24 November 2012

Drag Queen’s English: Vogue

Leeds (Lower Briggate)_Queen's Court
Vogue is a well known word nowadays. Its meaning has been bent in the 80’s and assumed a new (modern) position – position which is now depicted in formal dictionaries and in the general consciousness of the Western World. Being a non-English speaker, far removed from the cultural setting from where the modern meaning of vogue sprung, I didn’t understand what such word meant when I first heard Madonna’s hit Vogue.
The only person who managed to make me understand the meaning of vogue was my first ‘serious’ boyfriend. Two factors singled him out from our regular hang out group as the person who had a better insight of the new meaning of vogue: he performed as a drag queen, impersonating Madonna, and had a reasonable knowledge of the American pop gay culture.
“Vogue is this…” He began explaining and, instead of using words, he started contorting his arms around his body, assuming a close-up pose with each movement.
Vogue music video

The Concise OED defines vogue as “the prevailing fashion or style at a particular time.” OED still highlights that vogue is often used in the phrase ‘in/out of vogue’ and shows that vogue entered into English in the 16th Century, from French and Italian voga ‘rowing, fashion’. As a verb, however, OED defines vogue with its modern meaning: “dance to music in a way that imitates the poses struck by a model on a catwalk.” No further detail on this meaning is given.
Happily, the Queen Mother RuPaul, in season one of RuPauls Drag Race, mentioned the origins of the modern meaning of vogue. “Vogue was introduced to the world in the cult classic Paris is Burning. And, of course, the mainstream learned about voguing from another queen; name: Madonna…”
RuPaul's Drag Race, s. 01 ep. 06_Mini-Challenge: Vogue Off

It’s during the mini-challenge, a vogue off, that RuPaul further evidences that the features of his eccentric English are not simply idiosyncratic but they actually echo the English of a whole social subgroup. There are two ways of being introduced to the roots of RuPaul’s Drag Queens English: by travelling back to the Golden Age of drag balls during the 80’s in New York City, or by watching Paris is Burning. Watching this documentary, directed by Jennie Livingston, can also make one grasp how the word vogue was deviated from its traditional sense in English.
We start to grasp the germ of such deviation when a drag queen named Dorian Corey explains the distinction between Shade and Reading: “Shade came from reading. Reading came first. Reading is the real art form of insult. You get in a good crack and everyone laughs because you found a flaw and exaggerated it. We talk about your ridiculous shape, your saggy face, your tacky clothes. Then Reading became a more developed form; where it became shade.”
Shade, if I really understood, is a subtler form of reading – though I have the impression that these words are sometimes used as synonyms. It’s by understanding the sense of shade, that we can understand the meaning of Voguing. This is what the choreographer Willi Ninja explains. “Voguing came from shade because it was a dance that two people do because they didn’t like each other. Instead of fighting, you would dance it out on the dance floor and whoever did the better moves was throwing the best shade, basically. It’s the same thing as taking knives and cutting each other up, but through a dance form. So voguing is like a safe form of throwing shade.”
Finally, Willi Ninja helps us to understand how the verb vogue proceeds from voguing. “The name is taken from the magazine Vogue, because some of the movements of the dance are also the same as the poses inside the magazine.”
Vogue seems to have the characteristics of a slang term; it’s a word restricted to a particular social group and context, and it also can be paralleled to reading and throwing shade. Yet, OED doesn’t label vogue as slang. It’s patent that vogue, with its modern meaning, just became mainstream English. And that evidences that there’s only a thin line that distinguishes strangeness and Standard when it comes to language (English, if you will).

16 November 2012

Drag Queen’s English

The term Queens English, as defined in the Concise OED, refers to “the English language as correctly written and spoken in Britain”. Everybody knows that the Queen of England, since 1952, is Elizabeth II. Not all people, however, are familiar with the Queen of the United States, Her Majesty RuPaul. And like a Queen Midas, RuPaul has an ability to turn everything that she touches into drag, including English. In his reality tv series, RuPauls Drag Race (Logo), RuPaul has presented the audience with a peculiar facet of English – an English that greatly characterise the essence of linguistic strangeness, an English that I call Drag Queens English.

Although the host (RuPaul) of Rupauls Drag Race essentially speaks American English, it’s the way he bend some rules and depart from the norms of language that dresses English up in drag – or, as RuPaul probably would say, dragulates the English.

Since the features of linguistic strangeness from Drag Queen’s English are many – and I intend to explore them in future posts – this post is limited to show how RuPaul dragulates vocabulary.

In season one, RuPaul seemed quite shy to dragulate vocabulary. The most common feature of dragulation is applied to the third person pronoun He / Him. She / Her are used instead, by Rupaul, the contestants, judges, and most guests, to address both contestants and RuPaul, whether they are in drag or not. During the runway presentation, echoing the word Extravaganza, RuPaul usually shouts Eleganza! And after the contestants lip-sync, instead of stating “you win / you lose”, RuPaul states their fate with more musical terms: Chantey, you stay / Sashay away. Only once, RuPaul used Goils – in “Just between us goils” (ep. 04); Goils would become frequently used after this initial season.
It was from season two onwards, that vocabulary dragulation really set off. One example is She-mail, when RuPaul announces “You’ve got She-mail.” Also from season two (ep. 07), RuPaul ends a fairy-tale with the stock phrase: And they lived draggily ever after.
From third season on, RuPaul exchanges the t and g from the word Congratulations; and since t sounds like a d in many English dialects, the winning contestants are praised with Condragulations. Another word favoured by RuPaul is Herstory.
And when RuPaul touches the subject of English in season three, he even jokes: “Here at RuPauls Drag Race we don’t just entertain. We edumacate.” Edumacate is a word used to mock the meaning of educate.

