(Un)separated by a common language?

ENG 2016Blog post supplementary to an article in English Today written by © M. Lynne Murphy

Last night, I wondered ‘aloud’ on Twitter if British-American English dictionaries are the worst lexicographical products out there. This was after flipping through The Anglo-American Interpreter: a word and phrase book by H. W. Horwill (1939). At first, when I read Horwill’s claims that Americans ask for the time with What time have you?, I thought ‘Wow, American English has changed a lot since 1939’. But as I kept reading the unexpected items in the American column on each page, the British column sounded more and more like contemporary American English. I started to suspect something was amiss. And in the preface I found it: ‘The present book is an original compilation based on more than thirty years’ reading of American books and newspapers, supplemented by what the author has heard with his own ears during two periods of residence in the United States’. The author is bragging that he didn’t reproduce information from earlier works ‘without independent verification’. But did he get independent verification about the things he experienced with his own eyes and ears?

You and I have a great advantage over Mr Horwill, in that we live in the computer age. So we can do things like look in the Corpus of Historical American English (Davies 2010–) and see that the corpus has four examples of What time have you? between 1800 and 1940, but 219 examples of What time is it? We would not conclude that What time have you? is what Americans routinely said in 1939, but we might wonder if it was used in certain circumstances or regions.

I enjoyed finding this book and its oddities because it is the British mirror of a American book that I mention in my recent article ‘(Un)separated by a common language?’ (Murphy 2016). This is the first of a series of four pieces I’m writing for English Today about American and British Englishes: what can be studied about them and how we might think about them. The essay argues that American and British differences should not be dismissed as ‘minor and uninteresting’. Whether they’re minor or not depends on one’s standards for ‘minority’, but they’re certainly not uninteresting. What they are is misunderstood.

Like Horwill, the author of Understanding British English (Moore, 1989) was an enthusiast for the other country. She watched British television, read British and Australian books, and took two vacations in the UK where she acquired some British pen-pals. The book’s listing of British English vocabulary thus contains Australianisms, some misapprehensions of meaning, quite a few questionable part-of-speech judgements, and some words that are perfectly good American English (but apparently not used by Moore).

The problem for Horwill, Moore and many other interested observers of language, is that our experience of English is deeply personal (no one else has heard/read/said all the same words and phrases as you have) and we have a deep need to generalize and stereotype. If you phrase something in a way that I’ve not heard before and we have similar accents, I might think ‘There’s an expression I didn’t know’ or ‘Wow, isn’t she poetic?’ or ‘Hey, he’s saying that wrong’. But if someone with a different accent says it, we are apt to conclude ‘Oh, that must be how those people say it’. The fact is: it still could have been an expression I didn’t know. Or poetic. Or a speech error. And another fact is: I probably didn’t notice the dozens of earlier times when they expressed a similar notion using words I would have used.

We’re so confident that we know our own dialects that we are more than willing to make conclusions about others’. It’s not just enthusiastic-but-amateur dictionary-writers who do this. Articles in the news about Britishisms or Americanisms routinely misidentify the sources of words and phrases (for examples, see Murphy 2006–). Now that we’re in the information age, we have the tools to avoid these mistakes: well-researched dictionaries, accessible linguistic corpora, and the ability to ask people on the other side of the world whether they’d say X or Y—and to get an almost immediate response. It concerns me when those tools aren’t used.

So, before you conclude that that thing you heard on Downton Abbey is ‘how the British say it’ or that Americans ‘don’t use adverbs’ (see Pullum 2014), remind yourself that:

(a) you heard an individual speak, not a nation,

(b) your mind biases you to notice differences rather than similarities, and

(c) you could look it up!



Davies, Mark. 2010-. The Corpus of Historical American English: 400 million words, 1810-2009. Available at http://corpus.byu.edu/coha/.

Horwill, H. W. 1939. An Anglo-American interpreter. Oxford University Press.

Moore, Margaret E. 1989. Understanding British English. New York: Citadel Press.

Murphy, M. Lynne 2006. Separated by a Common Language (blog). http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com

Murphy, M. Lynne. 2016. (Un)separated by a common language? English Today, 32, 56-59.

Pullum, Geoffrey K. 2014. ‘Undivided by a Common Language’. Lingua Franca (blog), Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 March. Available at <http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2014/03/17/undivided-by-a-common-language/> (Accessed September 30, 2015).



