LINGUIST List 16.1115
Thu Apr 07 2005
Review: Socioling/Genre Analysis: Aitchison & Lewis (2003)
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New Media Language
Message 1: New Media Language
From: Andy Van Drom <andy.van.dromskynet.be>
Subject: New Media Language
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EDITORS: Aitchison, Jean; Lewis, Diana
TITLE: New Media Language
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/15/15-1157.html
Andy Van Drom, Department of Romance Languages, University of
'New Media Language', edited by Jean Aitchison and Diana M. Lewis,
is a volume that resulted from a conference on 'Language, the Media
and International Communication' held at Oxford University in 2001. It
contains conference papers, complemented by selected other
contributions. The work aims to explore the relationship between
language and the media from two perspectives: how does media
language influence our view of reality, and how do the media affect
language itself. The book is divided into a short introduction and four
themed sections, each of which embraces 5 articles. Throughout the
different sections, there are some recurring key issues, such
as 'globalization vs. fragmentation' and 'linguistic expansion vs.
Section 1, 'Modern media discourse', focuses on how media and
media communication have changed diachronically. Bell ('Poles
Apart') compares coverage of two expeditions to Antarctica, separated
by almost a century. He describes how technological changes have
affected journalism. Television was able to report the arrival of the
1999 expedition within minutes, whereas in 1912, it took months
before any news was published in the papers. After an analysis of the
topoi presented in both reports, Bell concludes that even though news
presentation and discourse have changed dramatically, news values
have stayed the same.
Snoddy addresses 'Modern media myths' in his article. He denies
various "myths" that attribute more power to the new media, and
favours traditional mass media. To this end, he cites examples such
as the failure of the "Tablet", a portable-screen that was to replace
newspapers; the difficulties that arise with the implementation of
portable, digital media; and the need for global media groups such as
MTV to create regional editions. His article is also a defence for
public service broadcasting.
In 'Globalizing communication', Cameron addresses the spread of
English, not as a "language", but as a "discourse style". She argues
that even though people will still speak their native language, they will
adopt a communication style that is based on English, and more
specifically, American standards. She provides examples of
dissemination mechanisms, such as global mass media, commercial
institutions, and talk shows. Cameron remarks that according to this
approach, we should all aim for the same communication model to
facilitate intercomprehension, whereas sociolinguists have always
identified the capability of individuals to vary their communication style
to suit different situations.
In her article 'The new incivility', Lakoff studies the feeling of growing
incivility or "coarsening" of political discourse. She first identifies this
phenomenon in six key points. In a second phase, she situates the
identified behaviour in a historical context, and concludes that even
during the Roman Empire, this was attested. In her conclusion, Lakoff
widens the scope, and integrates this language "trend" in a social
analysis: "... a decline in civility actually represents an increase in
democracy, and the enrichment of public discourse with radically new
Conboy investigates the language of the British tabloid press
in 'Parochialising the Global'. He outlines the development of
community building strategies such as the development of a
vernacular idiom and the use of compressed nominal phrases,
which "seem to be making political and social news available for the
average reader" and shift language "from reporting to an engaged
and often enraged personalization".
Section 2, 'Modes of the media', looks at the various ways in which
media discourse is realized nowadays (synchronically). Carey
('Reportage, literature and willed credulity') explores the relationship
between literature and reportage. He introduces the notion of "willed
credulity", which distinguishes reportage from fiction, since we often
have no other means of verifying the truth of stories. Carey compares
the role of reportage today with that of religion in the past, both
appealing to "willed credulity" to obtain validity, and both providing us
with stories and meanings to situate our personal world in a larger
Hendy looks at the language used by BBC Radio Four in 'Speaking to
Middle England'. Whereas most broadcasters adapt their language to
the target audience, BBC Four as heir to the National Programme, has
struggled to find a suitable 'voice', a "linguistic middleground" to
address its wide range of listeners. Hendy concludes that this is not
always possible, and points out differences in language use between
the various programmes.
Kesseler and Bergs look at love messages in SMS and e-mail format
in their article 'Literacy and the new media'. They claim that the cliché
of a love letter is a misconception based on a particular type of letter
written by important historical figures. Even though the medium
influences the shape of the message (SMS is limited to 160
characters), the authors show that in comparison with nineteenth
century love letters, the same images and metaphors are still used.
In 'Why email looks like speech', Baron looks at "e-style" and how it
relates to other discourse styles. She finds that "email resembles
speech because writing in general has become more speech-like,
thanks in part to conscious pedagogical decisions and in part to
changing social attitudes about how we present ourselves to others."
