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Friday, December 3, 2010


       This introduction to some exciting aspects in the field of social linguistics is designed to encourage you to read further. There are many fascinating and odd phenomena that occur in the social aspects of language.

       Sociolinguistics is a term including the aspects of linguistics applied toward the connections between language and society, and the way we use it in different social situations. It ranges from the study of the wide variety of dialects across a given region down to the analysis between the way men and women speak to one another. Sociolinguistics often shows us the humorous realities of human speech and how a dialect of a given language can often describe the age, sex, and social class of the speaker; it codes the social function of a language.

Social Factors


       When two people speak with one another, there is always more going on than just conveying a message. The language used by the participants is always influenced by a number of social factors which define the relationship between the participants. Consider, for example, a professor making a simple request of a student to close a classroom door to shut off the noise from the corridor. There are a number of ways this request can be made:
  1. Politely, in a moderate tone "Could you please close the door?"
  2. In a confused manner while shaking his/her head "Why aren't you shutting the door?"
  3. Shouting and pointing, "SHUT THE DOOR!"
       The most appropriate utterance for the situation would be a. The most inappropriate would be c. This statement humiliates the student, and provides no effort by the professor to respect him/her. Utterance b is awkward because it implies that the teacher automatically assumes that the student should know better than to leave the door open when there is noise in the hallway. The inappropriateness is a social decision tied to the social factors which shape the relationship between speaker ( the professor), and the listener (the student).
       When choosing an appropriate utterance for the situation, there are factors that you must consider in order to effectively convey the message to the other participant.
  1. Participants- how well do they know each other?
  2. Social setting- formal or informal
  3. Who is talking- status relationship/social roles ( student vs. professor)
  4. Aim or purpose of conversation
  5. Topic
       Do you notice that there is a difference in the way you speak to your friends and the way you speak to your relatives, teachers, or others of professional status?
When telling your friend that you like his/her shirt, you say:
"Hey, cool shirt, I like that!"
When telling the President of the company your parents work for that you like his/her shirt, you say:
"You look very nice today, I really like that shirt."
       This is called choosing your variety or code. This can also be seen on a larger scale, diglossia, where multilingual nations include a variety of accents, language styles, dialects and languages. Each of these factors is a reflection of the region and socio-economics background from which you come from. In monolingual societies, the region and socio-economic factors are determined by dialect and language style.
       It is not uncommon in our nation to see that languages other than English are spoken inside the home with friends and family. However when these bilingual or even trilingual families interact socially outside of their home, they will communicate in English. Even church services may use a variation of the language, one that you would only hear in side the church or in school. An example of the difference in the use of a language can be seen in the following example from Janet Holmes, "An Introduction to Sociolinguistics," of the two main languages used in Paraguay; Spanish and Guarani:
Planning a party
Humorous ancedote
Choosing the Sunday liturgy
Telling a story
Solving math problem
Getting an important license


Diglossia: In a bilingual community, in which two languages or dialects are used differently according to different social situations.
Janet Holmes defines diglossia as having three crucial features:
  1. In the same language, used in the same community, there are two distinct varieties. One is regarded as high (H) and the other low (L).
  2. Each is used for distinct functions.
  3. No one uses the high (H) in everyday conversation.
In the following example it is easy to tell which variety you will use given the social situations:
  • Telling a joke
  • Interviewing for a job
  • Giving a speech for a charity event
  • Giving a speech for a friend for his/her birthday
  • Church
  • Cafeteria




Can you guess what language this is?

These lines are taken from a famous comic strip in Papua New Guinea:
"Sapos yu kaikai planti pinat, bai yu kamap strong olsem phantom."
"Fantom, yu pren tru bilong mi. Inap yu ken helpim mi nau?"
"Fantom, em i go we?"
'If you eat plenty of peanuts, you will come up strong like the phantom.'
'Phantom, you are a true friend of mine. Are you able to help me now?'
1Where did he go?'
       A simplified language derived from two or more languages is called a pidgin. It is a contact language developed and used by people who do not share a common language in a given geographical area. It is used in a limited way and the structure is very simplistic. Since they serve a single simplistic purpose, they usually die out. However, if the pidgin is used long enough, it begins to evolve into a more rich language with a more complex structure and richer vocabulary. Once the pidgin has evolved and has acquired native speakers ( the children learn the pidgin as their first language), it is then called a Creole. An example of this is the Creole above from Papua New Guinea, Tok Pisin, which has become a National language.

