Monday 30 April 2012

Just your Donald!

Donald Duck makes a surprising appearance in rhyming slang in Scotland!

Does just your Donald make sense to you? It is rhyming slang, where a word is replaced by an expression – usually two words, each stressed – that rhymes with it. To make things more confusing, the rhyming expression is sometimes shortened to just the first word, so that the meaning becomes less predictable. Here, luck is replaced by Donald Duck, which is then shortened to Donald.

Antonio Lillo tells us that this type of wordplay began in the first half of the 19th century as a secret code among the lower classes and the underworld in London. This is why it’s often associated with Cockney. Later, rhyming slang spread to Australia, South Africa and the USA (though in the USA it is still used only by the criminal classes). Within the UK, it travelled to other large urban areas and in many of them ‘home-grown’ rhymes developed, including in Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Belfast and Dublin. According to Lillo, though, nowhere was rhyming slang cultivated with as much enthusiasm as in Glasgow – partly because of the powerful working class ethos of the population and partly because of strong links between Glasgow gangs and the London underworld.

Population movement and the electronic media have produced ‘supra-local’ rhyming slang expressions, such as Britney Spears for ‘beers’ or Fat Boy Slim for ‘gym’. Nevertheless many expressions are still heard only in specific urban or national varieties of English, including the variety that is his focus here – Scottish English.

Rhyming slang in Scottish English falls into two main categories. The first, arguably the largest, contains expressions borrowed from elsewhere, especially Cockney (such as tea leaf, ‘thief’) but also Irish English (Margaret Thatcher, ‘scratcher’ in the sense of ‘bed’) and Australian English (septic or septic tank, ‘Yank’).

The second group consists of home-grown Scottish rhyming slang. Lillo gives a glossary at the end of his article containing about 200 modern expressions of this type. It includes expressions not heard elsewhere, like Barr’s Irn-Bru, ‘clue’, in the title of the article. Irn Bru is the brand name of a fruit-flavoured soft drink which is popular in Scotland, manufactured by A. G. Barr plc. The category also includes Scottish expressions that have made their way into other varieties of English, such as Gardner Spiers, ‘beers’, after the Scottish footballer and manager. This is heard in Yorkshire as well as in Scotland.

One characteristic of Scottish rhyming slang is that expressions with two nouns, like the Cockney trouble and strife, ‘wife’, are rare.  Perhaps this is because the younger generation of Scots find them old-fashioned. A second characteristic is a particular liking for rhymes based on proper nouns. For example, Tony Blair, used generally in the UK and Ireland to mean ‘hair’ (the old Tony Blair needs a cut) is used in the plural in Scotland to mean ‘stairs’ (he’s doon the Tony Blairs). These characteristics, though, are typical of modern rhyming slang in general. What is distinctive about Scottish expressions is the name that the rhyme is often based on. Unlike Cockney rhyming slang, which takes its proper names from all aspects of modern culture around the world, Scottish speakers have a bias towards both people and things that are specifically Scottish (as already seen in the Irn Bru and Gardner Speirs examples).  Lillo draws attention to an abundance of the names of footballers, perhaps due to a particular liking for rhyming slang amongst males in Scotland and to an age-old Scottish connection between football and national identity. However football is not the only national icon enshrined in Scottish rhyming slang: Lillo points out that although Armadillo, ‘pillow’, may seem odd to non-Scottish ears it will be familiar to anyone who recognises the metaphorical nickname of the Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow. Rhyming slang can therefore function as an effective marker of national identity and pride for the Scottish people who use it.

Lillo, Antonio (2012) Nae Baar’s Irn Bru whit ye’re oan aboot: Musings on modern Scottish rhyming slang. English World-Wide 33: 61-94.

doi 10.1075/eww.33.1.04lil

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Thursday 26 April 2012

That’s cool and stuff

Recent research by Martínez adds another twist to the story of general extenders in spoken English. These are phrases such as and stuff, and things like that, and or something, as in I like pizzas and stuff or do you want to go out tonight or something? They are usually assumed to be typical of teenage speech, but Martínez found that it’s actually adults who use them most often, not teenagers.

