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Toffs and oiks: the language of social class

Union Jack flagJudith Willis, former Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in ELT at Oxford University Press, looks at the language of social class.

A recent survey conducted by the BBC revealed a new class structure in the UK consisting of seven social classes. The top class is termed the elite and the bottom one, the precariat, or precarious proletariat. Leaving aside any political or sociological consequences, we will almost certainly be hearing a lot more of the word precariat, until now a rarity in everyday English.

Le précariat was first used by French sociologists in the 1980s to describe temporary or seasonal workers, and has since been used in other languages including Italian (precariato), German (Prekariat), Spanish (precariado) and even Japanese (purekariāto). Its meaning has evolved into that of a social class – or underclass – as formulated by the sociology professor Loïc Wacquant and the British sociologist Guy Standing in his 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.

At the top of the new structure we find another word of French origin, elite, which has been used in English since the early 19th century to mean a group of powerful, influential people. English may be the language of a famously class-conscious people and have given the word ‘snob’ to the world but it relies heavily on imports for the vocabulary of class.

Social class has been defined in different ways over the years. Back in classical times, there were patricians and plebeians. In our agricultural past, class was determined by a person’s family and their links to the land – the nobility or aristocracy, the gentry, including the squirearchy, the yeomanry and the peasantry. With the coming of 19th century industrialization, the focus shifted to the individual’s relation to the means of production and the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were the two conflicting classes in Marxist theory. ‘Bourgeoisie’ and ‘petite bourgeoisie were also used in non-political contexts to refer to the growing middle classes. Recent times have tended to speak mainly of ‘the middle class’ and ‘the working class’, with the middle class often divided into upper and lower middle class. The terms ‘upper class’ and ‘lower class’ are less frequent in serious discussion of class.

By studying corpus statistics we can see how adjectives ending in ‘-class’ are actually used and gain a better picture of our perception of class. ‘Working-class’ is typically followed by the nouns ‘struggle(s)’, ‘movement’ and ‘exploitation’. ‘Middle-class’ collocates with ‘suburb’, ‘families’ and ’respectability’; ‘upper-middle-class’ with ‘suburbanites’, ‘enclave’ and ‘accents’, and ‘lower-middle-class’ with ’background(s)’, ’ insecurity’ and ’origins’. ‘Lower-class’ is used of ‘delinquents’, ‘accent’ and ‘subculture’, whereas ‘upper-class’ is used largely in insults, followed by words such as ‘twit(s)’, ‘toffs’ and ‘snobs’.

Social class has become more fluid: in the 19th and early 20th centuries the English language adopted the French forms arriviste, parvenu and nouveau riche to speak in a disapproving way of people who, in the latter half of the 20th century, would be spoken of approvingly as upwardly mobile and aspirational. If someone is described as being of lowly or humble origins, they have usually made it up the social ladder!

More informal words describing individuals are nearly always used as insults, giving us a polarized view of a posh bunch of la-di-da, toffee-nosed upper-class twits, Hooray Henrys, chinless wonders and toffs with plummy accents at one end of the spectrum, and at the other a common bunch of chavs, oiks and plebs.

In 1990, the incoming British Prime Minister, John Major (who rose to the highest office from working-class origins!) vowed to create a ‘classless society’. It seems Britain still has some way to go.


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“Thank you, thank you so much” – the language of acceptance speeches

Celebrity red carpet interviewJudith Willis, former Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in ELT at Oxford University Press, looks at common themes in the language of acceptance speeches.

If you’ve ever had a nightmare about standing tongue-tied on stage grappling for words, you may find it instructive – and consoling – to study what the winners of major film awards say when they pick up the accolade. Analysis of recent acceptance speeches reveals the key features of the genre.

The stars are urged to keep their speeches brief – the average length is just 187 words and on the whole they’re getting shorter. As the main purpose is to express gratitude, the word thank is unsurprisingly the runaway winner occurring on average nearly 6 times per speech, with Thank you, thank you so much a common phrase:

Thank you, thank you so much.  […] Thank you so much, the Academy, what an honor.

