The English language is the world’s Achilles heel



File 20180328 109199 1rvw9ng.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Filtering information.
pathdoc/Shutterstock

Guillaume Thierry, Bangor University

English has achieved prime status by becoming the most widely spoken language in the world – if one disregards proficiency – ahead of Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. English is spoken in 101 countries, while Arabic is spoken in 60, French in 51, Chinese in 33, and Spanish in 31. From one small island, English has gone on to acquire lingua franca status in international business, worldwide diplomacy, and science.

But the success of English – or indeed any language – as a “universal” language comes with a hefty price, in terms of vulnerability. Problems arise when English is a second language to either speakers, listeners, or both. No matter how proficient they are, their own understanding of English, and their first (or “native”) language can change what they believe is being said.

When someone uses their second language, they seem to operate slightly differently than when they function in their native language. This phenomenon has been referred to as the “foreign language effect”. Research from our group has shown that native speakers of Chinese, for example, tended to take more risks in a gambling game when they received positive feedback in their native language (wins), when compared to negative feedback (losses). But this trend disappeared – that is, they became less impulsive – when the same positive feedback was given to them in English. It was as if they are more rational in their second language.

While reduced impulsiveness when dealing in a second language can be seen as a positive thing, the picture is potentially much darker when it comes to human interactions. In a second language, research has found that speakers are also likely to be less emotional and show less empathy and consideration for the emotional state of others.

For instance, we showed that Chinese-English bilinguals exposed to negative words in English unconsciously filtered out the mental impact of these words. And Polish-English bilinguals who are normally affected by sad statements in their native Polish appeared to be much less disturbed by the same statements in English.

In another recent study by our group, we found that second language use can even affect one’s inclination to believe the truth. Especially when conversations touch on culture and intimate beliefs.

English is one of the most studied languages in the world.
spaxiax/Shutterstock

Since second language speakers of English are a huge majority in the world today, native English speakers will frequently interact with non-native speakers in English, more so than any other language. And in an exchange between a native and a foreign speaker, the research suggests that the foreign speaker is more likely to be emotionally detached and can even show different moral judgements.




Read more:
Why native English speakers fail to be understood in English – and lose out in global business


And there is more. While English provides a phenomenal opportunity for global communication, its prominence means that native speakers of English have low awareness of language diversity. This is a problem because there is good evidence that differences between languages go hand-in-hand with differences in conceptualisation of the world and even perception of it.

In 2009, we were able to show that native speakers of Greek, who have two words for dark blue and light blue in their language, see the contrast between light and dark blue as more salient than native speakers of English. This effect was not simply due to the different environment in which people are brought up in either, because the native speakers of English showed similar sensitivity to blue contrasts and green contrasts, the latter being very common in the UK.

On the one hand, operating in a second language is not the same as operating in a native language. But, on the other, language diversity has a big impact on perception and conceptions. This is bound to have implications on how information is accessed, how it is interpreted, and how it is used by second language speakers when they interact with others.

We can come to the conclusion that a balanced exchange of ideas, as well as consideration for others’ emotional states and beliefs, requires a proficient knowledge of each other’s native language. In other words, we need truly bilingual exchanges, in which all involved know the language of the other. So, it is just as important for English native speakers to be able to converse with others in their languages.

The US and the UK could do much more to engage in rectifying the world’s language balance, and foster mass learning of foreign languages. Unfortunately, the best way to achieve near-native foreign language proficiency is through immersion, by visiting other countries and interacting with local speakers of the language. Doing so might also have the effect of bridging some current political divides.


The Conversation


Read more:
What will the English language be like in 100 years?


Guillaume Thierry, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Advertisements

English swearing’s European origins



File 20180314 113485 wjouex.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Science Oxford

Emily Reed, University of Sheffield

When learning a new language, what’s the first thing most of us do? If you are like me, you flick through the dictionary to find all the naughty words. And a quick glance on Amazon will reveal a veritable library dedicated to the rigorous pursuit of insulting around the world. We seem to be just a little obsessed – and why the hell not?

But we actually don’t need to reach for the nearest Collins dictionary to pick up some polyglot profanities. Many English swear words have come from different languages over the centuries. For example, the classics – “fuck”, “shit” and “cunt” – are words the language shares with older Germanic and Scandinavian languages. Fuck is likely to be cognate with the Dutch “fokken”, which in the 15th century meant “to mock” – and may also be related to Middle High German “ficken”, meaning “to rub”’. Both words began to be related to sexual intercourse in the 16th century.

