Try to sound more southern, luv.

In the news this week, everybody’s been up in arms about a minor incident during which an Ofsted school inspector allegedly insinuated to a school teacher in Berkshire that she should try to drop the Cumbrian accent and ‘sound more southern’. A comment which would be taken to be outright racist were it directed to a teacher of Indian, Jamaican or Polish origin has stirred northern sensibilities and undoubtedly caused embarassed mutterings in the south.

The teacher in question thankfully has no intention of altering her enunciation to please a misguided Ofsted inspector and has taken it all in good jest, as shall we. So here, in honour of all things Northern, is a lovely wee poem in Cumbrian.



Languages are many, but some expressions are universal, or so it seems. A recent study funded by no less than the European Research Council and the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (money very usefully spent, as always), has established that no matter where you are in the world, you can probably interrupt someone with a well-placed ‘huh?’ and they’ll know what you mean. That’s based on a direct investigation into ten languages and data from about 30 in total.

The first part of their paper is spent determining that ‘huh?’ is universal, the second that it is a word. In support of this second claim, the researchers point out that ‘huh?’ is not an innate, non-lexical grunt-like noise, but rather a learned mechanism for quiclky and efficiently signalling a misunderstanding or hearing difficulty during a conversaiton. So here it is, ‘huh?’ in ten languages from across the globe (and a good way to get your round-the-world trip funded through a research grant).

The researchers also speculate that other “words” like ‘oh’, ‘um’ and ‘ah’ might also be quasi-universal, with little change in their use and pronunciation across cultures. Guess they’ll just have to apply for another grant from the European Research Coucil to investigate that hypothesis next summer.

The Interspecies Internet

The internet has unarguably been the biggest revolution in communication since the printing press. Never before have you been able to share so many thoughts with so many strangers and start arguments with someone half-way around the world in some common dialect of international English. Still, we have so far remained in the domain of human communication, but it seems that the next revolution may be just around the corner.

The concept of the Interspecies Internet has just been launched at a TED conference this week by Vint Cerf (chief Internet evangelist at Google and one of the founders of the world wide web), Diana Reiss (a researcher in animal cognition), Neil Gershenfeld from MIT, and Peter Gabriel (yes, as in the songwriter, who you can see in this video jamming with an ape).

They are interested in the power of using new technology to help us communicate with the more intelligent animals out there and have already started collaborating with elephant, dolphin and orangutan sanctuaries. It turns out that animals have generally been better able at figuring out how to communicate with us than the other way around, largely by pressing strange buttons to show us what they want.

So we are hopeful, even though the project is still at the stage of being ‘an idea in progress’, that one day soon we will be sharing videos and tunes with our animals friends around the world and seeing how they react. Will orangutans find cats and funny babies as fascinating as we do? Will elephants show their sense of humour or will dolphins express a penchant for jazz? Let’s just hope that we don’t simply end up arguing with them over whose momma is fatter.


Pontypool: Shut up or die


“Don’t Speak. Don’t Scream. Shut Up or Die.”

How’s that for a movie tagline?

Adapted from the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, this low-budget Canadian horror movie is based on an interesting premise: language can be a vector for a deadly virus, so communication becomes the mode of transmission of disease.

In an interview, director Bruce McDonald stressed the victims of the virus were not zombies and called them “conversationalists”. He describes the stages of the disease as such (potential spoiler alert):

“There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it’s words that are terms of endearment like ‘sweetheart’ or ‘honey’. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.

Charming, but what did you expect from a horror flick? A moral behind it all? A commentary on society?

Well there just may be some of that. Some bloggers and critics see in this movie a metaphor for the corrupt nature of language in our society: “We’ve become a society of texters and Tweeters, who cut words down to symbols and letters.  The smiley rules, and we go on breaking down the language until there’s little of use left.”

Yes indeed, we might just end up destroying our kind because our children can no longer spell. The end of civilization through the destruction of language. How poignant. And absurd.

Ironically our morning radio host hero is among the uninfected.  Can we surmise that those who think and analyse their language before transmitting information (as it is his job to do) are immune to this disease? Is the film recognising that this quality has become rare and commendable in a society in which everyone blogs, tweets, and facebook-posts their every thought? Perhaps.

Then there’s the praise of silence.  From our blogger-critic friend again: “In a world wholly drowned in white noise, there’s precious little quietude left for us.  A little bit of silence will save us, it says, and maybe we can shut off our cell phones, radios, TVs, and mouths, and enjoy the sounds of silence for a while.”  

A little more silence, a little less killing, I can handle that. I say we shut off MTV and FOX News first.

Txt tlk

I haven’t quite decided whether ‘txt tlk’ will remain classifies under the ‘youth speech’ category or whether it merits one of its own, in any case there is probably much to be said about it. We tend to forget that text messaging was almost an afterthought for mobile phone manufacturers in the 90s who never thought people would bother to write out messages when they could call, yet the medium has revolutionised not only social interaction but language too.

Remember the days when each text cost 10p and every word had to be carefully thought out so as not to go over the designated letter limit and take your communication into the pricey 20p bracket ? Those constraints were surely the first push towards the elimination of vowels and the reduction of phrases to the bare first-letter essentials. Today those restrictions have been blown away; digital communication is instantaneous, limitless and practically free.

Yet text language has continued to evolve. You thought ‘LOL’ just meant ‘laughing out loud’? You must be getting old. And how about ‘slash’? Something you do with a knife? Or the verbal equivalent of one of these – / ? Not quite. Luckily for you there are serious academics studying this stuff, like Anne Curzan at the University of Michigan whose snappy article on the new use of ‘slash’ you can read here. Language is indeed evolving, and whether you like it or not, however hard you attempt to shove it into a time-freezer, it will continue evolving with the new generation.

As it so happens, the new generation is texting a lot, and they are finding ways of translating elements of human interaction imperceptible across long distances (body language, empathy, glances, blushes…) into text speech. And I’m not just talking about emoticons. Here is John McWhorter explaining it all, from how ‘lol’ has become a pragmatic particle signaling empathy, to how ‘slash’ is used as a ‘new information marker’ or topic-changer. He also shows you why you should stop moaning about all this and get with the lingo if you want to hang with the cool kids.