Describe the types of variations in language we get with social groups, and what do
these variations tell us about (i) language and (ii) people who exhibit these variations.
For the purposes of this essay I have taken ‘social group’ to mean any group, however large or small, that shares a common way of using language. Language varies from group to group and from time to time for a number of reasons. It is a means of marking inclusion in a group both for the members and exclusion of those outside it. For instance a native of Newcastle will be easily recognisable both to people from that city and those from elsewhere in the United Kingdom. This applies to any other dialect, accent or choice of words and just as regional variation in accent or dialect can place us in the world geographically, so our use of language can be used to place us society in the ‘Who are you?’ sense rather than the ‘Where do you come from?’ sense.
According to David Crystal (1995) page 379
It is difficult, after moving from one part of a country to another, to
change our accent or dialect so as to identify with our new neighbours
and, should we wish to do so, it is even more difficult to change the
linguistic indicators of our social background.
Yet the same person may have many different roles in society – husband, father, political activist, tabloid reader, churchman etc may all apply to one person and if we consider that person at different stage of their life the list increases. Certain language may belong to a particular area of our lives , such as the world of work – and so we apologise for ‘talking shop’ at a social gathering where a rather different kind of conversation is the norm. Our adoption of a particular role in society such as chairing a council meeting or preaching a sermon involves for most of us a shift in the type of language we choose to use. There have been those who have managed to do this on a permanent basis almost instantaneously a when a well known broadcaster went away to university and realised on the first day that her broad accent would not fit in. She instantly acquired a more standard way of speaking which has been maintained.
Another consideration is that not all communication is verbal. According to Kevin Mansell on his website Seapaddler.co.uk (2007) only 7% of communication is verbal, 38% is tone, volume and tempo and the rest is by non-verbal signals.
We may use language in a different way depending upon the person we are trying to communicate with. For instance a mother talking to a tiny baby may well use baby talk, speak to an older child in more or less standard English and speak to her elderly immigrant grandmother in the language of another country, followed by addressing the local clergyman in quite formal language, and all this could take place in a few minutes. If she has an essay to write she may use rather different more formal language. ‘In Describing Language’ Graddol et al (1994) describe the many differences between speech and written language, p192ff. The same process applies to a child from a minority, subordinate or immigrant group who uses one language at home and another at school. According to the kidscource website ( 2007) the American census of 1990 said that one in seven Americans speak a language other than English at home. This can lead to anomalies as when a child can read in one language but be unable to do so in the language of his home. It may well be that if the child is eventually to succeed in the wider society he needs to be skilled in the majority language, but what does it say about the perceived status of his mother tongue and his particular people?
One of the main reasons for differences may be simply geographical. In the musical film ‘My Fair Lady’, Cukor (1964), the phoneticist Professor Higgins claims to be able to place someone to within a few streets depending upon their pronunciation. The story is of a Cockney flower girl whom he believes he can, with the correct tuition, pass off as a lady by changing her use of language, and we all remember those tortured repetitions of ‘The rain in Spain ‘ and ‘How now brown cow?’ Whether or not he was right to value one kind of speech over another the fact remains that for most of us our accent belongs to a particular place. In England’s Black Country or in the villages around the Tyne river similar exactness of geological origin can be practised due to slight localised variation. And not only can others tell where we come from they can tell our status in society, our political or religious beliefs and leanings and our profession or level of education as well as many other things, and so place us in society from the way we speak.
Depending upon communication and transport methods language can jump as when for instance English became established in northern America, Australiaand South Africa. On a much smaller scale a new word in London is likely to turn up in another major town such as Oxford before it reaches the intervening villages. This is because people who travel from London to Oxford are unlikely to stop at little villages and the people from such places are somewhat less likely to travel to London than someone from Oxford might. In days of slower means of transport this wouldn’t happen in the same way.
