The English major crisis in China

Blog post written by Ningyang Chen, author of the article ‘The English major crisis in China: Why did the once-popular major fall out of favor among Chinese students? recently published in English Today.

There was a time in China when becoming a foreign language major was the dream of many aspiring young minds. The English major, in particular, enjoyed the greatest popularity and was associated with many advantages: a better social reputation, better-paid jobs, and above all, the chance to go out and see the world. Over the years, however, the English major has been losing its appeal to Chinese students. Some critics have questioned its validity or even proposed closing the major. This concern was brought to the fore by a recent Chinese newspaper article in which the opinionist described the major as suffering from “a guilty conscience”.

How to explain this drastic change? There are some obvious reasons such as the expansion of choices. But other factors may have also played a part. According to an analysis of WeChat (China’s most popular social media channel) comments on the “guilty conscience” article, three types of attitudes portray the social media response to the English major crisis. In the first place is practical attitudes, followed by the pessimistic and the optimistic. The majority of the student and teacher commenters find elements of truths in the motto of “Being practical is everything”. The English major in the modern era falls behind other majors in securing a financial future. Success models like Jack Ma serve only as reminders to choose a major that is more “worth” the “investment”. This prevailing attitude of being practical echoes a critical paper on ‘the practical turn’ in English studies, in that the successful turn seems to have exerted a lasting influence. The pessimistic views of the English major in China find fault with the teachers and the courses. Courses taught by less qualified teachers can be a waste of time, and irresponsible teachers increase students’ dismay even further. The small number of optimists are mainly proud English majors who share an interest in literature and the language. Yet their voices seem hushed by the overwhelming negativity and criticism.

The bulging purse of the Chinese is an economic reality we find difficult to ignore. With this comes wider options and opportunities. What used to be an accessible and promising way to pursue a “modern” education is now among the least efficient ways to achieve that goal. Let’s face it: Why sitting through a boring class taught in Chinese-accented English when one can get a more “authentic” English experience by watching a Hollywood blockbuster? What’s the point of spending four years in a program to learn skills that can be readily acquired by studying in an English-speaking country at a reasonable price? Even those with a less superficial understanding of the major may doubt, quite rightfully, if a Chinese professor can interpret Shakespeare as adequately as Lu Xun.

Although the decline of the liberal arts subjects seems a shared concern across institutions and cultures, the English major in China has its specificities. After all, it is pathetic to find what started out as part of the “solution” to the country’s modernization has become a “problem” of its own. As globalization deepens, a similar pity is likely to be felt in other contexts around the world where the program once played a big part in training personnel who pioneered international communication and engagement. Yet opportunities are born out of crises. The raised concerns could inspire creative changes to the system. And while we are a long way away from figuring out what the future holds for the English major in China, getting a sense of the distressing reality can be the first step.

Call for Editor Proposals – Language in Society

Professor Jenny Cheshire is completing her tenure in December 2019 as Editor of Language in Society (LiS). Cambridge University Press is now inviting applications for the position of Editor. A team of two Co-Editors will also be considered. Final appointment decisions will be made by the Syndicate of Cambridge University Press.

The deadline for applications is February 1, 2018.

Language in Society is an international journal of sociolinguistics concerned with language and discourse as aspects of social life. The journal publishes empirical articles of general theoretical, comparative or methodological interest to students and scholars in sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, and related fields. LiS aims to strengthen international scholarship and interdisciplinary conversation and cooperation among researchers interested in language and society by publishing work of high quality which speaks to a wide audience. In addition to original articles, the journal publishes reviews and notices of the latest important books in the field as well as occasional theme and discussions sections.

LiS published volume 47 in 2018. Its 2017 Impact Factor was 1.426, placing it 45 of 181 journals in the Linguistics JCR and 56 of 147 journals in the Sociology JCR (ranked by Impact Factor).

Interested applicants should send a curriculum vita and cover letter along with an abbreviated development plan (not to exceed two pages) and the names and email addresses of three referees, to Amy Laurent at Cambridge University Press (details below).

Editorial responsibilities will include:

  • Shaping the strategic direction of the journal, in cooperation with Cambridge
  • Organizing and managing the editorial office, with support from Cambridge
  • Managing the peer review process (the journal uses the ScholarOne system)
  • Making final article acceptance decisions
  • Editing and proofing articles for the journal
  • Proposing and working with members of an active Editorial Board
  • Attending relevant conferences and an annual editorial meeting

In your application, please indicate your:

  • Experience of publishing in the field
  • Editorial experience, ideally with an academic journal
  • Ability to work under pressure, meet deadlines and work as part of a team
  • Strong professional and academic links
  • Organizational, communication and IT skills
  • Institutional support, financial or otherwise, to aid your work on the journal
  • Proposed plan for development, including areas such as:
    • Engagement of journal reviewers and editorial board members
    • Areas of focus for commissioning
    • Journal metrics

Please direct applications and any questions to Amy Laurent, Editor, Cambridge University Press at [email protected]Please use Language in Society Call for Editor as your email subject line.