Martínez analysed the use of general extenders in two large collections of spontaneous informal spoken English, one from teenagers (the Corpus of London Teenage Language, or COLT) and one from adults (the Diachronic Corpus of Present-Day Spoken English, or DCPSE). He discovered that adults used 18 general extender forms in every 10,000 words, whereas the teenagers used only 12 in every 10,000 words. Or something was the most frequent form in both corpora, but apart from this there were interesting differences in the forms used by teenagers and adults. The teenagers used and stuff, and that and and everything much more frequently than the adults – so frequently, in fact, that these three forms accounted for over 35 per cent of all their general extender forms. For adults, on the other hand, the most frequent forms after or something were and things and and things like that. These were relatively rare amongst the teenagers.  A striking difference between the two corpora was that the adults used a more varied set of general extender forms than the teenagers, including and so on, or so and or whatever. These other forms were all relatively infrequent in teenage speech.

Martínez then focussed on three of the frequent forms (and stuff, and everything and and things (like that) and examined how their use had developed over time. He used corpus data from two different time periods: 1958-1977 and 1990-1993. All three of the general extender forms had increased in use in the more recent period, especially and stuff, which did not occur at all in the recordings made in the 1960s.

These phrases are termed ‘general extenders’ because they often indicate that the previous word is part of a set that the addressee and the speaker both know about, so they extend the meaning of that word without the speaker having to specify all the members of the set. So shall we go out tonight or something suggests that the speaker assumes the person they are talking to will know what other similar kinds of things they might like to do that evening – perhaps stay in and watch TV, or invite a friend round.  Martínez found that both adults and teenagers used general extenders not only in this way but also to separate out one stretch of speech from another. For example they were used at the end of reported speech, as in my mum was saying “sometimes you’re too pissed to stop and you just carry on and stuff”. They also created rapport between the speakers, sometimes at the same time as separating out stretches of speech: in the example above, for example, the speaker’s friend responded with yeah, showing that they understood and sympathised. 

Martínez points out that researchers have taken for granted the idea that general extenders are typical of face-to-face interaction but that this assumption has never been put to the test. He therefore looked for general extenders in both the written and spoken sections of the ICE-GB Corpus (the International Corpus of English for Great Britain).  Only or so occurred with a similar frequency in the spoken and written sections, in each case only 4 times in every 100,000 words. Overall general extenders occurred almost one hundred times more often in spoken English than in written English.

It seems clear, then that general extenders are a characteristic of our spoken language. Surprisingly, though, this is perhaps more so for adults than for the teenagers who are so often criticised for using them.

Martínez, Ignacio M. Palacios (2011). “I might, I might go I mean it depends on money things and stuff”. A preliminary analysis of general extenders in British teenagers’ discourse. Journal of Pragmatics 43: 2452-2470.

doi: 10.1016/jpragma.2011.02.011

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Monday 23 April 2012

Which way round?

Rich and famous or famous and rich?

Why do we say rich and famous rather than famous and rich? Or profit and loss rather than loss and profit? Born and bred and past and present, but not bred and born or present and past?

Several reasons have been suggested, but they have never been put to the test. Sandra Mollin has now done this, by looking at the most frequent word pairs that occur in the 100 million word British National Corpus. She analysed 544 different word pairs, which together occurred more than 85,000 times in the corpus.

Mollin found that the most important factor determining the order of words in the pair was to do with their meaning – a semantic constraint. Three different kinds of meaning relationships were relevant. Iconicity explained the ordering in the pair best: this is when the order of the words follows a chronological sequence or a cause and effect sequence, as in spring and summer or born and bred. Power was also important: words referring to more powerful concepts are more likely to come first in the pair, as (so, men and women) and so are concepts that are more central in our society (food and drink, then, rather than drink and food). Perceptual markedness was also relevant: the order of words in the pair often follows what humans seems to perceive as a natural order, such as seeing positive as more important than negative (good and bad), or seeing things that are higher up as more important (head and shoulders, top and bottom). Mollin found that clashes between semantic factors were very rare and in fact only involved gender pairs such as mother and father or bride and groom. In these cases the male should be first in the pair from the perspective of power, but the female is typically perceived as more central in the parental role than the male, and is the more prominent person in a wedding, so it is perceptual markedness that wins out in these cases.

