Friday, 17 May 2019

Notes on English after the CSCUK 60th anniversary event

In my last blog post, I blasted the UK government for the ridiculous situation some of our overseas students are in thanks to its draconian, sweeping reaction to the English language testing scandal.

This post is about overseas students, the opportunities studying in the UK affords them, the role of English in that, and just how brilliant they are.

Last night, I attended an extremely uplifting event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission in the UK (CSCUK).

The CSCUK provides a number of different types of funding for postdoctoral study at UK universities for applicants from countries in the UK Commonwealth, including Master's and PhD scholarships and post-doctoral fellowships. They are particularly interested in supporting applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds and to promote equality and inclusion.

If you are interested in what they offer, have a look at the CSCUK webpages.

I am currently an assessor in the area of linguistics and phonetics.

Applicants are likely to be bilingual in English and (at least) one other language.

One of the things I enjoyed most about attending the event was the opportunity to hear the award-winners talking about their research. At the exhibition, I learned about studies on topics ranging from intelligent prosthetic limbs and antenatal programmes for expectant mothers in rural locations to renewable energy and food security. I particularly enjoyed hearing about one project that looked at how encouraging schools to get children playing outside and doing sports - including 10000 steps a day - had reduced mental health difficulties experienced by those children. The researcher explained how, in her country (in Africa), playing outside was seen by children and parents as something "poor people" did, and therefore not desirable to be caught doing it; having access to computer games and social media was seen as more aspirational (i.e., "rich people" did it). There were, therefore, challenges on several levels ... but rising mental health issues were a major concern (as they are in the UK). She was using her research to help enact a change in educational policy.

Of course, another reason I enjoyed hearing the award-winners talk about their research was the range of post-colonial English accents. Music to my ears! And such eloquence, too. One current PhD student working on a complicated systems engineering problem explained her study so well in non-technical English that I congratulated her on her explanation. We have to write non-technical summaries in all research grant applications, and they can be a real pig to get right, no matter what English-speaking background you are from.

Something else which struck me as I circulated was the narrative around something called linguistic imperialism.  This is basically when a language is used as an imperialistic device - i.e., that language is imposed on indigenous people to assist the colonising country in extending its power. In Britain's colonial period, the use of English was often described in this way. The continued use of English by indigenous (often British- or American-educated) elites in post-colonial countries and territories is seen as a continuation of linguistic imperialism, where language is used to separate elites from other social groups in order to help them (elites) hold on to power.

I got into a conversation with one student looking at architecture in an African country. She explained how European ideals have been imposed in recent years which have resulted in buildings being built which are just not fit for purpose, and with materials that have to be imported which are difficult to source locally and sustain.  There was a need, therefore, for locally-suitable adaptations to fit the requirements of the environment. I told her that this had parallels with the spread of English, the language being imposed on people, but not necessarily able to express the cultural and physical needs of those people. This can result in misunderstandings which, in turn, result in their needs not being recognised or supported. Local adaptations can and should be made (often through code switching and mixing) to enable the language to better express the situation in which it is used.  Architecture and English are not so far apart, then.

In Hong Kong, English is seen as a "value-added language" - i.e., if you can use it well, it adds value to you as a prospective employee or from a social angle. While some have claimed that it continues as a tool of linguistic imperialism, the suggestion is that Hong Kong people simply don't see it that way. It's part of their identity.  In India, some see English as a neutral language which can be used as a lingua franca to level the playing field between people from diverse linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds.  While there is still the notion in both countries that being able to use English affords social prestige, the situation is very different from the days of the British Empire.

