Sociolinguistics


Introduction

Sociolinguistics is the “study of language in its social context.” (Haviland, 2002, p. 109). This field of study focuses on structure and language use to gain a better understanding of human communication. Recent studies have focused on: gender differences in language use, Ebonics, and code switching.

Gender Differences in Language Use

Many cultures have sex-based roles for their members. This segmentation based on the sex of its member is applied to almost every aspect of the person’s life, including: jobs they perform, roles they play in the family, clothes they wear, and even, as recent studies suggest, the way they structure their speech. An example of speech formation based on sex is seen in English-speaking societies where a “deep seated bias against women” is observed. (Haviland, 2002, p. 108).

In English-speaking societies women often take a subordinate role when speaking, especially when they are speaking to men. They often use the phrase “I’m sorry” in a conversation when they are tying to express concern and sympathy towards the person they are talking with. Even though it is not intended to be a true apology, men often interpret it as such and see it as a sign of submission to their status over the woman. This socially, puts women in a subordinate position to men. (Haviland, 2002, p. 108).

Other examples of how language is used to repress the status of women in society are the words used to describe women and those words used to describe men. “Forceful” is a positive word used to describe male behavior, while the same behavior may be described as “pushy” if a woman displayed it. “Stud” may be used to describe a man with an active sex life, while “slut” is used to describe the same behavior in a women.” If a man loses consciousness he “passes out,” but a women “faints.” This suggests she is weak and doesn’t have the ability to support her own weight, while the description of a man suggests he forcefully falls to the ground still in command of his body. Yet other descriptive words point to women’s lesser strengths, such as the description of personality “spunky” or “feisty” for a women, and “fighter” for a man. (Haviland, 2002, p. 108).Ebonics

Ebonics is an American dialect that is often associated with African American inner-city populations. It has structural influences from the American south, the Caribbean, and West Africa. As a language it has a long history of use and has specific rules of grammar that are based on West African tradition. Ebonics has been a major contributor to the American language and has produced a great portion of the modern American vocabulary. (Haviland, 2002, p. 109-111).

Ebonics is an American dialect that is often associated with African American inner-city populations. It has structural influences from the American south, the Caribbean, and West Africa. As a language it has a long history of use and has specific rules of grammar that are based on West African tradition. Ebonics has been a major contributor to the American language and has produced a great portion of the modern American vocabulary. (Haviland, 2002, p. 109-111).

The controversy about teaching this dialect in schools is based on the fact that it is often defined as “bad” American English, as opposed to recognizing it as a separate language. Those who oppose teaching Ebonics, fear that by teaching BE (Black English, or Ebonics) in school they are simply reinforcing bad American English, that they will confuse the students, and that it will impede their progress. However, if other instances of Native dialects being taught in conjunction with national languages, shows that it improves the student’s literacy and provides them access to a better understanding of literary materials and the grammar of the national language. This was seen in the example of teaching Creole English on Carriacou, Geneva. In this example, Ron Kephart discovered that teaching children in both Creole English and standard English did not confuse them or slow down their progress, but instead seemed to help them gain better comprehension of their reading material. (110-111).

Other studies suggest that native-language first-literacy acquisition and early schooling have many positive effects on students. (Haviland, 2002, pg. 111). By using native languages, students are able to draw on the context of their culture to understand reading materials, and by understanding the grammar rules of their own language, they are better equipped to understand the structures of their national language. The importance of accepting dialectic languages such as Ebonics is that it will help fade the lines of discrimination against the people who speak it natively, and help them learn through avenues of familiarity, as opposed to avenues of punishment.

Code Switching

Code switching is a process where the speaker switches between one form or level of language, to another, based on the audience or situation the language is being used with. (Haviland, 2002, p.112). For example, people often use baby talk when they are communicating with infants. They raise the pitch of their voice and emphasize syllables so that the baby can pick up the structure of the language. The same is seen in the way people talk to senior citizens. They use a form of the common language known as elderese, which increases the volume and slows down the pace of the word frequency. Additionally, in Scotland, Scots English is considered a valid and important language that is taught and utilized in the school system. Because of the emphasis of importance that is placed on this dialectic form of English, students are able to switch between Standard English and Scots English easily depending on the situation. (p. 111). This has an important implication about how the use of native languages can be utilized in school systems to integrate traditional cultural languages with national standard languages without fear of blurring, impeded progress, or confusion.

Conclusion

Humans have a complex system of communication. Through studies of sociolinguistics we have discovered that: gender identification affects the way language is constructed and presented, that the study and utilization of native languages, such as Ebonics, can have beneficial influences in the learning of national languages, and that code switching can be done easily based on the audience and situation of the conversation. These discoveries have great importance to the understanding of how social context affects the way language is constructed and delivered, and how, as a culture, we can improve relationships by removing stigma attached to certain dialects.

References

Haviland, William A. (2002). Cultural Anthropology. (10th ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers.Lee, Valerie L., and Searles, Richard T. (2002). Study Guide for the Telecourse Faces of Culture. (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

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