This quote illustrates the popular rhetorical device of repeating words to emphasize the message. Some speakers, maybe aware of over-reliance on a single word, display a touch of irony:

There are  […] thousands of people to thank, so thankfully I’m not going to thank them now.

Unfortunately, award-winners don’t consult a thesaurus – occurrences of gratitude and grateful are fairly sparse, but there are a few instances of shout-out as in:

A big shout-out to Monty Norman and the late John Barry for that iconic theme.

The object of these outpourings are the awarding body, the fellow nominees (a term used predominantly by American English speakers, echoing the presidential my fellow Americans/citizens), the director – sometimes spoken of in nautical terms as our beloved skipper or our visionary captain, the cast, crew and team, and, of course, the speaker’s entire family. All of the above are frequently assured of the speaker’s love, especially at the Oscars:

And to our kids  […]. I love you guys.

Along with the thanks often comes surprise – favourite exclamations are wow, oh my, etc:

Oh my, oh my God. Oh wow really, […] truly wow. / Oh boy. I can’t believe I’m actually saying this.

The top adjectives used to describe the honour, emotions, etc. are, in order of frequency: wonderful, incredible, amazing, brilliant, extraordinary and fantastic, sometimes preceded by the intensifiers really, absolutely and truly.

Film or movie? This clearly depends in part on who the individual award-winners are: the BAFTAs show a strong and consistent preference for film over movie, but, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the Oscars are undergoing a shift from film to movie with movie staying ahead of film at the 2013 ceremony, continuing a trend that started in 2012.

Speeches may be structured with the use of phrases such as first of all, first and foremost, matched by last but not least or finally:

And then finally, finally – okay, I am really getting there – finally, finally,…

To use a favourite end-of-speech phrasal verb, let’s wrap up this post with some interesting language from Quentin Tarantino’s acceptance speech at the 2013 BAFTAs:

I want to thank my actors for doing a bang-up job with my dialogue […] this was a pretty hot potato script  […]

… for them to actually do it, pony up a lot of money to do it, and do it the right way…

… and the more telegraphic style of the conclusion to his 2013 Oscar speech:

You guys are all wonderful. Peace out.

Data for this blog is drawn from BAFTA winners’ acceptance speeches from 2011-2013 and Academy Awards® winners’ onstage speeches from 2010-2013.

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The Language Legacy of the Olympics

2012 Olympic Stadium

Image courtesy of Nick J Webb on Flickr

In this article, Margaret Deuter, a managing editor, and Leonie Hey, an assistant editor in the ELT dictionaries department at Oxford University Press, look at some of the language that came out of the Summer 2012 Olympic Games in London.

As memories of the 2012 Summer Olympic and the Paralympic Games fade, interest shifts to the legacy of the Games. Work has begun on the Olympic Park. Some of the buildings are being dismantled and taken to Rio. Others will be transformed for other uses. The poetry displayed around the Olympic site and read by thousands of spectators last summer will stay. But what about the words that were not carved in stone? The words that were on the lips of commentators and spectators – will their legacy include a permanent place in the English language?

Like true athletes, words are versatile, and during the Summer Olympics they were changing discipline all over the place. Competitors no longer ‘won a medal’, but ‘medalled’ – Michael Phelps even became the ‘most medalled Olympian’! To receive their medal, they used to stand on a podium – now they can ‘podium’. Neither of these verbs first appeared at these Games (‘to medal’ has been around since 1822) but the boost they received may mean that they will be around for longer.

