Essay: What factors might cause an individual to vary their use of language?

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  • Subject area(s): English language essays
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  • Published on: March 4, 2016
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  • What factors might cause an individual to vary their use of language?
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Language variation is a topic which evokes much discussion within the study of sociolinguistics. As humans we all develop a unique pattern of speech, influenced by factors such as context, geography and ethnic origin,which are just some of the components which contribute into constructing a person’s individual idiolect. This concept can be used to explain the wide range of variation, which is evident within language.By writing this essay I aim to explore these factors which vary a speakers use of language and attempt to address how and why these factors motivate variation and have such an impact in shaping the way in which we use language.

Social Factors

In regards to contextual factors, it is apparent that social situations can determine the way in which a speaker may adjust their use of language ,such as pronunciation (phonology),our choice of lexis and our use of grammar in order to meet the demands of the situation.

Accommodation theory (Giles H,1973) explores this variation in language in response to contextual triggers . This variation is known as convergence in which a speaker will attempt to reduce the social distance between the person they are addressing by mirroring their speech .For instance increasing formality within an interview setting and perhaps moving towards the use of Standard English .This acts to convey solidarity and equality between both speakers.

Meanwhile Divergence almost has the opposite motivation as the speaker is seen to accentuate their language features for example exaggerating their accent in order to mark the social distance.This perhaps demonstrated at football matches were each team wishes to mark the difference between themselves and the opposition.

‘A lot of the differences in how speakers use language depends on what kind of person we perceive ourselves to be ,or how we want to be perceived by others.’ Le page and Tabouret-keller (1985)

This suggests that our use of language can be thought of as an act of identity in the idea that different ways of using language constitute social actions and involve expressing social and personal identities.

However, in today’s society, accents are often categorised into belonging to a particular social class which proposes a link towards a person’s socioeconomic status.Amongst the stereotypes of accents it can be seen that accents and regional dialects within language almost have a social hierarchy.Again ,this idea of language being an act of identity correlates with the way in which our accent as a result of our geographical location can lead to assumptions about a person’s level of education,background and income.

Trudgill (1974) studied the relationship between language and social class amongst Norwich speakers and found that when comparing working class speakers with upper class speakers that those from the lower social class were more likely to drop their ‘g’s’ when pronouncing words.This is an example of the way in which social class can affect a person’s language.

Jenny Cheshire challenged this concept and measured the amount of non standard features of language amongst peer groups from contrasting social classes.Results lead to the conclusion that the peer groups we surround ourselves rather than the social class we are born into affect our use of non standard English.

‘One will have little chance of succeeding in the diplomatic corps if one does not possess a range of knowledge that marks one as the ‘right’ kind of person;the right table manners,the right style of dress,the right ways of entertaining guests,the right language…this is equally true if one is to be accepted in a peasant village or in an urban ghetto’. (Penelope Eckert 1998)

(Woolard 1985) supported this quotation and added to this by saying that what is ‘right’ depends on the ‘linguistic market’ in which one is engaged.This suggests that language variation and what is proposed as being more prestigious and successful is not only apparent between social classes but rather than within each social class for instance within occupation.For example if you wished to be a successful doctor the need to use Standard English would be emphasised as well as the need to know medical terms linked to the specific occupation. However to gain status within the music industry e.g Rap scene the need for the use of Standard of English would not be as crucial as the need for the use of language prestigious within that environment. This is a demonstration how occupation can be a further factor of variation.

Moreover,age can also be a determining factor in regards to our language.Studies throughout sociolinguistics have shown that features of a particular regional dialect/accent are more prominent amongst older generations than younger generations.Labov(1972) found that older New Yorkers were less likely to pronounce the ‘r’ in words such as ‘floor’ than were younger speakers.(Peccei.J 2011).This links to the concept of ‘dialect levelling’ proposed by Paul Kerswill (1996).

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