HOW ARE YOU TODAY – THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE PART 5

Another post about language, but not in the manner of previous posts. I won’t be spouting poetry, or analysing turns-of-phrase. This is about communication, connection, and companionship. I’ve written before about Manchester’s homelessness problem (let me stress here that it is not the homeless that are the problem, it’s homelessness), which is something that us everyday folk decide to not engage with every day.

I cross the city centre every day.  I live here, I work here, I go to the shops here, I study here, go to the gym here, go for a midnight walk here (more to follow on this seemingly controversial matter), live out my whole existence here.

At first, like so many other new Mancunians, I just accepted homelessness as an unfortunate consequence of living in a large city.  But as the years passed, the economy dwindled, and the political climate became harsher; and it became more noticeable.  Today, you cannot avoid it.  No amount of averting one’s eyes can hide the fact that we have a monumental level of homelessness in our city.

An integral part of the problem is the social deprivation that breeds the disillusion, unemployment, addiction, poor health, and non-participation that makes one more likely to become homeless. We cannot solve the rampant social malaise by putting a roof over people’s heads, but the preferred course of action is currently “do nothing”, which doesn’t seem to be fixing those problems either.

Anyway, back to language. I went off on that particular tangent to illustrate that homelessness is everywhere and most people don’t seem to give a toss about it (yep, sounds harsh, but if you can find any evidence to the contrary, I’d love to hear it – I’m not holding my breath). From my point of view, I do care, but I feel powerless to do anything. The structure of our society isn’t conducive to benevolence (I’m expecting John Galt to stroll in any day now), and as I said in my last post on homelessness, I would bankrupt myself if I gave just a tiny amount to each of the needy. So what then? Who gets my spare change? On what criteria should I pick and choose who deserves a meal or a bed tonight? No matter what choice I make, someone is screwed.

And because I can’t give to everyone, I apologise a great number of times per day to those doing the asking.  And things started to happen.  Often, I’d walk past someone, apologise, and be on my way.  But I’d receive acknowledgement, and a word of thanks, or wishing me a good night (I have NEVER had a bad experience with a homeless person in my decade-and-a-half here; the thousands of society’s leftovers that I’ve encountered are just trying to get on, like the rest of us).  And then one time in Piccadilly Gardens, a particularly persistent gentleman accosted me for more than the usual two seconds, and he told me a little of his story.  I listened and chatted for a few minutes, and as we parted, he thanked me for speaking with him.  “Most people wouldn’t” he said; and I don’t doubt that.

Nowadays, I give not just my spare change, but my spare time.  I’ll take a couple of minutes to sit and talk with homeless people.  I’ve learnt so much about other humans – many stories are tragic, but many are fascinating, and delightful.  The elderly man who carries all his possessions in two shopping trolleys and some carrier bags?  He was a historian.  The dreadlocked Big Issue seller I met in Cambridge?  He was a graduate of the University.  Everyone has a story to tell, and no-ones is worth more or less than anyone else’s. When we walk on past beggars without even looking them in the eye, we reinforce the idea that they are “other”.  I don’t always have money to give, but just a little human contact and a few words can make the difference between feeling human, and feeling cast aside.

THIRD-PERSON SINGULAR “THEY” – THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE PART 4

I’m not going to touch on the “correctness” of the use of “they” as a preferred pronoun – I enjoy arguments over prescriptive vs. descriptive use of language, but that’s been done elsewhere.

I want to talk about why the use of “they” to describe an individual (in a gender-neutral sense) has practical uses for everyone; it’s not just useful for trans* and non-binary individuals. That’s not an apology – when we recognise rights for a minority, the change often improves things for everyone.

Scenarios in which third-person singular “they” has its uses:

Number One

So, there’s the obvious reason of “they” being fairly inoffensive if you’re ‘not sure’ of someone’s gender identity (it’s a balancing act between asking and waiting to be told, sometimes – none of us are perfect, and we sometimes find ourselves in social situations that we have no clue how to navigate). It’s better to be vague than wrong in my book.

Number Two

In my work, I deal with colleagues and collaborators from all over the world. Plenty of these people have names that I’ve never encountered before. And the rules that divide names into “masculine” and “feminine” in English don’t necessarily apply elsewhere. Sometimes you just don’t know – especially if you’ve not met yet, or have only ever communicated by email. In this situation, I again go for ambiguity over misgendering – it saves a lot of embarrassment.

