Is there such a thing as a national sense of humour?


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A statue celebrating Monty Python’s sketch The Dead Parrot near London’s Tower Bridge ahead of a live show on the TV channel Gold.
DAVID HOLT/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Gary McKeown, Queen’s University Belfast

We’re all aware that there are stereotypes. The British are sharply sarcastic, the Americans are great at physical comedy, and the Japanese love puns. But is humour actually driven by culture to any meaningful extent? Couldn’t it be more universal – or depend largely on the individual? The Conversation

There are some good reasons to believe that there is such a thing as a national sense of humour. But let’s start with what we actually have in common, by looking at the kinds of humour that most easily transcend borders.

Certain kinds of humour are more commonly used in circumstances that are international and multicultural in nature – such as airports. When it comes to onoard entertainment, airlines, in particular, are fond of humour that transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries for obvious reasons. Slapstick humour and the bland but almost universally tolerable social transgressions and faux pas of Mr Bean permit a safe, gentle humour that we can all relate to. Also, the silent situational dilemmas of the Canadian Just for Laughs hidden camera reality television show has been a staple option for airlines for many years.

Just for laughs.

These have a broad reach and are probably unlikely to offend most people. Of course, an important component in their broad appeal is that they are not really based on language.

Language and culture

Most humour, and certainly humour that involves greater cognitive effort, is deeply embedded in language and culture. It relies on a shared language or set of culturally based constructs to function. Puns and idioms are obvious examples.

Indeed, most modern theories of humour suggest that some form of shared knowledge is one of the key foundations of humour – that is, after all, what a culture is.

Some research has demonstrated this. One study measured humour in Singaporean college students and compared it with that of North American and Israeli students. This was done using a questionnaire asking participants to describe jokes they found funny, among other things. The researchers found that the Americans were more likely to tell sex jokes than the Singaporeans. The Singaporean jokes, on the other hand, were slightly more often focused on violence. The researchers interpreted the lack of sex jokes among Singaporean students to be a reflection of a more conservative society. Aggressive jokes may be explained by a cultural emphasis on strength for survival.

International humour?
C.P.Storm/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Another study compared Japanese and Taiwanese students’ appreciation of English jokes. It found that the Taiwanese generally enjoyed jokes more than the Japanese and were also more eager to understand incomprehensible jokes. The authors argued that this could be down to a more hierarchical culture in Japan, leaving less room for humour.

Denigration and self-deprecation

There are many overarching themes that can be used to define a nation’s humour. A nation that laughs together is one that can show it has a strong allegiance between its citizens. Laughter is one of our main social signals and combined with humour it can emphasise social bonding – albeit sometimes at the cost of denigrating other groups. This can be seen across many countries. For example, the French tend to enjoy a joke about the Belgians while Swedes make fun of Norwegians. Indeed, most nations have a preferred country that serves as a traditional butt of their jokes.

Sexist and racist humour are also examples of this sort of denigration. The types of jokes used can vary across cultures, but the phenomenon itself can boost social bonding. Knowledge of acceptable social boundaries is therefore crucial and reinforces social cohesion. As denigration is usually not the principle aim of the interaction it shows why people often fail to realise that they are being offensive when they were “only joking”. However, as the world becomes more global and tolerant of difference, this type of humour is much less acceptable in cultures that welcome diversity.

Self-denigration or self-deprecation is also important – if it is relatively mild and remains within acceptable social norms. Benign violation theory argues that something that threatens social or cultural norms can also result in humour.

Importantly, what constitutes a benign level of harm is strongly culturally bound and differs from nation to nation, between social groups within nations and over the course of a nation’s history. What was once tolerable as national humour can now seem very unacceptable. For the British, it may be acceptable to make fun of Britons being overly polite, orderly or reluctant to talk to stangers. However, jokes about the nature of Britain’s colonial past would be much more contentious – they would probably violate social norms without being emotionally benign.

Another factor is our need to demonstrate that we understand the person we are joking with. My own ideas suggest we even have a desire to display skills of knowing what another person thinks – mind-reading in the scientific sense. For this, cultural alignment and an ability to display it are key elements in humour production and appreciation – it can make us joke differently with people from our own country than with people from other cultures.

‘Fork handles’.

For example, most people in the UK know that the popular phrase “don’t mention the war” refers to a Fawlty Towers sketch. Knowing that “fork handles” is funny also marks you as a UK citizen (see video above). Similarly, knowledge of “I Love Lucy” or quotes from Seinfeld create affiliation among many in the US, while reference to “Chavo del Ocho” or “Chapulín Colorado” do the same for Mexicans and most Latin Americans.

These shared cultural motifs – here drawn mostly from television – are one important aspect of a national sense of humour. They create a sense of belonging and camaraderie. They make us feel more confident about our humour and can be used to build further jokes on.

A broadly shared sense of humour is probably one of our best indicators for how assimilated we are as a nation. Indeed, a nation’s humour is more likely to show unity within a country than to display a nation as being different from other nations in any meaningful way.

