Sunday, March 06, 2005

And in the red corner...

So, this weekend, two related rows about language are simmering away. The first will be pretty much ignored, I reckon, but my money's on the second for turning into a right media punch-up. So, who's arguing about what?

First up is John Dunford, the leader of the Secondary Heads Association. He's made a speech saying that footballers swearing their faces off at referees should only be shown on TV after the 9pm watershed, so that young people stop thinking it's okay to tell figures of authority - er, like teachers - to "fuck off" whenever they feel a bit wound up by circumstances. As a teacher, I'm sympathetic to this. But what's interesting here is the response of the Football Association and the BBC/ITV. In a nutshell, they just laughed.

In a major report published in 2000 by the Independent Television Commission, the word "fuck" was ranked 3rd in terms of semantic severity. Have our attitudes to taboo language changed so much in 5 years that the BBC and ITV can just laugh John Dunford off? This is an interesting question, but this debate also gives us insights into the way that technology and language are inextricably linked. It may be that footballers are more foul-mouthed than in former days, but somehow I doubt it. To my mind, it has more to do with the fact that we are able to see and hear it more frequently, partly because of the technological wizardry that can put a camera and a microphone right up David Beckham's shorts when it wants to, and partly because our 24/7, zillion channel culture enables us to watch it pretty much on demand. From that perspective, there isn't really much of a fight to be had.

Foul! Time to send football's bad boys off TV

But, ooh, here's a real fight brewing. If you didn't watch last night's "British, Paki and Proud" programme on BBC2, then you missed a very interesting discussion about the word "Paki", ranked 10th in semantic severity in the ITC survey. Some of the young people in the programme who are of Pakistani origin were proud to be called "Pakis". Long regarded as an extremely offensive word, they are taking the well-trodden political path of "reclaiming" offensive words as positive expressions of identity. One groovy guy wearing the glasses I'm now definitely getting to replace my Harry Potters is printing "Pak1" t-shirts in this spirit. "Yeah, way to go", I'm cheering from my sofa as I watch members of a previously marginalised community talking with confidence and conviction about their place within multicultural Britain.

But I grew up in Hounslow and went to school with a lot of "Pakis" and oh, look, I can't actually say that word without putting it into inverted commas to show you I'm using it self-consciously, to assure you I'm not racist. Where and when I grew up, it wasn't just an offensive word, it was a rallying call to batter someone within an inch of their life. So, actually, I can't say it without feeling a whole web of emotions tied in with anger and shame that people who share my cultural heritage think this is okay.

And I'm not alone in thinking this. In today's Observer, one of the guys in the programme is furious that the BBC broadcast the programme with the title "British Paki and Proud", because he finds the word so offensive that he would not have agreed to appear in it had he known that title was going to be used. His views chime with my anxieties, but what is interesting is that he is, at a guess, as (youthfully) middle aged as me... And the people who are reclaiming the word are very definitely young people - teenagers. So, what we may be seeing here is snapshot of language change right at the moment when it is changing. So get tracking it and let's see what happens.

BBC attacked for 'Paki' title for show


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