Even though we use language constantly, we usually take it for granted. When we pay attention to it, it’s usually because something has gone wrong or because we’re passionate about the topic or speaker. While we will consider cases where things go wrong, in this book, we focus more often on how language works successfully, in common situations, in different ways, for different people. We also consider the effects that language can have, especially in relation to power, representations and control. Before we do this, we need to think about what ‘language’ is. This is not an easy task. What counts as a language is a political, cultural and technical question. As will be discussed in this and the following chapters, there are well-established languages that are often not considered to be ‘proper’ languages by people in general. To make matters even more complicated, individuals don’t always use language in the same way. The language we use when we talk to our friends is not the same as the language we use to write a letter of complaint. Language varies depending on the people using it, the task at hand and the society in which it all takes place.
Linguists study language for many different reasons, with various questions that they want to answer. Whatever path this research takes, it always treats language as a system. Studying systems might sound tedious, but linguists do more than that – they describe
the systems. Linguists describe
the construction of these complex and changing systems, working with examples of language from the everyday world. And this is not just any set of rules for construction – language is a system that enables people to tell jokes, write poetry, make an arrest, sell you washing powder, pay a compliment and wish you good night.
It’s important to study language because language matters. For example, the choice of words to describe a person or event reveals the attitude of the person writing or speaking. One such example concerns US CIA contractor Edward Snowden, who, in 2013, released classified material relating to British and American surveillance programmes. How he was described in the subsequent media coverage is instructive. Those who saw his actions as bravely exposing secret and harmful state actions call him a ‘whistleblower’ or ‘patriot’. Those who argue that he was obligated to protect the confidentiality of this material label him a ‘traitor’. This example shows how one word can serve as a shorthand for a belief system and position on Snowden’s actions. Paying attention to these choices is part of having a critical awareness of language. This is a skill that this book will help you develop.
Because the choice of words – and how things are said – is so important, it’s worth looking at two more examples. The first is similar to the Snowden example in that it concerns what is and is not labelled as ‘terrorism’. In September 2016, an explosive device went off in Chelsea, New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio both commented on the event, but they did so in very different ways. Governor Cuomo described it as an act of ‘terrorism’, while Mayor de Blasio refused to use this word. The governor pointed out that he and de Blaiso agreed about what had happened. He continued:
‘I think it becomes a question of semantics, if anything’, Cuomo said. ‘Yes, it was an intentional act. It was a violent act. It was a criminal act. And it was an act that frightened, hurt and scared many, many people. And generically, you call that terrorism’.
This news report is perhaps unusual in that it recounts an explicit disagreement about how to label a set of events. As the quote from Governor Cuomo makes clear, both men agree about what happened, and both evaluate the act very negatively. At the level of who did what to whom (see Chapter 2
), they agree. But to call something an act of ‘terrorism’ invokes a specific set of associations. This is where they do not agree. Terrorists are generally represented as being an other, a ‘them’ that is seeking to destroy ‘us’. That is, once the word ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’ is used, people are inclined to see events through a very particular lens: one that makes a distinction between
us and them. More generally, the language used to describe acts of terrorism is the language of war, where we
must fight them
with force. Such naming, however, is not just a matter of choosing between two words. A ‘terrorist’ act is viewed by the media and the public in a different way to other violent acts; it attracts different legal punishments, and it shapes our views of who ‘we’ are. Choosing (or not choosing) ‘terrorist’ in this context reflects the belief system of the speaker. The words we use to describe people and events have consequences. This is precisely why we should pay attention to language and the way people use it.
The next example also shows a set of beliefs but of a very different kind. In July 2017, the Economist posed an interesting question. What do we call people who are older but not yet retired? (The Economist, 2017). They ask ‘WHAT do you call someone who is over 65 but not yet elderly? This stage of life, between work and decrepitude, lacks a name’. A series of possibilities are then given.
These are some of the words that the Economist lists as being possible candidates for this group of people.
