Friday 27 November 2009

On hip-hop Shakespeare

A correspondent (son Ben in this case) has sent me a link to an amazing BBC Blast programme, being broadcast today, which I just have to share. It tells the story of how hip-hop artist Akala worked with a group of young people off the street to present Shakespeare's Othello in his genre. Ben did a workshop with them, and uses the hip-hop parallel in his book Shakespeare on Toast, where he uses an Akala quote at one point.

It's an unexpectedly moving experience, to hear the familiar lines used and reinterpreted in this way, supplemented by the hip-hop rhythms and rhymes. Throughout there's a respect for the original text that is impressive, and the encounter with the play was evidently a Pauline experience for some of the group. One affirms he's going to read more Shakespeare. Another, on a visit to the John Rylands Library in Manchester, to see a real First Folio, talks about feeling humbled at the sight. From being scared about the language they end up mastering it. All evidently fall in love with the poetry of the lines, and perform it well. The extracts from the final performance are enthralling.

Having a blog allows me to congratulate Akala and the whole group in a public way which would not otherwise be possible. Any teacher who's having trouble getting the message across to a class of reluctant teenagers that Shakespeare is relevant, accessible, and generally fantastic will find this programme immensely helpful. I just hope that the BBC will make it widely available in due course.

One of the best bits for me - and something which will surprise a lot of people - were the sequences where lines in Shakespeare and hip-hop lyrics were mixed up, and people were asked to tell which was which. Most got the answers wrong. And I must admit I had trouble myself once or twice.

The show will be online for several days, so if you've got a spare hour, watch it. If you've ever doubted the proposition that Shakespeare can be made interesting to young people today, this will change your view. Here's the link:

Othello Retold.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

On for/in ages

A correspondent writes to ask why (2) is odd, for him, when (4) is OK:

(1) That's the worst book I've read in ages.
(2) ?That's the worst book I've read for ages.

(3) I haven't read a good book in ages.
(4) I haven't read a good book for ages.

'Is it something to do with the verb being negative?', he asks.

There are several factors here. First, intuitions may vary between British and American English, as the in construction is especially used in the latter. That aside, there is definitely an effect of negation, as these sentences show:

(5) I haven't read a book in ages.
(6) *I have read a book in ages.

There is also a difference in meaning:

(7) I've been reading that book for ages.
(8) I haven't been reading that book for ages.

In (7), the action is included in the time span - 'it has taken me a long time to read the book, and it's still going on'; in (8) it isn't. (8) is equivalent to 'It's been ages since I was last reading that book'.

So, to return to (2), here we have an action (the reading of the worst book) which is evidently over, so we need a sentence like (8): 'I haven't read such a bad book for ages'. However, the positive sentence suggests an inclusive meaning with ongoing duration (cf 7), which is anomalous - hence my correspondent's disquiet.

Monday 23 November 2009

On Twitter prompts

A correspondent from Valleywag wrote last week to ask if I saw anything interesting in the Twitter decision to change its prompt - from 'What are you doing?' to 'What's happening?'.

I do think this is interesting. My impression is that Twitter has become steadily more discursive over the past few months, with people maintaining threads and introducing a great deal more interaction, rather than posting isolated tweets. As a result the focus has shifted from the individual to the group, and a more open question is required to capture this emphasis. 'What-doing' looks inward. 'What-happening' looks outward. It's a natural development, it seems to me.

I love one of the reactions to the Valleywag post. Someone suggests that a much simpler prompt will emerge one day: 'Sup?'

Sunday 22 November 2009

On or so

A correspondent writes to ask if he is allowed to say I've spent the past hour or so in the hall to mean 'less than an hour'. He thinks he uses or so to mean 'roughly', and this allows a meaning of less as well as more. His friend disagrees. What do I think?

The OED definition suggests it could be either: 'or about that amount or number; or thereabout' (so, sense 33b); but the examples tell a different story. The first recorded usages are from Shakespeare, as follows:

If I could go to hell for an eternal moment or so (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2.1.50)
Some two thousand strong, or so (Twelfth Night 3.2.59)

The first couldn't conceivably mean 'less than a moment': or so here means 'one or a bit more'. The second is an estimate by Sir Toby Belch of how much money he has had from Sir Andrew Aguecheek. If the money was counted up and found to be only £1990, nobody would accuse Belch of being a liar. It is a vague estimate only. Here, or so means 'more or less'.

