Tag Archives: Linguistics

Looking under the bonnet of annoying management speak

The Conversation

Erika Darics, Aston University

Poking fun at corporate jargon is on trend. Newspapers and online publications get a kick out of compiling extensive lists of the most egregious examples and the overarching narrative is that we should puncture the pomposity that this “management speak” is deemed to represent.

To its critics, this new language of business is seen as a tool for making things seem more impressive than they are. Phrases are dismissed as “meaningless lingo” or “lame euphemisms” and we are offered simplified, plain speaking versions instead. Sometimes, we are simply forbidden to use them.

But before we throw the baby out with bathwater – see what I did there? – we should stop to reconsider. What is the problem with this form of language? Why are we so annoyed by it? And why do so may of us keep using it?

You wouldn’t … would you? Shutterstock/Jason L. Price

Drilling down

The first problem is a semantic one. There is a big difference between the various labels so liberally used in the media, so let’s get it straight. “Jargon” is the technical vocabulary used specifically in a particular organisation or within a specific community. Idiomatic language – or management/corporate speak – is a fixed set of expressions used typically in business contexts.

The latter are figures of speech which are normally recognised by everyone, if not enjoyed. I say “recognised” because it is not hard to see how the actual meaning of these words and phrases might be hard to grasp on the basis of their component parts. If we don’t understand them as a phrase, they simply will not make sense. We will be puzzled by “blue sky thinking”, “low hanging fruit”, “peeling an onion” or “drilling down”. Unless, of course, we make the effort and learn these phrases.

Ripe for the picking. waferboard/Flickr, CC BY

And doing just that shouldn’t be too hard. We use idiomatic expressions all the time, from metaphors such as “spill the beans” to phrasal verbs when we “put up with somebody”. We use sayings such as the old favourite “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and more subtle formulae such as “having said that”. Maybe the real question is why we expect the office to be an exception.

Is it at all possible that the blame for causing annoyance shouldn’t be on those who actually use these phrases?

No ‘I’ in team

The bigger issue related to annoying office phrases is that we tend to ignore the role they play in human interaction in the office. You might very reasonably ask why someone would use the metaphor “drill down” or “helicopter view” when they could perfectly happily say “explore in greater detail” or “broader view of business”?

But the alternatives I offer, “exploring” and “broader view” are also metaphors – much more conventional and therefore less recognisable than “drill” and “helicopter”, but metaphors nonetheless. This just goes to show that some concepts are so complex and abstract that our only way of capturing them is through metaphors.

The view from above. Kris Arnold/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The second issue is the imagery that the key word in a metaphor evokes (drill/helicopter). By using these particular words, we activate areas in our mind that are linked to drills or helicopters – in these particular cases machines with high power and efficiency. These metaphorical expressions therefore cannot be adequately replaced by their simplified version: we would lose the intensity and the force communicated by the images they evoke.

But idiomatic expressions do much more than just intensify a message. Research has found that they help to express intimacy and closeness, or the opposite – to emphasise differences. Idiomatic expressions highlight the common ground between the speakers because they “activate” knowledge that everybody shares.

It is not surprising that researchers have found that internal meetings use far more idiomatic expressions than those conducted with people from outside. Using jargon and group-specific expressions is one of the strongest cohesive forces that can help to strengthen a team.

Going forward

Finally, using formulaic expressions makes our life in the office easier. Off-the-peg language comes in handy when we need messages conveyed efficiently, when the main purpose of the communication is to get key information across, or when we have no time or space to rethink formulaic phrases such as “keep me in the loop” or “pick your brains”. Apart from being ready-made, many of these phrases also help us to express our messages in a polite way and show consideration for our colleagues. Would you, for example, react differently to “I need you to come into my office now” instead of “can I pick your brains?” Surely, you would.

When I see articles like the ones cited above, I am always amazed by the dismissiveness and unjustified anger against “office phrases”. We use figurative language all the time. Formulaic phrases make our work easier. Metaphors add a level of expressiveness and intensity. Idioms help us bond. So what is wrong with “corporate speak”? Nothing. I think we should stop being annoyed and instead embrace how varied and expressive our language is. At least, we should run it up the flagpole and see who salutes…

The ConversationErika Darics, Lecturer in Applied Linguistics, Aston University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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Slanguage and ‘dinky di’ Aussie talk in elections

The Conversation

Howard Manns, Monash University

Co-written with Kate Burridge

Bill Shorten’s been telling us he wants to give Australians a “fair go”. Malcolm Turnbull has decried Labor for an “assault on the Australian spirit”.

Of course, they’re not the first pollies to drag the Australian spirit and Aussie talk into the dirty business of campaigning. But why do they do it?

It goes without saying that slanguage has always played a pivotal role in the Australian sense of self. ANU researcher Evan Kidd recently set out empirically something Australians have intuitively known for a long time – “using Australian slang increases your likeability among other Australians”.

And useful campaigning fodder are those distinctively Australian expressions with no easy equivalents in national varieties elsewhere. They might be a bit old hat, but they conveniently package some of those cultural values that many Australians hold dear.

Fair dinkums and fair goes in elections

So, in 2007, Kevin Rudd doubled down by telling us John Howard wasn’t being “fair dinkum” by using a likeable term to tell us about a guy doing something unlikable in Australian terms.