Would you like to help Sandra Mollin with her research into word pairs? If so, there is a survey at
that should take about only 6 minutes of your time.

The next most important factor was a metrical one, to do with the rhythm of speech. This means, for example, that the longer of the two words will come last (so, out and about or past and present), and final stressed syllables are avoided (gas and electricity rather than electricity and gas). When metrical ordering factors clash with semantic factors, it is semantic factors that usually decide which word comes first. Often, though, metrical and semantic factors coincide.

The frequency with which individual words are used is also relevant. More frequent words tend to come first in the pair (so, up and down, or time and effort).

If none of these factors can account for the ordering, phonology (sound structure) comes into play. For example, if one of the words has more consonants at the beginning, this word comes second (so, ups and downs, where up begins with a vowel so has no initial consonant at all whereas downs has one initial consonant; or coal and steel, where coal has one consonant at the beginning but steel has two). The same ordering applies for words that have more consonants at their end (so, design and development rather than development and design, where design is pronounced with a single final consonant and development with two; or for and against, where against has 2 final consonants but for has either one or none, depending on the variety of English – American speakers, for example, usually pronounce the final /r/).

Mollin found that only 18 per cent of the pairs never occurred in the reverse order. These ‘frozen’ pairs were mainly those whose ordering was in terms of power. The vast majority of pairs, then, could be reversed, though most had a preferred order. The likelihood of a pair occurring in the reverse order depended on the type of factor governing the order, with pairs satisfying the semantic constraints of power and iconicity less likely to occur the other way round and the least reversible pairs satisfying both semantic and metrical constraints. This accounts for rich and famous, which seems to be almost completely frozen: famous and rich occurred only once in the BNC.  Knowledge and skills, by contrast, occurred just as often as skills and knowledge.

Mollin points out that once a certain threshold of frequency has been reached for the pronunciation of a pair in a particular order, ‘freezing’ becomes an inevitable process. This would mean that enough speakers had internalised the sequence in a fixed order, and therefore only produce it in that order, for enough other speakers to hear the sequence only in that order. They too would then pronounce the pair exclusively in that order and internalise it as a frozen sequence. In turn more and more speakers will hear the pair in only one order, until eventually it is a completely frozen sequence that never changes.


Mollin, Sandra (2011). Revisiting binomial order in English: ordering constraints and reversibility. Journal of English Language and Linguistics 16: 81-103.

doi. 10.1017/S1360674311000293

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Thursday 19 April 2012

Have you seen our website?

English Language Teaching: Linguistic Resources

Our site is an archive of Spoken English Language Teaching resources. In addition to the Linguistics Research Digest, the resources consist of:

o   A databank of spoken London English (containing sound clips and transcripts)
o   Language Investigations
o   A description of spoken English features

The materials have been designed for teachers of GCSE and GCE A-Level English Language, but they may be useful for anyone involved in teaching about the spoken English language.

Monday 16 April 2012

Discourse-pragmatic markers take centre stage in spontaneous spoken language

Discourse markers play a central role in unplanned communication

What are discourse-pragmatic markers? They are features of speech which generally do not contribute to the propositional content of communication but which have important functions in the way that we manage our conversations.  Researcher Jean E. Fox Tree takes a look at what constitutes a discourse marker (DM), what they do, what is known about children’s and second language learners’ acquisition of discourse markers and how they can vary across settings and speakers. 

Fox Tree provides an inventory of some of the discourse markers that have been investigated in previous research studies and includes such features as like, well, you know, I mean, and everything, sort of, kind of, and, but, so, because and you see. There are many others. Switch on the radio or TV and listen to a spontaneous interview or discussion and you’ll hear that the speech of people from all spheres of life is littered with these constructions. So if discourse markers do not add anything to the content of the interaction why do they exist? Most researchers agree that discourse markers fulfil many functions and that they are important, if not vital, to successful communication.

