Monday 27 August 2007

On Mlabri

Coincidentally, having mentioned the splendid film about endangered languages, 'In Language we Live' in yesterday's blog, now arrives through the post the latest film from the Danish company who made it, Final Cut. It is called 'The Importance of Being Mlabri'. The Mlabri are a small tribe of about 200 living in Northern Thailand. They figured briefly and memorably in the first film - memorable, from a linguistic point of view, for the way they use striking leisurely high-to-mid falling intonation patterns on the last syllable of their sentences. The effect gives the language an entrancing appeal, which I'd not heard in other languages - almost as if they are singing to each other, at times.

Now directors Janus Billeskov Jansen and Signe Byrge Sørensen have devoted a whole film to the Mlabri, who are desperately trying to preserve their way of life within a society where other groups, notably the Hmong (Outsiders, as they call them) are dominant. The film is an extraordinary portrayal of the community. It is told entirely in Mlabri, with English (or Danish) sub-titles. The people seemed totally unconscious of the camera, and it is as if we are part of their village. The film was motivated by the fact that the language is endangered, but languages are people, and what we see here is the threat posed to the tribe as a whole.

Language preservation depends on several factors. It is partly a matter of economics, and we see the difficulties the tribe has in finding jobs and making ends meet. It is partly a matter of marrying within the tribe, and we see the difficulties young men have in finding a wife, when there are so few single girls in their own community. They have to travel to other Mlabri villages to see if there is anyone there. It is also a matter of inter-generational transmission, and in a hugely moving sequence we see a group of Mlabri children leaving the village and going away to boarding school in the nearby city for the first time. We follow them there and see them in their classroom learning English. And we see them return to their village at the end of term, and sense the uncertainty of their (relatively uneducated) parents and elders as they try to come to terms with what is happening to their (newly educated) children. Will they retain their Mlabri language and identity? It would seem so. Throughout all the difficulties emerges clearly the spirit and sense of identity of the people, who in this film symbolize the plight of hundreds of communities round the world.

Anyone concerned about endangered languages should see this film. Beautifully shot and edited, it is one of very few attempts (so far) to tell an endangered language story in real detail. Final Cut Productions is based in Copenhagen: Forbindelsesvej 7, DK-2100 Copenhagen. Contact Signe Byrge Sørensen: I wish it well.

Sunday 26 August 2007

On not being on TV

Someone has just asked me why they hear me often on radio but never see me on TV. Well it's not actually never, but it's certainly rare. If I recount my TV experiences this year, you'll see why.

About a year ago I was approached by the UK office of ABC, the Australian TV network, wanting to do a profile for a series. This is the filming that took place: an hour's talk followed by discussion and an interview at last year's Hay winter litfest; a morning at Shakespeare's Globe, talking about Shakespeare with Ben; a blustery half-day walking around locations where I live; a couple of hours of interview at home. Oh, and because they wanted a more personal public talk than the ones I usually give, they asked me to put together a special bio-talk which was recorded at a local venue, the Ucheldre Centre - that took a couple of days' preparation along with the performance.

And the result? A piece lasting some six minutes, called War of Words, in which I was set up as part of a confrontation with Lynne Truss, whom they had also interviewed. Nobody had told me this was going to happen. I must admit I had wondered why the interviewer kept asking me for my thoughts on Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, but thought this was going to be just one topic among several much more important ones - such as endangered languages. There are editorial cuts which make my position seem more extreme than it is. I actually think there's a lot of good stuff in Lynne's book, and say so, in these talks. None of that was left in - well, it wouldn't make good television, to have people agreeing with each other, would it. Somebody has put it up on YouTube, though I can't imagine why.

Four days for six minutes? I doubt whether anyone would think this was a good use of time. If it were a one-off, it wouldn't be so bad. But it is par for the course. Also earlier this year I agreed to take part in 'The C-Word'. A whole morning's filming in Caernarfon. I was sent a list of about 20 questions in advance which they wanted me to answer. I was told this would be a major part of the programme, because they wanted to give this sensitive topic a serious treatment. The questions were good, and the interviews - taking well over an hour - allowed me to explore the history and phonetics of the word in some detail. The result? About a minute, on just one point, in an hour-long programme.

