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1: Sociolinguistics definitions

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    To start things off, watch this video, a clip from Trever Noah's "African American" comedy special. He is talking about his experiences in learning about life in America.

    Sociolinguistics Definitions, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    You have learned about phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics; those are the core areas with respect to linguistics. From here on in the textbook and in the course, we will take those tools and apply them to a variety of situations. For the remainder of the course and the remainder of the book, we're going to look at how language varies across social dimensions, across historical dimensions, and across psychological dimensions. First up is sociolinguistics, and then we'll talk historical linguistics, and then we'll talk, psychological or cognitive linguistics or neuro-linguistics. Those will have three separate sections; actually, the psychological aspect is split into two because we have to talk about how we acquire language and how we process language, and those are separate issues. To start off, let's talk sociolinguistics and let's set the stage a bit.

    Up to now you've heard me use a couple of terms. Let's dig into that a little bit more. One has to do with a dialect, and the other way we think it as a speech community. When we talk about a speech community, it's exactly what you think it is: a community of people who speak the same way. They have the same dialect, if you will. It may be a mainstream dialect, or it could be something totally different; it depends. Later on, we're also going to talk about diglossia, which is what happens when you have two or more dialects that you use on a regular basis. That usually refers to somebody who is a part of more than one speech community, and that's what we're referring to here.

    If you recall from the first chapter, we said that the difference between a language and a dialect was that intelligibility was the key. Not intelligence, but intelligibility, meaning if two people from different speech communities are able to generally understand one another, they're considered to be mutually intelligent dialects. However, if you have two people from two different speech communities, and there is a real difficulty for one to understand the other linguistically—not culturally, not politically, nothing else, just linguistically—then that means that they speak two languages.

    In thinking about this, let's talk about some generalized and incorrect views about dialects. When I say incorrect or wrong, I mean from a linguistic standpoint.

    • Many people think that an accent is a dialect and that's actually incorrect. Even though the next subsection for this page is from Catherine Anderson and she talks about an accent; watch what she says, I'll let you read it later.
    • A lot of people think that some people speak a language and others speak a dialect of that language. That is quite incorrect.
    • The third generalization that we wish to debunk is that some people think that dialects are impoverished variants of a language, that they're just nonstandard and perhaps not correct.
    • The fourth big generalization that is incorrect is that people might think that languages are defined by political boundaries, as in geopolitical boundaries.

    Every single one of those statements and generalizations is 1,000% incorrect, at least from a linguistic standpoint. They are all prescriptive in nature and remember in linguistics we do not want to be prescriptive. We want to describe; we want to describe what people actually do when they communicate with one another, both within their group and with others.

    Let's take a modern linguistic twist on all of this:

    • An accent is not the same thing as a dialect because ‘accent’ is really not a term that we use in linguistics. Frequently, when people talk about accents, they're really saying something like the sounds maybe a couple of words are different, which is absolutely not the case. When we talk about different dialects, of course there may be some differences in pronunciation and phonemes or allophones, and there frequently are different terms used for the same thing. But there's also frequently morphological and syntactic differences, pragmatic differences, and so many other things. Later on in this chapter, we will see examples of different dialects so you can understand what we're talking about.
    • The fact that one person speaks a language but a different person might be a dialect is incorrect. Everyone speaks at least one dialect of a language and, in many cases, you might actually speak more than one dialect.
    • We cannot determine whether certain dialects are superior to others because that's not what a linguist does. A linguist describes what they see; we observe and we document, but we never give a value of higher or lower to anyone style of speech. Sometimes we know that a certain dialect might be more prestigious than others, but that is an objective point of view.
    • Languages are defined by cultural or linguistic boundaries, but not geopolitical boundaries. Sometimes they happen to coincide, but what we care about is what speech communities do and so those frequently line up with linguistic and frequently cultural boundaries. To give you an example, Norwegian and Swedish, and technically Danish, are three dialects of the same language. Even though those are three different nationalities, linguistically they're actually the same—although Swedish and Norwegian have a lot more in common and Danish is a little bit different, it's a definite distinct dialect. Another example is English; think about the number of countries where English is the primary and official language—it is not just England, and it's not even just the United Kingdom. It is a slew of countries. Spanish would be another example, and Mandarin would be another example.

    When we talk about languages, we're talking about speech communities who use the language; that is what we're talking about.

