Language and context – an inappropriate choice

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJames Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con): 

The Secretary of State repeatedly talks of the infraction process, which is surely just a fine. No one has ever paid any of these fines. Please, please, please: just say no, tell the Commission to sod off and do not pay the fine.

 The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Duncan Smith): 

If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will skip the language and keep to the sentiment.

 Mr Speaker: 

Order. I can say only that I experienced a moment of deafness—partly because somebody else was wittering on at me—but I have the impression that perhaps something rather tasteless was said. I trust that the person concerned will wash his or her mouth out without delay.

Hansard, Commons Debate (Tuesday 5th March 2013)

Is all language acceptable all of the time? Or does context make a difference?

Each time we speak or write, we make decisions about the kind of language we use. We think about the audience, the purpose and the context. This process may be conscious or sub-conscious, but the results are the same:

  1. we decide to use language that is acceptable because we wish to create a positive relationship with other participants
  2. we chose to use language that is unacceptable to create a negative relationship, or to pose a challenge

 An unparliamentary choice?

Because the context of the House of Commons is formal, we would expect speakers to make formal choices. In the example quoted above, formal terms of address are used: The Secretary of State (position title), my hon. Friend (a traditional parliamentary title). There is also evidence of polysyllabic, technical language (the abstract noun phrase the infraction process) which adds to the formality of the tenor. Occasionally, however, an MP will purposefully choose to subvert linguistic expectations.

In the debate on 5th March, the Labour MP Frank Field asked Iain Duncan Smith what actions the Government might take to restrict welfare to newcomers from Bulgaria and Romania from 1 January 2014. The discussion was formal with specialist subject specific language, often from a legal register. Long noun phrases (the habitual residence test, a legal right to reside, an assessment of factual evidence of habitual residence), polysyllabic Latinate words (abstract nouns: entitlement, exportability, affiliation; adverbs: legitimately, fundamentally, habitually), and low frequency verbs (engendered, infracted, rescind) clearly mark the formality of the tone.

The contribution by the Conservative MP James Duddridge, however, changes the tenor. His use of adverbs (repeatedly, surely just) implicitly challenges Iain Duncan Smith’s repeated reference to the fine which may be imposed by the European Commission for changes to the residency test. The tripling of the interjection Please and the dismissive imperative just say no make this change in tone more explicit – resulting in the colloquial verb sod off and the seemingly flippant abbreviation of the full title of the European Commission.

The attitude conveyed by the idiomatic phrasal verb is noticeably at odds with the context: it seems inappropriate.  Iain Duncan Smith indirectly alludes to this in his rejection of Duddridge’s language choice (communicated by the verb skip), but his acceptance of the point made (the abstract noun the sentiment).

The Speaker of the House, John Bercow, responds more directly since it is his role to manage the debate and to ensure that all protocols are observed. His call for order reflects the general disturbance caused by Duddridge’s choice of language: the House of Commons is a place of tradition and such colloquialisms invariably cause a stir. It would appear that Bercow did not hear the actual words himself. The descriptive noun phrase a moment of deafness and the colloquial verb wittering on suggest his frustration.

The transgression, however, has not been significant. The adjective phrase rather tasteless reflects the mild nature of the actual offence incurred by Duddridge’s informality. The Speaker can insist that MPs leave the Commons, but here he handles the incident light-heartedly – with a figurative reference to the traditional punishment for inappropriate language-use. He has decided that while a reprimand is necessary, no further action will be taken.


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