So why do I do it? Because it's part of the job. If you're keen on popularizing language ideas, then you can't ignore TV. And I'm an optimist. Each time I think it's going to be better than last time. And mostly I'm wrong.

I guess it's the occasional good result that keeps me optimistic. For instance, I was pleased with the result of the documentary on English accents and dialects in Wales, made for BBC Wales as part of the Voices project in 2005, called 'The Way They Say It'. You can see a few clips at BBC Wales. But the problem was the same: for that 50-minute programme, we recorded well over 30 hours of material.

So I much prefer radio, which on the whole gives you a fair return for the effort you put into it, and isn't scared of 'talking heads'. And as I have a studio at home (the nearest BBC studio is 25 miles away) it's easy to do quick interviews on topics, as they come up.

The other point, as I've mentioned in a previous post, is that TV isn't as interested in language as it should be. I would certainly do more documentary stuff if I were asked, but that rarely happens. I've tried half a dozen times, in collaboration with various producers, to get a major series about language onto television, but none of the proposals have ever been taken up. The commissioning editors I've encountered think that language is abstract and boring - a consequence of bad experiences in school, I suspect. One actually said to me once, 'You can't possibly think that parsing would make good television!' I pointed out that language is people, and people make good television. But the suspicion was too great.

So it hasn't been that I haven't tried. I tend to respond best to enthusiasm from others, so I've spent much more time in recent years working with film documentary producers - mainly in relation to endangered languages - who have a proper respect for the subject. A good example is 'In Languages We Live' . And as some of these films end up on television anyway, maybe I'm on it more than I think.

Which is where we came in.

Tuesday 21 August 2007

On the H Quarto of Hamlet

A further follow-up to my recent Edinburgh talk is a query about the previously unknown 'H' Quarto of Hamlet, which I discovered in a drain in Stratford earlier this year. I uncannily anticipated this when I wrote By Hook or By Crook, where I included a few lines as an example of language play, not realizing that I would have the good fortune to discover a genuine manuscript a couple of years later. The manuscript demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that Shakespeare suffered from octoliteraphilia - a loving obsession with the eighth letter of the alphabet.

I include an extract from this amazing work in my talk about the book, which has led someone to write and ask if there could ever be an opportunity to read the whole play, or is it still the subject of scholarly analysis. The answer is yes to both questions. An edition of the H Quarto is available (as print on demand or e-book) via my website, - see the Crystal Books Project.

On HarryPotterlinguistics

One of the bonuses of giving talks at book festivals is that you add vastly to your range of examples. I've been taking By Hook or By Crook around the litfests this year, and I always come away after each event with new stuff - personal stories about inventing words, puns, dialect usage, and so on. And sometimes a new (to me) source of data. This has just happened after the Edinburgh Book Festival, where I was talking last weekend. One of the things I discuss in the book is the linguistic contrast between the British and American editions of Harry Potter. I had no idea that there was a website devoted to such a thing - but there is. Someone who was at the talk has just told me about it. The URL is at Harry Potter British English .
I've just had a browse and it is a very interesting site, identifying all kinds of points of linguistic difference. The forum responses are pretty accurate, too, judging by the ones I looked at.

I describe By Hook or By Crook as a linguistic travelogue, and - as I say in the preface - it is the side-roads that produce some of the most enjoyable encounters with language. The Web is full of brilliant side-roads - if you can find them. So, thanks to my correspondent Susi for the signpost.

Saturday 11 August 2007

On you know

A correspondent from Armenia writes to ask about the origins of you know as a parenthetical conversational 'filler'. Is it recent?

No. The Oxford English Dictionary has citations from the 14th century - though it isn't always clear whether the words are being used parenthetically or with their full meaning. I've just had a look at Shakespeare's usage (by typing 'you know' into the Glossary box at and found several apparently parenthetical instances, but the meaning isn't always clear. Which is it, when the Countess says 'You know, Helen, I am a mother to you' (All's Well, 1.3.133)? But it's clearly a filler when Falstaff says 'to serve bravely is to come halting off, you know' (2H4. 2.4.49). So the usage has definitely been around for a long time, and probably evolved as a weakening of the literal meaning, in contexts such as the one used by the Countess.