Number Three

Now it’s time to get political. Third-person singular “they” is useful for eliminating the default designation of a professional as male. In my line of work, we will talk about “the architect”, “the builder”, “the electrician”, etc, without knowing the individual we’re describing (maybe they’ve not yet been appointed, perhaps we’ve not dealt with them until now for contractual reasons, perhaps we’re talking about a profession in general terms). Trouble is, there’s often a default to male, which

  1. Feeds into the perception that there are “male jobs” and “female jobs”, which belongs in the 1950s;
  2. Is wrong more often than our use of language implies, e.g.

“when you saw the nurse today, what did she say about your [insert embarrassing bodily ailment here]?”

“Er, HE said to put this cream on it and come back in two weeks.”

Number Four

Just, why not? Seeing as we’ve already established that it’s not grammatically heinous (to most of us), we could use it in far more interactions than we presently do. No reason why you couldn’t interchange “he” and “she” with “they” – unless the person you’re describing has expressly said that they (um,) do not want this. We might find its use becoming more commonplace as we step away from the use of pronouns at all (in our work email signatures, and those of many firms, honorifics are omitted completely, and sometimes post-nominals too). Tom Scott has produced a video on this, in the link below. He does a load of other stuff on language and esoteric knowledge – you should check out some of his other stuff if you have the time.

None of us know what the future holds, and we don’t know if there will be a rise in gender non-conformity or an abolition of gender. But what we do know is that we can find ways to address people without putting our foot in our mouth.

I DIDN’T NEED TO KNOW – THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE PART 3

Another poem written by my friend Jenna.  It’s about dating as a trans woman, and in her words, dedicated to “all the guys who decided to blurt out their sexual preference on discovering I used to have a penis”:

I Didn’t Need To Know

You walked up to me, eyes so bright,
Said your name was Bradlee and asked if I was alright.
I smiled right back and perked up at the convo,

Knew where this would end, but’d been drinking on my own, so,
I answered all your questions, even those that seemed quite personal,
I figured “what the heck, this life is ultimately terminal!”

You asked if I had kids, I said “No, but one day maybe,
I’d like a son and daughter, but I can’t carry a baby!”.
The look you gave me, it was pity and you reassured,
“Don’t worry, there are stem cell trials – many illnesses’ll get cured!”

I thought right then “It hasn’t clicked, he doesn’t know my story,
This is where I scare him off, by getting super gory.”
Instead of describing the state of my axewound, I decided to lay it on gently,
I told you I used to be a boy, in an instant you spoke to me differently.

“I’m not into men, not gay, don’t like cock,
It’s a shame you’re not a woman, I’d be hard as a rock.”
You laughed and grinned nervously, exited silently,
leaving me feeling non-human, unsurprisingly.

I didn’t need to know, that you didn’t want a blow, from this ex ho, on your down-below.
I didn’t need to know, that your penis lost it’s flow, when you thought about my past sperm-filled pants-arrow.
I didn’t need to know, that you thought of me as a sideshow, or a game show joke prize that nobody wants, though.

I didn’t need to know, but remember for next time, I may be a freak to you, but I’m not after your white slime.
I was flattered by the attention, enjoying the conversation, now I’m sat here all alone, waiting for the bus at the station.

Whenever this happens, it reinforces the lie, that all men who speak to me, just want to stroke my inner thigh.
It makes me reclusive, afraid to converse, makes me feel like existence is more of a curse.
Please be kind and remember, whatever your dick bites, I don’t need to know, I’m a person, not a fleshlight.

The end

QUESTION YOURSELF – THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE PART 2

One of my friends wrote an eloquent and meaningful poem on Facebook, and it captures not only the beauty of words, but also the problem of being too sure about oneself in debate, and the need to examine one’s own biases. [Skeptic friends, take heed]

(Check our her Twitter & YouTube, she posts some interesting, controversial and original stuff)

Debates can get heated, doesn’t feel nice to be questioned,
Our own mind’s picture, of a situation, seems threatened,
The instinct is to scramble, for a support to our position,
We don’t always step back and consider thought-omission.

We like to be right, it feels good to have knowledge,
If a view seems absurd, they must have missed college!?
They can’t be right, it doesn’t fit my agenda,
Must be time for ridicule “Oi, go play with your double ender!”.

But wait, step back, question everything, remember?!
That means your own axioms, too, that’s no surrender.
Combine the positions and question each angle,
Hopefully your opponent will follow your example.

It’s unlikely you’ll agree within a short conversation
But the discourse is important for further investigation.
Without common ground, you won’t find a solution
To the issue you see as a societal pollution.

