9 02 2012

I saw a word in The Sydney Morning Herald today that has probably been around before but not noted by me. It was “thugby league”. Clearly this is a blend of “thug” and “rugby” and a  very clever way to highlight the glorified violence that some kinds of contact sports entail. Such blends resonate with accrued meanings and giver the user of a language a strong feeling of embeddedness with the culture underpinning the language. They may or may not survive in the long run. Many do eg “smog”, “brunch”, naturalizing to the point that their “blending” origins are almost forgotten.

STOP PRESS: “heart” is a verb now

29 03 2011


You know those T-shirts that announce I LOVE NEW YORK, except that the “love” is replaced by a red heart?  Like this:  And ever since,  the idea has been propagated successfully with any number of cities, places, pop stars and you-name-its.

Now a new trend has started, a kind of backformation. Instead of being semiotically concise with the red heart symbol, there’s evidence now of people using “heart” as a verb. Essentially, to replace “love”. Thus, I love you becomes I heart you. Hence also:  I heart Sydney or I heart summer.

Yes I know, it’s a replacement of one single syllable by one single syllable, hence saving no one at all any time at all.  But possibly babies being born right now will, in 15 years, be hearting their first boy/girl friend. Maybe sooner, if that story about push-up bras being sold to 8-year old girls is true.

The I + heart + object is the transitive form.  The suggested usage (from the Oxford, no less) is: I heart the fact that this is in the O.E.D. No news yet about the infinitive: it is better to heart and lose than not to heart at all. Nothing about the gerund:  Life is all about hearting. Nor the adjectival participle: He broke my hearting soul.

I’m wondering now if we’re to see a backformation from the backformation: where say, “open-heart surgery” might morph into “open-love surgery”. It’s a waiting game.

Noisy Desperation

14 07 2010

A friend was recently reading Thoreau, as you do, and came across his aphorism:

The mass of men (sic) lead lives of quiet desperation.

It reminded him of a poem he’d read a long time ago by a graduate of an  American university. It went as follows:

I like Thoreau but can’t abide his famous declaration

that most us  pursue a life of quiet desperation

I really think that most of us  (and this is hardly laudable)

would much prefer to make our desperation audible.

What I’m reading now: Lionel Shriver’s latest – So Much For That

5 06 2010

I’m a big fan of Lionel Shriver. I loved her first successful book – We Need To Talk About Kevin – although my book group wanted to kick me out after they all read it on my recommendation. I stick to my guns, though. After a slow start, it was unputdownable.  My daughter and I were both reading it from the one copy, something we often do, and we started to fight over whose turn it was. Her follow-up The Post-Birthday World was also a great read, if very different from Kevin. Being something of a completist (someone who has just got to read everything a particular author has written (I’m a bit that way with Ian McEwan), I then tried some of her pre-Kevin work, but was bored and disappointed. Her latest, though, So Much For That, has restored a good deal of my faith in her. Once again, unputdownable. It’s a book that can be read a number of different ways – the story of a marriage; a tale of disappointment; middle America writ large; disenchantment and disenfranchisement. But perhaps predominantly, it’s devoted to a very timely subject in USA and possibly anywhere there’s an ageing population – that’s most of the Western world, I think.  I’m talk about healthcare and health insurance. Boy, do they have a problem in USA! Now I know what all the fuss is about.

Interrogating Twitter

28 05 2010

Here is the text of the paper I wrote for the Interrogating Twitter Panel Discussion at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, May 2010.

I’m starting with a confession –

I don’t twitter – or is the verb “tweet”? Nor do I do face-book or any other social networking of that sort. I’ve given up on the guilt. When invited to be a friend, I simply reply. I don’t do that. No time.

Of course, I do email. And I do teach on line, quite intensively. Have done so for about 12 years. And the quality of my teaching has no doubt improved simply from the range of communication media available for making contact between teachers and learners. There’s more discussion and exchange of ideas going on horizontally among students online than ever there was in more traditional, vertical, face-to-face setups.

And though I’ve recently started blogging, I confess to being “a late adopter”  – about 20 years behind the new technology, which as  we know, starts its career toward obsolescence the moment it hits the market place. I only just mastered video technology when it was time to chuck it. I own a digital audio recorder which I can’t operate. And I have a mobile phone which as anyone knows who’s tried to reach me, is more a reluctant accessory than a communication aid.

So I confess – I’m a digital immigrant of the second worst kind. (The worst kind is the grumpy old Luddite.) I’m not that. I try very hard to fight my own limitations and frustrations to master new technology. I try not to grump. Grumping is most unattractive

I asked Neil “why me?” – why do you want someone as out-of-it as me on your  Twitter panel. He sighed and said. Well on these occasions, it’s always good to have a linguist.

