Friday, 4 April 2014

On talking about language to little ones

A correspondent tweeted a problem: 'My 5 year old keeps asking who decided all the words. Can you recommend any reading around this for her age?'

What a sharp 5-year-old! And a tricky one to answer. I've written about language for young people, but never as young as that. A Little Book of Language was primarily aimed at young teenagers - a memorable experience for me because, to check I'd got the level right, I had it read by a 12-year-old. I'd rather have a book critically reviewed by Chomsky! She pulled no punches.

In 2012 the NSPCC published a lovely little book called Big Questions from Little People. It took 100 questions asked by children and got experts to answer them. A few were linguistic:

Why can't animals talk like us? (Noam Chomsky)
Who wrote the first book ever? (Martin Lyons)
How did we first learn to write? (John Man)
Why do we have an alphabet? (John Man)
Who named all the cities? (Mark Forsyth)
Why do we speak English? (me)

It was so successful it published a sequel in 2013 called Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? This time the language questions were:

Do spiders speak? (George McGavin)
If you shouted in space, would you hear anything? (Ben Miller)
Do animals like cows and sheep have accents? (John Wells)
How do we learn to speak? (Gary Marcus)
Why do we have books? (Maria Popova)
Do babies think in words or their own language? (Charles Fernyhough)
If oranges are called oranges, why aren't bananas called yellows? (Philip Gooden)
Is silence a sound? (Quentin Cooper)
Why do cats 'miaow', cows 'moo' and sheep 'baa'? (David Bellos)
How many languages are there in the world? (me)

Some of these questions were asked by children as young as four. Finding a way to answer them that accommodates sucessfully to the age is really hard.

For 5s, the ideal approach, to my mind, is to create stories with appealing characters, plots, and illustrations, and I've not come across many cases where writers have tried to introduce linguistic metalanguage (basic notions, such as 'words') in a story-telling way. Usually, such writing is for older children (aka adults), such as James Thurber's The Wonderful O. I devised an entire programme on this basis once, called DIAL ('Developing Ideas About Language', aimed at primary kids, and entirely story-driven; but (this was the 1980s) the publisher who commissioned the idea never went ahead with it. I've since been keeping an eye open for similar material. A lovely example is Cynthia Rylant's The Old Woman Who Named Things (1996). Maybe readers of this post will be able to provide some further instances: the crucial point is that the story must focus on at least one metalinguistic term.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

On 'I would have liked to have studied'

A correspondent writes to ask if I could explain the difference in the meaning between the following sentences: (1) I would like to have studied philosophy. (2) I would have liked to study philosophy. (3) I would have liked to have studied philosophy.

The underlying issue is one of focus. Where is the perfective meaning inherent in the auxiliary verb have being focused? In (1) the liking is now and the studying is some time in the past. In (2) the liking is some time in the past (and thus the study). In (3) both the liking and the study are in the past.

Because, by implication, the study is in the past in (2), usage guides have taken against (3), on the grounds that it's unnecessary. Fowler, for example, was against it. In his article on the 'perfective infinitive' (in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage), we see him arguing that because 'the implication of non-fulfilment [is] inherent in the governing verb itself', examples like (3) are to be avoided. He adds:

'Sometimes a writer, dimly aware that "would have liked to have done" is usually wrong, is yet so fascinated by the perfect infinitive that he clings to it at all costs, & alters instead the part of his sentence that was right.'

He gives as an example: 'He would like to have insisted' and corrects this to 'He would have liked to insist'.

Note the 'usually'. A lot depends on the context. If this is unequivocally past time, then it makes sense for the pastness to be focused on the governing verb, otherwise there's an awkward or impossible sequence of tenses.

John used to work as a bouncer at the club for a low wage. He would have liked to be paid more, but...


John used to work as a bouncer at the club for a low wage. He would like to be paid more, but...


John used to work as a bouncer at the club for a low wage. He would like to have been paid more, but...

However, if the context begins in the present time, and later switches into the past, then we might indeed hear:

John is working as a bouncer at the club for a low wage. He would like to have been paid more, but it was all he could get at the time...

We can feel the speaker's focus shifting from one time-frame to another, and dragging the 'have' along with it. I've talked about this sort of thing before on this blog (eg with sentences like 'I've seen him three weeks ago').

Such sentences are thus more likely to be encountered in speech than in writing. They show some of the characteristics of a blend. In writing, Fowler's recommendation is usually followed by other style guides. But why is the 'double have' construction 'wrong'? I see a place for (3), if the writer wants the perfective aspect of both the liking and the studying to be emphasised. It's a bit like using a repeated negation. The two uses of nor are omissible in the following example, but it's easy to think of contexts where the emphasis would be desirable.