So, stay calm and controlled, keep your words ever relevant,
Your discussion may be fruitful, if you stay in your element.
And remember, end of discourse, is not the end of introspection,
Plant a seed of encouragement, for personal reflection.

 

She also wrote another one, here, on a somewhat different subject. The wit is still as strong, and the tone is a little more cutting – but sometimes you have to be bold to get your point across.

THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE – PART 1

I have just started learning to speak German – I have a number of reasons for wanting to do so:

  1. I went to Frankfurt and Dusseldorf on a work jolly (there was a lot of actual work done too, but I cannot deny that the alcohol was in full flow), and I felt so inspired by everything I experienced while I was there.  Germany (the bits I saw) is a lovely place, and I’d like the opportunity to work there in the future.  Engineers are also sought-after in Germany (they have a more robust manufacturing sector than the UK, as well as having similar service industries -like consultancy, where I work now).  And being bilingual is a very, very, useful thing for employers, especially if one of your languages is English – one of the universal business languages.
     
  2. I wanted to learn a new language, or to re-learn French.  My language education at school was slightly above the bare minimum, but not immersive enough to lead to fluency.  I also struggled with speaking and listening (um, rather important things when learning a language), although my written French is very good.  I liked the structure and patterns in French sentences; it’s a logical language with an easily understood set of rules.  Only trouble is, I don’t seem to have an ear for French.  I have difficulty understanding others, and there must be something seriously up with my pronunciation, because I am apparently unintelligible to the average French person.  However, German seems like a very easy language for an English speaker to pick up.  I’m able to pronounce the words correctly, it sticks well in my memory, the syntax is closer to English than French is, and it’s also made up using a set of rules (I do like rules).
     
  3. I have always considered myself a European, and I would like to spend more time on the continent.  However, my hand may be forced soon, because if we are dumb enough to vote Brexit next week, then I’m off to Germany to gain citizenship there.  Culturally, the UK seems about 40 years behind the rest of Europe, and I’d rather keep up with the rest of the world than lag behind it.  We’ve also caught a glimpse of what a detached Britain would be like over the last few months, and it is ugly as sin.
     
So those are my reasons for learning the language, and of course, it has its own unique beauty, as all languages do. However, I found something rather special when browsing a glossary of words. I’d heard the word “Fledermaus” before, as a friend invited me to a performance of the operetta Die Fledermaus, and so I knew that it meant “bat”. But what I didn’t know is that it is not a direct translation of “flying mouse” or “winged mouse”, there is something prettier behind the name. I found this website, which tells you more about its etymology: https://zipcon.net/~swhite/docs/language/German/stories/

So a Fledermaus is not a “flying mouse”, or a “winged mouse”, but a fluttermouse. This is just lovely. No matter how harsh German speech may sound, it has its moments of poetry. Of course I crave more, and while I’ve not yet discovered all the beauties of die Deutsche Sprache, I have found a couple more words that are just pulchritudinous:

Nacktschnecke: meaning “slug”, translates directly to English as “naked snail“.  This reminds me of a joke:

 

What did the slug say to the snail?
“Big Issue, please?”

 

Entschuldigung: this means “sorry”, with no hidden content.  But the word itself sounds quite funny when said out loud.  It’s like I could never apologise to anyone in German with any conviction.

 

I am very much at the start of my language learning.  I want to be able to speak it as well as a Native.  However, I’m only at A1 Beginner level with Busuu.  But I feel pretty confident about my ability – as well as learning, it feels like I’m really understanding and appreciating the language.  Maybe I’ll do a whole post in German soon….

 

Bis bald,
Die Wissenschaftlerin

I SAW SOMETHING

One of the aspects of living in a large city is that you see things that just don’t happen in the rest of the country.  My parents, who live in a tiny village in the Home Counties, complain about neighbourhood problems frequently, and I don’t even bother comparing their plight with the myriad social ills that you can find in the middle of Manchester.

One of our biggest problems is homelessness. The council doesn’t seem to have control of the situation at all – there were numerous protests (read: campsites outside the Town Hall) last year, and the main result of this was the Council invested more in moving the protesters on. Social housing is difficult to find; the wait can be years. What is someone supposed to do in the meantime? And what if you have a crisis that needs to be dealt with now? Most of the shelters have closed down, and yet many of the people who need them probably wouldn’t fare well there either. Rules on behaviour, alcohol, drugs, pets, curfews etc, etc, just don’t fit with the erratic lifestyle of someone with a set of other problems that have led to their situation. And so the only place left is the streets.

We can’t solve the addiction and mental health problems by providing more homes or relaxing society’s rules. But we can make progress on homelessness by tackling those social problems that make it more likely.

