Monday, 31 December 2007

On 'word of - ' what?

A flurry of activity on an earlier post, anticipating the International Year of Languages, which starts at midnight tonight, has presented me with a linguistic conundrum. With reference to Wikipedia and Facebook (et al) spreading news about something, I wanted to say that this kind of 'word of mouth' can be very effective - but that phrase seems inappropriate for an e-medium. We need a new locution. 'Word of eye' doesn't feel quite right. I rather like 'word of click'. Anybody got a better idea?

Friday, 21 December 2007

On words shrinking

A broadcasting correspondent from Canada writes to ask if the use of English vocabulary is shrinking - by which she means the following: 'Perhaps we're using fewer complex words in favour of more, smaller words that can be cobbled together for the same meaning? Technology is certainly pushing us to shorten words and use fewer words, as we try to fit text onto smaller and smaller screens. I also wonder if - in a multicultural society such as Canada - we're using fewer complex words in consideration of non-native English speakers? (I know my friend feels this way with her Spanish boyfriend, for instance).'

I don't know of any survey on this issue, though impressions abound. Vocabulary (by comparison with grammar and pronunciation) remains a hugely neglected topic of linguistic study. Even in child language acquisition, generalizations about vocabulary peter out as the child passes age 2 or so. It's the scale of the exercise which is so off-putting. We're talking about tens of thousands of words.

Because studies haven't been done, there is no benchmark from years ago (or however long my correspondent is thinking) to make a comparison. And any comparison would have to be very careful to match people in terms of - what? social background? age? gender? regional background? occupation? subject-matter? Which of these (and other) variables have most influence on vocabulary size and range? We all have our impressions, but how many of these relate to fact is a quite different matter.

What we do know is that people tend to underestimate vocabulary sizes. Most people think that the average size of a person's vocabulary is a few thousand words, whereas it is tens of thousand. Also, we know that a distinction would have to be made between spoken and written vocabulary. Whatever is happening on screen is going to be very different from what is happening in the air.

You have to compare like with like. I did a quick test. BBC News Online started in 1997. The oldest article I have managed to trace is for 22 October that year: a health article, 'Teenager gets gift of colour from scientists'. This consisted of 261 words and 1225 characters: 4.69 characters per word. I took another health article from BBC News Online yesterday, with a similar content of report and interview: 'Facing a very different Christmas'. That had 3471 characters and 745 words: 4.66 characters per word. Virtually identical.

That's my impression, actually. I've not noticed any particular change in word length in the contexts I've heard and read, over the past decade. Yes, sentences have got shorter (in such settings as instant messaging and texting), but one of the consequences of shorter sentences is that more reliance is placed on the selection of the words they contain, which can actually get longer. The opposite effect can be seen in dictionaries which rely on a restricted defining vocabulary, such as the Longman Dictionary of Contemporay English. If you have to create definitions but have only 2000 words to choose from, your sentences inevitably get longer.

The non-native case is a separate issue. It's well-known that native speakers adapt (accommodate) when talking to non-native speakers (eg avoiding or explaining certain idioms) or speakers of English from other parts of the world than their own. As countries become increasingly multi-ethnic, doubtless more of this kind of thing goes on. But this tells us nothing about how native speakers talk to each other.

I think the bottom line, as far as technology is concerned, is that it hasn't been around long enough for trends to be clear. The new small screens may have an effect, but it's too soon to say. For most people, the exeperience of using the Web, chat, email, and so on, is less than a decade. That's not even an eye-blink in relation to language change.

On being a book's godfather

A correspondent - presumably filled with Christmas spirit - writes to ask what my most unusual experience has been this year. Normally I would have no idea how to respond such a question, but as it happens an event a few weeks ago provides me with an answer.

I was in the small Czech town of Uherske Hradiste, as part of its British film festival. My role was to introduce a series of British films and to give a couple of talks on language in relation to the task of adaptation from book to film. (That's an interesting field, which has attracted very little research, from a linguistic point of view. A couple of examples: Roman Polanski's Tess adapting Hardy's Wessex dialect; Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility replacing Jane Austen's complex and mannered sentences by a modern-sounding elliptical dialogue.)

Anyway, I was in the Hvezda cinema before one of my events. It was the cinema's fortieth birthday, and an illustrated memorial book had been published to mark the occasion. Along with the festival director and one of the sponors, I was invited to be a godfather for the book. I thought something was being lost in translation, for the only concept of godfather I have is to do with baptism. But no, nothing was lost. It was to be a baptism.

We stood at the front of the cinema while a copy of the book was brought on, resting on a tray. On top of the book were three glasses of white wine. After a few words from the director, we each took up a glass and then - poured it over the book.

I have never delibereately poured wine, or any liquid, over a book before. Inadvertently, maybe. But I found it curiously moving. Godfather of a book, eh? I asked what my responsibilities were towards the future well-being of the book. Tell the world about it, they said. So I do. Go, little book...