On bus

A South African correspondent writes to tell me of a nice noun/verb conversion. Evidently, someone who had graduated 'cum laude' told her that she had 'cummed her degree'. I hadn't come across that one before. And she asked about the unusual use of bus as a verb. Is this a new usage?

It certainly isn't. The Oxford English Dictionary has a first recorded usage of bus as a verb from 1838. But the word itself is unusual. It derives from omnibus, which is the dative plural of the Latin word omnis, so it means 'for all' - a 'vehicle for all'. I can't think of another instance where an old inflectional ending has risen to such English linguistic heights.

On informality in dictionaries

A correspondent writes from Brazil to say that it is his impression that the usage label Colloquial has virtually disappeared from English language dictionaries, being replaced by Informal. Is this true, and, if so, why? He notes that colloquial is still very much alive in Brazilian lexicography.

It does seem to be true. I can't remember the last time I saw colloq in a dictionary. I think the reason is that many of the early terms changed as stylistic labelling in dictionaries became more sophisticated - a consequence of the more linguistically informed lexicography of the past few decades. In the old days, it was assumed that the only words worth including in a dictionary were words from written English, assumed to be formal and standard. Anything from speech was then conveniently dubbed ‘colloquial’.

But once it was realized that both speech and writing contained both formal and informal varieties, the term colloquial was not so effective, because it lacks an antonym (apart from non-colloquial, and the like). Formal and informal, however, made a neat terminological contrast, and allowed in the notion of a scale of formality. I remember opting for this change myself, in some early stylistic work in the 1970s. In Investigating English Style (1969) Derek Davy and I used (in)formal mainly, with some reference to colloquial, but by the time we wrote Advanced Conversational English (1976), (in)formality was our norm.

Informal is also wider in its application, being equally at ease in relation to both speech and writing. Colloquial is very much bound up with speech: could one talk of 'colloquial writing'? And even in relation to speech, informal is more useful, as it enters more readily into collocations - one can easily say informal conversation, but colloquial conversation is a bit odd. So I'm not surprised really to see the terminological shift in dictionaries - at least, in monolingual English dictionaries. I've just looked at some bilingual dictionaries, and I see colloquial and formal used in a few cases, perhaps because the choice of terms has been influenced by a different terminological tradition in the other languages.

Friday 10 August 2007

On being the

A correspondent writes to tell me about an argument at a cocktail party recently. Evidently there was a NY Times wedding announcement stating: 'Jane is the daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Jones of ...', and somebody was arguing that this would be an improper usage if the Jones's had more that one daughter. My correspondent argued that it wasn't necessarily so: ' Something about the special nature of the announcement suggests that to me. Any thoughts on the "right" answer?'

I think my correspondent is right: context is everything, when it comes to the use of the definite article. There are occasions when the usage the daughter would be misleading, if the parents had more than one daughter. If I say 'I'm going out with the daughter of Mr and Mrs Jones', it does suggest that the Jones's have only one, and if you knew that they had more than one you would be well within your linguistic rights to pick me up on it: 'Which one?' A more appropriate sentence would be 'I'm going out with one of Mr and Mrs Jones's daughters'. When the situation allows a choice between one and more than one, then the regular distinction between the and a applies.

But this is a wedding announcement, where the focus is on this particular bride, and nobody is thinking of the other twelve daughters that are in the Jones household. It is a fact that she is 'the daughter of Mr and Mrs Jones'. And here, at her wedding, she is the daughter, indeed, who they must be feeling very proud of. There is no choice between one and more than one here. So there is no ambiguity.

In any case, what would be the alternative? 'Jane is a daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Jones'? That sounds to me as if she's being given away rather casually. Of course, one could always avoid the issue altogether: 'Jane, daughter of....