So I’m taking that as my role brief here. To bring a linguist’s perspective to the matter of twitter. I’m an applied linguist, not a pure linguist, which means I use linguistics to explore things in the non-linguistic universe.

A few words about terminology.

I am using “twitter” as an all-encompassing umbrella term for all the various electronic social networking communication media that are exploding on the marketplace.

And I’m using “interrogating”, not in the Spanish Inquisitional sense, but in the sense of  “approaching with critical caution”. This means my linguistic lens also has some political spots, for which I don’t apologise. Applying critical caution is of its nature political.

“Interrogating”, then, means:

  • approaching with caution,
  • being intelligently sceptical,
  • distrusting face value,
  • poking about behind, beneath, around a phenomenon to see what drives it, what its agenda is, whose interests it serves, why it is “making nice” with us,
  • considering who stands to gain and who stands to lose.
  • asking a lot of questions before or even instead of the open embrace.

“Interrogating” in this sense is not simply applicable to technology. It’s what we should be doing with :

  • political speeches, ads for margarine, breast-cancer fundraising, school mission statements, husbands’ pretexts and promises, local councils’ communications, teenagers’ explanations.

The list goes on.

It is the hallmark of an educated citizenry in a free-market context that we interrogate all day, every day, in every situation, that we pick-and-choose carefully where we let our guard down. If at all.

Now, let’s turn to twitter, in the general sense.

Look, I’m a worrier. I worry:

  • about global warming, about genetic engineering, about a nuclear Iran, about which coloured bin I have to put out on which night,  about Greece’s financial woes  and their wider impact, and whether I’m gonna have to die sooner so my super won’t run out.

But I don’t worry about the language.

I’m not a part of the widespread moral panic that has greeted the uptake of electronic communication  – what’s been called  “the continuing assault of technology  on formal written expression” .

Those engaging in the moral panic are a mixed bag:

  • Teachers who complain that children are learning how not to write
  • Parents who complain that their children are growing out of their reach
  • Social commentators who wonder where it all will end
  • Educators who tremble at the implications
  • Purists who see doom in the omission of a vowel
  • Soothsayers who equate linguistic change with moral impurity and foretell the end of the world.
  • In among these are verbal hygienists who feel an unelected custodial duty to protect the language against its invaders.
  • Not to mention repressive governments that worry about sensitive information ending up where it wasn’t meant to go.

There’s a commentator in the UK, a broadcaster called  John Humphreys, who’s often quoted because of his tendency to awfalize. He calls texters “vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours,  … pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary” .

We really shouldn’t be surprised that a new technology is greeted in part by such hostility. No doubt, Morse Code was greeted by detractors who predicted regular communication would be replaced by dots and dashes.

There are always those who see change as a threat to the status quo, which they prefer because it favours them.  Conversely, there are always those who seek out the new because they suspect it might reshuffle the rungs of the ladder and bring them rewards in a way that the old has not done.

The point is – any response worth its salt is driven not by a particular agenda but by first understanding what is the phenomenon itself.  It’s a simple qualitative research question.

  • What is the nature of this thing?
  • Not – how many texts does a schoolkid send in an average day?
  • But –  Let’s light a candle in a dark room and see what’s there.

David Crystal, world’s No 1 applied linguist, has done a study of texting. In it he identifies 6 main kinds of the distinctive features of texting. None of them, he claims, is novel. Some have been around since ancient times.

He’s looked at things like abbreviations, omissions of vowels, pictograms, initialisms and acronyms, contractions and clippings, and non-standard spellings.

His conclusion is that texting is neither especially novel nor especially incomprehensible. Rather, it’s an excellent example of language adapting to a particular situation, working within its constraints and creating new possibilities.

Because it is relatively new, the rules have not yet consolidated or fossilized – unlike, say,  the rules about apostrophes.

Crystal’s research reveals that texting shares many of the features of other language forms – eg it is marked for class and gender and regional dialect. It even has poetic potential, as he shows in the text-poems that were the winners in a recent text-poem competition.

He concludes:

“All the popular beliefs about texting are wrong or at least debatable. Its graphic distinctiveness is not… a new phenomenon. Nor is its use restricted to the young generation. There is increasing evidence that it helps rather than hinders literacy. And only a very tiny part of the language uses its distinctive orthography. A trillion text messages may seem like a lot but when we set these alongside the multi-trillion instances of standard orthography in everyday life, they appear as no more than a few ripples on the surface of the sea of language. Texting has added a new dimension to language use… but its long-term impact on thewy already existing varieties of language is likely to be negligible. It’s not a bad thing.” (Txting. The Gr8 db8, 2009:p 9-10)

Still, on the political side, the interrogating side, caution is a good thing. Search Google for what Neil Postman (Technopoly) has to say. He argues  there are 5 things – core ideas – we need to know about any technological change.