The earliest mention we have in English for fuck (in the sense of copulation) is in a Latin-English sermon from 1500. That’s right, a sermon (find it here on page 91). What is particularly fascinating here is the encryption – with each letter representing the one before it in the alphabet, suggesting some level of aversion to the word:

Non sunt in cœli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk.

Decrypting the last four rather incriminating words gives us: “fvccant vvjvys of heli” – which, when translated means: “They [monks] are not in heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely.”. To decipher the code, we have to bear in mind the differences in both the alphabet and spelling between then and now: the letter “w” did not exist, instead, one could use “vv” to represent this sound. You could also use “j” in the place of “i”, and “v” in the place of “u”.

Fuck also appears in Middle English names and place names, often meaning “to strike”. Hence Henry Fuckebegger (on the record in 1286) most likely beat the poor, rather than shagging them. Shit and cunt, which both have cognates in earlier Germanic and Scandinavian languages, have also been used in placenames from the Middle Ages. Skidbrooke in Lincolnshire, for example, appears in the Domesday book as “Schitebroc” – that is: “Shit-brook”. In fact, if you ever walk down a Grape or Grove Lane, chances are it used to be one of the many “Gropecuntlanes”, denoting a medieval red-light district.

Cleaned up its act: Grope Lane in Shrewsbury.
Dpaajones via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Mind your language

So we know that a lot of our favourite swears are loans from the Germanic and Scandinavian language families. Well, yes and no. The words may come from these origins, but where their use comes from is where it can get interesting. I’m about to make the case that one of the most quintessentially British swear words is, in fact, kind of French. The word I’m talking about is “bloody”, as in, every time Harry Potter’s Ron Weasley exclaims “Bloody hell, Harry!”

The origins of this one seem consistent with the rest of the swear words – it’s a Germanic word that appears in Old and Middle English as an adjective meaning “bloodthirsty”, “cruel” and “murderous” alongside the more obvious “bloodstained” sense. But nowhere is it used as a swear word. One could make the case that the swear use comes from contact with Anglo Norman, which was a variety of French that came with the Normans in 1066. This is because it is in Anglo Norman that we find the French word “sanglant” (meaning “bloody”) being used as a swear word.

Sanglant appears twice in a 1396 version of a conversation manual called the Manières de langage, which was essentially the textbook for learning French at the turn of the 15th century. It appears in insults such as “senglant merdous garcion” (“bloody filthy rogue”), and “senglent filz de putaigne” (“bloody son of a whore”). Indeed, sanglant as a swear word seems to have enjoyed a particularly Anglo-Norman flavour.

Pour épater les Anglais

In the continental French farce Pathelin (1457), the eponymous character attempts to avoid repaying a debt by babbling in various French dialects in an attempt to appear mad. He utters the words “sanglant paillart” (“bloody bastard”) while speaking in the Norman dialect. Moreover, in the Chronique de Charles VII, the French call the “Angloiz et Normans” (Angles and Normans) by the insult “senglans puans mezeaulx porriz” (“bloody putrid rotting lepers”). Here, the French are ironically insulting the English in one of their own tongues, which was at that time a dialect of French.

Not that kind of swearing, silly! Although the Norman Conquest give English people a whole new set of naughty words.
Myrabella, CC BY

It is only after the appearance of “sanglant” that we then get “bloody” as a swear word – which means that it is very likely that this seemingly Germanic word has assumed a Francophone character.

Research into the English language reveals that the UK shares more with Europe than many realise. The language contact situation is particularly diverse for Britain, with heavy influence from Germanic/Scandinavian languages. As the evolution of the word “bloody” suggests, Anglo Norman also played a fundamental role in how English speakers use words.

The ConversationBut for Anglo Norman, the key message is that this was a variety of French that was viewed in the Middle Ages as a British language. Hence, English has evolved from a background of significant linguistic diversity that has formed part of the country’s identity for centuries. And the traces of that are sometimes hiding in plain sight.

Emily Reed, Doctoral Researcher in Late-Medieval Linguistics and Literature, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The slippery grammar of spoken vs written English



File 20180309 30994 91kk3h.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
We use different grammar when speaking or writing, but the difference is so subtle that linguists were blind to it for centuries.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Andreea S. Calude, University of Waikato

My grammar checker and I are on a break. Due to irreconcilable differences, we are no longer on speaking terms.

It all started when it became dead set on putting commas before every single “which”. Despite all the angry underlining, “this is a habit which seems prevalent” does not need a comma before “which”. Take it from me, I am a linguist.

This is just one of many challenging cases where grammar is slippery and hard to pin down. To make matters worse, it appears that the grammar we use while speaking is slightly different to the grammar we use while writing. Speech and writing seem similar enough – so much so that for centuries, people (linguists included) were blind to the differences.