Pollies use Australian slang to draw “fairness”, “honesty” and “authenticity” (e.g. fair go, fair dinkum) into public discussions. Recall when Tony Abbott promised a “fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme” in his 2010 and 2013 election speeches – and in every budget reply speech from 2010 to 2012.

There has been a notable upsurge in the use of Australian slang in politics from the 1970s. When Gough Whitlam became prime minister in 1972, Australia’s highest office took on a distinctly Australian voice. This was the case in terms of accent (compare the speeches of Whitlam and Robert Menzies here), but also in the use of a distinctly Aussie idiom.

Menzies was the first to use “fair go” in an election speech, doing it in 1951, but he did so with some cautious introduction (“…the sound Australian phrase, a fair go”). “Fair go” then took a hiatus in elections until 1974 when Gough Whitlam used it six times in his election speech.

Not to be outdone, Malcolm Fraser used the much-loved phrase a record seven times in his 1975 speech. Since then, fair go has featured “bigly” (to use a favourite Trumpism) in campaigns, well except for 1977 and, for some reason, elections in the 1990s.

Yet, it’s important to note that pollies don’t use Australianisms the same way and some are better at doing it than others.

Mateship, battlers and ‘Team Australia’

The late English professor G.A. Wilkes noted that “no word in the Australian vocabulary has such a wealth of associations as mate” and this has certainly been true in politics.

Former science minister Barry Jones provides an excellent example in the story he tells in his autobiography of a phone conversation with a colleague on whose vote he was counting to retain his ministerial position.

“Mate,” he began and with that word I knew that I was gone. “Mate, I’ll have to break my promise to vote for you.”

The applications of mate and mateship by Australian prime ministers have been wide and varied. In 1983, Bob Hawke launched his famed Economic Summit, in the wake of years of political divisiveness, with an appeal to mateship. A little later Paul Keating linked mateship to Asian notions of community and obligation and used mateship to support his argument that Australia should find “security in Asia, not from Asia”.

As historian James Curran points out, John Howard had a deep affection for mateship (going as far as trying to enshrine it in the constitution). But sometimes he used it in baffling ways, even “extending the hand of Australian mateship” and its links to the Anzac legend to rally Australians against terrorism – a sentiment later echoed in Abbott’s “Team Australia” (short-listed for the Australian 2014 Word of the Year).

Ignoring the historical links to trade unionism, Howard also used the narratives around mateship to justify neoliberal economic pragmatism. Along these lines, and perhaps most confusingly, he labelled the famed 1907 Harvester judgement (one which obliged workplace to pay a fair, basic wage): “mateship gone wrong”.

Howard’s economic redefinition (or for some corruption) of mateship and his redefinition of another word, battler, hint at his close relationship with George W. Bush. The American president contributed to the neoliberal redefinition of freedom in a manner similar to Howard’s rebranding of mateship and the little Aussie battler.

Howard took ownership of the word with “Howard’s battlers” or disenfranchised, blue-collared voters who had switched their allegiances from Labor to Liberal. Battlers then moved on from working families to include anyone trying to better themselves.

Suddenly, even bankers and property magnates came under the umbrella of “battlers”, as did, in the words of Bush, Howard himself – it’s a long away from the Dale Kerrigan-type underdog, working hard and struggling to make ends meet.

This leads us to our final questions: who has the right to use Australian slang? When does it work and when doesn’t it?

Larrikins, malapropisms and drunken dorks

Authenticity is the most critical factor guiding the use of misuse of Australian slang, regardless of the speaker (a fact hinted at by Evan Kidd’s research mentioned above).

For instance, Barnaby Joyce caused a stir when he said the Johnny Depp apology video was “going off like a frog in a sock”. People get quite excited about pollies using Australian slang, especially in reference to an international incident. Yet, people weren’t that surprised to hear frog in a sock coming from Joyce – he’s a bit of a larrikin.

Rudd, and his use of Australian slang, offers a stark contrast to Joyce. Rudd’s a dork (this was part of his appeal in 2007), and he didn’t start using Australian expressions (at least publically) until things started to go badly in the polls.

And when Rudd did begin using these expressions, he did so awkwardly and conspicuously. His use (three times) of “fair shake of the sauce bottle” was reported and criticised far and wide – “Antiquated Australian slang, recently deployed by the country’s prime minister” (The New York Times, June 17, 2009). More so, it muddled the earlier idiom (“fair suck of the sauce bottle”), a possible or even likely reference to booze.

But we shouldn’t judge Rudd too harshly. Do we really want an Australian prime minister saying everyone deserves their fair share of booze? (Well, there was that time a drunken Bob Hawke told the nation they could go into work late, but then he was another larrikin.)

Anyway, fair shake of the sauce bottle goes back at least to the 1990s, and as lexicographer Bruce Moore points out, it’s been well-entrenched in politics and beyond (senator Rod Kemp famously used it in 1995).

Besides, we love to play with slang expressions – fair suck of the sav/fair suck of the sausage and even fair suck of the Siberian sandshoe are just some of the variants about. And who could forget Norman Gunston’s “fair bite of the pineapple donut”. So why shouldn’t equality be measured by even distributions of dollops of tomato sauce (and not grog!).

This certainly wasn’t the first time Australian slang has been “adapted” in politics. The swagman took the expression greasing one’s swag straps to mean time to move one. Bruce Moore writes that when Bob Hawke was being advised to step down as prime minister, Gareth Evans is reported to have said to him:

Pull out, digger. The dogs are pissing on your swag.