There are a number of settlements around the city; along the canal banks, under the Mancunian Way, up near UMIST, and plenty more. These people live in clusters of tents, because it’s better than a shop doorway. Seeing homelessness has become so commonplace now, that if I were to give every homeless person in the city centre a quid, I’d easily blow a month’s salary in a day (and I have a reasonably well-paying job).

All Human Life Is Here
All Human Life Is Here: a tent village beneath the railway arches (on the left of the shot) on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal, overlooked by the Manchester Hilton.

Living on the streets is not good for you, mentally or physically.  Statistically, the homeless are more likely than the general population to have ill-health generally, to have less access to healthcare, and to die prematurely.  I’m actually amazed that in the decade-and-a-half that I’ve been here, I didn’t see a dead homeless person; until last week.

I was walking towards my boyfriend’s house late at night, and up ahead of me on my route, I could see something that looked wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  As I got closer, I could see a man in a sleeping bag slumped in an unnatural position against a shop front.  He was lying in a way that one wouldn’t be able to relax and sleep in, and he wasn’t responding to either of the two police officers stood by him, radioing in what they’d discovered.  All signs indicated that this poor chap was no longer alive.

I don’t know what he died of, and it doesn’t matter much to me.  Another human has left this earth, a human who took a humble place and yet was still a part of the society that shapes all of us.  As I walked home, I felt shock and sadness, and I wanted to put down what I had seen on paper.  So I did what any self-respecting hipster would do, and wrote a poem about it.  Here it is:

Tonight it is hot.
Hot enough for me to stroll semi-clothed through the city centre.
And yet,
A shiver runs down my spine.
In front of a shop that sells kitchens for more than the value of my one bedroom flat,
A homeless man lies slumped and still.
Two doleful police officers stand watch,
Waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
This is Manchester, in 2016.

If that man lives on only in my words, then a part of him does remain. I never even knew his name, and yet he changed me.

THEY F**K YOU UP, YOUR MUM AND DAD

…They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”After my last post, I felt it was an obvious opening to quote a bit of Larkin. I recommended this poem to a friend’s daughter, who was just turning 18 and preparing to leave for University. I remember how I felt at that age, so full of idealism and opinions, believing I was immortal. But we are all the product of our upbringing, in ways that will stay with us forever.

NO SH*T, SHERLOCK

I’m not an avid viewer of the BBC series Sherlock. In fact, there are a lot of geeky series that I don’t follow, mainly due to time constraints. So I do feel a bit left out, especially when my mates are all talking about whatever episode had that controversial / exciting / conversation-starting plot device.

But on Boxing Day, I made an exception. Much like 2014’s Xmas Doctor Who special (the WWII themed-one), I allowed myself to just sit and absorb for a couple of hours, and it was wonderful. I really enjoyed the episode, for a lot of reasons (some of them outlined below), but I felt particularly compelled to write about it because of the inevitable Twitter furore. And I somehow managed to disagree with almost all of it, so maybe I should have joined in to shake it up a bit.

Overall, I thought it was a good story – as a non-viewer of said series, it really drew me in and was intriguing and fun. It was just complex enough to require 100% of the viewers attention, but not so complex as to exclude a large portion of the audience. But there seemed to be some issues that people had with it:

1. That it co-opted feminism as a plot device
Well, ok, that is one way of looking at it. But we have often based period dramas in times of turmoil, and used the events of the day as a backdrop for a more in-depth or even tangential story. Did Lady Chatterley’s Lover co-opt the decline of the landed gentry? Did Atonement co-opt the plight of soldiers in WWII? Did Doctor Zhivago co-opt the Russian Revolution (actually, some people did claim that, but then I guess there is no limit to what people will get offended by)? I don’t see why the suffragist or feminist movements should be immune to use in TV dramas. And if we “protect” them by not using their historical context to set the scene, then they become invisible and their importance diminished.

The main reason I take issue with this point is that everyone’s perspective is different, and this argument is framed through the lens of someone who is really clued-up about current feminist topics, and ignores the fact that a large number of viewers will not be so involved with that particular movement. I actually see it as a very positive thing that it featured the suffragettes. Their time is one that I do feel is neglected by the history books and lessons, even though it was a mere 100 years ago. So many people will just see the suffragists in the programme and be reminded of that part of our history. Others may analyse it further, but in terms of what we can reasonably fit into a two-hour drama that isn’t really about that topic, I think they did a bloody good job.

