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Language Society and Culture

Language Society and Culture



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21 Language, society and culture

When the anchorwoman Connie Chung was asked a fairly insensitive
question by anew co-worker about the relationship between her position as
an Asian-American woman and her rapid rise in the field, her response was

both pointed and humorous:" I pointed tot he senior vice president and
an nounced,'BiIII!kesthewayIdohisshirts."'
Regina Barreca(1991)
We have already noted that the way you speak may provide clues, in terms
of regional accent or dialect, to where you spent most of your early life.
However, your speech may also contain a number of features which are
unrelated to regional variation. TWo people growing up in the same geo-
graphical area, at the same time, may speak differently because of a number
of social factors. It is important not to overlook this social aspect of
language because, in many ways, speech is a form of social identity and is
used, consciously or unconsciously, to indicate membership of different
social groups or different speech communities. A speech community is a
group of people who share a set of norms, rules and expectations regarding
the use of language. Investigating language from this perspective is known
as Sociolinguistics.
In general terms, sociolinguistics deals with the inter-relationships between
language and society. It has strong connections to anthropology, through
the investigation of language and culture, and to sociology, through the
crucial role that language plays in the organization of social groups and
institutions. It is also tied to social psychology, particularly with regard to
how attitudes and perceptions are expressed and how in-group and
240T h e study of language
out- group b eh av iors are identif ied. A ll th ese connections are needed if w e
are to m ak e sense of w h at m igh t be described as ` social dialects' .
Social dialects
I n m odern studies of language v ariation, a great deal of care is tak en to doc-

um ent, usually v ia q uestionnaires, certain details of th e social b ack grounds of sp eak ers. I t is as a result of tak ing such details into account th at w e h av e b een ab le to m ak e a study of social dialects, w h ich are v arieties of language

used b y group s def ined according to class, education, age, sex , and a num b er
of oth er social param eters.
B ef ore ex ploring th ese f actors in detail, it is im portant to draw attention
to one p articular interaction b etw een social v alues and language use. T h e
concep t of ' p restige' , as f ound in discussions ab out language in use, is typ i-
cally understood in term s of ov ert p restige, th at is, th e generally recogniz ed
'better' or positively valued ways of speak ing in social com m unities. T h ere
is, however, an im portant phenom enon called covert prestige. T his'hidden'
typ e of p ositiv e v alue is of ten attach ed to non-standard f orm s and ex p res-
sions by certain sub-groups. M em bers of th ese sub-groups m ay place m uch
h igh er v alue on th e use of certain non- standard f orm s as m ark ers of social
solidarity. For ex am ple, sch oolboys everywh ere seem to attach covert
prestige to f orm s of ' bad' language ( sw earing and ' tough ' talk ) th at are not
sim ilarly valued in th e larger com m unity. I t is, neverth eless, with in th e larger
com m unity th at norm s and ex pectations are typically establish ed.
Social class and education
T w o ob v ious f actors in th e inv estigation of social dialect are social class and
education. I n som e dialect surv eys, it h as b een f ound th at, am ong th ose leav -
ing th e educational system at an early age, th ere is a greater tendency to use
f orm s wh ich are relatively inf req uent in th e speech of th ose wh o go on to
college. E x p ressions such as th ose contained inThem boys throwed some-
thin'are m uch m ore com m on in th e speech of th e f orm er group th an th e lat-
ter. I t seem s to be th e case th at a person w h o spends a long tim e going
th rough college or univ ersity w ill tend to h av e sp ok en language f eatures
wh ich derive from a lot of tim e spent work ing with th e written language.T h e
com plaint th at som e prof essor "talk s lik e a book " is possibly a recognition
of an extreme form of this influence.

T h e social classes also sound dif f erent. A f am ous study by Labov ( 19 7 2) com bined elem ents f rom place of occupation and socio-econom ic status by look ing at pronunciation dif f erences am ong salespeople in th ree N ew Y ork