Well, the dogs are pissing on our swags and we’re due a fair suck of the sauce bottle ourselves.

The ConversationHoward Manns, Lecturer in Linguistics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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The vaudeville, impact and substance of political name-calling

The Conversation

Howard Manns, Monash University

Scott Morrison would have us think politics is more war than performance whereas names like ScoMo tell us quite the opposite. When pollies, in the words of Paul Keating, “turn the switch to vaudeville”, we like nothing more than to slap names on our political heroes and villains, and to sit bemused and amused at the names they give one another.

Moreover, political nicknames hint at the overlap between politics and performance. Lady Macbeth has been applied to ambitious female politicians, including Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard. As an aside, it’s worth noting that that the word ambitious has links to the Latin ambitiō meaning “to go around soliciting votes”.

Gillard and Rudd as a pair garnered the moniker Kath and Kev (a cheeky reference to Kath and Kim) and Belgian-born Mathias Cormann has been called The Cormanator (a tongue-in-cheek reference to another accented politician, The Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger). Cormann’s reference to Bill Shorten as a Girly Man only served to strengthen these links.

In sum, it’s difficult to take the war metaphor seriously when the supposed warriors are desiccated coconuts (Keating on John Howard), half-baked crims (Keating on Wilson Tuckey), unrepresentative swill (Keating on the Senate) or a shiver looking for a spine to run up (Keating on John Hewson).

Former Prime Minister, Paul Keating

Election 2016’s monikers – e.g. Bill Shorten’s moobs,a blend of man boobs, Electricity Bill; Malcolm Turnbull’s out of touch; daddy – do nothing to dissuade us from this view.

But do names and nicknames matter?

The impact of political name-calling

Political inclinations aside, research says yes.

On a positive note, we Aussies are found of our shortenings, so it’s hardly surprising we say Albo, Bracksy and Plibbers for Anthony Albanese, Steve Bracks and Tonya Plibersek respectively.

On a negative note, research has shown we’re less apt to vote for someone named Dewey or Buchanan simply because their names have the same “disgusting” vowel sound as putrid.

Ethnic names have historically carried negative connotations for US voters but it’s worth noting this is changing. For instance, Republican pundits have gone to great lengths to highlight Barack Obama’s middle name Hussein. Research showed this was an effective strategy for right-leaning voters but actually backfired for left-leaning and moderate voters, who found it to be transparent dog-whistling.

This is why, while the media pundits kept using Hussein, sometimes even adding (a non-existent) Muhammad to Obama’s name, Republican pollies began to shy away from this practice.

Australian pollies generally avoid explicit race baiting (but it’s disgustingly present in other electoral domains). That said, the American-born senator Norm Sanders notably took umbrage to being told “Go home, Yank”, calling it an “ethnic slur”.

While explicit race-baiting is a no-no in modern politics, some pollies garner nicknames because of their dog whistling. For instance, Tony Abbott is known by some Indigenous people as The Gammon Man (“pretender”) and he is known by other groups simply as the number 5265617 (the arrival number of one boat not stopped by the Australian government, the one Abbott arrived on from the UK).

In Australia, we like our pollies not too larrikin but not too rich. Consequently, political name calling has often made reference to class or, lack thereof. For instance, former Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu has varyingly been called the Toff from Toorak, Tanty Ted and Cottee’s (because he’s “thick and rich”). Notably, this isn’t the first time ‘thick and rich’ has come up in Australian politics, with Senator Shirley Walters being called creamy for the same reason.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, Bob Hawke went too far at times but his silver bodgie label certainly wasn’t the worst insult to emerge over the course of Australian politics. Australia’s more “articulate” (or rather posher) pollies have often mocked their less “articulate” (or rather working class) colleagues.

For instance, in the 1890s, one member of the NSW legislature, Sir Henry Parkes, mocked a colleague for his (mis)pronunciation of “h” at the start of words, saying:

Ho, the honourable member for Balmain, who for once – and, of course, but haccident – has made a sensible hobservation.

This, too, conjures Robert Menzies’ famous response to a working-class constituent, who upon asking, “wotcha gunna do about ‘ousing?” received the answer, “Put an ‘h’ in front of it”.

The substance and victims of name-calling

So why name call in politics? It’s part and parcel of the political landscape and it goes back a long time.

For instance, essayist Amber A’Lee Frost points out that the Austrian-born Queen Marie Antoinette was “singled out for especially inventive and vicious taunting” via pamphlets known as libelles (with links to our modern libel). Authors of these libelles coined the word Austrichienne “Austrian bitch”, a word which resembled the French word for “ostrich”. The authors accentuated this pun with drawings of the queen committing sexual acts with ostriches.

Our modern pollies use name calling to demonise, weaken and create doubts about honesty or loyalty in their competitors. At times, political name-calling can seem quite petty. For example, physical traits often come up. Menzies was called Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon’s nemesis) in part because of his oversized eyebrows. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has been called shrek and lurch because of his size.

Rhyming and wordplay can lead to some positive and negative names. Kevin Rudd on the one hand built a campaign on a rhyme (Kevin07) but on the other hand found himself derisively labelled Keven 747, Heavy Kevvy, Kevin 24/7 and Rudd the Dudd.