2. That the suffragists were the “bad guys”
Oh, good grief. Talk about missing the point. Sherlock clearly states that:
“Every great cause has martyrs. Every war has suicide missions and make no mistake, this is war. One half of the human race at war with the other. The invisible army hovering at our elbow, tending to our homes, raising our children. Ignored, patronised, disregarded. Not allowed so much as a vote. But an army nonetheless, ready to rise up in the best of causes. To put right an injustice as old as humanity itself. So you see, Watson, Mycroft was right. This is a war we must lose.”

On the one hand, this looks like an admission by a 19th-Century man that things need to change. He’s being honest about inequalities in that society, and accepting the violent acts committed by the suffragists as necessary and in pursuit of a noble and morally justified cause. Also, we need more female baddies. There’s no point getting more women on the screen if they’re inoffensive cardboard-cutouts. Give them agency, give them flaws.
And on the other hand, it looks like…

3. Sherlock basically explained feminism to a room full of women.
When I saw this quote on Twitter, my immediate thought was “Haha, that is well funny! He actually did do that!”. But I didn’t feel that it was patronising, and like in my first point, many of the audience will not hold a degree in gender studies, and so wouldn’t pick up on this point. Whether or not that is a bad thing (yeah, it kind of is) is a topic for another post, but you have to work with what you’ve got. Unfortunately, a lot of TV is made with the lowest common denominator in mind. Bearing this in mind, I actually think the episode was quite progressive.

4. That the main villain fitted the cliché of the jilted woman out for revenge
Yeah, they did. But there are plenty of cliches in entertainment, some stand as they are, some are mocked, some are challenged, and some are twisted to tell a bizarre time-hopping dream-sequence story. I don’t think this was a problem at all, and it follows the pattern of cheesy mystery novels – if you were feeling a bit postmodern, you could say it was done ironically (I’m not going to do this because I’m not a hipster twat).

5. That the suffragettes were wearing weird KKK-style hoods
Hmmm, yes. When I watched it I just interpreted it as them being a clandestine society revealing their true nature, to complete the story. But it is quite weird, I will admit that. One possible explanation, related to point 2; back then, the suffragists were seen as the bad guys by contemporary society. They were violent, unnatural, and an affront to decency, etc, etc, so portraying them as secretive and evil might be a good way of accurately representing their perceived threat to society. Still weird, though.

6. That it wasn’t feminist enough
Oh, come on. It might have been clumsy and controversial, but it was a very pro-feminist episode. Exemplified by Molly’s appearance as Dr. Hooper, disguised as a man. It’s the only way she would have been able to get “a man’s job” at that point in history. As Watson remarks, “Amazing… what one has to do to get ahead in a man’s world.”

7. That it was confusing and difficult to follow
Well, it was something that you needed to invest in. There was a lot going on, and the viewer needed to not just figure out the solution to the mystery, but why everything was suddenly set in the wrong era, with the regular characters in equivalent, past roles. I noticed something was up with Sherlock’s “virus in the code” line – such an obvious anachronism – but because I don’t usually watch it I didn’t know it’s normally set in the present day. I like my stories to be complex and engaging, maybe some people don’t. Their loss.

8. That it didn’t follow the Sherlock “formula”
I actually don’t have a reference point for this, because as I said, this is the first Sherlock I’ve ever seen. I get the impression that a lot of the haters don’t like Stephen Moffat’s style generally. I know plenty of people are relieved that he’s leaving Doctor Who (another series I have very little knowledge of), but given that I also liked the WWII 2014 Xmas special, which he wrote, I guess I’d be inclined to disagree. But it’s a matter of taste,

On the whole, I felt the episode did a great job. Holmes was simultaneously likeable and repugnant, Watson was likeable and provided a lighter counterpart, Mycroft was peculiar and Moriarty was delightfully creepy. Attention to detail was so precise that the odd time-switching things were noticeable as “errors”. The link to the suffragettes was done in a sensitive and interesting way, while still remaining true to the characters personas (so I am told ). The format was pretty cool, and, well, I sat still for two hours to watch it, so they must have got something right.

GENDER-NEUTRAL PRONOUNS (SKIPTON BUILDING SOCIETY)

I’m browsing banks for a new savings account, and I found this on the Skipton Building Society application form.  I have no idea if other banks do this, but I find it pleasing that the title ‘Mx’ is available on their form:

non-binary banking
non-binary banking

More info on gender-neutral titles is available here.  I find it really interesting that in the UK, the only non-gendered honorifics are related to occupation or level of qualification.  But we still get that wrong, sometimes.  Oops.