Reasons for the development of Pidgins

       In the nineteenth century, when slaves from Africa were brought over to North America to work on the plantations, they were separated from the people of their community and mixed with people of various other communities, therefore they were unable to communicate with each other. The strategy behind this was so they couldn't come up with a plot to escape back to their land. Therefore, in order to finally communicate with their peers on the plantations, and with their bosses, they needed to form a language in which they could communicate. Pidgins also arose because of colonization. Prominent languages such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Dutch were the languages of the coloni zers. They traveled, and set up ports in coastal towns where shipping and trading routes were accessible.
       There is always a dominant language which contributes most of the vocabulary of the pidgin, this is called the superstrate language. The superstrate language from the Papua New Guinea Creole example above is English. The other minority languages that contribute to the pidgin are called the substrate languages.
       In the United States, there is a very well known Creole, Louisiana Creole, which is derived from French and African Languages. You most likely have heard of "Cajun" which is a developed dialect of this Creole.
       Can you guess what major language (the superstrate) contributed to the vocabulary in each of these Creoles? This table is taken from Janet Holmes, " An Introduction to Sociolinguistics":
a.  mo pe aste sa banan
b.  de bin alde luk dat big tri
c.  a waka go a wosu
d.  olmaan i kas-im chek
e.  li pote sa bay mo
f.  ja fruher wir bleiben
g.  dis smol swain i bin go fo maket
I am buying the banana
they always looked for a big tree
he walked home
the old man is cashing a check
he brought that for me
Yes at first we remained
this little pig went to market
  1. French based Seychelles Creole
  2. English based Roper River Creole
  3. English based Saran
  4. English based Cape York Creole
  5. French based Guyanais
  6. German based Papua New Guinea Pidgin German
  7. English based Cameroon Pidgin

       In everyday conversation, there are ways to go about getting the things we want. When we are with a group of friends, we can say to them, "Go get me that plate!", or "Shut-up!" However, when we are surrounded by a group of adults at a formal function, in which our parents are attending, we must say, "Could you please pass me that plate, if you don't mind?" and "I'm sorry, I don't mean to interrupt, but I am not able to hear the speaker in the front of the room." I different social situations, we are obligated to adjust our use of words to fit the occasion. It would seem socially unacceptable if the phrases above were reversed.
       According to Brown and Levinson, politeness strategies are developed in order to save the hearers' "face." Face refers to the respect that an individual has for him or herself, and maintaining that "self-esteem" in public or in private situations. Usually you try to avoid embarrassing the other person, or making them feel uncomfortable. Face Threatening Acts (FTA's) are acts that infringe on the hearers' need to maintain his/her self esteem, and be respected. Politeness strategies are developed for the main purpose of dealing with these FTA's. What would you do if you saw a cup of pens on your teacher's desk, and you wanted to use one, would you
  1. say, "Ooh, I want to use one of those!"
  2. say, "So, is it O.K. if I use one of those pens?"
  3. say, "I'm sorry to bother you but, I just wanted to ask you if I could use one of those pens?"
  4. Indirectly say, "Hmm, I sure could use a blue pen right now."
       There are four types of politeness strategies, described by Brown and Levinson, that sum up human "politeness" behavior: Bald On Record, Negative Politeness, Positive Politeness, and Off-Record-indirect strategy.
If you answered A, you used what is called the Bald On-Record strategy which provides no effort to minimize threats to your teachers' "face."
If you answered B, you used the Positive Politeness strategy. In this situation you recognize that your teacher has a desire to be respected. It also confirms that the relationship is friendly and expresses group reciprocity.
If you answered C, you used the Negative Politeness strategy which similar to Positive Politeness in that you recognize that they want to be respected however, you also assume that you are in some way imposing on them. Some other examples would be to say, "I don't want to bother you but..." or "I was wondering if ..."
If you answered D, you used Off-Record indirect strategies. The main purpose is to take some of the pressure off of you. You are trying not to directly impose by asking for a pen. Instead you would rather it be offered to you once the teacher realizes you need one, and you are looking to find one. A great example of this strategy is somethin g that almost everyone has done or will do when you have, on purpose, decided not to return someone's phone call, therefore you say, " I tried to call a hundred times, but there was never any answer."

Politeness and Gender

Are Women More Polite Than Men?

