Thursday, May 26, 2016

10th blogiversary

Happy 10th blogiversary to me! (The internet tells me it's spel{led/t} with one 'g'.)

I hope that it also counts as 10 happy years of Separated by a Common Language for you!

It has been and continues to be an fantastic ride.  The highlights for me have been:
  • the readers and commenters. Really, it's been amazing to me how wonderful people can be on the web. You hear bad things all the time about social media, but (AmE) knock/(BrE) touch wood my experiences with it have generally been fabulous. I wrote last year with some emotion about how touched and hono(u)red I am by the generosity of spirit in the comments section. I am.
  • coming to reali{s/z}e how little I knew at the start of the blog (and how little I probably know now). At that point, I'd been teaching linguistics for 15 years, lived in the UK for over six years and before that I'd lived in South Africa for four. I thought I knew a lot about English. Man, I'd just started to get acquainted with the language. And while I now feel like I'm bursting with knowledge about English, the great thing about knowledge is that you can always fit in more.
  • the heaps of opportunities that the blog has opened up for me. The media stuff, the camaraderie with other 'public linguists', the new research lines and collaborations, the funding, the book-in-progress. Oh my goodness. If I weren't superstitious about making public statements about how fantastic my life presently is, I'd be making one. 
I won't try to pick my favo(u)rite blog posts from the past 10 years, since such decisions can be painful. But my favourite ones to write and reflect upon are the ones about really fine semantic differences (usually involving food) and ones about the ins and outs of interaction (try the politeness tag for some of those).

The most visited (though the figures are only from 2010-2016, when I started using Google Analytics) are:

22 Jul 2012, 38 comments

21 May 2011, 56 comments


19 Jul 2010, 76 comments

18 Aug 2012, 208 comments

20 Apr 2009, 47 comments

14 Aug 2008, 90 comments

17 Mar 2007, 54 comments

11 Jun 2011, 61 comments

Do any of you have a favo(u)rite post that you think should have made the list? (I suspect the bed sizes one is so popular because companies selling linens are always trying to spam it.)

Thank you, readers, for keeping me going and also for nominating me again for Top Language Lover awards. Should you want to vote for me (or anyone else for that matter!), here are the relevant links:
Language Professional Blogs category (Separated by a Common Language) 
Twitter category (Lynne Murphy) 

Warning: like Lynneukah, this blogiversary may last days.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

jail, gaol and prison

Gemma wrote some time ago to ask about jail and prison, starting with:
I would (as a British person) use them interchangeably (is this the norm in the UK, or is it just me?) but I've had the impression on several occasions that an American author has expected me to understand that one (jail?) is used for a regional facility for lesser offenders, and the other for a federal facility. Or perhaps you can set me straight? And who (if anyone) uses the spelling "gaol"?

There is indeed a US-UK difference here, almost as Gemma has stated it.

Attica Correctional Facility (Wikipedia)
In the US, jails are where people are taken when they are arrested, and it may be where they stay for a very light sentence. The jail will be run by the county or municipality.  If, after sentencing, the person is to be incarcerated for any significant amount of time, they will be sent to prison.

An American prison is not necessarily federal,  there are state prisons as well. Which one you go to depends on whether you committed a federal offen{c/s}e or broke a state law. (This is complicated by the fact that many crimes are both. So, probably the more relevant issue is whether you were tried in a federal court or not.)  Personal note: I'm originally from the town whose name is synonymous with 'deadly prison riot', Attica. My grandmother (long before the rioting) had been the warden's secretary.

In the UK, as Gemma noted, people tend to use the two words interchangeably, though the actual places today are called prisons, since they are part of Her Majesty's Prison System. The things I know of that are called gaols are no longer in use. If you're arrested, you'll be held in police custody--in a cell at the police station or a central remand centre, run by the police, not the prison service.

As for the spelling: the two spellings go way back. Gaol came into Middle English from Old Northern French gaiole (or gayolle or gaole) and jail came into Middle English from Old French jaiole (or jaole or jeole). They're ultimately related and they're (now) pronounced the same, but English was lucky(?) enough to get both. The OED says the Old Northern French version
remains as a written form in the archaic spelling gaol (chiefly due to statutory and official tradition); but this is obsolete in the spoken language, where the surviving word is jail, repr. Old Parisian French and Middle English jaiole, jaile. Hence though both forms gaol, jail, are still written, only the latter is spoken. In U.S. jail is the official spelling.  
Looking on the GloWBE corpus, it seems Australia is very fond of the gaol spelling, even using it as a verb in significant numbers (though still only about 10% of the rate of jail as a verb).