The fact that discourse markers fulfil so many different functions makes it difficult to know which function applies in a particular context. One solution has been to assign a core meaning (or basic meaning) to the discourse marker and to consider all other uses as interpretations built on that core meaning. As a demonstration, Fox Tree discusses the basic meaning of like (when it is used as a DM) as ‘indicating upcoming loose language’ or as being a ‘deliberate marker of vagueness’. An example might be ‘I was there at like 3 o’clock and stayed for like two hours’ where the speaker might want to indicate vague timings. Another example she gives is the use of discourse marker well and suggests that the core meaning is to indicate to a listener that a less-obvious interpretation of some aspect of the discourse is coming. Think about when someone says something and then another person says, ‘Well, not necessarily…..’ and proceeds to give a different explanation/interpretation. Not only is a different interpretation given but the use of well also softens the disagreement.

Fox Tree also discusses the acquisition of discourse markers in first and second language learners. As far as children acquiring discourse markers as part of their first language is concerned, research has generally found that children use a narrower range of discourse markers with a narrower range of functions. There is evidence to suggest that children are still learning to use discourse markers in adult-like ways after the age of nine years old. The acquisition of discourse markers for second language learners is also developmental; their use increases along with increased proficiency and as speakers modify their speech in line with their new environment (if applicable).

One very interesting aspect that Fox Tree discusses is the use of discourse markers in computer-mediated discourse. In the past, it has generally been considered that writing is carefully planned and would therefore not entail the use of the discourse markers discussed above, which are seen primarily as features of speech. However, modern communicative technologies have blurred the distinction between speech and writing; written communication such as email, instant messaging and texting is much closer to speech than earlier forms of writing. This has brought with it ‘a wealth of written discourse marker use’ because users of these forms of communication tend to treat the interactions rather like a conversation. Discourse markers found in instant messaging include I mean, you know, well, oh, I dunno and like. The frequencies of use shown in studies so far have tended to be lower in instant messaging compared to conversations but this is a fruitful area for future research and for monitoring the development of discourse markers in these forms of written communication.

Although discourse markers are many and their functions are varied and often contradictory, they nevertheless all have a central role in helping people to negotiate their way through unplanned, unrehearsed communication. Seen in this way, discourse markers should not be viewed as meaningless and superfluous but as vital components of speech which are ‘conventionalised, learned expressions that provide information about how the content of messages should be interpreted’.
Fox Tree, Jean. E. 2010. Discourse Markers across Speakers and Settings. Language and Linguistics Compass 4/5: 269-281.

doi: 10.1111/j. 1749-818x.2010.0015.x

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Thursday 12 April 2012

Would you like an espresso?

Is espresso a necessary or a luxury loanword?

We have espresso from Italian and vodka from Russian.  We have aardvark from Afrikaans and alligator from Spanish.  In fact, English is full of words that have been ‘borrowed’ from other languages.  Some are so common, and have been a part of our language for so long, that we may not even guess that they are not historically ‘English’ (for example, the pronoun they from Old Norse which replaced the Old English plurals hi and hie by around 1400).

The examination of borrowings (or ‘loanwords’) can be quite complex as many aspects of meaning and use need to be considered. Investigating the status of English loanwords in German, Alexander Onysko and Esme Winter-Froemel demonstrate that a fundamental factor to consider is whether or not the Recipient Language (RL) has an equivalent word to match the one from the Source Language (SL).  For example, when Italian borrowed the English word computer, it did not have an ‘Italian’ word representing the concept of ‘computer’ and, as a result, the word computer was adopted.  In contrast, French has recently borrowed people from English to specifically mean ‘famous people’ and, due to this specific meaning, it now co-exists and competes with the French form célébrités.

This criterion is what formed the basis for traditional classifications of loanwords – Necessary vs. Luxury Loans.  A Necessary loan is one where the SL provides a term for a concept (e.g. the computer example above) while a Luxury loan is a word from the SL which, when introduced, co-exists with words of similar semantic meaning in the RL (e.g. the people example above).

