Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Chav: the semantic broadening of abuse

An article in today's Guardian by Polly Toynbee takes aim at the word chav, describing it as a term of "acceptable class abuse by people asserting superiority over those they despise" and a word that is happily used by those who "would presumably never say nigger or Paki". She goes on to say that "wrapped inside this little word is the quintessence of Britain's great social fracture". It's strong stuff, and she argues the case passionately that there's much wrong with the word and of course the prejudices it might be seen to reflect.

It's not the first time that chav has been attacked. In this article, Zoe Williams argues that it's an unpleasant word but that attempts to ban it are silly. Meanwhile, Paul Flynn argues a case very similar to Polly Toynbee's that the use of the word reflects a sneering snobbery towards people with less money and fewer job prospects.

What's a little odd is that Toynbee is writing about this word in 2011, when chav really hit the mainstream around 6-7 years ago. But looking at the example she uses in her article it's fairly clear that  for some people the word has now broadened from its fairly specific field of reference - young men and women sporting prison whites, fake burberry, sovereign rings and number 1's (or for the women, a Croydon facelift) - into a much wider reference to the wider working class. To some people, working class = chav, and vice versa.

In fact, that's part of Toynbee's argument: by conflating the entire working class (the majority of the country, in fact) with a small subset of it, it's easy for right wingers to write off a whole section of the population as lazy, feckless and feral, further dividing already fragmented communities.

The wider language point here is, I think, that if we aren't careful, some words drift from their original moorings and if we don't see this taking place we can't challenge it. It's the same with hoodies being used interchangeably for most teenagers or urban for black.

Language change is inevitable, but we can have some say in how far we feel it's appropriate for words to shift and we can exercise some control over challenging their meanings. If language is at least partly a reflection of social attitudes then there has to be some place for arguing about what these words mean to us and why they might be dangerous, and Toynbee's article is a good contribution to that debate.

ENGA1 June 2011

With lots of students looking for revision tips about ENGA1, I thought I'd add a few bits and pieces over the next week or so. The exam isn't until June 6th so there'll be at least 2 or 3 more posts on this before then.

First off, here's a new and exciting graphic of the mode continuum:


Secondly, here's a list of past text pairings for Language and Mode:


Previous ENGA1 texts

Jan 2009:
Online advert/webpage for dating tips
Phone conversation transcript between two secret lovers

May 2009:
Written version of Green Party speech
Printed guidance about avoiding wasteful use of photocopiers

Jan 2010:
Message board posts about graffiti
Online Guardian article about Banksy

May 2010
Transcript of radio interview at Glastonbury
Article from The Observer’s television listings section

Jan 2011
Transcript of part of a conversation about children’s behaviour
Webpage giving advice about bringing up children.

Future exam papers? Some suggestions:

  •   written mode letters with blended mode emails/text messages/MSN “conversation” (like the sample stuff in the AQA A text book) 
  • spoken conversation between 3+ participants and online conversation
  • spoken commentary versus written match report  (or blended mode web commentary)
  • monologue of person telling anecdote and narrative in written form
  • written text that uses features of spoken mode to create “relationship” with reader

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Fry and kinetic typography versus the prescriptivists

Stephen Fry - writer, actor, author and lover of language - takes on language pedants in this neat little animation. It uses "kinetic typography" (animated words and stuff) and has been put together by Matt Rogers.

There's also some discussion of Fry's views here from Russell Smith in Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail..

Worth a look if you're revising Language Discourses on ENGA3.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hit the pause button

There's nothing I like for breakfast more than a big banana.
Can you pass me the bag of nuts?
I think I'll have the sausage, please.

What connects all of these seemingly innocuous food-related comments? Well, if you're an NBA basketball player, you'd probably want to insert (oo-er) the word pause after each. Why? To avoid sounding like you're gay, obviously. So, "I'm right behind you", "I've got your back" and "That driver was right up my arse" would all qualify as potentially smutty innuendoes requiring the pause treatment. Because to be gay in the macho world of professional sports is to be bad. Hell, it's even worse than being a girl!

Pause - according to Urban Dictionary - is used "to negate the sexual connotation of a comment" and has been recently appearing in spoken language and social networking (often Twitter) comments, perhaps following the patterns of usage of its slightly older brother no homo, which has been around since (apparently) the early 90s in hip hop slang and beyond.

The attempts by some men to police their own language use and avoid the potential embarrassment of letting slip a comment that might be perceived as gay are both interesting and slightly pathetic. Sociolinguists often look in detail at the language markers that help us define our identity and note - like Deborah Cameron does in her Myth of Mars and Venus - that we often use language as  much to define who we are not as who we are. So, in other words, the use of pause or no homo, could be a deliberate attempt to distance some men from gay men (or the stereotypical language styles associated with gay men). But why not just avoid saying things that are... like "gay"...in the first place? Well, that would be missing the point, because the whole point of using pause seems to be to draw attention to your words and encourage salacious connotations to be drawn from them before distancing yourself from the implications of the interpretation. Or something like that...