Perceived and playful ways of speaking and presentation can also become targets for insults. For instance, Bob Carr was known by colleagues as Wottha, as in “what’s he saying this time?”, and Kelly O’Dwyer has been called Whytha as in “why the long face?”. Sometimes the name of the politician develops into an insult in its own right as did former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett’s name (e.g. a Jeff’d up economy, Jeffing awful)

And, of course, some of these insults can be downright mean. In recent decades, John Howard (e.g. the rodent, dead carcass, unflushable turd) and Julia Gillard (e.g. Juliar, witch, bitch, old cow) have perhaps copped it worse than most. As an aside in light of space, it’s worth also noting the kinds of words that get used to describe male and female politicians, as these words certainly reflect prejudices in the wider community.

So then, should our pollies avoid name calling? Essayist A’Lee Frost argues no, writing:

If we do not embrace the profane now and again, we will find ourselves handicapped by our own civility.

Yet, in closing, we reckon it’s worth defending one creature hard done by political name calling. There is reputedly a brush turkey in Whale Beach, NSW, named Barnaby Joyce. No animal deserves to suffer this indignation.

The ConversationHoward Manns, Lecturer in Linguistics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Euphemisms (or synonyms) for “God”: a history

Why Evolution Is True

Matthew, who is a Teacher and thus should be Appreciated, sent me a link to this tw**t:

I had no idea all of those words referred obliquely to “God.” “Gadzooks”? “By George”?

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Togs or swimmers? Why Australians use different words to describe the same things

The Conversation

Jill Vaughan, University of Melbourne; Katie Jepson, University of Melbourne, and Rosey Billington, University of Melbourne

Is Australia about to descend into civil war over whether a deep-fried potato snack is rightfully called a “potato cake” or a “potato scallop”? From some recent headlines, you might be forgiven for thinking so.

A series of maps showing differences in words used across Australia sparked fierce debates online over the virtues of calling a barbecued sausage served in a single slice of bread a “sausage in bread” or a “sausage sandwich”.

Given that these maps were put together as part of an educational activity for students participating in the Linguistics Roadshow, the huge interest in the way Australian English is used across the country took us by surprise. But, perhaps it shouldn’t have.

It’s often said that Australian English doesn’t vary much geographically – and it’s true that we don’t find the same striking linguistic differences across the country as in some other corners of the English-speaking world.

However, past and ongoing research has shown that there are some regional differences. Among the most obvious are the words people use for the same thing, such as swimwear – preferences for “togs”, “swimmers”, “cossie” or “bathers” vary markedly across the states and territories.

Words for swimwear around Australia. Rosey Billington, Lauren Gawne, Kathleen Jepson, and Jill Vaughan ‘Mapping words around Australia’ (bit.ly/AusWordsMaps)

Where do these linguistic differences stem from?

Australian English developed from the speech of colonists from various parts of the British Isles, so sometimes the word used in a particular Australian region is the result of one option winning out among people from different British backgrounds.

Others might be derived from the names of people or brands, or borrowed from local Indigenous languages.

Each word has its own history, but many words across the country have a shared history – that’s what makes these exceptions stand out.

What’s fascinating is just how neatly some of this variation lines up with state lines, which suggests that there is something more than just the historical choices made by colonists or the distance between different locations contributing to these differences.

Striking examples of this phenomenon can be seen for border towns such as Albury-Wodonga, where a short walk across the bridge means you’ll hear a majority of people using a different word for swimwear.

More ‘bathers’ on the Victorian side of the border, more ‘swimmers’ on the New South Wales side. Rosey Billington, Lauren Gawne, Kathleen Jepson, and Jill Vaughan ‘Mapping words around Australia’ (bit.ly/AusWordsMaps)

This is because certain words become strongly associated with a regional identity.

When there is more than one option to choose from, individuals might use a particular word because it’s the most common term in their community, but also because that word indexes a broader group identity, such as Victorian versus New South Wales.

Words are particularly good at doing this kind of work: they very easily become identity markers that people orient to.

Pronunciation differences can also function in this way: does “dance” rhyme with “aunts” or “pants” for you?

Other kinds of variation can fly under the radar because they’re more subtle, or part of a change in progress.

Many Australians are not aware, for example, that in parts of Victoria “celery” is pronounced more like “salary” – listen out for it next time you’re in “Malbourne”!

When we communicate we tend to use the words, pronunciations and linguistic patterns that we hear most often in the communities we live in.

Identity is a dynamic and ongoing process that we all actively participate in, and we use the variation inherent in language to express who we are at any given moment.

What is Australian English?

Australian English is really a broad cover term for different types of English used across the country, including the varieties used by different Indigenous and ethnocultural groups.

This is cross-cut by the linguistic preferences of people representing different age groups, gender identities, and social and cultural backgrounds, with different vocations, interests and networks.

We are part of many communities simultaneously and can express our belonging in varied ways.

Someone can be an Australian, a Thai descendent, a soccer player, a woman, a student of medicine, and a Tumblr user, and be very adept at gauging the different spaces they participate in and choosing how they want to identify within them.

This is an important part of what languages do – they allow us to communicate not just information, but something about who we are.

‘Sausage sandwiches’ are preferred in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. Rosey Billington, Lauren Gawne, Kathleen Jepson, and Jill Vaughan ‘Mapping words around Australia’

So, next time you find yourself arguing about sausage sandwiches versus sausages in bread, remember that whichever term you use, you’re contributing to the dynamic linguistic diversity of Australia.

