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The Secret Life of Words

Inspired by The History of English…in just a minute x10

I’ve got ‘The Secret Life of Words’ out again to enjoy a sustained romp through the WWW (weird world of words).

I think Dr Who with ADHD having to explain his preference for these Isles in a 60 second count down to the end of the universe.

Which words leave you discombobulated?

Which ones left you tickled pink?

My journey through the English language has been refreshed.

I have read his ‘The Secret Life of Words. How English Became English’ from cover to cover.

I’ll have to read his book on Dr Johnson’s Dictionary next. Or get my hands on Mencken’s book on ‘The American Language’ which the late Alistair Cook would often quote.

I’ve learnt about loan words, calques and coinage; words taken straight from a foreign language, expressions that are literal translations of a foreign language and invented words.

English is a language of constant invention.

I have a put down from the 16th century for any new fangled multiple-syllable techno babble I come across. I can call the author a ‘Controversialist’ – a writer who spurts out horrid polysyllables; and I might use the line, ‘such addicts of exotic terms would rarely use a short word where a long alternative could be found.’ From John Florio’s A Worlde of Wordes (1598)

I love the French loan word ‘Escargatoire’ which is ‘a nursery of snails’.

It amuses me that William Fox Talbot wanted to call photography ‘photogenic drawing’ while after Louis Daguerre we have ‘daguerreotype’ but pushed by Sir John Hersche ‘photography’ and ‘photo’ caught on. (Queen Victoria asked a grand-daughter for a ‘photo’ in a letter so that diminutive, the word not Herr Majesty, has older and loftier origins than we may have imagined).

I thought of ‘stakeholder’ as a word that had to be 1970s corporate speak, only to learn that it was first used in 1850, along with ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘capitalist.’

Etiquette has become ‘netiquette’ online

This is a Georgian notion and appears in Johnson’s dictionary of 1818. One piece of advice given regarding etiquette is to ‘be discreet and sparing of your words.’

Hitchings leaves mention of the Internet to the last pages of the final paragraph ‘Online communities, which are nothing if not eclectic, prove an especially rich breeding ground for new words.’

* extremes

* deliriously ludic (sic)

* personalised

* localised

‘The History of English…in ten minutes’

Voiced by Clive Anderson, Scripted by Jon Hunter (R4 Mock the Week/The News Quiz)

“When did English speaking scientists get round to naming the most intimate of the sexual body parts?

‘The History of English‘ squeezes 1600 years of history into 10 one-minute bites, uncovering the sources of English words and phrases from Shakespeare and the King James Bible to America and the Internet’.

Philip Sergeant (FELS) was the academic consultant.

The idea is based on the Open University course ‘Worlds of English’.

REFERENCE

The Secret Life of Words. How English Became English. Henry Hitchings. 2008

 

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Woe-betide the Geordie linguist trying to learn in the English speaking world

The meaning of words and learning, from how we learn to speak via Hitchings, John Seely Brown and the Open University MAODE module H800.

I like that thought that ‘All knowledge is, we believe, like language’.

Whether we are educators or not, we all have experience of acquiring or possibly learning a language. I was brought up in the North of England by aspirational Geordies who between them wanted to instil ‘correct’ spoken and written English. Woe-betide the child who spoke with a hard ‘a,’ spilt an infinitive and sprinkled their conversation with ‘sorts of … ‘ or ‘you know.’ I’m surprised none of us came out with a stammer. Could this be why my brother bit his nails all the time? He held onto his Geordie accent despite his parents best (or worst efforts). Which has me thinking, we’ve had a Royal who stammered, is there one who used to bite their finger-nails?

Language, and our choice of words and the words that are coined and come into common used are vital. I STILL get into conversations over whether it is ‘E-learning’ or ‘online learning’, and as they are the client you can imagine which way I tip.

‘Its constituent parts index the world and so are inextricably a product of the activity and situations in which they are produced’. Brown et al (1989)

This indexing of the world makes for a fascinating book. Hitchings on the English Language gives a wonderful insight not only into the way ‘English’ developed, has changed and is changing … and why words matter.

‘A concept, for example, will continually evolve with each new occasion of use, because new situations, negotiations, and activities inevitably recast it in new, more densely textured form. So a concept, like the meaning of a word, is always under construction’.

Think of conceptual knowledge as similar to a set of tools.

