## Descriptivist and prescriptivist views of language

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Friday, 1 Oct 2021, 11:51

The course L101 covers the issue of descriptivist and prescriptivist views of language and this is reflected in the Guardian article about a school discouraging the "use of slang" (the scare quotes reflect my view that some of the examples are creative uses of language rather than slang) https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/sep/30/oh-my-days-linguists-lament-slang-ban-in-london-school

In particular, the expression "he cut his eyes at me" seems very expressive and eloquent and this seems to contradict the school's advice that following conventions will lead to eloquence.  These kinds of expressions seem to be the kinds that are valued in literature where linguistic deviance is an important way of "making the world strange" (остранение)  - for a brief summary of this see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamiliarization and follow links to Russian formalists for more detail.

This is not to say I would always encourage these kinds of creative expressions (and perhaps it mainly seems creative to me because I had not come across it before).  If clarity is required and the audience is older and would not know the expression, it should probably be avoided but this is different from saying it is not eloquent,

Ermm is a normal part of spoken language (see for example, Hultgren 2015: 126).  In fact, people are often more intelligible if their speech contains some redundancy (and fillers like this are examples of redundancy).  It would not normally be used in written texts but an awareness of the differences between spoken and written language is very useful in educational contexts.

Hultgren AK (2015) Exploring English Grammar Book 1: Grammar, context and meaning Milton Keynes: Open University

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## Language choice and identity in a recent novel.

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I am currently reading The Mersault Investigation (Daoud 2014, trans 2015).  This is a telling of the story of Camus' L'Etranger from the point of view of the brother of the murdered Arab.  There is the following a very interesting passage, where the narrator discusses the way that he uses a different language (I assume French) from his mother (I assume she speaks Arabic):

"And for a long time, she would make me feel impossibly ashamed of her - and later it pushed me to learn a language that could serve as a barrier between her frenzies and me.  Yes, the language.  The one I read, the one I speak today, the one that's not hers.  Hers is rich, full of imagery, vitality, sudden jolts and improvisations, but not too big in precision.  Mama's grief lasted so long that she needed a new idiom to express it in.  In her language, she spoke like a prophetess, recruited extemporaneous mourners, and cried out against the double outrage that consumed her life: a husband swallowed up by air, a son by water.  I had to learn a language other than that one.  To survive.  And it is the one I'm speaking at the moment.  Starting witrh my presumed fifthteenth birthday, when we withdrew to Hadjout, I became a stern and serious scholar.  Books and your hero's language gradually enables me to name things differently and to organise the world with my own words"  (page 37)

The extract shows how people can choose languages or varieties of language to mark difference or, in more extreme cases, create barriers.  Here, he seems to want to make a barrier and mark the diffeernce between himself and his mother.  He seems to be wary of her emotion and links this to the language and this gives him the motive to use French, which is seen as more precise.  The precision also seems to be used in contrast with the "richness" of his mother's langugae,  It is also interesting that he refers to being able to "organise the world with his own words".  Again this might be a contrast with the world that her mother lives in (and perhaps the word "improvisations" is significant, suggesting unpredictability.

This passage seems to have relevance to many of the OU's languages courses such as L161 and E301.

Reference:

Daoud K (2014, trans 2015) The Mersault Investigation London: Oneworld

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## Poetry as the "great unsettler"

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Tuesday, 13 Dec 2011, 10:34

I admire her principles in refusing the prize but I also like her points that "poetry is the great unsettler. It questions the established order of the mind. It is radical, by which I don't mean that it is either leftwing or rightwing, but that it works at the roots of thinking. It goes lower than rhetoric, lower than conversation, lower than logic, right down to the very faint honest voice at the bottom of the skull."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/dec/12/ts-eliot-poetry-prize-pulled-out

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## Day school in Taunton - session 1

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Friday, 27 May 2011, 14:50

I led a couple of sessions here for the e303 course.  I decided it would be useful to apply some of the contents of the course to the study of literary texts and to critical reading.

The handout for the literature session is given below with some teacher notes in italics.

********************

The language of literature

Discuss the following questions in groups.

Is there anything distinctive about the language of literary texts?

If so, what is it?  If not, what helps you to decide whether a text is literary?

