Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Future of English

The future of English has long been speculated about, and science fiction and fantasy novels and films offer multiple notions about what it might look and sound like hundreds of years from now. Bladerunner (1982) famously offered us "Cityspeak," described in Harrison Ford's voiceover as " gutter talk, a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you." And, as shown in the original screenplay, it was exactly that, including words from Hungarian, Japanese, German, French, and Korean (thought notably not Spanish). However, while it's true that on a drive through LA one can pass through block after block of "Chinatown," "Korea Town," and other such areas, the social forces don't seem to be in place for anything like Cityspeak to evolve any time soon.

Another stab at the future was Anthony Burgess's "Nadsat," the slang he created for the criminal classes in his novel A Clockwork Orange. Nadsat draws from some native English lingo -- schoolboy talk, Cockney rhyming slang, and so forth -- but 90% of it is actually Russian, including some meorable words as "Gulliver" for head (from Russian golava), "lewdies" for people (Russian lyudi), and "droogs" for friends (Russian drug). A few years before he wrote the novel, Burgess and his wife had visited Leningrad, and heard of the problem of violent youths in that city -- but the reals surprise is how well Russian and English work together. A similar blended language, dubbed "Runglish," can often be heard at the International Space Station, which is maintained mostly by US and Russian astronauts/cosmonauts.

Perhaps the most innovative future English was that invented by Russell Hoban for his post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker -- the novel is actually written in this language, a degraded, worn-down English known simply as "Tok" (as in "talk" -- Hoban's future is phonetically spelled). It's unfortunate, though, that Tok at times sounds a little too much like the English of rural Yorkshire, with the implication that if such were to become the standard, it would represent a "degrading" of it (then again, Monty Python's famous 'village idiots' seem to have hailed from the North as well). A parallel problem troubles Sandra Newman's new novel The Country of Ice Cream Star, whose future disintegrated English bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Jamaican patwa:
"My name be Ice Cream Fifteen Star. This be the tale of how I bring the cures to all the Nighted States, save every poory children, short for life. Is how a city die for selfish love, and rise from this same smallness. Be how the new America being, in wars against all hope - a county with no power in a world that hate its life. So been the faith I sworn, and it ain't evils in no world nor cruelties in no read hell can change the vally heart of Ice Cream Star."

Monday, November 21, 2016

English With An Accent

We're shifting gears this week -- from historical English to the Englishes of today, from an emphasis on written language to one on spoken language in all its variety, from the underlying structures beneath language to the overlying srtuctures society erects above and on top of language. And we could have no better guide at this moment than Rosini Lippi-Green.

In this chart, taken from her book English With an Accent, we see how white undergrads in Indiana thought about samples of spoken language -- how "correct" or "normal" was the speech they heard. Of course, they sounded normal to themselves, and so did most folks from the Midwest, along with California, Colorado, and Washington State. The southwest, particilarly Texas, sounded less correct, and the dep south -- sometimes called the "Southern Trough" -- sounded the most incorrect of all. Rhode Islanders, incidentally, came out in the second quintile -- that is, just a little less normal than Hoosiers -- and better than New Yawk.

But what does this perception mean? If such a survey had been conducted sixty or seventy years ago, it might have come out a bit different, as most Amderican in public life -- politicians, actors, and speech-makers -- adapted the "Mid-Atlantic" accent (you can hear it, among many other places, in 1939's "The Wizard of Oz," in which everyone says Wizzahd instead of Wizerd).  But this common upper-middle-to-upper-class accent faded away after WWII, and the era of broadcast television; rumbly midwesterners such as Edwin R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and Tom Brokaw soon set the standard, and placed out national normative right in the middle of the midwest.

But of course American accents -- mostly "L1" accents, that is, accents acquired from infancy via regional variations in one's natural/family language -- are only one part of it. For those, whether in the US or abroad, for whom English was their second (or third, or fourth) language, there's another set of issues; these we know as "L2" accents. In the same way we might call an American accent a "Southern" or a "New England" accent, L2 accents are often called "foreign," though that's not really a good way to describe them. Foreign to whom? The key difference, though, is that L2 speakers are more likely to substitute sounds from their native language in the place of less familiar (or less-familiarly-placed) sounds in English. Thus, say, a German speaker might say "heff" instead of "have," and a French speaker might pronounce "sweater" as "swettauw." We're exposed to such accents all the time, but -- as with L1 accents -- it's pop culture, in the form of cartoons, comedy skits, and television shows that often sets up our expectations. Certainly, during the time I was growing up, it was hard to avoid picking up on the negative connotations of a German accent (Colonel Klink), a Russian one (Boris Badanov), or even a French one (Pepé le Pew) -- and there were plenty of "bad" L1 accents in cartoons too (anyone remember the Hillbilly Bears?).

