Thursday, November 24, 2005

Half-castes, mongrels and skinheads

It’s the 25th anniversary of the release of the track Embarrassment by one of my favourite bands of the time, Madness. The song tells the story of one of the band member's teenage sisters who had become pregnant, and - to the shock and resentment of some family members - a black man was the father. As the article about the song goes on to explain, attitudes towards mixed relationships have not always been very positive, and in a time (late 70s/early 80s) when issues of race were high on the national agenda and scumbags like the National Front were active in many areas of the country, the song struck a chord with many people. Using the song as a starting point, it's perhaps interesting to look at the way labels to describe people born of mixed parental ethnicity have changed over time. And maybe also to look at the way "skinheads" have been stereotyped with labels too.

It might also have appeared a brave move for a band like Madness - who had a large working class skinhead following - to make a stand on a race issue, but maybe not if you look at the true history of skinheads: their adoption of Caribbean culture, their fierce pride in their working class roots, and their prominent role in anti-racist and anti-fascist groups like the first incarnation of the Anti-Nazi League and SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), then later such militant groups as Red Action and Anti-Fascist Action. All too often, when people hear the word "skinhead" they conjure up an image of a knuckle-dragging racist, when the majority of skinheads were quite the opposite. "Bonehead" was always a more popular term among anti-fascist skins for their dim-witted racist nephews!

So getting the skinhead history out of the way, what about the labels for people of mixed parentage? Terms like "half-caste" have been around for a while, but are often seen as being derogatory because they suggest someone is less than complete (as John Agard points out in his poem of the same name). The word "mongrel" is clearly offensive, carrying with it connotations of being on the same level as an animal and it sparked a storm of controversy in the 1997 General Election when a Tory MP John Townend used it to describe the changing ethnic make-up of the country; the term "half-breed" which is chucked around by some people apparently does the same, causing offence because of its connection to animals and its dehumanising effects on those it's applied to. Clearly, these words - which have all been used to describe people of mixed parentage - reflect the nastier side of human nature.

So what of attempts to find neutral alternatives? "Mixed race" is now seen as a suitable term here in Britain, while in America, "dual heritage" seems to be more popular (but then when the USA starts giving us lessons in race relations it's time to start taking lessons from them on foreign policy!). These have got to be better than "other" which is what had to be ticked on the UK census form until recently!

And in a very roundabout way that takes us back to the original inspiration for this: the lyrics to Embarrassment by Madness.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA6 - Language Debates

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Literature txts and deranged algebra

Dot mobile's PR department will be very chuffed with themselves this morning. Several papers have picked up on their story (in the loosest sense of the word) about sending plot summaries to students' mobile phones in text speak. So, according to The Independent, Pride and Prejudice becomes:
5SistrsWntngHsbnds.NwMenInTwn-Bingly&Darcy Fit&Loadd.
BigSisJaneFals4B,2ndSisLizH8sDCozHesProud. SlimySoljrWikamSysDHsShadyPast.
TrnsOutHesActulyARlyNysGuy&RlyFancysLiz. SheDecydsSheLyksHim. Evry1GtsMaryd.


Fantastic news! But do stories like this actually throw any light on the way language changes or are they just silly gimics to market new products to us, the gullible public? Getting John Sutherland on board (a man whose article on texting was used in an ENA6 paper a couple of years ago, AQA factspotters!) lends the project a dubious form of linguistic credibility, but perhaps the whole silly focus on the reductive nature of this type of exercise devalues the more serious points about how technology changes the ways we communicate with one another.

Guardian story
Daily Mail


Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

Sexist!

Tube Tips for Women has been withdrawn following complaints, according to this report on the BBC website. It's political correctness gone mad, I tells ya...

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Tube tips for women

Hot on the heels of Hull City Council's problem with "ladies", comes another issue that concerns language and the representation of women. The government has recently produced a document (reproduced below in images) giving women tube travellers advice on a range of personal safety issues, like, umm, always carry a cereal bar with you and don't use your party shoes to wedge a carriage door open.

