Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My English is Better than Your English! Part 2

In my last entry, I discussed standard language compared to nonstandard language, focusing mainly on variations in pronunciation and vocabulary, and besides mentioning a few differences in the past and current language of Michigan compared to standard American English, I reported what my British friend Mick O’Hare had to say on the subject.

Now I’d like to mention some more differences between standard and nonstandard language, and also get a little into what we term substandard language.

I come from New York City. To this day people don’t stand in line when waiting to get into someplace; they stand on line. That’s an example of nonstandard American English. But in one part of the city, it’s common to hear people say things like You want I should do that now? instead of Do you want me to do that now? And even though it’s fast dying out, there was a time when it was common in a certain part of the city to hear people switch the pronunciation of "oy" with "er," so you’d hear things like I need some erl for my car and That British aristocrat is called the Oyl of Devon. So should a teacher in New York City teach stand on line along with stand in line, and should that teacher tell students it’s okay to say You want I should do that now? or She’s a lousy cook. The goil doesn’t even know how to berl water!?

My answer to the first question is yes, stand on line can be taught alongside stand in line since ESOL students in New York will undoubtedly hear native speakers say on line, but the teacher should emphasize which one is the standard phrase. My answer to the other question is no, teachers should not teach that it’s okay to say You want I should do that now? or The goil doesn’t even know how to berl water. That’s because such grammar and such pronunciations are not standard or even nonstandard English; they’re simply substandard English, and substandard English is unacceptable as a teachable variation. Such grammar and pronunciation basically fall into the same category as ain’t and double negatives. They exist, but the consensus of opinion is that they’re substandard forms. Sometimes it may take checking into to decide if something is a regional variation (nonstandard) or substandard.

At any rate, here are the questions I put to my Australian colleague, Penny Cameron, to get her take on things, and Penny’s answers:

Penny, does Aussie English have regional variations that are so outstanding that you don't have a problem recognizing which part of the country somebody comes from?

There are regional lexical items, and some regional variation in, for instance, long or short /a/ in words like Newcastle. Please visit the Australian Word Map for a work in progress on this very topic.

Is there a standard Aussie English that kids are taught in school that differs from their everyday speech?

We try to teach a standard English, but the kids undermine us the way they always did.

Is there any prejudice against certain regional variations rather than others? Do some Aussies poke fun at the way other Aussies speak?

Not really. We make cruel jokes about other states, suggesting that Tasmanians are inbred and Sydneysiders brash and property obsessed, and we sometimes say that Queenslanders drawl.


Are there words or pronunciations in one regional variation that Aussies in other parts of the country wouldn't understand?

Very few, I believe. See SCOSE (the Standing Committee on Spoken English) and the Word Map
.

We have a steadying influence in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) based on the BBC. Apart from giving us informed non-partisan discussion (the politicians hate it), the ABC hosts SCOSE, the Standing Committee on Spoken English.


This is from their website: “The ABC’s Standing Committee on Spoken English (SCOSE) this year celebrates its fiftieth year. It evolved from earlier groups which had existed since 1944.

“However, the brief for previous incarnations of SCOSE was to maintain standard English pronunciations. In 1952 it was recognised that the ABC should make some departure from BBC practice and recognise Australian English.

“The role of SCOSE is to provide a reference source for broadcasters and journalists through the Language Research Unit, which is maintained by News and Current Affairs.

“Broadcasters and journalists can check all aspects of spoken and written English ― pronunciation, grammar, spelling, usage and style. The Committee also monitors the use of language in a broad sense across all ABC platforms to ensure it is conforming to community standards and the ABC’s editorial policies.The Committee meets once a month to discuss language policy and usage, queries from staff, and any observations or complaints from the public. Members include staff representatives from program producing areas across radio, television and online.”

The SCOSE Academic Adviser Professor, Pam Peters, is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Macquarie University. Professor Peters sits on the Macquarie Dictionary Advisory Board and is the author of Cambridge University Australian English Style Guide, my constant desk companion.