There is probably a larger linguistic issue here, to do with the way articles are used with family members. I just asked my wife who she was, in relation to her mother. She said: 'I'm the daughter of Audrey Norman'. She is the only daughter. I then asked her about her brother Martin's relationship to her mother, and she said: 'He's the son of Audrey Norman'. But she has two brothers. Family members seem to ask for definite treatment, regardless of how many they are. 'Come and meet John. He's the uncle of Jane'. How many uncles has Jane got? We don't know. Nor do we know in the more natural 'He's Jane's uncle'.

I wonder if the usage developed early in kinship language as an extension from those family members who are necessarily unique - the mother, the father, the mother-in-law, the father-in-law - and where sentences such as 'Let me introduce you to a mother of Jane' are definitely anomalous!

On liking being

A teacher of English from Hong Kong writes with a grammatical question. 'I have spent many years teaching students the difference between stative and dynamic verbs and telling them they can't use stative ones in the continuous. However, I'm quite delighted to hear that you obviously can, as so many native speakers are now doing so. Thus I'm hearing (you see!) 'I'm not believing you.', 'I'm not understanding.', 'I'm liking it.' as well as the ubiquitous 'I'm loving it.' This seems a very positive change which I shall teach my students. To me 'I'm not understanding.' implies 'I might understand if you keep trying to explain.' 'I'm not believing you.' 'Keep trying and I might.' 'I'm loving it.' 'Whatever 'it' is is not of permanent concern to me.' I have two questions: Is this a permanent change and, if so, when are teaching materials going to catch up with it?'

Many grammarians (see, for example, the big Quirk grammar) emphasize that stative and dynamic are best viewed not as two types of verb but rather as two potential uses of a verb - much as countable and uncountable nouns are best viewed as two uses of nouns, in view of examples like 'some cake vs a cake. The idea is that the norm is for verbs to be used in both ways, with the appropriate change in aspectual meaning taking place. Those which disallow one use or the other are then seen as the exceptions, such as *I'm owning three cars.

Why is this sentence odd? As your examples illustrate, the sense expressed by the continuous form is one of 'activity in progress', and as own is a notion which doesn't have any sense of progress, it would be contradictory to use a grammatical form which suggests that it does. The meaning of the verb has got to allow a dynamic meaning before it can be exploited in this way.

You have to watch the grammatical context, of course. While it is perfectly possible to say I'm liking it, you can't do so with a clause complement (*I'm liking to visit libraries). So it's important not to give students the impression that they can use continuous forms willy-nilly. Having said that, some varieties of English (especially Indian English) have long been distinctive in the extent to which they use continuous forms, even in contexts which would be ungrammatical in British English.

The usage is by no means new. It seems to have grown in frequency during the early Modern English period. Very early usages include Jane Austen 'it was being very deficient' (in Emma, 1816) and Keats 'I was not existing' (1820), and the usage seems to have become more widespread during the 19th century and after. There's a nice discussion in the essay by David Denison in the Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol 4, p. 143ff.

I can answer your first question: It's definitely a permanent change (for the forseeble future, at any rate). But how long it takes for teaching materials to reflect such changes is well beyond my ken.

Sunday 5 August 2007

On schwa

A correspondent from Brazil writes to ask about the origins of the phonetics term schwa, used to identify, for example, the English mid-central vowel sound of unstressed the or the final vowel in sofa, and written with an inverted e.

The unabridged Oxford English Dictionary is very good on this. This establishes the origin in Hebrew grammar, where sheva was the name of the sign placed under a consonant letter to show the absence of a following vowel or, in some positions, the sounding of a neutral vowel. In this sense, there are citations in English from as early as 1582. The term was adopted by 19th-century Germanic philologists to identify similar sounds in Indo-European languages, and the symbol was included in the International Phonetic Alphabet when this was devised in the 1880s. The first OED citation for the word in English is 1895, and subsequent usage spells the word both as schwa and shwa, though the former is much more common.

The etymology seems to be that sheva develops a usage as shva in German, and then becomes spelled as
schwa, and thus arrives in English.