    One more really important thing to bring up about dialects versus languages. Prestige is an issue; it is going to be a factor and we'll talk more about this in its own chapter in this in this larger topic. There are always going to be certain dialects that will carry more prestige. Think about if you're in England or the United Kingdom, it's Queen's English that is going to be going to be the most prestigious; Received Pronunciation is often what it's called or RP. Frequently, and certainly since the 20th century, we can talk about the media, and especially national media and international media when we talk about the style of speech. Then it would be considered a mainstream dialect. In the past that was often called the standard dialect; we have switched topics nomenclature, and we now call those mainstream dialects to reflect the fact that they are mainstream and used by a wide variety of speech groups, at least as a more prestigious dialect. It is also important to understand that prestige on a dialect is usually something that has carried over a number of generations, it can be modified.

    It should be noted that just because you speak that mainstream or prestige dialect, it does not mean you necessarily hold more power than anyone else; it just means that you speak that dialect. It also means that if you speak a mainstream dialect, you are often perceived as having ‘no accent’ and that your manner of speech is the one that most everybody understands.

    To repeat a point made earlier, dialects are mutually intelligent variance of a language. They can and do differentiate a person who's born and raised in California from somebody who's born and raised in Toronto, Canada; New York; London; Edinburgh, Scotland; Dublin, Ireland; Johannesburg, South Africa; Sydney Australia; Auckland New Zealand; you get the point. For each of these are all different dialects, there are systematic ways that they are similar, and yet systematic ways that they are also different. To repeat what we said in the first chapter, it is really crucial to understand that when we talk about these dialects, we take the geopolitical out of it. That means that there is no one ‘Chinese language’; there are about 210-ish Chinese languages, and not all of them are part of the Sino-Tibetan family; most of them, but not all of them. The fact that Serbian and Croatian are technically to dialects of the same language, Serbo-Croatian, but that their closeness or distinctness can vary between generations and that entirely depends on the relations between those two cultures. As we said, Norwegian and Swedish and, technically, Danish are all dialects of the same language; it is now considered Northern Germanic or Scandinavian. There are different dialects of it.

    When you can't understand when somebody is talking to you—not because you choose not to, but because you actually cannot understand the words coming out of their mouths—that's when you have a different language scenario. If it's close, it's probably a dialect.

    How exactly do dialects arise? The simple answer is there's some kind of isolation to speech communities. There was originally one, and there somehow became a break or situation that created isolation; that is how you get to dialects. It doesn’t happen instantaneously, rather it usually takes several generations. We can have a variety of ways to separate or isolate as a given speech community.

    Certainly, geographical dialects are the first thing that most people think about with respect to dialectology. We're going to take a look at Appalachian English (AE) in a different section of this chapter, because I want to give proper respect to it. It's not just ‘hillbilly English’; it's not just some 'poor English', ‘mountain English’, whatever you want to call it. In linguistic terms, it's a very rich dialect and actually gives us a lot of insight as to how English came to be the way it is now.

    We also have social dialects, gender dialects, and class-based dialects. We'll look at a few will look at African American English Vernacular (AAE). Certainly, the isolation there has to do with the institution of slavery and the segregation of anybody who was in part or in whole of African descent. We also will briefly look at a couple of different social dialects that have to do with gender and sexuality. We'll look a little bit into class-based dialects, and then finally we'll talk about scientific or jargon isolation. If you think about it, that makes sense. If you work in a particular industry, you tend to have a certain manner of speaking with your colleagues and with others in your industry—that's also a type of isolation and that can create a dialect.

    As we go through this concept of sociolinguistics, remember what is a society is—what we're at the heart of and how they use language to differentiate themselves.

    Attitudes about Accents, in Anderson's Essentials of Linguistics

    Video Script

    Let’s talk about accents. Why do non-native speakers have an accent? Well, actually, everybody has an accent. It’s just that if someone’s accent is pretty similar to your own accent, you don’t really notice it. You only notice accents that are different from your own accent.
    So a better way of asking this question would be why do L2 speakers have accents that are different from L1 speakers? We saw in the last unit that the mental grammar of an L2 speaker is influenced by their experience of their native language, their L1. So the accent of an L1 Mandarin speaker in English is going to be different from the accent of an L1 Dutch speaker.

    Now the thing about having an accent that is noticeably different is that people will notice it because it’s different. When I moved to Chicago in 1998 after having lived in Ontario for 25 years, people said to me, “You sound weird. Are you Canadian?” My vowels were different from Chicago vowels, and people in Chicago noticed that difference. I didn’t really experience any negative consequences of sounding like a Canadian while living in the US, but if you have an accent that’s different from the people you spend time with, you might have experienced stigma. If an accent is stigmatized that doesn’t mean it’s bad or inferior in some way — remember that linguistics doesn’t rate or rank languages or accents. But if it’s stigmatized, that means people have negative attitudes and expectations about that accent. In places where the majority of people speak English, there’s often a stigma towards people who aren’t native speakers, who learned English as adults. But there are also some varieties of L1 English whose speakers experience stigma, such as African-American English, the varieties spoken in the southeastern United States, and in Canada, Newfoundland English.

