Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Gay abandon

What do words actually mean? When we want to work out what a word means, we tend to turn to a dictionary, but even in there we might find that multiple meanings are offered. And that's because semantic change - a gradual (or in some cases, very rapid) shift of meaning - occurs over time.

In a really interesting book called Words in Time, Geoffrey Hughes looks at how language change is linked to social change, and examines how words that we use now used to mean something very different a long time ago.

For example, in a section on what he calls the "moralization of status-words" he identifies a time in the Middle English period when "words such as noble and villain change from being terms denoting rank to terms which are evaluative of moral conduct". On the good side, we get noble, gentle, frank, free and liberal, but on the bad side, he goes on to explain, "words which originally denoted inferior social status become terms of disapproval", so we get villain, knave, blackguard, wretch, slave and churl.

Of course, what has driven these words to change is a link between someone's social rank in a hierarchical society and perceptions of those people as being good or bad because of their rank. In essence, if you were working class and poor, you tended to be seen as a lower, less moral kind of person, so the words used to label you tended to shift down the scale of meaning from neutral to pejorative as time went on, while the opposite was true for the richer and higher status people. Quite why an accident of birth should make you a good or a bad person is not clear, but as we know, judgements are easy to make and it's often simpler to denigrate people beneath you on the social ladder than those above who you might one day aspire to be part of.

That's why - to this very day - you will never hear me utter a bad word about David Cameron, George Osborne or those trust-fund Wurzels*, Mumford and Sons.

Not all meaning changes are linked to gradual processes of social change and shifts in attitudes; sometimes they are more rapid. The flipping of ill, sick, bad and wicked are all examples of where a more drastic change has occurred, with a deliberate effort to turn a word into its opposite. I'm old enough to remember genuine confusion on the faces of elderly relatives when they heard something good described as 'sick'. Nowadays, even your mum is demonstrating 'wicked tekkers' when she juggles an i-Phone in one hand and a glass of fizzy wine in the other.

But what about words which are contested? Some words have changed over time to pick up extremely negative connotations: words like hussy and slut, queer and gay. While gay has had quite a long association with sexual appetite, its widespread use as a term to describe (and put down) men who love other men is perhaps more recent, reaching a peak in the 1980s and 90s. Gay then moved on to be a catch-all term of abuse. Trousers were gay (maybe because they looked slightly feminine in style, or perhaps too tight). Chairs were gay (perhaps a bit wonky to sit on or defective in some way). I even set homeworks that were described by my classes as gay.

But is gay homophobic? In other words, can (as Ricky Gervais rather weakly argued with the term mong) the word gay now be seen as having moved so far away from its association with sexuality and negative judgements about others' sexual identities, that it's just another word? Stonewall, the gay rights charity, don't think so and their campaign to address homophobic name-calling and bullying aims to "get the meaning straight".

Brendan O'Neill, a man with a history of provocative articles to his name and a tendency to attack Political Correctness whenever he can, doesn't think so. He argues in today's Daily Telegraph that "gay now means rubbish"  and, echoing Stonewall's previous campaign, adds "Get over it".

Is it as simple as either side suggest? Language change doesn't happen at once. Most processes take a while to sink in. They tend to follow a pattern that we often see as a wave (as in C.J.Bailey's wave theory of 1973) with changes spreading out from one core group to wider society as time goes on, like ripples create by a stone thrown into a pond. This means that:
a) it takes time for a new meaning to spread to a group of people at the edge of the pond (perhaps older people who have a meaning that they grew up with - The Flintstones and having a "gay old time" perhaps)
b) by the time a change has spread to the edges, the frequency of the use might have dropped off in the centre and a new meaning started to emerge

Interestingly, as Justyna Robinson identifies in her paper on cognitive linguistics and semantic change, Awesome insights into semantic variation, "conceptual links" often exist between the successive senses of a word, so in this case, the semantic shift from gay as "Bright or lively-looking, esp. in colour; brilliant, showy" (OED 1225) has a clear link to "light-hearted, carefree; manifesting, characterized by, or disposed to joy and mirth; exuberantly cheerful, merry; sportive." (OED 1400) and "Originally of persons and later also more widely: dedicated to social pleasures; dissolute, promiscuous; frivolous, hedonistic. Also (esp. in to go gay ): uninhibited; wild, crazy; flamboyant." (OED 1597).

It doesn't take much of a conceptual leap to then get to gay as being involved in the selling of sex (OED 1795 -) and "(a) Of a person: homosexual; (b) (of a place, milieu, way of life, etc.) of or relating to homosexuals" (OED 1922-) before we reach gay as lame or crap via association with a stigmatised group in society.

While Brendan O'Neill claims we should so get over how gay has changed to mean something he views as largely inoffensive, I'd argue that it doesn't just mean one thing at all; it actually means many different things at the same time and that in a pluralistic society we need to be careful to think about how words might carry different meanings for different people.

So, where do you stand on this? Is gay now free of its abusive and homophobic connotations to most people? Is Stonewall just being too sensitive about offending people? Or is there a good argument for suggesting that gay is loaded with negative associations and not yet ready for rehabilitation as a general term of disapproval?

(*copyright Charlie Brooker)

HT to Clarissa for link to Pink News article.


The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is selfie. Read all about it everywhere.

BBC News site
The Guardian
Oxford Dictionaries
Daily Mail

And Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian describes it as "like so much else in the digital world – all about "me," but revealing a sometimes desperate urge to find an "us"".