Gary McKeown, Senior Lecturer of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Younger is not always better when it comes to learning a second language


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Learning a language in a classroom is best for early teenagers.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Warren Midgley, University of Southern Queensland

It’s often thought that it is better to start learning a second language at a young age. But research shows that this is not necessarily true. In fact, the best age to start learning a second language can vary significantly, depending on how the language is being learned. The Conversation

The belief that younger children are better language learners is based on the observation that children learn to speak their first language with remarkable skill at a very early age.

Before they can add two small numbers or tie their own shoelaces, most children develop a fluency in their first language that is the envy of adult language learners.

Why younger may not always be better

Two theories from the 1960s continue to have a significant influence on how we explain this phenomenon.

The theory of “universal grammar” proposes that children are born with an instinctive knowledge of the language rules common to all humans. Upon exposure to a specific language, such as English or Arabic, children simply fill in the details around those rules, making the process of learning a language fast and effective.

The other theory, known as the “critical period hypothesis”, posits that at around the age of puberty most of us lose access to the mechanism that made us such effective language learners as children. These theories have been contested, but nevertheless they continue to be influential.

Despite what these theories would suggest, however, research into language learning outcomes demonstrates that younger may not always be better.

In some language learning and teaching contexts, older learners can be more successful than younger children. It all depends on how the language is being learned.

Language immersion environment best for young children

Living, learning and playing in a second language environment on a regular basis is an ideal learning context for young children. Research clearly shows that young children are able to become fluent in more than one language at the same time, provided there is sufficient engagement with rich input in each language. In this context, it is better to start as young as possible.

Learning in classroom best for early teens

Learning in language classes at school is an entirely different context. The normal pattern of these classes is to have one or more hourly lessons per week.

To succeed at learning with such little exposure to rich language input requires meta-cognitive skills that do not usually develop until early adolescence.

For this style of language learning, the later years of primary school is an ideal time to start, to maximise the balance between meta-cognitive skill development and the number of consecutive years of study available before the end of school.

Self-guided learning best for adults

There are, of course, some adults who decide to start to learn a second language on their own. They may buy a study book, sign up for an online course, purchase an app or join face-to-face or virtual conversation classes.

To succeed in this learning context requires a range of skills that are not usually developed until reaching adulthood, including the ability to remain self-motivated. Therefore, self-directed second language learning is more likely to be effective for adults than younger learners.

How we can apply this to education

What does this tell us about when we should start teaching second languages to children? In terms of the development of language proficiency, the message is fairly clear.

If we are able to provide lots of exposure to rich language use, early childhood is better. If the only opportunity for second language learning is through more traditional language classes, then late primary school is likely to be just as good as early childhood.

However, if language learning relies on being self-directed, it is more likely to be successful after the learner has reached adulthood.

Warren Midgley, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tough immigration laws are hitting Britain’s curry houses hard


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Emily Falconer, University of Westminster

The British curry industry is responsible for 100,000 jobs and contributes more than £4 billion to the UK economy. But it’s now feared that up to a third of all Indian restaurants could disappear because of tougher immigration laws. The Conversation

The current rules require restaurants that want to employ a chef from outside the EU to pay a minimum salary of £35,000 – or £29,750 with accommodation and food – to secure a visa.

These high costs have meant that many restaurants are unable to hire the skilled chefs they need – which has led to a shortage of top talent – with the ones that are available demanding higher wages. And this combination of rising costs, along with a shortage of chefs means that many curry houses are now facing closure.

Fusion food

Britain has a long, deep relationship with what is widely known as “Indian” food. But food eaten on the Indian subcontinent is so widely diverse, that it has as many differences as it has similarities. Meaning that “Indian” and “curry” is often used as an umbrella term for what is in reality a multifaceted combination of tastes and influences.

It’s been predicted that more than half of all curry houses may shut down within ten years.
Shutterstock

“Indian food” in reality is often derived from particular regions of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well as across Britain and Europe. And a long and complex history of colonialism and migration has made the “British Curry” a popular national dish.

As the author Panikos Panayai explains, decades of residing in Britain has inevitably changed the tastes and eating practices of many British Asian communities – whose connection with traditional foods has become increasingly tenuous.

In his book Spicing Up Britain: The Multicultural History of British Food, Panayai charts the patterns of migration and the influences of food, taste and consumption habits. He follows the tastes of British Asians who have grown up with a fusion of tastes and influences all their life.

These are people whose diets reflect the variants of English food their parents invented to make use of the ingredients readily available to them – as opposed to just tastes from the Indian subcontinent. It meant childhood classics became spicy cheese on toast or baked Beans Balti with spring onion sabji and masala burgers.

Merging of tastes

Panayai claims that the taste of South Asian food became as much a part of the childhood tastes of white British children living in certain areas of the UK as their second and third generation Asian school friends.

In the London borough of Tower Hamlets for example – which is home to a large Bangladeshi community – local councillors played a significant role in influencing the content of school dinners. As early as the 1980s these lunches often included Asian vegetarian dishes, such as chapattis, rice and halal meat alongside “English” staples of chips, peas and steamed sponge with custard.

Fish and chips and curry sauce – a British speciality.
Flickr/Liz Barker, CC BY-NC

These tastes shaped the palates of many British children, to the point where a combination of “English” food and “curry” became the nostalgic taste of childhood. This was commodified by major brands such as Bisto with their “curry sauce” gravy granules.