Thursday 2 August 2007

On Pitmatic

A Radio 4 listener writes to ask if I can provide details of the dictionary which has been compiled on Pitmatic. She heard me talking about this on the Today programme this morning, and didn't catch the title - which was hardly surprising, as the Today presenter, curiously, didn't bother to give it! It's by Bill Griffiths, and it's called Pitmatic: the Talk of the North East Coalfield, and it's published by Northumbria University Press at £9.99.

Pitmatic is the name given to the dialect which was used by the miners. It was originally called Pitmatical - someone, doutbless thinking of the craftsmanship and precision involved in the work, thought up an analogy with mathematical. It's a fascinating dialect, all right, preserving usages that have been lost in the standard language and illustrating coinages from the miners themselves. I suppose pits everywhere developed their own dialects in this way, but it's rare to see someone bothering to document them, and there's something about the north-east which is special - after all, we talk about 'carrying coals to Newcastle' and not to any other part of the country.

The publicity surrounding Bill's dictionary says it's the first compilation of this dialect. First modern compilation, certainly - but it's always dangerous to claim a first in anything to do with the lexicon, given the thousands of word-buffs who made collections of words in the 18th and 19th centuries. And indeed, I found a few years ago in a Hay bookshop an earlier collection - A Glossary of Terms used in the Coal Trade of Northumberland and Durham, published by John Bell in Newcastle in 1849. It'll be interesting to compare this with Bill's collection, to see what sort of changes have taken place. Here are some examples from the 1849 booklet:

kenner an expression signifying time to give up work, shouted down the shaft
kibble a wooden tub used in conveying rubbish
kirving a wedge-shaped excavation
kist a chest
kitty a piece of straw filled with gunpowder

It's nice to see dialect collections given such publicity - in the press, radio, and television this week. And doubtless this is not the only blog to refer to it.

Mind you, having said that, I know it doesn't take much for a language item to be dropped from a programme. Readers of this blog might be interested to know how interviews of this kind are set up. It usually starts with a phone call from a programme's researcher, who wants to talk about a possible topic for inclusion. Usually these people have spotted a media piece and think it's good for radio or tv treatment. That's what happened in this case, for a piece on Pitmatic appeared in the Guardian on Monday. (It often happens the other way round. I'm sure that in some papers tomorrow there will be a reference to Pitmatic as a result of some journalists having heard the item on Today. The media are always stealing from each other.) This preliminary discussion is often a complete waste of time, because in my experience for every initial contact that turns into a piece on air there are five which don't. Still, it's part of the job, if you're a language popularizer.

The researchers explore the topic with you, basically trying to get an angle which would be of interest to the programme, working out what kind of contribution it might be, who else might be involved, the sort of questions that the programme presenter might ask, and seeing if you are available. They then take the information to a production planning meeting and promise to phone back. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. In this case they did, and the result was an early-morning call. I have a radio studio at home, so I didn't have the problem getting to a studio. (That's why I invested in an ISDN line and reporter's box years ago, to allow easy access. Previously, it would have meant an hour's trek over to the nearest BBC studio, in Bangor.)

Even so, despite all the preliminaries, you have to be ready for changes of plan. For instance, I was told that Bill would be on the programme first, talking about his book - but (I learned later) he was on breakfast tv instead. So when the item was introduced I was taken aback when the presenter came immediately to me. Nobody had bothered to tell me he wasn't going to be on. And then a couple of minutes in there was some interference from another channel (this sometimes happens when you do something down the line), so the interview came to a premature end, and Thought for the Day started early. Hey ho.

Fortunately this morning we didn't have a major piece of news (such as Paris Hilton breaking a fingernail) taking up all the time available. I've lost track of the number of times I've been asked to do a radio piece, and then the producer calls and says sorry, but something more important has cropped up. 'Drop the dead donkey' is the expression. I remember being stopped in full flow when a local radio station decided that covering the start of Mr Blair's resignation speech live was much more important. Really! In this case, I had a feeling that they would keep the item, as they had found an archive piece of Geordie miners talking to each other, and radio loves to present that kind of thing. But still, I have fantasies that, one day, language will take priority as a media topic. 'Postpone that interview with George Bush announcing his resignation because we have DC talking about dialects.' Yeah, right.