What are the linguistic consequences of Brexit?

Blog post written by Gordana Lalic-Krstin and Nadezda Silaski, authors of the article ‘From Brexit to Bregret: An account of some Brexit-induced neologisms in English’ recently published in English Today.

What are the linguistic consequences of Brexit? Judging by the material we collected from news media (broadcast and online), Facebook and Twitter, blogs and internet forums, the event  has generated a myriad of neologisms in English, using Brexit as a model or as a source word.

Brexit  was modelled after Grexit, a word coined to denote the possibility of Greece leaving the Eurozone, giving rise to at least two more similarly coined blends, Spexit and Itexit, referring to the prospect of the same event in Spain and Italy. However, this was just a beginning of a true explosion of Brexit-related neologisms (or would that be Brexplosion / Brinvasion of Brexicon), many of which feature ludicity and humour. As the UK referendum approached and the media coverage intensified, building up suspense, new words proliferated in a matter of days to name hypothetical scenarios in other EU countries (e.g. Auxit [Austria + exit], Bexit [Belgium + exit], Chexit/Czechit [Czech + exit], Fixit [Finland + exit], Irelexit / Irexit [Ireland + exit], etc. For a while it seemed that there was a real craze on the internet as to who would come up with the most imaginative word. Very soon the morphological pattern was generalized and the meaning extended from that of ‘Britain leaving the EU’ to that of ‘any country leaving a political union’, as evidenced by Calexit [California + exit] ‘California leaving the US’, Texit [Texas + exit] ‘Texas leaving the US’ and Scexit/Scoxit [Scotland + exit] ‘Scotland leaving the UK’.

From the point of view of its word-formation, Brexit can be interpreted as having been coined from either Britain + exit or from British + exit, the latter interpretation being more prevalent. Similarly, with quite a few newly formed blends, it is equally unclear whether the first source word is Britain, British or Brexit, as for instance in breferendum, Brexpats or (point of no) Breturn. Clear cases include suffixations such as brexiter, brexiteer  or Brexitesque and neoclassical compounds Brexitography, Brexitology  or Brexitophobia. Blending proved to be one of the most productive mechnisms as in, for example, Borexit<Boris + exit, bracceptance<Brexit + acceptance, Braccident<Brexit + accident, Branalysis<Brexit + analysis, branger<Brexit + anger, brargaining<Brexit + bargaining, bredictable<Brexit + predictable, Bre-do<Brexit + redo, breferendum<Brexit + referendum, bregret<Brexit + regret, brenial<Brexit + denial, Brepeat<Brexit + repeat, brepression<Brexit + depression, bresults<Brexit + results, etc.  Blends coined with source words other than Brexit include: Brentry [Britain/British + entry], the word coined retrospectively by analogy with Brexit  to denote the entry of the UK into the European Economic Community in 1973; beleave [believe + leave], a slogan urging people to believe in the leave vote; EUge (mistake) [EU + huge], used by those opposed to Brexit to describe the EU referendum results; Eurhope [Europe + hope], Eunity [EU + unity] and Euthanasia [EU + euthanasia], all three seen on placards on pro-EU demonstrations.

Other word-formation processes have proved far less frequent: a number of neoclassical compounds have been recorded (Brexitography, Brexitometer, Brexitology and Brexitophobia), three nouns have been turned into verbs through conversion (bregret, brexit and regrexit). The verb brexit has been used in a clipped form brex, as in ‘Don’t go brexin’ my heart’, a play on a popular song. Bregret, brexit and bremain have so far been used as bases for suffixations: bregret>bregretter; brexit>brexiter, brexiteer, Brexitesque; bremain>bremainer.

Some of these words are clearly here to stay whereas others will surely be soon forgotten, failing to make a lasting contribution to the English word stock. And while predicting their failure or success can be a challenging and insightful linguistic endeavour, one thing is for sure: the word Brexit has already made an impact on the English lexicon and more related neologisms may be expected as new political and economic developments surrounding the process of Britain’s exiting the EU continue to unfold.

Read the full article ‘From Brexit to Bregret: An account of some Brexit-induced neologisms in English‘ published in English Today here.

Where is Applied Linguistics headed? Cambridge Journal editors weigh in

In advance of the upcoming AAAL Annual Meeting in Chicago, we asked editors of Cambridge applied linguistics journals for their thoughts on the state of the field.