This suggests a working principle: the force of the phrase depends on the quantity involved. With small numbers (and especially when the number is just one) the sense is driven upwards. I could not possibly use an hour or so to mean less than an hour. This upwards direction I think is always present, but its force diminishes as the numbers increase. So, I could say 1500 or so people read her blog, suggesting that it is more, but allowing (if challenged) that the figure could be less.

There may also be an effect from the noun that is being quantified. Time-scales are determinate, so an hour or so allows little flexibility. But I think there was an audience of 20 or so at the theatre allows the possibility that there were 19 (or so) because audiences are unpredictable.

I'd be interested to know if anyone has a different intuition about this.

On between each

A correspondent asks for my views about such sentences as There will be an intermission between each act. Is it acceptable?

Well, not according to Fowler, for example, who adopted a very strict line about the usage of between: 'it must not be followed by a single expression in which a distributive such as each or every is supposed to represent a plural'. Similarly, between was not supposed to be used for more than two entities (among being recommended instead).

All this despite the fact that, from the very earliest recorded uses of between, we find it used in situations where more than two entities are involved. As the OED puts it, in a useful note (between V.19):

It is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually, among expressing a relation to them collectively and vaguely: we should not say ‘the space lying among the three points,’ or ‘a treaty among three powers,’ or ‘the choice lies among the three candidates in the select list,’ or ‘to insert a needle among the closed petals of a flower.’

However, over the past 250 years or so, prescriptive grammarians have privileged the etymology of the word (tween - 'two'), though often failing to live up to their own prescriptions. Dr Johnson was especially influential, when he wrote in his Dictionary:

Between is properly used of two, and among of more ...

However, he adds:

... but perhaps this accuracy is not always preserved.

And indeed it isn't. Boswell records Johnson himself as saying:

I ... hope, that, between publick business, improving studies, and domestick pleasures, neither melancholy nor caprice will find any place for entrance.

Between each has a similar history. Prescriptive grammarians would insist on my correspondent's sentence being rewritten as something like There will be an intermission after each act - ignoring the problem that there is no intermission after the last act. Fowler would have suggested a change to ...between each act and the rest, which is momentarily confusing. There really is no easy alternative - which is presumably why the between each usage is frequently found in literature over the centuries. Here's an early example from The Passionate Pilgrim, a text from Shakespeare's time:

Between each kiss her oaths of true love swearing...

Gowers (in his Plain Words) called the fuss over between each 'pedantry', and advises us to 'ignore' those who insist on restricting between to its etymological meaning. I agree.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

On being welcome

A correspondent writes to ask about the modern usage of you're welcome as a politeness formula used in response to an expression of thanks. Is it an Americanism?

Certainly the usage is very frequent today, in some parts of the world. It seems to have become the expression of choice in service environments (such as responding to customers in a restaurant), and it has been seized (I suspect with some relief) as an easy response by service personnel who have English as a second language. It isn't the only option: expressions such as no worries (eg in Australia) and no problem are also heard. But it isn't modern, in the sense of 'recent', nor is it especially American. The OED has a first recorded usage of 1907, but it didn't take me long to find an earlier instance. Here's a British example from the mid-1850s - Dickens' Little Dorrit, Chapter 2:

'I thank you,' said the other, 'very heartily for your confidence.'
'Don't mention it,' returned Mr Meagles, 'I am sure you are quite

Where does the usage come from? It's a natural development of the earlier greeting when someone says 'You are welcome' to a visitor. This has been in English for hundreds of years. Here's an example from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (4.2.72):

Pedant: God save you, sir.
Tranio: And you sir. You are welcome.

It's a very short step from here to the usage in question.

When did the change take place? Difficult to say. There would have been a transitional period in which people would have reacted uncertainly to the usage. I've been looking for examples, and think I may have found one. What do you make of this, from Thackeray's The Wolves and the Lamb, Act 1, written at the same time as Little Dorrit?

