Friday, March 22, 2013

The language of love

There's a short and informative piece by David Shariatmadari in today's Guardian about the changing terminology used to label and describe people of different sexual orientation. In the comment piece, he talks about the terms that have developed over time and the arguments about such language.

Linking his points to a wider discussion of the role of language in shaping or reflecting people's attitudes to sexuality, he asks "Does language change politics, or is it the other way round? Or perhaps language is more like fashion, in having something to do with prevailing attitudes, but not, ultimately, being all that important".

It's a question we've looked at in A2 English language lessons recently, particularly around the language of race and discrimination. Shariatmadari goes on to raise this too.

Language certainly feels important if you've just been shouted at by a racist or a homophobe. But it's worth asking whether zero tolerance of the N-word, for instance, might be a precursor to, or an after-effect of, more enlightened thinking. Or whether in the US, where it is perhaps the biggest linguistic taboo of all, racism has, in fact, ceased to be a problem.

When we've looked at Political Correctness (PC) and the movement to change language or highlight its potential problems, we've often speculated on the relationship between language and attitudes. Can removing bad words remove bad ideas from people's heads? Or does it just create a vacuum for another bad word to rush into?

Shariatmadari argues what is essentially a reflectionist perspective: "Language is the imprint of our culture. It encodes – though it does not determine – the character of the age". The language that is used to label people who are gay, bisexual, transgendered or questioning is changing to reflect the range of sexual identities that are now gaining prominence (but were probably always there) rather than necessarily shaping identities.

There was another article on this topic a few weeks ago, which you can find here. It's good to have a range of references when you're answering ENGA3 questions about Language Change and Language Discourses, so have a read and make a few notes...

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