I'm proud to be part of a group which offers funding to people from Commonwealth countries, and also mindful of the fact that we are expecting award-winners to be able to operate at a high level in English.  To have the opportunity to study with us in the UK through one of these scholarships, an applicant's English must be outstanding. CSCUK's stated objective - to support those from disadvantaged backgrounds - gives me hope that these outstanding scholars have mainly risen up from less advantaged beginnings, and have come to use English as a resource to help them initiate positive change as a result of their studies. Being bilinguals, they should have the linguistic tools to help them do so in their own contexts and beyond.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Weaponised language: English, test centres, and UK immigration

I think I can speak for most of my colleagues when I say that we really enjoy teaching overseas students.  In my English in the World class, the mix of UK finalist undergraduates, visiting undergrads from places like France, Spain, Japan, Germany and Italy, and MA TESOL / Applied Linguistics students, most of whom are from overseas, makes for a lively and informed discussion which simply could not happen if it were not for the overseas student contributions. Overseas students enrich the learning environment in a way which brings immeasurable benefits, in my opinion; in my English in the World class alone, it allows home students to get a better understanding of the history and role of the language globally, and have first-hand experience of different varieties. And I am proud of the fact that our overseas students want to come to the UK and study at our universities. Overseas students: you are WELCOME.

This is not the message sent out by our government, however - and I am appalled by this.  I had understood the main issues to be the changes in visa arrangements for overseas students, including the inability to stay and seek work in the UK post-qualification, and the amount of monitoring academics now have to do of students on Tier 4 visas (for students not in the European Economic Area or Switzerland).

But no.

I knew there had been problems with some of the centres running tests of English, but it now turns out overseas applicants and some who are already studying in the UK for whom there is no evidence of cheating are having their visas cancelled, denied or - in extreme cases - being forcibly removed from the UK.  Many have asked to sit tests again to prove their proficiency and therefore eligibility to study in the UK. This has fallen on deaf ears.

I am not saying that people whose English is not up to the rigours of academic study in the UK should be admitted if they are applying for student visas.  But I believe strongly that - at minimum - those who are already here and being forcibly removed (around 1000 students/applicants, according to the article in the Guardian today), many mid-way through their studies, should be given the opportunity to be reassessed - if they desire it, having been subject to the current hostile environment in the UK.

Come on, Conservatives.  Stop sending out this message that overseas students are part of a wider problem. In order to provide a rich learning environment for all our students, engendering cultural awareness and understanding, the UK needs them.  These isolationist policies have no place in UK Higher Education.

The English language should not be used as a weapon like this.  Those days should be long gone. Let us use it to unite, not divide. 

Friday, 2 February 2018

Sumer is icumen in, and the wind is passing ...

This morning, I was interviewed by Andrew Peach on his BBC Radio Berkshire breakfast show on the provenance of the word fart.  The QI Elves are doing a show in Reading and have published 10 facts about the town, asking for more obscure facts in the run up to their visit.

Apparently, the manuscript containing the oldest known song in the English language, Sumer Is Icumen In, was found in Reading Abbey. It contains the word fart.

The British Library has a good page about the manuscript, and I've pinched the picture:

Manuscript of Sumer Is Icumen In from the British Library
Manuscript of Sumer Is Icumen In, written around 1280 AD
In Middle English, the word is uerteþ - you can see it at the end of the third line. The thing that looks like a p is called "thorn" and is the same as the sound at the end of bath, and the u at the start of the word is actually pronounced more like v.  It would have sounded a bit like "ferteth". In the song, the ewe bleats after the lamb, the cow lows (moos) after the calf, the bullock stirs and - depending on the translation - either the stag or the goat farts. Life goes on as normal in springtime in the rural landscape of the 1200s.

You can hear Sumer Is Icumen In sung here (link in case you can't see it):

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, the word fart is found in Sanskrit.  People have been talking about farting - using a word similar to the modern English one - for a very long time.  Etymologically, English probably got the word from the Anglo-Saxons, who started to arrive in Britain in earnest in the 5th century.  English is basically a Germanic language with lots of embellishments from other languages for all sorts of historical reasons, and many of our basic words are from German (e.g., house, man, wife, and, land, hand ...).

The word fart is considered taboo by many.  It is certainly a humorous word and a humorous concept. We have many euphemisms for it, including pass windlet one off, and the Australian shoot a fairy.  

But has fart itself always been a taboo word?  There's an informative blog post on the subject from Strong Language which shows that it was used freely in situations as diverse as politics, poetry, and handbooks for children well into the 1700s.  My favourite fart poem (yes, I do have one!) was written by the Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling in the 1600s, and goes as follows:  

Love is the fart of every heart.
It pains a man when 'tis kept close
And others doth offend when 'tis let loose.

