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Language & Society

Language in Its Social Setting Language is a social phenomenon. In America — as anywhere — it’s shaped by contact, conflict and incredible cultural complexity. Dennis Baron explains how. Read Full Article

Language is a social phenomenon. Because language arises naturally and inevitably in all human groups, linguists study not simply the sounds, grammars and meanings of the world’s languages, but also how these languages function in their social settings. Many linguists believe that humans are genetically programmed to learn language, but it still takes social contact to turn on the switch that makes us talk.

American English has varieties, called dialects, that are determined by social factors. For example, the geographical dialects of New England, the Midwest, the South, New York City, or Texas came about through the interaction of people who settled in those areas.

We attribute other varieties of American English to ethnic factors (Black English); to contact with other languages (Spanglish); to gender (the linguistic battle of the sexes); or to age (teenspeak). But these varieties, too, come about through social mixing and/or isolation, differences in status and power, and economics and politics. Factors such as education, social class and occupation also shape our language.

Because our social networks tend to be complex, we all use multiple versions of our native language. We may speak differently when we’re with friends, relatives or strangers; when we’re at home, in school or on the job. The context of communication — its purpose and audience — determines whether our words are spoken or written, formal or informal, full of slang or technical jargon, off-color, colorful, or colorless. The social context of communication also affects the degree to which our language approaches or avoids the norms of correctness that our speech community deems appropriate to the occasion.

Social contact and social conflict both shape language. When World War I produced strong anti-German feeling in the United States, some Americans abandoned words of obvious German origin, such as frankfurter and sauerkraut, in favor of hot dog and liberty cabbage. More recently, anti-French feeling led some Americans to replace French fries with “freedom fries.” Such gestures are purely superficial — symbolic, and in the case of liberty cabbage and freedom fries, temporary. However, linguistic prejudice can run deep and cause lasting damage.

America is a nation forged from many cultures. As a result, controversies erupt over the use of minority languages or nonstandard varieties of English — on storefronts or on the job, in the voting booth or the classroom. The press, the legislatures and the courts become forums for noisy debate about the legal rights of speakers of minority languages and dialects.

On the international scene, sociolinguists are looking at how American English influences other languages through popular music, film, television, and the Internet. Speaking American can be a status symbol — yet can also conjure the unwelcome image of an arrogant superpower.

The social aspects of American English often reflect a wide range of nonlinguistic issues. Language is social. Sociolinguists study how it shapes and reflects such issues as school success or failure, patriotism or prejudice, democracy or imperialism, and more on the local, national, and international levels, in order to paint a more complete picture of how language in America works.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Chaika, Elaine. Language: The Social Mirror. 3rd ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1994.
  • Wolfram, Walt and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999.
Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of several books on the English language, including The English-Only Question: An Official Language for Americans? (Yale Univ. Press, 1990); Grammar and Gender (Yale, 1986); Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language (Yale, 1982); Declining Grammar (National Council of Teachers of English, 1989); and Guide to Home Language Repair (NCTE: 1994). He writes for academic journals but his essays have also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and other newspapers, and he speaks about language issues both on his local public radio station, WILL-AM, and on radio and TV programs in other cities around the country. He is currently writing a book on the impact of technology on our reading and writing practices.

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