infinitive' (in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage), we see him arguing that because 'the implication of non-fulfilment [is] inherent in the governing verb itself', examples like (3) are to be avoided. He adds:

'Sometimes a writer, dimly aware that "would have liked to have done" is usually wrong, is yet so fascinated by the perfect infinitive that he clings to it at all costs, & alters instead the part of his sentence that was right.'

He gives as an example: 'He would like to have insisted' and corrects this to 'He would have liked to insist'.

Note the 'usually'. A lot depends on the context. If this is unequivocally past time, then it makes sense for the pastness to be focused on the governing verb, otherwise there's an awkward or impossible sequence of tenses.

John used to work as a bouncer at the club for a low wage. He would have liked to be paid more, but...


John used to work as a bouncer at the club for a low wage. He would like to be paid more, but...


John used to work as a bouncer at the club for a low wage. He would like to have been paid more, but...

However, if the context begins in the present time, and later switches into the past, then we might indeed hear:

John is working as a bouncer at the club for a low wage. He would like to have been paid more, but it was all he could get at the time...

We can feel the speaker's focus shifting from one time-frame to another, and dragging the 'have' along with it. I've talked about this sort of thing before on this blog (eg with sentences like 'I've seen him three weeks ago').

Such sentences are thus more likely to be encountered in speech than in writing. They show some of the characteristics of a blend. In writing, Fowler's recommendation is usually followed by other style guides. But why is the 'double have' construction 'wrong'? I see a place for (3), if the writer wants the perfective aspect of both the liking and the studying to be emphasised. It's a bit like using a repeated negation. The two uses of nor are omissible in the following example, but it's easy to think of contexts where the emphasis would be desirable.

John doesn't like broccoli, nor cauliflower, nor beetroot.

It's less obvious in the case of would have, but the principle is the same.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

On not posting since/from last year

A correspondent writes for advice on the use of from and/or since in the sentence I have been here since/from the end of June. He says: 'Since screams out to me and from grates, but I find it difficult to explain why'.

The difference is essentially to do with a focus on the end-point of the period in question. The normal usage is since, as the 'have been' verb form focuses the attention on the beginning of the time period, and says that this time is currently relevant. From focuses the attention on the end-point of the time period (as in 'from X until Y'), and this clashes with current relevance, as that time period is over. We would normally see from used with other verb forms, therefore (I am/will be in London from Monday to Friday or I stayed there from January to March).

The operative word is 'normally', as sentences like the one used by my correspondent can certainly be heard by native speakers. What's happening is that they are blending two constructions - something that happens a lot in spontaneous speech. There's been a change in mental focus while the sentence is being said. A similar switch explains 'I've seen him a week ago'. I talk more about blending in the paper I gave to IATEFL last year - downloadable from my website (go to Books and Articles and type 'blends' into the search box).

[Footnote, for those who have noticed: this is a post after a relatively long period of bloglessness, due to various book projects coming to the boil at the same time. The first of these, Words in Time and Place, is an introduction to the historical thesaurus of the OED, and will be published by OUP in September. As with any lexicographical project, the grind of working through words, whether semantically or alphabetically, leaves little time for much else. Surfacing at the end of Z is a bit like coming out of social hibernation.]