And what a godsend for teachers dealing with comparison of adjectives the Games with their ‘faster, higher, stronger’ motto is. Reporters claimed they were running out of superlatives and reaching feverishly for the dictionary…

‘Medal munching’ was a new name for something that winning athletes have probably done for some time – biting into the gold for the cameras – or was it just another opportunity to show off that patriotic “nail art”?  Talking of nails, how many of those athletes were ‘nailed-on winners’? Of course they ‘nailed it’ – they won – but beforehand, pundits knew which candidates were guaranteed to succeed. This expression is a nailed-on certainty – it’s already used in a variety of contexts, including many sporting ones (‘a nailed-on penalty decision’) but also going beyond the world of sport: ‘A merger and acquisition boom looks nailed on.’ ‘It’s a nailed-on recipe for disaster!

Words not only morph into new parts of speech, they associate with new companions. Flag-bearers and torch-bearers always make appearances at the Olympics. A new compound was created for London in the shape of Games Makers. Although volunteers had helped at the Games when they last came to London in 1948, this year they were christened  ‘Games Makers’ in recognition of the way they helped ‘make the Games happen’. They were featured on a commemorative stamp after the Games, but their name might not be immortalized in the language. I doubt whether that’s a compound that will make its way into the dictionary.

New venues, too, will generate new terms. Perhaps in 2016 we’ll all be adding sporting words of Portuguese origin to our vocabulary.

The sporting legacy of the Olympics may be less spectacular than the politicians and sports organizers hoped – too many of us preferred to sit back and watch others achieve sporting greatness to doing anything more athletic than reaching for the remote control. But a little corner of the English language will have been shaped by the excited crowds and commentators of London 2012.

Margaret Deuter is a managing editor in the ELT dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.  She taught English in Germany and the United States before becoming a lexicographer in 1991 to work on monolingual and bilingual learners’ dictionaries.

Leonie Hey  taught English in Sardinia and worked as a language teacher in the UK before joining OUP in 2011 to work on monolingual and bilingual learners’ dictionaries.

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Is Language More Like a Meal or a Shake?

ClassroomChris Franek takes a look at why people want to learn a language and who make the best students…

I once knew of a young guy in his mid-twenties who was a former college baseball pitcher. He was obsessed with being fit and was always working out. As an outgrowth of his obsession with being fit, he eventually came to the conclusion that what was most efficient and convenient for him diet-wise was to treat the necessity of eating more as a problem to be solved rather than something to be enjoyed. In his final analysis, he concluded that not only was cooking a waste of time, but eating in general was a waste of time. Why, he reasoned, should one waste his time eating when science had evolved to a place where there existed an abundant supply of meal replacement shakes that were precisely formulated with all of the nutrients the body needs to function physiologically? Not only was it more efficient but it was much more convenient. I suppose my question is, do we really want to reduce eating to being nothing more than nutrient intake?

I am a foodie and an epicurean in that I truly love food. Eating great food is almost a therapeutic experience for me. I enjoy not only the eating aspect of it but I love preparing and cooking it. I love the subtly of flavors and textures that come with not only the immense variety of food but the innumerable ways it can be prepared. To subsist on a diet of shakes is unfathomable to me. Subsisting on not merely shakes, but any type of ‘diet’ based form of eating transforms our relationship with food from one that is incredibly substantive and deeply enjoyable into something that quite the opposite. Our relationship with food has devolved into something that is decidedly unenjoyable, unsustainable, and outright combative in some cases.

I wonder if our relationship and typical experience with learning language has perhaps de-evolved in a similar fashion. It’s very interesting to me to observe what seems to have become a really common approach to teaching language. Many teach it from the premise of reducing language down to being just a collection of dry grammar rules and vocabulary words. As a result, the language student’s experience learning language is often incredibly dry, tasteless, and unstimulating in terms of both the standard classroom experience and even more so with the proliferation of computer-based language learning platforms like Rosetta Stone. The reality is that language is much more than a collection of words and grammar rules. It is tethered to a culture and culture is the collective expression of a group of people. Language is that binding agent by which we can connect to one another and connecting to each other is an innate drive within all of us.