For reasons of distance the everyday language of an American, an Australian and an Englishman will vary in content in part because of their distance apart. There will have been changes in each group’s language over time, that haven’t happened in other groups. There is also the fact that each group have in their environment things that don’t exist elsewhere – the marsupials of Australia, the flora of America, the birds of England. Their geographical separateness also means that each of these groups was influenced by different languages – for example the Australians by Aboriginal words, the Americans by the Hispanic peoples as well as native Americans, Flexner S. and Soukhanov,A.(1997) page 20, and in the United Kingdom the incoming of people from the Indian subcontinent and those from other waves of migration. South African English is of course influenced by locally used languages including the Dutch of the Boors. Language patterns may reflect patterns of immigration. The early settlers in Australiacame in the main from the lower classes of London and Ireland and this is still reflected in modern Australian usage. Something similar happened in Newfoundland, where the language used is known locally as the Rock. It is different from that in the rest of Canada because the area was settled mainly by folk from south west England and south eastern Ireland. According to Crystal, page 343, because of its relatively isolated position both geographically and politically it has preserved many original dialect forms. In 1949 it became a province of Canada and so links with Great Britain are gradually weakening, while those with the rest of the country grow. This will have an increasing effect on the language used.
Another reason may be a felt need to be different. According to the Noah Webster web page (2007) he came of age during the American Revolution. He thought that English spelling was inconsistent and also resented the fact that school text books in his time were entirely English. When he wrote his American dictionary he deliberately chose to use spellings that were different from those used in Englandin order to emphasise the independence of the new country as well as trying to be more consistent. Some of the changes he made were accepted into general American use e.g.‘jail’ for ‘gaol’ and may even have recrossed the Atlantic.It was his fellow American John Witherspoon who coined the word ‘Americanism’ in 1781, Flexner and Soukanov (1997). The Oxford English dictionary includes ‘jail’ without describing it as an Americanism. Others did not make it, e.g.‘soop’for ‘soup’. The world has moved on, but the street gangs of the 21st century may use a particular type of language for similar reasons to him – they want to be identified as a distinct group and break ties with the establishment as they see it.
A common use of language has a unifying effect on a group whether that be a whole nation or only a tiny part of one or which may even be composed of those who come originally from very different backgrounds, as for instance the followers of a particular hobby or activity. England is still a land of different dialects and accents, but for the most part written English in that country is standardised. This means that someone in the north west can read a newspaper printed in Londonwith the same ease as someone from Cornwall and so everyone is able to be exposed to similar ideas and forms of language. The same principle applies to much smaller groups as when a schoolboy gang uses backslang ( saying all words backwards such as using ’yob’ for ‘boy’) though in their case it may also be a means of hiding what they are saying from others as well as a form of group solidarity.
Such secret languages are often used by groups that on the edges of society, as in the case of British homosexuals before the legalisation of their position. They used a type of English called ‘polari’, sometimes referred to as lavender language. It uses words from several languages including Yiddish and Italian and was used on radio by Kenneth Williams in the 60’s ‘Round the Horne’scripted by Barry Took, and would have been understood by the vast majority of listeners. They wouldn’t have used it however as that would have meant identifying themselves as homosexual. Very little of it has come into general use. Another language originating in a fringe group was the rhyming slang still used to some extent and indeed still developing new forms as in ‘I need a new comb for my Tony’ ( as in Tony Blair = hair.)G.Smith (1998 – 2006) It was originally used by inner Londonthieves in the 19th century as a private language. It has now lost that criminal association and is more widely used, often for humorous effect.
Sometimes a particular type of language is used because it is felt that it speaks to a particular group better than the standard language e.g. a Glaswegian Bible in the broadest of Scots has recently been produced by Jamie Stuart (1997) and has been well received The same process applies to groups as diverse as jazz musicians, fans of sumo wrestling or medical professionals.
In religions that are frequently harking back to their origins older forms of language may be preferred despite the fact that this may be off putting to those not so committed. People of faith are very concerned that their beliefs are accurately and acceptably transmitted and so there is a reluctance to change language and a preference for older more archaic forms as when people quote the original Greek or Hebrew in sermons or express a preference for the King James Bible or when Muslims insist on a Koran in Arabic, even if this makes it hard for them to follow because it is not their mother tongue.
On other occasions the use of a particular language reflects past history as in the fact that New Caledonian schools use French because it is a French territory, while in nearby Fiji English is used, which reflects its links with England.
