English Grammar Day

I went along yesterday to an event at University College London (UCL) called English Grammar Day. This was the first time I have been, though it has been held for the last 10 years. The event seems to be aimed mainly at school teachers and academics.

I give below summaries of the 6 talks, which had the following titles:

  • Lost in Transcription? The representation of parliamentary speech in writing
  • Does correcting children’s spoken grammar improve their writing?
  • They, Them, We, Us
  • Caribbean Englishes in the Standard English debate
  • Using linguistics to help tackle plastics pollution
  • Word imperfect

In a panel session question at the end, 5 of the speakers discussed questions from the audience.  

Overall, it was an interesting and enjoyable event, though 3 of the speakers ran out of time and could perhaps have managed their time better to cover more of their intended content.

Lost in Transcription? The representation of parliamentary speech in writing

Sylvia Shaw (University of Westminster) is a sociolinguist whose research focuses on language, gender and politics. She is particularly interested in who participates in parliamentary debates, how they participate and why.

She discussed how Hansard (the official written report of the UK parliament) represents parliamentary speech. The ‘verbatim’ report transforms politicians’ original speech grammatically and lexically in a way in a way intended to reflect parliament’s authority and to allow people to read it with ease.

She has 2 main concerns about these changes:

  • they can alter the meaning or nuances of what was originally expressed in speech.
  • this process of standardisation eradicates important aspects of individuals’ identities by altering grammatical and lexical variation in their speech.

She made several points, including the following:

  • text corpuses vary in how they classify parliamentary debate. Some classify it as written text, because many speakers read out prepared texts. Others classify it as spoken text because many speakers speak in a more ad lib style.
  • in the UK parliament, the amount of speaking time taken up by men and women in the formal (legal’) part of the debate is roughly proportionate to the number of men and women. But men predominate in interventions outside the structured legal discussion (eg by speaking out of turn, asking for the floor, filibustering). Male MPS treat parliament as a male space.
  • On the other hand, in the devolved parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, women are just as likely as men to intervene outside the structured legal discussion.
  • Researchers distinguish anterior discourse (what was actually said, in full detail, including, for example, repetition, hesitations, disfluencies, stress, tone, accent, non-standard expressions) from representation of discourse (a transcript of what was said).
  • No representation of discourse can capture every detail of the anterior discourse. How much detail the representation captures depends on the purpose and intended use of the transcript.      
  • Some previous research has found Hansard removing around 17% of the words actually spoken. But the proportion of words removed varied by speaker from a low of 5% to a high of 38%. The proportion removed is higher for speakers with non-standard accents or for those using non-standard forms of expression.
  • Sylvia Shaw illustrated some of these points with an extract from Hansard, which she compared with a transcript she had made. Her transcript includes some details not in Hansard, including a request from a man interrupting a woman to ask if she would yield the floor to him and some subsequent heckling of that man (by another man).
  • Sylvia Shaw gave a further illustration from a well-known speech by Winston Churchill on 4 June 1940. Many people believe they have heard this speech. But what they have heard is, in fact, a reading made by Churchill 9 years later! Churchill delivered the original speech in the House of Commons. No audio recording was made and the speech was never broadcast, though a BBC announcer read some extracts on the news that evening. Many people also believe that the speech says ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’. But in fact, it says ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ (without ‘them’). https://history.blog.gov.uk/2013/12/02/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches-three-things-you-never-knew-about-churchills-most-famous-speech/
  • Even video recordings of parliament do not show everything. For example, in a heated debate on Brexit, a male MP seized the ceremonial maze and took it from the chamber. The official video record focuses on the Speaker of the House of Commons. It shows him pointing to something happening behind the camera and gesticulating angrily, but does not show the cause of the commotion.

I have discussed accent bias in some earlier posts, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/tag/accent-bias/

Does correcting children’s spoken grammar improve their writing?

Julia Snell (University of Leeds) talked about grammatical features of some children’s spoken language that reflect the language spoken locally but are viewed as incorrect in standard English. An example is using was in some cases where standard English uses were, or vice versa.

She noted that the National Curriculum requires children to be taught to use the standard English forms in their writing.

Schools often go beyond this and also discourage children from using non-standard forms when they are speaking. However, Julia Snell said there is no evidence that children use non-standard forms in writing. Also, constantly attempting to eliminate non-standard grammar from children’s speech discourages them and damages their self-confidence and feeling of their own worth, leading to less participation in class and lower educational attainment.

I have written before about press claims that academic research has shown that teaching children grammar in school doesn’t make them write better. https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/04/teaching-english-in-school-doesnt-improve-childrens-writing-really/

They, Them, We, Us

Steven Dryden (British Library Sound Archive) presented a brief history of pronouns, gender and sexual minorities, using case studies from cataloguing and exhibition making with British Library collections. He explained how the Library is creating new ways to record gender in the metadata attached to the Sound Archive.

For my other posts on inclusive language, please see Inclusive language Archives – Language Miscellany

Caribbean Englishes in the Standard English debate

Guyanne Wilson (UCL) spoke about the Caribbean, where local varieties of English are spoken alongside English-lexicon Creoles. Her talk focussed on creolisms in Jamaican English and Trinidad and Tobagonian English

She pointed out that local forms of English can borrow various features of creoles:

  • words;
  • syntactic constructions;
  • meanings of a word that has a different meaning in other forms of English.  

She concentrated on 2 constructions:

  • using would in some cases when other forms of English generally use will.
  • not including the copula (present tense forms of be: am; are; is) when using the present progressive (eg I going to dinner, instead of I am going to dinner).

In research using the Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago components of the International Corpus of English, she found that creolisms occur in both spoken and written usage.

