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Lingofile Blog

Lingofile is here to appeal to your passion for language. Professor Kate Burridge posts musings about language - please join the discussion below.
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EAL Worksheets

 This is the catalogue of free worksheets (with sample answers) from the Boobook Education EAL discussion list. To join the EAL discussion list click here. 
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Lingofile Worksheets

Worksheets for immediate use in the classroom. Ideal for students' language journals, it's all part of our commitment to the study of English Language.
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Wording Worksheets

 These language and argument worksheets are ideal for Year 10, 11 and 12 students
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Advance Aushtralia Fair

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Complaints about language sometimes seem a bit like mind contagions. Debora Mendelson’s grumpy letter to the newspaper about Justine Schofield's pronunciation is one of many recent protests about the process that turns picture into “pikcha” and assume into “ashoom”:

It's an annoyance that Justine Schofield has not improved her appalling diction as she has gained more confidence as a TV chef. "Paischtry" and "mischture" is her norm instead of the crispness of pastry and mixture along with the lone description of "beautiful " to describe all ingredients. (Letter to the Green Guide; June 25 2015)

What she’s describing here is one of the most common processes of sound change — the tendency for vowels and consonants to become like others nearby. Sloppy speech, careless speech, you might be thinking? Perhaps. But it’s exactly this assimilation process that has given rise to pronunciations such as mission as “mishon”, measure as “mezha” and righteous as “righchous”.

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Flash language-Australian identity

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A number of the slang phrases current in St. Giles’s Greek bid fair to become legitimatized in the dictionary of this colony […] the dross passing here as genuine, even among all ranks. [Cunningham1827 Two Years in New South Wales]

While delving into the “rorters” and “fraudsters” of the last blog, I rediscovered one of the most interesting dictionaries in my little collection: A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language. Written by British convict James Hardy Vaux in 1812 (for use by magistrates), it’s the first dictionary compiled in Australia. It’s a great read (and thanks to Project Gutenberg, it’s now also online).

The term flash is defined here by Vaux as “the cant language used by the family”. His definition goes on to point out that “to speak good flash is to be well versed in cant terms” — and, having been transported to New South Wales on three separate occasions during his “checkered and eventful life” (his words), Vaux himself was clearly well versed in the world of villainy and cant. Both the terms flash and cant (also kiddy) were expressions that referred to underworld slang. In fact, slang itself was originally criminal jargon; it only broadened in the 1800s to the meaning we have today (language of a highly colloquial nature, not part of standard speech).

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Dangerous metaphors

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A recent legal case (The Medical Board of Australia v Dr D. Roberts) shows the dangers of bellicose rhetoric — especially when the feelings of communicators towards each other are a bit wobbly.

In a hastily written note, a paediatrician suggested to the parents of twin boys (diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperative Disorder) to beat them to within an inch of their lives (“… I recommend to your husband that he beat (physically) each and any of you our sons [sic] whoswear and offend his wife (that is Mother) .. to within an inch of his life”)

The doctor didn’t deny writing the note but did deny any intention on his part for the words to be taken literally. He argued that he was speaking metaphorically to motivate the father to “take an active role in defending his wife's honour”, and he hoped that the “humour” would help to ease the tensions. My job in all this was to provide a linguistic account of the expression beat to within an inch of his life and so I focused on two kindred figures of speech — metaphor and hyperbole.

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Rorters & fraudsters - Australian English

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With all this recent talk of rorters and fraudsters, I thought it might be worthwhile to explore something of the murky history of these two words.

Rorter has a particularly Australian story to tell. Its root goes back to slang rorty with the meaning of “jolly, lively” — occasionally even “amorous” if those right-down rorty gals from the 1800s are anything to go by. People could once have a rorty time of it, and to do the rorty meant “to enjoy oneself”. Rorty toffs and rorty dashers were “out and out swells”.

The shift of meaning from rort “wild party” to “act of fraud” is Australian. It first showed up in the early 1900s and now has the dubious honour of appearing in the International Tax Glossary as “a term used in Australia to denote a deliberate and blatant use of an opportunity in an improper, if not entirely technically illegal manner”. Australian English has a number of expressions where deceitful, fraudulent senses have proved to be the stronger (especially in early criminal slang) — lurk is a good example.

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Bold brave punctuation

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These days I’ve become quite uneasy about my use of punctuation marks. Once-neutral little symbols are taking on a whole heap of new significances, and it seems I’ve been rather slow to pick up on these. No longer aligned to grammar or rhythm (two functions that have always been intertwined for English), punctuation has broken free of the literary standard — with new life now breathed into commas, colons, exclamation marks, question marks, apostrophes, quotation marks and even full-stops.

It’s interesting, not that long ago people were predicting the demise of these symbols. In the new world of texting, instant messaging and tweets, fewer punctuation marks means fewer keystrokes — less time and less effort. I might receive a text:

on way home will call later

Why bother to indicate the start or end of sentences here? Indeed, some years back, I recall attending a workshop for editors where the message was just this — “dump the punc” (at least I think that was how the presenter put it).

Read more: Bold brave punctuation

Introducing Kate Burridge

Kate Burridge, our resident linguist, is Professor of Linguistics in the School of Languages, Literature, Cultures and Linguistics (Monash University) and a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Her main areas of research are: grammatical change in Germanic languages, the Pennsylvania German spoken by Amish / Mennonite communities in North America, the notion of linguistic taboo and the structure and history of English. She is a regular presenter of language segments on radio and has been a panelist on ABC TV’s Can We Help.

Her books include: Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language used as shield and weapon (with Keith Allan, 1991), Syntactic Change in Germanic (1993), English in Australia and New Zealand (with Jean Mulder, 1998), Blooming English: Observations on the roots, cultivation and hybrids of the English Language (2004), Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further observations on the tangled history of the English language (2005), Forbidden Words: Taboo and the censoring of language (with Keith Allan, 2006), Introducing English Grammar (with Kersti Börjars, 2010), Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English language history (2010) and (with Debbie de Laps) Love the Lingo (2010) and Living Lingo (2011).