Monday, 19 December 2011

How insults can shape identity

Insults can create a feeling of belonging and shared identity

   - hey fat emo, what’s going on?
- hey old fag, where is Jossi?

This is how two young men were heard greeting each other in a youth centre in Germany. It may seem a strange way for friends to behave, but it turns out to be quite frequent behaviour amongst the young men of immigrant background that Susanne Günthner studied in Germany. Günthner and her research team recorded the informal interactions of 18 young men aged between 15 and 23 in youth centres in Münster, Rheine, Solingen and Hamm. The families of the young men had migrated from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Morocco.

It used to be thought, Günthner points out, that the children and grandchildren of migrants would adopt the local majority language as their mother tongue. Instead, studies throughout Europe have shown that young people tend to create new forms of language (such as the Multicultural London English covered in previous posts on this blog) as well as new kinds of communicative practice. Using insults to construct friendship is one example of these communicative practices.

It seems that the insults create a feeling of belonging and shared identity among the speakers who use them, by breaking the conventional norms of how to address someone. The insults revolve around topics that relate to concepts of masculinity within the group, including manliness and sexuality, sexual subordination and homosexuality. Emo in the example above comes from the hardcore punk scene, where it refers to ‘emotionally unstable teenagers and outsiders’. Although young Germans who are not from an immigrant background also make insulting remarks to each other, the young men in Günthner’s study saw this as their own special way of speaking, claiming when interviewed that someone who wasn’t “one of us” would misunderstand the intended playfulness of the insults.

Günthner also describes how the young men in her study skilfully blend different varieties of German while speaking, to stage different social characters. This too is a way of constructing a shared identity for the group. As an example she quotes from a follow-up interview with two young men, Enis and Robbie, whose families are from the former Yugoslavia. The young speakers were explaining that it is difficult to be friends with some of the ethnically German boys at school because there are so many differences between them: for example, the German boys work too hard, don’t understand their jokes, and are brought up differently. When reporting some of the things the German boys say to them, Robbie spoke very slowly, with an exaggerated standard German pronunciation. In this way he brought to life what he considered to be a typical German – the majority group in society– but his caricature of the way that a typical German speaks presented it as pedantic and ridiculous. Although Enis and Robbie spoke throughout the interview in a way that was very close to standard German, when Robbie reports something he himself might say to a German classmate he switches into the ‘polyethnic’ or ‘multicultural’ style that is typical of the neighbourhood. Enis shows his awareness of social attitudes towards the polyethnic style in Germany by saying “you’ll never get a job like that, dude” (so kriegste nie ne arbeit, alder). Günthner claims that by animating characters in their stories with specific linguistic varieties, and by contrasting stylised and even parodied ways of speaking with their own, the young men perform “acts of identity” that create a feeling of inclusion for them within their own group versus a feeling of “otherness” for other groups in German society.

Günthner reminds us that in the modern world globalisation and widespread immigration mean that it is not only people who are moving: languages, she says, are also “on the move”, and so are communicative practices. Analysing the development and dynamics of communicative practices such as the two she focussed on helps us to understand not only the language diversity of modern societies but also the dynamics of social and cultural identities.

Günthner, Susanne 2011. The dynamics of communicative practices in transmigrational contexts: “insulting remarks” and “stylized category animations” in everyday interactions among male youth in Germany. Text and Talk 31/4: 447-473.
doi 1860-7330/11/0031-0447

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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