Language, society and culture241
City departm ent stores, Sak s (h igh status), M acy's (m iddle status) and
Klein's (low status). Labov ask ed salespeople q uestions th at elicited th e
ex pressionfourth floor.He w as interested in th e p ronunciation ( or not) of
th e [ r] sound af ter vowels. T h ere was a regular pattern: th e h igh er th e socio-
econom ic status, th e m ore [ r] sounds, and th e low er th e socio- econom ic sta-
tus, th e f ew er [ r] sounds w ere p roduced. So, th e dif f erence in a single
consonant could m ark h igh er versuslowahsocial class. T h at was in N ew
I n R eading, England, T rudgill (1974) found that the sam e variable (i.e. [r]
af ter a vowel) h ad th e opposite social value. U pper m iddle class speak ers in
th at area tended to p ronounce f ew er [ r] sounds th an low er/ w ork ing class
speak ers. Y ou m ay h av e encountered indiv iduals w h o seem to h av e no [ r]
sound in "Isn't that m ahvellous, dahling!"
A ctually, a m ore stab le indication of low er class and less education,
th rough out th e English -speak ing world, is th e occurrence of [ n] rath er th an
[ 9 ] at th e end of words lik ewalkingandgoing.P ronunciations represented
bysittin'anddrinkin'are associated with lower social class.
Anoth er social m ark er is [h ]-dropping, wh ich results in'ouseand'ello.In
contem porary E nglish , th is is associated with lower social class and less edu-
cation. For Ch arles D ick ens, writing in th e m iddle of th e nineteenth -centu-
ry, itw as one w ay of m ark ing a ch aracter' s low er status, as in th is
example from Uriah Heep (inDavid Copperfield).
'/am well aware that/ am the umblest person going', said Uriah Heep, modest-
y; ' ...My mother is likewise a very umble person. We live in a numble abode,
Master Copperfeld, but we have much to be thankful for. My father's former
calling was umble.'
Age and gender
Even with in groups of th e sam e social class, h owever, oth er dif f erences can
b e f ound w h ich seem to correlate w ith f actors such as th e age or gender of
sp eak ers. M any younger sp eak ers liv ing in a p articular region of ten look at
th e results of a dialect surv ey of th eir area ( conducted m ainly w ith older
inf orm ants) and claim th at th eir grandparents m ay use th ose term s, but th ey
do not. Variation according to age is m ost noticeab le across th e grand-
p arent-grandch ild tim e sp an.
G randfath er m ay still talk about th eiceboxand th ewireless.He's unlikely
to know whatrules,wh at suck s, or wh at'stotally stoked,and he doesn't use
liketo introduce rep orted sp eech , as h is granddaugh ter m igh t do:We're get-
242The study of language
ting ready, and he's like, Let's go, and I'm like, No way I'm not ready, and he
splits anyway, the creep!
Variation according to the gender of the speaker has been the subject of a
lot of recent research. One general conclusion from dialect surveys is that
female speakers tend to use more prestigious forms than male speakers
with the same general social background. That is, forms such as Idone it, it
growedandhe ain'tcan be found more often in the speech of males, and Idid
it, it grewandhe isn'tin the speech of females.
In some cultures, there are much more marked differences between male
and female speech. Quite different pronunciations of certain words in male
and female speech have been documented in some North American Indian
languages such as Gros Ventre and Koasati. Indeed, when Europeans first
encountered the different vocabularies of male and female speech among
the Carib Indians, they reported that the different sexes used different lan-
guages. What had, in fact, been found was an extreme version of variation
according to the gender of the speaker.
In contemporary English, there are many reported differences in the talk
of males and females. In same gender pairs having conversations, women
generally discuss their personal feelings more than men. Men appear to pre-
fer non-personal topics such as sport and news. Men tend to respond to an
expression of feelings or problems by giving advice on solutions, while
women are more likely to mention personal experiences that match or con-
nect with the other woman's. There is a pattern documented in American
English social contexts of women co-operating and seeking connection via
language, whereas men are more competitive and concerned with power via
language. In mixed-gender pairs having conversations, the rate of men
interrupting women is substantially greater than the reverse. Women are
reported to use more expressions associated with tentativeness, such as
`hedges'(sortof,kind of) and `tags'(isn't it?, don't you?),when expressing
an opinion:Well, em, I think that golf is kind of boring, don't you?
There have been noticeable changes in English vocabulary (e.g.
spokesperson, mail carrierinstead ofspokesman, mailman)as part of an
attempt to eliminate gender bias in general terms, but the dilemma of the
singular pronoun persists. Isa friendto be referred to ashe or she, s/he, or
eventheyin sentences like:Bring a friend if
can come.In some con-
texts it appears thattheyis emerging as the preferred term (but you can be
sure that somebody will complain thattheydon't like it!).
Language, society and culture243
Eth nic back ground
In the quote that introduces this chapter, both the gender and the ethnicity
of an individual are alluded to. The humorous response plays on the stereo-
typed image of how a female member of one ethnic minority might succeed
in society. In a more serious way, we can observe that, within any society, dif-
ferences in speech may come about because of different ethnic back-
grounds. In very obvious ways, the speech of recent immigrants, and often of
their children, will contain identifying features. In some areas, where there
is strong language loyalty to the original language of the group, a large num-
ber of features are carried over into the new language.
More generally, the speech of many African-Americans, technically
known as Black English Vernacular (BEV), is a widespread social dialect,
often cutting across regional differences. When a group within a society
undergoes some form of social isolation, such as the discrimination or seg-
regation experienced historically by African-Americans, then social dialect
differences become more marked. The accompanying problem, from a
social point of view, is that the resulting variety of speech may be stigma-
tized as "bad speech". One example is the frequent absence of the copula
(forms of the verb `to be') in BEV, as in expressions likeThey mineor You
crazy.Standard English requires that the verb formarebe used in such
expressions. However, many other English dialects do not use the copula in
such structures and a very large number of languages (e.g. Arabic, Russian)
have similar structures without the copula. BEV, in this respect, cannot be
"bad" any more than Russian is "bad" or Arabic is "bad".As a dialect, it sim-
ply has features which are consistently different from the Standard.
Another aspect of BEV which has been criticized, sometimes by educa-
tors, is the use of double negative constructions, as inHe don't know nothing
or Iain't afraid of no ghosts.The criticism is usually that such structures are
`illogical'. If that is so, then French, which typically employs a two-part neg-
ative form, as exemplified by ilNE sait RIEN(`he doesn't know anything'),
and Old English, also with a double negative, as in IcNAHT singan NE cuoe
(`Ididn't know how to sing'), must be viewed as equally `illogical'. In fact, far
from being illogical, this type of structure provides a very effective means of
emphasizing the negative part of a message in this dialect. It is basically a
dialect feature, present in one social dialect of English, sometimes found in
other dialects, but not in the Standard Language.

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