June 13, 2007

Wilks and Brick on Naming and Exclusion

Wilks and Brick use ‘a sociolinguistic perspective’ in this essay to consider ‘major channels of communication in France, political parties and the press, with regard to the naming of traditionally exclusive groups such as women, homosexuals and ethic minorities’ (145). They proceed from the assumption that French language is seen as ‘a sacred artefact, a forbidden preserve untouchable by all but an elusive, normative elite’ (145). How can marginal groups be represented by such a language? How does ‘discriminatory language’ marginalise them and what subversive practices can allow the groups access to the language again e.g. ‘the reappropriation of pejorative terms’?

Linguistic Purity and the Norm
Terms such as ‘purity’ and ‘corruption have strong currency in attitudes towards the French idiom. Wilks and Brick admit that exclusion of some forms of language is inevitable in the process of standardisation, yet following other critics, they direct attention to three kinds of norms that are inherent in this kind of debate. The first is a objective norm, ‘the language that speakers actually produce’; the second is the prescriptive norm, ‘the institutionally prescribed standard to be found in dictionaries and grammar books and traditionally promoted through the education system’; and finally there is the subjective norm, that is ‘individual value judgements about language’ (146).

In the French context, Wilks and Brick recognise that prestige is associated with a standard of language (they quote R. Bourhis), and they point out that the French idiom has been manipulated by the state since the sixteenth century when pressure was exerted by ‘a self-perpetuating elite group: scholars and grammarians and those in attendance at the centre of power, the court of Louis XIV’ (146). Those excluded from the norm of language were ‘the “powerless” population’ (147). The ‘legacy’ from this initial intervention is summarised (through A. Lodge’s French: from dialect to standard) as promoting the following ideas:
• that the French spoken by the elite is best or of more value;
• and that reason and clarity are inherent in the best French.
The result, according to Wilks and Brick, is ‘linguistic intolerance and linguistic insecurity’ (147). As a consequence, ‘any unsanctioned attempt to change language may be experienced by self-styled ‘purists’ as an attack; language is a forbidden place which must be detached from the incursions of “outsiders” ’ (147).

Awareness of Discriminatory Language
If language is a forbidden territory, in what ways is language used and what are its ‘naming practices’ (148). The insider shores up the idiom as ‘an elite space’, while those outside of the norm see this site as ‘a forbidden territory’ (148). The insider’s language may be as discriminatory towards the outsider as ‘an active form of discrimination’ (148). Wilks and Brick suggest that there is a need for change in language use of insiders (‘the press and political parties’ or those who have an influence in the shape of the language) about outsiders (‘women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities’) (148).

To assess this problem, Wilks and Brick commenced with interviews of typical readers of Libération and Le Monde and with members of political parties like Le Parti Socialiste, Le RPR, Les Vertes and Le Front National. The results found that there were two extremes with participants either believing wholeheartedly that discriminatory language exists or denying its existence entirely. Of those who were aware of discriminatory language (the two newspapers, Le Parti Socialiste and Les Vertes), the focus was mainly on women as ‘a potentially excluded group’, apart from Les Vertes who were also aware about other marginal groups (149). Of those who did not recognise the existence of discriminatory language (Le RPR and Le Front National), there were ‘differences in levels of sensitivity’ (151). While Le RPR suggested that the language used was not problematic, she did show ‘covert sensitivity’ about difficulties for women. The situation is different for Le Front National, which, in spite of its status as ‘a high profile public “insider”’, has begun to present itself as ‘an “outsider” denied access to the forbidden domain of “dangerous” vocabulary’ (151-152). To Wilks and Brick, this represents ‘a bunker mentality’ and ‘a mirror game’ that plays with notions of insiders and outsiders (152).

Wilks, Clarissa and Noëlle Brick. ‘Naming and Exclusion: The Politics of Language in Contemporary France’. Lloyd, Fran and Catherine O’ Brien eds. Secret Spaces, Forbidden Places: Rethinking Culture.New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000. 145 – 153.

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