Twin speak is probably the ultimate social group language. It occurs when twins, usually identical, adopt a private language and refuse to a greater or lesser extent to communicate in other ways as is recorded on the Walking and Talking web page.(2007)
We may use different types of language at different stages in our lives. The language of the average professional male will be very different from the one he used as a school boy. Both use particular jargon i.e. a language that may be technical or specialised. A lawyer for instance will speak of torts and may even use Latin terms. The use of such language works in two ways. It is inclusive in that all lawyers will understand it. On the other hand it is exclusive in that those outside the legal profession cannot easily comprehend it. It is for the latter reason that such jargon is most often criticized by groups such as the Plain English Campaign. Dictionaries define it in various ways – sometimes neutrally as ‘the technical language of a particular group.’ On other occasions the definition is more loaded –‘obscure, an often pretentious language’ – Crystal,(1995) page 274.The longer an occupation has existed the more likely it is to have gathered to itself such distinctive forms of language e.g. clergy, the law and central government.
The use of language in schools has been used to make political points. In Walestoday it is common for Welsh to be taught as well as English and there are some schools where it is the main language of communication, though this is rarer. In earlier times it was forbidden to use Welsh in schools within the Principality and children were punished for doing so. It was an attempt to be inclusive that never really succeeded despite the fact that English is now more widely used in Wales than it was a hundred years ago. The revival of the language is a recent matter. This use of an ancient language can be very inclusive or exclusive as when a group of school girls are heard chattering away in Welsh with only the occasional interjection of an English word. It may well be that their parents never learnt the tongue. It also means that they can make derogatory remarks about the people around them without causing comment.
The use of a particular language in schools can however have a unifying effect as Crystal, (1995)page 105, describes as happening in Singapore, where since the 1950’s English has been used as a means of unifying the various people groups such as the Malays, the Chinese and Tamils. The result is the emergence of a quite distinct Singaporean English. The same sort of effect must be felt to some extent in school such as in London’s Mile End, where children come from many people groups and correspondingly have as many different home languages.
For very different reasons groups of slaves, who had different languages in Africa, when they came together in the New World quickly developed a common language. The policy of the slave traders was to separate people who shared a common tongue in the belief that this would lessen the likelihood of planned rebellion. The facts were rather different in that, even while still on board ship, the slaves were able to develop pidgin languages, which they used to communicate both among themselves and with the sailors. Such was the need to communicate within a group who shared a common experience. When their children were born these pidgin languages became the mother tongues for the group, which by the time such slavery was abolished in 1865 numbered some four million people.
In Ireland Gaelic is used on official documents such as birth certificates, even though it is only the language of a minority and the main language of very few. It is necessary for a public servant to be conversant with the language, even if he rarely uses it except in written form. This, like Webster’s dictionary mentioned elsewhere is, as well as a means of reinforcing Irish culture, in part because of a perceived need to be different from the English who had dominated the island for so many centuries.
A particular group may need very precise words in order to communicate what seem like minute differences, as when the Scandinavian sea farers used many different words for sea to describe its different conditions, words that would not be needed by people who never travelled across it.A similar attempt at precise language is used by wine tasters as on Wine Anorak.com. who may speak of a wine having backbone, being buttery or being chewy – words and phrases that other people use in a different way. They also, like the Scandinavian sailors, use words that no one else uses such as meritage and demi-sac.
The language we use places us at a particular level in wider society. Do we say for instance ‘toilet’ or ‘lavatory’ to describe the smallest room. Perhaps we use a table napkin while others use a serviette. Whichever you use it will, in other people‘s minds, place you firmly in a particular social group. In 1950’s Britain these differences came to prominence after the publication of an article by linguist Alan Ross (1954) who used the terms ‘U’ i.e. upper-class, and ‘Non U’ i.e. other kinds of use. The article and its successors caused much debate.
There are occasions when a restricted form of language is necessary within a group. For instance in a navy that, in earlier times, was forced to communicate by the raising of flags. The English flag signal system was devised by Sir Home Popham in 1803, a time when Englandwas engaged in war. Each combination of flags represented a word or letter in a code book. It was obviously quicker to use only words that had a code rather than spelling out each word. Nelson’s famous signal at Trafalgar was spelt out in 13 groups. It would have been even less, but the word ‘Duty’ had to be spelled out.