This week, we're going to use both the Speech Accent Archive and various Accent Tags to bend our ears to the sounds of English: here, there, and everywhere.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Myth of the Standard

Despite the efforts of those who actually study language, the notion of a "standard English," one to which we should constantly adhere, at the peril of revealing our fathomless ignorance, has persisted for generations. Perhaps it's just an inevitable consquence of the effort to make education accessible to the masses; in order to do so, language was codified, and people began to mistake those codes for the ones that actually govern everyday speech. The truth is that the language we grow up speaking, as Dante Alighieri observed centuries ago, is learnt sine omnia regula -- "without any rules" -- indeed, rules are not the origin of speech, but a sort of social aftershock, and possibly its ruination.

And that's not all: even if, in terms of diction and pronunciation, we could talk about a normative way of speaking, and agree on what that was, none of us actually speaks it. We hear others having an "accent," and we may believe ourselves to have one, but truth be told, normative pronunciation is an accent too -- albeit an artificial one, known mostly by its seeming absence. Our linguistic variety, indeed, is our strength: the different phrases and idioms we use, the different pronunciations and accents natural to different persons, all of these are the life-blood of living language. The only languages that don't have such variations -- Latin, or Attic Greek -- are dead ones. And, within broad limits, the more differences, the merrier. English literature, indeed, is full of those whose manner of speaking is different from anyone else's, whether it's Dickens's Jo the crossing-sweeper, with his "I don' know nuffink," Liza Doolittle with her "Aaaaaaaaaaah-ow-ooh," or Popeye the Sailor with his "edjamication," his "horshpital," or his immortal apothegm "I yam what I yam and tha's all what I yam" (which, incidentially, is the favored Twitter quote of Salman Rushdie). In more recent times, Hip-hop has brought us such wordsmiths as Keith Murray, Flavor-Flav, and Humpty-Hump, who boasts in "The Humpty Dance" that he'll "use a word that don't mean nothin', like loopted." But of course, sooner or later, every word means something.

Monday, November 7, 2016


The history of African-American Vernacular English is not unlike that of other dialects of US English -- migration (although forced, and ending in enslavement), partial assimilation with English, and (in the end) a significant contribution to our national linguistic strength and variety, indeed probably the most significant. And yet, more so than any other dialect, it's been haunted by a distorting shadow in popular culture, from the 1830's until the present, from Minstrelsy to R&B to Hip-hop. Its authentic cultural productions have always had to compete with imitation, parody, and appropriation.

Blackface Minstrelsy may very well have been the single most popular American form of entertainment from the 1840's through to the 1940's. Its popularity waxed and waned, from a peak in the 1850's, through a gradual decline until a revival in the 1880's, followed by a gradual shift toward more "refined" versions produced by both amateur and professional companies in the period between WWI and WWII (here's a film version which features William Frawley (later known as Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy) as Mr. Christy himself. The 1940's saw its permanent decline, in large part due to social changes, integration of the armed forces, and the post-war rise of television, although it still survives in a few isolated places such as Derby Connecticut, where a clown-face "Gang Show" is now in its 91st year (they stopped using blackface in 1944). In the UK, where minstrelsy had been enormously popular from its earliest period, the Black and White Minstrel Show remained on the air until 1978!

Of course it is easy to see this tradition as fundamentally compromised from the start, as it relied upon a distorted, comical, theatrical version of "blackness" devised by white entertainers. And yet, from the beginning, it was a hybrid form, appropriating bits of actual Black culture and mixing them with elements such as Irish jigs, regional "rustic" humor, melodrama, and early skits and vaudeville routines. As early as the 1850's there were a number of Black Blackface troupes ("Black people in blacker faces," as Bamboozled's Pierre Delacroix puts it), some of which enjoyed even wider success than white troupes. The commercial success of the form, for better and for worse, paved the way for other artforms which were, or were perceived as, "Black," including Dixieland jazz, blues, and Black vaudeville.

Fortunately, the actual history of AAVE is more complex, and infinitely richer, than its pop-cultural avatars. Its origins can be traced to various West-African languages and trade pidgins (these were argots drawn from languages along a trade route, such as the Congo river). When slaves were deliberately sold in lots in which there was no common dialect, the trade pidgin formed the basis of communication; when latter agglomerated within various colonial languages, they became "creoles." Jamaican "patwa" is an English creole, and there are Spanish, French, and Portuguese creoles scattered through the Caribbean and the Cape Verde Islands. AAVE, in its origin, was also a creole, but as its speakers were part of a much larger population surrounded by land instead of water, there was a longer period of addition and assimilation. Modern AAVE is a full, complete, English dialect which preserves some features of West African languages, such as a "habitual" mood of the verb "to be."