Where is applied linguistics headed? Are there new approaches, methods or priorities that you think will have real impact on research and related practice in coming years?

Martha Crago, editor of Applied Psycholinguistics“In the next year’s two major developments, one technological and one social, will have a striking impact on applied linguistics: 1)The disruptive technology of machine learning (artificial intelligence) is based on the early work on neural networks in neuropsychology as well as on reinforcement learning that was once considered a learning mechanism for language acquisition. These new technological developments are likely to circle back and inform or intersect with work in applied psycholinguistics and its underlying theories. In addition, “big data” (computational linguistics) and its growing ability to look at large data sets in increasingly sophisticated ways will become a future direction for the field. 2) Human migration has reached vast proportions in the last few years. It is leading to very large numbers if refugees who are either in transit, often for years, or who are arriving to become residents, both legal and illegal, in a new country. These migratory patterns have striking implications for multi-lingualism and -literacy in people of all ages. This in turn has consequences for social integration and education. As a result, refugee populations will become a major preoccupation for applied psycholinguistic researchers.”

Alex Boulton, Editor of ReCALL “Applied linguistics is itself a controversial term which means different things to different people, and covers different domains in different languages. In French, for example, “linguistique appliquée” fell largely out of favour in the 1990s as it suggested simply applying linguistics to real-world problems. What is probably the largest domain is now referred to as “didactique” – i.e. language teaching and learning. Various initiatives have been undertaken to explore this at national and international levels, notably through AILA – the International Association of Applied Linguistics, founded in France in the 1960s.

Published by CUP and owned by EUROCALL, ReCALL is a leading journal focusing specifically on computer-assisted language learning. In the 30 years of its existence, we have seen increasing democratisation of technology and access to it, especially via the internet. This is evident in everyday practices (learners no longer have to be in a classroom or a computer room) as well as in the research being conducted into informal online learning. While early papers tended to place the software itself at the centre of the paper, today the emphasis is more on what actually happens in the learning process when using various types of technologies in different situations for different purposes.
In terms of methodologies, various surveys have found the majority of studies in applied linguistics to be quantitative in nature; while these were traditionally considered the most prestigious by many researchers, the situation is certainly evolving. There is no question of abandoning quantitative work, especially for learning outcomes or large-scale surveys, but there seems to be increasing room for more qualitative approaches, which allow greater emic understanding of the complexity of the learning process and the individuals involved. Of particular interest are mixed methods studies which, appropriately conducted, can draw on the strengths of both quantitative and qualitative work. Another evolution is the rise of rigorous research syntheses of various types, from the quantitative meta-analysis to the more qualitative narrative synthesis, each with its advantages and disadvantages.

Julia R. Herschenesohn, Coordinating Editor, Journal of French Language Studies “As we approach the third decade of the 21st Century, the most important opportunity that I see in applied linguistics research is the accessibility of big data—large corpora of empirical evidence that are available online to all researchers. Cloud storage, open access and increased computational power open a range of options for obtaining and analyzing evidence of language use and acquisition. Open access databases allow scholars to use statistically significant quantities to form generalizations, test hypotheses, replicate earlier studies and reanalyze previous research using different methodologies. The combination of language data—including controlled experiments, monitored production, informal speech and spontaneous dialogue—and sophisticated statistical software has already impacted research and related practices and will continue to expand in the following decades. As Editor of JFLS, I have seen a shift in the submissions we receive to a much larger number of articles including evidence from public access databases. For example, our next special themed issue comprises articles drawing from a few corpora of carefully transcribed and annotated examples of contemporary French speech that are analyzed by several authors in terms of lexical, morphosyntactic and phonological characteristics. The contributors bring to bear different methodologies and sub-discipline perspectives while mining the same source of data. The availability of big data allows scholars to test theoretical hypotheses with solid statistical tools to further our knowledge of how language is acquired and used under various circumstances.”

Graeme Porte, Editor of Language Teaching

Recurrence, revitalization, and replication in Applied Linguistics

“Like any dynamic field of science, Applied Linguistics (AL) is both in constant change and ever eager to be of practical use to those who benefit from its research discoveries. As researchers we are urged to “apply” our discoveries – ideally to some kind of language learning context. Since those contexts will almost certainly involve a practitioner, the nexus between the FL teacher and the AL researcher should be a close and mutually-benefitting one.

We have been lucky in that both AL researchers and practitioners have traditionally embraced new methodologies and promising trends – together with the occasional fad and damp squib – with anticipation. A cursory historical overview of these apparently novel approaches will, however, reveal timely re-emergences of elements which are key to many of these movements.