What's pathetic about it shouldn't be too hard to see. Do gay men really mince around discussing the relative merits of big bananas or succulent sausages? Probably not (unless you're Julian Clary). The whole use of pause might be seen as harmless fun, self-conscious mockery even, but at the same time it's peddling a view that gay men talk in a certain way which is easily identified and ridiculed, and that they are sex-obsessed, double-entendre-fixated "others". Some may be - surely that's up to them - but it's a lazy stereotype to assume it applies to all gay men.

So, is pause homophobic? Possibly. Is it dangerous? I'm not sure. There have got to be worse forms of linguistic homophobia than this - name-calling, abuse - but it probably says more about the speaker's attitudes to homosexuality than it does about gay men themselves.

Jay Smooth's brilliant video clip says it all so much better than me except he argues that pause came before no homo and is now (in his words) "played out", old, boring. 

Edited on 18.05.11 to add some more smutty innuendoes and a genius bit of hip hop linguistics

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Birthers of new words

Morphology - the study of the form of words - is an element of grammar that sometimes gets overlooked at A level in the rush to analyse word classes and sentences, but it's an interesting and productive area. It's productive in that it helps us produce lots of new words and word forms, and productive in that it can help you produce good material in exams.

It's a particularly interesting language framework/method in two areas, child language and new word formation, and it's the latter we'll have a quick look at here. First of all, to refresh your memories about morphology, it's the study of how words themselves are made up of smaller units. Not all of this is essential reading for A level, but I think it's quite interesting to know (and A level should be more than just about doing what the spec tells you to do, shouldn't it?).

There are basically two types of morphology: derivational morphology is about creating (deriving) new words out of other units, while inflectional morphology is more to do with the ways in which words change depending on grammatical functions and forms. For example, to illustrate the latter, verbs inflect depending on the tense and aspect they're in (I walk - I walked - I am walking), the grammatical person they agree with (I walk - she walks) and nouns on whether they're singular or plural (dog - dogs), and there are plenty more too (An Introduction to English Morphology by Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy is a good read if you want to find out more.).

Derivational morphology is to do with putting morphemes (small units that make up words) together to create new words, so respect can become disrespect, terror become terrorise, and so on. A great deal of word formation in recent years has been the product of blending and compounding (bromance, staycation, podcast all being blends, and laptop, muffin top and bunny boiler all being compounds), but a tweet from MacMillan Dictionaries linking to this site offers some interesting examples of new words formed by derivational morphology.

They look at the use of the -er suffix in recent American neologisms. So, the people involved movement that claimed Barack Obama wasn't actually an American and demanded to see his birth certificate, became known as birthers. The US's satirical magazine The Onion even created a spoof movement that denied the providence of Obama's birth certificate after he had produced it, who were called Afterbirthers (demanding to see the placenta).

The Fritinanacy blog also mentions that those who refused to accept the official version of events for 9/11 were called truthers. Now we even have deathers, who refuse to accept that Osama Bin Laden is actually dead, an dthink that his burial at sea was all part of a cunning plan. There are older ones too. They point to right wingers, nutters and we even have some of our own, homegrown British ones such as lifers (prisoners on a life sentence) and ravers (people who like a particular club-based lifestyle).

So, if you're looking for some good examples of word formation processes to impress your ENGA3/ENGB3 examiners this summer, have a think about including morphology and the processes of prefixation (adding morphemes at the start of a root word), suffixation (adding morphemes at the end of a root word), or even infixing (adding morphemes in the middle of a root word...like hoo-f***ing-ray). It will help you avoid being a failer.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gangsta rabble add their thang to Scrabble

According to an article in today's Daily Telegraph, Scrabble players are about to experience a massive shake-up from the slang massive. Hundreds of words from slang usage including thang and innit (and to be fair, Indian cookery and some technical jargon too) are set to appear in the new Collins Official Scrabble Words book.

On The Guardian's website, Sarah Churchwell talks about the new words and places them in the context of wider debates about new words entering mainstream use. For A2 students looking at language change and attitudes to change, it's a good article to read. As ever, the comments generated by the piece range from the deranged to the completely reasonable, so are worth a skim too.

Do the SlutWalk

The slutwalk: a bit like the cripwalk but with fewer clothes

SlutWalks are coming to a town (and dictionary) near you, but if you're a hormone-charged teenage boy don't get too excited: these slutwalks are feminist in nature and all about the ways in which women are viewed and treated by some men.

The SlutWalk is a response to a speech given by a police officer in Toronto, Canada who ill-advisedly told his student audience that if women wanted to avoid being raped they should stop "dressing like sluts". In this article in yesterday's Evening Standard, Rosamund Irwin makes the excellent point that rape is not necessarily something that happens to only scantily-clad young women, but pensioners, children and nearly all types of women in whatever type of clothing. Years ago, feminist friends made it clear to me that while sex is the means of inflicting the attack, rape is more about power and dominance than it is about sexual attraction. As Irwin points out, blaming the victim is "still a frighteningly common response to sexual assault", but it's a mindset that some people can't get out of. The SlutWalks are an imaginative and witty response to this.

