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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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Seeking gender neutrality

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Political correctness has been quite successful in getting people to change their linguistic behaviour, far more effective than other kinds of linguistic prescriptions and proscriptions. People really don’t like changing their linguistic habits, particularly if the enterprise smacks of deliberate intervention. Yet even calculated efforts to shift the meanings of words have come up roses. It’s difficult to assess the degree to which these changes are the direct consequence of recommendations made by linguistic authorities and style guides because change comes from people’s personal decisions to alter their language. Societal shifts will always have linguistic repercussions, especially for the lexicon, and PC-driven changes are partly a form of natural linguistic evolution in the face of more general social change.

The title Ms is a good example of what can happen when people are given directives to change their language usage. Though it had been around since at least the 18th century (as an abbreviation of mistress), Ms was introduced in the early 1900s as a new term to replace Mrs/Miss, and therefore equivalent to Mr. In the mid 1980s, linguist Anna Pauwels investigated its use by 250 women. Only 64% understood it in its propagated sense; that is, as a universal title for women which doesn't reveal married status. The rest saw it as a third title applicable to certain categories of women (e.g. divorced, separated, lesbian, unmarried mother, in a de facto relationship, trendy, libber, professional woman). Introducing a brand-new term in this way backfired — the existing 2-way system (Mr-Mrs), became a kind of 3-way system (Mr-Mrs-Ms).

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He was ful of jargon as a flecked pye

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The term jargon is related to gargle and gargoyle — at its root is something meaning ‘throat’. English took the word from French and used it for the twittering and warbling of birds. One of its earliest appearances was Geoffrey Chaucer’s description in The Miller’s Tale: “He was ful of jargon as a flecked pye [= magpie]”. The meaning shift from bird noises to the current popular understanding of jargon as ‘incomprehensible gibberish’ was clearly very early.

But it wasn’t until the 1900s that expressions for ‘loquacious nonsense’ really took off. Before this period we have just a smattering of terms (of course we’re limited to what was written down and survived) — jargon followed closely by babble (15th century); blather and prattle (16th century); balderdash and gabble (17th century); folderol and twaddle (18th century); humbug, poppycock, bunkum and claptrap (19th century). Then in the 20th century there was a sudden explosion of expressions: baloney, blab-word, blah, bull, bumpf, bunk, codswallop, drivel, eyewash, gobbledygook, hubba hubba, hokum, hooey, logorrhea, malarkey, mumbo-jumbo, newspeak, piffle, tripe, waffle — to mention just a few. Flourishing were words for official gibberish like doublespeak, discombobulation (also discaboobulation, originally from a verb meaning ‘to disturb, upset’) and gobbledygook (coined by one Congressman Maury Maverick to describe the language of Washington D.C. official documents — apparently the inspiration for the word comes from the pompous antics of his bearded turkey gobblers back in Texas). You could also include here the -eses (at the top of the plain language movement’s hit list) like bureaucratese and officialese to describe that particular brand of turgid, pedantic prose peculiar to business and government.

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Tracking mateship over time

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A corpus is a collection of very useful sources of language data that we can examine to find out about how language is being used or has been used in the past. (Note that it has a rather fancy plural corpora — though the more mundane corpuses is also common). In Australia we have two online corpora: The Australian National Corpus (or AusNC) and more recently The Big Australian Speech Corpus (or the Big ASC). These contain collections of texts that people have written and also things they have said that have been recorded and transcribed. Any collection of texts could be called a corpus, but mostly today a corpus is understood to be a digitised collection of texts that is searchable and that has been annotated to make it more useful.

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Actualy my Dear Father I fancy I am speaking to you verbaly

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Changes in vocabulary are always pretty obvious — and are relatively easy to track over time. Far more difficult are changes elsewhere in the language. We have to rely on written evidence – and yet writing conventions (even ones that are just emerging) will always restrict what we can observe of early pronunciation and grammar. The knock-on effect of standardization and the linguistic straitjacketing that this process entails mean that written texts that might have provided clues about early forms of speech (such as diaries and letters) are no longer as revealing. There’s also the danger of the skewing effects of increasing literacy and a budding literary tradition.

Take for example the sort of evidence we might use for early Australian English. David Hill’s narrative account of the First Fleet draws from all sorts of wonderful first hand materials — extracts from journals, letters and reports from this earliest period of colonial history. Yet the language of all his primary sources is disappointingly standard. The journal of Annie Dawbin contains some 845,000 words covering the years 1834-68 and, while it presents a remarkable account of Annie’s life in colonial southeastern Australia, it too doesn’t reveal much about the language spoken at the time. The same is true of other first-hand accounts such as those by James Dixon and Peter Cunningham. Australia’s magazine industry was developing rapidly at this time. It’s a great source of early written journalese but doesn’t provide any real insight into the colloquial forms and structures of the day. Melbourne Punch was uniquely colonial in its focus and humour, but only occasionally are we given a taste of the spoken vernacular.

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Hidden Jane Austen by John Wiltshire

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I love book launches, and last Saturday I had the very good fortune to be at the Library at Docklands helping to release into the world John Wiltshire’s wonderful new book Hidden Jane Austen.

It’s a book that is not so much about revealing the social and political setting of Austen’s six novels (though John also addresses this kind of hidden), but more about the inner life of her characters — their unseen ticks and itches. It draws our attention to facets of human behavior that aren’t referenced overtly in those works and, much like the beautiful detail from the group portrait that John chose for the cover of the book, we have to read between the lines.

Read more: Hidden Jane Austen by John Wiltshire

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).