There has been a tendency actually to re-discover what we often think we are discovering and then mould it through more modern hands into something more acceptably novel, consistent with current attitudes and/or linguistic fashion (Cook, 2003[1]). Such “discoveries” can be seen as heralding in a new age for practitioners or even paradigm shifts for researchers. Whole new careers can be forged, exciting new angles on L2 learning revealed – and novel text book series sold by the thousands! Some teaching methods – such as TPR or Suggestopaedia – can be short-lived; others, such as the “communicative approach”, can become thoroughly regenerated into other methods. Yet others, as Michael Swan reminds us in his latest position piece for us (Language Teaching, 51.2 April), are regularly dismissed in their entirety as deficient approaches only for latter-day AL pioneers to uncover seemingly redeeming kernels of wisdom in their theoretical and practical bases. In the case of “Grammar-Translation”, for example, there are still many L2 learners who feel knowledge of grammar and L1-L2 equivalences improve their understanding of the target language and continues to satisfy a perceived need for going about “serious” language learning.

A similar picture might be painted of our research paradigms. In our embracing of AL as an essentially social science endeavour, we might be accused of being over keen to dismiss methodological approaches which smack too much of a “pure science” rather than a “social science” approach. Once again, however, we are witnessing a recent re-visiting of these previously out-of-favour research approaches.

Language Teaching is now at the forefront of a push for a renewed effort to recognise the contribution of replication studies to our literature. Replicating previous studies as a serious research methodology has only emerged onto the applied linguistics scene relatively recently; it has been a subject of interest elsewhere for much longer and has appeared as a fleeting subject of debate in the general social sciences literature for decades. Its feted re-appearance owes much to the concern expressed by many who depend on our research for its possible pedagogical implications and applications and who are rightly concerned about the presence of undetected error or the lack of confirmatory evidence provided across many of our empirical endeavors.

We may go back empirically to a study for several reasons, but that revisiting is predicated on the idea that no one piece of research (or researcher!) can include, or control for, all the many variables that might affect an 0utcome. It follows that a particularly important study only stands to benefit from such renewed attention if it can have its findings more precisely validated, its reliability focused on, its generalization tested, or even delimited, and its eventual application in learning contexts more finely tuned.

[1] Cook G. (2003). Applied Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Andrew Moody, Editor of English Today “The question of where Applied Linguistics is headed is a very difficult one to address because the field is already quite diverse. As a new editor (for English Today), I don’t feel highly qualified to be making predictions about the future of the disciplines that work within Applied Linguistics, but there are two developments that I have noticed as a reader and researcher in sociolinguistics and I think that these two are likely to become more prominent.

First, sociolinguists (and this is especially relevant to sociolinguists who are working with the English language) have become increasingly comfortable working with data that would traditionally have been discarded as ‘non-spontaneous’ or ‘not naturally occurring’. Data sources might include English-language media, literary texts or texts from popular culture. These texts show a rich interplay between local voices (ones that might be thought of as ‘authentic’ languages) and global voices, and the sociolinguistic analyses of these kinds of interplays and tensions (between, for example, ‘global English’ and ‘local English’) have grown in sophistication and cogency. Consequently, the relationship between language and identity — a relationship that all too often had been conceptualised as a simple and static one-to-one exchange between identity and language use — is a relationship that is increasingly being explored as more pluralistic, situated, complex and performative. I imagine that this trend will continue within the disciplines of Applied Linguistics for some time.

Secondly, I have also noticed within the space of my career in English sociolinguistics an increasing degree of comfort that teachers and researchers have when discussing ‘Englishes’, and the linguistic variation that is represented by such a term. When I was writing my PhD dissertation on Hong Kong English, the consensus opinion among scholars working in Hong Kong (with only a few very prominent exceptions) was that ‘there was no such thing as Hong Kong English’. The justification for that point of view was that the variety of English used in Hong Kong was a ‘learner variety’ and that this somehow negated or diminished any status that the language might have as a variety of English that deserved to be studied sociolinguistically. Increasingly there is a willingness to accept the existence and the status of varieties like Hong Kong English, Japanese English, Chinese English, etc. and to allow these varieties to be studied more fully as English varieties. I expect that this trend will also continue for some time within English sociolinguistics, and within applied linguistics more generally.”

 

Going to AAAL? Visit the Cambridge booth to browse our journals, pick up new books, and grab a few freebies! Even if you are not attending, visit our website for 20% off all books on display.

‘World Englishes or English as a Lingua Franca: Where does English in China stand?

Blog post based on an article in English Today 

The spread and development of the English language has triggered debates about issues related to language ideology, identity, and ELT. China is an important context where the popularity of English use and English learning has generated various debates. In this paper, I discuss the use of the English language in China from the perspective of Global Englishes (GE) and I explore the debate about whether it should be positioned from the paradigm of World Englishes (WE) or English as a lingua franca (ELF).

