They parked two buses’: a corpus study of a football expression

ENG blog post - Oct 15Blog post written by Mark Wyatt based on an article in English Today 

The football expression ‘to park the bus’, meaning for one team to play in a negative, boring, defensive way, focused on making it so difficult for the other team to score that it was as if there was a bus parked in front of the goal, is popularly attributed to the Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, who complained to the media about Spurs playing in this way in a game in 2004. Our research into the history of the expression using tools of corpus linguistics supports this popular understanding.

In our article, we explore how the expression has developed in English since that time, spreading around the world through English and helped by the popularity of the Premier League, sometimes being used as a cliché but also being adapted in fresh, imaginative ways. Jose Mourinho appears to have had a significant impact on the English language through his translation of the expression from the original Portuguese and continuing creative use of it in English. The term has even crossed over into another sport (American Football) and has been used to describe the defensive behaviour of the Bank of England. It has also contributed to the development of related expressions, e.g. ‘to pull a Jose Mourinho’ (though this has been used with various different meanings that reflect disparate controversial incidents in Mourinho’s career) and the ‘parked bus defence’ (which may have emerged around 2008).

We consider why the ‘park the bus’ metaphor is so enduring, and compare it to another of Mourinho’s coinages ‘19th century football’, which he has also used as a form of disparagement for negative tactics used against his Chelsea team. Finally, we consider how corpus-based methodology, such as that we have employed here, can be used to explore other interesting expressions in the language that seem to have emerged almost out of nowhere and spread quickly.

We invite you to read the full article ‘They parked two buses’: a corpus study of a football expression’ here 

Words, Words, Words,

ENG blog post - Sept 15Blog post written by Simon Elmes based on an article in English Today 

They fill the airwaves, and whirl around our breakfast, lunch and dinner tables… those legions of words that pour from the radio and the television hourly, daily – every second. And they get crunched, munched and bunched by their utterers, perhaps caught on the hop on a live microphone, or maybe who’ve made the mangling of the English language a life’s work. John Prescott, for one, was famed for his outspokenness and the interesting grammar with which he articulated it.

‘Speaking proper’, as the celebrated Colloquy by the monk, Aelfric – one of the earliest records of what medieval spoken English may have resembled – shows, has been a nagging preoccupation since the year 1000. “We would like you to teach us how to speak properly, for we are ignorant and badly spoken” says a pupil to his teacher. Oh dear.

But, today, when we’re so annoyed that we want to throw something, there’s nothing so tempting as a nice, available aunt-sally. And for the linguistic purist, the BBC is Aunt Sally Number 1. As a young Radio 4 producer, I found myself caught up on the frontline of these linguistic battles, as the armies of righteous Prescriptivists assailed the Corporation, like Henry V’s archers, with deluges of letters – and, more recently, emails – of complaint about a misplaced stress here or a wrongly pronounced word there: “Everybody knows it’s not pronounced like that!” Well, clearly not quite everybody

But then again, even a dyed-in-the-wool Descriptivist like me finds myself wincing as journalists on the telly, so eager to show themselves ahead of the trend, adopt non-standard Brit-speak pronunciations for lovely old concepts that we’ve rubbed up against like purring cats for generations. Take ‘leverage’ for one. Yes, I know, it’s a banking term, and as such it’s been imported with its US ‘levverage’ pronunciation. But just because we’ve talked a lot about finance over the last 5 years, that doesn’t mean to say we have to adopt a new way of talking about influence, or indeed about how to move something without too much direct force: for me, that’s still ‘leeverage’.

And I’m left tut-tutting with the best of the Prescriptivists. And don’t get me started on elevators. But then again, wasn’t it that beautiful Italian invention the ‘balcony’ that, when first imported to these shores, arrived with its Roman pronunciation intact: ‘bal-coney’? Nowadays, if you started talking about a hotel room with a lovely bal-coney, the Prescriptivists would be on it in a trice: “don’t you mean ‘bal-cunnee’?

So, a love of the Old? Or the thrill of the New? Well, it’s always been a matter of – er – controversy. Or was that controversy?