English and international students in China today

ENG 2016Blog post written by Werner Botha based on an article in English Today 

Between 2009 and 2010, and again between 2012 and 2014, I visited a number of higher education institutes in China in order to research the role of English in the Chinese higher education system. One interesting finding from this research was that China has evidently started promoting itself as a hub for international education. Although the largest proportion of foreign students in China today are attracted by Chinese language programmes, an increasing number of such students are signing up for full degree courses in subjects such as medicine and engineering. An interesting phenomenon is that some university degree programmes in the country are being offered as English-medium degrees to foreign students, from undergraduate to postgraduate levels. So far, very little research has been carried out on how these programmess are being conducted, the reception of these programs by foreign students in China, and the impact this is having on the use of languages on China’s university campuses. It certainly is the impression that the attraction of international students to China’s higher education institutions would no doubt alter the dynamics of language use on these university campuses. In order to investigate this, I set out to study the reception and use of English by foreign university students in an international degree program: the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) in the School of Medicine of one of China’s leading universities.

My case study provides an example of how English-medium instruction programmes are currently being used to attract foreign students to China’s universities, partly in order for these universities to promote themselves as ‘international’ institutions. This case study also shows that the most of the international students were recruited from the Asian region and almost all of these students speak English only as a second or additional language. Although many of these students indicated that they value the opportunity to study medicine in China in the English language, some felt that there was still room for improvement in how these courses were being delivered, especially in terms using English as a medium of teaching. Furthermore,  it is my impression from this research that the language ecologies on Chinese university campuses are in fact often quite diverse, with students (both foreign and local) using a number of languages and language varieties in their extra-curricular lives, while using English and Putonghua (or Mandarin) in their formal education. One other interesting finding from this study is that the international students I surveyed were required to graduate from their medical degree programme with a certain level of proficiency in Putonghua. This requirement appears to provide additional opportunities for these international students to expand their already multilingual repertoires even further, thus adding to the linguistic diversity in their lives. I believe that much more sociolinguistic fieldwork is required in order to further understand and explain the dynamics of language use and the role of English (and other languages and language varieties) on China’s university campuses today.

Read the full article ‘English and international students in China today’ here 


A deserted desert

ENG 2016Blog post written by Michael Bulley based on an article in the journal English Today 

Why that title? Well, desert is one of those spellings, like defect, where a change of stress-pattern alters the meaning, the quality of one of the vowels and the grammatical category. Also, desert, the noun, has the same etymological origin as desert, the verb, though we do not nowadays think of a desert as a place people have deserted. Those two words also belong to a smallish group in English that begin with the prefix <de-> followed by <s> and a vowel. That group is the topic of my article.

Leaving out rare words and obvious derivations, the list I came up with is this:

desalinate, desaturate, desecrate, desegregate, deselect, desensitise, desert, deserve, desiccate, design, designate, desire, desist, desolate, desuetude, desultory

There are several ways you can group them. The one I fixed on was the pronunciation of the prefix. There are three possibilities: [dɪ], as in deserve, [di], as in deselect, and [dɛ], as in designate. Having established those three groups, I then look at what the similarities and differences are within and across them according to three other criteria. These are:

1) The pronunciation of the <s>, whether unvoiced, as in desecrate, or voiced as in designate.

2) The sense of the prefix. Sometimes it implies separation or privation, as in desalinate, and sometimes not. The <de-> of desiccate, for example, just seems to reinforce the sense of the root, as the word does not mean to remove dryness.

3) The independence or not of the root. In deselect, it is independent. In desist, it is not. In design, it is and it isn’t. For, although sign exists by itself, there is a change of sense from that in the compound and the <s> is unvoiced, whereas in the compound it is voiced.

What prompted me to think of this topic? It was an oddity of French orthography, where the prefix <dé->, added to a root beginning <s> plus vowel, becomes <des->, the double <s> ensuring an unvoiced pronunciation. So, French has dessiccation, with a double <s>, whereas English has desiccation, with only one.

I finish the article with dessert. That’s another French word with the precautionary, but slightly illogical, double <s>. We anglophones have to spell it that way, because it comes directly from French, but we cock a snook. For how do we pronounce that double <s>? As a  /z/!

Read the full article ‘A deserted desert, Various ways of looking at a small group of words

Keep off the grass? No way!

Jan 2016 - ENG Cover imageBlog post written by Hu Xiao Qiong based on an article in the journal English Today 

China’s rapid economic development is constantly making English more widely used in China. One convincing piece of evidence is the bilingual use of Chinese and English public signs, which has become “an attractive linguistic landscape”.