However, we certainly sound different to other people. Please see the story at the beginning of the most recent Ozwords (Oct 2007) about the unfortunate Australian woman who got arrested.


I did, Penny, and I was amazed at what happened to her. Incredible! I hope all my readers will take a look at the story and see what misunderstandings can arise from one form of English to another. And thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us, Penny, and for offering such good links to visit.

As I said last time, I’d love to hear from you folks, so please share any reactions or thoughts you have with us by leaving a comment.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

My English is Better than Your English!

I returned some days ago from East Lansing, Michigan, where I gave a six-hour workshop on grammar to over 150 gracious, enthusiastic ESOL teachers from all around the state who eagerly wanted to understand more about the workings of the English language. The six hours flew by, and I feel very grateful to have had the experience of meeting and chatting with those teachers.

One of the topics that came up while some of us were chatting during breaks and after the workshop dealt with a subject I had brought up in the early part of the workshop, namely, standard English vs. nonstandard English, also known as regional variations. A number of the teachers wanted to know if one was better than the other, and which form of English (e.g., standard American, standard British, etc.) should be considered “the best.” I quickly explained that there is no such thing as one form of English being better than any other and that all forms are fine if they work all right for the people who use them. I added that we have what is gingerly referred to as standard English, which seems to be the language that’s understood and used by the majority of educated native speakers. I suggested that the teachers might want to teach standard language to our students first, but that there was nothing wrong with introducing regional variations, nonstandard English, at the appropriate level and appropriate time.

Here are some examples of regional variations as opposed to the standard forms. For example, in pronunciation, since it was the fall and the leaves were starting to turn colors, I mentioned foliage (/fo – li – әj/ as the standard, /fo – lәj/ as the regional variation). Then one of the teachers brought up auxiliary. She’d noticed that I pronounced it /ŏg – zIl – yә – ri/ while she always said /ŏg – zIl – ә – ri/. Which one was standard, she wanted to know. I told her the way I pronounce the word is standard, which surprised her. But she said she’d pronounce it that way from now on.

Then there are words. In Michigan, years ago, people called a couch (sofa) a davenport. And when you were thirsty and didn’t care for water, you’d go to the fridge and get a pop (a soda). So couch or sofa is the standard word, and davenport was the regional variation. Refrigerator and soda are the standard words, while fridge and pop are regional variations. Does that mean the former are better than the latter? Not really. The only thing that may be important for us ESOL teachers is to know which should be taught first to our students. Or perhaps the two forms should be taught at the same time. Food for thought. One other thing of importance is attitudes that native speakers have about standard language as opposed to nonstandard forms. How judgmental are people about nonstandard pronunciations and vocabulary compared to the standard language?

Of course, American ESOL teachers aren’t the only ones wrestling with these questions. While preparing this blog entry, I contacted a friend of mine, a writer and editor in London, to get his take on what is considered standard language in the UK. I did the same with a friend and colleague in Sydney, Australia to hear her views on this topic, and will discuss her answers in my next blog entry.

So here are the questions I put to my British friend, Mick O’Hare, along with his answers. Mick has written some wonderful books and is an editor at New Scientist magazine:

Mick, is there a standard British English that kids are taught in school that differs from their everyday speech? Is it different from "received pronunciation"? And if it is different, who learns that and who learns RP?


Only in the public schools such as Eton, Harrow, Rodean (posh private schools to you), I believe they still teach RP through elocution. Otherwise you are taught in the accent (generally) from the area in which you were born. I guess teachers tend to iron out dialect, but as far as I know there's no law over pronunciation. For example, my teachers would have said /fæst/ whereas my wife's would have said /fast/ purely because I'm from the North and she's from the South. And, of course, we all had teachers who came from different parts of the country, so they just taught in their own accents. I don't recall any calamities. RP is taught to the wealthy or the aristocratic, but it's dying out to a certain extent as regional accents become more acceptable and as English homogenises generally through TV, etc.

Is there still any prejudice against certain regional variations rather than others? Do some Britons poke fun at the way other Britons speak?