Read the full article ‘Words, Words, Words – An insider’s reflections on BBC broadcasting about English’

Exploring Language and Linguistics

Blog post written by Liz Morrish co-author of Exploring Language and Linguistics  

Exploring Language and Linguistics I Cambridge University PressWhen we contemplated producing a new introductory textbook in Linguistics, we wanted to offer students something different. Engagement and learning gain are hot topics in higher education circles at the moment, and we feel this book is ahead of the curve. Introductory textbooks can sometimes leave the curious student unsatisfied. They can open up a subject, and then leave the reader wondering where to go next. We decided that students should begin their experience of linguistics with high-quality chapters written by internationally-recognized experts in each of the different fields. The authors have been selected for their experience in writing for an introductory undergraduate audience, to present each sub-discipline of linguistics in an accessible manner. Universities should offer research-led teaching right from day one, and we wanted to capture that aspiration in this textbook.

We also wanted to make sure that students were as engaged by theoretical chapters as much as by chapters in applied linguistics. To ensure this, we have asked authors to structure their chapters around text-box summaries, and frequent exercises (yes, the answers are in the back of the book). There is also an interactive website to support the book, with even more exercises for students to confirm understanding and get feedback. In response to an excellent suggestion by a reviewer, we have also included a group exercise for each chapter.

We were aware that linguistics courses in the US tend to emphasize more structural approaches (phonology, syntax etc.), while those in the UK feature more applied and discourse analytical approaches. In the introductory module which we as editors have co-taught for many years, we have always treated these two approaches equally. We know that students need a thorough grounding in the levels of linguistic description and the tools of linguistic analysis before they are fully prepared to progress to more advanced courses and apply their learning to real-world settings.

To give some examples of how we offer students engaging and challenging exercises:

The phonetics chapter explains the articulation of consonants and vowels, and leads students to a group exercise in making sociophonetic observations. Students will be able to confirm their understanding in the sociolinguistics chapter where the group exercise asks them to make judgements drawing on concepts in phonology, grammar, lexis and discourse in investigating data from the archive of the British Library’s website Sounds Familiar? The language and ideology chapter introduces students to analytical techniques which uncover ideologies in texts, and their relationship to power structures. In the web exercise on language and the media, groups of students are invited to bring these concepts to an examination of a website of a news organisation and critically evaluate the meanings inherent in choices of language, attribution and even pictures as they affect the reading of stories.

It could be argued that the authors of the structural chapters have had a tougher challenge in engaging students, but this has been fully met with some excellent resources and exercises:

The syntax chapter invites students to solve problems by playing with word order in noun phrases; the pragmatics chapter presents data of children with pragmatic disorders so that students can use concepts such as presupposition to diagnose clinical problems; the semantics chapter requires students to question the basis of antonymy and contrast in the lexicon.

This book is fascinating and accessible. It will structure the learning of all students, and extend the conceptual abilities of the most able. We are definitely expecting to see great results in our own modules.

Find out more about this textbook written by Natalie Braber, Liz Morrish & Louise Cummings here

A literary history of the strange expression ‘what is it like?

ENG blog post - July 15Blog written by Anne Seaton based on an article in the journal English Today 

It was when I was working on Chambers Universal Learners’ Dictionary in the late ’70s that I suddenly focused on the weirdness of the expression ‘what is it like?’ Why ask for a comparison when you want a description? I managed to squeeze it into the dictionary at W (for what), since it had missed the boat at L (for like). Desk dictionaries seemed not to bother with it. But the 1933 OED pinpointed its function with notable precision: ‘The question what is he (or it) like? means ‘What sort of man is he?’, ‘What sort of thing is it?’, the expected answer being a description, and not at all the mention of a resembling person or thing.’ However, it gave only two citations, the earlier dated 1878, whereas citations from my databases, when I began searching on ‘what … like’, showed that it was in use in the early 19th century. Earlier than that there was evidence that the question was indeed used literally to ask for a comparison.

I’m very aware that ‘what is it like?’ should be studied in conjunction with ‘like that’ (as in ‘He’s like that’, ‘It’s like that’), which can be understood as its counterpart in statement form. Citations for ‘people/things like that’ can be found as early as the 17th century, but the use of ‘like that’ as a complement after a linking verb seems to arrive in the mid 19th century. Trollope, who quibbles over ‘What is he like?’ seems OK with ‘like that’. In The Small House at Allington he puts it into the mouth of Johnny Eames:

‘My belief is, that a girl thinks nothing of a man till she has refused him half-a-dozen times.’

‘I don’t think Lily is at all like that.’

