Time and Space

Taboo Or Not Taboo

Societies have developed a plethora of words and expressions to deal with taboo subjects: either to avoid mentioning them at all, or to smooth the rough edges of reality. As you’ve already discovered, religion was one of the first English taboos, but it certainly wasn’t the last. Take the subject of death. It’s the only thing certain in life (apart from, as Benjamin Franklin memorably said, ‘taxes’) – but we’re very reluctant to use this powerful taboo word. Instead we say passed away, passed on, given up the ghost, gone to meet the maker, shuffled off this mortal coil – even kicked the bucket!  Similarly, we are reluctant to talk directly about health issues that may be chronic or terminal, sexual encounters, and race or ethnicity; all are subjects that may prompt us to reach for the thesaurus. Read Uses and Abuses, which could act as a primer for this whole section, then choose a selection of the following articles to find out about the most powerful taboos in the English language: 

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 not 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 influence the production of these texts and why?
  • How does the historical context influence the reception of these texts and why?
  • How might an audience react now to these public service advertisements in comparison to an audience from the 1970’s?

Learner Portfolio

Politically correct language is language used to avoid causing offence when speaking about and around taboo subjects. Some people object to the use of politically correct language believing that it simply covers up the truth. Do you agree or disagree with this point of view, or does your opinion lie somewhere in between? Write one-two pages about taboos and politically correct language in your learner portfolio.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: Advertising Campaigns

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze 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 examples of Advertising Campaigns most of which you would find either inside a magazine or on a billboard. Study the campaigns, and note down the various tropes of these text types. Add the texts to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. Disclaimer: due to the nature of Aids Awareness, the ads in this campaign contain graphic material of a sexual nature:


Body of Work: Vogue Magazine

If you want to find out about what people in societies can and can’t talk about, what better way to start than by looking at popular magazines. Browse through Vogue’s extensive archives, and find interviews, articles and profiles where you can see contemporary attitudes towards ‘taboo’ subjects: for example, sex, age, health, grief, and many more. Not only this, but you can also discover what uses of language are publicly acceptable when discussing these topics.

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)

IB Language and Literature Guide

Articles and interviews from Vogue would make ideal texts to use in this assessed activity. The named author would be ‘Vogue Magazine’. The articles connect very well to two Global Issues: Beliefs, Values and Education or Culture, Identity and Community. You could pair the interviews with any number of extracts from your literary works that deal with similar themes or aspects of ‘taboo.’ The suggestions below are ideas you may like to consider, although you should speak with your teacher before you get too far ahead:

  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – especially Act 3, in which Eliza is first presented in public… and breaks every rule of Higgins’ etiquette training.
  • Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions – an extract about Nyasha, who behaves in a way that is contrary to her father’s expectations.
  • Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice – perhaps Act 1 Scene 2, in which Portia rails against the confines of her life, and her inability to control her own marriage.

Categories:Time and Space

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