Speakers and communities

Speakers and communities

Society consists of individuals, and both sociologists and sociolinguists would agree that it is essential to keep individuals firmly in the centre of interest, and to avoid losing sight of them while talking about large-scale abstractions and movements. The individual speaker is important in sociolinguistics in much the same way that the individual cell is important in biology: if we don’t understand how the individual works, to that extent we shan’t be able to understand how collections of individuals behave either.

Moreover, there is an even more important reason for focusing on the individual in sociolinguistics, which does not apply to the cell in biology (or not to the same extent): we can be sure that no two speakers have the same language, because no two speakers have the same experience of language. The differences between speakers may vary from the very slight and trivial (in the case of twins brought up together, for instance) to total difference within whatever limits are set by universal characteristics of language. Unlike the individual cell, the individual speaker is presumably molded much more by experience (as a listener) than by genetic make-up, and experience consists in fact of speech produced by other individual speakers, each of whom is unique.

The uniqueness of each person’s sociolinguistic past is not the only source of differences between speakers, however. We can imagine a person constructing a more or less unconscious mental map of the community in which they live, in which the people around them are arranged in a ‘multi-dimensional space’, i.e. showing similarities and differences relative to one another on a large number of different dimensions or parameters. Some of these dimensions involve linguistic differences – such as how some particular word is pronounced – and the map consequently covers linguistic parameters as well as variables of other types. The particular map which each individual draws will reflect their own personal experience, so people with different sociolinguistic backgrounds will be led to construct correspondingly different maps relevant to language and society.

However, the individual is not simply a ‘social automaton’ controlled by this map, nor is the map itself just a direct and unselective record of past experience. Rather individuals filter their experience of new situations through their existing map and two people could both hear the same person talking, but be affected in different ways. For instance a Briton and an American could watch the same American film, but learn quite different facts from it about language – what for the American viewer counts as a new fact about how poor whites in the Deep South talk might count for the Briton simply as a new fact about how Americans talk. From this point of view, we may expect differences in existing maps to lead to differences in later ones, even where the experience on which the changes are based is objectively the same in both cases.

To complete this picture of the sources of differences between individuals, we can return to the multi-dimensional space to which we referred above. There is ample evidence, that society is structured, from a sociolinguistic point of view, in terms of a multi-dimensional space. One need only think of the rather obvious ways in which people can be classified more or less independently according to the dimensions of age, region of origin, social class (or profession) and gender, to see an example of a four-dimensional space, each dimension of which is relevant to language. Once we have constructed a model of how this multi-dimensional space looks from our point of view, we then have to choose where to locate ourselves in it. Language is only one part of the picture, of course, but a particularly important part because it gives us a very clearly structured set of symbols which we can use in locating ourselves in the world. The people around us belong to a variety of social types (for example, old males are very different from young females), and we have to decide where we ourselves belong among these types. If different types speak differently we can use our own speech to signal this choice. In other words, at each utterance our speech can be seen as an ACT OF IDENTITY in a multidimensional space.

Against this background of the last few paragraphs, in which we have emphasized the scope for individual variation among speakers, we may be impressed by the amount of agreement that is often found among speakers. It is important to point out that the degree of similarity generally found between speakers goes well beyond what is needed for efficient communication. Our particular pronunciations of them must be precisely the same as those of the people we take as models. Similarly, our syntactic restrictions on the use of particular words will be more or less exact copies of the restrictions applied by other people (for example, all English speakers agree in restricting probable to use with a that-clause, in contrast with its synonym likely which can be used either with a that-clause or with an infinitive: It’s likely/probable that we’ll be late, or We’re likely to be late, but not * We’re probable to be late).

Perhaps the show-piece for the triumph of conformity over efficient communication is the area of irregular morphology, where the existence of irregular verbs or nouns in a language like English has no pay-off from the point of view of communication (it makes life easier for neither the speaker nor the hearer, nor even for the language learner). The only explanation for the continued existence of such irregularities must be the need for each of us to be seen to be conforming to the same rules, in detail, as those we take as models. As is well known, children tend to use regular forms (such as goed for went), but later abandon these forms simply in order to conform with older people. The two ‘forces’ which we have now considered, one leading to individual differences and the other leading to similarities between individuals, may be referred to for convenience as INDIVIDUALISM and CONFORMITY. The amount of variation actually found within any given community will depend on the relative strengths of these two forces, so that conformity will predominate in some communities and individualism in others.

The terms FOCUSING and DIFFUSION have been suggested for these two kinds of situations. Focusing is found where there is a high degree of contact among speakers and agreement on linguistic norms, and is typical of very closely knit small communities, or of societies where there is a highly standardized written language such as English or French. Diffusion, on the other hand, is found where neither of these conditions holds, an extreme example being Romany, the gipsy language. Of course, there is no question of a clear distinction between focusing and diffusion; rather they are the names for the two ends of a scale on which any society, or part of it, may be located.

Interestingly, it has never been suggested that individuals can be more or less conformist so far as language is concerned, though it is of course conceivable that such differences exist. In order to show that they do, it would be necessary to find differences in, for instance, the extent to which individuals maintain irregularity in their morphology. It would not be enough to show that some individuals reject the model of their parents (as they clearly do), since this is probably because they are conforming to a different model (that of their peers) rather than to no model at all. There may also be individual differences in willingness to create new vocabulary or to use language metaphorically, in which case the ‘creative’ individual would be going beyond the accepted norms, and perhaps breaking them under special circumstances (for example, in poetry).

However, such creativity seems to take place against the background of a normal, conformist language system. Conformity extends to some unexpected areas of our linguistic behavior, of which perhaps the most surprising is swearing. Native speakers of English all know expressions like shit and bloody, and for each one we know exactly how it is used (for example, shit is either a noun or an exclamation, whereas bloody can only be used as an adjective; and shit is ‘stronger’ than bloody). We learn these words in just the same way as we learn the rest of our language, by hearing them used by other people, and like many other parts of language their function is to express an emotion (compare Oh dear! and Hurray!, which are not swear words). What makes swearing different is that the emotions expressed are both strong and negative, emotions which are socially dangerous; and what makes it interesting is that our society provides us with a list of words which are suitable for expressing such emotions precisely because they come with the label ‘Danger – Do not use!’ – dangerous words for expressing dangerous emotions. The words concerned are typically linked through their meaning to socially dangerous areas of life – religion, substances that come out of our bodies and sex; and the extent to which our society sees these words as dangerous can be seen in the fact that swear words are ranked with sex and violence as the three dangerous elements in terms of which TV shows, films and videos are classified.

As regards conformity, the main relevance of swearing is that we meekly use the resources provided by our language even when we are expressing strong (and antisocial) feelings; and we always follow the grammatical rules. On the other hand, our individualism is relevant as well because we choose to ignore the ‘do not use!’ rule – a nice example of the principle that rules exist in order to be broken!

Sociolinguistics R.A. Hudson