Do feel free to post your fart poetry and euphemisms below!

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

100 years of the English Pronouncing Dictionary

As we approach English Language Day on 23rd April, I thought it would be a nice idea to write a short blog post about the English Pronouncing Dictionary (EPD), which I co-edit with Peter Roach (principal editor) and John Esling (American English, from the 18th edition). This is especially salient as it is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, being first published in 1917. We marked this at a special Pre-Conference Event of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group and a Cambridge University Press event at the 2017 IATEFL Conference in Glasgow.

The EPD was created by British phonetician Daniel Jones, who was head of the Department of Phonetics at University College London. Jones is credited with coining the term 'phoneme' in 1917, too, so it was a bit of a special year all round for the subject area. Jones had collaborated on a dictionary project prior to the EPD but, rather than listing headwords orthographically in alphabetical order, that version had listed the headwords in phonemic script first, with the spelling form following. It was not a best-seller.

Daniel Jones.
The EPD was first published by Dent, who continued to produce it until the late 1980s, when it was bought by Cambridge University Press (CUP). During the Dent years, Jones produced a further 11 editions, with A. C. Gimson stepping in as editor following Jones's death in 1967. Gimson produced two editions, the 13th as sole editor, and the 14th with the support of Susan Ramsaran, who finished the work following Gimson's death in 1985.

I first got involved with EPD in its 15th edition. I'd been doing an MA at Leeds, where Peter was based at the time, and was invited to join the team; I am listed as 'Pronunciation Associate' on the title page of EPD15. From this edition, it was decided to add American English pronunciation as well as British English, and so James Hartman was brought on board. The other exciting thing about this edition was that it was being computerized using the impressively-named 'Advanced Revelation' database software. My main work at the time was to go through all the existing pronunciations ('prons') in the database to check they were up to date and entered properly, syllabify them according to the principle of Maximal Onsets, and add new prons for words coming in from CUP after consultation with Peter and Jim; we added more than 18,000 new words at the time. What that usually entailed was me researching and suggesting both British and American prons and Peter and Jim agreeing, disagreeing or augmenting the suggestions with additional variants. 

Apologies for the huge understatement, but the English language has changed rather a lot since 1917, pronunciation included. Peter was very much against using the term RP to describe the reference accent in EPD (now CEPD) as he perceived it to be outdated and associated with the upper classes. For British English, he prefers the term 'BBC English', and for American English we use 'Network English'. The idea is that these are the accents used by professional speakers on national broadcast networks in the UK and USA; these are educated speakers who could come from any demographic.

Cambridge University Press have produced an engaging video on CEPD to mark its 100th year. I love the way the narrator trills his /r/ when he pronounces 'American'!

So, what next for CEPD?

There are no current plans to produce any further print editions of the dictionary; it is now available through the Apple and Android app stores (accessible via the video above), and CUP have told us that the way forward (as I write) is electronic editions only. However, as well as adding new words to the dictionary from time to time, there may come a point at which we will have to evaluate whether BBC or Network English are relevant anymore. John Wells, Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at UCL, has written of EPD that it 'has set the standard against which other dictionaries must inevitably be judged'. In order for that to continue, we may want to add prons for something like Standard Global English - whatever that might look like - or make changes to the current transcription systems to reflect the pronunciation of future Englishes. The phonemic system of transcription is fairly robust and forgiving, but it wasn't so long ago that we added happY and thank yOU vowels, which are non-phonemic. 

Will we want to add glottal stops, for example? 

And can the CEPD continue to be a suitable reference point when English is developing so fast around the world? 

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

You say "lee-doh", I say "lye-doh" ...

When I was a child, it was quite a fun thing on a summer's day to visit Margate Lido. My dad had an early morning newspaper stand outside it for several years, and sometimes I'd be with him on a Saturday morning (mum worked part-time at the Green Shield shop) and we'd go to the lido after he finished selling his papers.