The main feature is that they are deviant in some way.

Look at the following extracts from the beginnings of literary texts to help you decide.  What, if anything, do they have in common?

 The Christening I am a sperm whale.  I carry up to 2.5 tonnes of an oil-like balm in my huge coffin- shaped head.  I have a brain the size of a basketball, and on that basis alone am entitled to my opinions.  I am a sperm whale.  When I breathe in, the fluid in my head cools to a dense wax and I nosedive into the depths.  My song, available on compact disc is a comfort to divorcees, astrologists and those who have ‘pitched the quavering  canvas tent of their thoughts on the rim of the dark crater’. ……   Armitage, S. (2010) Seeing Stars London : Faber and Faber.

The field here is somewhat deviant.  It might also be said that there is some deviance textually in the repetition of "I am..."  I also thought "brain the size of a basketball" was an adaptation of "brain the size of a planet".

 1 Found Objects It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.  Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed the bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall.  Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of green leather. Egan, J. (2010) A visit from the Good Squad London: Corsair.

Again some of the subject matter (peeing) seemed deviant and there was also some textual deviance in the way that it refers to "the usual way" right at the beginning of the story before we know what usual way is.

 I consider it my duty to forewarn the reader that the event described in this tale relates to a very distant time.  Moreover, it is a complete invention.  Mirgorod is now quite another place; the puddle in the middle of the town dried up ages ago, and the dignitaries, the judge, the clerk of the court and the mayor are all respected and well intentioned men. Gogol, N. (1834, translated Aplin H 2002) The Squabble London : Hesperus.

This is a story that seems to be in a spoken mode in some ways and this is typical of Gogol's "skaz" technique.  I also think there is textual deviance in the use of "Moreover" which contrasts with "a very distant time".  So, it is not clear if the events are invented or just belong to a distant time.  Also, the final sentence seems to throw both the distance and the invention into doubt.

Linguistic tools that could be useful

What are the linguistic concepts that you have learnt about so far on the course and how might they help you to analyse a literary text?

Some examples would include unusual marking of theme and rheme.  A corpus would help a reader to recognise unusual combinations or expressions that typically belong to clashing registers (in the Longman Grammar sense of the word).

Which of the concepts, if any, might have revealed something about the texts above?

Corpus linguistics, the textual function.

Applying grammatical tools

What strikes you as you read the extract below?

The use of "I heard/I saw"

# What I heard about Iraq in 2005

## Eliot Weinberger

In 2005 I heard that Coalition forces were camped in the ruins of Babylon . I heard that bulldozers had dug trenches through the site and cleared areas for helicopter landing pads and parking lots, that thousands of sandbags had been filled with dirt and archaeological fragments, that a 2600-year-old brick pavement had been crushed by tanks, and that the moulded bricks of dragons had been gouged out from the Ishtar Gate by soldiers collecting souvenirs. I heard that the ruins of the Sumerian cities of Umma, Umm al-Akareb, Larsa and Tello were completely destroyed and were now landscapes of craters.

