Lecture 24 -- Summary Outline
Language and Society: What Your Speech Says about You
By Valerie Fridland
The Changing Face of Linguistic Diversity
People are often interested in two questions related to the subject of
linguistics: (1) Are English dialects becoming more similar over time,
and (2) What effect does mass media have on language? It seems
obvious that the massive exporting of English and American pop culture must
be shaping the way people communicate in some fashion, but surprisingly,
these questions are understudied by theoretical linguists. In this lecture, we
will take a look at the opposing forces of convergence and divergence in
language, both at home and abroad. We’ll examine both the power and the
limitations of linguistic imperialism. And We’ll find out if the global reach
of popular media is, in fact, shaping the way English is spoken worldwide.
I. The Question of Convergence
A. Convergence can be as simple as borrowing vocabulary words or as
complex as acquiring new grammatical rules. It is much more likely
in the former case than the latter. For example, we have easily
picked up the words sake and sushi, but we don’t generally adopt
Japanese grammatical word order.
B. We can also discuss convergence in terms of decreasing numbers
of languages in the world overall or in terms of linguistic leveling
across regionally distinctive forms within a single language.
C. Adding to this complexity, language is driven toward divergence
in response to social pressures, such as gender, race, and class.
Cultural and social motivations often ch‘ive us to speak differently,
either because of geographic or social separation or a desire to set
D. Why might we want to converge or diverge linguistically? In yotn'
own experience, do you pick up on certain styles of speaking when
the person you’re talking to is someone with whom you identify
strongly? Do you sometimes move to a formal, impersonal style
because you want to distance yourself from someone? These
questions point to the power of identity construction, which is
crucial to the issue of convergence.
II. Identity Construction
A. In an earlier lecture, we discussed a number of social factors, such
as migration, geography, ecology, and group reference, that help
to form and maintain dialects. Quite frequently, as we’ve seen,
language changes occur in ways that make speakers more distinct
from others. This leads to the recognition of specific dialects and, in
some cases, the birth of new languages. In fact, this is how English
came into existence in the first place.
B. Language divergence happens when speakers move away from each
other for economic, sociopolitical, or psychological reasons. Often,
this occurs simultaneously with a population shift, as in situations
involving colonization, migration, or war. Insofar as these same
pressures affect us today and into the future, it is unlikely that the
process of linguistic divergence will disappear altogether.
C. However, languages or language varieties also become more similar
over time. For example, the early settlement of the United States led
to increasing divergence from dialects in England. As the settlers in
the New World established social and cultural ties, a new koine was
formed-a new variety of language resulting from the mixture of
various language inputs. As a result of this New World koine, the
children of the early settlers began to speak more like one another
and less like those who stayed behind in the original homeland.
D. Likewise, the emergence of a standard language in the face of
many regionalized or local varieties often has a homogenizing
effect to some degree on the local varieties themselves. Thus, in
our own history, colonists began to see their land not as isolated
settlements but as a united band of colonies in opposition to the
British government. This recognition of greater similarity across
groups brought greater linguistic convergence. In other words,
regionalisms, though still present, became part of a larger, more
recognizable “American” dialect-bringing with it symbolic unity.
E. Sometimes this linguistic standardization occurs not just at the
national level but also at the international level. The expansion of
a nation economically, politically, or militarily can establish that
language as an international linguistic model. In modem times,
this process of standardization has certainly intensified with our
increased global connectedness and reliance on CMC.
III. The Global Expansion of English
A. Over the last century, English has spread rapidly around the globe
in its role as a language of diplomacy, economy, and entertainment.
For those speaking a less economically or socially advantageous
language, there is something to be gained by teaching their children
English or adopting English as a second language themselves.
With such widespread adoption of English, we certainly seem to be
converging toward a smaller set of dominant languages.
B. At the same time, this expansion gives birth to new and diverging
dialects of English. Many world Englishes have now moved
beyond being just second languages. They have become thriving
separate dialects, in some cases, with a native speaker base of
their own. This is true in Singapore, West Africa, Hong Kong, and
C. The key to the development of world English has been contact-
situations in which two or more groups of speakers are forced
to interact and communicate with each other. This contact alone
establishes a new form of language, particularly when members of
one group must acquire a language to meet a dominant group’s needs.
