language, cognition and culture - holmes - session 11
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A: Why are all dumb blonde jokes one-liners? B: So men can remember them.
c o,o, o,
Jokes like this encode culturally speciflc assumptions, e.g. that blonde typically refers to a woman, not a man, and that the categories 'dumb blonde' and 'dumb blonde jokes'
are familiar to the addressee. But the ioke also challenges the assumptions of typical
'dumb blonde' jokes, in making men rather than women the butt of the humour. Feminists argue that such challenges are important because they provide alternatives to the dominant social stereotfpe. They help create new grooves for people's thinkinghabits-
Earlier chapters have demonstrated that the way a person speaks generally signals at least some social information about their background, such as what kind of socialgroup or class they belong to. A person's ethnicity, age and gender are also often reflected in their linguistic choices. In discussing gender, it became clear that it is possible to view the relationship between social factors and language as rather more dynamic than is often assumed. Sociolinguists who adopt a social constructionist approach argue that language not only reflects and expresses our membership of social categories, it also contributes to the construction of our social identity. So, as she interacts with others in a variety of social contexts, a young womant linguistic choices actively construct her age, class, ethnic and gender identity. She 'chooses' to portray herself as a young, working-class, Maori woman - or not - according to the linguistic features she uses. The discussion of sexist language in chapter 12 introduced another perspective on the relationship between language and society. Language reflects societyt attitudes and values, an area that is further pursued in chapter 15. But some researchers in the area of language and gender have argued that language ll;ray also determine what people notice, what categories they establish, what choices they believe are available, and consequently the way they behave. In other words, Ianguage may strongly influence perception and behaviour.
AN INTRODUCTION TO SOCIOLINGUISTICS
NGUAGE AND PERCEPTION
Example 2'. . .
it has been said that "bad girls get babies, but good girls get myomata".
Surgery is also indicated when . . . hormone treatment has failed to control the s).rnptoms . .
Since many women erroneously believe that following hysterectomy, their sexual urge ceases, that coitus is not possible and that obesity is usual, the physician must explain that removal ofthe uterus has no side-effects . .. . . . hysterectomy is the treatment ofchoice when . . . the patient has completed
herfamily...The operation of choice in all women under the age of 40 . . . who wish topreserve their reproductive function . ..'
As you may have guessed, these quotations occur in a textbook written by a (male) medical expert for medical students. But they also provide clues about the way doctors view patients. Perhaps the most obvious feature ofthe text is its impersonal and detached tone which is achieved through the use of agentless passive constructions (surgery is . . . indicatedl impersonal nouns (the physician, the patient), and formal devices such as nominalisations. So, for example, svgery is indicated, rather than docrol.s think that people need surgery when . . . or even I think that .. . This construction also permits the author to neatly avoid drawing attention to reasons for the failure of the treatment to control symptoms. Hysterectomy is described as the treatment of choice, allowing the author to avoid the issue of vfiose choice. Women are depicted as at least ignorant, if not gullible with their 'erroneous' beliefs, and primarily in their role as potential child-bearers, since invasive surgery is to be avoided as lon gas the woman's reproductfue function needs to be maintained. And the opening sentence presents a patronising, if not insulting, saying as if it is common knowledge, although its technical word myomata (benign fibroid tumour of the uterus) indicates it could only have been produced by physicians.
LANGUAGE, COGNITION AND CULTURE
TltE FAR SIDE" Bv GAR/ tARsoME
*s E'Et-E !iE
r''.nol the y, theirc
o c q, o ao,
qta (male)Ey doctors d detached
5e b9-it f!
:. oo a o
"Well, actually, Doreen, I rather resent being called a 'swamp thlng.' ,,. I preler the term 'wetlands-challenged mutant."'
o a o
(*rgery is rices sucht think that pcrrnits the
Does this language simply reflect the social context in which it is produced, i.e. the relationship between the writer and intended audience, and its function ofinstruction?
Or does it convey a worldview or perspective which may affect the perceptions of the students and their behaviour towards the women who consult them? Can languagedetermine the way we perceive reality?
letrnent to lowing the
t ignorant,E potential
nical wordhave been
AN INTRODUCTION TO
SOC IOLINGUISTIC S
Verbat hygieneExample 3
Algela: I was sitting quietly
drinking my tea, minding my own business when suddenly the forepersonburst in and shouted iwhat are you doing here? gt back work - you know that shipment,s-to_ I'm entitled to my tea_break!
overduei Bloody cheek.
You are. She's a vampire
wouldn't use that term for
but whatt all this .foreperson, stuff? I bet you a man. political correctness gone mad eh.
wrbal hygiene is the thoughtprovoking term used by Deborah cameron to describe how people respond to 'the urge to meddle in matters ofl"ngu"g.: ,*or"r. u wide range ofactivities, from writing letters to the Editor compraining u'boit th" .d.t..ioration, and 'abuse' of language (discussed in chapter l5), through pr"erJf,i.", ura p.oscriptions ,u...pi"bi., about what constitutes ,proper', ,correct,to using languageas a
recently in New Zealand. As elsewhere, the term graduaily grevv to be regarded as tasteless and unacceptable, so the term disabled was iubstituiej. Sut it was ihen pointed out that disabled. person defined the individual in terms ofjus, .." .i"Lli".ir,., and one that was irrelevant in many contexts, such as chattini to f.i"na. o. *rt.hing television. Those who work in this area now use the phras e ierson with a tlisabtitity.
logy has often become rhe focus of the jebate. Tie c.ipfi.J Ciira..nh Society in New Zealand now refers to itself only by its acronym CC6. Th. ;; crippled was an acceptable way ofdescribing someone with a_phy.sical disability untilrelatively
foreperson and chairperson often leads to accusations of ,poiitiJcorrectness,. while issues ofpolitical correctness extend well beyond linguistic con.".rr., iinguir'. t..*iro_as
illustrated an area where feminists have enthusiastically *grg.J". verbal hygiene, reflecting their beliefs that achieving a change in linguistic us?g'e is itsetfa worthwhile form of public, political action and ionscioJsness raising. As example 3 illustrates, the deliberate adoption of oiertly non-sexistusages such
and ,.ug. in u ,ung. of.orrt"^tr, political weapon. The discussion of sexilt language in chapter l2
LANGUAGE, COGNITION ANO CULTURE
For those who do not suffer from a disability, and who have little contact withthose who do, such changes often seem 'precious' word-mongering, substituting one euphemism for another basically because the concept itself is uncomfortable. This dismissive attitude is reflected in exaggerations such as wrtically challenged to refer to short people, or cosnet;cally dilferent as a way of avoiding the term ugl7. Such constructions are an obvious source of humour, as in the transformed tide of a wellknown fairy tale Melanin lmpoverished and the Seven Vertically Challenged lndividuals. But for those centrally concerned, the issue is not iust one of 'political correctness', as the parodists claim. It is as important as the issue of the ue of broad or bird to refer to a woman, or nigger or fiunt for a person of colour. For those who are the butt of derogatory labels, linguistic interventions usefully challenge taken-for-granted offensive assumptions. We have now reached the point where are you being politically correct? m\st be regarded as a trick question. lfyou say yes, you will be regarded as over-concerned with political orthodory. If you say no, you put yourself in the politically suspect, nonconformist camp. An ironic confirmation of the political power of language! And an indication, Deborah Cameron suggests, of the extent to which right-wing commentators have captured and redehned a phrase introduced by the liberal left.