Saturday 3 March 2007

On new branches of applied linguistics

A student, interested in maybe doing some linguistic research one day, writes to ask if there are any totally unexplored regions on the linguistics planet. I remember thinking about this for a paper I gave to the British Association of Applied Linguistics in 2002. A number of topics (or questions, if you prefer) came to mind where, even if the occasional study exists, there is certainly no established body of research. For instance:

There is as yet no field of 'theatrical linguistics' - or maybe 'theatrical phonetics' would be a better label - to answer questions like 'Why are some actors’ vocal performances more effective than others?' 'What was it exactly that made John Gielgud’s voice so memorable?' 'What phonetic techniques and materials might be devised to help actors and directors?' Actor son Ben tells me that, when he was training, it was really hard finding high-quality taped materials on regional accents, at the level of detail he would need for a particular character.

There is as yet no field of 'musical linguistics' to answer questions like: 'Why are some languages suitable to opera and not others?' 'Why is English the language of pop music?' 'Is there something about the structure of English which makes it suit rock-and-roll, or reggae?' I wonder if one could ever devise a more linguistically representative and diverse (i.e. non-English) Eurovision song contest?

There is as yet no field of 'forensic internet linguistics'. I went to a conference in Brussels in 2002 on Internet security in the face of increased threats from hacking, fraud, and cyberterrorism. A wide range of questions was being addressed to do with methods of spam exclusion, porn filtering, linguistic identification of forged messages, and so on, all of which presupposed a descriptive linguistic frame of reference for what I have elsewhere called ‘Internet linguistics’, and which hardly yet exists.

And there are other undeveloped branches of Internet linguistics. 'What kind of language should we use on the Internet?' 'How can Internet language be taught to children?' 'How does the arrival of the Internet impact on children’s abilities to read and write?' This might one day be a field called 'applied educational internet linguistics'.

Very little relevant work has been done. Even some very basic questions haven't been addressed - such as how to describe the linguistic features in use. To explore such topics as the difference between Gielgud and Olivier’s voices would need a fuller phonetic transcription of tones of voice than we currently have. Similarly, current transcriptions are not really capable of investigating musicological questions. For instance, how on earth does one transcribe musical quotations in speech - cases where a musical extract is given a generalized linguistic interpretation?

A common contemporary example is the theme from Jaws. The jocular expression of an approaching dangerous social situation is often conveyed by its ominous low-pitched glissando quavers. Try transcribing that. Or (to take other examples I have heard over the months in conversational settings - not always very well performed, but sufficiently recognizable for me to note them down): the theme from The Twilight Zone, Dr Who, Dragnet, the shower-room scene in Psycho, Laurel and Hardy’s clumsy walk music, the riff in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The extract may be highly stereotyped and brief. Someone who arrives in a room with something special may accompany it with ‘Ta-raa’, or the racecourse riff, or the whistled motif from Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Western films, or the chase music from a Keystone Kops film. Devotees of The Prisoner cult TV series introduce its musical motifs into their speech to the point where one would dearly like to see the balloon guardians of The Village appear and hustle them away!

I had a personal close encounter with a new linguistics field just a couple of years ago. At the beginning of 2004 I was approached to help the Shakespeare's Globe company in London put on a production of Romeo and Juliet in 'original pronunciation' - that is, as close as possible to how the words would have been pronounced in Shakespeare's time. I wrote it all up afterwards in a book, Pronouncing Shakespeare. But until then, I had never conceived that there might be a field called, roughly, 'applied historical theatrical linguistics'.


Anonymous said...

Quite thought provoking, at least for me.

I've been a history and language teacher in California Secondary Schools off and on for nearly 40 years. When I teach U.S. history I like to begin the year by giving students a photocopy of a page from Thomas Hariot's A BRIEFE AND TRUE REPORT OF THE NEW FOUND LAND OF VIRGINIA. I tell them that it is a page from a book published in 1590, and ask them to translate it into contemporary English.