Saturday, November 5, 2016

American English

The history of American English usage marks the most recent, and in some ways the most dramatic set of changes in English since the days of Chaucer and Shakespeare.  And yet, in this change, there was no single author, no single literary or political influence to credit, or blame; like the United States itself it was a patchwork affair, arrived at by degrees and with contributions from both immigrants and indigenous peoples over a period of more than four hundred years.

There is, however, one name that is often linked to some of the key changes in spelling and usage which made American English distinctive, and it's that of Noah Webster (1758-1853). Webster was a schoolmaster who, like many such men of his time, wrote his own textbooks, with a focus on orthography -- the spelling and pronunciation of words -- as well as elements of grammar.  He used the books in his school, and sold them to others; at a time when the printing business was in its infancy, Webster's "Spellers" as they became known, soon dominated the market.  The money he earned from them enabled Webster to work on his Dictionary, on which his larger hopes and ambitions rested.  In his instruction, as in his books, Webster held that the study of Latin and Greek, admirable though it was, should not take precedence over the study of English, and that everyday American usage, not that of British aristocrats, should be the model. He once lamented that "the whispers of common sense, in favour of our native tongue, have been silenced amidst the clamour of pedantry in favour of Greek and Latin."

One may note his usage there -- clamour and favour used the older British spellings that Webster would eventually abandon, preferring clamor and favor -- but his was no overnight reform, and the changes he made took place gradually over the course of his career.  Perhaps that, along with the ubiquity of his books, helped American adapt to, and eventually adopt, his spellings. Not all of his reforms succeeded -- we still use ache instead of Webster's ake, soup rather than his soop, and tongue rather than tung -- but for the most part, his changes have become permanent.  He even had some influence on British usage -- Charles Dickens, for one, tended to use the -or rather than the -our endings -- but his publishers corrected these and so the Brits (and Canadians and Australians) are stuck with with them.

American English also marked a period of renewed growth and change in our lexicon. We added words from native languages (moccasin, kayak, tomahawk), as well as from the waves of immigrants who arrived on our shores (look up brogan, schamltz, gauntlet, banana, tycoon, paprika, mammoth, or adobe for a sense of how wide the influence has been), along with all kinds of crazy coinages of our own, from shenanigans to shindig, from oink to woof, from pesky to phony, from vittles to vroom. Much like the UK, strong regional variations of English have developed, not only in terms of phonology but also lexicon and idiomatic phrases; the Dictionary of American Regional English catalogs these, and there are tens of thousands of them. Would you eat a "dropped egg"? How would you feel if you had the "mulligrubs"? And what does one do in a "chic shack?" All things considered, the American turn of English has been a wonderfully enriching one, and it ain't done yet.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On Grammar

One might think that English grammar, even more than its lexicon, would be something that would have long been intrinsically understood, and little in need of explication or improvement. And yet, the services of a dictionary having proven valuable, that of a printed grammar seemed a logical step -- after all, Latin Grammars were vital school textbooks, and the idea that English should be more like Latin, or at least described in Latin terms, caught on widely. We owe most of our grammatical terminology -- adjective (from adiectus, "to annex a territory"), to preposition (from præ-positiones, to place before), to conjunction (coniunction, to link together) -- to this idea.

Many different authors, mostly schoolmasters writing books for their own students's use, tried their hand at it, but two in particular proved to have long-lasting influence. Robert Lowth, who enjoyed a sinecure as Bishop of Oxford, was perhaps the most notable. Among his many contributions was the notion -- by false analogy -- that a "double negative" was an error because, in mathematics, two negatives equalled a positive. Math, alas, is not grammar, but the idea stuck and double negation is almost universally regarded as an error, never mind its long history (Chaucer, among others, even enjoyed double and even triple negation wihout any doubt as to its import). He also originated the idea that a sentence should not end with a preposition (since its name indicates that it must "come before" something else) -- which, although a reasonable guideline for written texts, is common and perfectly sensible in everyday speech.

Lowth is also often blamed (though in fact it came much later) for the "rule" that to place an adverb between "to" and the main verb (as in "to boldly go") was to "split the infinitive" -- again, on the mistaken analogy with Latin. Latin, like most ancient languages, has an infinitive (or non-finite) form that is actually a distinct one for every verb -- e.g. amare, "to love" -- so it would never be "split"; although Engish uses the preposition "to" to indicate a non-finite verb, the "to" is not actually part of the verb. In the example above, the non-finite form of the verb is in fact just "go" (which in English, confusingly, is identical to the first and second person present indicative form). George Bernard Shaw, among others, has minced few words in decrying this foolish supposed "rule."