Yes. my wife's mum, for example, who speaks RP, thinks that only RP should be allowed on the BBC (even happily says it to me). But even so, society is far more egalitarian now and it matters far less. Nonetheless, certain prejudices apply to certain accents: good examples would be the Birmingham 'Brummie' accent, which is associated with being stupid and rather universally disliked, Glaswegian which is considered incomprehensible by everybody else, Geordie (much the same), Yorkshire (my accent), which is considered dour or down-to-earth. On the other hand, some accents such as Edinburgh, Highlands, West Lancashire, and West Country are considered 'pleasant'. And everybody who is not a cockney hates cockney because they all love themselves too much, the chirpy l'il sparrers!

Are there words or pronunciations in one regional variation that Britons in other parts of the country wouldn't understand? (I'm talking about regional variations within England, not including Scotland, Wales, or Cornwall.)

Yes, lots. Loads of dialect words. I'm not too up on other areas, but obviously, because of rhyming slang, there are simply hundreds in cockney. And I know East Anglia has a lot, but in Yorkshire we have plenty ― these are the ones I know best. My granddad could speak virtually in a different language if all the dialect words came out at once. A few that spring to mind are laik (“play” ― I still use this and also laikers for “players”), baht (“without”), allus (“always”), claht (“cloth”), and snicket (“alleyway”).

Pronunciation might still catch people out area to area.


Thanks very much for your insights, Mick. I think it will be helpful for English teachers, no matter where they are, to read your take on these points about British English, compare them with things I’ve mentioned about American English, and then think about whatever form of English may exist in their parts of the world. This may have more of an impact on how they teach English than you might think at first glance.

Any thoughts, folks? If something comes to mind, please share it with me by leaving a comment.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

So What’s New? Plenty! Part 2

One of the greatest joys I get out of delving into the wonders of language, especially English, is that never-ending wonder I experience from witnessing the way words that have been around for so very long can suddenly be found with totally new meanings. This has been happening to English, as well as all other living languages, I presume, since Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons cavorted around Europe and the Middle East, and Homo Habilis ventured into Asia.

In a recent entry to my blog entitled “So What’s New? Plenty!” I dealt with words that I never would have heard years ago such as edamame, plain water, server, and weightage. I’d like to continue this, but in a different way. On a few occasions, I’ve come across a masterpiece of writing that’s on the Web which, besides being extremely funny, perfectly exemplifies the new meanings that old words can take on.

Perhaps there are those of you who have never heard of the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, very famous comedians who made movies in the 1940s and 50s, and had their own television show in the 1950s. One of their most famous routines was called “Who’s on First?” In this classic comedy routine, Abbott tries his best to explain the game of baseball to Costello. If you know baseball, you’ll really enjoy listening to the routine.


I wish I could take credit for what I’m about to post here, but I can’t. And I wish I could find out who the author of this marvelous piece is, but once again, I can’t. If anybody out there knows who the author is, please let me know and I’ll be very happy to give him or her full credit.

At any rate, here is this hysterical take-off on the original Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” Even if you’re not familiar with those two great comedians of the past, you’ll still appreciate fully how placing them into our era can make for great comedy and can be an excellent example of how language keeps generating new uses for old words. So, if Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were alive today, their famous sketch might have turned out something like the following. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do!

________________________________________________________________

Costello calls a store to look into buying a computer, and Abbott happens to be the salesman who answers the phone.

