Lecture 1 -- Summary Outline
Language and Society: What Your Speech Says about You
By Valerie Fridland
What Does Your Speech Say about You?
The social categorizing we do when hearing someone speak is one of
the most fundamental 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 lecture, we
will bring this aspect of language to the forefront. As we’ll see, language
variation is a crucial aspect of our physiological and conceptual system.
We’ll also learn how this variation comes to be collectively meaningful and,
often, socially powerful.
I. Language as a Social Resource
A. Have you ever started a conversation with someone and decided
that you didn’t want to get to know that person better because of
how he or she sounded? You can thank your socialized speech
habits for that perception.
B. We tend not to realize how much information we get from other
people without even knowing them Even just overhearing speech,
without personally talking to the speaker, we make assumptions
about his or her age, gender, financial status, and more. On the basis
of a few overheard sentences, we decide whether this is a person we
are interested in getting to know better.
C. This associative skill often serves us well. It allows us to recognize
other people with whom we may have something in common
or those we want to avoid. It probably saves us from many
uncomfortable first dates or ill-suited friendships, yet it’s also
a powerful tool we wield without giving much thought to how
we have come to possess it or how we use it for both inclusion
D. Speech is fundamentally part of what allows us to live a collective
experience. Talk helps us to negotiate the social world and the actors
in it, not just in what we say but in how we say it. It is through the
shared meanings established by being members of a community
that we come to understand and operate in the world as complex
social beings. Speech offers a shortcut to determining who is like us
and who isn’t, who shares our background and who doesn’t. At the
same time, it can also shape our expectations and beliefs without
our awareness of its sway.
E. Although we all have access to language, we don’t all have the
same access to language. Language opens doors and closes them.
It establishes relationships and severs them. It represents us, and
it can isolate or embrace us, depending on our linguistic matches
1. Those who have learned how to manipulate language as a
resource are rarely even aware of the influential role of speech
in forging their daily interactions.
2. For those of us with access to standard forms and institutional
prestige, this influence is typically a good thing. But for those
whose dialects are not the preferred varieties-whose match
with institutional preferences is not exact-the social import
we place on speech can be a punishing one.
3. Still, even when not afforded prestige, our speech does
important social work for us; it may mark us as cool, hip,
urban, ethnic, or young. Standard or not, our speech is part of
the toolkit we use to fashion our identities.
F. This course is about demystifying our use of language as a social
resource. We will look at many facets of the relationship between
language and our society. First, we will explore the encoding of
social interactions with cognitive aspects of language. We will also
learn about variability in the system of language. For most of the
course, we will move beyond this more abstract understanding of
language to examine how it is situated in our everyday lives. We
will come to understand how it is that our speech reveals so much
II. Speech as Shorthand for Identification
A. As we all know, how you speak tells listeners much more about you
than just the semantic message your speech contains. For example,
language serves a significant in-group/out-group function, helping
us to identify others who share memberships in the same groups
that we do.
B. Think about the type of judgments you make based on the way
someone else talks. Would you, for example, feel confident learning
to surf from an instructor who has an English accent? Would a
“surfer dude,” no matter how intelligent, be accepted as a college
C. Our impressions of people are strongly shaped by the speech they
use. The relationship we form with others (however brief) is most
likely influenced by their speech. Of course, some speakers’ dialects
are more revealing than others, but we all reveal many secrets with
the way we talk-even those of us who don’t believe we have an
accent or speak a dialect.
III. Language Variation
A. Linguists look at language in a much more fine-grained way than
nonlinguists do. Though most nonlinguists probably consider
language variation to consist of differences in word choice or
global differences between languages, in fact, the greatest variation
in language is much more subtle and extensive.
