Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Words for Women

Let's get the caveat out of the way from the off. The five women murdered in Ipswich were tragic, lost souls who met a grisly end. I sincerely hope whoever killed them is caught, charged and convicted.

No one with a shred of humanity would wish upon them their ghastly lives and horrible deaths. But Mother Teresa, they weren't. And I know this might sound frightfully callous in the current hysterical, emotional climate, but we're not all guilty. We do not share in the responsibility for either their grubby little existences or their murders. Society isn't to blame.

It might not be fashionable, or even acceptable in some quarters, to say so, but in their chosen field of "work", death by strangulation is an occupational hazard. That doesn't make it justifiable homicide, but in the scheme of things the deaths of these five women is no great loss.

These were the words of Richard Littlejohn, Daily Mail columnist and right-wing skuzzball, in a December 2006 piece about the murders of 6 women in Ipswich.

Last week, Steve Wright was convicted of the women's murders and, given that he was only one of three high profile murderers of women to get convicted in the last few days, it may seem disrespectful or frivolous to start talking about the language used to discuss these matters amid such horrific circumstances. But language is the means through which we describe and define our world, and if we can't talk about language in relation to these kinds of events, I think we're missing an opportunity to highlight the importance of language in shaping our attitudes and responses.

A response to Littlejohn's article came in the form of this piece on a feminist blog, while the stand up comedian Stewart Lee has performed a sketch in his most recent show 41st Best Stand Up which attacks Littlejohn's attitudes to these women and the language used to label them. Elsewhere, The Guardian's Joan Smith looks with a little more optimism at what she sees as changing public attitudes to "women who work in the sex industry", comparing the media coverage of the Ipswich murders favourably with that given to the victims of the notorious Yorkshire Ripper in the 1970s.

To begin with, it seemed as though nothing had changed since the 70s when Sutcliffe's murders unleashed a torrent of insensitive headlines about the women he preyed on in the red light districts of Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield and Manchester. The Sun's "Fears for vice girls" on November 16 2006 was followed the next day by the same paper's "Fears for hookers", while the Times joined in on December 5 with "Ripper murder strikes fear into vice girls".

But public attitudes to women in the sex industry have changed, as the press quickly discovered. In Ipswich and elsewhere, people were outraged by TV and radio bulletins that baldly announced five "prostitutes" had been murdered in Suffolk. Many people are uncomfortable when the word is used in headlines as though it's no different from "teacher" or "dentist"; the dead women were daughters, mothers and girlfriends but their whole lives were being defined by something they had embarked on out of absolute desperation. "As soon as it became a national story, it became apparent that the language used to describe the women was inappropriate," says a journalist who went to Ipswich when the third body was found. "Everybody knew one of the victims or had been to school with one of them."

So, what of the language choices made by these different commentators? What connotations spring to mind with terms such as prostitute, vice girl, hooker, or even Littlejohn's own touching tribute disgusting, drug-addled street whores? And what of women who work in the sex industry, or women who worked as prostitutes? Do these alternatives - clunky and awkward as they may sound - offer a shred of humanity for us to hang an otherwise unpleasant label on?

Useful for:

ENA1 - Language & Representation

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Great news for current Year 8 students!

Yes, it's amazing news for current Year 8 students*...because in 2012 you'll be doing your AS Levels (if they're still called that and not Ronald McDonald's Vocational Awards in Basic Wageslavery) and if you choose English Language (which you should, because it's obviously the best) you might even get a trip out of it. Woo hoo!

For so long English Literature students have been able to boast of school/college trips to dubious theatre productions, Media Students of trips to see gritty urban films (like Notting Hill and Love, Actually), and Film Studies students of trips to Lithuanian Grimcore "art" films, but English Language students have had nothing.

Which is a very long-winded way of introducing Project English, a museum dedicated to the history and development of the English Language which opens in 2012 in Winchester, as explained in this piece in today's Times. The article gives a very potted summary of the history of the language (very potted - 6 bullet points!) but the websites of Winchester University and a powerpoint presentation of the plans for the project might give you some more insight (but don't worry too much about the several slides given over to costings and locations).