Lowth's successor, Lindley Murray, was actually an American ex-pat, born in the woods of Pennsylvania, who moved to York at the age of 39 and spent the rest of his life in England. He kept most of Lowth's prescriptive rules, though his method of instruction was somewhat gentler, and adapted -- as the title-page puts it -- "for the different classes of readers." Among his innovations was a rule that one could not apply "more" to an adjective already in the superlative form (e.g. "more worst") -- and yet he extended this to adjectives which he regarded as "innately superlative" (chief, unique, extreme, etc.), so the would be no "more perfect union" for him!

Like dictionary-writers, grammarians saw themselves as arbiters, refiners, and polishers of the language -- the more so since, as their books were used for actual instruction on a daily basis -- and in that they surely succeeded. And yet, at the same time, they have given all of us a vague sene of guilt about the possible errors of our usage, and the sense -- entirely unjustified! -- that "bad grammar" is almost a sort of sin.

Saturday, September 24, 2016


In one particularly memorable episode of Blackadder," Ink and Incapability," when the Prince Regent (played by Hugh Laurie) asks Dr. Johnson (played by Robbie Coltrane) what his new Dictionary is good for, the learned Doctor declares that "It is a book that tells you what English words mean." "I know what English words mean," replies the prince, "I speak English! You must be a bit of a thicko!"

And indeed, one may well ask, why do we need a Dictionary of our own language? After all, numerous English writers, from Chaucer to Spencer to Shakespeare, got along quite well without one, as did their readers -- not to mention the great throng of ordinary speakers of English, whose talk continued unabated, with no need for works of reference to understand it, for centuries. And yet English, by the eighteenth century now well-established in print and manuscript, was rapidly expanding its vocabulary, variety of styles, and usage -- becoming in a sense as much as textual presence as a spoken one. Furthermore, since it had acquired so many words from other classical and modern languages, the search for the right word -- le mot juste, as the French say -- might well involve choosing between several near-synonyms with slightly varied shades of meaning. Finally, since English had been around for a while, there were now a fair number of uncommon or archaic words with which not every reader would necessarily be familiar.

And of course, English was still changing, and continues to do so,  as any living language must. That's where the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comes in. Established in the mid-19th century by scholars such as F.J. Furnivall (a founder of the Chaucer Society) and James Murray, it aimed to be the first true historical dictionary of English. An early sort of crowd-sourced project, its entries were supplied by readers who scoured set texts, and filled and sent in cards for the words used in them. At one point, Murray was astonished to find that one of the Dictionary's most prolific contributors, Dr. William Chester Minor, was not -- as Murray had assumed -- a physician at Broadmoor hospital for the criminally insane, but a patient (Minor's wealthy family had furnished his room with a fine library of books). The OED's work went on through a first (1928), and then a second (1989), and what is effectively a third in 2000, when it was made available online. Unlike any other dictionary of English, the OED is committed to tracing a word's use in context, from its first known appearance to the present moment (if still used).

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Chaucerian Difference

Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations, unless you count the somewhat squishy "A Knight's Tale." Still, Chaucer's influence has been deeply felt; his Troylus and Criseyde was one of Shakespeare's sources for his play of the same name; the Wife of Bath's Prologue was translated in 1700 by John Dryden; and in the twentieth century there have been no fewer than seven translations or adaptations into modern English, most recently by Peter Ackroyd (in prose) and Sheila Fisher (in verse).

And Chaucer's language is very close to ours -- close enough that, with a modest amount of practice, we can pronounce it and understand it reasonably well.  The main differences are that many combination of letters which are now silent, such as kn and gh, were pronounced, as was the e on the end of so many words which has since become our modern English friend "silent e." Lastly, the vowels of Chaucer's day were further back in the mouth, since the "Great Vowel Shift" which moved them forwards had not yet taken place.  Thus Chaucer's "Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote" is pronounced as "Whahnn that ah-prill, weeth hees shooriss soat-uh" in our reconstructed Chaucerian mode.  

The other difference is mainly vocabulary -- "lexical" as linguists would say. Chaucer still used a number of words left over from older English; a "swevene" was a dream; "eke" meant "indeed" or "as well"; he used "lykned" instead of "likened," "hem" instead of "them" and "hire" instead of "their" there was no neuter possessive "its" so everything had to be "hys" or hers. Happily, there are many fewer such survivals in his verse than in that of the Gawain poet, who, living the north-west Midlands, was removed from many of the changes of London English and still used athele (noble), sithen (since), schawe (show), and lovelokkest (loveliest).

