British Sign Language

Dictionary of British Sign Language / English, produced for the British Deaf Association by Deaf Studies Research Unit, University of Durham, 1992

This is a huge brick of a book, necessarily so since it gives entries for the 1739 signs in British Sign Language (BSL). Each sign requires photos and a detailed descriptive entry. The bulk of the book is taken up with the signs of BSL.

About 160 pages of closely printed text at the beginning give a very clear outline of BSL as a language system. It is clear that at the time of making the dictionary (1992) there was still much linguistic analysis of BSL to be done (e.g. on categorising verbs). The book does not appear to have been updated, but there may well have been further work on a satisfactory description of sign language in the last twenty odd years. Continue reading

Pragmatics (continued)

We’ve had to take a couple of weeks off our study of pragmatics but resumed recently with chapters 5 and 6 of the book we are working through.*

Chapter 5 Speech Acts in Context brought us what we have been waiting for – a coherent framework for describing the interface between the language we use and the meaning we intend it to have in a social context. Several attempts at such a system are outlined, but none are an advance on the groundbreaking work of Sinclair and Coulthard in their 1975 book Towards an Analysis of Discourse.

They recorded lessons in primary schools and analysed them at the level of discourse, using a “rank-scale” of a social activity (in this case the lesson), which is made up of exchanges between teacher and pupils, which can be further sub-divided into acts (a single piece of dialogue). I remember how excited we all were in 1975  by this framework of analysis (especially those of us involved in teacher education). Continue reading

Pragmatics: deixis

Last week we had an interesting time working our way through the chapter on deixis.* I have a very happy memory of discovering deixis when I was doing my MA in Applied Linguistics at the University Essex in 1975-1976.

I’d come from teaching literature to very able fourth year B.Ed. students and we were tackling Dickens’ big books including Little Dorrit. It always makes an interesting class to go back to a novel’s opening paragraphs when one has finished reading the book to see how the themes of the book are adumbrated in the opening section. For two years I had attempted this with my students and we had realised eventually that there was something very odd about the opening of Little Dorrit. For two years we had had to declare ourselves defeated in our attempts to describe what this was.

I had chosen Stylistics as one of my options in my course at Essex and been delighted by the discovery that, at long last, there was a link between Literature and Language studies. The old failure to analyse the peculiarity of the opening of Little Dorrit seemed a perfect opportunity to try out my newly learned knowledge of Linguistics.

One happy afternoon I settled down to read it again and realised that the oddity of the text consisted in its failure to be precise about where and when the entities in the passage were operating. I took my problem to David Kilby, one of my lecturers, and he immediately recognised that what I had no word for was deixis and referred me to John Lyons Theoretical Linguistics. This has only a page and a half on the subject, but it was enough for me to do a word by word analysis of the passage. The precision of this stylistic analysis enabled me to account for the oddness of this opening of the novel and to relate it to the Christian message of the book as a whole.

I wrote it up for my course in Stylistics and shortly after Ron Carter published it in one of the early books of practical Stylistics  in this country.**

 

*Introducing Pragmatics in Use: Anne O’Keefe, Brian Clancy, Svenja Adolphs, Routledge 2011

**Language and Literature: ed. Ronald Carter, Allen and Unwin, 1982

 

 

 

 

Pragmatics (continued)

In my blog of 30th November, I shared my first thoughts about the book my friends and I were studying (Jean Stilwell Peccei: Pragmatics). I commented that, unlike syntax and phonology and even certain approaches to discourse analysis, semantics still seems to be a hotchpotch of disconnected attempts to impose a meaningful framework on language and its relation to the real world.

Having worked and argued our way through the book, it is clear that this first impression was well-founded. Historically, language study has always been part of philosophy and philosophers have made several critical contributions to the new discipline of pragmatics.

Peccei draws on the work of the philosophers Grice, Austin and Searle in chapters 4-7 of her  workbook on Pragmatics. In addition, the first chapters of the book come from another traditional area of Philosophy, that of Logic. I shall return to the example in the earlier blog: Continue reading

Seeing Voices

This is the title of a book by Oliver Sacks (1989) about the history of deaf people learning to communicate.

I first became interested in the topic when a former student rang me up: she had found herself teaching the deaf without any training, and she asked me what Linguistics had to offer on the subject. I had just happened to read an article in one of the journals, which supported the use of sign language, rather than the received wisdom of the time, which insisted on deaf people trying to learn to speak and lip read. While this worked for some people, many deaf learners were cognitively impaired because they never learned any full language. Sign language apparently offered full cognitive development because it is a complete language, one which uses the eyes rather than the ears for communication. (Hence Sacks’s title Seeing Voices.) Continue reading

Pragmatics

Neither my webmaster nor I can find the blogs I claim to have written about the work my friends and I have been doing on the language of the law (Forensic Linguistics) and the language of medicine, so I shall leave them for the moment and consider our current preoccupation, which is pragmatics.

We made a wise decision to work through a workbook on the subject.* Many of insights we are familiar with (e.g. speech act theory) but we have no systematic knowledge of the area.

The first distinction we had to make was that between semantics and pragmatics. Briefly, semantics deals with the meanings encoded in the language system itself; pragmatics describes the use of language in making meanings in the world. Continue reading

Lost!

I am disturbed to find that blogs that I thought I had put up in the last few months seem to have disappeared. I shall have to consult my webmaster!

My friends and I have been pursuing our linguistic interests by working through two books:

An Introduction to Forensic Linguistics: Malcolm Coulthard and Alison Johnson

Exploring Health Communication: Kevin Harvey and Nelya Koteyko

I thought I had reported some of the more interesting things we had learned on my blog, but apparently not.

It has been fascinating to see how linguistic insights can sharpen the work of two of the oldest professions – law and medicine. We have now moved on to the purely theoretical area of Pragmatics. We have taken the precaution of starting on a workbook, which has led us immediately to the most basic part of language study – and the oldest – which is Semantics.

I’ll delay sharing our insights until I make sure they are being received!

Our new book is: Pragmatics: Jean Stilwell Peccei.

 

Applied Linguistics

When I did my M.A. in Applied Linguistics in the 1970’s, the term “Applied Linguistics” meant the application of new linguistic insights into the burgeoning world of Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Courses were springing up everywhere in response to the worldwide demand for teachers of English, then already clearly established as the world language. Continue reading

Breakthrough to Learning

Two pieces of good news:

(1)  A secondary school Huddersfield has taken up my course, timetabling into their programme for the next three years. A team visited Matthew Moss High School, which has been running the course for two years and learned from their experience. Maybe the good news is spreading!

(2)  My article on the work at MMHS for the last two years is now out – in Creative Teaching and Learning Volume 4.4 under the title A Great Idea Revived! As always with this journal, it is beautifully laid out with pictures and charts.

 

 

Forensic Linguistics

My friends and I have now read and discussed the first part of Introducing Forensic Linguistics by Malcolm Coulthard and Alison Johnson.

It is written by Alison Johnson, who is a senior police officer as well as a linguist. This part describes and explains the peculiar qualities of the language used in legal institutions, arguing that what seems to the layman to be unnecessarily complex and verbose language has to be so, as the law has to cover all the possibilities.

One of the most interesting points to come out of the analysis of the language used in all stages of the legal process is the “hybrid” nature of many the texts, both written and spoken. Continue reading