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change

living in the south of England and studying AS/A2 English Language in 2012

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Words of 2007

Michael Quinion's World Wide Words site is a great resource for any English Language student or teacher, and it has a very handy feature on last year's polls of new words here. There's also a link from that page to definitions of some of last year's most innovative words. So, if you want to find out more about pod slurping, subprime and carbon offsetting have a look.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Contemporary Language Change

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The appliance of science

How and why do languages change and what forces act upon languages to standardise them? These were some of the questions that linguists and physicists (weird, I know, but we'll get to them later) set out to answer in a study of the New Zealand dialect and its origins.

But for those of you who are not sure what a New Zealand accent sounds like, have a look at this clip from the rather brilliant Flight of the Conchords in which Bret and Jemaine (the Conchords) challenge a racist fruit and veg seller...

According to a report in The Daily Telegraph and a feature on the Radio 4 Today programme (click here to listen to the relevant part) the New Zealand accent took about 50 years to standardise itself from its initial mix of various English, Scottish and Irish accents, a staggeringly rapid process.

This is where the physicists came in. Using the same mathematical modelling that is applied to work out the constituent parts of a gas, the physicists studied the language, poring over a wealth of recorded data including interviews with early settlers. In doing so they realised that the speed of change was too quick to be explained by the previously accepted theory: that emigrants from broadly similar social classes had gradually mingled together and that the changes had slowly worked their way through the language.

What they started to think was that perhaps a particular group of people - perhaps from a certain region or certain social class - had influenced the other speakers. This could be an example of prestige in action: the linguistic effect of one group on another through the influence of factors such as social class or some other form of cultural capital. In other words, one group whose speech style might have been perceived as "better" or whose status was aspired to more by others, might have had a bigger influence on the path of the new accent than other varieties.

So, why care? After all, New Zealand is a long way away and you only have to study British English for this A Level. Well, language is interesting anyway wherever it occurs, but also the same processes which affect the development of a new Zealand accent affect the language we speak every day. You just have to have a look at the history of RP (Received Pronunciation) or the more recent research into MEYD (Multi-ethnic Youth Dialect) to realise that one social group can have a disproportionate impact on wider language change, whether it's the upper classes or immigrants from the Caribbean.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA5 - Language Varieties

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Word nerds, infomaniacs and slacktivists

Apologies for such a long delay in getting new stuff up on the blog - loads of January exam marking and extra work to do - but thanks to ex-SFXian Charissa for keeping things ticking over. We'll be keeping the posts as regular as an old lady on prune juice from now on. So, from turds to nerds...

There's nothing wrong with being a nerd. I, for one, am proud to be a word nerd. It's the best type of nerd, perhaps followed by speech geeks and lexicographin' boffins. You get the general idea.

Anyway, here is a great article from New Scientist magazine (in pdf format) all about how word nerds are tracking new words using the power of modern technology - not betamax video recorders and Action Man walkie talkies, but the internet and stuff. It gives a fascinating insight into how new words are tracked and recorded in the digital age and seems to prove beyond any doubt that the pace of language change has picked up with the growth of the internet.

The article features a guest appearance from The Simpsons' fandiddlytastic religious loon, Ned Flanders, whose love of indiddlyfixes has led to a linguistic reappraisal of how they're formed. Fascinating stuff.

Elsewhere, this article from The Times takes a look at 21st century neologisms (that's new words and phrases to you and me). These examples are linked to what advertising execs and lifestyle commentators call "social trends": new labels for different groups of consumers in society. We covered a similar article 2 years ago here when we looked at Ladults and HEIDIs. While many of the groups described only exist in an ad-man's wet dream, the word formation processes are interesting to look at. Take these for example - infomania, preheritance and slacktivism - and have a think about how they've been formed.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Contemporary Language Change

Black British English vs MLE

The latest episode of Lexis is out and it features an interview with Ife Thompson about lots of issues connected to Black British English, i...