Lecture 4 -- Summary Outline
Language and Society: What Your Speech Says about You
By Valerie Fridland
Four Levels of Language Variation
Previously, we examined how communities of speakers build social
meaning using some parts-but not others-of their linguistic
endowment. Different groups vary in terms of which aspects of
linguistic competence they use, with social facts playing a large role in
determining what facets of their cognitive grammar are relevant in their
speech. Individuals’ speech also varies according to the norms of their more
local communities. But before we delve too deeply into this relationship
between variation and social identity, we first need to understand the different
linguistic features that can be put to work by speakers. In this lecture, we will
cover some of the linguistic levels affected by dialect variation, specifically,
phonetics, phonology, syntax, and morphology.
I. Phonetics and Phonology
A. The areas of linguistics concerned with the sounds of language
are phonetics and phonology. Though these two fields are related,
phonetics centers on how sounds are actually produced.
1. An example of a phonetic difference might be the Southern
pronunciation of the vowel in the words tie and hide as “taz”
2. The Southern pronunciation of the fay/ vowel is what is
referred to by linguists as a linguistic shibboleth-a speech
form that is recognizable as being associated with a particular
type of speaker or as signaling a particular social identity.
Though not all Southerners monophthongize the fay/ vowel, no
non-Southerners do; thus, it is a strongly identifying feature of
B. Phonology is the area of linguistics that is concerned with how
human speech sounds are organized into unique systems in
1. An example of phonological organization would be the number
of vowels used in different languages. For example, there are 5
vowel sounds in the vowel inventory of Japanese. Essentially,
all words use one of those 5 vowels and no other vowel sounds.
English, in contrast, has a large vowel inventory, essentially
using ll stressed vowels.
2. One consequence of this difference is that a Japanese speaker
must use one of the 5 Japanese vowel sounds to approximate
English vowels when learning English words. This results in
the substitution of the closest vowel from the Japanese system
for the vowel the speaker lacks in the English system.
3. The vowel sounds in boot and book are different for an English
speaker, but this contrast does not exist in Japanese. Thus,
when speaking English, a Japanese speaker will use the vowels
in Japanese that are the closest-sounding approximates to the
vowel sounds of English. Because tl'|is won’t be equivalent
to an English speaker, this difference will mark the Japanese
speaker as a normative speaker of English.
4. This is an example of how phonology can mark a difference
between two languages. This difference may, in turn, be
taken to suggest certain things socially about the speaker,
such as level of cultural awareness and, in some cases, even
competence. In reality, however, an adult learner of English is
simply constrained by a first-language system that makes exact
replication of the second language impossible.
II. Spoken versus Written Language
A. It’s important to remember that linguistics is primarily concerned
with spoken, not written, language and that this perspective results
in different ways of understanding language variation.
1. For example, most variation that we will discuss in the next
few lectures will not have any correlate in the written form
of the word. When speakers who pronounce “pin” and “pen”
in the same way write these words down, they typically write
them as the rest of us do. As we will see, written language is
tied into the norms associated with standard formal English,
not the version we use in our day-to-day, face-to-face
2. Throughout these lectures, we need to remind ourselves to
think as we speak, not as we write, when discussing language
B. An important concept when talking about any level of linguistics is
that of rules. We tend to think of writing as informing us of the rules
of how to speak But we had language skills long before we went to
school and started writing. The type of rule system that drives our
oral versus written knowledge of language is vastly different. For
example, in phonology, the way we put sounds together is a strictly
governed process regardless of which language or dialect we speak.
1. Possible human speech sounds appear to be limited. On the one
hand, we find similar sounds being used in most ofthe world’s
languages, such as /i/, /u/, /m/, and /k/. On the other hand, we
produce many sounds, such as blowing or teeth-chattering,
that have no linguistic meaning anywhere in the world This
suggests that sound selection in language is driven by cognitive
and articulatoly rules or preferences; it is not arbitrary.
2. Further, we don’t connect just any sounds together into
syllables; there are many sound combinations that are never
evidenced in human language. Even preliterate children know
these types of rules and don’t break them.
C. These linguistic rules are different than social rules. Such rules as
“Don’t split infinitives” are social niles of grammar, not linguistic
rules. And when you violate grammar rules, you do not violate the
linguistic rules that stand behind the language we speak. Instead,
you violate the conventional grammar rules that our educational
and institutional systems have established as the social norm.
