Why not speak like the neighbours : linguistic variation as a social marker
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It is obvious to speakers of any language that language changes. The schoolchildren who think Shakespeare wrote in ‘Old English’ are more likely to be dismayed by the difficulty of reading Early Modern English than surprised that Hamlet, or even Bottom, does not speak as they do. Similarly, their parents would probably be taken aback if they found their offspring’s speech and vocabulary to be exact replicas of their own. Why languages change is a matter of less certainty. In a sense, of course, that statement is not quite accurate. A short browse of comments on the website of the BBC’s Voices project reveals that while modern linguists may disagree about the reasons for language change, many non-linguists are quite certain they know why: laziness and sloppiness, encouraged in Britain by the corrupting influence of American and Australian television. It would seem that to most people, linguistic change is far from being a positive thing - an attitude that is even preserved in such words as etymology, from Greek ετυμος ‘true’. As McMahon (1999: 315-6) and Labov (2001: 10-11) note, the notion of linguistic change as primarily a process of decay was prevalent among nineteenth-century linguists. Labov (2001: 4) even uses rather negative language himself (though apparently more out of sympathy for the emotional responses of his subjects than for the classicism of his distant predecessors), dramatically describing the effects of language change as ranging ‘from petty inconveniences to crushing disabilities that can consume years of our lives with unrewarding struggle against hopeless odds.’ He notes that where changes are observed, the reaction is ‘uniformly negative’ and that this, significantly, is in contrast to the attitude of those older people who welcome such innovations as new technologies and music; their applause is never extended to new ways of speaking. Just as the first chapter of most introductory textbooks on syntax stresses the difference between what most people think grammar is (prescriptive) and what linguists mean by it (descriptive), there is a tendency for books that introduce the fundamentals of sociolinguistics or language change to comment on the attitudinal divide described above. What is less often noted, though not unrecognised, is the possibility that this very attitude provides a clue to why language changes. More precisely, there are good reasons for believing that language change is closely connected to social factors such as identity and status. In the desire of the young to distance themselves from their parents, or that of a particular clique, profession, or nation to distinguish itself from another, there is a stimulus to innovation. In the desire to talk like one’s peers, or ‘betters’ (or even, in some cases, one’s ‘inferiors’), there is reason for innovations to be propagated. Of course, if the imitation is not perfect – in cases of hypercorrection, for example - there may even be further innovation, followed by further propagation and so on. In any case, the issue of group membership highlights the relevance of negative attitudes to change. If individual speech patterns are a marker of both membership and non-membership, then they can be threatening, for where they differ from the speaker’s own modes of expression, they imply his exclusion from something. The experience of being excluded by a younger generation of one’s own compatriots is particularly unpleasant – ‘It’s fine for Americans to speak like that; I know I’m not part of that group and I don’t want to be! But when my own children start speaking like them, well….’ There is another side to this. After the 7 July terrorist bombings in London, one of the most disturbing aspects of the situation for many commentators seems to have been the fact that the bombers were British; most tellingly, several commented explicitly on the fact that the bombers and their supporters spoke with Yorkshire accents. It seems relevant to quote Bennett and Royle’s (1999: 40) definition of ‘uncanny’ as ‘those situations when the homely becomes unhomely, when the familiar becomes unfamiliar or the unfamiliar becomes strangely familiar.’ Speech patterns are clearly of the greatest importance in telling outsider from fellow, and where this is undermined, the listener is disturbed. This all raises a further question: why should it be so important to identify individuals as belonging or not belonging to a group; or indeed to assert one’s own membership? It would seem that this serves an evolutionary purpose. As the size of hominin social groups increased beyond the point that individuals could immediately recognise other members of their own group, populations became increasingly at risk from cheats, or free-riders – infiltrators who take advantage of a group’s resources before disappearing without making any contribution to the group themselves. They may even cause sabotage. Identification of such free-riders is crucial, therefore.