In the UK, a lido is an outdoor swimming pool with individual changing rooms arranged around and facing on to the pool, often with seating around it, and sometimes with a café or somewhere else to buy a cup of tea and an ice cream. Here's a picture of a lido from the BBC; this is Pontypridd Ynysangharad park lido.

Image result for free images lido

While most people visit lidos in the summer, they are also popular with cold-weather swimmers (I haven't ever been one of those - brrrrr!).

There has been discussion in Reading recently about the future of the lido at King's Meadow, originally built in 1902, and to be renamed "Thames Lido" when it re-opens. This sparked some interest from the local BBC radio station, BBC Berkshire, about how the word "lido" should be pronounced. Is it "lee-doh" or "lye-doh"?

As far as I am concerned, if it's an open-air swimming pool in the UK, it's a "lye-doh". This is how my dad said it and, when people talk about other lidos in the UK, I have never heard them called "lee-dohs" (one of my friends commented on Facebook that she couldn't imagine anyone calling Tooting lido anything other than "lye-doh"). However, a significant number of my friends say "lee-doh", the one in Venice is definitely a "lee-doh" ... and if you're American, it seems, "lee-doh" is the only possibility - check this clip from Legally Blonde (OK, I realise that's a sample of one).

For information, the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary - which I co-edit - gives /ˈliːdəʊ/ as the first variant, followed by /ˈlaɪdəʊ/.  I'm clearly not following my own pronunciation here.

So why the difference?

Lido is an Italian word which we have borrowed into English, as with so many other words which help us to express a multi-word concept ("out-door swimming pool", in this case) with one word. English is fine about borrowing in other words as long as there is a gap to fill. Think about all the different types of coffee servings we've borrowed from Italian; it's so much easier to ask for a cappuccino than for a very strong coffee with frothed milk on the top. The Italian pronunciation of lido is more like "lee-doh" and, if you have traveled extensively and/or know Romance languages like French or Italian and do not know of, or do not frequent, open-air swimming pools in the UK, you are unlikely to know and/or use the "lye-doh" variant. A friend also commented that, if you know the band Roxy Music, you may also say "lee-doh", as it appears in the song Do The Strand, in which it is (partially) rhymed with incognito (at 2:50 in the YouTube video below).

Not every town has a lido - weather good enough for open-air swimming is not that common in the UK - and the people who originally used lidos tended to be those who could not afford holidays abroad. Such people were more likely 1) not to have come into contact with the word abroad and 2) to pronounce it "lye-doh" based on English spelling rules, i.e., if there is a vowel followed by a single consonant followed by another vowel, the first vowel "says its name", in this case, /aɪ/. But they could also have been calling it a "lye-doh" because their peer group did that. The fact that my dad said "lye-doh" and I have this pronunciation for the UK ones is an indicator of my social background, i.e., we were working class.

Click here to listen to me on BBC Berkshire, and skip to about 02:09:00.  

We move on from the discussion of the pronunciation of lido on BBC Berkshire to cover other contentious words in British English, such as scone, and I mention various accent and dialect maps developed at the University of Cambridge, which are fascinating - and there's now an app which allows you to contribute your variant of several words to the research. How people use language can tell us a lot about how society has changed and developed, and looking at maps where there is a comparison between the 1950s and now is a real eye-opener. I've nicked the scone map from Reddit as a taster. 

Image result for scone accent map

Friday, 30 September 2016

The future of those tricky "th" sounds

A number of newspapers have reported this week that the "th" sounds will die out by 2066 in British English (here's an article in the Daily Telegraph)*. How likely is this assertion?

Dental fricatives [θ] and [ð], spelled "th" in English and found in words like thin and this respectively, are very low incidence in languages of the world; they are found in fewer than 50 of the world's 6000-7000 spoken languages**. In some cases, they only occur because of a phonological process. For example, [ð] appears in Castilian Spanish between two vowels, where it is an allophone of the phoneme /d/.

Dental fricatives are also late acquired in English - i.e., children start using them later than some other consonants.  SLT Info, for example, explains that English-speaking children do not start using them until around four years of age, while some consonants, such as /p/, /b/, /m/ and /w/ (what's the common factor here?), are produced as linguistic sounds as early as the age of two.