These combinations are still a main feature of many “greasy spoon” English cafes or pub menus – which feature British staples such as curry served with a choice of either rice or chips, or jacket potatoes with a spicy chicken tikka filling. Then there’s the coronation chicken sandwich – a blend of boiled chicken, curry powder, mayonnaise and sultanas – a nod to the dish created for Queen Elizabeth II Coronation lunch in 1953.

More recently, in a time of gastronomic obsession and “foodie” culture, the “hybridisation” of cuisines has shifted from being a matter of necessity – due to availability of ingredients – to an increasingly sophisticated, cosmopolitan and fashionable food trend.

‘One spicy crab coming right up’.
Shutterstock

The influential taste of the British curry can now be identified on modern British fine dining menus, where fillets of Scottish salmon, hand-dived scallops and Cornish crabmeat are infused with spiced cumin, turmeric and fenugreek. While bread and butter pudding is laced with cardamom and saffron.

Multicultural Britain

But in the current political climate of migration restrictions, the free movement of people across borders looks ever more threatened – and with it our rich cultural heritage as a multicultural country is also under threat.

As diverse as the food on our plates.
Shutterstock

This will undoubtedly have a detrimental impact on imported food produce and ingredients. And it will also impact the diverse communities which have brought with them long histories of knowledge, recipes and cooking practices.

Of course, throughout history there has always been a degree of racism and resistance to “foreign” foods, but for the most part these tastes have become embraced and firmly appropriated into the British diet.

Perhaps then we can take heart during this uncertain time that merging cultures will be a British tradition that is set to continue. Because what started as the “taste of the other” is now so deeply ingrained in our food, culture and identity that it is no longer possible to disentangle national, regional or local tastes to determine what belongs where.

Emily Falconer, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Westminster

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The world’s words of the year pass judgement on a dark, surreal 2016


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Philip Seargeant, The Open University

Every December, lexicographers around the world choose their “words of the year”, and this year, perhaps more than ever, the stories these tell provide a fascinating insight into how we’ve experienced the drama and trauma of the last 12 months.

There was much potential in 2016. It was 500 years ago that Thomas More wrote his Utopia, and January saw the launch of a year’s celebrations under the slogan “A Year of Imagination and Possibility” – but as 2017 looms, this slogan rings hollow. Instead of utopian dreams, we’ve had a year of “post-truth” and “paranoia”, of “refugee” crises, “xenophobia” and a close shave with “fascism”.

Earlier in the year, a campaign was launched to have “Essex Girl” removed from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Those behind the campaign were upset at the derogatory definition – a young woman “characterised as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic” – so wanted it to be expunged from the official record of the language.

The OED turned down the request, a spokeswoman explaining that since the OED is a historical dictionary, nothing is ever removed; its purpose, she said, is to describe the language as people use it, and to stand as a catalogue of the trends and preoccupations of the time.

The words of the year tradition began with the German Wort des Jahres in the 1970s. It has since spread to other languages, and become increasingly popular the world over. Those in charge of the choices are getting more innovative: in 2015, for the first time, Oxford Dictionaries chose a pictograph as their “word”: the emoji for “Face with Tears of Joy”.

In 2016, however, the verbal was very much back in fashion. The results speak volumes.

Dark days

In English, there are a range of competing words, with all the major dictionaries making their own choices. Having heralded a post-language era last year, Oxford Dictionaries decided on “post-truth” this time, defining it as the situation when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. In a year of evidence-light Brexit promises and Donald Trump’s persistent lies and obfuscations, this has a definite resonance. In the same dystopian vein, the Cambridge Dictionary chose “paranoid”, while Dictionary.com went for “xenophobia”.

Merriam-Webster valiantly tried to turn back the tide of pessimism. When “fascism” looked set to win its online poll, it tweeted its readers imploring them to get behind something – anything – else. The plea apparently worked, and in the end “surreal” won the day. Apt enough for a year in which events time and again almost defied belief.

The referendum that spawned a thousand words.
EPA/Andy Rain

Collins, meanwhile, chose “Brexit”, a term which its spokesperson suggested has become as flexible and influential in political discourse as “Watergate”.

Just as the latter spawned hundreds of portmanteau words whenever a political scandal broke, so Brexit begat “Bremain”, “Bremorse” and “Brexperts” – and will likely be adapted for other upcoming political rifts for many years to come. It nearly won out in Australia in fact, where “Ausexit” (severing ties with the British monarchy or the United Nations) was on the shortlist. Instead, the Australian National Dictionary went for “democracy sausage” – the tradition of eating a barbecued sausage on election day.

Around the world, a similar pattern of politics and apprehension emerges. In France, the mot de l’année was réfugiés (refugees); and in Germany postfaktisch, meaning much the same as “post-truth”. Swiss German speakers, meanwhile, went for Filterblase (filter bubble), the idea that social media is creating increasingly polarised political communities.

Switzerland’s Deaf Association, meanwhile, chose a Sign of the Year for the first time. Its choice was “Trump”, consisting of a gesture made by placing an open palm on the top of the head, mimicking the president-elect’s extravagant hairstyle.