John doesn't like broccoli, nor cauliflower, nor beetroot.

It's less obvious in the case of would have, but the principle is the same.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

On not posting since/from last year

A correspondent writes for advice on the use of from and/or since in the sentence I have been here since/from the end of June. He says: 'Since screams out to me and from grates, but I find it difficult to explain why'.

The difference is essentially to do with a focus on the end-point of the period in question. The normal usage is since, as the 'have been' verb form focuses the attention on the beginning of the time period, and says that this time is currently relevant. From focuses the attention on the end-point of the time period (as in 'from X until Y'), and this clashes with current relevance, as that time period is over. We would normally see from used with other verb forms, therefore (I am/will be in London from Monday to Friday or I stayed there from January to March).

The operative word is 'normally', as sentences like the one used by my correspondent can certainly be heard by native speakers. What's happening is that they are blending two constructions - something that happens a lot in spontaneous speech. There's been a change in mental focus while the sentence is being said. A similar switch explains 'I've seen him a week ago'. I talk more about blending in the paper I gave to IATEFL last year - downloadable from my website (go to Books and Articles and type 'blends' into the search box).

[Footnote, for those who have noticed: this is a post after a relatively long period of bloglessness, due to various book projects coming to the boil at the same time. The first of these, Words in Time and Place, is an introduction to the historical thesaurus of the OED, and will be published by OUP in September. As with any lexicographical project, the grind of working through words, whether semantically or alphabetically, leaves little time for much else. Surfacing at the end of Z is a bit like coming out of social hibernation.]

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

On Accent Week

On Monday 14 November I was asked to comment on BBC Radio 4's PM programme about the case of a schoolteacher in Berkshire whose Cumbrian regional accent had been criticised by a school inspector. Although it was acknowledged by her school that her speech was perfectly intelligible, it seems she was told she should nonetheless adopt something more southern. The story was picked up by the media, and the PM discussion was one of the consequences.

I was horrified that this kind of comment might still be being made. It was common enough a few decades ago, but times have changed, and people value regional accents so much more these days. The BBC itself had its wonderful 'Voices' project in August 2005, when a whole week was devoted to celebrating English accents in the UK, with every local radio station contributing, along with several specially commissioned programmes on national radio and TV. And we do hear regional accents on air much more these days. Listen to Susan Rae's lovely Scottish tones when she reads the news on Radio 4, for example. Or Huw Edwards' Welsh accent on BBC 1.

Anyway... after talking about this and a few other things, and listening to an extract from Dickens read in three regional accents, I ended my contribution with a flip remark to Eddie Mair. 'Why not do the whole of PM in regional accents one day?' 'Well there's a challenge', he replied. And I thought no more about it.

But what do I hear this week on PM? The challenge is taken up, in a small but significant way. They're calling it 'Accents Week'. Every day the 5.30 news is being read out in a regional accent - one that would not normally be heard on national radio (though common enough in local radio stations, of course). Yesterday (Monday) it was a male presenter with a fairly mild Cumbrian accent, notable for its pure 'o' vowels in words like 'go' - very Shakespearean! Today it was a female presenter from Merseyside, with a much stronger accent - 'work' pronounced as 'weark', and suchlike. I found it all enthralling, and all praise I say to PM for engaging in the experiment. I've no idea what accents will be chosen for the remaining three programmes. Listen in at 5.30 each day (or to Listen Again online) and you'll find out.

When you do listen, make sure you make a distinction between accent and professional style. To my ear, the Merseyside presenter wasn't as familiar with the formal Radio 4 news-reading style as her Cumbrian predecessor. A few words were produced a little too rapidly, and the various items of news weren't as intonationally separate as they ought to be in a news summary, tending to run into each other a bit. This is nothing to do with the accent, of course, and it's important not to 'blame' an accent for an issue that is to do with other factors, such as speed of delivery. Even RP presenters swallow their words at times, or drop their voices at a crucial moment so that you can't hear what's being said.

But these presenters, and the PM producers, have made an important contribution to the evolution of a climate of accent tolerance, in which organizations such as the BBC play a hugely important role. I'm delighted that the programme has taken this small step, and I hope it will be repeated - and not just by PM.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

On language celebrations

A correspondent has sent me a very welcome present. Long-time readers of this blog will know that a recurring theme is my concern to get language, languages, and especially endangered and minority languages, the recognition they deserve. For a decade now, I've been arguing that the domain needs three things: a suitably prominent prize (a sort of Nobel Prize or Templeton Prize - but for language); a House of Languages in every major city (doing for languages what Natural History and Science Museums do for science and Art Galleries do for the arts); and, at an everyday level, the introduction of a language dimension to annual celebrations, such as Christmas, anniversaries, and birthdays.