‘People use tools actively rather than just acquire them, by contrast, build an increasingly rich implicit understanding of the world in which they use the tools and the tools themselves’. P33

I like this idea too, that we can equate words with tools and vice-versa. They are components that enable communication. And communication facilitates learning.

But of course ‘How a tool is used will vary by context and culture’. Brown et al (1989:33)

Wherein lies the inherent problem with language, whether it is translated, or especially if you think you are talking the same language … but are not because your take and comprehension of a word or set of words is different: should, would, will, can, maybe, perhaps … all words that combined with a look, and body language may make someone believe they mean ‘yes’ or they mean ‘no’. So do you, in such situations act or do nothing? Language can have us sitting on the fence. Is this what academics do? Forever transitory between the commercial world where decisions are paramount?

‘Enculturation is what people do in learning to speak, read, and write, or becoming school children, office workers, researchers and so on’. Brown et al (1989:32-33).

I loathe the word ‘enculturation’ as I only ever come across it in reports/conversations such as these. As all learning, in all its stages becomes readily available and transparent I wonder if such words, indeed any jargon or acronyms are justified? It is possible to be intelligent without cluttering your sentences with ‘big words’ or sounding patronising. Try it; it’s habit forming. Like all education.

‘Given the chance to observe and practice in situ the behaviour of members of a culture, people pick up on relevant jargon, imitate behaviour, and gradually start to act in accordance with its norms’.

I read, unless you are born into a middle class family of snobs who deny their roots.

Ambient culture over explicit teaching

‘When authentic activities are transferred to the classroom, their context is inevitably transmuted; they become classroom tasks. The system of learning and using (and, of course, testing) thereafter remains hermetically sealed within the self-confirming culture of the school’. Brown et al (1989:34)

Wherein lies the discord in many school classrooms

The students’ lives are so far removed from the school experience that they cannot behave. They could and will only learn if they do so within the context of their family lives. How many families sit around together, in front of the piano, or radio, or TV, let alone at the dining room table? Children don’t sit still, physically or mentally. They occupy their own space both online and off. No wonder they take laptops into lectures. And can they blog, and send messages while sitting through a lecture? Probably. They could even stream it live to someone who can’t make it … or just record it for later consumption (or not). Not being the operative word, what they can grab of it in transit is probably as much as they’ll take in first time through. Just plain folks (JPFs)

I love the idea of JPS

‘Just plain folks’ (JPFs),’ we are told, ‘learn in ways that are quite distinct from what students (in the classroom) are asked to do’. (Jean Lave’s ethnographic studies of learning and everyday activity 1988b). (Weren’t JPS a brand of cigarette, famously branded gold and blank on Forumula 1 Racing cars of the 1970s?)

JPFs are best off as apprentices rather than having to make qualitative changes in school. Brown et al (1989:35)

This is what we do. We label, we index, we give things names. We categorise whether or not there is truth behind the category. I debunk ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ as concepts wherever I can as false, yet we know what is meant by it, as with ‘Generation Y’ or the ‘Facebook Generation.’ We cannot have a conversation without such terms.

What as a teacher do you make explicit and what implicit?

The problem is that to overcome difficult pedagogic problems you make as much as possible explicit – this is not the way to teach.

Indexical representations which ‘gain their efficiency by leaving much of the context underrepresented or implicit.’ Brown et al (1989:41)

i.e. what you leave out is perhaps more important than what you put in.

Which explains the problem with Wikipedia – it aims to be universal, comprehensive and definitive.

It wants to be the last word on everything, even if the last word is always the next word that is written. From a learning point of view I’d like to launch a moth-eaten version of Wikipedia, the Gouda cheese version that leaves stuff out, that is nibbled at and full of holes.

Why?

Because this will get on your goat and prompt you to engage with the content, to correct it, to fill in the gaps. Can someone write an app to do this?

To go in and remove sentences, replace the right word with the wrong one, a wrong date/place with the facts currently given?

‘Communication is essential to our lives, but how often do we stop to think about where the words we use have come from?’

Henry Hitchings poses this question on the flyleaf of his gloriously informative and entertaining book on the History of English ‘The secret life of word. How English became English.’ Hitchings (2008)

REFERENCE

Hitchings, H. (2008) The Secret Life of Words. How English Became English.

Brown, J.S., Collins.A., Duguid, P., (1989) Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan. – Feb., 1989), pp. 32-42 American Educational Research Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1176008 . Accessed: 05/03/2011 13:10

Fingerspitzengefuhl – that feeling in the tips of one’s fingers. Comes with an iPad.