    For people whose accent is different from the mainstream, there can be many negative consequences. You’re less likely to get a job interview, and your boss might not recognize your skills. It’s harder to find a landlord who’s willing to rent you an apartment. If you have to go to court, what you say won’t be taken as seriously, and the court reporter is likelier to make mistakes in transcribing your testimony. Kids whose accents aren’t mainstream are disproportionately labelled with learning disabilities and streamed out of academic classrooms into special ed. And probably Alexa, Siri, and Google won’t understand your requests!

    Why do these things happen? Well, in the case of Alexa, it’s because the training data doesn’t include enough variation in dialects and accents. But the rest of these situations arise from people’s expectations, and their expectations come from their experiences and their attitudes. Now, for issues of stigma, it’s hard to observe people’s attitudes directly, because by and large it’s not socially acceptable to express negative attitudes towards minority groups. So instead, researchers use a technique called a matched-guise study to try to draw conclusions about attitudes.

    A matched-guise study works like this. The researchers present participants with some kind of stimulus. In the original 1950 experiment using this technique, the stimulus was yearbook pictures from a local university. They hold the stimulus constant, and change the guise that it appears in. So in 1950, the guise was the name that labelled the yearbook picture. One group saw the pictures with so-called American names, and another group saw the pictures with Italian or Irish names. Then the researchers asked their participants to rate the people in the pictures as to their Beauty, Intelligence, Ambition, and Entertainingness.

    The core idea in a matched-guise study is that if you find a difference in your participants’ ratings, that difference can’t be because of the stimulus, because you’ve held the stimulus constant. Any difference in ratings must be because of the guise — the way you labelled your stimuli. I’ll leave you to guess how the ratings in that 1950 study differed with the different guises.

    Molly Babel and Jamie Russell, two linguists at the University of British Columbia, conducted a matched-guise study with UBC students as listeners. They recorded the voices of several people who were native speakers of English, who had grown up in Canada. These recordings were the stimulus. Then when they played these recordings to the listeners, they presented them either as audio-only, with a picture of the face of a White Canadian person, or with a picture of a Chinese Canadian person. For any given voice, the listeners rated the talker as having a stronger accent when they saw a Chinese Canadian face than when they saw a White Canadian face, and they were also less accurate at writing down the sentences the talker said. Apparently the faces influenced how well the listeners understood the talkers.

    Dr. Babel interprets their results as a mismatch of expectations. In Richmond, BC, where they conducted their study, more than 40% of the population speaks either Cantonese or Mandarin. If you live in Richmond, you have a greater chance of encountering L1 Chinese speakers in your daily life than L1 English speakers. So when you see a face that appears Chinese, you have an expectation, based on your daily experience, that that person’s accent is going to be Chinese. If the person’s accent turns out to be that of a native speaker of English, the mismatch with your expectations makes it harder to understand what they say.

    So we’ve seen that people’s expectations, their experiences and their attitudes can lead to stigma for speakers with accents that are different from the mainstream. And that stigma can have serious, real-life consequences on people’s employment and housing and education. But there can be consequences for listeners too!

    If you’re having a hard time understanding someone whose accent is different from yours, that could have serious consequences, for example if you’re getting medical advice or trying to learn something new. It’s pretty common for L1 English speakers to argue that L2 speakers should try to “reduce” their accents, but as linguists we know that that’s hard to do after childhood, because your L2 grammar is shaped by your L1 experience. Fortunately, linguistics research also tells us that even though it’s hard to change how you speak an L2, it’s relatively easy to change how you hear someone speaking an L2.

    Just as our experience and our expectations can lead to stigma, our experience also influences our perception. The more experience we have listening to someone, the better we understand what they say: this is called perceptual adaptation. Perceptual adaptation was first shown for a single talker: the longer listeners had to listen to an unfamiliar talker, the more they understood of what the talker said. Extensions of that research have also shown that experience listening to several speakers with a particular accent makes it easier to understand a new speaker with that same accent. And it turns out that listening to a whole variety of different unfamiliar accents then makes it easier to understand a new talker with a completely different accent. In short, the more experience we have listening to someone, the more familiarity we have with their voice or their accent, and the more familiarity we have, the better we’ll understand what they’re saying.

    So if you are listening to someone whose accent is different from yours the best way to understand them is to listen more. And if you’re talking to someone and they’re finding your accent unfamiliar, you can say to them, just listen more!

    1: Sociolinguistics definitions is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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