Chaucer was also on the forefront of many changes of which modern English has been the beneficiary; he introduced many words and usages from French, some in their Anglo-Norman senses, nearly all of which are still with us today: bachelor, melody, adversary, bounty, refute, vein, army, season, and devout. He borrowed a few Latin terms, though most often via their French versions, and his verse structures, such as "rhyme royal,"turned out to be particularly effective in English.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Old English

Lines from the poem are carved in runes on this cross.
The land now known as England was originally inhabited by an unknown culture of people, sometimes referred to as "Megalithic" people (a reference to the standing stones they left at, among other places, Stonehenge).  These people were displaced by Celtic tribes, who in their turn were pushed back to the peripheries of the island by three Germanic tribes -- the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes -- who arrived in the fifth century to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman colonizers.  We know little of their culture, though, and nothing of their literature, until the moment when they were converted to Christianity -- and literacy -- a couple of centuries later, and some of the earliest texts we know are those used by missionaries to help persuade the Anglo-Saxons of the superiority of Christian belief. In fact, the very oldest written text -- The Dream of the Rood -- survives in part as a runic inscription on a stone cross (shown here).  The Dream is a proselytizing poem -- a poem that sought to convert its readers actively. The main speaker of the poem, in fact, is the Cross itself, which explains why it had to allow Christ to be crucified upon it -- a vital "backstory" for the Saxons, who considered crucifixion to be be"fraecodes gealga" -- the thieves' gallows. The cross, in contrast, represents itself as a faithful thegn (military follower) who only did as his Lord commanded, and was rewarded by having a mini-resurrection of his own, uplifted into the light of heaven, where it was covered with gold and rich gems, a hero's reward.

As with modern English, there were several major dialects of Anglo-Saxon: Northumbrian in the North, Kentish in the East, Mercian in the midlands, and West Saxon in the West of England. The political center of the Saxons was in Winchester (Wintanceastre) in the West Saxon area, and thus its speech became the prestige dialect of the language; more than 90% of surviving Old English texts are in this dialect. Much has changed since then, but even to this day, if you look at the top decile of English (the top 10% of our most frequently-used words), nearly all of them are directly descended from closely similar Saxon antecedents: stone (stan); house (hus); was (wæs); say (secgan); father (fæder); and many more.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Introducing .... the International Phonetic Alphabet!

One of the things that makes English so distinct from most of the other languages on the planet is its unusually inconsistent and unpredictable spelling. Due to changes in the sounds of English over time, many letters once pronounced are now silent -- particularly our old friend "silent e." Add to that the fact that, as our vowel system changed, many words that use the same vowel are pronounced completely differently, and you have a pretty difficult spelling "system." The spelling reformer and playwright George Bernard Shaw jested at this by claiming that "fish" should be spelled "ghoti" -- since gh spells 'f' in "laugh," o is pronounced 'i' in "women," and ti spells 'sh' in "notion!

To save us from all this, and to enable us to understand English's changing sounds, the powers that be sent us the International Phonetic Alphabet. It may look a bit daunting, but it has the great advantage that, within it, one letter indicates one, and precisely one sound, and is always consistent. We'll go over it in class with some care, and although at first it may seem daunting, it's fairly easy to get used to. Plus, you'll the advantage of being able to impress your friends at parties by saying things like" I really admire your labiodental fricatives"or "please pardon my voiceless glottal plosives!" Then again, be careful -- people might not understand!

Sunday, August 28, 2016


Welcome to our class blog for ENGL 433, Modern Grammar, Fall 2016, here at Rhode Island College. This course, despite its official name, is not strictly speaking a course on grammar, though grammar will not be neglected.  What it really is is an introduction to issues in the study and teaching of the English language to day, including (but not limited to) such matters as the acquisition of language, grammar, usage, the idea of the "standard," perceptions of "accent," the history of the language, and its inner mechanics (syntax, morphology, phonology). Throughout the course, by demonstrating that there is in fact a history to many aspects of our language -- particularly to the usage perceived as "correct" at different times and places -- we will be able to demystify some of its apparently arcane and troublesome features.  We will also pay particular attention to current issues in the teaching of English;  some attention will also be paid to the issues of language development, the psychodynamics of "correcting" student writing, and the ways in which new technologies of communication (satellite television, the Internet, the cell phone) have affected our patterns and perceptions about speech.

This blog will serve as a clearing-house many of our discussions, as well as a resource page where you'll find many useful links to language resources online. Make it yours! For, like the guests at a wedding, if we have anything to say about our language, we had best speak now, or forever hold our peace.