Analysis of the Language used in 3 extracts about Education
Texts A, B and C all focus around the theme of education. However, in terms of context the texts are fundamentally different. While text A transcribes spontaneous speech between a teacher and her students in the classroom studying a play, texts B and C are in the written mode, with text B being an excerpt from Bill Bryson’s autobiography ‘The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid’ and text C being an extract from Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Hard Times’. While the purpose of the conversation in text A is pedagogical, Bryson’s intention in text B is to give a humorous account of his experiences with teachers from his point of view, whereas the purpose of text C is to establish the characters of Mr Gradgrind as the fiercely aggressive schoolmaster, as opposed to schoolgirl Sissy Jupe who comes off as timid in comparison. Text A is a moving text as both parties produce and receive text; in contrast to this, texts B and C are static as readers receive it in its final form, which cannot be altered.
In text A, the role of the teacher as a figure of authority in the classroom is immediately established. This is seen as the teacher is the most dominant speaker, using the informal discourse markers of ‘right’ and ‘ok’ to assert herself in the conversation while directing the flow of the conversation through the use of imperatives (‘pick out any word or phrase that you discussed’) and interrogatives (‘Is there anything else about the furniture’), as opposed to the students, Jane and Ally, who only respond when prompted by the teacher (‘well we said they are obviously rich…’). The teacher also speaks in a more authoritative tone through the declaratives she uses (‘I’m going to ask one person from each group…’) to address her students. The teacher’s tone of anger as she tries to maintain control in the class is seen in her utterance (‘if if we could have some respect for each other hey’) as well, with word stress used (‘if’, ‘hey’) to attract her students’ attention.
The pedagogical purpose of the text is also seen in the lexical choice. Text A as a conversation centered on the teacher’s lesson about a play is predictably in the semantic field of education and drama (‘playwright’, ‘stage directions’, ‘play’). More importantly, however, is the way in which the speaker’s attitudes influence their lexical choice. In Text A, the casual classroom atmosphere is established through the teacher’s use of informal lexis (‘you lot’, ‘guys’, ‘yeah’, ‘okay’), and the teacher’s initial annoyance at her class can be seen through her pointed use of the abstract noun ‘respect’ to reprimand her class, as well as the adverb ‘please’ and the interjection ‘hey’ as she tries to get their attention. However, she soon conducts her lesson in a brisk and business-like manner once she gets her students’ attention, giving positive feedback (‘good’, ‘absolutely’) while commenting on the play (‘high status people’, ‘…aren’t very comfortable…’).
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In terms of syntax, text A as transcribed speech is organised in adjacency pairs, especially question and answer pairs (‘is there anything else about the furniture yea it’s not cosy…’) that are typical in conversations with a pedagogical purpose. The conversation itself has disjuncture present (‘absolutely (.) very good (.) thank you…’) and the use of simple conjunctions such as ‘and’ (‘…and drinking champagne so yeah…’, ‘and maybe the playwright is trying to suggest…’), which are common in spontaneous speech.
There are also numerous non-fluency features present in text A which indicate that it is a transcription of spontaneous speech. For example, both the teacher and students use reformulations (‘…their group talked (.) came up with alright…’, ‘yeah maybe they aren’t that (.) maybe they don’t get on that well’) as well as the filler ‘um’. The use of contractions such as ‘it’s’, ‘don’t’, and ‘we’re’ can also be seen in the text to speed up speech. Prosodic features are also present in the conversation as seen in the word stress of ‘if’ and ‘hey’ to convey the teacher’s displeasure.
In contrast, Text B as an autobiographical text is presented through the eyes of Bryson as the first-person narrator, with frequent use of the pronoun ‘I’ and ‘my’. This is done with the purpose of providing readers an internal view of Bryson’s experiences with the teachers of his childhood (‘I was not a popular pupil with the teachers’), enabling them to experience these events through his eyes. In the text, Bryson’s view of his teachers as distant and alien can be seen through the repeated use of the adjective ‘curious’, as well as ‘bewildering’ and ‘peculiar’ to portray his inability to understand them. However, his attitude towards Mrs De Voto and his other teachers differ: while he admits that Mrs De Voto ‘didn’t know who any of them were’, he uses laudatory adjectives such as ‘kind’, ‘well-meaning’ and ‘nice’ to describe her, whereas he uses the negative adjectives of ‘lumpy’, ’suspicious’, ‘dictorial’ and ‘unkind’ to present the other teachers in an unsavoury light. Bryson’s indignation at his teachers can also be seen in ‘Nothing about my character or deportment, my sure touch with phonics, my wining smile or can-do attitude’, thereby highlighting his negative view of his teachers. Bryson also has a secondary purpose to entertain his audience, and he does so through the use of humour as he pokes fun at his teachers (‘…a curiosity that didn’t strike me as entirely healthy’, ‘…curious punishment…to be put into a place where you were alone with all your classmates’ snack foods…’). His description of the other teachers as ‘all women, all spinsters’, with the repetition of the adverb ‘all’ carries the humourous implication that the women’s attitudes are connected to their ‘spinsterhood’, and this humour can also be seen in his use of colloquialisms (‘toity’, ‘BM’, ‘Number 1’) as he recounts his teachers apparent obsession with his toilet habits. Such light-heartedness is compounded by the conversational tone Bryson adopts (‘…believe me it didn’t work’, ‘So I hadn’t the faintest idea…’), which contributes to the informal atmosphere. Although both texts are about education, B differs from A as its focus is on Bryson’s experiences with his teachers, as opposed to the play being discussed in the pedagogical conversation transcribed in A. B is also fundamentally different as it makes use of a first-person narrative voice, which is conspicuously absent from A as transcribed speech.