B. Certainly, choosing between different vocabulary words (such as
pop versus soda) can change the sense of a comment and tell us
something about the speaker. But vocabulary (larical items) is only
one small part of what linguists study. More important is variation
that is both systematic and embedded within our language system
C. This variation typically refers to unnoticed featmes, such as which
vowels you use (for example, British “f’ahther" or American
“father”), whether or not you glottalize sounds (“bottle” or “bo?l”),
or when you delete consonants that appear in a cluster at the end ofa
word. These kinds of variations are typically less overtly recognized
by nonlinguists, but whether you’re conscious of them or not, they
are indicative of your social place and social relationships.
D. For example, a large number of research studies have examined
the in/ing variation (as in “walkin” versus “walking”) in Englishes
worldwide, finding much the same patterns of use.
1. All these studies show that some people systematically use the
in variant at a higher rate, and this frequency of use is, in large
part, based on age, gender, and situational context. Studies
suggest that younger speakers tend to use the in form more
often than older speakers, and men use it more than women.
Research has also found that people tend to identify speakers
who use the in variant as Southern.
2. In just a simple shift between two forms of the same ending,
speakers communicate a great deal of information: their
understanding of the formality of the situation or of their
relationship to the listener; age; gender and at least in terms of
the listeners’ perception, regional background.
E. For this alternation to be socially meaningful, we must all
understand and follow the same rule for variation; otherwise, the
variation would be so haphazard and irregular that it would be
impossible for it to be understood as meaning anything by other
members of the speech community. In other words, it is because
we have all learned the same rule for when and how to vary verbal
ing as a marker of formality that we can use and understand
F. As we will see, many facets of language are available for such
manipulation, often without our conscious awareness of what
we’re doing. We learn linguistic rules early in life as a product of
our interactional experiences. They become so habitualized that
we follow them without even being aware that we are doing so.
However, this habitualization can vary greatly, depending on who
you are and the social world you inhabit.
G. Much of our language socialization depends on our location, age,
class, gender, ethnicity, and experience within institutions. For
example, women are judged more negatively than men for using
certain linguistic patterns, such as profanity. In other words, we
don’t all have the same norms available to us.
1. We don’t simply pick and choose among linguistic variants but
must acquire them as part of our native linguistic systems.
2. Otherwise, these variants don’t seem natural when we use
them, nor do they signal the same meaning as they do for the
rest of our speech community.
III. The Social Utility of Linguistic Variation
A. Consider two sentences that essentially say the same thing: (1) That
picture is, like, so cool, and (2) That picture is very lovely. The
semantic meaning of the two sentences is roughly equivalent, but
we would draw different conclusions about the speakers.
B. Moreover, based on the impressions we form as conversation
unfolds, we may shift the way we engage in further conversation
to identify ourselves as more or less similar to a speaker. In other
words, we may converge, shifting our speech to match the style of
speech we receive, or we may diverge, shifting our speech to be
less like the other person’s style. We use such strategies every day
when we linguistically engage people in a variety of contexts.
C. To see how this works, form a mental picture of the type of speaker
you would hypothesize for each of the sentences mentioned above.
You probably assumed that the speaker of the first sentence was
both young and female and the speaker of the second sentence was
older and also female.
1. It seems strange that we can make such extensive
characterizations based simply on two variations of the same
sentence, yet most people probably would not have a difficult
time with this exercise. In fact, most of us likely do this sort of
unconscious analysis whenever we encounter speech.
2. The fact that we have stereotypes based on the way people
speak is not always empirically sound, as we will see in a
later lecture. For example, most people assume that those who
use like (a youth solidarity marker) and so (an intensifier) are
mainly females, but research shows that these uses are also
found among young men.
3. In short, language provides a window into the social world. As
we will see, however, the glass is often slanted by our place in
the world and our earlier experiences.
D. It is only through careful examination of how language is used that
we can begin to understand language as social capital, with both
costs and benefits that we rarely consider. Our identity is strongly
tied to the speech we use and our perceptions of the speech we
hear. In a very real sense, then, exploring the connections between
language and society leads us to greater self-awareness.