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, and follow this sequence of lessons 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)
- Poor Little Snowflake (Guardian article)
- How Swearing Got Less Taboo (Guardian article)
This is a longer and more challenging piece of reading, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:
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?
After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:
- ‘Bad’ language is a family of words with unique power – the power to hurt. Therefore, 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?
- You may use language that is offensive in your every day life. Is that a problem? Why or why not? Does it matter how offensive a word is before you consider not using it? Are there degrees of taboo?
After watching an episode from The History of Swear Words, make sure you 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.
Paper 1 Text Type Focus: Opinion Columns
At the end of your course you will be asked to analyse unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are a collection of Opinion Pieces. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of Opinion Columns and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:
- Perspective: as an expression of a personal viewpoint, the first person is most commonly adopted for opinion pieces. Look out for ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ – a clever way of implying the viewpoint is commonly held.
- Solid Arguments: expect to see opinions backed up by studies, research or evidence of some kind (such as the presentation of statistics). Keep an eye out for assertion, though, where a writer presents an opinion as if it is a fact.
- Anecdotes: sometimes a writer will relate a small story from his or her personal experience in order to demonstrate a thoughtful approach to the topic at hand. You may find the opinion piece begins with this story, which acts as a kind of hook into the main article.
- Register and tone: you should be especially alert to the writer’s choices in this regard. Opinion pieces are often formal, but the writer may adopt an irreverent tone, be passionate, conversational, friendly, challenging, even sarcastic depending on the tactics used to convince you of a particular opinion.
- Concession: although similar in many ways, opinion pieces are not quite the same as persuasive speeches, so the writer is not necessarily trying to change your opinion. In this case, you might find concessions to the other side of the argument or even an acknowledgement that the writer’s opinion is flawed in some way.
Body of Work: Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation
It is 36 minutes into Annihilation, Patton Oswalt’s hourlong comedy special, before the stand-up comedian mentions that he’s a widower and a single dad. What follows is a candid and heartfelt talk about the passing of Michelle McNamara, the true crime writer who was married to Oswalt before her sudden death at age 46. Oswalt’s frank, confessional monologue uses humour as a coping mechanism and expertly wields language to dissect his own heartbreak and grief.
This talk contains sensitive material and you should check whether you are comfortable listening to this before you start. Should you choose to, though, you’ll hear a professional wordsmith at the peak of his powers talking about one of life’s most painful and difficult taboos.
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)
A section from this stand-up routine would be a good choice for you to discuss in your Individual Oral. Here are suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks:
- Field of Inquiry: Beliefs, Values and Education
- Global Issue: Coping with Death
Peoples and cultures all around the world have developed ways of dealing with the reality of death; this is arguably a truly global issue in that it crosses all national, communal and cultural boundaries. In all cultures, rituals, funeral rites, and traditions mark the passing of a person, and this is a major theme in many works of literature.
possible literary pairings
- Broken April by Ismail Kadare – this text provides an insight into rituals of death and dying in another culture that could profitably be considered alongside Patton’s talk.
- John Keats’ Selected Poems – tragically, Keats died aged only 25, and he wrote under the shadow of tuberculosis, a disease that took both his mother and brother before him. Consider La Belle Dame sans Merci or Ode on Melancholy as poems that explore the harsh realities of life – and the ways we cope with them.
- Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw – in Act 3, Higgins warns Eliza to stick to safe topics, the weather and health, when she’s talking to his mother and her friends. But Liza’s performance at the at-home reveals she is much more able to discuss ‘real’ problems such as illness and death than her new upper-class friends.
- The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare – you might like to investigate Antonio’s attitude towards life and death closely, perhaps in the letter he writes to Bassanio. For Antonio, his failure in business is a worse taboo than his fear of dying by Shylock’s hand.
- Border Town by Shen Congwen – an ideal pairing for Annihilation. At the end of this novel, Cuicui’s grandfather passes away. The final chapter is devoted to his funeral, and the reader gets to witness the funeral rites and traditions of west Hunan in China.
- Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee – how the unnamed magistrate responds to the death of an old man who was put under interrogation in the first chapter of this novel would make an excellent paired text with this Body of Work.
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel – at the beginning of part two of this novel, Pi is brutally orphaned when the boat they are on suddenly sinks without warning. How does Pi cope with the deathof his entire family? What does this terrible event do to his religious faith?
- Charlotte Mew’s Selected Poetry – images of death suffuse this poetry collection, from the ‘red, dead thing’ in Saturday Market, to the great plane trees in The Trees are Down, to the ‘quieter, dustier bed’ in Rooms. Knowing how difficult Mew’s life was to become, for her death was not so much an end to life as a release from suffering.
Wider Reading and Research
- The Swearing Habit (paper by Edwin Whipple at the University of Iowa)
- Hip-hop Culture and America’s Most Taboo Word (research paper)
Categories:Time and Space