Essentially, the WE paradigm investigates different varieties of English in order to understand the various features of the language (including phonology, morphology, and syntax) as it is used in many post-colonial settings. The ELF paradigm focuses more on the use of English in a broader setting that, from a multilingual perspective, transcends boundaries. With regard to some shared features of the language as it is used by Chinese speakers of English, some previous studies have argued that the English used in China should be positioned from a WE perspective, and that China English (CE) should be regarded as a distinct variety of the English language. However, because of the lack of English use in non-educational settings there, and China’s geographical and dialectical diversity, it is difficult to portray specific common features of the English used by such a large variety of Chinese people. Thus, other scholars believe that the use of English in China should be positioned from the ELF perspective, with its fluid and dynamic features aiming for mutual intelligibility in terms of communication.

In my article, I first briefly review the development and status of English in China. I then move on to the ideological negotiation and attitudinal debate about the use and function of English there. From the WE perspective, I discuss the history of CE and the complexity of distinguishing CE and ‘Chinglish’ in some situations (for example, the differences between how the following phrases are expressed: ‘to accelerate the pace of economic reform’, and ‘imports of foreign automobiles have declined sharply this year’). I also summarise several previous studies that have favoured positioning CE as a variety of English from the WE paradigm. I then move on to discuss the opposing view that CE is not a variety of English. I present two key arguments for this position: first, very few teaching materials today have introduced the concept of the Chinese variety of English; second, not many Chinese people use English spontaneously for intra-ethnic communication.

We need to recognise that the use of English in the Chinese context is rather complicated. I prefer not to draw a particular conclusion about whether the use of English should be positioned from the WE or ELF paradigm. I believe that further research is needed to determine whether or not CE is a variety of English (although this will be a lengthy and complicated process), and that the debates about ideology and identity will persist. I think it is important to research people’s attitudes towards the use of English in China. As I present in this paper that the English language that Chinese people use is still rather fluid and dynamic, local features of the English used in China should be recognised and included in language classrooms. Both WE and ELF paradigms break the strict adherence to Standard English from native-speaker norms and challenge the ownership of English. I conclude my paper with, ‘we should realise that language is not a static entity in a vacuum, but rather develops and evolves through language contact.’

Read the full article here without charge until the end of April 2018

 

Rihanna Works Her Multivocal Pop Persona: Morpho-syntactic and Accent Variation in Rihanna’s Singing Style

Based on an article in English Today

Pop music surpasses national and linguistic boundaries. It creates a marketplace of various linguistic resources that artists use in their music performances to create their pop personas. Performers are mobile, transnational linguistic agents. They do not only physically travel worldwide and spread their multivocality, but their products are distributed and consumed internationally via a multitude of media channels. They transport mobile standard and non-standard varieties into new spaces and make them accessible to a broad audience.

Rihanna is a globally successful artist with Caribbean roots who combines different musical styles (R’n’B, hip-hop, reggae, pop) and the performance codes associated with these genres (African American English, Jamaican Creole, Standard American English). Her single “Work” stirred up attention: it was praised for displaying her Barbadian heritage, others dismissed it as lyrical gibberish. Intrigued by this intensified media coverage, we became interested in how Rihanna works her multivocal pop persona in this single. We conducted a morpho-syntactic analysis of the lyrics and investigated the accent of Rihanna’s singing style in this song to discover how she combines different linguistic resources. Furthermore, we analyzed an accompanying music video to show how Rihanna visually represents her pop persona.

The morpho-syntactic analysis shows that Rihanna uses numerous features typical of Caribbean English Creoles: for example, the personal pronoun me and him in subject position (me na care if him hurt), copula absence and negator na (you na righteous), modal auxiliary hafi and quotative se (he se me hafi work). While almost all of these features are shared by most Caribbean English Creoles, including Bajan, which is the local vernacular of Rihanna’s home country Barbados, all of them are typical of Jamaican Creole. Jamaican Creole is the most well-known Caribbean Creole and has spread globally through reggae and dancehall. Moreover, some of the features, such as copula absence, are also typical of African American English. However, large parts of the lyrics, especially the second and third verse, are dominated by Standard English grammar.

The accent analysis corroborates that Rihanna combines diverse linguistic influences: her accent is marked by several features typical of Caribbean Englishes/Creoles (e.g. face monophthongs, TH-stopping) and particularly in the chorus she has a distinctly Bajan accent, marked by a high degree of nasalization, under-articulation of consonants, and rhoticity. Besides the Bajan chorus, all features are typical of Jamaican Creole. Some of these Caribbean features are shared with African American English but there are no exclusive accent features for this variety. However, the single “Work” also includes passages where Rihanna uses a Standard American English accent, particularly in the second and third verse.