Of course, there are lots of other terms. On the formal side, we have penitentiary and correctional facility. Penitentiary comes from ecclesiastical practice, but these days it means a non-religious prison, and the OED marks it as 'originally and chiefly North American'. American facilities are more likely to have words like these in their names because the names can vary by state. In the UK, the official names are all "HM Prison [place name]", e.g. HM Prison Manchester, or HMP Manchester. (That's a gratuitous, if indirect, Smiths reference.)

Much slang regarding prisons is going to be different in the two countries. Given that I'm working from dictionaries, these are going to be rather dated, but...

American-origin slang for jails/prisons includes: the pokey, the big house, the cooler, and others.

In the UK you're in the nick, choky (from Indian English), quod, the glasshouse and others. Or you might be at her Majesty's pleasure or doing porridge. 

I'm just going to go ahead and assume that you can google those if you want more information about them.

Friday, May 06, 2016

spreading linguistic misinformation

Today's xkcd is timely...

...considering that Cambridge Linguistics Extra (at Linguist List) yesterday published a blogpost by me on linguistic misinformation. Click through for more...

The post is a promotion for my series in the journal English Today. So far, half of the series has been published--an article on the cognitive biases that colo(u)r our view of other Englishes and one on whether it makes sense to speak of 'British' or 'American' English. The series has allowed me to practi{c/s}e expressing ideas for the book I'm writing.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

grammar is not the enemy

I'm saddened these days by a lot of things going on in the UK, particularly regarding the current government's treatment of education and healthcare. But, you know, I'm not a Conservative or even a conservative, so it's not surprising I'm not too happy with them. What's moving me to write today is the sadness I feel about aspects of the reaction to what's happening in education.
Spot Lynne's (BrE) barnet in the picture

A bit of background: the Tory  (BrE) government/(AmE) administration has made and continues to make many changes to schools and education in England. (The other countries of the UK can do their own thing--and as far as I can tell, they're being more sensible.) The changes include a lot more testing of spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG) with more specific and more daunting requirements on grammar at earlier ages. To give a comparison, the National Curriculum for Key Stages 1 and 2 (ages 4-11) mentions grammar (or grammatical) 35 times in 2015, compared with 6 times in 2010.

SPAG testing is just one aspect of sweeping changes to education in England under Secretaries of State for Education Michael Gove (2010-2014) and Nicky Morgan (2014-present), but it is an aspect that has been the focus of much attention and anger.

Our family took part today in the Let Our Kids Be Kids school strike protesting against the year-2 SATs* tests, because we do believe that the current policies are making a mockery of education by focusing on standardi{s/z}ed testing, particularly at (BrE) infant-school level. There is no evidence basis for any of the changes that are being made to education--in fact, all the education research I've seen says that formal education shouldn't start till age 7, that homework doesn't belong in primary years, that academi{s/z}ation does not necessarily help ailing schools (and that it's likely to kill rural primaries), and so on and so forth.

But what worries me sometimes in the rhetoric of the anti-testing movement is anti-grammar sentiments--separate from the anti-testing or anti-early-schooling sentiments. I've seen a lot of "down with grammar!" messages, often alongside "learning should be fun!" The implicit--and sometimes made explicit--message is that grammar takes the joy out of language. Fun and joy, as far as I'm concerned, are more about teaching than about subject matter. I want to take a moment to say "up with grammar!"  

To borrow an analogy from a friend, not wanting your child to learn about grammar [by which I mean: describing how sentences and words are structured] is like not wanting your child to learn about molecules and atoms. Yes, you can happily interact with matter without knowing that it is made up of elements, which are made up of atoms, and that those can combine with others to make all sorts of wonderful things. Not being able to explain the chemistry and physics involved will not stop you from making or enjoying a milkshake. But do you really not want to have a clue that there is more to the world than meets the eye? I've found it very useful to know what I learned at school about matter--even though I grew up and had to discover that there might not be any such thing as electrons. All the same, having a basic knowledge of a model of how matter works makes it easier for me to understand the science I hear about in the news. It helps me understand a little bit better when I read about new medical treatments. It also points out to me how little I know, and makes me a bit more curious about the things I don't know. It helped me learn about the scientific method and encouraged me to wonder at the scales of the universe.

Learning about how language works is like that. Learning about it can lead you to appreciate it more and to be less prejudiced about it, and if you go further with it, you might be able do a lot of things with that knowledge. Speech and language therapists can use it. Teachers can use it. Editors can use it. Cognitive psychologists can use it. Computer programmers and software designers can use it. Having a theory of what language is and how it works — what sentence is, what a word is — has lots of applications and can open up all sorts of other areas for investigation.