Read more:
How students from non-English-speaking backgrounds learn to read and write in different ways


There’s issues to consider

Let me give you an example. Take sentences like “there is X” and “there are X”. You may have been taught that “there is” occurs with singular entities because “is” is the present singular form of “to be” – as in “there is milk in the fridge” or “there is a storm coming”.

Conversely, “there are” is used with plural entities: “there are twelve months in a year” or “there are lots of idiots on the road”.

What about “there’s X”? Well, “there’s” is the abbreviated version of “there is”. That makes it the verb form of choice when followed by singular entities.

Nice theory. It works for standard, written language, formal academic writing, and legal documents. But in speech, things are very different.

It turns out that spoken English favours “there is” and “there’s” over “there are”, regardless of what follows the verb: “there is five bucks on the counter” or “there’s five cars all fighting for that Number 10 spot”.

A question of planning

This is not because English is going to hell in a hand basket, nor because young people can’t speak “proper” English anymore.

Linguists Jen Hay and Daniel Schreier scrutinised examples of old recordings of New Zealand English to see what happens in cases where you might expect “there” followed by plural, (or “there are” or “there were” for past events) but where you find “there” followed by singular (“there is”, “there’s”, “there was”).

They found that the contracted form “there’s” is a go-to form which seems prevalent with both singular and plural entities. But there’s more. The greater the distance between “be” and the entity following it, the more likely speakers are to ignore the plural rule.

“There is great vast fields of corn” is likely to be produced because the plural entity “fields” comes so far down the expression, that speakers do not plan for it in advance with a plural form “are”.

Even more surprisingly, the use of the singular may not always necessarily have much to do with what follows “there is/are”. It can simply be about the timing of the event described. With past events, the singular form is even more acceptable. “There was dogs in the yard” seems to raise fewer eyebrows than “there is dogs in the yard”.




Read more:
How students from non-English-speaking backgrounds learn to read and write in different ways


Nothing new here

The disregard for the plural form is not a new thing (darn, we can’t even blame it on texting). According to an article published last year by Norwegian linguist Dania Bonneess, the change towards the singular form “there is” has been with us in New Zealand English ever since the 19th century. Its history can be traced at least as far back as the second generation of the Ulster family of Irish emigrants.

Editors, language commissions and prescriptivists aside, everyday New Zealand speech has a life of its own, governed not so much by style guides and grammar rules, but by living and breathing individuals.

It should be no surprise that spoken language is different to written language. The most spoken-like form of speech (conversation) is very unlike the most written-like version of language (academic or other formal or technical writing) for good reason.

Speech and writing

In conversation, there is no time for planning. Expressions come out more or less off the cuff (depending on the individual), with no ability to edit, and with immediate need for processing. We hear a chunk of language and at the same time as parsing it, we are already putting together a response to it – in real time.

This speed has consequences for the kind of language we use and hear. When speaking, we rely on recycled expressions, formulae we use over and over again, and less complex structures.

For example, we are happy enough writing and reading a sentence like:

That the human brain can use language is amazing.

But in speech, we prefer:

It is amazing that the human brain can use language.

Both are grammatical, yet one is simpler and quicker for the brain to decode.

And sometimes, in speech we use grammatical crutches to help the brain get the message quicker. A phrase like “the boxes I put the files into” is readily encountered in writing, but in speech we often say and hear “the boxes I put the files into them”.

We call these seemingly unnecessary pronouns (“them” in the previous example) “shadow pronouns”. Even linguistics professors use these latter expressions no matter how much they might deny it.

Speech: a faster ride

There is another interesting difference between speech and writing: speech is not held up on the same rigid prescriptive pedestal as writing, nor is it as heavily regulated in the same way that writing is scrutinised by editors, critics, examiners and teachers.

This allows room in speech for more creativity and more language play, and with it, faster change. Speech is known to evolve faster than writing, even though writing will eventually catch up (at least for some changes).

The ConversationI would guess that by now, most editors are happy enough to let the old “whom” form rest and “who” take over (“who did you give that book to?”).

Andreea S. Calude, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, University of Waikato

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

British literature is richly tangled with other histories and cultures – so why is it sold as largely white and English?



File 20171013 11689 mq52gv.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Brick Lane: popularised in a novel by British writer, Monica Ali.
Shutterstock

Elleke Boehmer, University of Oxford and Erica Lombard, University of Oxford

Recent global developments have sharply polarised communities in many countries around the world. A new politics of exclusion has drawn urgent attention to the ways in which structural inequality has marginalised and silenced certain sectors of society. And yet, as a recent report shows, diversity and inclusion in fact “benefit the common good”. A more diverse group is a stronger, more creative and productive group.