This combination of different linguistic resources is not random but patterns with the mode of the performance: the Caribbean accent and morpho-syntactic features occur most consistently in the chorus and the first verse. Rihanna uses her Caribbean voice mainly when speaking/rapping. In contrast, her singing style in the last two verses it marked by Standard English morpho-syntax and a Standard American English accent.

The music video of “Work” demonstrates that the Caribbeanness of the music performance is reinforced through visual modalities in an exoticizing and commodifying way. It portrays a dancehall event, where Rihanna is staged as a dancehall queen, and employs an abundance of stereotypical Caribbean images (e.g. Caribbean beer brands, dancehall dance moves, or the pan-African colors red, green, and black).

Our multimodal analysis shows that Rihanna mixes different linguistic and cultural identities to underline and express her multivocal pop music persona in her single “Work”. She mainly combines Standard (American) English with Caribbean Englishes/Creoles but relies strongly on Jamaican Creole and Jamaican dancehall images to perform her Caribbeanness. African American English is another potential resource for Rihanna’s hybrid persona, but it is not saliently displayed in “Work”.

Through such multivocal performances as in “Work”, Rihanna is a global transporter of diverse varieties of English. This playful mix of features is not only a display of her multifaceted and multivocal identity, but it gives insight into language-ideological processes within the global dynamics of English. Pop culture provides rich data for investigations of global Englishes as different varieties of English meet and interact at a high density.

Read the full article here

Link to video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HL1UzIK-flA

Link to annotated lyrics:

https://genius.com/Rihanna-work-lyrics

When is bacon not bacon?

An American asking for bacon in Britain would be in for a surprise.

An American asking for bacon in Britain would be in for a (delicious) surprise, and vice versa.

Blog post based on an article in English Today, written by M. Lynne Murphy

In the most recent issue of English Today, I discuss some words of general English whose apparent similarities hide some subtle differences in meaning. Words like sandwich, soup and bacon might have similar dictionary definitions in the UK and US, but Britons and Americans have different expectations when they order these things in a restaurant.

The ‘prototype approach’ to meaning helps us to describe and explain these differences. According to that approach, meanings are organized around some idealized view of a ‘typical’ example of the category (a prototype).

So, for example, whether something is called a cup depends on the degree to which it matches the ideal of ‘cup-ness’ and whether it echoes ‘ideal cup-ness’ better than it echoes ‘glass-ness’ or the ‘bowl-ness’ ideals.

This is in contrast to a ‘classical’ view of meaning where something would be called a cup if it had all the properties that all cups have, and if those properties together are sufficient to distinguish cups from glasses, mugs or bowls. (That approach doesn’t work because there may be no properties (a) that all cups have and (b) that are collectively sufficient to distinguish cups from other vessels.)

This means that the things we call cups can be very different from one another (china teacups, disposable foam coffee cups, plastic beer cups, medicine cups), and that some things are more likely to be called cup than others.

When we look at cross-dialectal differences, as in the meaning of soup, the word initially looks like it has the same meaning across dialects because there are a lot of things that all English speakers would call soup. But at the boundaries of the category, there are things that Americans would call soup that Britons would call stew – because the prototype for soup in British English is ‘smoother’ than the prototype for soup in American English.

In the article, I mention the word boot, which Willett Kempton investigated in Texas and Britain. He showed that the two groups varied in their ideas of what constituted a typical boot, with the Texan prototype extending further above the ankle than the British one. The Texan prototype fits better with cowboy boots, the British one with walking boots or army boots.

This means that, say, if asked to draw a boot, the Texans would draw taller ones than the Britons would. But still, Texans and Britons still use the word boot to refer to ankle boots, riding boots, combat boots—mostly the same things, because they’re all ‘close enough’ to the boot ideal—which includes other properties like being closed (as opposed to gladiator sandals), sturdy (as opposed to slippers), weather-proof, etc.

Since writing the article, though, I’ve been struck by a particularly British use of boot: to refer to a certain style of Converse-brand footwear. The ‘Chuck Taylor’ or ‘All-Star’ shoe comes in an above-the-ankle style or the ‘low-cut’ or ‘Oxford’ style. In American English, when you need to distinguish between the two, the taller ones are high-tops. But in Britain, I’ve often heard them called Converse boots. Indeed, as I write this (28 July 2016), the News on the Web corpus (2010-yesterday) has 12 instances of Converse boots: 10 from Britain, 2 from Ireland. To an American ear, using the word boots for canvas high-top sneakers seems just weird. Converse high-tops comes into the corpus 7 times: 4 from the US, 3 from Canada.