As Bas Aarts (of University College London's Survey of English Usage) explains in his response to being a scapegoat for anti-grammarism, any grammatical exercise is a test of a particular model of the grammar of the language. At university level, our students compare models. But we don't present more than one at school level, generally--not for language, not for physics, not (generally) for evolution. A problem in grammar teaching/learning sometimes is that several different models are available and no one's pointed that out, and so concepts from one are mixed up with concepts from another and things stop making sense.

What can you do by learning a single model of a grammar in school? Well, you can have conversations about your language, about other languages, about your writing, about whatever you're reading. Students' lack of metalanguage for talking about language and writing is something I've complained about elsewhere.

Does that need to happen in the early years of school? No. And it doesn't need to be tested in pressure-filled rote ways. But if you are not confident in your (or your school staff's) knowledge of grammar and you don't have the resources (including TIME) to get that knowledge and confidence up, then teaching-to-a-test is what ends up happening.

As I've written about before, grammar teaching has never been very strong in the UK. I don't want to repeat everything I wrote at that blog post (relying a lot on Dick Hudson and John Walmsley's research), so I do recommend clicking on that link. This has left us with a situation where everyone involved in the discussion has different half-developed ideas of what grammar means and which models are relevant. And in that situation, it's really easy to see why people are anti-grammar. Grammar in that case seems like hocus-pocus that's used as a means to keep some kids back. That may be the meaning of the SATs test, but it's not the meaning of grammar.

The only grammar/language teaching to trainee teachers at my UK university was for those who were upgrading themselves from classroom assistant to teacher. (And that programme has since been cancel[l]ed.) It was just assumed that people who had studied literature and had university degrees would be able to teach what an adverb is, should the curriculum ask for grammar. And perhaps back in the day when many of our teachers were trained, there was no inkling of an idea that grammar would be taught at primary level. (Foreign language was made compulsory at primary level in 2010. Many current teachers would not have started their careers with that in mind either.)

In the US, the nature of grammar teaching will vary more as there is more state-by-state variation in curricula. (There is now a national 'Common Core' that is like the UK National Curriculum--but it specifies much less than the National Curriciulum does and the statements about grammar are more about "using standard grammar" than analy{s/z}ing sentences [link is PDF].)  I've just checked the website of the Texan university where I last taught in the US (in 1999) and Modern English Grammar is still on the requirements for a Bachelor of Science in Education (English) for middle-school (AmE) grades upward--though now they're allowing people to substitute Introduction to Linguistics for it. (I used to teach both of those--and loved them.) In the US university-level grammar (not linguistics, but grammar) textbooks are big business. In the UK, I've not found a real equivalent to the grammar textbooks we taught with in the US. Again, my older post on grammar teaching covers other aspects of this.

My dream would be for kids to be able to learn about language by using observation, experimentation, discovery, categorization. All that good stuff. Learning how to think, not what to think. The ultimate transferable skill. And while many are working hard to make sure schools have access to the training and confidence to incorporate more linguistic discovery into their work, it seems like an impossible ask at a time when teachers are under an incredible amount of pressure from a government that likes to serve its educational reform with budget cuts.

Another good way to learn about grammar is by learning a language other than your own. Our experience teaching linguistics at university level is the exchange students can out-grammar all our UK-educated home students, because they've had to do metalinguistic thinking--thinking about languages--before. You don't need to learn the language by learning grammar--but being faced with the fact that your language does things differently from others gives insight into what grammar is.

In the meantime, here's a video of the strike rally that we attended today, from the Channel 4 news. The reporter is trying to be clever (I eventually figured out) by naming grammatical constructions he's about to say.  It's fair to say, he didn't study much grammar either. (Best bit: when causal connective turns into casual connective. I'm thinking like could be added to the grammar tests as a casual connective.)

But even though I'm slightly taking the mickey out of that reporter, I do think it's not really fair when people pick on grown-ups' inability to answer the test questions. If schools only taught facts and theories that you'd remember as an adult, schooling would be very short indeed. What's important is not whether decades-later-me can explain what an electron is or what the French and Indian War was about or how to tell a preposition from a subordinating construction (ok, maybe I need that one for my job). What's important is
  • the thinking skills I honed when learning those things
  • the communication skills I developed in tasks related to those things
  • the knowledge that any part of the world can be analy{s/z}ed in interesting ways
  • the echo of those things in my mind, reminding me that things do have names and explanations and I could go look them up if I wanted to

P.S. Lots of other linguists and educationists and other interested people have written a lot of other things about this, but I couldn't take the time to link to them all. Feel free to suggest further reading in the comments!

* The SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) in the US is for (AmE) college/(BrE) university admissions. Lazily quoting Wikipedia, no one really knows what it stands for in England, as it's variously referred to as: "Statutory Assessment Tests, Standard Attainment Tests, Standardised Achievement Tests and Standard Assessment Tests".
The linguistic note here is that in the UK, it's pronounced as a word: Sats. In the US, the SAT is always S-A-T.

