Thursday, April 29, 2004

What did you just call me?

Nice to see some debate going on the tagboard now, and to show I'm tuning in, I want to pick up on A7X's recent comment:

A7X: political correctness is fascist! if i want to say spastics society then i bloddy well will. i don't need some hippie telling me its not politicly correct.

Well, one thing is true, at an individual level it is very difficult indeed to stop people calling other people offensive names, as we saw with Big Ron. Of course, there are some situations in which people have the instrumental power to prevent this. Here, for example, I can delete anybody's comment that I find offensive. As a teacher, I could have you expelled if you persisted in using language in my classroom that is not respectful of other people. I could also take disciplinary action against members of staff who used offensive language. I like to think that I'm helping to make the world a more pleasant place for us all, but you can call me a hippy if you really want to.

The other thing that is true in all this is that the language itself is a slippery thing. It simply isn't a fixed and certain thing, and what one generation finds offensive, another will reclaim in a positive and powerful way. Take the word "gay", for example. It used to be a dreadful insult; then it was an expression of defiant pride; now it's simply a factual description. The word "bitch" can still be used as an insult, but take a stroll through Brighton's North Laine and you'll find all kinds of t-shirt shops offering young women the opportunity to walk loud and proud with the words "tart" or "bitch" emblazoned across their chests. The band Niggaz With Attitude took a deeply racist insult, turned it on its head and made it cool, a name you might want to be called.

And so back to A7X and the Spastics Society. This charity finally changed its name to Scope in 1994, after much protest from disabled people about the offensiveness of the term "spastic". The trouble was, though, that changing the name didn't change the charity's equally outmoded attitudes to disabled people, and now, Dr Laurence Clark, a disabled person with cerebral palsy, is campaigning against those attitudes and practices through his website, In the name of his website we see another example of language being reappropriated by its "victims" as a linguistic act of power.

Check out the link to Dr Clark's website and see for yourself. Once there, click on the link to "Why call the site"

Dr Clark's website

Friday, April 23, 2004

Do you speak Ronglish?

Well, looks like the Ron Atkinson story is going to run and run, but today's Guardian article (profile link below) brings in a whole new dimension - the fact that Big Ron's ideolect is the subject of much discussion and study. The links below will take you to one site where you can take an online course in Ronglish, and one where you can print out Ronglish bingo cards ready for when he finds his way back into the commentary box. Bet you ten quid he does...

Guardian profile

Learn Ronglish

Big Ron's football bingo

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Big Ron blows his media career

Hot in the news this week is Ron Atkinson, football pundit extraordinaire. One day he's on £150,000 a year for talking all the way through football matches, the next he's finished, resigning rapidly before he has to suffer the ignominy of both ITV and The Guardian firing him. The reason? At the end of a disastrous match for Chelsea against Monaco, Big Ron didn't realise the mike was still on and he unleashed his verbal frustration with the players and the manager's decisions. In no uncertain terms. In fact, in unequivocally racist terms that are considered highly taboo.

Big Ron is all over the media like a rash, apologising and citing in his defence all the good work he has done with the campaign to kick racism out of football and his support of black players. He claims a moment of madness. He says anyone will tell you he is not racist.

It goes without saying on this blog that racism and its expression in racist language are completely unacceptable. But what is interesting is the way in which the popular media has reacted. Twenty years ago, the social movement known as 'political correctness', which sought to challenge all forms of offensive language, was lambasted in the tabloids as an example of the madness of 'Loony Left' Labour politicians, and as an infringement of our notional right to freedom of speech. Check out the link to The Sun below and you will see how far society has come. In a nice pun on his nickname, 'Big Ron' becomes 'Bigot Ron', and the writer's position is made entirely clear. It goes even further than that: as a mark of respect for the sensitivity of its readers, the racist words are not printed in full but asterisked. It's a beautiful day when one man's language use shows so clearly how society has changed for the better.

Bigot Ron Atkinson

Political correctness explained

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Bin Laden and his tape recorder

So, there you are, a journalist at the Al-Jazeera TV station, feet up on the desk, having a nice cup of coffee and a nap between assignments, when what pops through the post box but another tape from Osama Bin Laden? Hurrah! What's he got to say this time? Well, all sorts of things about war and peace, but what is interesting to the student of language is the debate about whether or not the tapes are authentic: is this really Osama Bin Laden's voice? Remember the article about the call-girl blogger (see "Linguistic fingerprints" below if not...)? Well, we're back to forensic linguistics again, only this time we're analysing recorded speech, not written text.

The CIA claim that they are certain the tape is authentic. Hmmm, a bit like Tony Blair claiming he was certain that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction pretty much primed and ready to fire at Big Ben, because likewise, the scientific community upon whose evidence these political statements are made are a whole lot less certain. Yes, the linguists have highly sophisticated human and computerised systems for very precise analysis of spoken data, but the task is complex and certainty almost impossible - particularly with the kinds of lo-fi technology Osama Bin Laden (or his looky-likey) is using.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to know just how they decide whether or not tapes like these are what they purport to be. And if this one isn't, it prompts the question, is Osama Bin Laden dead, or merely hiding out with Elvis?

Check out how forensic linguists and/or the CIA do it, and post me a note with your thoughts. Career at MI5 anyone?

How do you authenticate a sound recording?

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The joy of text

Well, hasn't the story of Goldenballs' text messaging been interesting this week? Not for what most of the media coverage has focused on - celebrity tittle-tattle, unrepentantly envious 'oh how the mighty fall' stories, and more sex than you could shake a stick at - but for a nice set of data showing some interesting things about language and technology. Mr Beckham, why thank you, sir!

First up, is the whole business of the way in which technology mediated communication is so vulnerable to interception. Yes, you can leave love letters lying around for someone to pick up and read, and your mum might take to steaming them open with a hot iron and a damp hanky, but that's all very deliberately intrusive. It's hard to see Posh picking up Becks' phone in quite the same way, and if I were an international paparazzi target, I might think just once or twice about the fact that mobile phone companies keep records of your calls for 21 days. I mean, don't these people watch Footballers' Wives ?!

The second interesting thing is that Becks appears to make almost no use at all of some of the emerging orthographic conventions of text messaging. No smilies, very few abbreviations, just a rather curious use of asterisks to mask his use of (presumably) taboo language. Considering his claim to be texting while driving a Ferrari, you'd think a few abbreviations might help! And without them, he seems strangely outmoded, like someone new to text messaging, or your granny...

And those asterisks? He's hardly seeking to protect his reader's moral sensibility now is he? Did he think he wouldn't get caught if he didn't actually text the whole word? Pragmatically, they could be suggestive of a playful teasing kind of coyness, especially evident if you try, as several witty journalists already have, to work out which words should go in the gaps! The four-asterisk words are generally very easy to deduce, but you try working out the seven-asterisk ones! Is he just asterisking wildly and inaccurately, knowing that his reader will know what he means regardless, or is this a cryptic crossword she must solve in order to win the prize dictionary?...

Check out the link. What do you think of his text technique?

"Beck's txt fuelled lust"