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Teacher told to "lose her northern accent"

Following on from Friday's post about another attempt to 'ban' students from using dialect and non-standard terms (and/or slang, depending on your definition of the term), another story - this time about accent - has appeared.

According to The Cumberland News and Star, a Cumbrian teacher has been told to ditch her regional accent and make it more 'southern' to suit her Berkshire pupils. Now it appears that it's not just students who are having their language policed, but teachers are also being told what to say and how to say it. Where will the language police strike next?

Back in 2010, Ofsted raised a similar issue at a school in Portsmouth which prompted this blog post and this response in the TES, among other things.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Dialect dissing

First it was slang getting slagged off and now it's dialect being dissed. Is this a slippery slope towards linguistic fascism?

We've reported several examples of so-called slang bans on this blog over the last few years - a few are listed below - but in many cases, the definition of what constitutes 'slang' has been pretty broad, and more often than not, just plain wrong. And that's before you even start to look at the whys and wherefores of imposing 'zero-tolerance' policies towards forms of non-standard English.

In The Daily Mirror yesterday, Martin Fricker reported on a school in Halesowen, part of the West Midlands' Black Country, where such a zero-tolerance approach to local dialect had been introduced.

The Daily Telegraph reported it as well, but what is striking in so many of the responses quoted from parents of children at the school is how insulted many of them feel at being told that their variety of English is sub-standard.

Take for example, what parent Alana Willetts was reported as saying: "I got a double A in my English GCSE and I have a Black Country accent. I think it is patronising and insulting to say that people with a Black Country accent are disadvantaged. All the parents are outraged, English is a living language, we can't all talk the same, we don't all speak in ye olde English and new words are being added to the dictionary every day".

Compare that with the language being used to describe the local dialect: language such as "top ten most damaging phrases" and "zero-tolerance", which taps into discourses of punishment and destruction.

Even worse than what the school itself says, are the ways in which the comments below the line pick up the intolerant attitude towards non-standard forms and rapidly extend to damning whole groups of people, areas of the country and even races.

The delightful 'Stew' on The Daily Telegraph site comments "When so many childrens dialect is polluted with west indian slang!.", while 'Coley170'  from the Daily Mirror site gets their geography a tad confused and states "fair I think....they should speak proper English, they won't get anywhere in life speaking Cornish slang" and potential UN ambassador Chris Marshall decides that West Midlanders should be sent home to err....the West Midlands: "If you can not speak the English language then you should be deported".

Me, I'm with Alana Willetts on this, rather than the wrong-headed headteacher of Colley Lane or the backward bigots quoted above.

Edited on Monday 18th November 2013 to add Guardian link

Other links to "slang bans" and dialect discrimination:







Friday, November 08, 2013

Muslamic ray guns and the myth of Winterval

With Nigel Farage appearing on BBC's Question Time nearly every week, spouting his particular brand of ill-researched xenophobic scaremongering, you might be forgiven for thinking that the whole world has gone mad. But no, it's PC that's gone mad. And this time, we're not talking about PC as in Police Constables involved in Plebgate, but PC as in Political Correctness.

Nearly every year at about this time, a newspaper brings up the hoary old myth of Christmas being banned by some council or other to prevent offence to (take your pick) atheists, muslims, hindus, sikhs, buddhists or jedis. It forms part of a wider view that the traditions so long associated with this supposedly Christian country (of which a paltry 10% of the population actually go to church) are under threat from alien forces. Sometimes it's the forces of darkness (darker-skinned people with their strange religions), sometimes it's the reds (crazy communists trying to make us all equal), but often it's Brussels bureaucrats or local councils who are blamed.

The one prevalent myth is that of Winterval: a name so inoffensive to any minority group it must have been dreamt up by a committee of the most demented of liberals, and a name designed to replace the word Christmas which was felt to be too ...err.. Christian. But as both Kevin Arscott in today's Guardian and Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian in 2006 make perfectly clear, Winterval never happened, at least never in the way that the mainstream press reported it.

When the Birmingham Winterval story resurfaced in 2009, local Lib Dem activist, Mark Pack explained the distortions being peddled as truth on his political blog, laying into what he saw as a deliberate attempt to spread disinformation and a huge reluctance - particularly on the part of Christian news websites - to provide evidence and sources for their claims.

Of course, these stories - Winterval, Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep -  don't exist in a vacuum; they need a context to give them at least a fighting chance of survival. And that context is often a wider political discourse about social breakdown, immigration and crime - what might be called a declinist agenda, one that suggests everything is going down the drain and that society is doomed - peddled in the popular press and by populist politicians. So, having created fear and worry about the parlous state of traditional British values, created an enemy (East Europeans massing on our borders, just waiting for the EU to let them in and claim our benefits) and stoked paranoia about the (usually burkha-clad, or heavily-bearded) enemy within, it doesn't really take a lot to stir things up further with a few stories about Christmas being cancelled.

It's easy to laugh it off and say it doesn't matter, but it doesn't take much to translate the politics of fear into the politics of hate. First Winterval, then Kristallnacht? Hopefully not, but it's the kind of fear that poisons the debate and makes racism and prejudice more acceptable.

And while the clip below is clearly a bit of a cheap shot at a very inarticulate EDL supporter (his fear of "Iraqi law" and "Muslamic ray-guns" being a particular highlight), a quick glance around Facebook and Twitter reveals that there are many people all too willing to lap up such scare stories and use them to reinforce their prejudices.

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...