Zoe Williams, writing in yesterday's Guardian Weekend, takes issue with not only the graphology of the leaflet but its patronising lexical choices, arguing that the whole leaflet is demeaning and outrageous.


A storm in a teacup, or a reasonable cause to complain? You can decide...



 

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

This man walks into a bar. "Ouch," he says...

Alright, so that's not the funniest joke in the world, but if you're a woman you might have liked it more than a man, because (according to research from Stanford University) women analyse the language of humour more than men. So the hilarious homophone (lexeme that sounds the same as another with a different meaning, or telephone used by the gay community, whichever definition you prefer) in the joke above (that's the word "bar", for those of you in Croydon) might be what women find more amusing.

So what's all this brain gender stuff about? And where does it lead us? I worry a little bit that any biological/genetic discussion about the different behaviour of the genders slips into the "I can't help it; it's in my genes" school of thought. In other words, we make excuses for our dubious behaviour by claiming we're genetically predisposed towards not washing up/leering at young women in short skirts/ not liking David Baddiel (take your pick), when in fact gender is only one part of our make-up as human beings.

And maybe this applies as well to arguments about language and gender, and particularly gender and conversation. How much of our talk is determined by our gender and how much by our status in society, age, ethnic background, our feelings towards other people we're talking to at any one given point in time?

I don't know, but then I'm a man and I'm not programmed to think...

Useful for:
ENA3 - Male/female conversation

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fanning the flames?




With France gripped by riots for the last 2 weeks, it might seem odd to start looking at language. After all, petrol bombs are petrol bombs and riotous mobs are riotous mobs, aren't they? Well maybe not...

French politician Nicolas Sarkozy has got himself in trouble for describing rioters as "racaille", which has been translated as "scum" or "rabble" in various English newspapers. As a report in The Guardian's newsblog reveals, the term "racaille" has its own etymology and its own history of derogatory connotations. So is Sarkozy fanning the flames of hatred when he uses this word, perhaps suggesting the rioters are lowlife scum who deserve no sympathy? Or could they be seen as disaffected, inner city working class youth whose protests are a last ditch mayday call?

Well again, words can play tricks. First off, are they really from the inner city? The areas affected by rioting (particularly those in Paris) are what are called "banlieus", which translates into English as "suburbs". This has totally different connotations in English: we assume suburbs to be hubs of middle class life, affluent, quiet and probably quite respectable (bar the odd wife-swapping party or alleged Steve McFadden "dogging" incident), not some strife-torn ghetto. This comes down to human geography rather than language, I suppose: British inner cities have historically been the home of generation after generation of migrants from the Hugoenots through to the Jews, Irish, Caribbeans, Indians and Bangladeshis, and now maybe the East European building trades, all of whom move out towards the fringes as they gain prosperity. But in France, the new arrivals have been housed on the edges of society, perhaps literally.

Secondly, are the rioters really working class? Well, if your definition of working class is that people work, then probably not. Figures suggest that up to 40% of the residents of the banlieus are unemployed and - according to the report in today's Guardian - make their money from state benefits, petty crime and drug dealing. Sounds like work of a sort, but not the stereotype of manual labour, the term "working class" usually brings to mind.

While France burns up like something out of La Haine and even La Haine's director Mathieu Kassovitz weighing into the debate in today's Guardian, maybe we should have a look at the language we use to label social groups here in Britain: while one Tory party pretender calls some of you the "wristband generation", you can be sure as hell that other people in his party - and of course more widely across society - are calling you something else, a lot less pleasant.

But of course, how important is language when the real problem is how society is structured and controlled? Do the terms we use to label people simply reflect our attitudes or shape them? And how much does a term like "racaille" contribute to the feelings of resentment of the rioters - who've suffered at the hands of a system that segregates and scapegoats them, and a police force that's notorious for its racism - or simply reflect the attitudes of those disgusted and ashamed by what they see happening to their cities?

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Monday, November 07, 2005

Is that a ladder in your tights or a stairway to heaven?

"Call God, because heaven must be missing an angel". Or how about, "this face leaves in 5 minutes and I want you on it"? Classy, eh?