This article on the BBC News magazine site takes a linguistic tack and explores the history of the word slut, making the point that very much like nigger and queer, the word has been reclaimed... or at least, has been claimed to have been reclaimed: these things are never as simple as saying "This word used to mean x, but from now on, this word means y!".

Like other forms of reclamation, there are problems. Unreconstructed racists might still use the word nigger in its pejorative and racist sense, while a black teenager from Peckham (or Tim Westwood-lookalikes) might use it in its reclaimed sense. Likewise, supporters of the gay rights movement might use queer in its reclaimed sense while homophobes and other bigots might still use it as a term of abuse. Each word exists in a state of duel identity: it's OK to use it in one context but not another. And tied in with reclamation is the idea that something in the original sense of the word is being celebrated. In the case of queer it's maybe a celebration of deviance as a positive force, with nigger it's perhaps an embrace of the threatening, brutal aspects of the original word as a way of defiantly chucking an insult back into the faces of racists. With slut it's all about celebrating female independence and a woman's control over her own body and sexual desires.

Slut - like so many other words used to describe women's sexual behaviour and/or attractiveness - is still a loaded word, partly because of its connotations of dirt and "low morals" - but also because it is used by some men (and some women) to cast judgements on the behaviour of others. So what, you might say: lots of words do that.

The difference here, perhaps is that double-standards are at work. Just have a look at adjectives like dirty and filthy. Often these are used as terms of approval by men to describe sexually independent or adventurous women, but equally they can be used by the same men to abuse a woman they consider to be too independent or too adventurous (often because they're not having sex with them, but with someone else...).

Back in the early 1970s, Julia Stanley looked at the proportion of negative words used to label men and women and found a massive disparity, almost always in favour of men. Since then, things have changed - or so we're told. While the terms of abuse used to belittle boys and men tend to revolve around homosexuality - faggot, gay, batty man etc. - the ones used to denigrate girls and women are often related to their availability (or not) for sex with males: sket, slag, whore, junge, tight, frigid and slut.

To put it simply, lots of women - perhaps young women more than others - have to negotiate a world where to lots of boys if you're not tight, you're slack. It's not a level playing field for women, and the language used to describe them is often riddled with double-standards, so I'm all in favour of slutwalks and the rationale for holding them in the first place.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Sick timing, blud

And as if by magic, or the internet even, this tweet from Oxford Dictionaries appeared on my screen, explaining that the words wicked and sick  have had positive meanings for longer than you might think. Read all about it here.

Don't test me, fam

The directorial debut of Joe Cornish (one half of the mighty Adam and Joe), Attack the Block, looks like it will be a masterpiece of hoodies, tower blocks, grimy beats and... err... space aliens. But in this short ITN clip, it's not the plot, the genre or the aliens that get the focus, but the film's use of south London slang.

It's a neat little clip because it shows the slippery nature of slang's meanings. When we ran a poll on this blog a few months ago about the word "peak", it was given a range of different meanings. I understand it as meaning something similar to "hectic", which could be good or bad, depending on the context: a party might be hectic (exciting and a little bit cer-azy - perhaps with people chugging Top Deck shandy and robot dancing in the kitchen ), while a job interview might be hectic (scary and overwhelming, just too much, man).

One of the actors explains it as "getting overwhelming, getting too much, there's danger, it's getting peak", but as Joe Cornish explains, with mock-English teacher seriousness at the end, sometimes these words "can be flipped...their meanings can change overnight without any warning at all".

There's a good interview with Cornish here and the Adam and Joe 6Music site is here.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Calm down, dear

David Cameron's put-down of Labour MP Angela Eagles in the House of Commons last week by telling her to "calm down, dear" has been attacked by many commentators for its sexist and patronising language and tone. One of the best responses appeared in last week's Guardian from Libby Brooks who quoted feminist linguist Dale Spender in her argument, and made the point that to dismiss it as just a joke was to misunderstand the power of language and its relationship to social context:

Because language really, really matters. It is fundamental to how we construct and convey meaning. And when that meaning is: "I am expressing paternalistic concern at your inability [as a woman] to rein in your emotion" then yes, that is sexist and yes, it is a big deal. To undermine her anger as hysteria, to reference her femaleness, is a particularly male way of putting a woman down.
Going on to link Cameron's comment to the Sky Sports sexism furore a couple of months ago, Brooks makes the point that sexist banter exists in a world where these notions aren't challenged and how we shouldn't let people (usually) men get away with this dismissive and demeaning language.

A wider point here is that taken out of context, the word dear probably isn't that bad - it's certainly not on the same level as many of the frequent, offensive terms used daily - bitch, cow, slag and the like - but it's the context that imbues it with its offence. It's the way its use represents a stance on the part of the speaker ("I am in a superior position to you and can address you in whatever way I choose") and ties in to a broader picture of social inequality - Cameron and his chums are largely the product of single-sex boarding schools, who treat gender equality as a hilarious wheeze, rather than an issue to be taken seriously - that make it such an inflammatory language act.

Edited to add comma in title - apologies for punctuation fail