Language and Its Functions in Society

Table of contents

Introduction

Language is the most conspicuous and fundamental means of social interactions between humans (Sirbu, 2015). Many scholars assert that not only is it a mode of communication between individuals, but it is also a way for us to negotiate who we are and how we relate ourselves to a social group or even the whole world.

In other words, identity and social relationships are not something we possess, but something that develop through our language use and choice in communicative events. In agreement with this view, I am going to probe how languages function in our interpersonal communication, social communities and social perception.

Language and Interpersonal Communication

First, we negotiate and ratify our social distance and power relationships with our interlocutors through a verbal exchange. This is referred as the interpersonal function of language (Halliday,1994). In general, there are two kinds of strategies we adopt to negotiate our identities and relationships in interaction (Jones, 2012). When adopting involvement strategies, we want to establish or maintain a sense of ‘closeness’ with our interlocutors.

The practices include addressing people by their first names or nicknames, using informal language and emphasizing our common interests or points of view. For instance, we always talk to our friends in this way, ‘Hey, Adie! Have you watched the latest episode of Black Mirror? It’s really great!’ By contrast, when adopting independence strategies, we want to establish or maintain a certain distance from our interlocutors.

This is often because we want to show them respect by not imposing on them. In this case, we often embrace approaches like employing formal language and terms of address, apologizing and admitting differences. Moreover, the implementation of involvement strategies or independence strategies affect the power relationships between the speakers and even other people involved in the conversation.

To take the example of the convener of a wedding ceremony (often a priest or a lawyer), he or she usually turns to the groom and says, ‘You may now kiss the bride’ in lieu of ‘Why don’t you give her a kiss!’ Apart from creating a respectful distance between the couple and the convener, the use of formal language, namely the modal verb ‘may’, further shows that the convener has exerted power over the couple as he permits their act of kissing. In brief, one of the functions of language is to affirm our social distance and power relations to our interlocutors.

Language and Social Communities

Second, we usually use languages in a way that is common amongst certain groups of speakers. These ways we speak identify who we are and how we want to relate to others. Bakhtin (1981) defines these patterns of group interactions as sociolects, such as professional jargons and languages of the authorities of various circles. As for those sharing a set of jargon and mechanisms for communication, they are called discourse communities (Swales, 1990).

The group-specific linguistic items not only help define the group, but they also keep out people who do not belong to them. For example, as members of a medical discourse community, doctors tend to use a variety of technical acronyms like URI (Upper Respiratory Infection) and DJD (Degenerative Joint Disease), which can be hardly understood by outsiders. This use of a common language indicates that the speakers strategically relate themselves to a particular social group.

As for those using the same language variety and specific norms for speaking and for interpreting speech, they are called speech communities (Yule, 1996). Their language use is typically inherited by birth or adoption and manifested on language variations. In the research study done by Hymes (1981), several Native American speech communities say that they will speak English with some narrative structures which are originally from the Native American languages.

Another instance is the non-use of the verb ‘to be’ in the African American speech community (Llamus & Stockwell, 2010): Speakers of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) would say ‘they Tina’s house; whereas the speakers of American English or standard British English would say ‘they’re at Tina’s house’. This feature is specific for AAVE as it cannot be found in any other American dialect. From these practices, we can see that language as a symbolic device for speakers of diverse communities to maintain their identities and relationships.

Language and Social Perception

Third, the way we speak affects how we and our interlocutors perceive us. In almost all modern societies across the globe, the authorities have carried out the process of standardization, in which “one variety of a particular language is promoted as the ‘standard’ form” (Finegan, 2004, p.13). This ‘standard form’ is further promoted in various important domains, including education, business and media, and is treated as the ‘correct’ form of the language.

Consequently, prestige is attached to only one ‘standard’ variety, while stigma is attached to the ‘non-standard’ varieties. Once you speak in that non-standard variety, you will be related and restricted to the group of the uneducated, socially and economically less advanced. The linguistic situation in Haiti is a typical example. Both Haitian Creole and French are the national languages of Haiti; however, the latter is recognized as a prestigious language while the former is not (Wardhaugh & Fuller, 2011).

The public look down upon Haitian Creole and consider the officialization of written and spoken Haitian Creole in schools as limiting their access to French and, therefore, their social and economic mobility. Additionally, the elites do not want to interact with speakers of Haitian Creole. The case of standard and non-standard accents is more or less the same.

While the received pronunciation, which is also known as the Queen’s English, is highly appreciated, certain regional accents like cockney accent and Indian English are constantly despised. In some nations, your accent limits you to a certain social class and who you can get along with. This reveals that the linguistic situation in society is intrinsically tied to power relationships among social groups. The social class of people is fixed, especially those at the lower end of the social hierarchy. That is to say, languages restrict our social relationships.

Conclusion

All in all, languages lay the foundations for us to construct and ratify social relationships. It also serves as a convenient means for unifying social groups and facilitating in-group communication. Furthermore, it is very interesting that while social factors affect language, speakers of a language or languages also impose those factors in society.

Yet, the dominance or even imperialism of certain language varieties and accents has resulted in biases towards speakers of vernacular language varieties and accents. This could be a reminder for us to re-evaluate the influences of the ‘standard’ languages and consider how to treat speakers of the ‘non-standard’ languages fairly. (1100 words)

References

  • Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Finegan, E. (2004). Language: its structure and use (4th ed.). Boston, Mass.: Thomson.
  • Halliday, M. A. K. (2004). An introduction to functional grammar (3rd ed.). London: New York: Arnold ; Distributed in the United States of America by Oxford University Press.
  • Hymes, D. H. (1981). “In vain I tried to tell you”: essays in Native American ethnopoetics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Jones, R. H. (2012). Discourse Analysis: A Resource Book for Students. Routledge.
  • Llamas, C., & Stockwell, P. (2010). Sociolinguistics. In N. Schmitt (Ed.), An Introduction to Applied Linguistics (2nd ed., pp. 150–169). London: Hodder Education.
  • Sirbu, A. (2015). The Significance of Language as a Tool of Communication. Scientific Bulletin “Mircea Cel Batran” Naval Academy; Constanta, 18(2), 405–406.
  • Swales, J. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wardhaugh, R., & Fuller J.M. (2011). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Somerset: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Yule, G. (1996). The study of language (2nd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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