Saturday, 16 December 2006

Great Britain = Little Britain

A study by Lancaster University linguistics professor Tony McEnery suggests that British teenagers have a vocabulary of just over 12,600 words. That doesn't sound too bad until the figure is compared to that of 25- to 34-year olds, who have vocabularies of about 21,000 words.

Well, that's not so horrible, is it? You'd expect vocabs to increase with time as individuals are exposed to more words. (Mine, on the other hand, is decreasing as I'm exposed to more first year essays.) But McEnery found that a third of teenage conversation was composed of only twenty words, including yeah, no and but. Hmmm ... Sounds familiar.

McEnery argues that whereas schools are partly to blame, technology is the main source of the problem. Use of iPods, PCs and other personal devices discourages teenagers from verbal communication.

    "This trend, known as technology isolation syndrome, could lead to problems in the classroom and then later in life.

Technophile sites, such as Ars Technica, defend the iPods and identify the curriculum as faulty.

    The debate is really one about the place of rhetoric in education and public life. Though a core part of the Renaissance curriculum, debate and public speaking have gradually faded from prominence at most schools, replaced with an approach better suited to stuffing large amounts of information into large numbers of students as though they are Christmas turkeys. McEnery's report suggests bringing speech, rhetoric, and debate back into schoolrooms, but having all the students talk takes time, and time is money, and money is scarce.

(I deal with older teenagers, of course, and I like the idea of stuffing large amounts of information into them. But I'm afraid we're dribbling smaller and smaller amounts into them. I digress.)

British hypermarket chain Tesco funded the research.

According to a BBC article:

    Tesco, which commissioned the report, said it was responding by launching a scheme which allows all UK comprehensive schools to interact and communicate with other schools around the country using its internet phone technology.

Jolly decent of them too. But Wikipedia tells us that Tesco has a bit of a history ...

    The stores' signage displays non-standard grammar. Each store advertises (among other items) "mens magazines", "girls toys", "kids books", "womens shoes" and "Chart DVD's". The author Bill Bryson lambasts Tesco for apostrophe misuse in his book Troublesome Words, stating, "The mistake is inexcusable and those who make it are linguistic Neanderthals." In August 2006 Tesco released a television advertising campaign to persuade people to use fewer non-recyclable plastic carrier bags, which included the non-standard grammar "use less bags".

But that's another story ...


Thanks to Duncan for the link.


Anonymous said...

Fewer of these attacks on the younger generation, please.

Well, it's as good as 40C outside, so that's my excuse for playing around here in the shade.

jj said...

That Professor needs to read a bit more David Crystal or Steven Pinker I reckon.

Tesco though, could do with a bit of deconstructing.

Snail said...

I'd like to know whether the number of words in the average teenager's vocab differs from that of fifty years ago. Surely that'd be more useful than comparing teenagers with an older group.

jj said...

AND a qualitative consideration of BOTH sets.

Snail said...

And the difference between intra- and inter-group communication. (I'm sure there are proper terms but I don't know what they are.)

There was a very brief period after the introduction of text messaging when (a few) students would use SMS language in their e-mails to me. But it was a short-lived phase.

I've got other things to worry about, such as making sure we deliver a useful amount of information to students despite the trend towards reducing it.


Why is "use less bags" non-standard grammar?

jj said...

Let me try ... although snail will do it better when she gets back.

I think it goes like this:

Bags are single, separate, discrete (?) items and so "fewer" (which denotes individual numbers) is correct in that instance.

"Less" applies to materials which are not generally measured as separate entities (eg sand) and so we would usually say "less sand" or "less water" or umm (I hope I am close here!) ... though we would say fewer buckets of sand or fewer cups of water and not less buckets or cups of stuff.

Snail said...

Wot jj said.

Sometimes I get confused about which one to use so usually re-write the sentence.

Anonymous said...

Hi jj, this Engl Lang is fun, ay.
It doesn't appear right now that prescribing few as a description of number is possible.
They, less and few, are both lovely Old English root words (which still comprise more than 90 percent of common discourse - I can find the references if anyone really wants to doubt that) and it seems, from reading Fowler over the 3 main editions that first less had been restricted over the last century from being a comparative of little down to modifying amount only.
Hence when I was doing school you would know an oldie by their talking about a lesser price, degree, stature - while newspapers were already making the more precise descriptions of lower price, inferior degree, smaller stature.
So less got cut off at the knees and seems to have volunteered for extra duty in the next big wave of change on the number front, where few has clearly overextended its little self - in being an indeterminate small number and part of quite a few (ha!) eccentric colloquiallisms - and is just not strong enough to do its specialist number comparitive work with all the rest.
The Australian public broadcaster: the ABC is a mine for examples of less now getting roped in for number comparisons.
As is no lesser an institution than the BBC ;-)

jj said...

hello darky,


Yes, you are right.

It's true that the "rules" we are sure of are sometimes no more than time or place indicators ... when / where we learned them.

For me, those (in this case) are very much the 1950s in an Ed Dept that believed in teaching (and testing) a permanently fixed grammar.

Aaah, those "good old days"!


It's easy to forget that

Anonymous said...

Well jj, I was just looking at a daughter's problem with that same distinction recently, and being like you, I am in no doubt about few being for number - and yet offspring reads pretty widely so I went for a wander and found all those signs that it's still in flux.

You, I think, would get some enjoyment out of that pom national treasure, Michael Quinion's World Wide Words site.
I subscribe to his newsletter, which always has at least one interesting article a week.