Print Project Proposal: History of the Language of Queerness

They way we talk about some subject reveals plenty about the subject, but in some ways it reveals more about the people speaking about the subject.  The framework in which some topic is broached, the context in which a conversation takes place, will place that topic in the context of the larger cultural reasoning as defined by rules; both written laws and unwritten social cues.

Inspired by Guldi’s The History of Walking and the Digital Turn; Stride and Lounge in London, 1808-1851, I propose to use Google Books NGram Viewer and the Time Magazine Corpus in order to study the language of queerness and the contexts in which those words have been used.  There are a few phases of recent queer history, including a period in which the topic was a cultural taboo, one in which queerness was considered a medical disorder and was spoken of clinically, and more recently language has been more accepting of queerness.  In order to do this, I will use Google Books NGram Viewer to see when each word for queerness (ex; bisexual, faggot, dyke, queer, poof, faerie, lesbian, etc…) has become most popular, the duration of its popularity, and the moment when it began to decline in popularity.  These results will be compared to moments of legislation relating to queerness (ex; legalization of gay marriage, stonewall, legalization of queer adoption, etc…) in order to gage whether laws and legal actions had an effect on social practices or if social practices had an effect on laws and legal actions.  In order to make sure the ways in which I understand the words’ meanings align with the users’ intentions, I will use Time Magazine Corpus to gain context for the ways in which these words were used over time.

In addition to the main question of legality following social cues or social cues following legality, there are a couple of other questions which can be explored.  While that first question relies on a study of each word’s popularity and decline in popularity, it is also worth looking at the frequently about which this topic has been spoken.  With gaining acceptance towards queer folks and increased visibility, the use of queer words as a whole has increased, yet the question remains when, exactly, those increases happened and in response to what?

Thirdly, and most reliant on a contextual element, I will see which other social factors have an effect on language surrounding queerness.  Already mentioned are laws and time, but social class, race, gender, and personal politics will also have an impact on the which words one uses and how those words are used.  Admittedly, this third question will be the most time consuming and difficult to research and given the time constraints of this class it may be too large a project.  Yet, it can be done and it would be interesting to see the results of this work.

Language is the material through which we build and understand our reality.  Identity is lens through which we view and understand ourselves and others.  Therefore, understanding the way we do speak and have spoken about a group of people can reveal how our ideas and concepts of that group have changed over time and can reveal our history of prejudice and acceptance.

2 Replies to “Print Project Proposal: History of the Language of Queerness”

  1. Chloe,

    I think you have an incredible idea here. I wonder as well if there are terms we no longer use at all, terms that have gone extinct. For example, I took a course in undergrad concerning gender and sexuality in the middle ages. I learned the term “shield jousting” from an English scholar of the time. I actually took a lot of dirty jokes from the time and turned them into a play. They’re hilarious:

    I also wonder how closely changes in the popularity of terms will correspond to laws and legislation. The study concerns queerness becoming more visible, and you’ll be looking at the corpus of textual documents that Google Ngram looks at. Those books will consist of a lot of different works. What I wonder then, is not if the language of queerness is altered by legislation, but to what degree it is altered by pop culture. Is there a corresponding shift in queer language after Will & Grace comes out? Do people say faggot less after Philadelphia comes out? Or more after History of the World, Part 1? I think using that angle of comparison has the potential to provide interesting insights into how pop culture affects the language we use, and perhaps our perception of the world.
    Again, great idea! I hope this is the one you stick with for the final, I’d love to see the results.

  2. This is a really neat concept for a project. The ways that queerness has been named over time is a great potential area for using something like the Google Books and Time Magazine Corpus.

    A few thoughts on this if you did end up doing this as your project. First off, I think it would be ideal to go and dig through a lot of the history of terminology that is in play here. Even this wikipedia entry could be a good spring board for helping to identify a lot of different terms to work through -> I imagine you can find some good literature on the history of the language of sexuality that could be useful here.

    Another challenge in this area is that you are going to have terms which have changed over time, so to some extent the graphs that result from this kind of work are going to often be mapping changing usage of the term over time. That in and of itself is interesting.

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