In terms of syntax, Text B as a crafted text is more organised than A, which has looser syntax. This can be seen in the slightly more sophisticated complex sentences with multiple clauses (‘I got sent…I didn’t entirely understand…never really minded’, ‘It was a curious…to be put…you were alone…no one could see what you were getting to’), as opposed to the short utterances in text A. Bryson’s deliberate use of syndetic listing (‘…large, lumpy, suspicious, frustrated, dictorial and unkind’, ‘kind and well meaning and smelled nice’) is also an indication of carefully crafted text, and is used to repeatedly stress his other teachers’ negative qualities, as opposed to Mrs De Voto, who he prefers.
Speech representation in Text B is presented through the use of direct speech (‘Well I don’t know’, I replied frankly and in a clear voice. ‘I need to do a big BM…’), with Bryson conveying the humorous way in which he is punished through his misunderstanding of the teacher’s question not only through his exact words, but also through the reporting adverb of ‘frankly’ and the adverbial ‘in a clear voice’. Bryson also uses quotations from his report card (‘Billy sings with enthusiasm’, ‘Bobby sings with enthusiasm’, ‘Billy talks in a low tone’, ‘Bill still speaks in a low tone’) to make the point that Mrs De Voto ‘didn’t know who any of them were’, as well as to let the other teachers’ comments, which he considers odd, to speak for themselves.
On the other hand, in Text C, the author chooses to use a third-person narrative voice (‘Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand’, ‘Mr Gradgrind frowned…’), only affording readers an external view of the characters, possibly to place emphasis on speech to establish the characters and the tone of the extract. In particular, Gradgrind’s domineering personality is presented through the frequent imperatives and interrogatives (‘Girl number twenty…who is that girl?’, ‘…Tell him he musn’t…’) as he controls the conversation, with his reprimanding exclamation (‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’) and actions (‘squarely pointing with his square forefinger’) contributing to the strict, military-like atmosphere. Sissy’s nervous character is also seen in her repeated use of the formal mode of address ‘sir’, and the tense atmosphere is reinforced by her ‘blushing, standing up and curtsying’, which describe Sissy’s reaction towards the aggressive Gradgrind, allowing the reader to sympathise for her. The negative portrayal of the character of another schoolboy, Bitzer is also seen in the extract, most notably through the contrast of Sissy as ‘…so dark-eyed and dark-haired…received a deeper and more lustrous colour’ as opposed to the boy, who is described as ‘light-eyed and light-haired…draw out of him what little colour…unwholesomely deficient’, as well as the favouritism practiced by Gradgrind, who calls him ‘Bitzer’ (as opposed to ‘Girl number twenty’). Overall, B and C are similar in that there is a narrative voice present with a focus on the teachers’ character; however, while in A and B a more casual and informal atmosphere is established, the tone of the extract in C is darker.
The purpose of text C is also established through the lexical choice. In particular, the comparison of the schoolchildren to ‘little vessels…arranged in order….ready to have imperial gallons of fact poured into them’ and ‘…all the little pitchers’ contributes to the serious atmosphere of the extract, mirroring Gradgrind’s impersonal view of the children as objects. This is further seen in the repeated use of the word ‘square’ (‘…squarely pointing with his square forefinger’, ‘The square finger…’), emphasising Gradgrind’s authoritarian approach when dealing with school children. The adverb of ‘suddenly’ as Gradgrind chooses another child to answer his question also contributes to the air of suspense. On the other hand, Sissy’s timid character and her fear for Gradgrind can be seen in the dynamic verbs of ‘blushing’ and ‘curtseying’, as well as the verbal phrase of ‘thrown in the greatest alarm’. However, she is also presented as radiant, as shown in the use of laudatory adjectives such as ‘lustrous’ as opposed to the unsavoury adjectival phrase of ‘unwholesomely deficient’ used to describe Bitzer.
In terms of syntax, text C, like B, is a crafted text, and when compared to text A, is more organised. This can be seen in the similar use of multi-clausal complex sentences (‘…the girl was…seemed to receive…the boy was…seemed to draw…he possessed’, ‘The square finger, moving…lightedly…chanced to sit…darting…irradiated’), which Dickens uses to make a comparison of Sissy and Bitzer as well as to establish a sense of continuity in the narrative.
Dickens successfully mimics speech in C through the use of direct (‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr Gradgrind’) and indirect (‘Oh yes, sir.’) speech. More importantly, however, is the way in which the characters are developed through the way they speak. In particular, the use of ellipsis in Gradgrind’s speech (‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’, ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts’) emphasises his brisk attitude, whereas the disjuncture in Bitzer’s utterance (‘Quadruped. Graminivorous….’) perhaps implies that he is speaking quickly and is nervous. Sissy’s submissive attitude is also seen in her repeated use of ‘if you please’. Although texts B and C use a similar speech representation, texts A and C are similar in that speech reveals the teachers’ roles and attitudes, whereas Bryson uses speech representation in B to create a humorous effect.