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Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

How to take the fun out of comedy…


I’ve been working on a project with a few colleague for the past year or so looking at gender and interruption in Mock the Week. We presented the first tranche of results back at the International Language and Gender Conference in Brazil (which uncovered the small fact that we had to do more work to do on it…), but basically, we’re trying to figure out whether male panelists interrupt more frequently than female panelists, or if it is more to do with how often a panelist is on the show (unfortunately, this is complicated by the fact that the panelists who are on most often are male…). We’ve then got plans to tie this to issues of conversational dominance and so on, seeing whether we can support Jo Brand‘s comments about the show on an empirical level.

Rather than using more traditional CA approaches to transcribe the data, we’re leveraging the department’s skills in corpus linguistics, so we’ve marked up all the data in XML format, which means that, in theory, it’ll be easier to extract the features we decide to look at, provided these features have their own XML tag. As someone who is mainly used to a CA approach, this is new territory for me, and looking at an XML editor is kind of scary. But I’ve been assured that this is the best way to tackle this.

We were lucky enough that we managed to get some students to do the first pass of transcription in Word, and then these were fed into some infernal machine which spat out workable XML transcripts. These were then edited by one of my colleagues, and now I’m going through them for the second time cross-checking them.

Now to the point of my post: the most sure fire way of sucking the fun out of anything ‘humorous’ is to start transcribing it. I’m only on my fifth episode (of ten), but seriously, I’m kind of losing the will here…

– The Social Linguist

Just how offensive are ‘comedy’ accents?

November 19, 2011 11 comments

Last Saturday night, me and Rebecca had a friend over for dinner, and after a few G&Ts (for me), the conversation turned to different accents and attitudes towards people from other places. Living in England (or America) meant that my accent stood out, even though I speak (for the most part) Standard Scottish English and didn’t really think that my accent was that marked, and I’ve had more than my fair share of ‘oh that’s a funny way of saying that! Can you say it again?’. This typically proceeds anything I say that contains a trilled /r/ or some other rhotic ‘quirk’ that Scottish English speakers have. For a long time, I thought it was just something that happened to people who had a different variety of English from the dominant variety in the place the speaker was living

It got really bad when I was living in America where one guy that I knew, no matter what I said to him, would always start talking in this ‘mock Scottish’ accent. I’m a pretty laid back guy most of the time, but it got to the point where I thought that this guy was just taking this piss and dressing it up as ‘banter’. Maybe me being Scottish (and he apparently had Scottish ancestry) meant that he felt it was ok to perform ‘mock Scottish’ right in front of me. After all, how racist can it be to imitate someone’s accent when he’s white and the person that’s doing the imitation is white as well?

Perhaps because I’m a white, male native English speaker somehow means I’m a ‘legitimate’ target for these kinds of mock performances? Would the same happen if I was black, or Asian, or Maori or otherwise non-white? How far does skin colour determine when it is and isn’t ok to perform ‘mock accents’ (and what other issues are important?)? Would this guy have done this if I was Russian or Polish or Spanish or French (as a disclaimer, I realise I’m conflating race with nationality here and I know how problematic that is…)? My feeling is that he wouldn’t have.

Anyway, what was really surprising was that only a few days ago, an article appeared on the BBC website about David Cameron’s attempt to do an Australian accent as part of a recent speech. The article questioned whether it was ever ok to do a comedy accent, and how far doing a comedy accent might be a form of covert racism (this is the basis of Jane Hill’s discussion of ‘mock Spanish‘, perhaps best seen in The Terminator where John Connor says ‘hasta la vista’). One of the commentators in the article, Sean Ruttledge, argued that ‘the lay person has to be careful what accents they do. Imitating certain accents gives the perception that someone is simply being racist’. But I think that racism is only part of the issue here (albeit a very significant issue). The other issue is that it’s simply to do with respect. Mocking someone’s accent and thus making them a target of humour and ridicule suggests that the person doing the accent feels like that person is a legitimate target for their humour. Given how closely we guard our accent or dialect, mocking it could be (and quite often is) viewed as an attack on who we are and where we’re from.

The question is, then, when people are not being racist or offensive, why do they do it?

A big part of it, I realised after my dinner conversation with Rebecca and my friend, is that it comes from a place of friendliness and affection. This was quite surprising to me because I had typically associated this kind of thing with ‘friendly piss-taking’ but not ‘I feel like I know you well enough to do this’. The other thing is that sometimes people like certain accents and enjoy listening to it, and imitation here is a form of flattery. This was certainly the case for Rebecca and again, I was quite surprised about that since I don’t think that the Scottish accent is anything to write home about.

Perhaps the biggest thing then is that it’s the relationships between the people engaged in these performances which determines how the performances should be read. Or maybe the safest thing for everyone is that no-one imitates any accents, then no-one can ever be offended by someone else trying to put an accent on. Or maybe I’m just over-thinking this…

The Social Linguist