Introduction to Summary Outline of Lectures
Language and Society: What Your Speech Says about You
By Valerie Fridland
As a speaker of a language, chances are you haven’t given too
much thought to how it mediates and shapes your experience as a
participant in the social world. But as we will come to see, language
is fundamentally a social resource.
Language allows us to share ideas and relay information, but its greatest
contribution lies in its ability to establish relationships, negotiate social
meaning, and influence perspective. The social categorizing we do when
hearing someone speak is one of the most essential properties of human
language, but we often spend much more time worrying about subject/verb
agreement and parts of speech. We typically don’t realize the vast social
work that language does for us or the valuable social capital it provides.
In this course, we will see how language norms come to be collectively
meaningful and socially powerful.
Using the sounds and categories from theoretical linguistics as our core
units of study, we explore how linguistic variation, both subtle and obvious,
is exploited by all of us in our interactional choices. We start our journey
by looking at how social characteristics, such as gender, region, and class,
have been found to substantially affect the frequency with which linguistic
features occur-features as subtle as rates of verbal contraction (gonna,
hafta) and t-glottaling (“ge’ it” versus “get it”). We will also look closely
at how we construct conversation in rule-governed ways while being
responsive to the ongoing negotiation of meaning. Examining linguistic
differences based on gender, age, and ethnicity, we will see that they reflect
and create longstanding social and linguistic ideologies. Finally, we will take
on the language of the computer age and look to the future of the English
language, both at home and abroad.
As the course progresses, we will come to understand how speakers are
able to exploit linguistic resources to serve both functional and social roles.
We will also examine how and why such variation continues to exist in our
speech communities. A key component of this course is the exploration of
how variation comes to be judged by other members of the larger speech
community and how the complex intersection of language and society leads
to the stigmatization or prestige of linguistic varieties and their speakers. It is
only through careful examination of how language is used that we can begin
to understand its role as strong social capital with both costs and benefits we
Although we all have access to language, we don’t all have the same
access to language. Language opens doors and it closes them. It establishes
relationships and it severs them. It represents us and it can isolate or embrace
us, depending on our match linguistically with others. In this course, we will
look beyond the system of language to explore the crucial relation between
what we say and how we live.