Email is then an example "of the growing attitude towards writing as a
medium that does not require attention to public face".
Lewis describes how online media change the shape of news
coverage in 'Online news'. She identifies some specific
characteristics, such as the integration of writing, sound, image and
video, and the accumulation of an unlimited amount of information in a
single space. According to Lewis, this "removes the need for a 'basic
level' of story", thus "weakening the boundaries between stories".
Narratives become shorter, and integrate into larger and more
complex structures than traditional news articles.
Section 3, 'Representations and models', investigates how the
representation of a topic can influence the audience's perception of it.
Gluck ('Wine language') examines the descriptions of wines. He
discusses the difficulty of this, and shows how the role and use of
metaphors and prototypes can change, depending on the target
audience of the expert.
In his article 'Rhetoric, bluster and on-line gaffes', Partington looks at
the communication between the spokespersons ("spin-doctors") and
the press ("wolf-pack") at White House briefings. After analysing the
techniques that both parties use to communicate, he compares his
findings to the art of rhetoric. The term 'spin' is for him merely "a new
name for an old game".
Wei describes the metaphors used in the news coverage of
Taiwanese political discourse ('Politics is marriage and show
business'). Whereas in the western society, politics are often
associated with metaphors of war and sports, Taiwanese politics tend
to be described with vocabulary of marriage, finance, and costumes.
These "have profound influence in the political process".
Lorenzo-Dus and Davies both focus on talk shows in their respective
articles 'Emotional DIY and proper parenting in "Kilroy"' and 'Language
and American "good taste"'. Lorenzo-Dus studies how the language
use of the talkshow host Kilroy, in combination with discursive
strategies such as reformulations and specific questions, favour a
certain image of the 'ideal family'. Davies does not focus on a set of
values that the host tries to impose on the audience, but on the values
he, or in this case, she, tries to embody. The author analyses the
linguistic strategies of Martha Stewart in this context. She
distinguishes three frames that Stewart adopts through the use of
language: politeness, credibility and authenticity, each of which she
details with specific examples.
Section 4, 'The effect of the media on language', looks at ways in
which the practices of the media affect our use of language. Ni ('Noun
phrases in media texts') approaches the use of noun phrases in
editorials and news reports from a quantificational point of view. More
specifically, he examines noun phrases "for their syntactic complexity,
e.g. whether they take modifiers and how many modifiers they take if
they do". He concludes that the structure of noun phrases in the
media is situated in the middle of academic writing and conversation.
In his article 'Compressed noun-phrase structures in newspaper
discourse', Biber demonstrates how newspaper prose has evolved in
two opposite directions. On one hand, we can see the development
of more popular oral styles in comparison to nineteenth century
articles, on the other hand, compressed noun-phrase structures have
to assure the restraint of news volume. A result of this more
compressed style is a loss of explicitness in meaning.
Ayto explores the field of neologisms in 'Newspapers and
neologisms'. He concentrates on the adoption in dictionaries
of "blends", such as brunch from [breakfast + lunch]. He concludes
that dictionaries based on newspapers as data sources, contain a
vaster amount of these types of neologisms. Even though it is
impossible to determine whether a journalist is the source of the
neologism, it is safe to say that the press facilitate its distribution.
Simpson discusses the problem of media as data sources for
dictionaries in his contribution 'Reliable authority'. Whereas printed
sources, whatever their nature (articles, film scripts, song lyrics) are
generally accepted by dictionaries as "witnesses" of the use of a word
or expression, the reliability of on-line sources seems more
problematic as it is hard to judge which texts are "more established,
and better archived, than others".
Aitchison closes the volume with an article on the vocabulary of
terrorism. In 'From Armageddon to war' she investigates if the events
of 9-11 triggered "exceptional language". After analysing press
coverage, she finds that even though a specialist, mostly polysyllabic,
vocabulary was used to describe these events, most of the words
used existed already in the English language, and their heightened
frequency was only temporary.
In this evaluation, the focus will be on the publication as a whole, as
this intended unity is emphasized repeatedly. The work is presented
as a "users' manual", its structure is built on four "cornerstone
sections", in which the different contributions are represented
as "chapters". The above synopsis has clearly displayed the diversity
of topics and approaches that this volume contains. This diversity
undoubtedly is the collection's greatest merit and strength, providing
the reader with valuable introductions, opinions and references that
stimulate further reading and reflection. Yet at the same time, it also
uncovers the collection's greatest flaw. Whilst offering a wide range of
opinions will certainly capture the interest of an equally wide range of
readers, the organization and integration of these texts can indeed be
delicate and complicated.
