All entries for Friday 23 March 2007

March 23, 2007

My Language Study

Thanks again to everyone who was involved in this sudy, not least to Dave for having to sit up with me as I finished it at 2:30am this morning!

Minus the historical introdauction, here it is for those who were involved and those who weren’t to comment on or just read. If anyone notices any hideous type-o’s can we not point them out as I just handed this in 4 hours ago!!

Appologies that I couldn’t use all the awesome stuff you guys gave me; 3000 words is just never enough!


Findings of the Study

The most encouraging finding of this study is that all participants believe language will and should be allowed to change. Some of the responses to these questions included “language is always adapting, you can’t stop it” (Laura) and “I think it’s probably a good thing” (Litsa).

The Future of English? published to help teachers and businesses adapt to the changes in the use and importance of English stated,

“English has changed substantially in the 1500 years…of its use, reflecting patterns of contact with other languages and the changing communication needs of people”
(Dave Graddol, 1997,)

This book could be considered out of date, as it is ten years since it was first published. However, it seems that the opinions expressed are not. One participant said;

“Language progresses as its population progresses…I think every language should adapt to [its] population.” (Phillip)

When reflecting on English’s “contact with other languages”, most participants said they did use words from other languages in their speech. Examples cited were “merci”, “voul-ez-vous” and “some German phrases”. This is not surprising, as it is the European languages English Nationals have most contact with through our compulsory modern languages education. Most felt the inclusion of such phrases made their speech “more interesting” (Kate, Neil) or when they feel there isn’t “an English word I like more” (Laura).

However this use of non-English words in discourse differs between those who have English as their first language (all those mentioned above) and those who have a different or mixed first language. Subjects in this category seemed to be more aware of which languages to use when, mostly trying to keep them completely separate. Claudia said she only combined her languages “when talking to someone with the same first language” as her. Similarly, Lorenzo, who also gave Italian as his first language says he tries to keep the languages separate and always speak as well as he can in that language when talking to someone who shares it, giving the following reason;

“I wouldn’t use English phrases [when talking to another Italian first-speaker] because most English phrases are not suitable for Italian as most Italian phrases are not suitable for the English”

One participant, Clare, who gave English/French as her first and preferred languages claims not to insert phrases from French into English, but combines her language in a different way. She speaks Franglais, “to fellow Franglais-ers”(Clare). This is a combination of English and French where words and rules become combined. The example she gave was “kitchening, because the French word is cuisinier which uses kitchen as a verb…I do that quite a lot”

Although Clare uses this combination language, she and others who speak it have identified it, by giving it a name, as its own language, thus preserving the integrity of both French and English.

This research suggests that English speakers are happy to absorb words from other languages but people who are bi- or multilingual feel less inclined to do so. One reason for this could be the irritation felt by these bilingual speakers when English words become absorbed into their home language. Claudia responded, when asked about how she felt about this sort of change that she felt “most English which has been adapted into Italian is unnecessary,” and suggested that when, for example new terminology was required as technology advances, a language should devise it’s own terms within it’s existing structure. Another participant, Litsa, was not as concerned, and put her distaste of the adoption of English words into Greek down to the fact that “here [England] you can see the change so it’s not so big a deal” compared to the sudden shock she receives when she does go to Cyprus and hearing all the changes at once.

One language that almost all participants agreed on was not so welcome in the English lexicon was American English. Interestingly the responses, when giving definite reasons fell into two areas; spelling and slang. Both of these topics have to do with the American identity impinging on the English identity. The Americanised spellings were initially;

“a political statement…by Noah Webster when he authored his dictionary of American English and consciously employed spellings for certain words which were different from British norms e.g. colour, criticize.”
(Romaine, 1994 Language in Society pg 17-18.)