D. In the case of English, indigenous language speakers adopted
the variety brought to their land by British colonizers, starting in
the l6“‘ century. Over time, these varieties developed uniquely to
represent the cultural and linguistic diversity of those speaking it.
E. Though it may seem that the colonizer simply instills a dominant
linguistic code, it is rare that the experience of the linguistic groups
involved is that rigid and fixed. Instead, though the language may
be imposed by a politically and economically dominant group, it is
altered and shaped by the experiences of the indigenous population.
Of course, it is here that English takes on the role of the “killer”
language-when it begins to encroach on the domains of the
indigenous language that preceded it.
F. Although such spread of English is often taken as evidence of
increasing linguistic homogenization, that is far from true.
1. Over time, the English of another land comes to represent the
social and cultural aspects of those speakers in the same way
that Southern speech in the United States has come to represent
a different history and way of life in the South. It is from this
perspective that we seem to fear English’s globalization-not
because of a fear of homogenization, but because English
becomes something else to someone else.
2. The dark side of this convergence is that it typically results in
the death of some languages, particularly those that don’t have
a large number of speakers.
G. Even granting the serious nature of this phenomenon, we should
remember the forces of linguistic divergence. As English becomes
more widespread, speakers become proficient at creating global
varieties that come to represent group identity.
IV. The Effects of Mass Media
A. If we think of linguistic movement toward similar vocabulary,
or “Iexis,” as being a meaningful type of convergence, then we
can certainly say that movies, television, and online media are
promoting convergence around English forms. For the most part,
though, linguistic change beyond new vocabulary requires true
social engagement and interaction.
B. Despite extensive contact with mainstream varieties, the social cost
of convergence still outweighs the potential benefits. Thus, in every
major city of the United States, ethnic varieties are alive and well.
This suggests that we are far from convergence toward a single
variety of English, despite mass media and increasing mobility.
C. Of course, we still find evidence of convergence. Although ethnic
varieties retain their distinction from mainstream English, it’s
often true that this distinction is now maintained by fewer, more
recognizable features, rather than by a large collection of linguistic
characteristics. This process, in which fewer but salient features do
the work of social identification, is called linguistic focusing.
D. We also find that changes in U.S. migratory patterns have affected
what were once salient ecological differences among American
dialects. For example, over the last century, rural dialects have
atrophied Migration to cities has created both dialect contact and
a motivation for speakers of rural dialects to shift toward more
standard forms. Research suggests that similar dialect leveling is
occurring in Great Britain.
E. To some degree, changes in modern speech can be traced to
exposure to pop culture and the media. The most obvious examples
here include the spread of vocabulary items or phrases. What else
does our mass media export?
1. In general, research has found little support for the idea that
grammatical and phonological patterns are diffused via media
Picking up an isolated pronunciation of a word is not unusual,
but deeper levels of linguistic influence require peer group
interaction and local rewards for using new forms.
2. There is limited evidence, however, that popular media might
be able to spread some phonological alternations. This is
true only if the media norm plays into a linguistic and social
ideology that already exists in the target community. In other
words, some research suggests that exposure to norms already
familiar and accessible at some level within a community can
be assisted by modeling in pop culture.
V. Linguistic Unity?
A. As we’ve discussed, there is a consistent trend toward linguistic
leveling across a number of regional dialects. However, there is
also ample evidence of divergence.
1. Earlier, for example, we saw a number of vowel changes
affecting the regional dialects of American English. This is
in contrast to what we might expect given accessibility and
2. In addition, vowel patterns in Englishes worldwide, such as
New Zealand English and varieties of Southern British English,
are also showing divergent vowel systems. Such tendencies
suggest that at the level of phonology, there is not a great deal
of convergence overall.
B. We also have found no evidence that access to mass media has
introduced much beyond vocabulary worldwide. In other words,
social interaction remains the primary means through which
language changes. Limited social engagement, such as that typically
found among speakers of different global English varieties, limits
the degree to which language converges toward shared nouns.
C. Most importantly, though, the belief that we are headed toward
linguistic convergence doesn’t take into account the fact that
linguistic diversity serves an important role. Dialects are about
communicating identity as much as about communicating facts.
D. Throughout this course, we have seen how much our language
differs depending on who is using it and who we are talking to.
Clearly, these influences will not lessen or fade away soon.
Language, as long as it is part and parcel of social identity, will
remain a flexible and evolving tool to reflect our differences, as
well as our similarities.