Wednesday, May 13, 2015

General Dejection

You might have missed it, but there was a General Election last week. While many of us in Sixth Form Colleges are still weeping, wailing and gnashing our teeth - not to mention drowning our sorrows in red red wine - at the prospect of another 5 years of underfunding and fragmentation, at least the election gave us some good stuff to look at for language analysis. Every cloud has a silver lining...

Anyway, here's a quick round-up of things that you could look at for English language A level related to the recent campaign.

First off, it's the rise of the hashtag #Milifandom. For a while, it looked like people might actually vote for Miliband, and the rise of the Milifandom hashtag seemed to crystallise the feeling among a (clearly deluded, in hindsight) minority that the time of the geek had come. Obviously, it hadn't...

Accommodation was also under the spotlight: not the kind of accommodation that we need - you know, houses and stuff - but accommodation in the form of Howard Giles' Communication Accommodation Theory. A year or two ago, we looked on this blog at George Osborne's attempts to converge to working class speech but this time round it was Ed Miliband who was mocked for his apparent convergence to Russell Brand's Essex/mockney style.

Have a look at this piece which explains some of the background to the Milibrand interview and the ways in which such convergence can happen and is often viewed.

And in a separate article, David Shariatmadari looks at the glottal stop and its stigmatisation, making the following observation:

The glottal stop (more specifically, the glottalisation of “t”) is a feature traditionally associated with male, working-class speakers. But even as far back as 1982, linguist John Wells noticed it being picked up by young speakers of “prestige” British English – otherwise known as received pronunciation. It’s difficult to say exactly why that happened, but Labov’s idea of “covert prestige” makes intuitive sense. Some sounds, even though they’re generally regarded as markers of an “inferior” dialect, are nevertheless used to signal group membership, solidarity or cool.


Away from the two main male players in the General Election, Cameron and Miliband, the three female party leaders of the Greens, Plaid Cymru and SNP attracted much media coverage. Was this the first election since Thatcher's in 1979 that would see women making a splash? Well, yes and no, Sturgeon's splash appears to have seriously dampened Miliband's chances of taking power or exerting any influence on a hung parliament, with the SNP butchering Labour in Scotland and then Labour failing to make gains in England.

But what about the speech styles of the female party leaders? Were these women breaking the mould of adversarial Punch and Judy politics by injecting some much needed co-operation and civility into the debates? 

Deborah Cameron, ace linguist and author of The Myth of Mars and Venus, looked at this with a sceptical eye in this really interesting piece about gender and the debates, arguing that much of the coverage of the three female party leaders has succumbed to tedious stereotyping:

The specific ways in which women are said to differ from men (more supportive and less aggressive, more into consensus and less into point-scoring, etc.) could come straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. These are hoary old gender stereotypes, which in other contexts feminists would decry as crude and sexist. Yet in the context of the election campaign they are being dusted off and trotted out as if they constituted a feminist argument. ‘Look, women are different from men, that’s why we need more of them in politics’. There is an excellent feminist case for equal political representation. So why use an argument whose basic assumption is that women deserve a place because they’re from Venus rather than Mars?

As she points out elsewhere in her article, female speakers aren't all the same:

Some differences among women are produced by the intersection of gender with other social divisions like ethnicity and class; others reflect variation at the level of individual personality or life experience. It’s true that ‘female politicians’ is a much smaller and less internally diverse category than ‘women’. Even so, it cannot be assumed that they have a single style of speaking. In fact, it’s obvious they don’t: even among the three female party leaders I've been discussing there are clear individual differences.

Perhaps what has shaped so much of this coverage of the female party leaders and their 'female language style' is the sheer novelty of seeing women in power, and that is hugely depressing in 2015. As much as I detest pretty much everything Margaret Thatcher ever did, I can still recognise that having a female Prime Minister was still a pretty big moment in history, but 36 years later there still hasn't been another woman PM and we are still short of equality for the sexes in parliament. 

So, even when things look apparently very different, they actually stay the same. Or get worse...

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