2016’s golden boy, as far as Japan’s concerned.
Albert H. Teich

Trump’s hair also featured in Japan’s choice for this year. Rather than a word, Japan chooses a kanji (Chinese character); 2016’s choice is “金” (gold). This represented a number of different topical issues: Japan’s haul of medals at the Rio Olympics, fluctuating interest rates, the gold shirt worn by singer and YouTube sensation Piko Taro, and, inevitably, the colour of Trump’s hair.

And then there’s Austria, whose word is 51 letters long: Bundespräsidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung. It means “the repeated postponement of the runoff vote for Federal President”. Referring to the seven months of votes, legal challenges and delays over the country’s presidential election, this again references an event that flirted with extreme nationalism and exposed the convoluted nature of democracy. As a new coinage, it also illustrates language’s endless ability to creatively grapple with unfolding events.

Which brings us, finally, to “unpresidented”, a neologism Donald Trump inadvertently created when trying to spell “unprecedented” in a tweet attacking the Chinese. At the moment, it’s a word in search of a meaning, but the possibilities it suggests seem to speak perfectly to the history of the present moment. And depending on what competitors 2017 throws up, it could well emerge as a future candidate.

The Conversation

Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The shelf-life of slang – what will happen to those ‘democracy sausages’?


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Kate Burridge, Monash University

Every year around this time, dictionaries across the English-speaking world announce their “Word of the Year”. These are expressions (some newly minted and some golden oldies too) that for some reason have shot into prominence during the year.

Earlier this month The Australian National Dictionary Centre declared its winner “democracy sausage” – the barbecued snag that on election day makes compulsory voting so much easier to swallow.

Dictionaries make their selections in different ways, but usually it involves a combination of suggestions from the public and the editorial team (who have been meticulously tracking these words throughout the year). The Macquarie Dictionary has two selections – the Committee’s Choice made by the Word of the Year Committee, and the People’s Choice made by the public (so make sure you have your say on January 24 for the People’s Choice winner 2016).

It’s probably not surprising that these words of note draw overwhelmingly from slang language, or “slanguage” – a fall-out of the increasing colloquialisation of English usage worldwide. In Australia this love affair with the vernacular goes back to the earliest settlements of English speakers.

And now there’s the internet, especially social networking – a particularly fertile breeding ground for slang.

People enjoy playing with language, and when communicating electronically they have free rein. “Twitterholic”, “twaddiction”, “celebritweet/twit”, “twitterati” are just some of the “tweologisms” that Twitter has spawned of late. And with a reported average of 500 million tweets each day, Twitter has considerable capacity not only to create new expressions, but to spread them (as do Facebook, Instagram and other social networking platforms).

But what happens when slang terms like these make it into the dictionary? Early dictionaries give us a clue, particularly the entries that are stamped unfit for general use. Branded entries were certainly plentiful in Samuel Johnson’s 18th-century work, and many are now wholly respectable: abominably “a word of low or familiar language”, nowadays “barbarous usage”, fun “a low cant word” (what would Johnson have thought of very fun and funner?).

Since the point of slang is to mark an in-group, to amuse and perhaps even to shock outsiders with novelty, most slang expressions are short-lived. Those that survive become part of the mainstream and mundane. Quite simply, time drains them of their vibrancy and energy. J.M. Wattie put it more poetically back in 1930:

Slang terms are the mayflies of language; by the time they get themselves recorded in a dictionary, they are already museum specimens.

But, then again, expressions occasionally do sneak through the net. Not only do they survive, they stay slangy – and sometimes over centuries. Judge for yourselves. Here are some entries from A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language. Written by British convict James Hardy Vaux in 1812, this is the first dictionary compiled in Australia.

croak “to die”

grub “food”

kid “deceive”

mug “face”

nuts on “to have a strong inclination towards something or someone”

on the sly “secretly”

racket “particular kind of fraud”

snitch “to betray”

stink “an uproar”

spin a yarn “tell a tale of great adventure”

These were originally terms of flash – or, as Vaux put it, “the cant language used by the family”. In other words, they belonged to underworld slang. The term slang itself meant something similar at this time; it broadened to highly colloquial language in the 1800s.

Vaux went on to point out that “to speak good flash is to be well versed in cant terms” — and, having been transported to New South Wales on three separate occasions during his “checkered and eventful life” (his words), Vaux himself was clearly well versed in the world of villainy and cant.

True, the majority of the slang terms here have dropped by the wayside (barnacles “spectacles”; lush “to drink”), and the handful that survives are now quite standard (grab “to seize”; dollop “large quantity”). But there are a few that have not only lasted, they’ve remained remarkably contemporary-sounding – some still even a little “disgraceful” (as Vaux described them).

The shelf-life of slang is a bit of mystery. Certainly some areas fray faster than others. Vaux’s prime, plummy and rum (meaning “excellent”) have well and truly bitten the dust. Cool might have made a comeback (also from the 1800s), but intensifiers generally wear out.

Far out and ace have been replaced by awesome, and there are plenty of new “awesome” words lurking in the wings. Some of these are already appearing on lists for “Most Irritating Word of the Year” – it’s almost as if their success does them in. Amazeballs, awesomesauce and phat are among the walking dead.

