A few of my favourite things

Posted by on December 30, 2011

One of the best things I learned this year (from my friend Sylviane Granger) was that a lot of teachers use our blog as a source of inspiration for lessons and assignments for their students. But this isn’t really surprising, when you look at the huge range of material contributed by so many great writers. When Kati Süle asked me to select my favourite posts from 2011, it seemed like an impossible task – there haven’t been any posts which I didn’t enjoy or learn from. But I’ll have a go at summarizing some of the highlights.

Following last year’s world tour of Englishes, our new What’s Your English? theme kicked off in February with a look at Romantic English. ‘Kick off’, of course, is originally a football term, but has broadened out to refer to starting any kind of process. It’s a reminder of the central role of metaphor in the way we communicate. We had a Metaphor Month in April, but for me this is a thread that runs through almost everything we talk about in the blog. In March, for example, Andrew Delahunty, who knows more about the language of sport than anyone I know, showed how work-related vocabulary (‘a bad day at the office’) has become part of the vocabulary of football commentators. You could see this as evidence of sports pundits’ well-known addiction to clichés – a topic covered by our guest blogger Stan Carey in one of his many entertaining posts – but it’s also a nice example of the more creative use of metaphor.  Metaphor is the single most important mechanism by which words acquire new meanings. Some are just playful exploitations of familiar uses, heard once and then forgotten; others (like Andrew’s ‘bad day at the office’) leave their mark on the language for a while; but some ‘settle in’ to become full members of the lexicon, adding new senses to older words. Martin Shovel’s post on metaphor explained how it all works, with reference to the ground-breaking ideas of George Lakoff.

A new word for me this year was ‘r-less’. As part of our month exploring the contentious subject of language and class, Ben Trawick-Smith corrected the common misconception (well, common to me at least) that all Americans had rhotic accents, sounding the r’s in words like bird or butter. Not so: non-rhoticity (or ‘r-lessness’) has a long and complex history in north America. John Wells responded with a post on rhoticity in England, and (among other interesting observations) gave us the exact citation proving that he was the one who coined the word rhotic in the first place.

This is one of the best things about the blog: when a post confronts us with hard evidence that challenges a commonly-held (and plausible) belief. Dan Clayton, writing in ‘Gender English’ month, debunked the notion that women and men – driven by evolutionary factors – use language in significantly different ways. Dan reported on the painstaking research done by Deborah Cameron, who concluded, after surveying huge amounts of conversational data, that ‘the linguistic evidence for differences between the sexes is actually very slight’. Serious research like this sits happily alongside sharp observation of language trends. Lindsay Clandfield’s thought-provoking post on the widespread use of exclamation marks in online communication offered a more subtle explanation of this trend: maybe it’s not that writers are just overexcited, but that email and other online media are, by their nature, a little impersonal (‘without affect’, as one writer put it), so an exclamation mark here and there may add a touch of friendliness.

Inevitably, most of us on the Macmillan team have a UK perspective. But the international flavour of the blog ensures we don’t focus too much on this particular corner of the linguistic world. As Brits, we’re familiar with the relationship between language and class in our own culture, but Robert Lane Greene’s piece during Class English month provided a fascinating account of the equally complex (but quite different) features of the north/south divide in the US and its linguistic impacts. In a similar vein, Vicki Hollett tackled ‘small talk’, and gave some well-observed insights into the differences in the way Americans and Brits handle this aspect of language.

It’s a measure of the range and quality of this year’s blog activity that Jonathan Marks’ comment on a recent microblog was a perfect mini-tutorial in itself: wonderfully erudite, but full of humour too. Our readers’ comments are a vital part of the whole enterprise – as revealed, for example, in the record haul of comments attracted by Stan Carey’s satire on management-speak, ‘Critical learnings going forward’. In fact, one of Stan’s popular posts from last year, on ‘man words’ (like manbag and man flu) was kept alive throughout 2011, with a string of new suggestions added in the comments (the last of these – mansplaining – coming over a year after the original post). While I’m on the subject, a big thank you to Stan for his consistently brilliant posts: whatever the subject, he has always had something interesting and original to say. Thanks too to Kerry Maxwell, whose BuzzWords help keep us up to date, as well as providing one of the best accounts you’ll find anywhere of the factors that contribute to the ongoing evolution of English.

This year has been all about sublanguages – the forms of language we use in particular situations (when you’re online, for example, or doing ‘small talk’ at a party) or for talking about particular subjects. These have covered a wide spectrum of topics, from poker to house music, and from rhotic accents to the environment. Whether you’re ‘learning’ English, ‘living’ it (through regular use in your job or area of study), or just ‘loving’ it (or all three), I hope there has been plenty to keep you interested.

Best wishes to everyone, and we look forward to enjoying your company in the New Year.

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Comments (1)
  • Thanks for your generous words, Michael. There was so much good material on the blog this year. Somehow in the run-up to Christmas I missed Laine’s mini-post on riparian and Jonathan’s account of the “flotilla of words” with which it shares a source. Fascinating!

    Posted by Stan on 30th December, 2011
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