Friday 16 August 2019

Q. How do you address your father?

A. Sir!
I've looked with a jaundiced eye at Douglas Hofstadter and all his Gödels works. But an essay of his, on how language embeds sexism and inequality, triggered some interesting discussion on MeFi. Sometimes you have to move the goalposts to make people actually look at themselves and their certainties. I was sitting in her garden a couple of weeks ago with The Girl Who Invented Herself TGWIH. Of almost everyone I know, she gets the most cross when she encounters discrimination and unfairness. She doesn't live in Ireland at the moment but is VP AsiaPac for a multinational in Singapore. I forget the details but she was getting indignant at how the government (largely representing the people of Ireland) keeps migrants and asylum-seekers in disempowering and punitive conditions for years while their cases dither and shuffle through the legalities. She seemed to be saying that she'd be delighted to have a Syrian gynaecologist or a Yazidi metal-worker living next door, if not exactly renting the spare room in her Irish home. I confessed that, knowing nothing-at-all about the community engagement of the average Yazidi, I'd be suspicious if not quite hostile if the one vacant council house in our townland was given to a family of Travellers. And I invited TGWIH to agree that she's feel the same, if push came to shove.  That grain of doubt didn't develop into a pearl of wisdom but I thought it was valuable to look closely at our true, uncovered reactions to The Other.

What Hofstadter did in his cited essay was transpose our view of oppressed women with oppressed blacks and see how smug the standard liberal-leaning  PC reader was then:
Quote: Most of the clamor, as you certainly know by now, revolves around the age-old usage of the noun "white" and words built from it, such as chairwhite, mailwhite, repairwhite, clergywhite, middlewhite, Frenchwhite, forewhite, whitepower, whiteslaughter, oneupuwhiteship, straw white, whitehandle, and so on.UnQuote  The MeFi commentary went round the houses and down the street as readers teased out some of the threads in the original essay and struck a few sparks off each other: quoting Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex etc etc.

Reflecting on how language enforces the trappings of power, Sideshow, a youngish patriarch, moaned gently "My 8 year old daughter even threw a "Hey bruh..." at me (her 38 year old father) the other day. I'm a pretty casual dad, but I had to draw the line there. "  Not me, I answer to pretty much anything if I can hear it properly [increasingly doubtful] and intention is clear: Sir, Pops, Bob, Shonks, have all worked in the recent past.

Lollusc reacted to that with far more enthusiasm than anyone else:  OMG that is so exciting (to me, and probably only to me and like five other people in the world who research kinship systems). There's a phenomenon in some languages of the world called "Crow skewing" (named after the Crow language, for which it was first described). It's where people call their cousin by the same term as they call their father or mother, i.e. they would call their cousin "dad" or their dad "cuz". The principle is basically (terminologically) treating people in your own generation and people in the generation above you the same. It's pretty cool and NO ONE REALLY KNOWS HOW IT ORIGINATES. There's quite a bit of speculation. But calling your dad "bruh" is absolutely how this kind of thing could start. "Bruh" being a term of general friendly affection, but ultimately derived from "bro" < "brother". And then it loses its association with one's actual brother, and gradually loses the "same approx age" requirement, and voila! 

Later on ReclusiveNovelistThomasPynchon added 2c worth: the thing i love about sideshow's daughter's use of bruh is the egalitarian, or at least anti-hierarchical, sentiment it seems to embody. sort of like, "yeah sure bruh, you're a generation up from me, don't make such a deal of it." i believe it's the egalitarian aspect of it that sideshow objects to so strongly. i'm so glad that it's apparently a semi-common linguistic phenomenon. parents get hung up on weird things.

I love it: Crow skewing is so random and outré, that Lollusc is going to have very few places where s/he can share this deep knowledge of the human condition. With so many different ways of communicating with each other with truth and respect, it seems a pity that we too often trash talk instead. Here's a test. From the language and expressed sentiments, what sex do you reckon Lollusc is?


  1. Fintan O'Toole calls it multi-layering of identity. Therefore the person next door might be a different colour or nationality, but it is extremely possible to find another identity that we have in common. It is actually good to acknowledge the instinctive bias we have because then we can actually work through the reasons why and come out the other side. I think must of us have been treated as an 'other' and being disparaged because of an identity which is thrust upon us. The onus is on each person to challenge those biases and see the person beyond the identity which causes us disquiet. Also it is important when thinking about this to take into account context and history of that identity. Many unmarried mothers 40 years ago would not have been rented a room in a house of a respectable family, in some cases that bias still stands. One bias can't be more applicable than other.
    Now go put a notice in the local supermarket for a room to rent for a Syrian gynie, we have enough women in the family to make that very handy (see what I did there).