An article in this week's Independent on Sunday looks at the dubious art of chat-up lines (or "chirpsing" as I believe the youth of south London call it) and seeing as at least one of our students is doing this for a language investigation (hi Femi) and others probably use them at the weekends (hi Max, Jerome and Niall - only joking) I thought it might be a useful article to look at.

The article is here but I've pasted it below as well. How about taking a framework analysis (lexis, semantics, grammar, pragmatics, phonology etc) of a range of chat-up lines and looking for patterns? Or even testing them out on unsuspecting members of the public as a weird form of social anthropology?

'Excuse me, beautiful, do you have space in your handbag for my Merc keys?' And if you think that's excruciating, you should hear the successful chat-up lines...
By Roger Dobson and Jonathan Thompson
Published: 06 November 2005

Having sweated over the origins of the universe and split the atom, academics have finally tackled the question that has perplexed mankind since the dawn of time: what are the best chat-up lines?

For millions of males forced to do a swift about- turn in nightclubs, the advice is simple. The way to a woman's heart is to dazzle her with a bit of culture and suggest that you're a fine specimen of a man.

Think long term, even if that is not your intention. For, according to psychologists from Edinburgh and Central Lancashire universities, the opening gambit is much more than a simple introduction. They tried 40 "verbal signals of genetic quality" on 205 people.

Dr Christopher Bale, who led the research, explained the findings. "The highest-rated lines were those reflecting the man's ability to take control of a situation, his wealth, education or culture, and spontaneous wit. A direct request for sex received a low score, but it was not the least effective gambit."

So what are the words of wonder that researchers believe will secure a night of passion? Apparently: "It's hot today isn't it? It's the best weather when you're training for the marathon."

Another winner, they assure us, is to steer conversation towards your favourite music, so you can drop the line: "The Moonlight Sonata or, to give it it's true name, Sonata quasi una fantasia. A fittingly beautiful piece for a beautiful lady."

By now, you may be wondering what the worst lines were. Well, "You're the star that completes the constellation of my existence" is unlikely to make her swoon.

The Independent on Sunday decided to road test the research at London's fashionable Match Bar near Oxford Circus. We began with one of the top five offerings.

"Ten-ton polar bear."

"What," replied the young brunette at the bar. "Well, it breaks the ice, doesn't it," we said, optimistically.

The verbal response was unprintable. Undeterred, we pressed on. "Your eyes are blue like the ocean, and baby I'm lost at sea."

The result: "You're an idiot. And you're colour- blind - they're brown."

The lauded marathon line attracted only giggles. We got a better response to the line "There's something in your eye. Nope, it's just a sparkle", but the big winner proved to be our very own: "Is that a ladder in your tights or a stairway to heaven?"

The scientists maintain that while it might be good to hint at having the means to support a potential partner, showing off is not appreciated. "I was just wondering if you had space in your bag for my Merc keys" proved their ultimate flop.

Having sweated over the origins of the universe and split the atom, academics have finally tackled the question that has perplexed mankind since the dawn of time: what are the best chat-up lines?

For millions of males forced to do a swift about- turn in nightclubs, the advice is simple. The way to a woman's heart is to dazzle her with a bit of culture and suggest that you're a fine specimen of a man.

Think long term, even if that is not your intention. For, according to psychologists from Edinburgh and Central Lancashire universities, the opening gambit is much more than a simple introduction. They tried 40 "verbal signals of genetic quality" on 205 people.

Dr Christopher Bale, who led the research, explained the findings. "The highest-rated lines were those reflecting the man's ability to take control of a situation, his wealth, education or culture, and spontaneous wit. A direct request for sex received a low score, but it was not the least effective gambit."

So what are the words of wonder that researchers believe will secure a night of passion? Apparently: "It's hot today isn't it? It's the best weather when you're training for the marathon."

Another winner, they assure us, is to steer conversation towards your favourite music, so you can drop the line: "The Moonlight Sonata or, to give it it's true name, Sonata quasi una fantasia. A fittingly beautiful piece for a beautiful lady."