This paper discusses the ‘appropriateness’ of two possible translations of a public sign “小草微微笑,劝君绕弯道”: one is the literal translation – “The grass is smiling. Please walk on the path”; the other presents an indirect translation that conveys the basic meaning of the sign – “Keep off the grass”. Many Chinese researchers approve of this indirect translation. The author of this paper, however, considers the literal translation to be more culturally appropriate as it represents the Chinese rhetorical style, communication mode, philosophical meaningand politeness. The paper argues that the use of indirect translation for public signs will never result in ‘an attractive linguistic landscape” unless it promotes and spreads the cultural values of the literal translation. In support of this argument, a survey, carried out by the author, involving 287 Chinese and non-Chinese, demonstrated that the great majority preferred the literal translation, i.e., “The grass is smiling. Please walk on the path”. So “ Keep off the grass”? No way!

Read the full article ‘Keep off the grass? No way!’ here


Microsoft Grammar and Style Checker (‘Consider Revising’)

ENG 31 4Blog post written by  Viktorija Kostadinova based on an article int he journal English Today 

One might assume that usage books and style manuals are the reference sources for those seeking advice on correct grammar or proper language usage. However, computers have changed the ways in which we communicate, and grammar and usage have not been spared. Language advice now comes in various forms on the Internet, and grammar rules and style recommendations are incorporated in grammar and style checkers in word-processing software. This raises all sorts of interesting questions regarding the effects of grammar and style checkers on language use and attitudes to language usage.

Users of Microsoft Word, the most widespread word-processing software, are likely to be familiar with the green squiggly line. Whenever you make a grammatical or stylistic error, the program alerts you to it by underlining the problematic sequence, and often offers ‘correct’ options. Although this may seem fairly straightforward, an issue that arises is that grammar and style are not as fixed as spelling. It is also somewhat unclear what grammar rules and style recommendations form the basis of the program’s error-flagging process.

What impact does this functionality have on Microsoft Word users? Is this kind of grammar and style monitoring useful, does the Microsoft Word grammar and style checker act as an ‘invisible grammarian’ that perpetuates conservative ideas about language usage and style?

Examining the experiences of Microsoft Word users may reveal quite a lot about the actual influence of the grammar and style checker on people’s perceptions about language use. Do people accept the program’s suggestions uncritically, or do they engage with it and adapt the settings based on their own stylistic preferences? Do they alter their sentences just to make the squiggly line disappear or do they turn the grammar checker off completely? To find out, I launched a short survey on the topic; readers are invited to contribute by filling out the survey available at http://bridgingtheunbridgeable.com/english-today/. All feedback will be greatly appreciated and the findings will be presented on the Bridging the Unbridgeable blog.

You can also read the full article ‘Microsoft Grammar and Style Checker (‘Consider Revising’)’ here


English Spelling Variation and Change in Newspapers of Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan

ENG 31 4Blog post written by Yonghou Liu and Ye Zhao based on an article in English Today

English spelling variation and change in the Greater China have been left inadequately explored. This study investigates the spelling preferences for Standard British English (BrE) or Standard American English (AmE) of China Daily (Mainland China), The Standard (Hong Kong) and Taipei Times (Taiwan) over a 10-year period, 2001 through 2010. Occurrences of six representative spelling pairs (-our/-or, -ise/-ize, -ll/-l -re/-er, en-/in- and -mme/-m) are calculated in a corpus of 1080 passages from the three newspapers. The findings are: (1) Inter-newspaper synchronic spelling variation once existed. BrE spellings were preferred in both China Daily and The Standard. Both of them witnessed a preference shift from BrE spelling to AmE spelling around the years 2005-2007, broadly speaking. In contrast, Taipei Times adhered to the American spelling system throughout the period. Its spelling scenario has been much simpler and more consistent than that of the other two papers; (2) Diachronically, the three newspapers all experienced kind of Americanization in their spelling preferences, esp. for China Daily and The Standard. (3) The history of spelling preferences of China Daily and The Standard resembled each other, but the former’s spelling change was characterized with a state of flux while the latter’s change was more smooth and gradual.

As for the overall variation in the usage of British and American conventions, the American ones were used at a higher rate of frequency over the decade for all the six pairs. The study also supports the claim that a region’s English spelling variation is correlated with its historical context, and the consequent English orthography change is perpetuated by social changes, not only local changes, but also global ones – the elevated status of AmE as the global ‘prestige’ variety of English in this study. This kind of change has potential benefits. If regional variations are eliminated by the most prestigious variety, this might serve to help ‘tidy up some of the anomalies [and] give greater consistency to the whole system’ (Carney, 1997: 67). This in turn may avoid possible confusion for learners of English as an additional language. In the meantime, it seems reasonable to conclude that the rising prestige of AmE will inevitably continue to erode the global status of BrE, and cause a concern of the shift of language loyalty in a growing number of regions.

We invite you to read the full article here



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’