Most new varieties of English around the world do not use dental fricatives.  Hong Kong English speakers, for example, produce /θ/ as [f] (three sounds like free) and /ð/ as [d] (this sounds like diss).

There are also accents of British English which have been around for a very long time which do not use dental fricatives. Do any British readers of a certain age remember the Qualcast advert "It's a lot less bovver than a hover" (see around 48 seconds)?  This works because accents such as Cockney, for example, have been substituting dental fricatives for other sounds for some time. /ð/ word initially is often produced as [d], and between two vowels as [v], as in this advert. /θ/, just like Hong Kong English, is produced by Cockney speakers as [f]; in fact, as a child learning Maths, when the new teacher arrived who was ethnically Chinese and from Hong Kong in the 1970s, we all thought she was from London as she pronounced Maths as /mæfs/.

Producing /ð/ as [d] is known as stopping - i.e., the fricative is produced as a stop or plosive consonant - and producing /ð/ as [v] and /θ/ as [f] is known as fronting - i.e., the fricatives are produced further forward in the mouth, in this case, as labio-dental fricatives.  These are both processes which are common in developing child language in English.  Some varieties of English stop /θ/, so it is produced as [t] or similar; Southern Irish accents do this, as does Jamaican English.

Given that dental fricatives are very low incidence in languages in the world, late acquired, and often substituted in regional and global varieties of English, it is not really a surprise that they are predicted to die out at some point in the future. This might be down to multiculturalism, or it might simply be because they seem to be of less importance in international communication in English. Which is it? It might be difficult to decide.

Update, 03/10/2016

* This was in the context of multilingualism in British English. My discussion looks at other issues.

** My Twitter colleague Ben Zimmer (@bgzimmer) has found that there are at least 112 languages with dental fricative phonemes.

Monday, 19 September 2016

International Talk Like A Pirate Day: musings on the pirate accent

Avast, me hearties! Arrrr!

September 19th every year is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Started by John Baur and Mark Summers as a bit of a private in-joke in 1995, it took off in 2002 when it was picked up by Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry. But where does that pirate accent come from?

The stereotypical one we hear most often in films and on TV shows has similarities to current South-Western accents of mainland Britain, e.g., Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Cornwall. While it is likely that many British pirates originated from that region, others did not (I grew up in Kent, for example, which is also associated with pirates and smugglers).  What we associate with the typical pirate accent may well be based on well-known actors’ portrayals of pirates, with Dialect Blog suggesting the speech of the entire genre was based on 1950s screen actor Robert Newton, who was born and raised in Dorset.  

Interestingly, this is not the direction Johnny Depp decided to go with Captain Jack Sparrow, whose accent – if the trivia is correct – was based on Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards (Richards appears as Sparrow’s father in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End).  In fact, although Geoffrey Rush does a pretty close approximation to the stereotypical pirate accent, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has pirates with accents of English from all over the world, including rather posh ones (e.g., Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan), Jamaican ones (e.g., Tia Dalma), as well as Russian, Turkish, Chinese and Dutch; this was probably nearer the truth. One theory of pidginisation is known as the 'nautical jargon theory', which observes that many Pidgins have nautical words in them (e.g., the word capsize to mean 'turn over' or 'spill') and may have arisen from the development of a common language on board ship during European colonial days; that certainly has piratical connections. 

But what of the British pirate accent?  As the ‘traditional’, swash-buckling period of pirating is generally situated in popular culture somewhere between the 1500s and 1800s, we would expect the British accent during this time to be rather more close to that of the pirates from the 1950s films than Johnny Depp’s mock London.  British English was rhotic, which means the sound represented by the letter ‘r’ in spelling would have been pronounced everywhere it was written; this is certainly a feature of the pirate accent.  And anyone who listens to David and Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare in Original Pronunciation (from around 2 mins 50 seconds) will hear other vowels and consonants which we associate with the stereotypes of how pirates speak.

International Talk Like A Pirate Day is such fun; perhaps we should think about talking like other character types. 

Something more modern perhaps? 

Talk Like Siri day, anyone ..?