We always have a good time with this assignment, and it never fails to begin productive conversations about historiography and the evolution of language.

I've just ordered a copy of Pronouncing Shakespeare from Amazon. I'm quite certain that I'll enjoy reading it when it arrives next week. Does an audio or video recording of the play exist? If so, is it available for purchase?

Thanks for this blog. I've enjoyed each entry to date, and look forward to future postings.

Bill Chapman

Anonymous said...

Reading through your earlier posts, I find my question about recordings of OP Romeo and Juliet answered. I guess I should have begun reading with the oldest posts first.

DC said...

Yes, in a January post: 'On Shakespearean r's', in the last paragraph. Just to amplify: the Globe records its plays using a single camera up in the roof, which gives a good general shot of what is going on, and you can hear the speech well enough, but for something like OP the quality isn't brilliant and there is often interference from passing helicopters or 747s! Still, the video records at the Globe are an amazing resource, though only available in-house. It's a hugely complex business, it seems, getting all the permissions and clearances together to put out a production for sale. So I was delighted when they agreed to put together a CD of extracts from Troilus, but even that was on the understanding that it was only for educational use.

Interest in OP continues to grow, however, and I've been asked to talk about it at the Bath Literary Festival next week and later in the year at Stratford. I hope a company will take up the OP torch and do another production. In the meantime, I'm just finishing a transcription of the Sonnets in OP, for Will Sutton, the 'sonnet marathon man' (he performed all 154 sonnets at the Rose theatre during the Shakespeare birthday weekend a while back).

Nice idea, to use the Hariot. I've used John Smith's writing with a similar intent. It's fascinating to see how regional vocabulary (for animals, Indian culture, etc) makes its appearance so quickly, in such writing - an early indication of the rapidity with which English adapts as it moves around the world.

Anonymous said...

When you use John Smith's writings, do you use something like Barbour's "translation" or facsimiles of the original pages? I guess Barbour published both side by side. (Or at least it appears so from the "Search Inside" feature at Amazon.)

Thanks for the additional information about recordings from The Globe.

DC said...

I like to use a facsimile whenever I can get hold of one. For this period of English, I find the differences aren't so great that a translation is needed. And fortunately, some nice editions are coming online, such as the Description of New England at Lincoln-Nebraska:

Anonymous said...

I'm writing a dissertation on spelling and any changes due to text messaging. could you point me towards key books to start my proposal?

DC said...

This is a great topic, because so little has been done on it. I have only a few paragraphs on texting in my Language and the Internet, though there is a fuller piece in a paper which you'll find on my website (in the Internet Language section). There's a bit more in my Glossary of Testspeak and Netspeak.

You'll find some papers on this topic in the online journal, the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication - an excellent resource for anyone interested in internet developments. Type 'JCMC' into Google and you'll find it. Then put 'text messaging' or some other relevant term into the search box, and you'll get some results.

An important point is to explore textspeak with reference to all the genres that have evolved over the past few years, not just to the routine daily messages that turn up on cellphones. Take a look at the entries in the Guardian text messaging poetry competitions, for instance (search on 'Guardian + text + poetry'). I reprinted a few in my 2006 book Words, Words, Words, p. 160. Or read some of the books produced by text poet Norman Silver, such as Laugh Out Loud. You'll find him online at

KateGladstone said...

If your Original Pronunciation project at the Globe Theatre ever does Pericles, what kind of English pronunciation will you use for Gower? (a medieval man speaking to an audience of the Renaissance, long after his death).