The difficulty of presenting this collection as a unity becomes clear
even before opening the book, more specifically, when reflecting on
the title, which I found rather ambiguous. In a time where 'New media'
("a term describing the digital delivery of media via the Internet, DVD,
and digital television" - Harries (2002)) are a hot topic, I had expected
this book to focus on the 'language of the new media'. Reading the
back cover, I realized that the title could also be interpreted as 'new
language of the media'. After reading the volume, I am left with the
feeling that the editors have deliberately exploited this ambiguity, as
the articles in this collection seem to fill a continuum of approaches
situated in between two poles, represented by the aforementioned
The book is introduced as "an accessible introduction to the study of
sociolinguistics and the media". However, the fact that the reader is
not provided with a clear definition of the topic as reference-point,
could be problematic for a non-specialist audience, and cause the
reader to be unable to situate a specific article in a vaster background
of sociolinguistic and media studies. The contributors seem to base
themselves on different definitions of the word "media". We can
roughly distinguish the following meanings: whereas most articles
focus on 'traditional news media' such as newspapers and television,
others concentrate on 'new news media' such as the internet, or 'new
media in general' such as email and SMS. There is nothing against
applying a wide scope approach to the theme of 'media'; nevertheless,
it seems audacious to aim to give all these different viewpoints the
attention they deserve within the limited space of 200 pages.
Another obstacle in perceiving this bundle as a coherent unity, is the
fact that the lexical accessibility of the volume is not always
consistent. I admit that most articles are written in a very
understandable, sometimes even entertaining manner. Gluck's writing
style would be the perfect example of this:
"What, then, are we wine writers trying to hide? Answer: our struggle
On the other hand, some authors use a specialist lexicon, which is not
always sufficiently explained to be fully comprehended by a non-
specialist audience. An example from the article by Partington (p.
121) will illustrate this:
"Probably the single most striking rhetorical device to be found in the
podium's language is the use of lexico-syntactic parallelism
(or 'isocolon' in classical rhetoric)".
This problem could have been avoided, for example by the inclusion
of a glossary at the end of the volume.
Often in parallel with the variation between verbal simplicity and
complexity of the articles, the actual scientific construction of the
presented ideas is not always of the same level. Some articles
present sound research to support the conclusions made by the
author (e.g. the quantificational approach of Ni), others give rather
personal opinions (e.g. Snoddy (p. 26): "And when we all have multi-
channel digital devices, I believe there will still be a need for public
service broadcasting", or are limited to a non-critical account of a
certain phenomenon, such as Gluck citing the metaphors that are
commonly used to describe wines.
Apart from the inconsistencies relating to form and style, I miss cross-
referencing between the various contributions, or at the very least, a
more elaborate introduction and conclusion. Some authors formulate
opposite ideas: Snoddy denies that new media have a big impact on
the way we communicate, whilst Lewis argues that online media do
change the way that news is presented. Other articles seem to
suggest similar conclusions, whether they are explicitly or implicitly
formulated. The findings of Cameron, Lorenzo-Dus and Davies
indicate for instance that mass media can facilitate the global
dissemination and influence of the English language and more
covertly, Anglo-Saxon communication strategies and social values. I
believe that pointing this out would have been a great surplus value
for the edited collection as a whole, all the more since these
contributions are situated in different sections of the book, making it
less obvious for the reader to spot these relations.
In conclusion, for me, the strength and value of this volume lie in the
diversity of its individual articles, written by an interesting mix of
scholars and media professionals. However, the desire to integrate
this diversity into a single framework is the work's main flaw. The
volume is prominently presented as a whole, and the structure
consisting of four sections tries to formalize that. I feel that this
coherence is not always present with respect to the content and style;
and that, for lack of a reflective conclusion that provides the reader
with some necessary cross-referencing, the arrangement of the
sections may even hinder the identification of articles that have a
certain degree of correlation. Whilst every reader will focus on one or
more articles depending on their own research interests, I believe that
language professionals, students and laymen alike will at the very
least enjoy reading the broad range of views presented in this varied
and interesting collection.
Dan Harries (Ed.), 2002, 'The New Media Book', London, Bfi
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Andy Van Drom is currently preparing a dissertation on the application
and the perception of a regional linguistic standard in the press of
Quebec. He will further explore the Quebecois theme in ensuing
Ph.D. research on the use of regionalisms in political discourse as a
linguistic identity-constructing strategy.
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