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An Inspector Calls - Language

Test your knowledge of language in this GCSE English Literature on J. B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls.

An Inspector Calls by JB Priestley is a text of its time. Its language is that of the 1910s and 1940s. Many characters speak in a way that sounds deeply old-fashioned now. Not only would you not hear anyone speak quite as Mr and Mrs Birling do, but you will also find that politics, too, is now expressed in a language very different from that of this play. Yet this does not mean that the same or similar issues are not discussed today.

Beyond the sometimes old-fashioned dialogue, however, language choices give us constant clues in the text.

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We know quite a bit about Mr Birling when he speaks in glowing terms about his optimistic outlook on the future, drawing upon contemporary descriptions of the Titanic. Mr and Mrs Birling’s use of language infantilises their daughter and son and demonstrates both their patronising attitudes and also their unwillingness to change. The older generation’s resistance to change is one of the most important themes of the play. This is one example of the way that language accomplishes many tasks at once.

Analysing language in a text

Although visual elements, such as illustration, layout and details like choice of font, affect your understanding and interpretation of a text, the primary medium through which meaning is conveyed is that of language. Without words, there would be no text.

Authors choose the language that they use carefully. Each word has its literal meaning, of course, but usually also has a weight of symbolic meanings and other associations. Language can convey literary effects through the use of imagery, such as metaphor, simile and personification. Dialogue, setting and characterisation all rely on language.

Paying close attention to language choices in a text adds depth to your understanding. Much of the meaning of a text does not exist at the surface-level of the literal. Dig deeper and see what treasures you can find!

Answer the questions below about An Inspector Calls to develop your understanding of the way language choices affect our interpretation of a text.

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  1. The Inspector explains to Sheila the importance to manufacturing of having plenty of poor young girls like Eva Smith available as "cheap labour". Why does Sheila object to his use of language?
    By choosing this phrase, the Inspector demonstrates the inhumanity of Mr Birling's attitudes. Using "labour" to refer to people who work is an example of metonymy
  2. When Sheila discovers her own part in the tragic fate of Eva Smith, she cries out, "Oh - why had this to happen?" What does her rhetorical question imply?
    Sheila's use of a passive phrase suggests that she does not fully understand or accept her own role in Eva Smith's terrible death
  3. Mrs Birling describes Eva Smith's explanation of her situation to the committee as a "claim". What does she imply by the use of this word?
    By describing appeals for help as "claims", Mrs Birling portrays applicants as demanding. In using the word to explain why she turned Eva Smith down, she also refers to her belief that the young woman's story was full of lies
  4. Near the end of the play, Mrs Birling says of Eric and Sheila, "They're over-tired. In the morning they will be as amused as we are." What is suggested by her use of the term "over-tired"?
    Mrs Birling returns to her condescending language. In addition, her remark that "they'll be as amused as we are" distances her son and daughter from herself and her husband, who behave as adults in her view
  5. Which of the following evokes final judgement and violent revolution?
    The Inspector first uses these words in warning what will come if people like the Birlings and Gerald do not change the way they treat others. Sheila later repeats his phrase
  6. Which of the following words is used in the stage directions for the Inspector's speech?
    The Inspector speaks calmly, but with authority
  7. Eric describes Eva Smith as a "good sport". He contrasts her with the other women around town, whom he describes as...
    Both Gerald and Eric describe Eva as different from the prostitutes (the "tarts" and "women of the town") because she is still pretty and pleasant, and, in Gerald's words, "fresh"
  8. Mr Birling describes himself as a "hard-headed practical" business man. Which of his language choices below best demonstrates this view of himself?
    Mr Birling likes to speak in a no-nonsense manner, although this escapes him at times when he is excited or disturbed
  9. Gerald admits to his affair with Daisy Renton, but tells Sheila that he has nothing to do with "this suicide business". What is the effect of his choice of language?
    Gerald is speaking in his typical fashion as a young gentleman. The effect in this sentence is jarring and emphasises his wish not to share any guilt in the death of the young woman
  10. Mrs Birling greets the Inspector with, "I'm Mrs Birling, y'know." What does she intend to convey with her speech?
    She continues in this manner by telling the Inspector that the family will not be able to help him much. She does not believe that the Inspector could possibly impose on her well-respected family

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