Sociolinguistics: The Language of Evasion
Language is constantly changing, and English ostensibly leads the way in modifying itself according to the rules of evasion. George Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language,” points out how the language has become vague and misleading, opening that “most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.” He goes on to say that “our civilization is decadent and our language ... must inevitably share in the general collapse.” Nowhere is this more evident than in societal goals regarding the removal of words, phrases, and colloquialisms that are popular in the United States. There are many tools used by society to achieve these aims, such as the prohibition of language (banned languages), development of a cultural distinction of “taboo” words, and straight stigmatization of dialects based off of historical, economical, and cultural reasons.
Because of numerous concerns (religious, philosophical, and ethical, among others), societies find words that it deems as unsuitable for usage in “polite company.” This is what is known as sociolinguistic competence. SIL defines this as the ability to interpret the social meaning of the choice of linguistic varieties and to use language with the appropriate social meaning for the communication situation. That is to say an American knows that when meeting a potential employer, it is best not to say “Hey, how ya doin’?” and instead say “Good afternoon. Pleased to meet you.” While sociolinguistics is a very broad field of study, the competence is what will be discussed in this paper—the recognition and use of “appropriate” varieties of language.
It’s easy to immediately question just how society determines what is and what is not appropriate language, but native speakers rarely ask this -- they're far too busy employing said competence when dealing with situations in which speaking is important. It is quite impossible to scientifically determine what will and what will not become a banned language, dialect, or word. More importantly, it’s equally impossible to determine the underlying reasons for how one dialect wins over another depending on what social interaction is happening. In German, for example, the two main cases of interaction in the language are determined by the familiar wie geht’s? ("what’s up?") and the formal wie geht es Ihnen? ("how are you, sir/ma’am?"). It is quite cut and dry which dialect to use—there is, in fact, a noun identifier whose singular purpose is to be used in formal encounters. If encountering a new professor, the formal dialect is necessary, though it is common enough that, when time rolls on, the exchange switches to the familiar tense, though by no means absolute. It is much the same in Standard American English (SAE) though by far more complicated. Because these dialects are mutually intelligible, however, it makes it that much more difficult to understand the societal cringing that may occur when the wrong one is utilized.
As such, a non-native speaker of SAE could spend a lifetime trying to figure out which form of the language to use at any given time. Unfortunately, this leads quickly to a prohibition of a dialect -- as what nearly occurred in California during the AAVE debate (AAVE = African American Vernacular English, sometimes called Ebonics). The contention was that AAVE stood as a different language and in public schools it should be respected and taught as one. Opponents claimed that it was nothing more than “bad English” used by lazy people who did not know the rules of SAE. Proponents argued that it was a viable dialect with systematic differences from the standard dialect of English. This debate is an ironic one, considering SAE’s departure from the BBC dialect of British English.
As a language grows and assimilates new words into its lexicon, certain words become stigmatized by society. These are “taboo” words that sociolinguistic competence tells us not to use -- though an interesting side-effect of this determination is that the words become all the more potent, used for special emphasis for a point or a degradation towards another person. All languages have these taboo words, though sometimes, as in the case of the word “bloody” in Britain, neither the populace nor the historical linguists knows just why a word has become taboo. More often than not, these taboo words relate to topics that are considered “private,” such as what one does in the bathroom, the bedroom, or when no one else is around. George Orwell would also point out that while it is hard to see any practical reason for the change, “it is probably due to an instinctive turning away from the more homely word [to] a vague feeling that the [non-taboo] word is scientific.” He argues that the result, in general, “is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.”
The final tool used by society to manipulate sociolinguistic competence is recognition of historical, economic, and cultural differences, particularly here in the United States. This is a vast country with countless different types of people, and the language shows that. While SAE is roughly determined by the Midwestern dialect, and can be found in pronunciation keys prefacing American dictionaries, it is a rare dialect, and often does not keep up with the times. For example, the eating disorder bulimia is pronounced across the United States as "buh-LEEM-ee-uh" where SAE still demands it be pronounced "byoo-LIM-ee-uh." Word pronunciation is in fact a profoundly powerful tool in the hands of society. By stigmatizing accents, and the way some people pronounce certain words, a societal determination can be made simply by listening to a person’s “accent.” As Henry Higgins says in the musical My Fair Lady, “an Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him / the moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.” As it is in America, where people from the Southern states are immediately decried as ignorant rednecks, while the slow northern drawl of Minnesota is considered quaint. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest one dialect is “better” than another, just as there is no scientific way to say one word is “dirty” while another is not, but because the South lost the Civil War, the standards of SAE have shifted away from the Southern lilt.
Just as society affects language, language affects society. The interaction between these two ideas is capricious at best. The language and dialects used by a society are an effective barometer in determining where that society is and where it is headed. Just the same, a societal shift inevitably leaves markers to help determine to where a language is evolving.
Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” The Orwell Reader. Richard H. Rovere. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Inc., 1984. 355-366.
SIL International: Partners in Language Development. 23 Oct 1998. 20 Nov 2003. http://www.sil.org