David Crystal commented in 2003; “In certain domains, such as computing…US spellings are becoming increasingly widespread.” This is evident in all Microsoft Word™ programmes as their dictionaries have “English (U.S.)” as their default setting. However, Clare responded with “I don’t like American spellings” and Dan stated “there is a distinct difference between American English and English English”. This second statement could be applied to the spoken as well as the written forms, as could another statement by Crystal; “Each country where English is a first language is aware of its linguistic identity, and is anxious to preserve it from the influence of others…Americanism is perceived as a danger signal by usage guardians everywhere (except in the USA).”4

The other elements of American language which participants take offence to are “Teenagery, sitcom things” (Litsa). Kate used the example of the phrase “talk to the hand!” as one which particularly annoyed her. The reference to sitcoms in Litsa’s response led me to link it to one of the aspects of speech which also annoyed Neil; “when you get a catchphrase on television and everyone starts saying it it’s just so annoying”. Neil also made a comment about the American approach to “English English” by saying “when Americans take the piss out of how we talk it’s like well come on. You’re basically us” which suggests there is a degree of ownership involved in his response.

Although some of these catchphrases might be used in English for a short while it is doubtful they will survive to become part of our language. It would be interesting to find out whether it is where these catchphrases come from which affects how they are used in this country, or if it just the fact they are seen as “teenagery” or immature which leads the members of this sample to want to distance themselves from them, thus helping to stop them becoming integrated. The other question which accompanies this is what do younger generations think of these slang words? Will they choose to keep them and so ensure their survival?

Neil’s comment on Americans was in response to the question “Do you feel the English language belongs to anyone?” Although not all participants were asked this question, all seemed to feel ownership in some way which was evident in their responses to other questions even though if asked specifically they would always say “no, why should it?” (Claudia) or “I don’t think you can anymore [because] it’s used in so many places” (Neil).

Responses given by the participants showed evidence of speech communities, accommodation theory and the sense that although language is shaped by groups of people and social interaction, each individual has strong feelings about how they use language.

One of the questions I wished to answer for myself, knowing that this was a limited survey, was does the University have its own exclusive speech community? A speech community has been defined as both “likely to be composed of different groups…which may operate with differing versions of the same language” (Montgomery, 1986, An Introduction to Language in Society, pg175.) and as one group “who do not necessarily share the same language but share a set of norms and rules for the use of language” when communicating with each other (Romaine 1994, Language in Society pg 23). Recent definitions are still unsettled, with different sociolinguists putting different emphasis on the importance of the “speech” and the importance of the “group” and its location.

What was evident from the interviews either directly;

“Shortening Top Banana to Top B. Everyone knows Top B…though [it] probably wouldn’t mean much to people outside the University” (Dan)

or indirectly;

“I’ve heard people saying LOL” (Clare)

is that we are aware of the language used around us and make choices accordingly.

Two opposing views on the adoption of Leetspeak both support the idea of speech communities;

Dan; “My own social crowd speak this kind of English. It’s just to fit in I guess.”

Neil; “the people I hang out with I don’t see using any of these”

These show that at the University, speech communities can be defined as small groups obeying their own language codes. This could see language change within the University happening in pockets, some people developing this way, some that way, but always “when people are speaking around you…you adapt to the way they speak” (Laura).

Some people, like Caroline feel “[the way other people use language] doesn’t really affect me “which suggests there are still some who will not adopt any of the words they hear from other groups, either because they do not appeal or because their connotations repulse.

Linked to this theory is that of social convergence and accommodation theory, which was “developed from the work of the social psychologist Howard Giles…in the 1970’s” and is discussed by Swann (1997) . The theory suggests that a speaker will converge on the speech of their group to gain social acceptance and similarly diverge from a certain style or code to become distanced from those whom they do not wish to be linguistically (and socially) associated with.

Leetspeak appears to have the traits of an anti-language, that is one which has been developed by a certain, slightly isolated social group. Montgomery states “The notion of an anti-language…can be used to illuminate certain kinds of social dialect.” (An Introduction to Language and Society, pg 101). This is not surprising, as it was initially a coded language in which individuals attempting to hack (or break) into a programme on the internet could communicate purely with each other. It later filtered into the community of on-line games, chat rooms and msn messengers. The study showed that it was mostly males who were familiar with leet terms even if they did not use them, and the female who used them excused herself by saying “just shows how much time I spend on the Internet” (Claudia).

Even in those males who confessed to using this form of language quite a lot excuses were often made;

“Most of these I use on the internet a lot, often ironically…some I haven’t used since I was fourteen” (David)

Each candidate had terms they were happy using themselves, and others they weren’t;

“Personally, I’m very against people using m8 and very shortened terms. You’ve got a keyboard there, if you can’t be bothered to type m-a-t-e…” (James)

“I hope [these terms do not enter spoken language] as if people start saying LOL instead of laughing, what does that say about society?” (Claudia).