Season four started with “The big drag disaster of all time: the RuPocalypse…” Other words that appeared were Glamazon and Dragazines.
The current All Stars edition introduced Shelarious and Shemergency.
“Just neologisms,” you may say.
I’m inclined to affirm that besides being neologisms such words epitomise a natural principle of deviation (strangeness) operating within the language. It seems evident that with each successful season of the show, as RuPaul grows in confidence so grows the frequency with which such words are used in the show. Linguistic strangeness surfaces as RuPaul feels comfortable. And this is another evidence that support Crystal’s hypothesis “that it’s normal to be strange, as regards the use of language.”
While descriptions of the Queen’s English are generally found in prescriptive grammar books and normative dictionaries, descriptions of the Drag Queen’s English are not as easily available. So, in terms of English, RuPaul and the contestants of Drag Race are bringing a great contribution to the general American audience and particularly to learners of English around the world.

10 November 2012

An Instance of Strangeness in English

Leeds (Merrion Centre)_2010

By now, the reason for the title of this blog – The Book is in the Tablet – must be clear. It doesn’t particularly deviate from any normal grammatical structure of English but clearly departs from the well-known sentence the book is on the table – sentence that many learners of English must be familiarised with. Just to be neat-picky, you may point out that we don’t really have book in tablets but e-books; so, the normal (logical) sentence should be the e-book is in the tablet. Regardless, this title stands as an instance of deviation from the well-known sentence that, as I believe, learners of English will instantly grasp.
“So, it’s linguistic strangeness ish.” You may say.
Indeed, linguistic strangeness is not a clear-cut concept. When David Crystal wrote “that it is normal linguistic behaviour in most linguistic situations to depart from what is conceived of as a norm for that context”, he actually put this in a form of a hypothesis “in its strongest form possible” (1). In order to support his hypothesis, Crystal highlights a few instances of strange linguistic behaviour that can be noticed in everyday settings.
Here is one of them:
‘Nonsensical expressions’ are sounds which speakers utter at a moment of sudden emotion. One such, noted by Crystal, is Shplumfnooeeah – shouted by a man when he was hit by a broomstick. Nonsensical expressions, like the example given, are varied and complex. Nonetheless, many of them are well-known and formally acknowledged in dictionaries.
Doh! that Homer Simpson shouts in The Simpsons (Fox), is a perfect example of this (Video). Boom! Boom! is another expression constantly yelled by Basil Brush (BBC) (Video). And who can forget the Yeehaw (also Yeehah) from the theme Good Ol Boys from The Dukes of Hazzard (Video). Wahoo, Yahoo, Whoopee, and Yippee are listed in the Concise OED as an expression of “great/ wild excitement or joy”. Other such expressions listed in the OED are: Aargh (horror, rage), aha/ ho (triumph, surprise), hooray/ hurrah (celebration), oh (disappointment, joy), oho (pleasant surprise), pooh (disgust, impatience), wow/ woowe (astonishment, admiration).
“Strange ish” you may say again.
Indeed, Crystal’s states: “…Strangeness is Familiarity.” We can always agree that Shplumfnooeeah is hardly an expression that you or I would use. But if it became popular like the Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker! that John McClane (Bruce Willis) says in Die Hard (Video), we would be less shy to shout Shplumfnooeeah!
1. Crystal, David. 1990.Linguistic strangeness.” In Margaret Bridges (ed.), On strangeness. SPELL, 5. Tubingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1990. 13-24. (Check Post 1).

3 November 2012

Linguistic Strangeness in English

Leeds (South Parade)_November 2011

As a learner of English myself, I know that one of the main concerns of a learner of English as a foreign language is to follow the rules of Standard English correctly. However, one aspect about English that learners generally fail to realise is that native English users normally depart from the norms of English.
“Ah, don’t tell porkies!” and “Stop pork pieing me…” are sentences that reality tv presenter Kim Woodburn regularly utters on How Clean is Your House? (Channel 4).
In these examples Ms Woodburn uses ‘rhyming slang’ – a form of slang defined in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as “a type of slang that replaces words with rhyming words or phrases.” In the Concise OED (Oxford English Dictionary), the words porkies and porky pie are formally defined – under the entry porky – as “British rhyming slang a lie.”
I believe that rhyming slang in English is broadly known by learners of English now. Alas, the use of rhyming slang in English hardly represents how commonly and diversely English speakers and writers depart from what is normally expected in English.
David Crystal, eminent British linguist and author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, once labelled this type of language use as ‘linguistic strangeness’. In his article Linguistic Strangeness (1990) Crystal wrote: “it is normal linguistic behaviour in most linguistic situations to depart from what is conceived of as a norm for that context.” By “norm”, as Crystal clarifies, he means the “traditional, majority usage, intuitively appreciated and potentially quantifiable”. Although Crystal talks about strangeness in terms of language in general, he actually mentions examples that he observed from everyday contexts in English specifically.
In this inaugural post, I restrain myself from diving into the complexity of the concept of ‘linguistic strangeness’ as labelled by Crystal. Yet, those who come across this blog are invited and welcome to express their general thoughts or informed knowledge on the matter.
The following posts of this blog will bring examples of strangeness in English mentioned by David Crystal and example that I observe myself. Also, please feel free to share examples of strangeness in English that you may have noticed yourself.
Be welcome and please comment!