I heard that the US was planning an embassy in Baghdad that would cost $1.5 billion, as expensive as the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero, the proposed tallest building in the world. I saw a headline in the Los Angeles Times that read: ‘After Levelling City, US Tries to Build Trust.’ I heard that military personnel were now carrying ‘talking point’ cards with phrases such as: ‘We are a values-based, people-focused team that strives to uphold the dignity and respect of all.’ I heard that 47 per cent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein helped plan 9/11 and 44 per cent believed that the hijackers were Iraqi; 61 per cent thought that Saddam had been a serious threat to the US and 76 per cent said the Iraqis were now better off. I heard that Iraq was now ranked with Haiti and Senegal as one of the poorest nations on earth. I heard the United Nations Human Rights Commission report that acute malnutrition among Iraqi children had doubled since the war began. I heard that only 5 per cent of the money Congress had allocated for reconstruction had actually been spent. I heard that in Fallujah people were living in tents pitched on the ruins of their houses. I heard that this year’s budget included$105 billion for the War on Terror, which would bring the total to $300 billion. I heard that Halliburton was estimating that its bill for providing services to US troops in Iraq would exceed$10 billion. I heard that the family of an American soldier killed in Iraq receives $12,000. I heard that the White House had deleted the chapter on Iraq from the annual Economic Report of the President, on the grounds that it did not conform with an otherwise cheerful tone. Within a week in January I heard Condoleezza Rice say there were 120,000 Iraqi troops trained to take over the security of the country; I heard Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat from Delaware, say that the number was closer to 4000; I heard Donald Rumsfeld say: ‘The fact of the matter is that there are 130,200 who have been trained and equipped. That’s a fact. The idea that that number’s wrong is just not correct. The number is right.’ # Weinberger E (2006) “What I heard about Iraq in 2005” London Review of Books Volume 28, number 1: 7-1 Compare it to the following version. What are the differences in terms of effect and which concept(s) from the course do you think could help explain the differences? I think the concept of theme and rheme is very useful for examining the differences. # Iraq in 2005 In 2005 Coalition forces were camped in the ruins of Babylon. Bulldozers had dug trenches through the site and cleared areas for helicopter landing pads and parking lots, thousands of sandbags had been filled with dirt and archaeological fragments, a 2600-year-old brick pavement had been crushed by tanks, and the moulded bricks of dragons had been gouged out from the Ishtar Gate by soldiers collecting souvenirs. The ruins of the Sumerian cities of Umma, Umm al-Akareb, Larsa and Tello were completely destroyed and were now landscapes of craters. The US was planning an embassy in Baghdad that would cost$1.5 billion, as expensive as the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero, the proposed tallest building in the world.

A headline in the Los Angeles Times read: ‘After Levelling City, US Tries to Build Trust.’

Military personnel were now carrying ‘talking point’ cards with phrases such as: ‘We are a values-based, people-focused team that strives to uphold the dignity and respect of all.’

47 per cent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein helped plan 9/11 and 44 per cent believed that the hijackers were Iraqi; 61 per cent thought that Saddam had been a serious threat to the US and 76 per cent said the Iraqis were now better off.

Iraq was now ranked with Haiti and Senegal as one of the poorest nations on earth. The United Nations Human Rights Commission reported that acute malnutrition among Iraqi children had doubled since the war began.  Only 5 per cent of the money Congress had allocated for reconstruction had actually been spent. In Fallujah people were living in tents pitched on the ruins of their houses.

This year’s budget included $105 billion for the War on Terror, which would bring the total to$300 billion. Halliburton was estimating that its bill for providing services to US troops in Iraq would exceed $10 billion. The family of an American soldier killed in Iraq receives$12,000.

The White House had deleted the chapter on Iraq from the annual Economic Report of the President, on the grounds that it did not conform with an otherwise cheerful tone.

Within a week in January Condoleezza Rice said there were 120,000 Iraqi troops trained to take over the security of the country;  Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat from Delaware, said that the number was closer to 4000; Donald Rumsfeld said: ‘The fact of the matter is that there are 130,200 who have been trained and equipped. That’s a fact. The idea that that number’s wrong is just not correct. The number is right.’

# Weinberger E (2006) “What I heard about Iraq in 2005” London Review of Books Volume 28, number 1: 7-1

For those who are interested in language analysis of literary texts, Short's (1996) book is very good.

Short, M. (1996) Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose Harlow: Longman.

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## Jonathon Frantzen's "Freedom"

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Tuesday, 5 Apr 2011, 10:17

I have recently finished this novel and it is interesting that he seems to be quite quotable in materials about language - he is featured in the E303 materials and I have used extracts from "The Corrections" in my face to face materials and some distance learning materials I wrote a few years ago.  I suspect this novel will also be used by materials writers.

In  particular, one of the main characters writes an autobiography featured near the beginning and later at the end of the book.  The title of this is "Mistakes were made" and this made me wonder why it was not "I made mistakes" or "The mistakes I made" in the first extract.  However, in the second extract, it becomes clear that it was not just the writer of the autobiography who made mistakes.

This is just one example of issues in the novel where the forms are significant for the meaning of the whole novel.

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## Language issues in novels

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Thursday, 19 May 2011, 15:52
It is interesting to read portrayals of language issues in novels, stories etc.  I am now reading Aravind Adiga's Between the Assassinations and there is an interesting portrayal in one part of the link between the knowledge of English and power/privilege.
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