But as long as sausage sizzles continue to support Australian voters on election day, democracy sausages will have a place – and if adopted elsewhere, might even entice the politically uninterested into polling booths.

The Conversation

Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why was Shakespeare’s death such a non-event at the time?


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Ian Donaldson, University of Melbourne

William Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616, 400 years ago, in the small Warwickshire town of his birth. He was 52 years of age: still young (or youngish, at least) by modern reckonings, though his death mightn’t have seemed to his contemporaries like an early departure from the world.

Most of the population who survived childhood in England at this time were apt to die before the age of 60, and old age was a state one entered at what today might be thought a surprisingly youthful age.

Many of Shakespeare’s fellow-writers had died, or were soon to do so, at a younger age than he: Christopher Marlowe, in a violent brawl, at 29; Francis Beaumont, following a stroke, at 31 (also in 1616: just 48 days, as it happened, before Shakespeare’s own death); Robert Greene, penitent and impoverished, of a fever, in the garret of a shoemaker’s house, at 34; Thomas Kyd, after “bitter times and privy broken passions”, at 35; George Herbert, of consumption, at 39; John Fletcher, from the plague, at 46; Edmund Spenser, “for lack of bread” (so it was rumoured), at 47; and Thomas Middleton, also at 47, from causes unknown.

The cause or causes of Shakespeare’s death are similarly unknown, though in recent years they have become a topic of persistent speculation. Syphilis contracted by visits to the brothels of Turnbull Street, mercury or arsenic poisoning following treatment for this infection, alcoholism, obesity, cardiac failure, a sudden stroke brought on by the alarming news of a family disgrace – that Shakespeare’s son-in-law, Thomas Quiney, husband of his younger daughter, Judith, had been responsible for the pregnancy and death of a young local woman named Margaret Wheeler – have all been advanced as possible factors leading to Shakespeare’s death.

A portrait of Shakespeare from the First Folio of his plays.

Francis Thackeray, Director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand, believes that cannabis was the ultimate cause of Shakespeare’s death, and has been hoping – in defiance of the famous ban on Shakespeare’s tomb (“Curst be he that moves my bones”, etc.) to inspect the poet’s teeth in order to confirm this theory. (“Teeth are not bones”, Dr Thackeray somewhat controversially insists.) No convincing evidence, alas, has yet been produced to support any of these theories.

More intriguing than the actual pathology of Shakespeare’s death, however, may be another set of problems that have largely evaded the eye of biographers, though they seem at times – in a wider, more general sense – to have held the poet’s own sometimes playful attention. They turn on the question of fame: how it is constituted; how slowly and indirectly it’s often achieved, how easily it may be delayed, diverted, or lost altogether from view.

No memorial gathering

On 25 April 1616, two days after his death, Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church at Stratford, having earned this modest place of honour as much (it would seem) through his local reputation as a respected citizen as from any deep sense of his wider professional achievements.

No memorial gatherings were held in the nation’s capital, where he had made his career, or, it would seem, elsewhere in the country. The company of players that he had led for so long did not pause (so far as we know) to acknowledge his passing, nor did his patron and protector, King James, whom he had loyally served.

Only one writer, a minor Oxfordshire poet named William Basse, felt moved to offer, at some unknown date following his death, a few lines to the memory of Shakespeare, with whom he may not have been personally acquainted. Hoping that Shakespeare might be interred at Westminster but foreseeing problems of crowding at the Abbey, Basse began by urging other distinguished English poets to roll over in their tombs, in order to make room for the new arrival.

Renownèd Spenser, lie a thought more nigh.

To learned Chaucer; and rare Beaumont, lie

A little nearer Spenser, to make room

For Shakespeare in your threefold, fourfold tomb.

None of these poets responded to Basse’s injunctions, however, and Shakespeare was not to win his place in the Abbey for more than a hundred years, when Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington, commissioned William Kent to design and Peter Scheemakers to sculpt this life-size white marble statue of the poet – standing cross-legged, leaning thoughtfully on a pile of books – to adorn Poets’ Corner.

A Derby porcelain figure of Shakespeare modelled after the statue of 1741 by Peter Scheemakers in Poets’ Corner.
Wikimeida images

On the wall behind this statue, erected in the Abbey in January 1741, is a tablet with a Latin inscription (perhaps contributed by the poet Alexander Pope) conceding the belated arrival of the memorial: “William Shakespeare,/124 years after his death/ erected by public love”.

Basse’s verses were in early circulation, but not published until 1633. No other poem to Shakespeare’s memory is known to have been written before the appearance of the First Folio in 1623. No effort appears to have been made in the months and years following the poet’s death to assemble a tributary volume, honouring the man and his works. None of Shakespeare’s other contemporaries noted the immediate fact of his passing in any surviving letter, journal, or record. No dispatches, private or diplomatic, carried the news of his death beyond Britain to the wider world.

Why did the death of Shakespeare cause so little public grief, so little public excitement, in and beyond the country of his birth? Why wasn’t his passing an occasion for widespread mourning, and widespread celebration of his prodigious achievements? What does this curious silence tell us about Shakespeare’s reputation in 1616; about the status of his profession and the state of letters more generally in Britain at this time?

