Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Happiness, suicide, Facebook and Bebo

Normally on this blog we've tried to cover material that's specifically about language topics that you study at A level or news stories that have relevance to wider issues about language that might interest us. The two main stories mentioned below are not really about language - and are genuinely sad, involving the deaths of three people - but have links to how we use language to express ourselves, so I hope that makes some sense.

In the first story, the death of Kevin McGee (Little Britain star, Matt Lucas's ex-partner) seems to have been widely reported with reference to his 21st century style suicide note: a Facebook update that read "Kevin McGee thinks that death is much better than life". When we look at the concept of mode and use it to think about differences between written and spoken texts, we've often considered the written mode to confer more seriousness, formality or permanence on its language, but what happens when you've got a blended mode form like Facebook profiles (typed on a keyboard, certainly not spoken, but not exactly written)?

I reckon the last thing on poor old Kevin McGee's mind was "where on the mode continuum will an English Language student place my suicide message", but doesn't this raise important issues about the status we give to social networking sites and the language we use on them?

Likewise, the pointless and tragic suicides of Niamh Lafferty and Georgia Rowe near Glasgow, earlier this week (and reported here) have led to many social networking tributes. And what's striking about these tributes is how different they are from the kinds of messages left engraved forever on tombstones. A message apparently left by Georgia's cousin reads "georgia a know we havent spoke in a very long time but u'll always be ma wee cousin an a love u. Hope ur in a better place now. R.I.P".

Again it may seem cold and callous to look at such a sad waste of young lives for the purposes of language analysis, but maybe this all tells us something about the society we live in, our reactions to the deaths of others and our changing attitudes to what is appropriate language in situations like this. After all, we're studying language not for its own sake but to give us an understanding of ourselves and others, aren't we? And maybe what's striking too about this particular "tribute" is its use of non-standard features - not just the fairly typical ones to do with abbreviation, letter homophones, clippings and non-capitalisation - but its apparently regional features of accent (a not i/I and ma not my) and dialect (we havent spoke not we haven't spoken). Does this make the tribute more "real"? Does the fact that it's written in a way that the speaker finds natural make it a less frozen, less formal, more genuine tribute to the person who's now gone?

This feature article in today's Guardian takes a not very linguistic, but interestingly psychological approach to tribute websites like Gonetoosoon and lasting tribute too, and I think it's worth a look.

Elsewhere (and it's a desperate attempt to finish on a happy note) this bizarre piece of non-research seems to be trying to work out how happy Americans are by "analysing" their Facebook status updates. It's worth a quick look, if nothing else.

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