Friday, May 09, 2008

Language & Representation revision

For those of you working on ENA1 revision for next Friday's exams, here are some top tips for Language & Representation that I originally posted in 2006, which I've updated for this year.

This essay question deals with the links between language and thought - whether we control language or it controls us - and the ways in which language is used to label different groups in society.

First off, it's important to be clear that this topic has nothing to do with how men and women speak (that's on ENA3) so don't start writing about interruptions, overlaps etc.

Secondly, you need to be clear that when the question talks about "social groups" (as it often does), it's referring to ethnic groups, the different genders, social classes, age groups, or even what people often term subcultural groups like grungers, goths and rap fans. You can also add to that list groups defined by their sexuality and people with disabilities. Of course, some of these labels themselves are problematic and you can talk about how they define individuals as parts of larger groups, removing their distinct identities and generalising about them, if you wish in your answer.

Thirdly, you could (for revision purposes only of course - it's not a good idea to do this for fun) write down as many unpleasant words you can think of for each of those social groups and start to look at the common threads that emerge. We might find that words used to label gay people focus on their difference from the norm ("queer", "bent"), their supposed sexual practices ("batty man", "shirtlifter", "arse bandit") or throw up some words which you'll have to explore more etymologically (Where does "faggot" come from? What did "gay" used to mean? What's a "chi-chi man" when he's at home? Well, probably still a homosexual, but you get the picture...).

For women, many of the words that emerge are used to trivialise females as sweet, edible, consumable items, usually a bit decorative, but certainly not there to be taken seriously ("tart", "crumpet", "sweetie", "cupcake"), or again focus on a particular body part to define a woman solely by her appearance/sexual function to men ("the club was heaving with fanny", "oi, big jugs!", "gash").

Ethnicity and the words used to label different ethnic groups allow us to explore the etymology of terms like "nigger", "paki", "pikey", "cracker", "coon", "half-caste", "taffy" and "gyppo". A quick look at the OED online or online etymology should help you track how these words have originated in racist attitudes (or not, as the case may be) and developed over time. And remember, white people are an ethnic group too! Have you ever met a black chav?! Actually, Croydon readers need not answer that rhetorical question... But of course, words like "black" and "white" can be explored in themselves for their negative and positive connotations, the words they tend to collocate with, and indeed the word "chav" is interesting as it is believed to has its roots in Gypsy slang for "child" or "lad" but has been used against Gypsies (and now any working class white person who dares to sport Burberry, Reebok Classics or sovereign rings).

The next step is to look at some of the linguistic concepts and terms that can be used to explain these words and the patterns we notice. This sheet on the SFX Resource site should help. You could also look at research/texts by linguists such as Dale Spender (Man Made Language), Deborah Cameron (Verbal Hygiene), Muriel Schultz and Mary M Talbot whose work on gender is pretty interesting. There have been loads of blog posts about racist language so you could do a search on here using keywords and find material to bolster your knowledge.

In terms of theory, it's important to understand linguistic reflectionism, determinism and wider concepts such as relativism and universalism, so check the article I did for December 2005's E Magazine which should help you. If it's not on the E Magazine site (log in details are in the LRC), it's certainly in the periodicals section of the LRC. Alternatively, you could use Wikipedia and look up "Sapir Whorf" and find out where my (ahem) "inspiration" from. While you're at it, you could search for "Political Correctness" as key words and have a look at why there has been a move to change language.

The trickiest part is linking this together, but good answers can take many forms. You could explore the links between offensive words and the attitudes that create them - or even the language that shapes these attitudes - or you could take a range of examples and look at why they've changed over time and what this tells us about the society we live in. There are plenty of good, model answers we can give you too. Have a quick look at this planning sheet and this one too if you're after a more detailed model for your writing. And for more on arguments about Political Correctness, try this link.

I've probably missed lots of things out here, but you can fill in the gaps...


Sheila said...

thanx sir this is alot of help and so was that other stuff. how many lingist do you suggest i mention in the exam so far i,ve got steve pinker Euphemism treadmill, julia stanle; moanin that there are two many offensive words for women than men, robin lakoff sugestin that many words assume sexual confrence when applied to women, Luce irigaray; stuff bout feminism being described as the incomplete side of masculinity.. nd otha stuff like PC, genric pronouns most of the stuff i have on lanugae and rep links make to male and female ??? HELP

sheila said...

Oh yea and what on earth ir Relativism n universalism wikipedia is CONFUSIN ME

Dan said...

You could try the emagazine article on language and thought (either via emagazine website link off blog - password is in LRC) or the paper copy in the LRC. Or you could just forget it and do teh other stuff. Universalism and relativism are pretty tricky to build in to any essay on this and aren't absolutely necessary.

Pinker's universalist position is basically arguing that we are all human, with shared genetic heritage and that we tend to categorise our key human concepts in braodly similar ways, regardless of ethnicity and culture. He reckons that certain ideas are common across all languages and that rather than being at the mercy of language (like the relativists argue - Sapir and Whorf being 2 of them) that we are actually very adept at using it to suit our needs. That's my understanding of it, in a nutshell.

Dan said...

Luce whonow? I'm not familiar with that one.

I'd suggest that you look at ethnicity and dis/ability too. What about all those words used to describ non-white ethnic groups? There seems to be over-representation of words for non-whites and lexical gaps for whites. Maybe that's a similar pattern to gender and reflects dominant and muted groups' influence or lack of it in society.

Have a look for links to the BBC's "Ouch" website which is really goo on words used to describe people with disabilities.