1. Linguists refer to this difference as the difference between
prescriptive and descriptive rules. Prescriptive rules are those
established by grammarians to control the output of speakers
by assigning prestige or penalties based on the use or nonuse
of prescribed language norms. Descriptive rules describe how
language works and is used by speakers-what you already
know unconsciously as a speaker of a human language.
2. Linguistics is a descriptive field; its goal is to explain the
linguistic output of speakers in terms of what is possible and
what is not possible in language based on empirical evidence.
Although we will often discuss prescriptive rules and their
interaction with language in society in these lectures, the
linguistic rules we will discuss are those that are responsible
for all languages and dialects we find in the world.
D. It’s important to note that every language and every dialect is
systematic and rule governed, but rules driving dialects differ.
There can be a great deal of difference in rules between linguistic
systems, say, between such languages as English and Arabic. Or
there can be fewer and subtler differences between systems, such
as those between British and American English or Southern and
A. Syntax is the study of sentence formation. In addition to knowing
possible speech sounds, we also have knowledge of the structure of
phrases, such as across the floor and the giant rodent, and sentences,
such as The giant rodent scurried across the floor. Syntax is the
toolkit that tells us what goes where and how.
B. An important feature of syntax is grammaticality judgment. This is
essentially native speaker intuition about what constitutes a “good”
sentence in the language.
1. Obviously, not every sequence of words strung together is a
possible sentence. For example, consider: The runs a weeofy
already town the from. Clearly, no one would say such a
sentence, and no one would judge it to be a grammatical
sentence of English.
2. Again, it is because of rules-both universal rules and
language-specific rules-that we can make judgments about
whether a sentence we hear or see is grammatical or not.
C. Of course, different languages and even dialects have different
rules that can apply to make sentences that would not be acceptable
structures for another speaker. However, the “wrongness” of such
a sentence as He don t do nothing is a different kind of wrong than
the sentence above, which a listener cannot even process.
D. The possible variation in syntactic structures is constrained by the
possibilities allowed by our universal grammar. Although multiple
negation is a socially dispreferred structure in standard English, it is
a perfectly fine structure in terms of following linguistic rules.
A. Morphology is the study of how words are formed and created. ln
this field, linguists look at slang or novel words, such as Google,
bling, or blog, which actually follow specific word formation
rules. Some words seem to be formed through “regular” processes,
while others seem to be exceptions or “irregular” (for example,
dog/dogs versus tooth/teeth, jogged versus ran). Most of these
irregular forms are remnants from older forms of English, when the
language had a much more complicated verb and noun class system.
B. New words, when they enter the language through borrowing or
through invention, are also subject to linguistic rules. When a new
word, such as Google, enters the language, it belongs to a particular
category, in this case, a verb. Thus, by default, English speakers
understand that to form the past tense, we add -ed, and to form
the progressive, we add -ing. We are also able to make the word
into a noun by adding a “noun-type” ending; for example, one who
Googles may be called a Googler.
C. We can be quite creative with new words but only insofar as is
allowed by our linguistic constraints on word formation. For
example, no English speaker would form the past tense of Google
as Goggle per the sing/sang or ring/rang model. These are not
productive rules of English morphology and, unless someone is
being purposefully atypical, would simply not morphologically
D. As with phonology and syntax, morphology is also an area where
languages and dialects can differ substantially. Many languages use
more affixes than English does to express meaning, and sometimes,
these take the form of infixes (breaking up the base) or circumfixes
(encircling a base). This is not something we find in English unless
we count slang expressions, such as “I guaran-damn-tee it!”
E. Languages and dialects can also differ in simply what is selected
to be encoded as a morpheme (meaning unit) and what is not. In
Chinese, the past tense is not grammaticized as a separate word
but instead is interpretable from other linguistic and pragmatic
contextual cues. In other words, unlike in English, it is not
mandatory to add something like -ed or -ing on the end of a word
to communicate past tense.
F. Our language can and does vary substantially on a number of
different levels simultaneously. When morphology is combined
with phonetics, phonology, and syntax, we have a powerful set
of tools for performing both linguistic and social work with