In the world of literary writing, we find similar gaps and exclusions. But these are counterbalanced in some respects by new positive initiatives.

In 2015, a study revealed that literature by writers of colour had been consistently under-represented by the predominantly white British book industry. Statistics in The Bookseller show that out of thousands of books published in 2016 in the UK, fewer than 100 were by British authors of a non-white background. And out of 400 authors identified by the British public in a 2017 Royal Society of Literature survey, only 7% were black, Asian or of mixed race (compared to 13% of the population).

Colourful misrepresentation

A similar marginalisation takes place in the curricula in schools and universities, mirroring exclusions in wider society. In most English literature courses of whatever period, the writers taught are white, largely English and largely male.

A fundamental inequality arises in which, though British culture at large is diverse, syllabuses are not. Indeed, many British readers and students find little to recognise or to identify with when they read and study mainstream British literature.

But it’s not just a case of under-representation. It’s also a case of misrepresentation.

Black and Asian writers who have been published within the mainstream British system describe the pressure they have felt to conform to cultural stereotypes in their work. Their books are often packaged and presented in ways that focus on their ethnicity, regularly using cliches. At the same time, more universal aspects of their writing are overlooked. For example, the covers of novels by Asian British writers usually stick to a limited colour palette of yellows, reds, and purples, accented by “exotic” images.

//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js
window.instgrm.Embeds.process()

These writers bristle at the sense that they are read not as crafters of words and worlds, but as spokespeople for their communities or cultures. At its worst, this process turns these writers and their books into objects of anthropological curiosity rather than works inviting serious literary study or simply pleasurable reading. The message is that black and Asian literature is other than or outside mainstream British writing.

Against these exclusions, leading British authors such as Bernardine Evaristo and others have urged for a broader, more inclusive approach. They recognise that what and how we read shapes our sense of ourselves, our communities and the world.

Reframing the narrative

The Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds research project, based in the Oxford English Faculty and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, set out to ask what it means to read contemporary fiction as British readers. Working with reading groups and in discussion with writers, we found that readers of all ages entered the relatively unfamiliar worlds created by BAME authors with interest.

For many, finding points of familiarity along gender, age, geographical or other lines was important for their ability to enjoy stories from communities different from their own. Identifying in this way gave some readers new perspectives on their own contexts. At the same time, unfamiliarity was not a barrier to identification. In some cases, universal human stories, like falling in love, acted as a bridge. This suggests that how literature is presented to readers, whether it is framed as other or not, can be as significant as what is represented.

Contemporary black and Asian writing from the UK is British writing. And this means that the work of writers such as Evaristo, Nadifa Mohamed and Daljit Nagra be placed on the same library shelf, reading list and section of the bookshop as work by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Ali Smith – not exclusively in “world interest” or “global literature”.

Bookish.
Shutterstock

Equally, much can be gained by thinking of white British writers like Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel as having as much of a cross-cultural or even postcolonial outlook as Aminatta Forna and Kamila Shamsie.

There are positive signs. A new EdExcel/Pearson A-level teaching resource on Contemporary Black British Literature has been developed. The Why is My Curriculum White? campaign continues to make inroads in university syllabuses. And the Jhalak Prize is raising the profile of BAME writing in Britain. Against this background, the Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds website offers a multimedia hub of resources on black and Asian British writing, providing points of departure for more inclusive, wide-ranging courses. Yet there is still much to be done.

The ConversationAll literature written in English in the British Isles is densely entangled with other histories, cultures, and pathways of experience both within the country and far beyond. Its syllabuses, publishing practices, and our conversations about books must reflect this.

Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English, University of Oxford and Erica Lombard, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Does ‘translating’ Shakespeare into modern English diminish its greatness?


Sheila T Cavanagh, Emory University

An uproar ensued after it was reported that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) – southern Oregon’s 80-year-old annual theatrical extravaganza – would be commissioning playwrights to “translate” all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.

The project drew jeers from Shakespearean professors, arts practitioners and others who believe passionately in the power of Shakespeare’s original texts, who abhor any attempt to “dumb down” their language.

OSF Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy Lue Douthit and OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch maintain that OSF is undertaking a bold, not sacrilegious, experiment. Nevertheless, howls of outrage have followed what Douhit ruefully has deemed a “career-ending” announcement for those involved.

As an educator and lover of Shakespearean drama, I remain committed to the value of presenting Shakespeare’s plays in their original language. I require my students to read Shakespeare’s plays in their original form, and through my work on the World Shakespeare Project, I’ve witnessed undergraduates in places such as Uganda, rural India and Buenos Aires enthusiastically respond to the challenge.

