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CCHU9053 - Contested words, disputed symbols
2018-2019 First Semester
Form of Assessment
100% coursework
Wednesday , 12:30 pm - 2:20 pm , CPD-1.24
None. This is a Common Core course.

The meanings and values we assign to words and symbols are often the subject of profound controversy. In the public sphere, such controversies often reflect a background of historical, political and ideological struggles. Issues over usage of words and symbols may arise in many ways, for example in relation to forms of address (there is a choice of terms for “you” in many languages), titles (Mrs vs. Ms), gender inclusive language (generic “he” vs. “he or she” vs. “they” vs. generic “she”), personal names (must names reflect the gender of the baby?), brand names (can I call my coffee shop McStarbucks?), ethnic designations (Eskimo vs. Innuit, Gypsy vs. Roma, Black vs. African-American), names of sports teams (The Washington Redskins) and of cities (Bombay vs. Mumbai, Peking vs. Beijing). On an even larger level, entire languages can become subject to such controversy. For example, there has been much debate about whether Putonghua should replace Cantonese as a medium of instruction in Hong Kong schools, or whether English is a global ‘killer’ language that eradicates local indigenous languages. In analysing such controversies, we gain an insight into how people assign meanings to words and symbols, which interpretations they employ and which authorities they evoke, as well as how such controversies might change over time. At stake in such controversies are questions of freedom of expression, the control and censorship of the public sphere, the boundary between private and public speech, the moral ownership of words and symbols and the right to control their use or interpretation in particular contexts.

Study Load
Activities   Number of hours
Lectures    22 hours
Tutorials   10 hours
Reading/Self-study   80 hours
Assessment: Final paper    30 hours
Total    142 hours

Learning outcomes

On completing this course, students will be able to:

  1. Describe and explain a controversy over meaning and usage in the public sphere.
  2. Apply a critical vocabulary to describe linguistic and discursive controversies.
  3. Apply basic research skills and develop an appreciation of the role and status of different kinds of sources (blogs, media reports, discussion forums, historical texts, secondary literature), including referencing and citation conventions.
  4. Analyse and comment critically on the arguments, rhetorical strategies, ideologies used by people, including media.
  5. Identify their own case study and analyse its origins, development and the underlying issues at stake.
Four in-class quizzes   40% (each 10%)
Tutorial participation and tasks   20%
Final written assignment, 1000 words   40%
Course Content and Topics
  1. Controversies over the meanings of words and symbols
  2. Controversies over the appropriate name or label for a given entity
  3. The origin, conduct and resolution of such disputes
  4. Meaning and interpretation in the public sphere
  5. The nature and sociocultural significance of public debates over meaning
Week-by-week schedule
4 September   Introduction, course organisation
11 September  

Tutorial assignments, students’ initial assessment

Reading: Xin Weimu (2018, 13 Nov) Why western political correctness hasn’t caught on in China. Sixth Tone. 

18 September  

‘Just’ language: On the relationship between language and (political) reality

Reading: Duranti, Alessandro (1999) Relativity. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 9(1-2): 220-222.
Viewing: Boroditsky, Lera (2017) How language shapes the way we think.TED Women  2017. 

25 September  

Shibboleths: Using language to exclude people

Reading 1: McNamara, Tim (2005) 21st century shibboleth: Language tests, identity and intergroup conflict. Language Policy 4(4): 351-370.

2 October  

“It’s a girl!”: Language, gender and sexuality

Reading 1: Cameron, Deborah and Don Kulick (2003) Making connections. In: Language and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-14.
Reading 2: Tang, GVGK (2018, 29 May) Tongzhi: “Queer” identity politics in Hong Kong before and after the Handover. Notches.

9 October  

“You can’t call me that anymore”: Language, race and ethnicity

Reading 1: Zhu, Michelle (2017, 27 Oct) All the times people have called me ‘chink’ to my face: A case-by-case history. Vice.
Reading 2: Akala (2018) The day I realised my mum was white. In: Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. London: Two Roads.

16 October   Reading Week (no class, please catch up on readings and read for the next session)
23 October  

McFit, Abibas, Keep Calm and Carry On: Language, knockoffs and copyright infringement

Reading: Wainwright, Martin (2013, 2 Jan) Keep calm and carry on: Trademark battle enters new year. The Guardian.

30 October  

Writin my name in graffiti on the wall’: Illegal art and the quest for public space

Viewing: Silver, Tony and Henry Chalfant (1983) Style Wars.

6 November  

World Englishes: Postcolonial struggles over official language policies and neoliberal realities

Reading: Park, Joseph Sung-Yul (2014) “You say ouch and I say aya”: Linguistic insecurity in a narrative of transnational work. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication 24(2): 241-260 

13 November  

Cantonese, Putonghua, Queen’s English, British English, American English or Hong Kong English? A city in language-ideological crisis

Reading 1: Hansen Edwards, Jette G. (2016) The politics of language and identity: Attitudes towards Hong Kong English pre and post the Umbrella Movement. Asian Englishes 18(2): 157-164.
Reading 2: Tam, Luisa (2018, 7 May) You could never replace Cantonese as the language of Hong Kong. South China Morning Post.

20 November  

Cultural appropriation, re-appropriation and appropriateness: Political correctness and correcting politics

Reading: Christensen, Wendy (2012, 13 April) Lost in translation: Tattoos and cultural appropriation.The Society Pages.

27 November   Wrap up, preparation for essays, questions
2-20 December   Assessment period
20 December   Final paper due
General requirements

You are expected to attend all lectures and all tutorials. If you miss more than three classes, for whatever reason, you will be considered as not having completed the course and will not receive a final grade. You are furthermore expected to actively participate in tutorials and you are encouraged to ask questions and make comments in lectures. Please be prepared to complete substantial amounts of readings in preparation for class and you are required to read independently and widely for your written assignment. Please book an office hour with Jaspal at least once during the semester to share your learning experience, ask any questions you might have and discuss your final written assignment.

Further Readings

Ahmed, Sara (2018-2019) Feminist Killjoys [blog]. https://feministkilljoys.com

Alibhai-Brown, Yasmin (2018) In Defence of Political Correctness. London: Biteback.

Ashcroft, Bill (2001) Language and race. Social Identities 7(3): 311-328.

Butler, Judith (1996) Burning acts: Injurious speech. The University of Chicago Law School Roundtable 3(1): 199-221. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1382&context=roundtable

Chandler, Daniel (2007) Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge. http://www.wayanswardhani.lecture.ub.ac.id/files/2013/09/Semiotics-the-Basics.pdf

Cram, Ian (2006) Contested Words: Legal Restrictions on Freedom of Speech in Liberal Democracies. Routledge.

Fanon, Frantz (1952[1969]) The Negro and language. In: Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto, 19-40. https://monoskop.org/images/a/a5/Fanon_Frantz_Black_Skin_White_Masks_1986.pdf

Hong, Fan (1997) Footbinding, Feminism and Freedom: The Liberation of Women’s Bodies in Modern China. London: Taylor and Francis.

Hutton, Christopher (2014) Word Meaning and Legal Interpretation: An Introductory Guide. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Leung, Janny and Alan Durant (eds.) (2018) Meaning and Power in the Language of Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tarrow, Sidney (2013) The Language of Contention: Revolutions in Words, 1688-2012. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2018-2019 First Semester
Form of Assessment
100% coursework
Wednesday , 12:30 pm - 2:20 pm , CPD-1.24
None. This is a Common Core course.