By now, you may be wondering what the worst lines were. Well, "You're the star that completes the constellation of my existence" is unlikely to make her swoon.

The Independent on Sunday decided to road test the research at London's fashionable Match Bar near Oxford Circus. We began with one of the top five offerings.

"Ten-ton polar bear."

"What," replied the young brunette at the bar. "Well, it breaks the ice, doesn't it," we said, optimistically.

The verbal response was unprintable. Undeterred, we pressed on. "Your eyes are blue like the ocean, and baby I'm lost at sea."

The result: "You're an idiot. And you're colour- blind - they're brown."

The lauded marathon line attracted only giggles. We got a better response to the line "There's something in your eye. Nope, it's just a sparkle", but the big winner proved to be our very own: "Is that a ladder in your tights or a stairway to heaven?"

The scientists maintain that while it might be good to hint at having the means to support a potential partner, showing off is not appreciated. "I was just wondering if you had space in your bag for my Merc keys" proved their ultimate flop.

Useful for:
ENA3 - Conversation Analysis
EA4C - Language Investigation

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

There ain't no love, no Montagues or Capulets, just banging tunes and DJ sets and dirty dancefloors and dreams of naughtiness

I suppose it's a bit embarrassing at my age to be rambling on about pop lyrics and the music that the youth of today listen to, but why break the habit of a lifetime?

That Arctic Monkeys tune - it's got a good beat, eh? And great lyrics. And lyrics is what this is all about. The genius of Jarvis Cocker (formerly of the Sheffield beat-combo Pulp, for those of you under 25), Eminem (a popular rapper from Detroit, for those of you over 80) , Tupac Shakur (a sadly deceased rapper, for those of you without the internet) and Dizzee Rascal (the talented garage MC who hails from my postcode - E3 in the area etc...). And that's not to mention, the lyrical genius of Mike Skinner from out of The Streets... and maybe even Pete Doherty's junkie/crackhead ramblings.

So are lyrics worthy of linguistic and/or literary analysis? Are they just a debased form of poetry made up by young punks/stoners/thugs (take your pick) high on a lethal cocktail of booze/weed/crack (take your pick), or perhaps the lovesick meanderings of teenage bedroom poets? The jury is out, but some A Level coursework moderators have issues with students tackling lyrics for their A2 Language Investigations and it's not hard to see why. Unless you take a strong linguistic focus on the lyrics you're studying and get away from crazed hero worship, your work may well be shallow and banal. What's needed - it seems to me - is an engagement with the meanings of lyrics within their specific social contexts and a close attention to the various ways in which lyrics reflect or shape the world they describe.

Should we, for example, take the monosyllabic mumblings of a dimwit like 50 Cent at face value, celebrating his hilarious simile skills such as "I'll lick you like a lollypop", or his claims to have been shot nine times (sadly perhaps, not 10 times, but I wouldn't say this to his face...) or should we read his lyrics as the work of a storyteller, building a fantasy around the bare bones of truth in his life story? And what about Eminem's insane tales of killing his ex-wife and mum, or even the extended stalker track, "Stan"? These all seem like fair game for some in depth analysis.

Jarvis Cocker has recently been in the news as "A specially commissioned verse by the singer will be unveiled this week in Sheffield, as part of the Off The Shelf literary festival" according to The Observer, while "the literary critic DJ Taylor described his lyrics on the 1998 album This is Hardcore as 'one of those rare occasions when a pop artist transforms himself without irony into an artist proper'" (again from The Observer).

Meanwhile, the lyrics of all those mentioned earlier: Dizzee Rascal, Eminem andTupac have been discussed at length in various highbrow publications. In a Guardian article in 2001, the writer Giles Foden compared Eminem to the literary giant Robert Browning. Elsewhere, Counterpunch, a political website in the USA described Mr Mathers as "A hired gun from the poor part of town, who preys on the powerless, extorts money from the poor and celebrates a thuggish brand of gangster capitalism".

Dizzee Rascal's lyrics get a look-in here while Tupac's legacy gets the critical overview here, and Mike Skinner of The Streets gets dissected here.

Useful for:
EA4C - Language Investigation