Reducing eating to being nothing more than a problem in need of a solution essentially strips the joy out of eating. It takes something that should be a special time to commune with our food and dismisses it as nothing more than a nuisance to be avoided. In like manner, by stripping cultural context out of the language learning process, we are arguably removing the joy and the life essence out of the learning experience. What is the difference between a person and a corpse? The breath. If a person has no breath, he has no life. He is a corpse. If language has no cultural reference, it has no life—no breath. It is dead.

I think in considering just how valuable and essential culture is to a language, I think we can simply consider what inspires someone to learn a language to begin with. Of course, there are the legions of people who learn English because they feel it necessary to do so in order to create better career opportunities for themselves. While I dare not argue against such motivations, I also don’t feel that necessity is synonymous with inspiration and true desire. People rarely do anything well when they are doing so out of obligation. However, people can do things remarkably well when motivated out of a sense of genuine desire and inspiration. Over the 16 years I have taught ESL, the best students I have encountered were not necessarily those who had the highest IQ or aptitude but rather those who had the strongest desire. Therefore, I would like to, for the sake of argument, toss out necessity as being what I would consider an authentic source of inspiration.

So why would someone WANT to learn a language? Usually, people choose to do things when they are caught by it. In the case of choosing a language to learn, most people don’t throw a dart at a board and randomly select whatever language it lands on. Ironically, however, if you look at the way language is typically taught, you would probably conclude just that. Honestly, what would separate one collection of grammar rules and words from looking any more appealing than another collection of grammar rules and words? Not much really. The reality is that people likely do not randomly choose a language to learn. Rather, they choose a culture to learn. Or to put it more accurately, they are caught by a culture. Why are French and Spanish among the most popular languages to learn? They are popular because people are fascinated and caught by the appeal of the cultures those languages represent. They are caught by the people those languages represent. They are caught by the customs those languages represent. They are caught by the food and the music those languages represent. No one is caught by a collection of grammar rules and words.

In a future article, I’ll comment on what my observations are about how we can kineticize (to coin a new phrase) the idea of including cultural context in language learning. It’s one thing to say that culture should be included while it is another thing entirely to offer suggestion for how to do so.


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CLIL: just a fad, or still rad?

To celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, Tim Herdon writes about some of the practical implications of CLIL programmes and considers where we are going with CLIL (or where CLIL is taking us).  Tim Herdon is a Senior Teacher Trainer at OUP, and has been involved in CLIL for six years. 

For a number of years we’ve been hearing and reading about CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning).  CLIL programmes, in which a subject from the mainstream school curriculum is taught in a second language, have become increasingly common in both primary and secondary, especially in the last decade.  In the mid-90s, when CLIL was a new initiative, there was a certain amount of scepticism about this approach, which was natural and probably quite healthy – it would be chaotic if we jumped on every new bandwagon that came along.  However CLIL now looks set to stay and in many countries it has strong government support with funds allocated towards teacher training and syllabus and materials development.

In fact the impact of CLIL is such that it is even having a backwash effect on the way ELT coursebooks are published.  More and more courses now contain short cross-curricular sections in some or all of the units.  This has come to be called ‘soft CLIL’ – a short excursion into the world of CLIL rather than a full journey.  Predictably, ‘hard CLIL’ is the term used to describe the full journey:  the teaching of a complete subject, or a specific area of a subject, in L2, over a longer period of time.

This raises an interesting question for English teachers:  in the future will we see a gradual shift from soft CLIL to hard CLIL?  I would say that yes, I think we will:  CLIL continues to gain in popularity, and I think its impact on General English course materials will continue to increase.  And the way CLIL is implemented is partly responsible for changing perceptions: in schools the English teacher is often central to the implementation of CLIL programmes, both in terms of teaching and coordination.  In fact the increased contact between English teachers and teachers of other subjects through involvement in CLIL programmes has been one of the biggest benefits, and this has contributed to CLIL’s increasing popularity.

The Lexical Approach has come and gone, Audiolingualism has been dragged screaming from the room and the Silent Way has now fallen, well, silent…  what about CLIL?  Is it just a passing fad, or is it here to stay?  What do you think?

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