The difference between my aversion to calling the ankle-high version boots and my English spouse’s everyday “Have you seen my grey Converse boots?” can be explained by our differing prototypes for boot. In neither dialect are Converses at the centre of the ‘boot’ category. If I asked the spouse to grab some boots for me to pack for a trip, he’d go for leather knee-high things before he’d go for the Converses, because the leather ones satisfy more ‘typical’ properties of boots: they’re sturdy, weatherproof, reach above the ankle, etc.

But when we get to a kind of footwear for which British English lacks the vocabulary, the Converses come close enough to the ideal category to be allowed into the category of “things that can be called boots”. It works for British because even though canvas shoes aren’t sturdy or waterproof or anything else that ‘typical’ boots are, they do reach the place on the leg the British ‘typical boots’ reach. For Americans, they’re just not booty enough to be called boots because, in addition to their non-sturdiness, they’re not particularly high.

And so Americans had to come up with a new word for shoe styles that are not-quite boots: high-tops. (This happened at least 20 years before the Converse started making shoes, because other shoemakers had ‘high-top’ and ‘Oxford’ styles.) Converse does make a version of the All-Star that comes all the way up to the knees. In my American idiom, I’d have no problem calling those boots because they better match the American idea of bootiness.

The more I think about names for human-made things, the more I find British/American prototype differences. They rarely cause interruptions to communication, but they do make one wonder: how often do we not-quite-communicate without noticing?

For more information, and to delve into detail on the differences between British and American bacon, read The differences behind the similarities, or: why Americans and Britons don’t know what the other is talking about from the latest issue of English Today. View and download the article for free through 31st August.

The influence of German on the English language

'Pils' is one German word that has become a part of the English lexicon

‘Pils’ is one German word that has become a part of the English lexicon

Blog post based on an article in English Today, written by Julia Schultz

While there is a multitude of studies on the influence English has exerted on German, the converse language contact scenario has been comparatively neglected. German borrowings which have recently been assumed into English have as yet received little attention in current research. The present paper intends to shed light on the impact of German on the English vocabulary in the 20th century, filling an essential gap in the literature of borrowings and constituting an important update to previous investigations of the German-English language contact situation.

Dictionaries available in electronic form have become valuable sources for linguistic research. For example, the digitalized form of the Oxford English Dictionary Online makes it possible to carry out a precise count of all the lexical items which show a German origin in their etymologies. The findings presented in this paper are based on the analysis of a comprehensive lexicographical corpus of 1958 German borrowings retrieved from the OED Online.

The German borrowings taken over into English in the last few decades have been grouped into manifold domains with their different subcategories in order to give a rounded picture of the different subject areas and spheres of life enriched by German in the recent past. These include, for instance, the fine arts, cooking, wine, beer, politics, war and the military, language and linguistics, entertainment and leisure activities, sports, people and everyday life, electronics, telecommunication and computing, mathematics and the humanities, the natural sciences, and others.

Vocabulary adopted from German into English in recent times is characterized by its great variety. It encompasses a considerable number of specialized terms, such as Waldrapp (specifying a variety of bird) and inselberg (a technical term in geomorphology for a type of mountain or hill), which are borrowings only known to the specialist, as well as words which have made it into common usage and relate to everyday matters. Some illustrative examples of 20th century German borrowings which appear to be on everyone’s lips are rollmop, bratwurst, Pils, angst, dirndl, autobahn, blitzkrieg, Third Reich, to abseil, Bauhaus and pH.

For more information, view and download the article from English Today with complimentary access (not even a single Deutsche Mark) through 31st August.

New words show how our world is changing

LanguageHow do new words reveal the intricacies of our world?

Blends are combinations of two – or, more rarely, three – source words into one through concatenation of clipped morphological material and/or phonological overlap as in smog (< smoke + fog). Even though lexical blending is not a recent word-formation mechanism whatsoever, in the article entitled ‘‘Blended’ Cyber-Neologisms’ Amanda Roig-Marín argues that the coinage of blends in the semantic field of technologies uniquely responds to the speaker’s need to convey the blended realities that have begun to characterise present-day technological devices and related phenomena (e.g. Dronestagram (< drone + Instagram) ‘posts of aerial pictures’ or twimmolation (< Twitter + immolation) ‘the ruin of a person’s reputation because of insensitive Twitter posts’).

This study examines data collected over the period of fifteen years (2000-2015). Since dictionaries cannot keep up with the constantly increasing number of lexical items coined, the author made use of two online neologisms databases, namely Word Spy and The Rice University Neologisms Database, to retrieve truly novel blends. She firstly contextualises this type of cyber-blended words and explains why lexical blending is preferred over simple clipping or compounding. Subsequently, she offers a taxonomy of cyber blends according to the morpho-semantic patterns of these new words.