She suggested that creolisms were more likely to appear in local versions of English in texts that involved more planning. In her view, this distinction of more versus less planning gives more insight than a commonly made distinction of formal versus informal. As examples, she noted that creolisms were less likely to appear in newspaper reportage (often subject to heavy editing) and more likely to appear in student exam scripts (written under time pressure).

She said that considering whether these forms are creolisms has implications for understanding of how Standard English varies within the Caribbean region and compares to other Standard Englishes. Unfortunately, she didn’t have time to discuss those implications.

For previous posts mentioning creoles, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/tag/creole/

Using linguistics to help tackle plastics pollution

Joanna Gavins (University of Sheffield) talked about ‘Many Happy Returns’, a research project at the University of Sheffield by a multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, social scientists, and humanities researchers. The project aims to enable the development of reusable packaging systems and reduce usage of single-use plastics. Many Happy Returns – enabling reusable packaging systems (sheffield.ac.uk)

The linguists in the project are examining millions of words, gathered from social media, manufacturers’ and retailers’ language, government information, and focus group discussions. Their aim is to understand how people talk about their interactions with plastics and how we can reframe the language we use to encourage reuse.

The team have found that:

  • manufacturers and retailers use language portraying themselves as benevolently caring for their customers almost like parents, taking a leadership role in enabling their customers to make decisions benefitting the environment.
  • customers use language portraying themselves as passive undergoers of negative experiences.

Unfortunately, time did not permit Joanna Gavins to explain how the team might use those insights to drive changes in behaviour.

Word imperfect

Susie Dent talked about change in language and how people have always complained that language is changing, and have objected to change. Susie Dent is a writer and broadcaster on language, and is best known as the resident word expert on Channel Four’s game show Countdown. 

She made several points, including the following:

  • change will always happen, and is a good thing. People often imagine that the language was in a healthier state in some ‘golden age’, but there never was a golden age. As an example, many people objected to new words and phrases that Shakespeare used. For instance, people criticised his use of laughable. They felt this should be laughatable.
  • people complain about the modern use of like as a filler. Its earliest recorded use as a filler was in 1778. (Susie Dent agrees, though, that overuse of like is problem.)
  • many traditional rules are unhelpful because they are not clear or have many exceptions. An example is the old spelling rule of thumb ‘i before e except after c’.
  • English spelling is often criticised for its many silent letters. But Susie Dent loves silent letters because they a word’s past life. An example is the presence of the silent <h> in <ghost>. This came into English because the early English printer William Caxton had to employ Flemish type-setters. One of them introduced the <h> from a similar word written <gheest> in Flemish. From <ghost>, the superfluous <h> went on to appear in <ghastly> and <aghast>.  
    For more on silent (redundant) letters in English and other aspects of English spelling, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/12/new-spelling-may-rool-ok/
  • a common source of mistaken etymologies, and ultimately of some language changes, in eggcorns. An eggcorn is a word (or phrase) that has been reshaped through by mishearing or reinterpreting one of its elements, creating a new word with a different but plausible meaning. The word itself comes from acorn being misheard and reinterpreted as egg corn (with a reinterpreted as egg). Other examples are ‘old-timers’ disease’ (for Alzheimer’s disease), ‘for all intensive purposes’ (for for all intents and purposes), ‘bowl in a china shop’ (for bull in a china shop) and ‘pre-Madonna’ (for prima donna).  
    For more on eggcorns, please see https://eggcorns.lascribe.net/about/  
  • another category of error is the malapropism, in which someone doesn’t understand a word or phrase and mis-remembers it, producing something that sounds similar but has a very different meaning, absurd in the context. An example is ‘it’s not rocket surgery’, a blend of 2 phrases ‘it’s not rocket science’ and ‘it’s not brain surgery’. Other examples are ‘a minefield of information’ for ‘a mine of information’ and ‘go at something hammer and thongs’ for ‘go at something hammer and tongs’.
    Malapropisms differ from eggcorns. A malapropism is absurd in the context where it is used. An eggcorn has a plausible meaning that happens to be wrong.
  • some changes in pronunciation arise because an existing pronunciation is inconsistent with other words. For example, the pronunciation of mischievous in 4 syllables as /mɪs.ˈt͡ʃiː.vi.əs/ (rather than traditional trisyllabic /ˈmɪs.tʃɪ.vəs/) may have arisen because very few English words end in /ɪ.vəs/. Similarly, because few words end in /lɪə/, pronunciations of nuclear may have been attracted from traditional /ˈnjuː.kə/ to /ˈnjuː.kjʊlə / (cochlear) by the influence of more common words (such as secular and molecular).
  • some mistakes occurred long ago, but are now fully accepted parts of the language. An example is are sneezing (once ‘sneefing’).
  • one source of change is reanalysis of an original singular ending in /s/ as a plural. An example is cherry, originally imported from old French (modern French: cérise, meaning cherry). People then misinterpreted the /s/ as the plural suffix and created a new singular cherry.
  • some old errors arrive from misunderstanding foreign words. An example is Jerusalem artichoke. In this word, Jerusalem derives from an attempt to make sense of the Italian girasole (sunflower). To add to the confusion, the Jerusalem artichoke isn’t even a kind of artichoke.
  • Susie Dent would love to revive some lost mining positive counterparts underlying words that exist today only as negatives. Examples include kempt (cf unkempt) and gorm (see gormless). Here is a photo proving that Copenhagen airport wasn’t gormless in 2005. https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/08/can-you-negate-the-word-gormless/

Closing thought

Susie Dent left one final thought. If we malign today’s language too much, it will never give us any joy.

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