Most of the participants knew the terms they did not recognise were the more internet orientated terms, and most felt that they were a “geeky” kind of language, seeming to want to distance themselves from association with it. They also felt it had no relevance to them, therefore would probably not have much impact on the English language as a whole.

The other examples of developing language which participants were asked to look at were a set of neologisms from the website “”. These are words which have been used significantly in the media, with new words being added almost every day.

The oldest word selected was metrosexual which most people recognised and could define. One of the interesting outcomes was seeing how people tried to work out what the unfamiliar words meant. New compound words were broken into their visible parts and examined that way, and most participants made the same errors when doing so. (Appendix 16)

More concerning was that phrases like phishing which is actually a term in internet security, which we are told to keep tighter every day, was only recognised by the group who were also proficient in Leet.

Even after it had been explained not many participants thought they would retain it or use it. They only thought they would if they were in a conversation about internet security. More wanted to hold onto terms they found entertaining;

“Retrosexual to annoy my friends” (Laura)

Although it was often mentioned that relevance was very important to participants when considering what they might use;

“Photolurker…people posting stuff on the web is becoming such a part of peoples lives” (James)

“If I will happen to use them enough…in the right context” (Lorenzo)

This exercise also helped to identify one of the influences on modern language, television;

“Cankle…saw that on Family Guy ”(Kate)

The results showed that participants felt television had the greatest effect on the globalisation of language, closely followed by films and the internet. Media and the internet were judged almost equal in affecting language change in this country, with the internet slightly ahead. This is supported by sociolinguists including Romaine, who says “The possibilities for change…are indeed potentially enormous nowadays considering how much…exposure people get to speech norms outside their immediate community through mass media, and via the internet” (Language in society pg 135).

Possible Implications of the Findings

Although most of my sample seemed keen to be selective about their language choices and keep those used for digital communication separate from their formal and verbal communication, there were some interesting points raised which have relevance for the teaching of English in the future. The first point was raised by Caroline;

“My brother can’t spell [because] he uses language like this” (in reference to the text language exercise)

I have experienced in the classroom a year 4 pupil asking me in a literacy lesson if he could spell mate m-8 because the person he was writing about was his close friend. Surveys were held on the BBC website by Newsround, prompting responses from children still at school. Most of the responses are encouraging, but one free-spirited individual replied;

“I think u should be able to write in whatever language u like if it’s in a txty way or proper English. After all it’s only writing it’s not that hard 2 read!!!”

Teachers will have to vigilant; as more online communities are open to children as well as various instant messenger programmes and mobile phones so their range of abbreviated language will grow. James commented;

“People get so used to using these things on messenger I think that’s why they integrate it into their actual speech”

Similarly, Kate commented;

“[people] say LOL ironically but if you use it ironically enough it’ll just come round into normal communication.”

This opinion suggests that if the older generation isn’t more guarded in its use of certain terms the younger might start to use them as normal language.

There is still a definite feeling of different language for different purposes amongst the participants, but with these changes, as well as the dominance of emails which tend to be colloquial most of the time, over actual letters, I think the teaching of formality is going to be of greater importance but also more difficult to teach. Children will need more real-life situations for these different forms of communication, as already they use a wide variety which suits their individual purposes, and this study shows that relevance plays a key role in language use.

Also, because of the importance this study has shown placed on our individual language choices, teachers will have to be careful not to undermine a child’s confidence in language use by telling them their slang is “wrong”, but sensitively highlight the different registers which need to be learned for various situations.

In most responses there was the opinion that change is “natural evolution…inevitable” (Kate), and this is probably the most important thing this study has identified; there are so many influences on English language users everyday it is foolish to expect the language to stay still, but we need to teach the basics along with a respect for language which will allow children to develop their own identities while making sure the English Language retains it’s identity.

The greatest fear seemed to be that Prince Charles’ opinion from 1989 was still true, and that due to all the possibility for abbreviation we are becoming lazy, or that we’re taking on too much;

“Changing too fast…would be socially and culturally damaging” (David)

But overall this sample at least have a very positive outlook on the future of our language;

“[The English language] is only as limited as someone limits themselves” (James).

March 2007

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