Walking texts

June 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

Recently I have found myself reflecting on language used in one place we are all familiar with but perhaps don’t really notice so much. That is, the messages written on clothing. When we have such items, we are faced with a choice as to whether to wear them in public places or whether they are the kind of thing we will only wear in private spheres. Choosing to go out into the world with words emblazoned on your person therefore seems like a powerful way of presenting a message.

Two examples have brought this home to me recently. A few days ago I was crossing the concourse in the middle of the university when I saw a young man walking past in a hoody with the message: “Born here.” on the front. A brief glance suggested that the wearer was Pākehā, though that was of course just a guess. But it occurred to me that the message would be very different – and may represent very different intents – if it were worn by a NZ Māori, or by a NZ Chinese person, for example. I also found the use of the full stop at the end of the message interesting and unusual. It seemed to convey an intent to close off discussion, to label this aspect of identity as not open to investigation as to what it’s meaning might be … do you think?

And this echoed another incident I’d seen a few weeks earlier at the local supermarket, where this very public context seemed very much part of the message to be conveyed. Two men were there with … guess what … closely shaven heads, wearing brand new black sweatshirts with a message in bright white lettering down the sleeves: WHITE POWER. When they had gone through the checkout, one of them strutted back through and went up very close to another man waiting in the queue who looked as if he was of Pacifika heritage, thrust his face towards him and said “What are you staring at?” The man in the queue shrugged it off and the incident came to nothing. But what I found interesting was that the choice to wear such a garment in a public place is obviously an invitation to confrontation, but because of its apparent passive position on his sleeve, he was trying to represent that confrontation as being provoked by the audience rather than himself. It represented an interesting illustration of the relationship between social discourse and potential social action in a more physical sense.

On the other hand, a Korean student in one of my classes has multiple garments with words expressing positive sentiments listed in rather random ways: peace, tranquillity, bless … Another Korean student suggests to me that we see text in other languages as more about image than meaning (who knows what all those Chinese character say?).

That’s the thing about an interest in linguistics! You can take it with you wherever you go. Look what you can come up with just walking down the street.

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