What makes a word offensive? Perhaps understandably, you may not study the language of insults too much at school! But studying language that cultures find offensive can tell you much about societies. Read a selection of the following articles, beginning with Swearing by Bill Bryson, to find out more:
- Swearing (extract from Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson)
- Emotions Shape the Language We Use (article on The Conversation)
- Why We Love to Swear So Goddamned Much (Big Think article)
- No Offence (Slate article)
- Profanity (extracts from English in 100 words by David Crystal)
- Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore (from the New York times by Natalie Angier)
- The Swearing Habit (paper by Edwin Whipple at the University of Iowa)
- Mind Your Language (extract from Balderdash and Piffle)
- Poor Little Snowflake (Guardian article)
- How Swearing Got Less Taboo (Guardian article)
- Hip-hop Culture and America’s Most Taboo Word (research paper)
Class Activity: The R Word
What words could you say in the 1970s or 1980s that you cannot use today? From that initial question, and delving into one specific word, this activity deals with how language changes and evolves over time. Read this article from Slate magazine printed 2001, watch the Public Service Announcement from the 1970s and look at this advertising campaign from the 1970s and 80s. Try to keep track or make note of your reactions as you consider these texts for the first time. Once you have done so, discuss the following questions:
- What was your initial emotional reaction upon encountering the R word in these texts? Why?
- How does the historical context (time and place) influence the production and reception of these texts?
- How might an audience react now to these public service advertisements in comparison to an audience from the 1970’s?
Learner Portfolio 1
Watch the documentary embedded above, and read the extract from David Crystal’s book English in 100 Words. Then, choose your own profanity word. Research the history of this word (you might like to watch another episode in the documentary series, read more of the articles above or research on the internet.) Write an article or blogpost about the history of the swearword you have learned about.
Learner Portfolio 2
‘Bad’ language is a family of words with unique power – the power to hurt. Write up your thoughts and findings after studying this section. Consider the following questions to help you structure your article:
- Does it matter how offensive a word is before you consider not using it? Are there degrees of taboo?
- You may use language that is offensive in your every day life. Is that a problem? Why or why not?
- Should certain words be banned from public discourse? Why or why not? What are the implications on free speech if this occurs?
- Should certain people (such as politicians, teachers, celebrities and the like) be held to a higher standard in terms of the language they use in comparison to the general public?
Body of Work: Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Monty Python’s Life of Brian, starring Graham Chapman as Brian and directed by Terry Gilliam (1979)
In 1979 Monty Python (a comedy troupe formed by John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam) released Life of Brian, a comedy telling the story of Brian of Nazareth (played by Chapman), who is born on the same day as Jesus. After joining a Jewish, anti-Roman terrorist group, ‘The People’s Front of Judea,’ he is mistaken for a prophet, and his story screwballs out of control from there.
As soon as it was released, the film met with controversy and was banned in several European countries, including Norway, Ireland, and parts of Britain. The filmmakers were accused of blasphemy. Even the Chief Executive of EMI (a movie production company) Bernard Delfont, declared that there was no way he could fund such an atrocity!
After watching the film, you can research the controversy surrounding Life of Brian and investigate why people took offence at the depiction of religion. You might like to watch this televised debate between members of the Monty Python team and representatives of the church that was aired shortly after the film’s release.
Towards Assessment: Individual Oral
“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)“
Moments from a Monty Python’s Life of Brian would be an ideal text to bring into your Individual Oral. The named author would be ‘Terry Gilliam’ (the director of the film) and you could investigate the Field of Inquiry of: Beliefs, Values and Education. You could explore the Global Issue of ‘conflicting beliefs and values’ and investigate what causes offence to people in various cultural contexts. You can fairly ask whether the film deserves to be censored and what makes some of the scenes depicted taboo. You could successfully pair an extract from Life of Brian with any literary text that challenges social norms, provokes offence, or contains culturally sensitive material. Speak to your teacher or use the following suggestions as a starting point:
- Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw – at the time of the first performance, all of London was alive with gossip. Would the actress playing Liza Doolittle say ‘that word’. Shaw lampoons upper class Victorian prudery throughout the play, and particularly in act 3 (Mrs Higgins at-home) where Eliza is first presented in public… and breaks every rule of Higgins’ etiquette training, speaking about taboo topics in front of Higgins’ family and upper class acquaintances.
- Broken April by Ismail Kadare – death is one of the ultimate taboos – but in the northern Albanian plateau there’s something even worse: shame. After publishing his novel, Kadere had to live in exile or risk punishment in his own country. You could explore a passage that you think likely caused such backlash, perhaps considering what is revealed through Mark Ukacierra’s viewpoint in chapter 4.
- J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun – Jim is exposed to various conflicting value systems throughout this novel. You might like to think about how Basie, Jim’s father and Dr. Ransome act as various father figures for Jim and compare and contrast the advice they give him at various points in the story.
- Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – known as his ‘problem play’ because of the depiction of Jewish characters, you could explore the critical reaction to this work and investigate why some people might take offence at certain aspects of Shylock’s portrayal.
- Angela Carter’sThe Bloody Chamber – you could examine Carter’s use of graphic language and imagery and argue that many of her stories are either ‘taboo-breaking’ – or offensively explicit?
- John Keats’ Selected Poetry – Keats deals with many topics that you might consider ‘taboo’, not least disease, death, drugs and mortality. Choose a poem and investigate the way he presents a particular taboo.
Towards Assessment: HL Essay or Extended Essay
If you enjoyed studying this Body of Work, you could use Monty Python’s Life of Brian to write your HL Essay. Focusing on satire could be a way to frame your essay productively. You would need to learn about comedy methodology, including slapstick, wordplay, double-entendre and pun. There are many lines of enquiry that you can develop independently, such as how Monty Python satirises religious dogma, how the film subverts generic conventions of historical epics,
If you want to take your studies even further, you could investigate Monty Python for your Extended Essay. To be successful, you would need to broaden your investigation beyond just one film. You should also watch Monty Python’s Holy Grail and their anarchic television series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Focusing on satire could be a way to frame your essay productively. You would need to learn about comedy methodology, including slapstick, wordplay, double-entendre and pun. As well as the questions above, you could also ask: In what ways does Monty Python employ satirical methods to make serious points about culture and society? How and why does Monty Python subvert generic expectations? Explore the interaction of science and tradition in Monty Python. What does a close analysis of Monty Python reveal about class difference in 1970s Britain? With what methods and to what effect does Monty Python explore the literary theme of ‘appearances can be deceiving’?
Remember, these are just suggestions and you may find your programme of study offers alternatives; always speak to your teacher before beginning your work.