The ConversationJill Vaughan, Research Fellow in Linguistics, University of Melbourne; Katie Jepson, PhD student, ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, Research Unit for Indigenous Language, School of Languages and Linguistics, University of Melbourne, and Rosey Billington, Affiliate, ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, Postgraduate researcher, School of Languages and Linguistics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Posh accents, discrimination and employment in Australia

The Conversation

Howard Manns, Monash University

UK researchers recently reviewed the hiring practices of 13 elite law, accountancy and financial companies, and found that applicants with posh accents were favoured over their working class counterparts.

So, does a similar process hold in the Australian context? Are your employment chances rooted and rooned by not having a posh accent?

Not in Australia. But the UK study serves as a caution of sorts, and it’s worth reviewing the dynamics of accent and employment in the UK, Australia and beyond.

How we judge accents

We don’t judge accents themselves, but rather the speakers of those accents and our perceptions of those speakers’ qualities. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1519-1556), reputedly spoke Spanish to God, French to men, Italian to women and German to horses.

We commonly judge accents and their speakers along dimensions of prestige and pleasantness.

To these ends, Brits with posh accents may be doubly advantaged. Many are born into these accents or acquire them at elite public schools. And, on the pleasantness spectrum, we tend to be drawn to accents most like our own.

Therefore, if you happen to be one of the estimated 3-5% of Brits who has a posh accent, and you’re reviewing the application of poor Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, then, yes, for poor Eliza, a job will ardly hever ‘appen.

My Fair Lady.

But accents index both positive and negative attributes to employers and potential customers, and posh accents have been fraying in the British sphere since the 1990s. Studies have shown while posh accents index “intelligence” and “success” they are also considered “less friendly” and “less trustworthy” than regionally marked or difficult-to-place accents.

This has led, among other things, to the emergence of what has been labelled Estuary English, a mix of a posh accent and certain Cockney features, such as glottal stops. Tony Blair and Princess Diana were well known speakers of Estuary English.

Linguist Emma Moore talks about Tony Blair and Estuary English in the following video:

Alongside this process, Scottish accents have emerged as having a certain value add in British society. For instance, a 2008 survey found Scottish accents to be the most reassuring and soothing in a crisis. And a 2012 survey found them to be hardworking and reliable in business.

‘Posh’ accents in Australian English

Australian English is judged variously and inconsistently throughout its history, both at home and abroad.

Winston Churchill called Australian English “the most brutal maltreatment that has ever been inflicted on the mother-tongue of the great English-speaking nations”.

Historian Joy Damousi notes American writer Mark Twain, for his part, was fond of the English spoken in Ballarat.

Twain was impressed with how Ballarat speakers rendered thank you to a simple Q and you’re welcome to km. Such shortenings he mused, give the tongue “a delicate whispery and vanishing cadence which charms the ear …”.

Within Australia, there has historically been a clear social distinction between Cultivated (British-oriented) and Broad or General, distinctly Australian ways of speaking.

This distinction can be traced to the early decades of the colony. In the early 19th century, GA Wilkes notes new arrivals from Britain garnered the label stirling after money with official standing.

Conversely, those born in the colony bore the label currency, a money with less standing and less value. By 1827, one British observer noted the currency could be identified by their Aussie pride, poor teeth and “nasal twang”.

The tide arguably turned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when, as lexicographer Bruce Moore observes, Australians derided the migrant whinging poms, who the Australians believed were often openly and vocally disappointed by the new country.

Among other things, Moore links the word “pom” to the fondness of early 20th century Australian children for giving nicknames, and the subsequent playground rhyming of immigrant, jimmygrant and pomegranate for Brit children. The term whinging pom itself had emerged by 1962.

The late 20th century saw the decreasing relevance of British-oriented, cultivated ways of speaking. This can be linked to a number of factors, including increasing Australian nationalism and the establishment of an Australian Language Research Centre. The ABC first permitted distinctly Australian accents in its broadcasts in 1952.

The prime minister’s office maintained a cultivated feel until 1966 with RG Menzies, who, as Moore points out, described himself as “British to the bootstraps”:

British to the bootstraps.

But, by 1972, Gough Whitlam had given the prime minister’s office a distinctly Australian voice:

In contemporary Australia, linguist Felicity Cox observes that a cultivated accent might work against you. She writes, “many Australians feel that that Cultivated accent is not reflective of Australian values”.

“Vowel cancer” and crabs in the workplace

While posh accents are less relevant in Australia, the UK study does illustrate a critical point which is valid in Australia. Accent remains fair game when it comes to racism and classicism. Where it might be unacceptable, to pass comment on ways of dress or manner, ways of speaking tend to fly under the radar.

This process is well-studied within the US and the British spheres. For instance, Rosina Lippi-Green has famously argued that accents in Disney films draw on as well as reinforce minority stereotypes.

Lippi-Green notes that African American accents leading up to the 1990s are predominantly attached to animal rather than humanoid characters in these films. More so, the male minority characters in these films are generally unemployed, and seem to be concerned with nothing more than having fun and please themselves.

This is instructive for the Australian sphere, where speakers of any number of non-standard or broad accents might have the potential to be marginalised.