However, Onysko and Winter-Froemel explain that these classifications have been criticised for what they imply – for example, a Necessary loan is not strictly ‘necessary’ as speakers of the RL could always try to express a new concept using existing components of the language.  Therefore, they propose the alternative classification of Catachrestic vs. Non-Catachrestic loans which re-frame the distinction between the two types of loan in neutral linguistic terms.  A catachrestic loan is one which introduces a new concept to the language (such as computer, e-mail and software from English to German) whereas non-catachrestic loans have some kind of semantic equivalent in the RL (such as English trend adopted alongside German tendenz) and end up developing more specific meanings.

Even so, Onysko and Winter-Froemel show that the classification of loans as catachrestic or non-catachrestic is not an either/or decision.  Of the 101 most common Anglicisms in the data they used from the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, 33 were classified as catachrestic and 70 as non-catachrestic - the new total of 103 resulting from surfen and cockpit being classified as both.  As well as some words showing characteristics of both types of classification, the data also highlights how words can evolve their meaning from non-catachrestic to catachrestic (e.g. okay and clever).  Therefore, they conclude, any investigation of borrowings must reflect a usage-based approach so that it is not just about looking at the words in isolation, it is how, when and where they are being used by the speakers of the language.
Onysko, A. and Winter-Froemel, E. (2011) Necessary loans – Luxury loans? Exploring the pragmatic dimension of borrowing; Journal of Pragmatics 43:1550-1567
doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2010.12.004

This summary was written by Jenny Amos

Thursday 5 April 2012

Grammar at your fingertips

A thoroughly modern way to teach grammar!

How many people reading this blog remember those halcyon days of grammar parsing at school? You know, underlining the nouns in green and the verbs in red? No? Ah, that would probably be because you’re too young! That’s because English grammar teaching disappeared from the English curriculum from the late 1960s until its return in 1990 (though not in the same guise). The consequence is what researchers Bas Aarts, Dan Clayton and Sean Wallis refer to as the Grammar Gap, resulting in the fact that very few UK school teachers who teach English today have explicitly been taught grammar themselves, leaving them feeling ill-equipped to teach it.

As part of a research project at UCL, the researchers organized a series of ‘grammar training days’, introducing basic concepts of grammar to English teachers. At one of these events, they found that only two out of twenty teachers of A-Level English teachers could recall ever being explicitly taught grammar. The research team set about designing a thoroughly modern and ‘accessible and enjoyable way to learn grammar’ which would also enable teachers to teach grammar to their students. The result has been iGE: the interactive Grammar of English, a complete grammar of the English language designed specifically for mobile devices.

The new course is a totally updated version of the Internet Grammar of English published by the Survey of English Usage in 1996. The course was rewritten to take into account the fact that mobile devices are directed by finger movements and the text had to be simplified and shortened to make explanations readable on a small screen. The research team also extended the glossary and added further exercises based on authentic language taken from the Survey’s corpora.  The screen can also be projected from an iPhone or an iPad onto a large classroom screen so that the exercises can be done collectively.

iGE is published on Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Market. What’s more, there is a free ‘Lite’ version containing the glossary and the first three sections of the course. The researchers conclude by stating that grammar should not be seen as a set of restrictive rules that must be obeyed but rather that it should be seen as a framework within which we communicate. They certainly emphasise the fun factor and literally place grammar at our fingertips. Hmm, grammar was never like that in my day!

Aarts, B., Clayton, D., and Wallis, S. (2012). Bridging the Grammar Gap: teaching English grammar to the iPhone generation. English Today 28/1: 3-8.
doi: 10.1017/S0266078411000599

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Monday 2 April 2012

Young children’s question answering

Children start learning to answer questions at a very young age

Young children answer many questions every day but at what age do they learn to provide the appropriate information required by the question when they answer? Researchers Dorothé Salomo, Elena Lieven and Michael Tomasello set out to investigate this under-researched topic. By ‘appropriate information’ the authors mean whether children answer in an adult-like way by responding with the requested information, no more and no less. For example, in a question such as ‘Who/what is chasing the cat?’ we already have the given information that someone/something is chasing the cat so there is no need to repeat that part of the question; the appropriate answer would then simply be to identify who or what is doing the chasing, e.g. ‘The dog’.