I have never come across such a ceremony before. Does any reader of this blog know of it in another country?

Saturday, 8 December 2007

On to or not

A correspondent writes about the use of to in such constructions as:

(1) I shall have to do more than (to) speak to him
(2) The new scheme will have to do more than (to) allow all women to....
(3) What I want to do is (to) go to Australia.
(4) (To) go to Australia is what I want to do.

He finds the to-less versions odd, especially in writing.

I don't have a problem with any of the to-less versions, actually. What we do have, I think, is a contrast of formality, with the to-ful versions more formal - and thus more likely to appear in writing. (A similar kind of contrast operates with the presence or absence of that in such sentences as I said (that) it would rain.) But the situation is complicated here by phonological factors. There is a euphony issue with a repeated to: many people don't like to do more than to speak and suchlike. Also there is a rhythmical issue with to do more than to allow, as the than to brings two unstressed syllables together, and this goes against the preference for iambic stress-timing in English, which is better preserved in more than allow. So I would expect acceptability intuitions to vary a little with respect to these examples.

If (4) feels odd (and I do find it a bit so), it is probably because of the unusual nature of the construction, seen in isolation. Within a discourse, with an appropriate intonation to express the emphatic contrast involved, I don't think the to-less version would attract attention. The version with to would be less likely, as (4) is plainly part of an informal exchange, and this would motivate the elliptical alternative.

On looking how you sound

A New Zealand correspndent writes to query a point I make at the beginning of By Hook or By Crook, when I meet my supposedly Welsh shepherd and he turns out to be Scottish. I said 'From a phonetic point of view all faces look the same'. My correspondent cites examples like the following:

'I attended a lecture just this week, and as the speaker approached the chair of the meeting she said "hello". I could not hear her, but I could tell from the way her mouth worked she had a strong Scottish accent.'
'In my travels as a boy, in a holiday camp in Devon I met an old man who reckoned to be able to place any person within ten miles of their place of birth just by their accent - and he was stone deaf !'
'When Mike Yarwood impersonated Harold Wilson or Ted Heath, in part his face (and posture) adopted a similar appearance to theirs.'

How does this experience tie in with my statement, he asks?

Because I was talking about anatomy, and my correspondent is talking about physiology. When the mouth is in action, then you can often get a few clues (such as the long pure vowel in the Scottish speaker's hello being visible in the rounded lips being held for longer than in other speakers) - but not when it is static. There is no evidence for anatomical differences in the external mouth, within a racial type, even between languages, let alone dialects. But there is a great deal of difference in physiology (i.e. in the way the mouth and jaw move). And even when there are external differences between racial types (such as Africans and Europeans) this tells us nothing about how the speaker will sound - as is common experience on London buses, when you hear a Cockney voice behind you and then see that the speaker is plainly from Jamaica, or somewhere.

In phonetics there is a conceptual apparatus which has been developed to handle this aspect of speech: it is called 'articulatory setting' - the way we habitually 'set' our vocal organs in preparation to speak. Phonetician John Laver has written a lot about this, as indeed did I, way back in the 60s.

Citing a few anecdotes isn't persuasive. Yes, there are faces where you look and you can guess from the way the face falls that the person very likely speaks in a certain way; but when you take a large enough sample, these instances turn out to be isolated cases, and probably explicable for other reasons. There are always clues in the context which help you reach a conclusion about the linguistic origins of speakers before they start to speak.

On and after if

A US correspondent writes to ask if I've come across modern dialect variations in if/then clauses, especially in Early Middle English. He cites If you go and I'll go meaning 'If you go, then I'll go' and biblical-sounding cases such as If he should command the stone to move, and it will move.

A linking adverbial use of and is certainly attested in Early Modern English, with a range of meanings such as 'therefore, and so, then' - an example from Shakespeare is 'Tis a good dullness, And give it way' (Tempest). I can't think of an instance after an if-clause, offhand - maybe a reader of this blog will dig one out.

These conjunctions shifted meaning a lot in Middle English, so that there are all kinds of overlaps. For instance, the overlap in meaning between if and and is well attested in Early Modern English, especially in initial position: 'An't be not four by the day, I'll be hanged' (Henry IV Part 1), 'I'll tell you when, and you'll tell me wherefore' (Comedy of Errors). Compare also 'so it please you / if it please you / and it please you', which we find throughout the period - as early as 1205, according to the OED.

I wouldn't be at all surprised to find the usage still around in modern English dialects. Uses of and as a subordinating conjunction have some interesting parallels with Celtic languages. The first place I'd look would be Irish English, where you can still hear today such sentences as There was lots of land for sale and I a young lad meaning 'when I was a young lad'. Anyone heard an if... and construction out there recently? Or anywhere else?