Using language in our social lives

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When most people meet a linguist, they wonder how many languages ​​they speak. While a sense of the word linguist is someone who is fluent in a multitude of languages, most people who study linguistics focus more on the cognitive and physiological architecture that underlies all languages, rather than being linguistic scholars.

Linguists, in their quest to understand how and in what ways languages ​​differ, examine things like why some languages ​​(for example, Inuktitut) have a legion of word endings while others, like Chinese, do not. do not have any. Such questions are crucial to understanding the larger question of what our internal wiring looks like for language and how it has spawned so many distinct types over time.

But, as the field of language research began to assert itself as an area of ​​scientific inquiry, it was only a matter of time until it became apparent that in order to truly understand the language, we had to look at how it was anchored not only in our brain. but also in our societies.

For example, why do younger and older speakers say things so differently? How could American English and Australian English come from the same source dialects but produce bros, gals, mates and sheilas that are not alike? And, a very relevant question to modern discussions of gender and race discrimination, how come we make assumptions about things like someone’s gender or ethnicity just by hearing their voice ?

Enter sociolinguistics

Answering such questions required a better understanding of how the language gives us clues about the identity of the speakers who use it. Earlier narratives of language have focused on reconstructing earlier forms of language, assuming that all changes can be explained by regular linguistic principles.

However, while over time the changes may appear orderly and structured, living speakers have used varying forms at different times and places, often in a chaotic or haphazard way. Explaining the day-to-day use of the language by real speakers was a very different matter than examining the patterns of language development over time.

But three linguists working at Columbia in New York in the 1960s, Uriel Weinreich, William Labov, and Marvin Herzog, saw promise in examining more deeply how social motivations interact with linguistic motivations.

They suggested that the change of language arose not only from linguistic contact, such as that between French and English after the Norman Conquest, or from natural processes such as the modification of stress patterns leading to the loss of final word endings, but because of how these factors are influenced by the social structures, groups and socio-historical events in which they are embedded.

Island life

As an example, Bill Labov, one of the study’s authors and founder of the field of sociolinguistics, highlighted the findings of his 1961 research on the small island of Martha’s Vineyard, off the north coast. is from the United States, where some very distinctive vowels of the variants could be heard.

Martha’s Vineyard

Source: Kate Honish / Pixabay

Martha’s Vineyard has long been built on an economy of farming and fishing, but from the 1950s and 1960s the island became an increasingly popular vacation destination for wealthy tourists. As tourism began to take hold of their local economy, this influx from the mainland was seen, especially by those who had made a living as fishmongers, as an incursion and a threat to their traditional way of life.

Labov interviewed many original families on the island, finding that the fisherman who lived on the island, where a more rural and traditional way of life still dominated, tended to use an older form of vowel in words. like “sound” or “about, so they sound more like “seund” or “aboot.” This was the opposite of the pattern on the mainland and among younger speakers who were planning to leave the island, where the more typical modern pronunciation had become the norm.

Middle-aged speakers who lived on the island, especially those who shared the view that tourists had an impact on their traditional way of life and lifestyle, had also started adopting this unique pronunciation of vowels. as a marker of what it means to be a true “Islander”. “

In short, by using older and more traditional vowels, these speakers have shown verbal resistance to the incursion of outsiders and the loss of traditional occupations and values. The use of this local norm aligned with the attitudes of the speakers towards the social and economic changes underway in their community.

What this study showed was that language contact, physiology, and historical developments alone could not explain why speech on Martha’s Vineyard developed as it did. Although the seeds of signature pronunciations in words like “toide” (tide) and “heus” (house) may have been planted by earlier settlers, the resurgence of these forms, especially among only one specific group of speakers, was deeply engaged with the lifestyles of the island’s inhabitants and the perceived threat they perceived from outside forces.

A deep link between the linguistic and the social

In other words, only by understanding the language in its social context could the sound changes on the island be understood. This study has been found to be fundamental in the field of modern sociolinguistics and has shed light on the extent to which language change is linked to social triggers.

While it may not be surprising that catastrophic events like colonization, wars, and resettlement can change the course of language, sociolinguistic studies like that of Martha’s Vineyard illustrate much more subtle differences – things like what we do for a living or our ethnicity -can have an equally important impact on shaping our language choices and influence the way others perceive us. And, in fact, much sociolinguistic work since then has again proven that social sense is a crucial part of what motivates not only what we say, but, more importantly, how we say it.


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