A very quiet death

Shakespeare’s death occurred upon St George’s Day. That day was famous for the annual rites of prayer, procession, and feasting at Windsor by members of the Order of the Garter, England’s leading chivalric institution, founded in 1348 by Edward III. Marking as it did the anniversary of the supposed martyrdom in AD 303 of St George of Cappadocia, St George’s Day was celebrated in numerous countries in and beyond Europe, as it is today, but had emerged somewhat bizarrely in late mediaeval times as a day of national significance in England.

Tourists watch actors perform at the house where William Shakespeare was born during celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of his death.
Dylan Martinez/Reuters

On St George’s Day 1616, as Shakespeare lay dying in far-off Warwickshire, King James – seemingly untroubled by prior knowledge of this event – was entertained in London by a poet of a rather different order named William Fennor.

Fennor was something of a royal favourite, famed for his facetious contests in verse, often in the King’s presence, with the Thames bargeman, John Taylor, the so-called Water Poet: a man whom James – as Ben Jonson despairingly reported to William Drummond – reckoned to be the finest poet in the kingdom.

In the days and weeks that followed, as the news of the poet’s death (one must assume) filtered gradually through to the capital, there is no recorded mention in private correspondence or official documents of Shakespeare’s name. Other more pressing matters were now absorbing the nation. Shakespeare had made a remarkably modest exit from the theatre of the world: largely un-applauded, largely unobserved. It was a very quiet death.

An age of public mourning

The silence that followed the death of Shakespeare is the more remarkable coming as it did in an age that had developed such elaborate rituals of public mourning, panegyric, and commemoration, most lavishly displayed at the death of a monarch or peer of the realm, but also occasionally set in train by the death of an exceptional commoner.

Consider the tributes paid to another great writer of the period, William Camden, antiquarian scholar and Clarenceux herald of arms, who died in London in late November 1623; a couple of weeks, as chance would have it, after the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

Portrait of William Camden by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1609).
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Camden was a man of quite humble social origins – like Shakespeare himself, whose father was a maker of gloves and leather goods in Stratford. Camden’s father was a painter-stainer, whose job it was to decorate coats of arms and other heraldic devices. By the time of his death Camden was widely recognized, in Britain and abroad, as one of the country’s outstanding scholars.

Eulogies were delivered at Oxford and published along with other tributes in a memorial volume soon after his death. At Westminster his body was escorted to the Abbey on 19 November by a large retinue of mourners, led by 26 poor men wearing gowns, followed by soberly attired gentlemen, esquires, knights, and members of the College of Arms, the hearse being flanked by earls, barons, and other peers of the realm, together with the Lord Keeper, Bishop John Williams, and other divines. Camden’s imposing funeral mirrored on a smaller scale the huge procession of 1,600 mourners which in 1603 had accompanied the body of Elizabeth I to its final resting place in the Abbey.

There were particular reasons, then, why Camden should have been accorded a rather grand funeral of his own. But mightn’t there have been good reasons for Shakespeare, likewise – whom we see today as the outstanding writer of his age – to have been honoured at his death in a suitably ceremonious fashion? It’s curious to realize, however, that Shakespeare at the time of his death wasn’t yet universally seen as the outstanding writer of his age.

Ben Jonson by George Vertue (1684-1786) after Gerard van Honthorst (1590-1656).
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At this quite extraordinary moment in the history of English letters and intellectual exchange there was more than one contender for that title. William Camden himself – an admired poet in addition to his other talents, and friend and mentor of other poets of the day – had included Shakespeare’s name in a list, published in 1614, of “the most pregnant wits of these our times, whom succeeding ages may justly admire”, placing him, without differentiation, alongside Edmund Spenser, John Owen, Thomas Campion, Michael Drayton, George Chapman, John Marston, Hugh Holland and Ben Jonson, the last two of whom he had taught at Westminster School.

But it was another poet, Sir Philip Sidney, whom Camden had befriended during his student days at Oxford, that he most passionately admired, and continued to regard – following Sidney’s early death at the age of 32 in 1586 – as the country’s supreme writer. “Our Britain is the glory of earth and its precious jewel,/ But Sidney was the precious jewel of Britain”, Camden had written in a memorial poem in Latin mourning his friend’s death.

No commoner poet in England had ever been escorted to his grave with such pomp as was furnished for Sidney’s funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on 16 February 1587.

The 700-man procession was headed by 32 poor men, representing the number of years that Sidney had lived, with fifes and drums “playing softly” beside them. They were followed by trumpeters and gentlemen and yeomen servants, physicians, surgeons, chaplains, knights and esquires, heralds bearing aloft Sidney’s spurs and gauntlet, his helm and crest, his sword and targe, his coat of arms. Then came the hearse containing Sidney’s body. Behind them walked the chief mourner, Philip’s young brother, Robert, accompanied by the Earls of Leicester, Pembroke, Huntingdon, and Essex, followed by representatives from the states of Holland and Zealand. Next came the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, with 120 members of the Company of Grocers, and, at the rear of the procession, “citizens of London practised in arms, about 300, who marched three by three”.