ABBOTT: Super Duper Computers. Can I help you?
COSTELLO: Thanks. I'm setting up an office in my den and I'm thinking about buying a computer.
ABBOTT: Mac?
COSTELLO: No, the name's Lou.
ABBOTT: Your computer?
COSTELLO: I don't own a computer. I want to buy one.
ABBOTT: Mac?
COSTELLO: I told you my name's Lou.
ABBOTT: What about “Windows”?
COSTELLO: Why? Will it get stuffy in here?
ABBOTT: Do you want a computer with “Windows”?
COSTELLO: I don't know. What will I see when I look at the windows?
ABBOTT: Wallpaper.
COSTELLO: Never mind the windows. I need a computer and software.
ABBOTT: Software for “Windows”?
COSTELLO: No. On the computer! I need something I can use to write proposals, track expenses and run my business. What do you have?
ABBOTT: “Office.”
COSTELLO: Yeah, for my office. Can you recommend anything?
ABBOTT: I just did.
COSTELLO: You just did what?
ABBOTT: Recommend something.
COSTELLO: You recommended something?
ABBOTT: Yes.
COSTELLO: For my office?
ABBOTT: Yes.
COSTELLO: Okay, what did you recommend for my office?
ABBOTT: “Office.”
COSTELLO: Yes, for my office!
ABBOTT: I recommend “Office” with “Windows.”
COSTELLO: I already have an office with windows! Okay, let's just say I'm sitting at my computer and I want to type a proposal. What do I need?
ABBOTT: “Word.”
COSTELLO: What word?
ABBOTT: “Word” in “Office.”
COSTELLO: The only word in office is office.
ABBOTT: The “Word” in “Office” for “Windows.”
COSTELLO: Which word in office for windows?
ABBOTT: The “Word” you get when you click the blue W.
COSTELLO: I'm going to click your blue W if you don't start with some straight answers. What about financial bookkeeping? Do you have anything I can track my money with?
ABBOTT: “Money.”
COSTELLO: That's right. What do you have?
ABBOTT: “Money.”
COSTELLO: I need money to track my money?
ABBOTT: It comes bundled with your computer.
COSTELLO: What's bundled with my computer?
ABBOTT: “Money.”
COSTELLO: Money comes with my computer?
ABBOTT: Yes. No extra charge.
COSTELLO: I get a bundle of money with my computer? How much?
ABBOTT: One copy.
COSTELLO: Isn't it illegal to copy money?
ABBOTT: Microsoft gave us a license to copy “Money.”
COSTELLO: They can give you a license to copy money?
ABBOTT: Why not? They own it!

A few days later . . .

ABBOTT: Super Duper Computers. Can I help you?
COSTELLO: How do I turn off my computer?
ABBOTT: Click on “Start.”
________________________________________________________

Yep, it’s a joy to witness how old words can take on new meanings! A joy for us ― but not for poor Costello, who passed away in 1959 and probably never even heard the word computer.

If you’ve come across old words that have taken on new meanings and they’ve surprised or delighted you, please let me know. We teachers always need to do our best to keep abreast of these changes.

Friday, October 3, 2008

I Think We’re Possessed!

(a teacher, Mrs. Odets, on a field trip with her ELL students)
Mrs. Odets:

Isn’t that an amazing sight? The Statue of Liberty!
Paolo:

Excuse me, Mrs. Odets. You say “Statue of Liberty.” The statue possesses liberty?
Mrs. Odets:
Uh, no, Paolo. That doesn’t make sense, does it. Anyway … (Now what was I going to say? Oh, yes! Right!) … It’s amazing how so many people know of this great work of art.
Hiro:

Mrs. Odets, why do you say of again? I don’t hear possession. I’m confused.
Mrs. Odets:

Uh … um … Don’t be confused, Hiro. I wasn’t talking about any possession. Why do you think I was talking about possession?
Hiro:

Because you said “many people know of the work of art,” right? You used of two times! You said know of. You said work of. I heard you!
Mrs. Odets:

Can we talk about this later, back in class? Right now let’s just concentrate on this field trip, all right? Now, as I was saying … You can go almost anywhere and people know the Statue of Liberty. You see the torch she’s holding? People used to be able to walk up a flight of stairs inside the statue’s torch, but not anymore.
Magda:

Excuse me, Mrs. Odets.
Mrs. Odets:

Yes, Magda. What is it?
Magda:

I am confused, too. You said “flight of stairs.” Why of? And you taught we cannot use apostrophe s with things that don’t live, like a statue. But you just said “the statue’s torch.” Is that good English? Oh, and what is a torch?