Read the full article ‘A literary history of the strange expression ‘what is it like?’ A straightforward question that changed its function and took universal hold’ 

Evolving and adapting to global changes regarding English

ENG July 2015English language teaching in the Siberian city of Irkutsk

Blog post written by Valerie Sartor based on a recent article in the journal English Today

The Russian Federation, established after the breakup of the USSR in the early 1990s, is the largest country in the world, and until recently, a nation that did not encourage foreigners to enter in order to teach English to the native population. Moscow and St Petersburg remain the two main intellectual and cultural capitals. During the Soviet era (1917-1990), however, cities in the western provinces, such as Kiev and Riga, were also held in high regard for education, with specialized universities dedicated to making contributions to science and technology, as well as the arts and sciences. Very little, however, was known about Siberian educational institutions, and little has been written recently about English in universities in the more remote areas of Siberia.

I served as a Fulbright Global TEFL Exchange Scholar for the 2014-2015 academic year in southeastern Siberia. My post was inside the English language teaching within the Eurasian Linguistic Institute (ELI), a new affiliate branch of the Moscow State Linguistic University (MGLU), located in the city of Irkutsk, Irkutsk Province. Formerly known as the Irkutsk State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages, this facility was founded in 1948. Irkutsk has long hosted a diverse population. Historically it is known as one of the prosperous tea route cities, and also Irkutsk welcomed the Decembrist exiles, along with other political and religious exiles from European Russia and Eastern Europe. Because of this, despite being provincial, Irkutsk has many universities, art galleries, theaters, and beautiful architecture modeled after the buildings in St Petersburg. The ELI building itself is striking.

Presently, at the Eurasian Linguistic Institute, Russian students continue to specialize in learning English in order to become English teachers and translators. Traditionally, females have held these jobs and the trend continues. Globalization has, however, impacted teaching methods as well as the ways in which students acquire fluency. ELI teachers now employ textbooks from the UK and the USA. Many teachers and students travel internationally to English speaking countries for study and work exchanges. Finally, the Internet has opened up a vast window to English language resources.

With these positive opportunities have also come some negative outcomes. Faculty at ELI complain that their students no longer read as extensively as their students did during Soviet times; moreover, with the fluctuating economic situation since the early 1990s, enrolments have dropped. Currently, funding for state universities and institutes is also problematic. Recently, ELI merged with Moscow State Linguistic University as part of Mr. Putin’s plans for streamlining educational institutions to make them sustainable. Funding problems and globalization have also impacted teacher perceptions. Some ELI teachers feel that they have lost “educational capital” as mentors and models in regard to students, who focus more on adjusting to the post-Soviet economic situation than to establishing themselves in the academy.

Yet at the same time, faculty at ELI reported that they were under the same pressure as in Soviet times. They were expected to better themselves academically; to write articles, or to conduct extra-curricular activities – involving creation of textbooks or curriculum. English teachers carry out tedious administrative functions and teach many classes. Nevertheless, the teachers I worked with were dedicated educators, spending many hours at the institute. Many also moonlighted as private tutors in order to enhance their economic situation.

Read the full article ‘Evolving and adapting to global changes regarding English: English language teaching in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, Contemporary English language teaching in a remote Siberian university’ by Valerie Sartorand Svetlana Bogdanova.


A Fuss about the Octopus

ENG-Blog-April-2015Blog post written by Inge Otto based on an article in English Today 

If I ask you to think of one octopus, then of two, of three even – what word comes to your mind as the plural form of ‘octopus’? If you were to think about your choice longer, is there another word you could use for the same purpose? In theory, you could come up with three options. The plurals octopuses, octopi, and octopodes are all attested in English, and thus could all be used to refer to more than one octopus.

When you look at these plurals from a purely descriptive point of view, they are thus equally useful and acceptable. However, to prescriptivists some of the plurals are better than others. In advisory books about language usage, in so-called usage guides, the authors usually express their preference of one usage over the other. The Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Henry Watson Fowler, 1926) advises the reader to use ‘octopuses’ for example.

The HUGE database that Robin Straaijer and I have been working on in the context of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project includes excerpts from dozens of usage guides like Fowlers’ one. In my English Today feature, ‘A Fuss about the Octopus’,  I discuss the results of searching this database of usage guides and usage problems for pieces of advice about the plural of octopus. Whether or not there is evidence for a link between people’s actual usage of the plurals on the one hand and the prescriptive advice provided in usage guides on the other, is something that is touched upon in the article too.

Read the full article ‘A fuss about the octopus – Another invitation to contribute to questions studied by the Bridging the Unbridgeable project at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics’ here.