A 1587 engraving by Theodor de Bry showing the casket of Sir Philip Sidney carried by pallbearers.
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Sidney’s funeral was a moving salute to a man who was widely admired not just for his military, civic and diplomatic virtues, but as the outstanding writer of his day. He fulfilled in exemplary fashion, as Shakespeare curiously did not, the Renaissance ideal of what a poet should strive to be.

In an extraordinary act of homage not before seen in England, but soon to be commonly followed at the death of distinguished writers, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge produced three volumes of Latin verse lauding Sidney’s achievements, while a fourth volume of similar tributes was published by the University of Leiden. The collection from Cambridge, presented contributions from 63 Cambridge men, together with a sonnet in English by King James VI of Scotland, the future King James I of Britain.

Earlier English poets had been mourned at their passing, if not in these terms and not on this scale, then with more enthusiasm than was evident at the death of Shakespeare. Edmund Spenser at his death in 1599 was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Chaucer, “this hearse being attended by poets, and mournful elegies and poems with the pens that wrote them thrown into his tomb”. The deaths of Thomas Wyatt and Michael Drayton were similarly lamented.

When, 21 years after Shakespeare’s death, his former friend and colleague Ben Jonson came at last to die, the crowd that gathered at his house in Westminster to accompany his body to his grave in the Abbey included “all or the greatest part of the nobility and gentry then in the town”. Within months of his death a volume of 33 poems was in preparation and a dozen additional elegies had appeared in print. Jonson was hailed at his death as “king of English poetry”, as England’s “rare arch-poet”. With his death, as more than one memorialist declared, English poetry itself now seemed also to have died. No one had spoken in these terms at the death of Shakespeare.

To take one last example: at the death in 1643 of the dramatist William Cartwright whose works and whose very name are barely known to most people today – Charles I elected to wear black, remarking that

since the muses had so much mourned for the loss of such a son, it would be a shame for him not to appear in mourning for the loss of such a subject.

At the death of Shakespeare in 1616 James had shown no such minimal courtesy.

Backroom boys

Why should Shakespeare at his death have been so neglected? One simple answer is that King James, unlike his son, Charles, had no great passion for the theatre, and no very evident regard for Shakespeare’s genius. Early in his reign, so Dudley Carleton reported,

The first holy days we had every night a public play in the great hall, at which the King was ever present, and liked or disliked as he saw cause: but it seems he takes no extraordinary pleasure in them.

But Shakespeare and his company were not merely royal servants, bound to provide a steady supply of dramatic entertainment at court; they also catered for the London public who flocked to see their plays at Blackfriars and the Globe, and who had their own ways of expressing their pleasure, their frustrations, and – at the death of a player – their grief.

A portrait of the actor Richard Burbage.
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When Richard Burbage, the principal actor for the King’s Men, died on 9 March 1619, just seven days after the death of Queen Anne, the London public were altogether more upset by that event than they had been over the death of the Queen, as one contemporary writer – quoting, ironically, the opening lines of Shakespeare’s 1 Henry VI – tartly observed.

So it’s necessary, I think, to pose a further question. Why should the death of Burbage have affected the London public more profoundly than the death not merely of the Queen but of the dramatist whose work he so skilfully interpreted?

I believe the answer lies, partly at least, in the status of the profession to which Shakespeare belonged, a profession which didn’t yet have a regular name: the very words playwright and dramatist not entering the language until half a century after Shakespeare’s death.

Prominent actors at this time were far better known to the public than the writers who provided their livelihood. The writers were on the whole invisible people, who worked as backroom boys, often anonymously and in small teams; playgoers had no easy way of discovering their identity. Theatre programmes didn’t yet exist. Playbills often announced the names of leading actors, but not until the very last decade of the 17th century did they include the names of authors.

Only a fraction of the large number of plays performed in this period moreover found their way into print, and those that were published didn’t always disclose the names of their authors.

At the time of Shakespeare’s death half of his plays weren’t yet available in print, and there were no known plans to produce a collected edition of his works. The total size and shape of the canon were therefore still imperfectly known. Shakespeare was not yet fully visible.

In 1616 the world didn’t yet realise what they had got, or who it was that they’d lost. Hence, I believe, the otherwise inexplicable silence at his passing.

To the Memory of My Beloved

At the time of Shakespeare’s death another English writer was arguably better known to the general public than Shakespeare himself, and more highly esteemed by the brokers of power at King James’s court. That writer was Shakespeare’s friend and colleague Ben Jonson, who early in 1616 had been awarded a pension of one hundred marks to serve as King James’s laureate poet.

A 1623 copy of the calf-bound First Folio edition of William Shakespeare’s plays.
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A first folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays was finally published in London with Jonson’s assistance and oversight in 1623. This monumental volume at last gave readers in England some sense of the wider reach of Shakespeare’s theatrical achievement, and laid the essential foundations of his modern reputation.

At the head of this volume stand two poems by Ben Jonson: the second, To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author, Mr William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us assesses the achievement of this extraordinary writer. Shakespeare had been praised during his lifetime as a “sweet”, “mellifluous”, “honey-tongued”, “honey-flowing”, “pleasing” writer. No one until this moment had presented him in the astounding terms that Jonson here proposes: as the pre-eminent figure, the “soul” and the “star” of his age; and as something even more than that: as one who could be confidently ranked with the greatest writers of antiquity and of the modern era.

