DOES OUR SOCIAL GROUP REALLY REFLECT OUR LANGUAGE?
As part of my English Language A-Level, I have to write editorials for all of the different topics. To practice writing in an editorial style more, and practice writing about the content I am learning, I am going to be uploading different editorials as I progress through my course.
Another part of writing editorials is stating the intended audience. For this particular one, I wrote it as if I was writing for The Daily Mail, for people of any gender/sex, roughly aged 18 and above
Hope you enjoy!
Does our social group really reflect our language?
Do birds of a feather actually flock together?
For years, there has been a global push of inclusivity and diversity. One need only look at the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, which reignited the female empowerment movement to follow in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to know that society has pushed to destroy stereotypes and boundaries. Movements have sparked, for decades, internationally to abolish barricades limiting equality and pushing for a more diverse society. Yet in 2021, can we truly say that our own personal social groups are that diverse? Sure, we see adverts featuring a whole host of people from different backgrounds, all celebrating one another’s cultures and identities; yes, we may pride ourselves on having friends from all over the country – maybe from across the world – but how true do we stay to our own identity when mixing with a vast range of people? Do opposites attract? Or do were merely conform to the linguistic standard of one particular group in order to establish our own presence within it? At some point in our life we have all either converged (sound more RP to match the listener) or diverged (estranged yourself linguistically from the listener) as Giles proposed in the 1970s in order to establish our social needs and opinions as an interlocutor. Are we as accepting as a society as we claim to be?
Perhaps you’ve noticed it yourself when you were at school, the obvious formation of distinct friendship groups. You could’ve been a part of the stereotypical “popular” group or the “nerdy” group. You probably saw people falling out and being excluded, you could’ve been that person also. However, one type of person you probably did witness throughout school was a ‘floater’, this is someone who did not categorically belong to one group, they crafted their own identity and therefore would not fit to one social group. This would be due to a social group being defined as two or more people who share similar characteristics and linguistic features, and by flouting even one group’s norms you would be immediately ostracised because of it. It is very common in all social groups (in an education setting or not) to use in group talk. This linguistic feature is used by all social groups imaginable as an indicator of belonging and identity. This in group talk gives its members a sense of attachment, and members within that group would often refer to the whole group using the second person personal pronoun “we” when recounting a story to non-group members.
Due to this in group talk, it can be extremely difficult for “outsiders” to join the ranks; linguist Amy Bellows summarised that when teenagers form their own personal identity and the identity of their social groups many would use cliquish exclusion in the form of appearance and language. Therefore, the ‘floater’ as previously described would have to change their entire identity in order to fit in with said social group. Does this make all people within a social group just a carbon copy of one another? Interestingly, linguist Penelope Eckert conducted a study in 2000 at an American high school in Detroit. Here, Eckert found two distinctive social groups: the ‘Burnouts’ and the ‘Jocks’. To qualify to be a Jock, one must be very involved with education and school life, as well as being concerned with speaking in a prestigious way (often reflecting their middle-class background). Alternatively, to qualify as a Burnout, one must not be enthusiastic about school life, and instead use exaggerated pronunciations associated with the urban neighbourhood the school was situated in. Fascinatingly, the students weren’t just aware of their segregation, but even critiqued the other group: with the Jocks deeming the Burnout’s ungrammatical language, frequent swearing and not always being articulate to be something worth criticising, and the Burnouts mocking the Jocks for sounding too similar to their parents and being arrogant in their language use. Now, of course, the labels Burnout and Jock are just umbrella terms as within these two cultures there were actually sub-groups which were culminations of people who spoke slightly differently to those who were more established members. There would be obvious issues arising for someone who wished to swap groups as their entire persona would have to change, they would almost have to reinvent themselves to be able to migrate from one group to the next, especially due to the angst and obvious dislike of the other group. However, this does beg the question: how are young adults supposed to integrate into a society where social groups are fluid?
Now, more than ever, with social media flourishing and having the ability to connect with a multitude of people from different backgrounds and social groups, it is obvious that the world cannot be defined as one group and another. The world is not black and white, it has a plethora of shades of grey. Therefore, why should someone be ostracised from something just because of their social group? A Burnout certainly could not participate in their high school talent show and still be allowed to ‘hang out with the guys’ afterwards. That would be social suicide, an act of treason.
These restrictions imposed upon people wishing to casually switch between social groups is not just evident to educational settings. Even grown, and seemingly mature, adults also implement the judgemental in group talk as a way of identifying imposters. People who work tirelessly in order to climb to social ladder and create a better life for themselves and their children often find themselves having to divert from their standard dialect features, and adopt a more prestigious vernacular. It appears the only way to climb the ladder successfully and 'gain' social mobility is to literally fake it until you make it. Malcolm Petyt researched Bradford dialect in 1985 to investigate the correlation between ‘h dropping’ (e.g. hat being pronounced as at) and one’s social class. He concluded that the lower your social class, the more likely you were to h-drop, and that those aspiring to raise their status were more likely to conform to RP norms (they desired inclusion, and would therefore have to use overtly prestigious language). Think about it, is this right? Why does someone’s dialect and social group determine their right to progress within society? We deem ourselves accepting as a civilisation, yet those who wish to better themselves must adopt a façade. Does someone’s dialect take away from the magnitude of what they say? Just because they originate from one social group should not determine other people rejecting them because they still incorporate linguistic features from there.
William Labov drew similar conclusions in his 1966 study: The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Labov deduced that those whom wished to appear middle class were more susceptible to the use of the over prestige of the post-vocalic /r/, and 77% of those identified as middle class would purposefully use it when asked to repeat themselves – almost as if they felt the need to prove their status. Yet what does this say more about? Are we that obsessed with how others perceive us in terms of class? While this theory of being self-absorbed and caring about others perceptions of our language could be classed as outdated (as this study did occur 55 years ago), it is not difficult to view someone’s social class being a contextual factor in language variation, and therefore a barrier when attempting to be included in other social groups. But should it be a barrier? Why can people not just mix with whoever they want and let social group standards be damned?
However, social groups being a reflection of our language doesn’t always need to have negative undertones. Simply looking at the topic of familects demonstrates that while it excludes outsiders, there is a genuine reason not just because you don’t deem someone worthy of being a part of your group. A familects is the vernacular used be a family when speaking among themselves, almost like a separate language, and often feature many shibboleths and witty neologisms. The majority of time, if asked why they use an abstract word in place of the concrete noun “TV remote” or why if someone isn’t paying attention during a conversation someone shouts “burger” and everyone has a complete understanding of what that means, there is often a hysterically story to follow. But, these familects are sacred, and to be used by someone estranged from the immediate family is criminal. A person trying to integrate themselves into the dynamic by using their coined words would appear almost mocking in conversation, awkward and would all-round be rejected from the social group. I’m sure you have your own familects, now imagine a colleague or acquaintance attempting to interject in a conversation with you and your family by using your words. It would be weird, right?
So yes, it does appear that birds of a feather do actually flock together. While we may be accepting of other people from varying social groups on the surface, we aren’t as a society all too welcoming of individuals being ingrained in multiple social groups at once. Linguistically social groups are oceans apart. While this does encourage diversity, is the stigma and preconceptions we uphold of certain social groups necessary? Or does this just provide a battleground for hostility and social estrangement? Who knows? Fifty years from now people could be climbing the social ladder without fear of being rejected due to their natural dialect and accent, except that would have to be a world without judgement. Judgement is human nature, it’s an instinct, perhaps the formation of rigid social group expectations is for the good of humanity – we can’t have people infiltrating them all. Or can we?