Writer Kathy Lette (with Gabrielle Carey) brilliantly documents the Australian vernacular the 1979 novel Puberty Blues. Yet, Lette has also been known to warn teens off such colloquial ways of speaking, calling them “vowel cancer”, and encouraging teens to practice “tongue fu”.

It can be dangerous and misleading to judge a job applicant along a single social dimension such as accent. Perhaps this is best illustrated in closing with the 19th century writer Price Warung’s yarn about an Echuca steamboat deckhand named Dictionary Ned. Warung’s stories often focus on the inequities of the convict system.

Ned loved words and carried a dictionary with him wherever he went. Over time, Ned came to memorise the entire dictionary. Yet, Ned found his Aussie pronunciation of these words constantly derided by College Bill, a man of position and the town drunkard.

In the yarn’s climax, Ned, realising his Aussie accent will never be accepted, shocks the town by shifting into French. From that point onward, College Bill is known in town as Ned labels him: “mo-va-soo-jay” (mauvais sujet “evil”). And more relevantly, the town folk come to realise that their myopic focus on Ned’s accent has led them to underestimate his wit and linguistic prowess.

The ConversationHoward Manns is Lecturer in Linguistics at Monash University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How a PhD in linguistics prepared me for motherhood

The Conversation

Annabelle Lukin

Unlike most newborns, on his arrival into the world, my newly-minted son found himself in the arms of someone well-versed in the most fiercely contested question in contemporary linguistics: is language innate?

Are babies born with grammar hard-wired into their brain? Or is language something bestowed by culture and socialisation?

The early exchanges of gaze, attention and vocalisations with my baby in his first hours, days and weeks were experienced against the melodrama of modern linguistics’ greatest schism. This happens to revolve entirely around the role of mothers and significant others in the development of a child’s language.

In the story of how language emerges in the child, as told by Noam Chomsky, nature is largely the lone hero. The child comes with a “language organ” already installed in her or his brain, as a sudden and isolated gift of evolution – out of nowhere, all-at-once, fully formed and forever unchanging.

Chomsky’s Universal Grammar

Called “Universal Grammar” (or UG), the language organ is “invariant among humans”. While the world appears to be full of many and varied languages (estimated at more than 7,000), to Chomsky this rich variation in linguistic forms and functions is, despite appearances, superficial.

Chomsky speaking in 2012 on Universal Grammar and the genetics of language.

Why? Because of the “empirical conditions on language acquisition”, by which Chomsky means the quality and quantity of the language around the infant. Chomsky has argued for more than 50 years that language must be innate because the familial and domestic discourse that surrounds infants is “degenerate”. Children simply could not learn language because the input they receive from their mothers and significant others is “impoverished”.

The ‘poverty of the stimulus’

Chomsky named this central plank in his theory “the poverty of the stimulus”. As such, Chomsky’s most famous disciple, Steven Pinker, advises parents to ignore their offspring:

Young children plainly can’t understand a word you say. So why waste your breath in soliloquies? Any sensible person would surely wait until a child has developed speech and more gratifying two-way conversations become possible.

Maternal language, Pinker continued, is all part of “the same mentality that sends yuppies to ‘learning centers’ to buy little mittens with bull’s-eyes to help their babies find their hands sooner”. It is nothing more than a collective anxiety to “keep the helpless infant from falling behind in the great race of life”.

If you believe that language is not for communication, then this makes perfect sense. The real function of language, Chomsky argues, is to converse with yourself inside your own skull.

“In any useful sense of the term,” says Chomsky, “communication is not the function of language.”

While infants and toddlers might display “language-like expressions” – like the twins of YouTube fame (below) – this behaviour, to the 20th century’s most famous linguist, is akin to a dog being trained to respond to certain commands.

Talking twins showing turn-taking and the intonation patterns of their mother-tongue.

In a new and very readable critique of Universal Grammar, Professor Vyvan Evans writes that “despite being completely wrong” UG “is alive and kicking”.

Evans argues that the myth “has become institutionalised via retellings which are now immune to counterevidence”. The evidence and arguments against UG have come, for many years, from fields as diverse as animal communication studies, language typology, language evolution, infant communication, child language development, neuroscience and psychiatry. Evans reviews some of this evidence in his new book.

The alternative to Universal Grammar

As I waited for the birth of my son, I eschewed Australia’s best selling book for expectant mothers, in favour of the growing body of research on infant and mother communication. In this research, nature still had a crucial role: no less than giving my son his complex brain, one ready and able to learn language.

But nature bestowed on him something else besides: the capacity for “intersubjectivity”. The research shows babies are innately tuned to display their subjectivity – their tiny personalities – and to adapt or fit their displays of attention and emotion to the subjectivity of others.

Once researchers started to look – really look – at young infants, their early sociability became apparent. Professor Colwyn Trevarthen has, since the 1970s, closely observed the communicative repertoire of very young babies. He has observed their smiles, their coos of recognition, their frowns and their hand gestures”. All these postures “announce, for a sympathetic other person, the infant’s state of openness to the world”. The babies gestures are prolific, intelligible and organised.

Colwyn Trevarthen began observing mothers and young babies in the 1970s.

Babies’ survival is tied into a capacity to establish the mutual rhythms which produce human companionship. Trevarthen writes:

Being conversational is what it takes for a young person to begin learning what other people know and do, and this is the behaviour a fond parent expects and enjoys. It is the human adaption for cultural learning.

It is, of course, our capacity for cultural learning which sets us apart from all other animals.