Key links:

Does the socio-cultural context influence the way Chinese people write business English?

ENG blog - Mar 15Blog post written by Marisa Carrió and Rut Muñiz based on an article in the latest issue of English Today

As China has emerged as an economic giant and has established business relationships worldwide, the use of English has become essential in every day communication. New digital written genres such as emails are used every day in a globalized business context. We think that this current setting encourages participants to experiment with communication, changing and adapting language to their own comfort, using a more direct style, and prioritizing instant communication over grammatical and style correctness.

We believe that it is necessary to take into account the cultural background of the speaker when interpreting meaning in a business context in order to understand the message in cross-cultural communication.

In this sense, since English is spoken by more non-native speakers than by native speakers nowadays, it could be said that it becomes like a “sponge”, absorbing the characteristics and features of different cultures and languages. Chinese speakers of English are not an exception, differences or variations can be observed in their language use.

In this paper, we contrast business e-mails written by agents who work in an exporting company in Hong Kong and China and communicate via email with their counterparts all around the world. Two research questions arise from this study:

a. What are the most common types of variation produced by Chinese writers of English?

b. Does lexical variation change when English is used as a second language or as a foreign language?

Our main aim is to determine the causes of variation and their influence on digital discourse.

The results of the analysis of the corpus compiled showed that there are variations indeed. We observed that Chinese writers used more non-Standard English than do Hong Kong writers, as for the latter English is an official language and is used as a second language. Furthermore, business English tends to be more informal when used by Chinese writers, transmitting the linguistic and cultural identity of the author as, for example, they use a commanding style or invent a given name.

Read the full article ‘Identification and causes of lexical variation in Chinese Business English’ here


Authenticity as a Continuum

Pinner-Authenticity-EnglishBlog post written by Richard Pinner based on an article in English Today

Authenticity is a familiar and well used term in language teaching.  It is also a loaded term, with connotations that go deeper than the origin of a particular material, but all the way to philosophical conceptualizations of self. For this reason, the ‘classic’ and inevitably culturalist definition of authenticity, as something from a target language culture whose original purpose was not for learning, can actually work negatively against people who are not intimately associated with the target culture. Simply put, there is still an embedded and implied connection to ‘native speaker’ countries when authenticity is discussed in terms of language teaching. This native speakerist conceptualization of authenticity rears its ugly head when selecting ideal models to present to learners, whenever a so-called non-standard grammar usage is called into question, and basically whenever a textbook is written.  In my paper I tried to highlight the fact that English is still taught as an Inner-Circle language in many EFL contexts, such as Japan (Matsuda, 2003) and other parts of Asia. As a result of culturally-embedded and Anglo-American oriented views of English, the concept of authenticity in such contexts still lies in the hands of the ‘native speaker’.  In an attempt to address this issue, I adopt the view that authenticity is partly a socially constructed shared experience and partly a sense of validity which comes from the individual self about the teaching/learning situation. In the article I start by outlining some of the difficulties surrounding the notion of authenticity, then go on to argue that authenticity might be better represented as a continuum, which makes greater allowance for the perspective of English as an international language.

As Mishan (2005)and Gilmore (2007) both explain in some detail, the issues around the concept of authenticity are varied, abstract, overlapping and often contradictory. For me, it was a rich place to immerse myself for a PhD, but for most people it simply isn’t practical to read decades of abstract arguments in the literature just to answer the question “what is authenticity”? Further complicating the issue, several scholars (such as van Lier, 1996 for example) seem to be drawing their definitions from existential philosophy. Aside from being an attempt at redefining authenticity to be more inclusive of and empowering for international varieties of English, creating the continuum was also an attempt at simplifying a very complicated argument into an easy to understand diagram which invites people to look at authenticity as essentially a fluid, dynamic, contextually and individually unique component of their class. The more I examine authenticity the more I realise that it is actually something which is negotiated between students and teachers in language learning contexts, and something which is very influential in the success of the classroom. I am still continuing to examine authenticity, specifically how it relates to motivation, but I hope this article with stimulate more discussion on the topic and to encourage people to examine authenticity as it relates to them as social and contextually situated individuals.

Read the full article ‘The authenticity continuum: Towards a definition incorporating international voices’ here


Gilmore, A. (2007). Authentic materials and authenticity in foreign language learning. Language Teaching, 40(02), 97-118. doi: doi:10.1017/S0261444807004144

Mishan, F. (2005). Designing authenticity into language learning materials. Bristol: Intellect Books.

van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.