Likewise, she forecasts the formation of a paradigm akin to what Frath (2005) calls “hamburger type”, that is to say, that some word components such as those based on blog and twitter/tweet (as in vlog (< video + blog) ‘a blog in which the posting takes the form of videos’ or twitchfork (< Twitter + pitchfork) ‘an organised campaign on Twitter to express discontent or attack targets’) can achieve autonomy and thus start to be used productively, as it also happened with the sequel series (e.g. interquel and prequel) or the literati series (digerati, glitterati, etc.).

Access the full article for free through 31st August.

Dialect Matters – Respecting Vernacular Language

Blog post written by Peter Trudgill author of Dialect Matters – Respecting Vernacular Language

Dialect Matters

Academic linguists are often asked questions like: Is it really bad form to sometimes split your infinitives? What exactly is wrong with saying “I done it”? Why is the pronunciation of younger people these days so irritating? Why is it OK to drop the k in know but not the h in house? Why do railway companies prefer to have customers alighting from trains rather than passengers getting off them? And what is so important about sentences not starting with a conjunction?

This book argues in favour of the language of ordinary people. It champions everyday vocabulary, such as passenger, as opposed to business-school jargon like customer. Its supports nonstandard dialects, including forms such as I done it, in the face of the tyranny of the view that the standard dialect is the only “correct” and “grammatical” version of the language. It cherishes the English used by native speakers in their everyday lives, not least where they appear to defy the views of pedants who attempt to impose “rules” on us – for example about split infinitives – which have been invented for no good reason. It makes the case for vernacular usage as opposed to politically correct language. It demands respect for local ways of pronouncing local place-names. It asserts the primacy of spoken language and explains the importance of discourse markeres like “like”. And it defends minority languages like Welsh and Navajo, where these are threatened by majority languages like English.

The book is a collection of my weekly columns on accent and dialect from the Eastern Daily Press newspaper, revised and annotated for a wider audience. Many of these essays deal with the history of the English language. Others explain the origins of place-names. Some discuss the ways in which languages change while dismissing the loaded notions of deterioration and progress. Several of the columns look at political problems brought about by language issues; and stress the tragedy of language death. The coverage ranges from England to New England and Moldova; from the languages of indigenous Australians and Americans to the Old Norse tongue of the Vikings; and from vocabulary to phonetics and grammar. One of the pieces even boasts what is quite possibly the first ever usage in a regional British newspaper of the word phonotactics.

One of the main purposes of these columns is to broadcast a message of anti-prescriptivism, anti-linguicism, and respect for demotic linguistic practices. Prescriptivism is a form of prejudice which is so widely accepted in the English-speaking world that it is taken by many people to be axiomatic. Prescriptivists believe that there is only one way in which English “ought” to be spoken and written, and that any deviation from this is “ignorant” or “wrong”. If you ask them their justification for claiming that the sentence I done it is wrong, they may well answer that “everybody knows” it is. In this book, I try to show that this is not so. And I oppose negative attitudes like this – which are sadly held even by many highly educated and otherwise thoughtful people – by proposing that we should cultivate a positive stance towards all the different ways in which English is spoken around the world.

By the term “linguicism” I refer to a phenomenon which is, in its way, every bit as pernicious as racism and sexism, and which these days is more publicly and shamelessly displayed than those other evil phenomena. Linguicism involves being negative towards and discriminating against people because of their accent, dialect or native language. The totally false idea that some dialects of English are – in some mysterious and never specified way –“better” than others has many unfortunate consequences, not least the denigration of whole groups of our fellow human beings.

But I also attempt to convey the message that language is a mysterious, fascinating and enjoyable phenomenon which not enough people know enough about. I have attempted to use my columns as an opportunity to show that language is an extraordinarily interesting phenomenon, especially when we do our best to think about it analytically and positively, without preconceptions and prejudice. Nothing is more important to human beings than language; and I hope that in this book I have succeeded in illustrating the degree to which all languages and dialects are not only worthy of respect and preservation but, as complex creations of human societies and of the human mind, are also highly rewarding and pleasing to discover more about.

All the 150 or so columns in the book are about language in some shape or form, and contain linguistic information with insights which will be of interest to university students and teachers of linguistics, as well as to high-school English Language teachers and their classes: indeed they have already been used to stimulate discussion in classrooms from New Zealand and the USA to the British Isles. For the benefit of this type of reader, most of the pieces in this book are accompanied by brief Linguistic Notes of a technical nature which general readers need not bother with unless they want to achieve a more academic understanding of the issues involved. Local background notes are also provided where necessary for readers not familiar with East-of-England background of a number of the columns.