Monday, 4 February 2013

It must be true, a SURVEY says so

The Mail Online (which scarcely deserves a link, but which - if your blood-pressure can take it - you can find by working back from this article) has done it again (they really ought to have a letterhead that says 'By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, Raisers of Blood Pressure').

My attention was caught by a discussion in a LinkedIn forum (open only to members, but anyone can sign up) with the title Is British English a waste of time? - an interesting conclusion to draw from the 'survey'. But my innate scepticism was raised by the first sentence in the thread:
According to a survey in New York, British people use 60 unnecessary words every day, 420 needless words a week and 21,840 superfluous words a year, and all because we try to avoid speaking directly.
This was dubious on a number of grounds. 
  • Who did the 'survey' and why? 
  • Who or what was 'surveyed', with regard to what? 
  • Why was it done in New York (if it was at all), what special insight did the alleged New Yorkers have into British English, and where did the samples of British English come from? 
  • What do all those numbers mean, how were they collected, and do they have any significance? 
 (That was before I'd even followed the link in the post, which is here.)

I set out to find the answers to those questions, and - not surpisingly - the Mail Online wasn't much help. It kept referring to the 'survey', but gave no details whatsoever - apart from the conclusions, and the fact that it was produced by the New York Bakery Company - whose website is 'under construction'. Google tells me they are suppliers of onion bagels to Waitrose; and the web address has the suffix - which suggests that they are based in the UK. But, according to a whois search the registrant is Maple Leaf Foods Inc., of Toronto. The site is one of 40 sites  'hosted on this server', and was registered in 2003. Details are here. So, whether it came from somewhere in the UK or Canada, it's not 'a survey in New York' - that hub of academic excellence in the field of linguistics.

As New York Bakery Co's website - after 10 years -  is still 'under construction', I have to conclude that their interest in communication is limited. So I tried Maple Leaf Foods Inc. - whose website is fuller, and which (the company, that is) was founded long before I was born. But the website is incredibly slow - or perhaps this is another triumph for ''s Infra-Slow "Broadband"' - so (apart from the possibly interesting fact that they have a subsidiary called 'Maple Leaf Bakery') I have drawn a blank.

New York Bakery Co have just 'launched' (says the article - but where?) a translation crib-sheet for people who don't understand the nuances of British English. And I suspect that the Mail Online's source is a press release. But what has their survey found?
[T]he average adult wastes 1.7 million words over a lifetime while struggling to make a point, according to a study.
Rather than get to the point, Britons skirt around issues and use long-winded phrases to hide what they really think leading to confusion and arguments according to an American survey.
Hmmm... 'Wastes'...'Struggling to make a point'...'Rather than get to the point'...'Skirt around'... 'Long-winded'... 'Hide what they really think'... No bias there then.

It is true that British English can be wordier than American English, and that this can cause confusion. (Come to that, American English can be wordier than British English: 'domestic waste operative' is wordier than 'dustman'. It depends on the context. And confusion works both ways. The survey, whatever it is, just says 'We don't understand you because you don't talk straight (like you should - we're just straight-talking innocents).'

Perhaps the truth is that the gulf between British English and American English is greater than we thought. This American-speaker is saying 'I know your language, and you get it wrong.' But perhaps he doesn't know it - or, more precisely he knows its nuts and bolts, but does not understand its background in British culture*). And as it happens there's another LinkedIn forum that discusses inter-cultural issues. There's money involved in the Training behind this forum, but I suspect it might be money well spent, rather than frittering it on jokey 'surveys' with the dubious credentials of an onion-bagel maker!


PS When I saw this article I thought it would point to the 'research'. I was looking forward to getting my teeth into the numbers and the assumptions; I expect most of my readers were hoping I'd do that too. I haven't given up all hope of doing this, and if I do I'll write an update.

Update 2013.02.04:12.30 A few tweaks - l'esprit de l'escalier
Update 2013.02.04:14.10 Added PS
*Update 2013.02.05 Added this clarification

Update: 2013.10.02.16:05
Header updated:

 Mammon (When Vowels Get Together V4.0: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs – AA-AU, EA-EU, and  IA-IU, and – new for V4.0 – OA-OU.  If you buy it, contact  @WVGTbook on Twitter and I'll alert you to free downloads of the forthcoming volumes; or click the Following button at the foot of this page.)
And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources: nearly 32,400 views**,  and  4,400 downloads to date. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1570 views/700 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.

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