Babies need joyful, responsive human company

Research in countries as diverse as Scotland, Nigeria, Germany, Sweden and Japan has shown mothers speak to infants in a manner that is rhythmic, repetitive, musical and regular. Far from being “degenerate” or “impoverished”, this kind of language is maximally designed for the needs of the young baby.

Father in conversation with nine-week-old girl.

Babies need and seek “joyful, responsive human company”, with a known, loving and attentive conversational partner. These “proto-conversations” provide the foundations for infants to step into the systems and structures of their mother-tongue.

As helpless and dependent as my baby son was, I knew my little munchkin was biologically prepared to initiate and sustain the interactions through which his beautifully complex human brain could get to know the world outside him, and his place in that world.

I knew our conversations would propel him into the rich and extravagant culture around him. And that this culture would reciprocate his curiosity with its many artifacts, including the infinitely creative, collective resource that is human language.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Mansplaining the word of the year – and why it matters

The Conversation

By Howard Manns, Monash University

The Macquarie Dictionary last week named “mansplain” its word of the year for 2014. The Dictionary defines mansplain as:

verb (t) Colloquial (humorous) (of a man) to explain (something) to a woman, in a way that is patronising because it assumes that a woman will be ignorant of the subject matter. MAN + (EX)PLAIN with s inserted to create a pronunciation link with explain.

Since its coinage in 2008, mansplain has varyingly been flagged as sexist or a powerful means for calling out something men do, especially on the internet. Is it sexist or a powerful tool in the anti-sexism arsenal?

Society-at-large ultimately determines this. But here are some things to consider.

Wo’man’ and language change

Linguistic change suggests that the English language or rather its speakers haven’t always been kind or equitable to women.

English language scholar Geoffrey Hughes notes that there is a “jocular grammatical precept that ‘man embraces woman’”. This is evidenced in English by words such as “lion” and “tiger” vis-à-vis “lioness” and “tigress”. In both cases, the male word is morphologically less complex and may be used to refer to the species in general, male and female alike.

The word “man” reflects this pattern. It has two meanings, the first of which refers to an “adult male” and the second “humanity” more generally. The latter meaning meant that at one time man relied on context or compounding to determine the referent’s sex or reference to humanity.

The Old English compound wīf-mann was used to clarify that a reference was a woman, and wer-mann that the referent was a man. Man arguably won out here with wer dropping out of use save its subtle appearance in words such as werewolf.

Wīf narrowed in meaning from “woman” to the modern “wife”, and wīf-mann became phonetically simplified to the modern “woman”.

Women’s efforts to battle implicitly and explicitly sexist processes of this sort have yielded results from the latter part of the 20th century.

Linguist David Crystal points out that opposition to “man” as a reference to all humans, and to the pronoun “he” and its inflected forms for both men and women led to a dramatic reduction in the use of these forms. Specifically, a survey of these forms in 1970s magazines showed their use fell from 12.3 per 5,000 words in 1971 to 4.3 in 1979.

The tide has clearly turned against some sexist words and usages. But one needn’t look long and hard to find that this issue hasn’t entirely been redressed.

Whores, chair-things and the subtle world of sexism

Racist and sexist attitudes persist in our implicit or explicit language choices, even where they seem to be have been addressed on the surface in society.

For instance, last year, a female scientist blogging for Scientific American was called a “whore” by a male editor at another blog. This was in response to the scientist’s polite refusal to contribute free work to this blog.

This might have been acceptable if the editor was using an earlier meaning of whore, a term of endearment for either sex, related to the Latin cārus (“dear”) and the Sanskrit kamah (“desire”) – as in Kama Sutra. Words that refer to women are particularly prone to deterioration in meaning (see also, among others, “slut”, which once merely meant “dirty, slovenly” or referred to a “kitchen maid”).

The blog editor’s use of whore’s 21st-century meaning with a scientist blogging for Scientific American is merely one of many examples of some lingering issues.

Women’s attempts to redress these issues have sometimes been met with ridicule. Tony Abbott, while at university, notably called a female colleague “chair-thing” rather than “chair-person” as she had requested. There has been considerable serious and not-so-serious discussions of what to call a “manhole” in the last few decades (e.g. “person hole”, “sewer cover”).

On top of playing semantics, differing conversational styles suggest men’s voices could end up being heard the loudest. Men are more likely than women to compete for control of a conversation, interrupt, to dispute what’s been said or to respond poorly.

Libfix de résistance

With all of this in mind, women have often taken creative, aggressive and, to some, seemingly extreme stances to redress power imbalances and perceived weaknesses in language.

Writer/ linguist Anthony Burgess notes that scathing feminists and feminist dictionaries have defined the first “males” as “mutants [and] freaks produced by some damage to the genes”.

Science Fiction novelist Suzanne Haden Elgin created the language Làadan for her 1982 novel Native Tongue. Làadan had a wider vocabulary to encapsulate the female experience, including a series of words to express whether one’s period (oshàana) was weshàana (late), hushàana (painful) or àashàana (joyful), among other things.

As for mansplain, we might view this as one more tactic for combatting perceived or actual male behaviour. It sits alongside attempts to own or redefine the word slut and a recent Super Bowl commercial that asks men, women, boys and girls to deconstruct the insult “throws like a girl”.