Language perception in the East Midlands in England

Investigating East Midlands adolescents’ perception of language variation in the UK

Post written by Natalie Braber based on an article in English Today

ENG Blog post - Mar 15The concept of identity in the East Midlands can be relatively problematic as it is not immediately clear what is included in the region and where it fits in the North-South divide in the UK. It is an interesting area linguistically, because of its shared features with northern varieties, as well as southern varieties of English. It has also been argued that the Midlands form a transition zone between North and South and that a clear North/South divide cannot be made. There has been relatively little survey of the local dialects but despite this lack of empirical evidence, anecdotally it appears that language in the East Midlands remains distinctive (both within the region and compared to other regions) and locals insist there is considerable difference, for instance, between speech in the major urban centres of Nottingham, Derby and Leicester.

This paper aims to extend this topic by investigating views of young people living in the East Midlands using a folk linguistic approach which looks at non-linguists’ beliefs and perceptions about the similarities of their own speech to, and differences from, the speech of others. This involves examining where participants believe dialect areas to be and what the characteristics of local speech are. This paper examines dialect identification and investigates the abilities of a sample group of adolescents to place correctly local and regional varieties of English. The main goal of this study was to start the discussion of perceptual dialectology in the region and to learn about what adolescents think and know about language variation in the East Midlands and the UK more widely. It examines in detail the accents and dialects this group believes to exist in the UK and to see how well they can recognise these.  It shows that these adolescents were not accurate at recognising local accents and were unlikely to name local towns and regions as having a distinctive accent.

Read the full article ‘Language perception in the East Midlands in England’

Why does English have words like “pièce de résistance” and “coup de grace”?

ENG Blog post - Mar 15Blog post written by Drew Nevitt based on an article in the latest issue of English Today 

Why does English have words like “pièce de résistance” and “coup de grace”? They are clearly not of English origin. They are borrowings from French, as many know. It might seem a perfectly reasonable question to ask why we continue to use these foreign terms rather than simply using their English translations. After all, these terms can be confusing and difficult to pronounce to those who are not familiar with them. However, we must then ask the question of what words do count as truly English. “Garage” was borrowed into English from French in the twentieth century, and “zeitgeist” from German not long before that. In fact, going further back in time we find an ever-increasing number of borrowings appearing in English, taken from a wide variety of languages. There are obvious imposters such as “saga”, borrowed from Old Norse, but there are also much more subtle ‘foreign’ lexical items like “knife” (Old Norse), “beef” (French), “sky” (Old Norse) abundant in English. And it doesn’t stop there. Even the personal pronoun “they” has an origin outside the famous Anglo-Saxon linguistic stock (“they” is Old Norse as well!). The lesson to be learned here is that languages influencing each other is a natural, common process and is responsible for a great deal of the linguistic innovation that today’s languages exhibit. And this innovation is of course what makes them so much fun!

My essay “Language Contact in Shetland Scots and Southern Irish English” (English Today, Cambridge University Press, vol. 31) gives a brief description of two instances in which contact with other languages has had a lasting impact on English. I look at two different dialects of English, the dialect of Scots spoken in Shetland and the variety of Irish English spoken in Southern Ireland. Shetland Scots has been noticeably influenced by contact with Norn, a now-extinct Norse language that was the predominant (if not sole) language of Shetland when the first Scots arrived by boat. Southern Irish English went through a long period of contact with Irish Gaelic, holding the status of a minority language in comparison with Gaelic for much of that time. The primary marks that Norn has left on Shetland Scots are in its vocabulary, which still today contains unusual lexical items found in no other variety of English. Most of these loanwords have to do with the sea and with nautical matters, attesting to the main contact between Scots and Norn having taken place aboard boats or during trade. Southern Irish English, on the other hand, is rich in syntactic constructions unique in the world’s Englishes. These fascinating grammatical shibboleths, which include sentences like “I’m after me/my dinner” (meaning “I’ve just had my dinner”), have direct counterparts in Irish Gaelic. Ultimately, I attempt to show that language contact is a fluid process, the effects of which on the languages in question are unpredictable and can vary widely. I also emphasize that linguistic change in general is not something to be feared or prevented, but rather cherished and preserved as a record of the interactions of our ancestors.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Language Contact in Shetland Scots and Southern Irish English’ here.