In their study, the researchers asked three types of questions. The first (argument-focus question) is the type as in the above example, where the question itself tells us that something is chasing the cat and the answer needs to identify WHAT that something is i.e. the dog. The answer requires a single piece of information. Taking the same example we might want to ask ‘What is the dog doing?’ This is the second type of question (predicate-focus question) in which we already get the information that the dog is doing something and the appropriate answer would be to identify WHAT the dog is doing and, in this case, to WHOM i.e. chasing the cat. The answer thus requires two pieces of information. Note that this type of question might also only require a single piece of information e.g. Q: ‘What is the dog doing?’ A: ‘barking’.  The researchers tested for both sub-types. In the third type of question (sentence-focus question) the question itself offers no specific information about the event e.g. ‘What is happening?’ and so the answer requires the WHOLE EVENT to be expressed, as in ‘The dog is barking’ (two pieces of information) or ‘The dog is chasing the cat’ (three pieces of information).

In this experimental study, young monolingual German children at different ages (18 x 2-year-olds, 18 x 3-year-olds and 18 x 4-year-olds) were presented with all three types of questions in order to investigate the development of their ability to give appropriate answers based on the given and requested information in the question.  In the first phase, the children watched video clips of eighteen different scenes e.g. a cow jumping; a monkey waving; a pig pushing a dog; a crocodile biting a mouse. During this phase, the children also heard a soundtrack, which introduced the child to the needed vocabulary, by labeling the character and the action. In the second phase, the child watched the video clips again but had no soundtrack. During this phase, they were asked the various questions. The children’s answers were considered appropriate if the required number of pieces of information were mentioned, regardless of how they structured their answers.

The analysis was of course more fine-grained than space allows for here but generally the results showed that the 4-year-olds almost always gave the appropriate answer. Children in the two younger age groups gave more appropriate answers when the question only required one element than when they required multiple elements. This would seem unsurprising, since one-word utterances are easier to produce than multiword utterances, but we know that young children can and do produce multiword utterances and so the researchers suggest that it is more likely to be the children’s underdeveloped pragmatic skills which cause the difficulties. In other words, children have to learn to process information that is not contained in the question. Hence, the questions which required the whole event to be described (where the question contained no given information) were found to be the most difficult by the children, followed by those questions where multiple elements were missing, with the easiest being those where only one element was missing.

A further line of reasoning that the researchers pursued was that young children may be more familiar with questions that require one-element responses than with those that require more. In other words, perhaps caretakers of young children adapt their speech so that they only ask questions that can be answered simply. In order to test this possibility, the researchers analysed four corpora for four children who had been recorded with their mothers during daily activities in their home. Over 11,000 questions were analysed and the researchers found that young children were only asked to confirm or disconfirm a proposition, that is they were not asked for any additional lexical information, in around two-thirds of the questions e.g. Q: ‘do you want some juice?’ A: ‘yes/no’. The next most frequently asked question types (around 15%) were those that asked for a single lexical item in the answer, the ‘WHAT is chasing the cat?’ type question above. They found that the young children were rarely exposed to questions that required more than one lexical item in their answer and therefore they had little opportunity to practice with them.

The researchers conclude by drawing attention to the fact that younger children struggle with multi-element questions for two reasons: the first involves their lack of pragmatic skill in identifying the specific elements of information needed and the second is their relative lack of experience with questions involving this requirement. Nevertheless, this study shows that even children as young as two years old are good at identifying given and new or needed information and that by the age of four, they are able to give adult-appropriate type answers.
Salomo, D., Lieven, E. and Tomasello, M. (2012). Children’s ability to answer different types of questions. Journal of Child Language 1-23.
 doi: 10.1017/S0305000912000050

This summary was written by Sue Fox