The problem with stigmatising slang and dialect in schools

May 4, 2016

I have an article in the Guardian this week in response to yet another school cracking down on students’ use of slang, regional dialect, and informal language. It’s in the Opinion section and is titled There’s nowt wrong with dialects, nothing broke ass about slang.

(Pretend there’s a hyphen in broke-ass.) Here’s an excerpt:

Standard English is a prestige dialect of huge social value. It’s important that students learn it. But the common belief that nonstandard means substandard is not just false but damaging, because it fosters prejudice and hostility. Young people can be taught formal English, and understand its great cultural utility, without being led to believe there’s something inferior or shameful about other varieties. . . .

People feel strongly about correctness in language, but this strength of feeling isn’t always matched by knowledge and tolerance. And because children are sensitive to how they’re perceived, stigmatising their everyday speech can be harmful. By educating them about linguistic diversity instead of proscribing it, we can empower students and deter misguided pedantry.

I’ve been reading the Guardian for as long as I can remember, so I’m glad to finally write something for it. (That split infinitive is a bonus.) The comments section is proving lively, as you’d expect, and I’m joining in here and there. Your thoughts are welcome at either location.


John E. McIntyre follows up at the Baltimore Sun, where he elaborates on ‘why schoolteachers’ policing of language is so misguided’.

toy story woody buzz meme - slang dialect linguistic diversity

Six videos about language

February 17, 2016

Rather than wait for the next linkfest to share these videos about language – there’s no telling when that would happen – I thought I’d bundle them all together. Most are bite-sized.

First up is Arika Okrent, whose book on conlangs has featured on Sentence first a few times. Her YouTube page has a growing selection of clips on various aspects of language, their charm enhanced by animation from Sean O’Neill. Here’s a recent one on animal sounds in different languages:

At The Ling Space, Moti Lieberman and team are prolific makers of entertaining videos aimed at people learning linguistics or interested in it. The Ling Space Tumblr blog supplements the videos with further discussion. This one is on the anatomy of the human voice:

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Dread of the telephone

February 6, 2016

Bruce Sterling’s entertaining 1992 book The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier contains a brief, lively history of telegraphy and telephony. (Since reading the paperback I’ve learned that the book is also available online and in podcast form.)

In the mid-1870s the US had thousands of telegraph offices and hundreds of thousands of miles of telegraph wire: as communication technology it was thoroughly established. The telephone began inauspiciously, often considered more toy or parlour trick than momentous innovation. It took a little while for its particular value to become apparent. Sterling:

After a year or so, Alexander Graham Bell and his capitalist backers concluded that eerie music piped from nineteenth-century cyberspace was not the real selling point of his invention. Instead, the telephone was about speech – individual, personal speech, the human voice, human conversation, and interaction. The telephone was not to be managed from any centralized broadcast center. It was to be a personal, intimate technology.

When you picked up a telephone, you were not absorbing the cold output of a machine – you were speaking to another human being. Once people realized this, their instinctive dread of the telephone as an eerie, unnatural device swiftly vanished. . . . The real point was not what the machine could do for you (or to you), but what you yourself, a person and citizen, could do through the machine.

I’m old enough to remember the world before mobile phones and the internet, let alone smartphones, back when house phones were central to real-time remote communication. Technology has again let us change our preferred modes of remote interaction, and the use of phones as a channel for speech has declined precipitously.

For some people, wariness and even dread of phone calls are creeping back.

[click to enlarge]

Candorville comic by Darrin Bell - never answers the phone

Candorville comic, 13 May 2012

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Ye, youse and yiz in Irish English speech

January 25, 2016

In modern standard English, you as second person pronoun serves a multitude of purposes: singular and plural, subject and object, formal and informal. It wasn’t always so.

Centuries ago the language had singular thou and thee, plural ye and you. The numerical distinction then changed to one of register: thou and thee for familiar use and for speaking to children or people of lower social standing; ye and you for marking courtesy or respect.

Gradually ye and you shifted to the default position, supplanting thou and thee, which were marginalised to regional, religious, and archaic use. Then ye began to wane, for a variety of reasons, until you had taken centre stage as the pronoun of choice in singular and plural uses in all registers – but not all dialects.

Hiberno-English is one dialect where ye is found: I grew up using it in the west of Ireland, and I find it extremely useful. Ye behaves much like you: we have yeer ‘your’, yeers ‘yours’, ye’ll ‘you’ll’, ye’d ‘you’d’, ye’ve ‘you’ve’, ye’re ‘you’re’, and yeerselves ‘yourselves’ (all plural).

These are far more often spoken than written, so they’re less codified than the standard paradigm for you. But I would still consider ye’re ‘your’ in this Irish Examiner article an error (yere without the apostrophe is less wayward):

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Actors’ use of gibberish

January 12, 2016

Harriet Walter, in her book Other People’s Shoes: Thoughts on Acting, describes an exercise in actors’ training which is designed to ‘break the language barrier and stretch one’s physical invention’.

Named Gibberish, it is:

harriet walter - other people's shoes - thoughts on actingthe practice of substituting what was in the script with our own gobbledegook. The purpose was to release us from the constrictions of another person’s words, to bypass ‘meaning’ and send us straight to a creative source we might not know we had. With Gibberish we could burst our civilized seams and see what else was there. Who were we when released from the conditioning shackles of our hereditary patterns of speech?

At LAMDA [London Academy Of Music & Dramatic Art] we invented fabulous hybrid languages (mostly based on soundtracks from Swedish, Russian or Japanese movies) which broke the mould of our familiar accents and tones. We rediscovered the infantile pleasure in making noises and letting them reverberate to the ends of our toes.

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Gender differences in listening signals

June 9, 2015

Deborah Tannen, in her 1991 book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,* describes how easy it is for a speaker to get the wrong idea about a listener’s behaviour if the listener is of the opposite gender.

Referring to ‘A Cultural Approach to Male-Female Miscommunication’ (PDF), a 1982 paper by anthropologists Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker, Tannen notes that women are more likely to ask questions and give more listening responses: using ‘little words like mhm, uh-uh, and yeah’ throughout someone else’s conversational turn to provide ‘a running feedback loop’.

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‘The nicest no I ever heard’

June 5, 2015

In Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999) is the transcript of an interview conducted under the auspices of the AAAS, in which Feynman recalls his very first formal lecture. As an undergrad working with John Wheeler the pair had formulated a new theory of how light works, and it was considered interesting enough to warrant a seminar.

Richard Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - Penguin book coverEugene Wigner, who had suggested the seminar, felt the theory was sufficiently important to appeal to various luminaries of physical science, and duly sent special invitations to Wolfgang Pauli, John von Neumann (whom Feynman calls ‘the world’s greatest mathematician’), astronomer Henry Norris Russell, and Albert Einstein, who lived nearby.

Feynman, then aged 24, was understandably daunted, but he reports the situation with characteristic humour:

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