Politeness is defined by the concern for the feelings of others.
       From Nancy Bonvillain's "Language, Culture, and Communication" she notes that, "women typically use more polite speech than do men, characterized by a high frequency of honorific (showing respect for the person to whom you are talking to, formal stylistic markers), and softening devices such as hedges and questions."
       Sociolinguists try to explain why there is a greater frequency of the use of polite speech from women than from men. In our society it is socially acceptable for a man to be forward and direct his assertiveness to control the actions of others. However, society has devalued these speech patterns when it is utilized by women. From historical recurrence, it has appeared that women have had a secondary role in society relative to that of the male. Therefore, it has been (historically) expected from a women to "act like a lady" and "respect those around you." It reflects the role of the inferior status being expected to respect the superior. In Frank and Anshen's "Language and the Sexes", they note that boys, "are permitted, even encouraged, to talk rough, cultivate a deep "masculine" voice and, if they violate the norms of correct usage or of polite speech, well "boys will be boys," although, peculiarly, it is much less common that "girls will be girls" Fortunately, these roles are becoming more of a stereotype and less of a reality. However, the trend of expected polite speech from the female continues to remain. This is a prime example of how society plays an important part on the social function of the language.

Honorifics:    linguistic markers that signal respect to the person you are speaking to:
"Hey ma, fix my jacket"
Mom, could you please do me a favor, and fix my jacket?"
       In Japanese, according to Masa-aki Yamanashi, the appropriate choice of honorifics is based on complex rules evaluating addressee, referent, and entities or activities associated with either. Example taken from Nancy Bonvillain's "Language, Culture, and Communication."
1.   Without Honorific.
yamada ga musuko to syokuzi o tanosinda
yamada      son      dinner      enjoyed
"Yamada enjoyed dinner with his son."

2.   With Honorific.
yamada-san ga musuko-san to o-syokuzi o tanosim-are-ta
yamada-HON      son-HON      HON-dinner      enjoyed-HON
"Yamada enjoyed dinner with his son."

Hedges:    "loosely speaking", having a sense of "fuzziness" they take away assertiveness in your statements, soften the impact of your words or phrases such as " I was sort-of-wondering," "maybe if....," "I think that...."

" I sort-of-think that Hank is a bit of a mean person."

More Gender Speech Issues

Who Talks More, Men or Women?

       A common cultural stereotype describes women as being talkative, always speaking and expressing their feelings. Well, this is probably true, however, do women do it more than men? No! In fact an experiment designed to measure the amount of speech produced suggested that men are more prone to use up more talking time than women. An experiment b y Marjorie Swacker entailed using three pictures by a fifteenth century Flemish artist, Albrecht Durer which were presented to men and women separately. They were told to take as much time as they wanted to describe the pictures. The average time for males: 13.0 minutes, and the average time for women 3.17 minutes.

Why is this?

       Sociolinguists try to make the connection between our society and our language in a way that suggests that women talk less because it has not always been as culturally acceptable as it has been for men. Men have tended to take on a more dominant role not only in the household, but in the business world. This ever-changing concept is becoming le ss applicable in our society, however, the trend is still prominent in some societies across the world. It is more acceptable for a man to be talkative, carry on long conversation, or a give a long wordy speech, however it is less acceptable for a women to do so. It has been more of a historical trend for men have more rights to talk. However , it is common for men to be more silent in situations that require them to express emotion. Since childhood, they have been told to "keep their cool" and "remain calm, be a man."

Do Men and Women Really Speak Differently?

Can you tell who, most likely, is speaking?
"Wow what a beautiful home!"
"That outfit looks lovely on you!"
"Nice coat."
"Where can I find a pair of shoes like that, I like them."
"This is a super cool shirt, I love it."
"This shirt is cool."
       Sometimes comment like these may be extremely stereotypical, however it is easy for any one to identify who the speaker is. In English we laugh at these utterances, however in some languages there are gender-exclusive speech patterns for men and women respectively. It is not uncommon to see these speech patterns cross-culturally to linguistically the gender of the speaker. Edward Sapir documented such occurrences in Yana, an American Indian language, where there are distinct words that are used for men and women respectively.
Example taken from Janet Holmes, "An Introduction to Sociolinguistics"

   Sapir found that the male form of speech is used by men when talking to other men. Female speech is used by women talking to other women or men, or by men talking to women. Therefore, there is an exclusive speech pattern for men speaking to men.
There are also some examples of this in Japanese.
Example taken from Nancy Bonvillain's, "Language, Culture, and Communication"


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