‘A feeling in the tips of one’s fingers.’ Courtesy of Henry Hitchings (2009)

My journey through the English language courtesy of Henry Hitchings has come to an end. I have read his ‘The Secret Life of Words. How English Became English’ from cover to cover. I’ll have to read his book on Dr Johnson’s Dictionary next – unless I have something better to do in OU Land. Or get my hands on Mencken’s book on The American Language which the late Alistair Cook would often quote.

‘Consider this medium as like talking with your fingers – half-way between spoken conversation and written discourse.'(Hawkridge, Morgan and Jeffs, 1997, quoted in Salmon 2005)

Salmon, G (2005) E-moderating.

The Key to teaching and learning online

I feel better armed to deal with concerns for the veracity of such words as ‘enculturated’ and ‘e-lapsed’ time that those of studying Online and Distance Learning (e-learning) must get used to.

I’ve learnt about loan words, calques and coinage; words taken straight from a foreign language, expressions that are literal translations of a foreign language and invented words.

English is a language of constant invention.

I have a put down from the 16th century for any new fangled multiple-syllable techno babble I come across. I can call the author a ‘Controversialist  – a writer who spurts out horrid polysyllables; and I might use the line, ‘such addicts of exotic terms would rarely use a short word where a long alternative could be found.’ From John Florio’s A Worlde of Wordes (1598)

I love the French loan word ‘Escargatoire’ which is ‘a nursery of snails’. I am sure I can find a way to use it.

It amuses me that William Fox Talbot wanted to call photography ‘photogenic drawing while after Louis Daguerre we have ‘daguerreotype’ but pushed by Sir John Hersche ‘photography’ and ‘photo’ caught on. (Queen Victoria asked a grand-daughter for a ‘photo’ in a letter).

I thought of ‘stakeholder’ as a word that had to be 1970s corporate speak, only to learn that it was first used in 1850, along with entrepreneur and capitalist

Etiquette has become ‘netiquette’ in OU Land

This is a Georgian notion and appears in Johnson’s dictionary of 1818. One piece of advice given regarding etiquette is to ‘be discreet and sparing of your words.’

With is in mind, as I begin a new module my self-imposed rules will be:

  • Messages under 50 words
  • Forum replies and entries under 250 words
  • OU Blog global entries under 250 words, OU entries under 500 and private entries as long as I wish, but probably under 2,000 words
  • MyStuff under 1,000 (though I plan to break these entries into more manageable ‘learning objects,’ like the paper equivalent of what in 1990 the OU called a ‘Concept Card.’

(I have also broken this entry into four parts to keep the wordage down per entry. More to follow.)

Hitchings leaves mention of the Internet to the last pages of the final paragraph

‘Online communities, which are nothing if not eclectic, prove an especially rich breeding ground for new words.’

* extremes
* deliriously ludic (sic)
* personalised
* localised

REFERENCE

The Secret Life of Words. How English Became English. Henry Hitchings. 2008

Fingerspitzengefuhl

Fingerspitzengefuhl

‘A feeling in the tips of one’s fingers.’ Courtesy of Henry Hitchings (2009)

My journey through the English language courtesy of Henry Hitchings has come to an end.

I have read his ‘The Secret Life of Words. How English Became English’ from cover to cover. I’ll have to read his book on Dr Johnson’s Dictionary next. Or get my hands on Mencken’s book on ‘The American Language’ which the late Alistair Cook would often quote.

I’ve learnt about loan words, calques and coinage; words taken straight from a foreign language, expressions that are literal translations of a foreign language and invented words.

English is a language of constant invention.

I have a put down from the 16th century for any new fangled multiple-syllable techno babble I come across. I can call the author a ‘Controversialist – a writer who spurts out horrid polysyllables; and I might use the line, ‘such addicts of exotic terms would rarely use a short word where a long alternative could be found.’ From John Florio’s A Worlde of Wordes (1598)

I love the French loan word ‘Escargatoire’ which is ‘a nursery of snails’.

I am sure I can find a way to use it.

It amuses me that William Fox Talbot wanted to call photography ‘photogenic drawing’ while after Louis Daguerre we have ‘daguerreotype’ but pushed by Sir John Hersche ‘photography’ and ‘photo’ caught on. (Queen Victoria asked a grand-daughter for a ‘photo’ in a letter).

I thought of ‘stakeholder’ as a word that had to be 1970s corporate speak, only to learn that it was first used in 1850, along with ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘capitalist’.

Etiquette has become ‘netiquette’ online

This is a Georgian notion and appears in Johnson’s dictionary of 1818. One piece of advice given regarding etiquette is to ‘be discreet and sparing of your words.’

Hitchings leaves mention of the Internet to the last pages of the final paragraph ‘Online communities, which are nothing if not eclectic, prove an especially rich breeding ground for new words.’

* extremes

* deliriously ludic (sic)

* personalised

* localised

REFERENCE

The Secret Life of Words. How English Became English. Henry Hitchings. 2008

E-words, e-terms and e-lexemes

Cover of "The Secret Life of Words: How E...

Cover via Amazon

 Inspired by The Secret life of words. How English became English. Henry Hitchings (2008)

24 August 2010 (First posted in my Diayland blog which I stared in September 1999)

‘Communications is essential to our lives, but how often do we stop to think about where the words we use have come from?’ Hitchings (2008)

Whilst ‘where words came from’ is the premise for ‘The Secret Life of Words’ it is much more: it is a history of the people who spoke English. It is a refreshing take on a chronology of events. We learn history through words for warrior, through the Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin word for the same thing … and through the words the English language has so easily accommodated from across the globe.

E-words. E-terms. E-lexemes.

* Word – Anglo-Saxon
* Term – French
* Lexeme – Latin

It is a fascinating journey, one made pertinent to someone studying on the cascading wave-edge of the digital ocean that is ‘e-learning’ with the frequent coining of new terms.

For a description of the way the English language functions (or mis-functions) I love this:

  • English is ‘Deficient in regularity.’
  • From James Harris (c1720) in Hitchings (2008:1)
  • It is exactly the kind of thing a teacher might write in red pen at the bottom of a school-boy’s essay.
  • This is another way of putting it. English, ‘this hybrid tongue’, as Hitchings calls it. Hitchings (2008:2)
  • A tongue that re-invents itself, twists and transmogrifies at every turn.

A couple of decades ago I recall there being suggestions that the English language would splinter into so many dialects, creoles and forms that a speaker of one would not understand the user of another. The opposite appears to be the case, that ‘core English’ has been stabilised by its myriad of versions. Users can choose to understand each other or not, to tolerate even celebrate their differences or to use difference to create a barrier: think of the class divide, the posh voice versus the plebeian, one regional accent set against another, or an accent from one former British Dominion compared to another.

‘Words bind us together, and can drive us apart.’ Hitchings (2008:3)

How is the Internet changing the English Language?

What impact has Instant Messaging, blogging and asynchronous communication had? Can we be confident that others take from our words the meanings we intend? As we are so inclined to use sarcasm, irony, flippancy and wit when we speak, how does this transcribe when turned into words? How can you know a person’s meaning or intentions without seeing their face or interpreting their body language? Must we be bland to compensate for this?

I love mistakes, such as this one from Hitchings:

Crayfish … ‘its fishy quality is the result of a creative mishearing.’ Hitchings (2008:4)

Age ten or eleven I started to keep a book of my ‘creative mishearings’ which included words such as ‘ragabond,’ instead of ‘vagabond.’ I love the idea of the ‘creative mishearing,’ isn’t this the same as ‘butterfly’, shouldn’t it be ‘flutterby’? And recalling a BBC Radio 4 Broadcast on Creativity with Grayson Perry, ‘creativity is mistakes.’

Mistakes and misunderstandings put barbs on the wire strings of words we hook from point to point, between arguments and chapters.

We are fortunate that the English language is so flawed; it affords scratches and debate, conflict and the taking of sides.

An American travelled 19,000 miles back and forth across the US with a buddy correcting spellings, grammar and punctuation on billboards, notices and road signs. His engaging story split the reviewers into diametrically opposed camps of ‘love him’ or ‘hate him.’ (Courtesy of the Today Programme, the day before yesterday c20th August 2010)

‘Our language creates communities and solidarities, as well as division and disagreements.’ Hitchings (2008:4)

My test for the longevity and acceptability of a new word coined to cover a term in e-learning will be twofold:

Can, what is invariably a noun, be turned with ease into a verb or adjective?

Might we have an Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin word for the same thing. We like to have many words for the same thing … variations on a theme.

And a final thought

Do technical words lend themselves to such reverse engineering? Or, like a number, are they immutable?

If they are made of stone I will find myself a mason’s chisel.

 

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