CCHU9053 Arts and Humanities
Contested Words, Disputed Symbols

This course is under the thematic cluster of:

  • Sustaining Cities, Cultures, and the Earth (SCCE)
  • Gender, Sexuality, and Diversity (GSD)

Course Description

Words and symbols, as two indispensable kinds of signs created and maintained for human communication, are often the subject of profound controversy. To explore how contestable these signs are, we can delve into several essential questions: What is the nature of words/symbols/signs? How do we identify them and prolong their identity (enough for us to recount and argue about the ‘same word’/‘same symbol’)? How do they mean – with reference to an ontological reality, or not at all? Based on the answers to the above, how do we strike a balance between the determinacy of words and symbols needed for stabilization, equality and fairness, correctness, etc., and the indeterminacy of these signs for creativity and the freedom to express oneself?

These are questions we will address and rethink over and over again as we dive into the multitude of discourses in which we find something about words or symbols disputable – discourses such as law, science, gender, race, linguistics, digital communication, etc. By analyzing such disputes, we will realize that they are merely manifestations of an essential nature of language and communication, and come to reflect on people’s communicative strategies and reflexivity, the sources of authority to which they appeal and the types of identity/power positions they take. At stake in such disputes include but are not limited to people’s freedom of expression, their own voice in society, the control and censorship of the public sphere, the boundary between lay and non-lay discourse, the ownership of symbols and words, and the right to control their origin, use and/or interpretation.

Course Learning Outcomes

On completing the course, students will be able to:

  1. Identify and describe the ways in which words and symbols are contestable.
  2. Understand the personal, socio-cultural, and circumstantial factors that shape disputes over words and symbols.
  3. Apply basic research skills and develop an appreciation of the role and status of different kinds of sources (blogs, media reports, discussion forums, historical texts, secondary literature), including referencing and citation conventions.
  4. Analyze critically the reflexivity of language, the linguistic arguments, communicative strategies, and ideologies involved in word/symbol disputes.
  5. Identify a case study of a word/symbol dispute and analyze its origins, development and the underlying issues at stake.

Offer Semester and Day of Teaching

First semester (Wed)

Study Load

Activities Number of hours
Lectures 24
Tutorials 8
Reading / Self-study 80
Assessment: Essay / Report writing 15
Assessment: Presentation (incl preparation) 15
Total: 142

Assessment: 100% coursework

Assessment Tasks Weighting
Participation in tutorial discussions 20
Project presentation 40
Final paper 40

Required Reading


  • Harris, R. (2009). Integrationist notes and papers 2006-2008. Gamlingay: Bright Pen. [Chap. 25 “The integrational conception of the sign” (pp.61-81)]


What’s a word? A symbol? A sign?

  • Davis, H. G. (2011). Words: an integrational approach. London & New York: Routledge. [Chap. 1 “The orientation of linguistic theory” (pp.1-19)]


Unstable words? (In)determinacy in form and meaning

  • Harris, R. & Hutton, C. (2014). Definition in theory and practice. London & New York: Bloomsbury. [Chap. 2 “On definition and common usage” (pp.23-24), Chap. 3 “On real definition” (pp.46-48), Chap. 11 “Definition, indeterminacy and reference” (pp. 200-215 or till 223)]


Political correctness = linguistic correctness?


Taboo words – should they be eradicated?

  • Allan, K. (2015). When is a slur not a slur? The use of nigger in ‘Pulp Fiction’. Language Sciences, 52(2015), 187-199.
  • Domínguez, P. J. C. (2009). Linguistic interdiction: its status quaestionis and possible future research lines. Language Sciences, 31(2009), 428-466.
  • Zhu, M. (2017, October 27). All the times people have called me ‘chink’ to my face: a case-by-case history. Vice. From


One does not simply meme

  • Duncker, D. (2019). The reflexivity of language and linguistic inquiry. London & New York: Routledge. [Chap. 3 “Linguistic inquiry” (pp.98-105)]
  • Pettis, B. T. (2022). Know Your Meme and the homogenization of web history. Internet Histories, 6(3), 263-279.
  • {Supplementary} Wiggins, B. E. (2019). The discursive power of memes in digital culture. London & New York: Routledge. [Chap. 1 “Dawkins revisited” (pp.1-20)]


‘Urban dictionary it’ – neologisms vs standard lexicography

  • Seargeant, P. (2011). Lexicography as a philosophy of language. Language Sciences, 33(2011), 1-10.
  • Smith, R. E. (2011). Urban dictionary: youth slanguage and the redefining of definition. English Today, 27(4), 43-48.


‘Just keep adding new Englishes to the mix’ – World Englishes, Hong Kong English

  • Davis, H. G. (2002). The language myth and standard English. In R. Harris (ed.), The language myth in western culture (pp.41-54). London: Curzon.
  • Hansen Edwards, J. G. (2016). The politics of language and identity: attitudes towards Hong Kong English pre and post the Umbrella Movement. Asian Englishes, 2331-2548.


Words and images with humans?

Course Co-ordinator and Teacher(s)

Course Co-ordinator Contact
Dr S.M.K. Kwok
School of English, Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 7281
Teacher(s) Contact
Dr S.M.K. Kwok
School of English, Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 7281