MRS. PRIOR. Oh, how thoughtful it was of your ladyship to ask me to stay to tea!
LADY K. With your daughter and the children? Indeed, my good Mrs. Prior, you are very welcome!
MRS. PRIOR. Ah! but isn't it a cause of thankfulness to be MADE welcome?

Is Lady K's response to Mrs Prior a politness formula, or a literal welcoming? My feeling is that it is the former, and this prompts Mrs Prior to focus on the latter.

There's nothing unusual about that kind of reaction. We hear it still, when people encounter a usage change and draw attention to it by focusing on the earlier meaning. Here's an example I heard the other day at an airport, where B was saying goodbye to A, who was about to take a plane:

A: See you later.
B: Not unless the plane has a puncture.

A was using the phrase, very common among young people today, to mean 'see you the next time I see you'. But for older people, it has to mean 'later the same day' - hence the comment.

So, my feeling is that you're welcome as a politeness response was arriving in the mid-19th century. If anyone comes across an earlier example, do share it.

Saturday 14 November 2009

On singing accents

A correspondent writes to say he's noted that regional accents disappear in songs, or at least become less detectable, and wonders if there's an explanation.

This is true, as a general observation, and there two reasons for it. The first is phonetic. Several of the main identifying features of a regional accent tend to disappear when singing - the intonation (obviously, as a melody replaces it), the speech rhythm, and vowel length (for many syllables are elongated). Vowel quality is also often affected, especially in classical singing, where vowels are articulated with greater openness than in everyday speech.

All of this can affect the artistry. I found a quote from Billy Bragg saying that a London accent forces a singer to approach melody differently. ‘You can’t sing something like 'Tracks Of Your Tears' in a London accent. The cadences are all wrong. It’s also difficult to sing harmonies in a London accent. And you can’t sustain syllables for long'. It's not possible to generalize from this, because accents have very different norms - different rhythms and rates of articulation, for example - but it's interesting that some singers have reflected on the issues.

The other reason for accent levelling in songs is social. Some singers want to drop their regional accent, because they want to sing like the fashionable mainstream. This has been especially noticeable in popular music since the early days of rock 'n' roll. Singers everywhere imitated Bill Haley and Elvis, and many still do. A mid-Atlantic hybrid quickly emerged, which levelled natural regional features. From his singing, who would ever guess where Cliff Richard comes from? Or Sting, Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, or Elton John?

However, it's perfectly possible for singers to retain an individual accent, if they want to, and many do. In fact, they've been doing it for years. If we listen to recordings of music-hall days, we'll hear broad Cockney, Lancashire, Scots, Irish, and others. You could hardly get more Cockney, for example, than in such songs as 'Any Old Iron' or 'Boiled Beef and Carrots'.

And now there are signs of modern pop music returning to its dialect roots. The Mersey sound was an early development. A Liverpudlian accent regularly stands out in the Beatles - such as (in 'Penny Lane') customer with a rounded first vowel and words like there and wear (in 'Only a Northern Song') with a central vowel (rhyming with her). I recall Paul McCartney saying (but I can't remember where) that the Beatles did experiment with singing in an American accent early on, but decided against it because it sounded ridiculous. Other early departures in the UK from an American-sounding norm (or, at least, a mid-Atlantic-sounding norm) were Tommy Steele and Joe Brown.

More recently we have the London accents of Ian Dury, Chas & Dave, and Lily Allen, and the rather more gentrified tones of Anthony Newley. Mike Skinner's accent is so noticeable (with its glottal stops, replacement of th by f, and other Cockney features) that it has been called Mockney. The accents of the Celtic areas of the British Isles are often heard. Listen for example to 'Daddy's Gone' from Glasvegas and you'll hear several local Scottish features, such as a rounded [y] in you, an [e] vowel in sitting, and plenty of glottal stops. Glottal stops are one of the things to listen out for, actually: you'll hear them in groups from different parts of the UK, such as Futurehead and The Rakes. Listen out too for the /r/ after a vowel in Irish accents, as heard in, say, Mary Coughlan (from the south) and Snow Patrol (from the North). And of course in rapping we regularly get a distinctive accent, because of the syllable-timed rhythm. But my impression is that, rapping aside, in hardly any case do singers use a consistent regional accent throughout the whole song. Mixed accents seem to be the norm.