Monday, April 25, 2016

levee, dyke, embankment

Embankment station District Circle roundel I'm often told (by Brits) that Americans are prudes when it comes to language. And I can often demonstrate the error or hypocrisy in their claim. Tidbit/titbit is one I've covered here so far. Another one is levee, which an Englishman informed me is used because Americans don’t want to say (AmE) dike/(BrE) dyke for a built-up bank to prevent the overflow of water.

So let me count out my objections to his claim:

1. Levee has been used in North America since the 18th century. (Orig. AmE) dyke has only been (slang (or a hyponym) for 'lesbian' since the 20th century. So, Americans definitely didn't start saying levee to avoid association with lesbians.

2. If you're an American like me, you primarily know levee from Don McLean's song American Pie, where it is a convenient rhyme for Chevy. (This is at the top of the 'Lynne's most hated songs' list. I hope I haven't earwormed you with it. My day is ruined.) I think of it as a Louisiana thing (it is used all the way up the Mississippi River), and that's where it came into English, from French. (That part of the continent came into the US with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.) It may be more common now that people have heard it more in the news because of extreme weather in the Gulf States, but I still think of it as a vaguely regional term, rather than pan-American.

3. I only really knew the word dike from the story of the Little Dutch Boy. Where/when I grew up, I'd've  called it a little dam (because we weren't put off by the homophony with damn either!) But note the spelling. The main American spelling of this thing is dike, whereas the 'lesbian' sense is usually spelled/spelt dyke, which which Merriam-Webster lists as 'chiefly British variant of dike'.  So, in printed form, at least, the 'taboo' sense and the 'built up bank by the river' geographic (or is it architectural?) sense are a bit more linked. Living in the 'gay capital of Britain' near a place called Devil's Dyke, I can tell you that the British are aware and amused by the punning potential. In that sense, though, it tends to be for a natural feature, not an artificially built-up place by a river.

4. It’s not like the British are freely going about saying dike for the meaning 'levee'. They tend to prefer the word embankment for such things. Who are the prudes now?

(The green (more BrE) bits above were added after first posting.)

Monday, April 18, 2016

more on polite words and maths

It's been too long since I've posted here. And it will be a bit longer still. I'm currently in the US doing a tour of dictionary archives as part of my research for some on-going projects. Since I have limited time here, I'm working in the evenings to prep for the days in the archives.

But I did want to let you know about some podcasts that I don't think I've mentioned here on the blog.

Helen Zaltzman, for her Allusionist podcast, interviewed Rachele de Felice and me about our research on please and we had such a good time talking that we just kept on doing it. So, on her following podcast, she included some of our discussion about thank you.

Click here for Allusionist 33: Please

Click here for Allusionist 34: Continental (including thank you)

For more of me talking about polite words, click on the 'politeness' tag at the bottom of this post.

And this was longer ago, but I also appeared on the Relatively Prime podcast talking (again) about maths. Click here for that. 

Upcoming talks:
The Boring Conference, 7 May, London (sold out, sorry! but thrilled to be boring enough to be chosen for it)
Society for Editors and Proofreaders 27th annual conference, 11 Sept, Birmingham.

Another post will come soon-ish!

Monday, March 21, 2016

hay fever and allergies

I suffer. I do. At this point, the pollen people tell me it's alder trees. But it's always something.
Alder catkins, via Wikipedia

I complained about this on Facebook last night with the status "Hay fever? Already?" and this led a former (British) student, now working in New York to ask:
They don't really say that here do they? More just 'allergies' in general.
I grew up with hay fever in Upstate New York, and much of my family suffers, so I'm used to hearing the phrase in American English. But, of course, I had to look it up.

I found on the Corpus of Global Web-Based English more mentions of hay fever in Britain than America and more of allergies in North America than in Britain. But allergies wins overall in both countries. Of course, allergies can refer to more than just pollen allergies, so that's not totally surprising.

(The darker the blue in these tables the more a phrase is associated with a particular country in this corpus. The raw numbers can't be directly compared because the sizes of the sub-corpora for each country differ, but the US and GB sets are roughly the same size.)

But looking at Google Books gives a different story:

This shows hay fever as peaking earlier in the US (around the 1940s) and later in the UK (1970s), but not more common in BrE than in AmE. It also shows the rise of allergies--earlier in the US than in the UK. I feel like I use allergies a lot these days because I'm never really sure what I'm sneezing out. But I do seem to be sneezing for most of the year.

So, it looks like the US is leading a change to allergies over hay fever, but this little exercise does demonstrate that a lot depends on the make-up of the data you're using.

If it's not hay fever I have, then perhaps it is THE DREADED LURGY