First, that culture always pays a price for new technology. We generally ask what will a new technology do. We should also be asking what will it undo? Because new technology giveth but also taketh away. The printing press had a huge impact, not all of it good. Ask yourself what we’ve lost with computers. What we lost when we got the automobile. Medical technology brings some cures but also causes some problems It’s a trade-off, a Faustian deal.

Second idea: Technology helps some, harms others. There are winners and losers in every technological age. We should be asking, of any technological development, who specifically will benefit?  Which groups, what type of person, what kind of industry will be favored? And, of course, which groups of people will thereby be harmed?  Would the group of people known as blacksmiths have welcomed the automobile so readily if they’d known it would render them obsolete?

Postman says: Yes, the Internet brings an infinite amount of information into the home of the ordinary person. But – “If there are children starving in the world–and there are– it is not because of insufficient information.”

Third. Every technology has a prejudice. It predisposes us to favour certain accomplishments, disfavour others.  To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a person with a computer, everything looks like data. A culture without writing privileges human memory. What happens to the things we bring from the past when writing takes away the need to remember?

Fourth. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. If red dye is added to clear water, what do we get? Clear water + a spot of red dye? No, the red dye changes everything. It’s not additive; it’s ecological. After the invention of the printing press, it wasn’t old Europe PLUS the printing press. It was a different Europe.  New technology deserves to be treated with caution. The consequences are usually “vast… unpredictable… and irreversible”.

Fifth. New media tend to become mythic. There is the sense that they have always been with us. God-given if you like.  Part of the natural order of things. Handed down from on high at Mount Sinai.  Meant to be.

In fact, of course, they are not this. They’re artifacts produced in a specific political, social and historical context. Postman warns that  “our enthusiasm for technology can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its beneficence can be a false absolute”.

To maintain our caution, we should rather “view technology as a strange intruder”. We should remember “technology is … a product of human creativity and hubris”, and that “its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us”.


First – Twitter – in the sense of new social networking media – is a new literacy. It does not necessarily detract from the old literacies. It creates more options, allows greater flexibility, enables literacy to be thought of in terms of the multiple, not the singular. Singular is usually exclusive. Think of medieval monks scribing in Latin, and think about what everyone else was doing.

I can operate within one literacy in multiple ways –  write a postcard to a friend, an email to a colleague, a letter to the council, a eulogy at the funeral of a friend, a report on a research project, a note to my kids about the shopping – the list goes on and on. None of these interferes with any of the others, given my understanding of the form and purpose of each.

Similarly, multiple literacies may co-exist, inform each other, synergize. The language is endlessly resilient; so too are children born into the digital native generations, or the “thumb tribes” as someone called them.

Second – Interrogation, in the sense of intelligent caution, should be

  • the air we breathe
  • the water we swim in
  • it’s what we all should be having on our toast of a morning.

The Crooner

13 05 2010

I know a man on the wrong side (as they say) of his sixties. He has many charming qualities, one being the fact that he’s something of a crooner. It takes little to set him off – from the turn of the shower taps to a soft romantic smile from his wife.

Crooning as a form of communication is of linguistic interest to me, perhaps because it’s as alien and un-me as life-on-Mars. This is advantageous, enabling me to approach it anthropologically.  As such, a ready platter of questions materialize –  like, what is the pattern of this behavior: when, where, how and under what circumstances does it occur? What social purpose does it fulfill? What conditions need to be in place for it to function successfully?

One day I asked this fellow about his crooning and discovered what in fact was self-evident. The fact that the lyrics he always turns to are those he associates with his teenage and young-adult years. Much the way others of us turn to Leonard Cohen or Rod Stewart or Bob Dylan or Cat Stevens or James Taylor (or insert your own preferences, here).  So, in the case of our crooner, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Cole Porter and a bevy of popular stage musicals feature prominently.

And as anyone will know who has a passing familiarity with the music of the fifties, sixties and seventies, these decades in part distinguish themselves from each other by the orientation of their lyrics. Can anyone ever imagine the wide-eyed, naïve, romantic lyrics of Doris Day’s Que Sera Sera being sung post-9/11?  Or in the  hardened 80s/90s, or in the socially conscious 60s/70s?

Two things emerge from my initial inquiry. One is that popular culture lyrics say something about the socio-cultural context that spawns them. Second, the music  one associates with one’s own reaching of adulthood, infused as it is with the context of its times, has the strongest tug on one’s nostalgia strings. This accounts for why our crooner is locked onto his decade.

Quite scarily, research reported in a current issue of The American Journal of Preventive Medicine (mentioned in the online ScienceDaily), links teenagers who prefer popular songs containing degrading sexual references with a high incidence of early sexual activity.

This is congruent with something else the crooner told me. That the popular lyrics of his times provided the informal means by which he as a young man (and supposedly, his generation) learned how to treat the opposite sex. When extrapolated to the present, that’s a pretty scary thought.