What’s your English 2011? A new year with a new approach

Posted by on February 07, 2011

Have you ever come across the word queenlessness? No, I didn’t think so. But if you were a beekeeper, it would be a normal part of your vocabulary. (Check it out on Google.)  In the same way, terms like collocation and pragmatics are everyday words for those of us involved in language teaching – but to the average person in the street they would be just as obscure as queenlessness. It’s all about context. In English, as in any language, we have a ‘core’ vocabulary. These are the words you need in order to operate in any context – whether you’re tweeting, writing a PhD dissertation, having a conversation with friends, or reading a novel. (The core vocabulary of English roughly equates to the 7,500 red words in the Macmillan Dictionary.) But outside this common core, there’s a huge amount of vocabulary (remember, there are over a million words in English) which is frequent and ‘normal’ in specific fields, but virtually unknown – and rarely used – outside those contexts. The core, in other words, is surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands, of what we call ‘sublanguages’. A sublanguage is the specialized vocabulary of one particular field, such as beekeeping, linguistics, astrophysics, or cricket.

This is one of the themes for the next stage of our ‘What’s your English?’ tour. There’s an awful lot of English around, and endless different ways of exploring it. Last year, our focus was on region, and we celebrated the rich diversity of the English language as it’s used in different parts of the world – from India to Brazil, from Scotland to Australia. And what a fascinating collection of discoveries we made along the way, culminating in the brilliant ‘rap battle’ between Baba Brinkman and Professor Elemental.

This year we’re trying a new angle. We’re going to look at the way contexts and situations influence the language we use. Partly, this means the sublanguages I mentioned earlier: we’ll investigate the words and phrases people use when they’re talking about sport, engaging in business, or discussing environmental issues. And partly, it’s about who you are. There are interesting differences, for example, between the way women and men use language, and we’ll be exploring that theme – as well as the even more thorny issue of social class and its impact on language use. And finally, we’ll look at the language typical of particular situations. The language you use when you’re online, for example, tweeting, emailing or chatting on Facebook. Or what about small talk, when you’re just passing the time of day with someone ?

All of these ideas come together under the umbrella of ‘What’s your English?’, and it’s going to be an exciting year. We have some great blogs in the pipeline but – as always – it’s your input that we’re most interested in. And with Valentine’s Day only a week away, we’re going to kick off with some reflections on romantic English. Let the wild rumpus start.

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Comments (6)
  • Queenlessness is a great word. As a biologist, I’ve come across it — but not often. You could say that a hive in a state of queenlessness is in need of some queenliness.
    What you’ve written about core English and its peripheral, more specialised sublanguages reminds me of James Murray’s description of the structure of English vocabulary: “the circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference”; I posted a lengthy excerpt here.
    P.S. I’m looking forward to the wild rumpus!

    Posted by Stan on 7th February, 2011
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  • Contexts and situations – what a great way of looking at language (and what we need to teach.) Terrific idea!

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 7th February, 2011
  • This kind of detail of English is really interesting. Mainly for non native speakers. Nice thing in that is how easy is assume it’s meaning.
    Queenlessness… I would never thing this word would be used to say something about a beehive. Firstly I would try something like a monarchy in mourning. Best wishes from Brazil!

    Posted by Roberson Alberto Maciel on 15th February, 2011
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