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Challenges of the social life of language

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By John Edwards


When we consider two obvious facts — that virtually everyone becomes a fluent speaker of at least one language, and that language is central to social life — we can see that most of us are quite sociolinguistically talented. Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, we know quite a lot about many of the intricacies of “the social life of language.” This doesn’t mean, however, that our knowledge is complete or wholly accurate. Here are ten illustrations of the point.

(1) Languages and dialects are not the same thing: the former are generally considered as mutually unintelligible – if you speak English, you won’t expect to understand German – while the latter, as varieties within a language, should be mutually comprehensible. So, if you are a native English speaker from Boston, Massachusetts you will have little or no trouble understanding someone from Boston, Ontario. Perhaps, however, some difficulty will arise when you speak with yet another Bostonian – from Lincolnshire. Mutual intelligibility can falter, then, as distance increases, and dialects begin to look more like languages. Where to draw the line often becomes a moot point.

(2) There are no “incorrect” or “illogical” dialects. Every dialectal variety of a language is a rule-governed system adequate for the requirements of its speakers. Grammars may vary across dialects, but the differences are simply that: differences. And, while many of us find some dialects (and languages, for that matter) more pleasant to the ear than others, studies have revealed that no variety is intrinsically more mellifluous. Judgements, whether of grammatical accuracy or of phonetic attractiveness, are largely dependent upon our perceptions of the social standing of the speakers.

(3) Everyone is (at least) bilingual. I say this by way of emphasizing that there are no easy measures by which to differentiate bilingual (or multilingual) speakers from their monolingual counterparts. Someone who seems as fluent and comfortable in French as in English certainly appears more bilingual than someone who only knows a few stock phrases (“je ne sais quoi,” perhaps, or “savoir-faire”). But just how much competence should we require before bestowing the bilingual accolade? The difficulty increases when we consider that someone might (for example) be a fluent reader in a second language without being a fluent speaker, or that someone may understand virtually everything but speak only haltingly.

Together, the eight countries in red contain more than 50% of the world's languages. The areas in blue are the most linguistically diverse in the world, and the locations of most of the world's endangered languages.
Together, the eight countries in red contain more than 50% of the world’s languages. The areas in blue are the most linguistically diverse in the world, and the locations of most of the world’s endangered languages.

(4) (A related point) It is possible to be a very fluent speaker and/or reader of a second (or subsequent) language and yet remain ignorant of subtleties available to native speakers. Interestingly enough, the difficulties here arise at what we might think of as opposite ends of the linguistic spectrum. On the one hand, there is the language of the streets – slang, profanity, idiom, and colloquialism – as well as ironic or comedic usage; on the other, the often dense, allusive and emotionally nuanced language of poetry. You have to be very well immersed in a language to fully interpret usage at either end of the scale. And this illustrates a more general point: aside from the most mundane of instances, every successful act of communication – even within the same language – involves interpretation.

(5) Most languages are related to others, in linguistic “families.” Many have heard of the Indo-European family, know that both English and German belong to it, and may also be aware that this same grouping includes the Romance varieties (French, Spanish, Portuguese, and so on). Fewer, however, realize that some languages are orphans — or “isolates” — and cannot be related to others. Basque, spoken in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, is a contemporary example. It is not an Indo-European variety. As well, its speakers are genetically a little different from others in the region. The combination of linguistic and genetic variation has of course raised interesting questions about the provenance of the Basque people.

(6) Since some language varieties are obviously less prestigious than others, and since their speakers risk becoming the recipients of negative or unfavorable perceptions — reactions that can of course have important social consequences — we might ask why such varieties persist. One reason is that speakers of low social status may be “marked” by characteristics other than language alone. They might, for instance, look physically different from others. Another, however, is that all dialects reflect and reinforce group identity. My way of speaking may not be socially esteemed, but it remains the language of my family and my community; like all varieties, then, it is a vehicle of culture and social solidarity. You don’t sever such a tie lightly.

(7) English is the current lingua franca for much of the world and many would argue that it will remain the most important linguistic currency for some time to come. Nonetheless, there is nothing about the language itself that has elevated it to its present position of power: it is in no intrinsic way a “better” medium than any other. A moment’s thought is sufficient to recall the earlier contenders for world language dominance: Greek, Latin, and so on. English is the leading language of our time because of the power possessed by its speakers — that’s all. To put it another way: as with other sorts of avenues, all linguistic roads have always led to Rome.

(8) Linguistic prescriptivism and purism arise from the belief that corrections, improvements, or protections are needed to safeguard languages. The work of national language academies was historically central here. Once Latin waned as the European lingua franca and local languages emerged into prominence, it became necessary to make choices among dialect variants, to standardize, to “fix” languages for purposes of printing. Even then, however, there was the sense that linguistic “standards” tend to emanate upwards, as it were, from the usage of ordinary speakers. Today most linguistic scholars feel it inappropriate to try and counter this: prescriptivist impulses are now most commonly found among “ordinary” speakers and others who have strong views about questions of language “decay,” about the terrible language of the younger generation, about the rising tide of slang and profanity, and so on. Yet every maker of a dictionary must be a prescriptivist, and every act of “language planning” — modernizing a language, for example, or creating an orthography, or intervening on behalf of a “small” or endangered language — is also necessarily prescriptive. The tensions here are more or less permanent.

(9) Language is our prime means of communication, but it is also an important symbol of “groupness,” a marker of belonging, and a vehicle of history, culture, and tradition. The powerful linkage between language and nationalism is the obvious case in point, and there are many examples of people willing to go to the barricades to protect the linguistic symbol of their identity. If language were only a means of communication, we would still expect people to be upset when language shift is forced upon them by social circumstance, but it would not be so easy to understand the intense linguistic zeal of the Québécois, of Celtic revivalists, or of speakers of beleaguered aboriginal languages.

(10) Translators have often been looked upon with suspicion, and the point just made, about the linkage between language and group solidarity, is the explanation. Translators are necessary links between communities, but the very ability to straddle linguistic borders may provide access to information that is of mythic, secret, or religious importance. How can we be sure that they are telling others those things — and only those things — that we ask them to? What, after all, are their own cultural allegiances?

John Edwards is Professor of Psychology at St. Francis Xavier University, in Nova Scotia. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and editor of the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. His recent books include Sociolinguistics: A Very Short Introduction, Challenges in the Social Life of Language, and Multilingualism: Understanding Linguistic Diversity.

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Image credit: Linguistic diversity in the world. Via Davius. [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Yuri de Groot

    If the distinction between language and dialect is mutual intelligibility, then I would posit that natives from Whatsitshire, Northern England, and from Hicksville, Southern Alabama speak different languages which both natives happen to call “English”.
    The Scandinavian countries each have their own official language, yet speakers of those languages (except Suomi) claim to understand each other’s languages if they speak slow enough.
    Likewise, Hindi and Urdu have a high degree of mutual intelligibility.
    I posit that the distinction between “language” and “dialect” is political rather than linguistic.
    So two patterns of speech may be classed as dialects from a purely academic perspective, but the two communities may consider themselves so distinct as to claim they actually speak a different language (like Hindi and Urdu).

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