(later at a restaurant)

Mrs. Odets:

Doesn’t everything on this menu look wonderful? I can’t decide what to order.
Hiro:

I love fish. They say the catch of the day is grouper. Is that a good fish?
Paolo:

Why “the catch of the day,” Mrs. Odets? You tell us to use apostrophe s for time words like day, tomorrow, this week. I don’t understand. Why don’t they say the day’s catch or today’s catch?
Mrs. Odets:

Uh … well … er …
Magda:

Oh! Look at what it says in that newspaper! “The King of Spain is coming to visit the President.” That's my king! Uh, Mrs. Odets? Can’t I say Spain’s king?
Mrs. Odets:

Yes, Magda, you can. And now you want to know why we can say that two ways, right?
Magda:

Yes, please.
Mrs. Odets:

Let’s order lunch first. I’ll tell you all about that tomorrow in class. Okay?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Poor Mrs. Odets! She walked right into that landmine field that we call “the possessives.” It’s astounding how complicated a supposedly simple topic can end up being. If only we could teach our students the rules for apostrophe s and of and then grab our hats and coats and make a dash for the exit. But it doesn’t work like that, does it. Nope, not at all.

I think part of the difficulty starts when we in ELT (English Language Teaching) call these two forms “possessives.” It creates an illusion that their sole purpose is to show what belongs to whom or who belongs to what:

That’s Jake’s bike.
My mother’s pet iguana is depressed.
A dog’s hearing is very powerful.
________________________________________

She studies the wings of moths.
Have you ever looked at the shape of an amoeba?
The tentacles of a jellyfish can be poisonous.

Now, if you were going to fashion a couple of rules about how to use apostrophe s and of based on the sentences above, what would they be? Well, this is what I was taught umpteen years ago: “Use apostrophe s for higher order living things and of for lower order living things.” That’s kind of neat and easy. So people and dogs and other mammals like cats and sheep and moose are higher order living things, and insects, one-celled creatures, and mollusks are lower order living things. Hmm … One question: Where do we draw the line between higher order and lower order living things? Is there a list we can refer to? Of course not. So???

And what about inanimate things? Well, the rule went on to say we should use of for inanimate things: the turrets of the castle / the cockpit of a plane / the engine problems of my car. That seems doable. But I could swear I’ve heard people say things like the castle’s turrets / a plane’s cockpit / my car’s engine problems. Uh … Don’t those phrases sound okay to you? They sound okay to me ― I guess. (Oops. I think we just found another landmine.)

So should we just throw out the rules and say whatever we feel comfortable with? But how do you teach that to your students? “All right, my intrepid ELL’s. Use apostrophe s or use of to show possession for whatever you’re talking about. Just use whichever one makes you feel comfy. See how easy learning English can be?”

But there’s another area that we should check out. In that conversation poor Mrs. Odets had with her students, something else was going on with that little rascally preposition of: the Statue of Liberty / that work of art / a flight of stairs. Now you’re not going to tell me that we’re still talking about possession, are you? Uh-uh, I won’t buy that ― and I know the students won’t either. No, there’s something else being thrown into the mix now. But what?

Oh! And before I forget, did you notice some other uses for of? What about when Paolo noticed the menu had “the catch of the day” on it instead of the day’s catch? And what about when Magda realized she could just as easily say Spain’s king as “the king of Spain”? And if that’s not enough, what about when Mrs. Odets said, “It’s amazing how many people know of this great statue”? (Kaboom! Watch out for those landmines!) Well, what’s going on now? (Are you feeling a little overwhelmed?) Obviously, teaching apostrophe s and of can be very daunting, and I’d appreciate some help here.

How about sending in your explanations for apostrophe s and of as you’ve seen them used in Mrs. Odets’ (Odets’s?) conversations with her very astute group of students.


Hmm … Let’s not even get into that issue over how to write the possessive for the teacher’s last name! Or should we? I’ll leave that up to you!