I don't know of anything happening in relation to the first. There are several low-level national awards, but nothing yet on a major and truly international scale.

The second has had a chequered history. The front-runner was the Casa de les Llengües (House of Languages) in Barcelona, which was due to open soon, but the plug was pulled last year following the Spanish economic crisis. That was eight years of planning down the drain. I was chair of its international scientific advisory committee, and I can testify to the enormous amount of work and enthusiasm that the Catalans put into this project. They mounted a very successful touring exhibition on the languages of the Mediterranean, and they had even found a building and were beginning to refurbish it. I went to the opening. All history now. Maybe, when the economy improves...

In the meantime, other new 'museum' projects continue to bubble away, on a smaller scale. The National Museum of Languages in Maryland, USA - has big plans and is very active, but needs as many members as it can get to take these plans forward. 'Our mission is to inspire an appreciation for the magic and beauty of language'. Excellent. And several other language spaces already exist, such as in Germany, Belgium, Lithuania, Canada, and Iceland.

There are promising signs. Mundolingua opened in Paris last month. The Humbolt-Forum in Berlin is in its early stages of planning a major Welt der Sprachen (World of Languages). And people have written telling me of similar ideas in the Netherlands, Italy, and Greece. When the economy improves. The important thing in all these cases is the focus on language and languages in general, not just on an individual local or national language. Several countries of course have museums celebrating the history of their own language (e.g. in Hungary, Norway, Brazil).

Did you notice the place that was missing, in all of this? The UK. There have been a couple of successful local initiatives, but nothing national and permanent. I've written about the sorry saga of The World of Languages project elsewhere (see the article on 'A London Language Museum' on my website.

But to my present. I suggested to the UK's Association for Language Learning a few years ago that they have a competition to get schoolchildren to draw greetings cards celebrating languages, and that exercise resulted in some wonderful creations. It's the sort of thing any primary school can do - and why not secondary, too, with online creations? If only this kind of thing could be done professionally, I thought. And now it has.

Ilona Staples, a visual artist from Toronto in Canada, has produced a stunning collection of 28 cards for various occasions, and sent me a set. She calls the series 'Working Words'. They're a colourful and diverse collection, covering invitations, romance, birthdays, thanks, seasonal, congratulations, greetings, and sharing news. The languages are a glittering array. From Australia we have Wagiman, Mangarla, Gamilaraay, and Ngarluma. From Russia, Udege, Forest Enets, Negidal, and East Coast Yupik. From Brazil, Tariana, Cocama-Cocamilla, Kwazá, Kinikinau, and Chiquitano. From Canada and USA, Kwak'wala, Hän, Potawatomi, Eastern Aleut, Wyandot, Nuxalk, Sechelt, Tsek'ene, and Cayuga. Plus Gadaba (India) and Greater Andamanese (Andaman Is).

You want to congratulate someone? Why not in Tsek'ene - Shòwanjàh - in a joyful green? Or a 'love you' card in Mangarla - Nyunturnana pukarri mana ('I dreamt about you') - in a gentle blue? Or a happy birthday in Kwak-wala - ix kasalala xis ma'yudlamxdamus - in happy yellow?

You can see her work on her website, and obtain cards by writing to Ilona Staples.

I'm still waiting for a Google logo celebrating the two big days of the language calendar: International Mother Language Day is one, on 21 February. The European Day of Languages is another, on 26 September. One day, maybe...

Monday, 11 November 2013

On tour (twice)

A blog silence always means Something Is Up. And internet time seems to move faster than time in the real world. 'It's been a lifetime since your last post', said someone at a talk the other night. Really? I looked to see. She was right. No posts in October. Even by my blogilatory standards, that's a first. I usually manage to post something each month. But this last month has been rather exceptional.

The reason. Hilary and I have been on an author tour for Oxford University Press for the book Wordsmiths and Warriors: the English-Language Tourist's Guide to Britain, which came out at the end of September (in the UK - the beginning of December in the USA). In fact we're in the middle of it right now. But we have a few days off before the next leg. So: time for a post.

Why 'exceptional'? Because authors' tours are very rare these days. In fact it's been a decade since my last one, and - the general economy and the costs of publishing being the way they are these days - I thought they were a thing of the past. But OUP have breathed new life into the genre. We've been to about ten places so far and another ten or so to go, before things wind down before Christmas. Location details are on the website. The venues have been a mixture of bookshops and literary festivals, and audience numbers have varied enormously, from dozens to hundreds, but we've been delighted at the response to the book. Indeed, OUP have had to reprint after only a month.