It is clearly a useful word for flagging something happening in society. Mansplain has already spawned a popular libfix (a blend of liberated and affix): – “splain”. We already see its use expanding to include “whitesplaining”, “rightsplaining” and even, in the 2012 US elections, “Mittsplaining” (for the Republican candidate Mitt Romney).

To these ends, it is certainly a word for the times.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Omission of bound morphemes

“It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened [….]” –

From “How I Met My Wife” by Jack Winter. Published 25th July 1994, The New Yorker.

Note: In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a language. A bound morpheme is one that cannot exist in its own, like “un”.

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The Gricean Maxims

by Tim Harding

There are certain social conventions and assumptions that are normally made by people engaged in meaningful conversations.   Vocabulary and the rules of grammar combine with knowledge of the situational context to fill in what’s missing and resolve ambiguities.  For example, when we ask at the dinner table whether somebody can pass the salt, we are not literally enquiring as to their physical ability to lift and move the salt container.[1][2]

Listeners and speakers need to cooperate with each other and to mutually accept one another to be understood in a particular way.   In sociolinguistics, this is known as the  Cooperative Principle.  As phrased by British philosopher Paul Grice, who introduced it, the principle states,

‘Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.[3]

Though phrased as a prescriptive command, the principle is intended as a description of how people normally behave in conversation, to ensure that what they say in a conversation furthers the purpose of that conversation.  The principle describes the assumptions listeners normally make about the way cooperative speakers will talk.

Thus the cooperative principle works both ways: speakers (generally) observe the cooperative principle, and listeners (generally) assume that speakers are observing it.  This allows for the possibility of implicatures, which are meanings that are not explicitly conveyed in what is said, but that can nonetheless be inferred.  For example, if Alice points out that Bill is not present, and Carol replies that Bill has a cold, then there is an implicature that the cold is the reason, or at least a possible reason, for Bill’s absence.  This is because Carol’s comment is not cooperative — does not contribute to the conversation — unless her point is that Bill’s cold is or might be the reason for his absence (see the Maxim of Relevance below).  If Bill’s cold had nothing to do with his absence, then Carol’s comment would be irrelevant, misleading and thus uncooperative to the conversation.

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The cooperative principle can be divided into four maxims, called the Gricean Maxims, describing specific rational subordinate principles observed by people who adhere to the overarching cooperative principle.  Grice proposed four conversational maxims that arise from the pragmatics of natural language.  The Gricean Maxims are a way to explain the link between utterances and what is understood from them.

Maxim of Quality

  1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
  2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of Quantity

  1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
  2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Maxim of Relation

  1. Be relevant.

Maxim of Manner

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  4. Be orderly.

Without cooperation, human interaction would be far more difficult and counterproductive. Therefore, the Cooperative Principle and the Gricean Maxims are not specific to conversation but to verbal interactions in general. For example, it would not make sense to reply to a question about the weather with an answer about groceries because it would violate the Maxim of Relevance. Likewise, responding to a simple yes/no question with a long monologue would violate the Maxim of Quantity.

However, it is possible to flout a maxim intentionally or unconsciously and thereby convey a different meaning than what is literally spoken. Many times in conversation, this flouting is manipulated by a speaker to produce a negative pragmatic effect, as with sarcasm or irony, or to convey a meaning by what is not said in the situational context. For example, a student named Luisa Casati has asked her tutor Jeremy Hirst to write a letter of recommendation.  The letter reads as follows;

‘Dear Colleague,

Ms. Luisa Casati has asked me to write a letter on her behalf. Let me say that Ms. Casati is unfailingly polite, is neatly dressed at all times, and is always on time for her classes.

Sincerely yours,

Jeremy Hirst’

Jeremy has violated the Maxim of Quantity by providing insufficient information as to Luisa’s suitability for further study or employment.  He has also violated the Maximum of Relevance by discussing some of her positive personal qualities, but which are not centrally relevant to her abilities as a student or employee.

Jeremy might have deliberately violated these two maxims in an attempt to be truthful whilst not hurting Luisa’s feelings (so as not to violate the maxims of quality or manner).  He may thus be conveying a subtle negative message to the reader by the nature of what he has left out of the text rather than what he has included.

Assuming that Jeremy’s letter is rational and purposeful, then in my view it does not disprove the maxims in question.  Indeed, by deliberately violating these maxims, the letter may well be conveying a subtle negative meaning that might not be conveyed if these maxims did not exist.  That is, if the Gricean maxims did not exist, and the letter was read literally and simply, then the letter may convey only a positive message that Jeremy might not really intend.

Speakers who deliberately flout the maxims usually intend for their listener to understand their underlying implicature. Conversationalists can assume that when speakers intentionally flout a maxim, they still do so with the aim of expressing some thought.  Thus, the Gricean Maxims serve a purpose both when they are followed and when they are flouted.

References and notes

[1] Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., Hyams, N., Collins, P., and Amberber, M., (2009) An  Introduction to Language (6th edition) South Melbourne: Cengage Learning. pp. 196-7.

[2] Indeed, it is thought that one of the main limitations to artificial intelligence is that machines are likely to interpret language too literally, unless they have been programmed with all the knowledge of situational context that humans accumulate over a lifetime.

[3] Grice, Paul (1975). ‘Logic and conversation’. In Cole, P.; Morgan, J. Syntax and semantics. 3: Speech acts. New York: Academic Press. pp. 41–58.

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