Research Seminar: 12 November 2015, Jim O’Driscoll on Taboo Speech

Dr Jim O’Driscoll (University of Huddersfield) will be presenting his paper, Taboo speech and causing offence: why they need to be kept separate’, at 2:00 pm, Thursday 12 November 2015. The seminar will take place at the City Campus of the University of Wolverhampton, Room MA112.


It is fairly easy to demonstrate that (1) utterances deemed transgressive of polite societal norms (taboo speech) and (2) utterances experienced as insulting or hurtful to interlocutors (causing offence) are two different things. Indeed, it can be shown that the articulation of lexical items deemed transgressive by virtue of that articulation alone (taboo language), talking about subject-matter deemed unsuitable for polite discourse (taboo reference) and expressing opinions which starkly conflict with existing consensus (taboo predication) are in principle all distinct phenomena.

Free SpeechGiven these distinctions, the question then arises as to how taboo speech has such heavy potential to cause offence – offence which is sometimes great enough to incur legal sanction. I suggest that the answer can be found in the Goffmanian (1967) concept of face as developed by Brown & Levinson (1987) and revised by O’Driscoll (1996, 2007).

An awareness of the distinctness of how (much) offence is caused is not merely of analytical importance. It has implications for the preservation of free speech in 21st-century society. To illustrate, this talk finishes by examining two examples of (potential) offence involving substantive negative consequences for the offender: one item in an on-line workplace training concerning the telling of a joke which ‘might give offence’ and the Robin Hood airport ‘twitter trial’.

About the Speaker:

JOJim O’Driscoll teaches in Linguistics and Modern Languages at the University of Huddersfield. His research interests and publications are informed by first-hand experience of the use of many different languages and environments, an awareness of the variety which exists and the need for us all to understand each other better in a globalised world. They straddle several aspects of language-in-situated-use, more particularly how this affects, and is affected by, the world we live in (sociolinguistics) and what meanings and interpersonal effects are achieved through it (pragmatics). Present foci include language ideology (in particular the metaphors which we use to talk about languages and how these shape our language and social attitudes); English as a global language (in particular the notion of English as Tyrannosaurus Rex); the concept of face (in particular the need to refine it as a means of exploring the interplay between situational and cross-cultural factors in interaction); and the application of linguistic insights and methodologies to conflict resolution (in particular the application of Goffman ‘s architecture of interaction to this endeavour).

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