Another occasion when a restricted language will be used is in the case of an army of mercenaries from different countries come together. Language used will be in short, sharp and easily understood. This is how Urdu is said to have developed as a distinct language taking words from many other tongues, though it is based strongly on Hindi, the language of the people who originally controlled the army. Other uses of restrictive language use is found for instance in citizen band radio and international air traffic control. A knitting magazine uses extremely stylised language in order to pass on a pattern in the form ‘K1, p3, psso’ etc. The BBC shipping forecast is a type of formalised, restricted language with reduced grammar. It is unusual in that like the knitting patterns it seems to be a one way communication. The hearers or readers do not reply. However they can still be described as the language of a group in that it causes response in both knitters and mariners and effectively to the group.
Some minority groups may feel threatened by the incursions of society in general and so retreat to a specialised language as when deaf people use sign language even when they are possibly capable of speech or could have their deafness cured by such means as a cochlear implant. Members of such a group will tell you that deaf culture is as valid as any other and doesn’t need to use the language of the majority.
There may well be more than one languages used within a family especially if the parents have different mother tongues. Children who are exposed to more than one language seem very able to switch from one language to the other as they speak for instance to both sets of grandparents. They may even choose to communicate with each parent in that person’s mother tongue. On visits to the homeland of a parent they will switch easily from one language to the other. This of course makes them more acceptable to both sets and to the family as a whole. Which brings me to the main reasons for using a particular type of language – the need to feel included and to be able to communicate effectively within a group, whether a natural one as in a family or tribal group, or a chosen one as in a profession or other chosen activity.
Choice of words from a language’s possibilities may reflect political or religious groupings as when an older Urdu speaker in Pakistanwill use a word with a Farsi base, rather than one a Hindi base. This is something that would have been instilled at the time of partition when using Hindi words would have identified them as a non-Muslim – a dangerous thing at the time.
There have been many attempts to control and regularise language from the dictionaries, such as that of Samuel Johnson, and books such as Ben Jonson’s ‘English Grammar’, to the introduction of Esperanto in schools, but language is a living, ever changing and evolving thing and however much some individuals such as Lynne Truss,‘Eats, shoots and leaves’(2003), would like call a halt, they will have no more success than Canute did in stopping the tide.
And who is to say which style is correct? It may not be the preferred style of our particular group, but if it does what it is mean to, i.e. communicate meaning within a particular group of individuals, then it is a valid form of expression.
The web site About:French( 2007) language claims that there are hundreds, if not thousands of French grammars, each claiming to be ‘the most accurate’ or ‘the most complete’. The French government tries very hard to control the language of its citizens, especially trying to keep at bay ‘Franglais’, but everywhere you go French people speak of ‘Le week-end’ and complain that ‘Je suis tired.’ This process has been going on at least since the Norman invasion and in both directions across the channel. Chaucer, (14th century) for instance speaks of a lady who learnt her French in Bow ( East London). In 17th century Englandit was considered correct in certain circles to use a French word instead of one with an Anglo-Saxon or Germanic root, and so someone was said to have an appetite instead of being hungry and to fall into temptation rather than sin.
Further back in time whether or not one called meat sheep or mutton, cow or beef reflected their social position in Anglo – Normansociety. The Saxons – cow, sheep, pig, cared for the animals, but it was the Normans – boeuf, mouton and porc – who did most of the eating of their flesh.
This use of different languages by groups who are at different levels in the social strata is common – as in many African countries where the more educated, of whatever colour, may prefer to use a colonial language such as French or English, rather than a tribal tongue.
Modern methods of communication are of course many and varied – text, e-mail and all the rest – and may have a unifying effect on those who use them. They are apparently rapidly changing our use of language. But the people who use emoticons and the new abbreviations usually know that on other occasions other language of a more formal kind may be necessary – in a job application for instance. But these modern forms of communication are also valid between sender and recipient. Daniel Jones, once described as ‘the real professor Higgins, who said back in 1918 in his book ‘An outline of British Phonetics’, “I do not consider it possible at the present time to regard any special type as ‘standard’ or intrinsically better than other types.” He of course was writing long before these modern methods were thought of. Would he still agree today?
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