And what have we learned from the tour? Well, in the book I make the point that the English language is always on your doorstep - in the sense that, within thirty or so miles of wherever you live in Britain, something important happened to influence the development or study of the language - and most people who live there have no idea. They know the place, of course, but they aren't aware of its linguistic significance. No reason why they should, necessarily, as hardly any of the places we visited explicitly recognize the presence of the linguistic event, in the form of a monument, a sign, a blue plaque, or whatever. There are occasional exceptions, of course - our favourite is the dialect writers' memorial in Rochdale, Lancashire - but in most places you'd never know that anything linguistic happened. That's why we made the journey in the first place, of course: to bring the landscape element to the fore. Topographical linguistics, if you like.

At one of these bookshop talks I was asked about the difference between the new book and a previous linguistic travelogue, By Hook or by Crook. Yes, there's a big difference. The subtitle of the earlier book (in the UK edition) was 'a journey in search of English'. In other words, I went around looking for interesting points to do with the language itself - accents, dialects, etymologies, or whatever, and did so in a very random way. When I began a chapter, I often didn't know where it would end, as a new train of linguistic associations would push the writing in unexpected directions. But for Wordsmiths, the choice of subject was dictated by the history, and the sequence by the chronology, and the focus was on the places and people who shaped the language rather than on the language itself. There's far more biography in here than in any of my previous writing, for example. And a huge amount of landscape description - or perhaps 'exploration' would be a better word, for finding some of these places took not a little research. Hence, at the end of each chapter, we tell you how to get there. No point in readers taking the same wrong turning that we sometimes did!

I leave our bookshop audiences with a challenge. I wrote the text for this book. Hilary took the photographs (apart from a handful of historical illustrations we had to buy in). In seven cases, she included me in the picture. You remember 'Where's Willy?' The challenge is: 'Where's David?' In six cases, the answer is obvious. But nobody has found all seven yet.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

On a not very bright grammar test

An English-teacher correspondent in the UK writes to tell me a very worrying - but totally to be expected - story emerging from the Key Stage 2 grammar test marking earlier this year. Question 16 asks children to complete the sentence 'The sun shone ________ in the sky.' and the mark scheme reads 'Accept any appropriate adverb, e.g. brightly, beautifully'.

A child presented the answer 'The sun shone bright in the sky', and this was marked wrong, on the grounds that it is 'not an adverb'.

This is the kind of nonsense up with which nobody should put. It is the response of a marker who is insecure about his/her grammatical knowledge, and who has a half-remembered history of faulty learning based on unauthentic prescriptive principles.

The devil, of course, lies in the detail - here, in the word 'appropriate'. If you interpret this word to mean 'appropriate to the rules prescriptive grammarians think operate in English', then brightly would of course be privileged. It has been the norm in formal written standard English for the last couple of centuries. But if you take 'appropriate' to mean 'in a way that makes sense', then bright is a perfectly normal alternative, used by hundreds of millions all over the English-speaking world, in writing as well as in speech. It has been a part of English since Anglo-Saxon times. You'll find an adverbial use of bright in Beowulf, in Chaucer, in Shakespeare (repeatedly - 'The moon shines bright', 'teach the torches to burn bright'...), and right down to the present day. Prescriptive grammarians took against it in the 18th century, but they were unable to stop the progress. The adverbial use of bright is used even by prescriptively minded people, when they say such things as 'I got up bright and early'. It is unequivocally an adverb when used in Question 16, and anyone who can't see this needs to take grammar lessons.

Even Fowler, beloved of prescriptivists, saw the nonsense. In the entry in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage on 'unidiomatic -ly' we find: 'much more to be deprecated ... is the growing notion that every monosyllabic adjective, if an adverb is to be made of it, must have a -ly clapped on it to proclaim the fact', and he condemns the 'ignorance' that leads people to think in this way. A 'growing notion'. That was in 1926. Topsy sure has growed now.

What is much more worrying is the marker who rejected dutifully as an appropriate answer. What on earth is wrong with 'The sun shone dutifully in the sky'? Now, we don't know why the child who gave this answer used this particular adverb. One of the ways in which the grammar tests would be made more meaningful and exciting would be if there was a space for kids to give explanations about why they made the choices they made - a pragmatic perspective. Context is ignored in these grammar tests, which is one of the basic problems with them (as I remarked in an earlier post). But, looking at it cold, dutifully to my mind is a lovely creative way of expressing a situation in a narrative where, for example, after a period of rain, someone begs the sun to appear and it 'dutifully did so'. If this turned up in a story by a well-known author it would be appreciated as an imaginative use of English and considered as perfectly appropriate. To reject it here is to convey to children and their teachers that the only kind of English that Mr Gove and his markers want to see in schools is of a predictable, cliched, and uninspiring kind.