The historical Gower, like Chaucer, would have spoken an English in which the Great Vowel Shift had yet to occur: it would therefore have sounded very different from the English of Shakespeare's time (English part-way through the Shift). Would Shakespeare, or his audience, have had any idea of their ancestors' pronunciation of English, or did people in Shakespeare's day (like too many people in our own day) just incorrectly assume that no such vast changes in pronunciation had ever occurred?
It seems to me that Shakespeare and his contemporaries MUST have had some notion that pronunciation changed over time: what with the Great Vowel Shift going on, and some people probably doing more of it than others.
An upwardly mobile young woman of London, for example, might well have Shifted her vowels far closer to present-day English than her mom or dad who'd grown up somewhere Northern and rural: while the parents in turn would have shifted *their* vowels far more than the girl's grandpa still up on the farm. If even once in their lives, granddaughter and mother and grandsire all met and conversed (on a rare visit to London, perhaps), I cannot NOT imagine that the people involved wouldn't have come to notice that their vowels had, well, Shifted Greatly from one generation to the next. So, they might at least have an idea that Englishmen before their own day had spoken more differently still ... of course, this wouldn't mean that they could have understood an actor performing Gower in Middle English, but it could I conjecture) that they would have expected Gower to sound like the most old-fashioned speakers they themselves had heard or could imagine understanding?

Dare I suggest, then (if you have not considered it) that an Original Pronunciation PERICLES should have its Gower speaking in the most conservative Early Modern English pronunciation that a present-day audience can hope to decipher without training? (This may mean testing out various possible accents for comprehensibility to the linguistically naïve — perhaps playing recordings of different possible "Gowers" to some random selection of museum visitors or the like, in order to find the earliest one that they can understand when they hear it? It will help the audience that Shakespeare's Gower probably declaimed quite impressively and therefore quite slowly. One can far more easily understand slow declamation than, say, comic patter, if both deviate equally from one's own pronunciation.)

DC said...

EME writers were certainly aware of language change. Several of the orthoepists comment about new and old-fashioned pronunciations, for instance. And from a study of their recommendations it is possible to establish that there were conservative and modern accents coexisting in Shakespeare's lifetime. Indeed, Mercutio calls Tybalt one of the 'new tuners of accent'. There were also contemporary comments about how Chaucer was difficult to understand.

When we were doing the Globe productions, I gave conservative pronunciations to the older characters. For example, they pronounced musician with a 'see-an' ending, whereas the younger characters said it with a 'shee-an' ending. So yes, I would certainly give Gower as archaic a pronunciation as I could establish.

There's a lot of discussion these days about how long the Great Vowel Shift lasted, and whether there was one shift or two, and so on. But the evidence suggests that the majority of the changes would have been completed long before Shakespeare's time. It's essentially a fifteenth century phenomenon.

KateGladstone said...

Those who have learned about the Great Vowel Shift -- or perhaps heard it in action, thanks to reconstructed audio of earlier varieties of English -- may enjoy wearing the T-shirt which proudly proclaims (of its wearer) "I Survived The Great Vowel Shift." See and buy one at

Micheál Johnny Ó Meachair said...

Dear Professor DC,

Firstly, congratulations on the marvelous subject matter of this blog!
I'm currently writing a proposal to further the work I have just completed on what appears to be akin to your Internet Linguistics in the case of Gaeilge.. I really wish I had been a linguistics student at some stage so as that I could of taken advantage of a little more of the wealth of information you have published, alas, I've found it now anyway!

I am currently trawling you're Internet Language section and JCMC, but is there anything that you are aware of that would be more focused on minority languages? Do you think the likes of GoogleTranslate and now GoogleWave will help with minority languages such as Gaeilge, Cymraeg or Catalonian which they are translating into? In that, soon enough/now I could of probably left this message in "ga:" as it is now if I had no English and you could of at least gotten the jist of it.
I am currently translating the abstract of this MA thesis to English, if anyone would like to read it, just reply with a "yay!" and I can mail it.

DC said...

The subject is at last getting some attention. Here are two references. Peter Gerrand, Minority Languages on the Internet: Promoting the regional languages of Spain; B Danet and S C Herring, Ees. (2007). The Multilingual Internet: Language, Culture, and Communication Online.