Yet the outrage over the OSF’s new modernization project is misguided. The organization – which is known for experimentation – is simply participating in larger, centuries-long tradition of molding, melding and adapting Shakespeare’s original texts.

Shakespeare for dummies?

Among those criticizing the new project is Columbia University Professor James Shapiro, a prominent Shakespearean scholar who maintains that “by changing the language in this modernizing way…it just doesn’t pack the punch and the excitement and the intoxicating quality of [the original] language.”

Earlier this month, before an audience at Shakespeare’s Globe, he added, “It’s a really bad idea.”

Notably, however, Shapiro (along with many others) responded quite differently to the translation of a different classic text. On Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s oft-praised 1999 rewriting of Beowulf, Shapiro wrote in The New York Times:

Examples like this add up to a translation that manages to accomplish what before now had seemed impossible: a faithful rendering that is simultaneously an original and gripping poem in its own right.

In this instance, at least, Heaney’s talent apparently overcame Shapiro’s objections to the concept.

The playwrights the company has commissioned to “modernize” the language of Shakespeare’s works may or may not achieve the majesty attributed to Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. But for whatever reason, changing the language of Shakespeare remains an anathema, while the setting, costuming and theoretical conceptualization of his plays are fair game for innovation.

The hottest theater ticket in Britain at the moment, for example, is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, which caused similar outrage for opening with the famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy, rather than the traditional “Who’s there?.” By the end of previews, the speech was moved back to (one of) the places it traditionally resides. Cumberbatch’s audiences have been comparatively silent, however, about the production’s addition of modern props, like a phonograph player.

London’s Young Vic Theatre, meanwhile, is currently presenting a strong version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, with a set filled with dozens of naked, anatomically correct, inflatable dolls. Like the phonograph player on the set of Hamlet, it’s unlikely that theatergoers will object to the dolls, nor will they protest the video screens employed during the performance.

But when it comes to changing the language – well, the main objection, it appears, stems from concerns that it will encourage series such as Shakespeare for Dummies or No Fear Shakespeare, which presents original Shakespearean text adjacent to what its editors call “the kind of English people actually speak today.”

Such projects are understandable, if worrisome. Shakespeare does have a reputation for being too dense for ordinary people to easily comprehend.

At the same time, there are many remarkable projects that bring Shakespeare’s plays to even the most unconventional audiences. There’s Curt Tofteland’s Shakespeare Behind Bars, which offers prisoners the opportunities to present full-length Shakespeare plays, while former Royal Shakespeare Company artist Kelly Hunter’s project Shakespeare’s Heartbeat uses Shakespearean drama as the basis for games designed for children with autism.

Play on!

It’s worth noting the OSF is not planning to replace Shakespeare’s original texts during its current presentation of the complete Shakespearean canon, which will take place over the next decade.

While the company hopes that the newly commissioned versions of Shakespeare will be performed in Oregon and elsewhere, they also retain their commitment to presenting the conventional texts, albeit with regular tweaks and cuts.

As Shapiro and many others admit, Shakespearean drama has been altered, rewritten and reimagined repeatedly since the plays were first presented during the reigns of Elizabeth Tudor and James Stuart.

‘Is life even worth living? That’s what I keeping wondering…’
Dylan Martinez/Reuters

During the English Restoration, King Lear was given a happy ending. More recently, the 2001 film Scotland, Pa. offered a modern retelling of Macbeth, set at a fast food restaurant. Henry IV found itself placed among male prostitutes in Oregon in Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho. Even Justin Kurzel’s acclaimed new film Macbeth opens with a twist: the funeral of Macbeth’s toddler.

The best adaptations – West Side Story, the musical Kiss Me, Kate and the Japanese film Throne of Blood – thrive. The bad, silly and unfortunate – Romeo and Juliet: Sealed with a Kiss and Animal Planet’s Romeo and Juliet: A Monkey’s Tale – fall by the wayside.

As poet Andrew Marvell might say, there is “world enough and time” for any number of Shakespearean adaptations and iterations.

While Shakespeare’s original language is remarkably rich and compelling, like Cleopatra, “age will not wither it.” Neither will OSF’s revisionary experimentation.

The Conversation

Sheila T Cavanagh, Professor of English, Emory University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

100 Best Novels Written in English


The link below is to a listing of one person’s ‘100 best novels written in English.’ What are your thoughts – please share in the comments here.

For more visit:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/17/the-100-best-novels-written-in-english-the-full-list

Text Selection in Australian Schools


The link below is to an article that considers text selection in our schools (English classes).

For more visit:
http://theconversation.com/why-do-we-recycle-the-same-old-texts-in-our-english-curriculum-39633