Friday, May 18, 2018

Revision round-up 2 - metaphors about language

If you ask a linguist to describe a form of language, they'll probably focus on its features, its functions, its background and history. Ask a non-linguist and they'll probably describe it using evaluative terms such as ugly, broken, lazy or even beautiful (sometimes), or they'll reach for metaphor: language is an amazing tool; language is a beautiful building that needs to be protected; British English has to be defended against an invasion of awful Americanisms; urban slang is polluting our once proud language etc.

These metaphors are interesting because they often encode a way of seeing the world - and usefully for you, sitting the exam - a way of conceptualising language that you can analyse and discuss. What's important about these metaphors is that they will often seem quite appealing - or even perfectly natural - as an idea and you might even read them and think that it's quite neat way to describe language, but if you dig a bit deeper, you can often see that they are problematic.

In fact, one of the big challenges of this part of Paper 2 is being able to see how these metaphors construct a way of seeing language change and/or diversity that affects the way we view language and the world around us. In short, these metaphors can change that we think. Norman Fairclough, one of the most influential linguists in the field of critical discourse analysis, makes the point that “Ideologies are closely linked to language, because using language is the commonest form of social behaviour, and the form of social behaviour where we rely most on ‘common-sense’ assumptions” and I think this is an important idea to understand.

Take a few of the headlines below, for example.

Each of these presents language as something other than language - rubbish, a damaging force, a killer or a fashion - and all shape the way we might think about it. 

Some of the most common metaphors work to make us think that 'traditional' English is under threat or at risk in some way and some of the most common language discourses are presented below. It''s not an exhaustive list by any stretch, but if you've been following stories about language during your time on the course, you'll probably have seen these time and time again.

One of the skills that comes in really useful on Paper 2, especially for Questions 3 and 4 in Section B, is being able to identify these discourses and see how the writers of the texts you are analysing might be making use of them to offer a particular angle or position on language. If you can see where they are being deployed and how they are tapping into wider ideas about language, society and people, you can interrogate them and see if the views they are offering can be looked at in another way, challenged or attacked.

Having tuned into the discourses being used, you can then make use of them for yourself when you come to write your Q4 response. And, as you've probably seen from the articles you've been reading to help you with Section B, writing a piece that makes use of some of these popular discourses is one way to make your piece read more like a genuine article. But of course, you'll also have the benefit of understanding how such metaphors work and be able to manipulate them for your own (hopefully more linguistically informed) arguments.

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