Triumph, my Britain, thou has one to show

To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe,

He was not of an age, but for all time!

Today, 400 years on, that last line sounds like a truism, for Shakespeare’s fame has indeed endured. He is without doubt the most famous writer the world has ever seen. But in 1623 this was a bold and startling prediction. No one before that date had described Shakespeare’s achievement in such terms as these.

This is an edited version of a public lecture given at the University of Melbourne.

On the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne is establishing the Shakespeare 400 Trust to raise funds to support the teaching of Shakespeare at the University into the future. For more information, or if you would like to support the Shakespeare 400 Trust, please contact Julie du Plessis at julie.dp@unimelb.edu.au

The Conversation

Ian Donaldson, Honorary Professorial Fellow, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Clear skies ahead: how improving the language of aviation could save lives


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Dominique Estival, Western Sydney University

The most dangerous part of flying is driving to the airport.

That’s a standard joke among pilots, who know even better than the flying public that aviation is the safest mode of transportation.

But there are still those headlines and TV shows about airline crashes, and those statistics people like to repeat, such as:

Between 1976 and 2000, more than 1,100 passengers and crew lost their lives in accidents in which investigators determined that language had played a contributory role.

True enough, 80% of all air incidents and accidents occur because of human error. Miscommunication combined with other human factors such as fatigue, cognitive workload, noise, or forgetfulness have played a role in some of the deadliest accidents.

The most well-known, and widely discussed, is the collision on the ground of two Boeing 747 aircraft in 1977 in Tenerife, which resulted in 583 fatalities. The incident was due in part to difficult communications between the pilot, whose native language was Dutch, and the Spanish air traffic controller.

In such a high-stakes environment as commercial aviation, where the lives of hundreds of passengers and innocent people on the ground are involved, communication is critical to safety.

So, it was decided that Aviation English would be the international language of aviation and that all aviation professionals – pilots and air traffic controllers (ATC) – would need to be proficient in it. It is a language designed to minimise ambiguities and misunderstandings, highly structured and codified.

Pilots and ATC expect to hear certain bits of information in certain ways and in a given order. The “phraseology”, with its particular pronunciation (for example, “fife” and “niner” instead of “five” and “nine”, so they’re not confused with each other), specific words (“Cleared to land”), international alphabet (“Mike Hotel Foxtrot”) and strict conversation rules (you must repeat, or “read back”, an instruction), needs to be learned and practised.

In spite of globalisation and the spread of English, most people around the world are not native English speakers, and an increasing number of aviation professionals do not speak English as their first language.

Native speakers have an advantage when they learn Aviation English, since they already speak English at home and in their daily lives. But they encounter many pilots or ATC who learned English as a second or even third language.

Whose responsibility is it to ensure that communication is successful? Can native speakers simply speak the way they do at home and expect to be understood? Or do they also have the responsibility to make themselves understood and to learn how to understand pilots or ATC who are not native English speakers?

As a linguist, I analyse aviation language from a linguistics perspective. I have noted the restricted meaning of the few verbs and adjectives; that the only pronouns are “you” and sometimes “we” (“How do you read?”; “We’re overhead Camden”; how few questions there are, mostly imperatives (“Maintain heading 180”); and that the syntax is so simple (no complement clauses, no relative clauses, no recursion), it might not even count as a human language for Chomsky.

But, as a pilot and a flight instructor, I look at it from the point of view of student pilots learning to use it in the cockpit while also learning to fly the airplane and navigate around the airfield.

How much harder it is to remember what to say when the workload goes up, and more difficult to speak over the radio when you know everyone else on the frequency is listening and will notice every little mistake you make?

Imagine, then, how much more difficult this is for pilots with English as a second language.

Camden Airport.
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Everyone learning another language knows it’s suddenly more challenging to hold a conversation over the phone than face-to-face, even with someone you already know. When it’s over the radio, with someone you don’t know, against the noise of the engine, static noise in the headphones, and while trying to make the plane do what you want it to do, it can be quite daunting.

No wonder student pilots who are not native English speakers sometimes prefer to stay silent, and even some experienced native English speakers will too, when the workload is too great.

This is one of the results of my research conducted in collaboration with UNSW’s Brett Molesworth, combining linguistics and aviation human factors.

Experiments in a flight simulator with pilots of diverse language backgrounds and flying experience explored conditions likely to result in pilots making mistakes or misunderstanding ATC instructions. Not surprisingly, increased workload, too much information, and rapid ATC speech, caused mistakes.

Also not surprisingly, less experienced pilots, no matter their English proficiency, made more mistakes. But surprisingly, it was the level of training, rather than number of flying hours or language background, that predicted better communication.

Once we understand the factors contributing to miscommunication in aviation, we can propose solutions to prevent them. For example, technologies such as Automatic Speech Recognition and Natural Language Understanding may help catch errors in pilot readbacks that ATC did not notice and might complement training for pilots and ATC.

It is vital that they understand each other, whatever their native language.

The Conversation

Dominique Estival, Researcher in Linguistics, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.