- Nyppies (Not Yet Past It)
- Owls (Older, Working Less, Still Earning)
Are you familiar with all of them? What do they mean to you? Are there others that you can think of?
We will see in Chapter 8
that the representation of age and life stages is complicated (e.g., the use of ‘decreptitude’ in the preceding quotation). Here, the Economist
have identified a gap in our language. They suggest that change in society has outpaced the language that we use to represent people. Language is always changing. For example, they report that the term ‘teenager’ was coined around 1940. It is not the case that people in this age group did not exist before, but rather, it had not seemed necessary to identify them specifically until then.
Thinking about how we talk about age and life stage and how we think about terrorism and traitors are all good examples of what Norman Fairclough calls developing a ‘critical awareness of language’. He writes that a ‘critical awareness of language … arises within the normal ways people reflect on their lives as part of their lives’ (1999: 73). Such reflection is well worth encouraging; Fairclough argues that the ability to understand how language
functions, to think about it in different ways, is crucial to understanding society and other people. Critical awareness isn’t important because it makes us more accomplished or more intelligent; there is much more at stake. Fair-clough argues that to understand power, persuasion and how people live together, a conscious engagement with language is necessary. That is, critical thinking about language can assist in resisting oppression, protecting the powerless and building a good society. Ferdinand de Saussure, sometimes referred to as the founder of modern linguistics, puts it rather more starkly. He writes: ‘[I]n the lives of individuals and societies, speech is more important than anything else. That linguistics should continue to be the prerogative of a few specialists would be unthinkable – everyone is concerned with it in one way or another’ (1966: 7). People often say that quibbling over word choice, such as in the Edward Snowdon case, is ‘just semantics’. But it is much more than this. It is about the meaning of the words used (semantics
) but also the context in which the words are used.
Semantics is just one of the areas of linguistics that explores how we understand and construct meaning. But there are many others. Some linguists work to describe the construction of word order (syntax) or the sounds that make up words (phonetics, phonology and morphology). Looking closely at language can tell us about
- how our brains understand and process language (psycholinguistics)
- how we learn languages and so how best to teach them (applied linguistics)
- how social factors (age, gender, class, ethnicity, and so on) affect the way people use language (sociolinguistics)
- how it might be possible to have a realistic conversation with a computer (artificial intelligence)
- what it is distinctive about literature and poetry (stylistics)
- how people in different cultures use language to do things (anthropology) n the relationship between words and meaning and the ‘real’ world (philosophy)
- whether someone is guilty of a criminal offence (forensic linguistics)
- the structure of non-verbal languages (e.g. sign languages)
This is far from a full account of the various kinds of linguistics. The subfields here are much richer and further reaching than the bullet points suggest. The important thing is to realise that language can be examined in a variety of ways with diverse and specific concerns in mind. It’s also important to point out that these areas aren’t completely separate. We may want to know something about how brains process language if we’re interested in finding good teaching methods, for example. The way linguists in these areas go about studying language may also overlap. For example, the kind of analysis that is done in stylistics will be similar in some ways to the work done by forensic linguistics because there is a similar attention to the detail of language and some of the same tools of analysis are used. In this book, we’ll be exploring what language can tell us about people as individuals and as
members of groups and about how people interact with other people. This is called sociolinguistics. The subject of our attention here is the way that language is used in normal life, by all kinds of people, to accomplish all manner of goals.
As we noted earlier, language matters, and in this book, we’ll be exploring the way different groups of people are represented by and use language. To be able to do this, we need to understand how linguists study language and what it means to say that language is a system.
If we look closely at language, we find that it is in fact a rule-governed system. This may make it sound like language is controlled by rules that prevent it from changing. However, this is not what we mean by system; we need to be clear about what kind of rules we’re talking about. These ‘rules’ are more like inherent ‘building codes’ that enable speakers to use their language. The building codes in language tell users of the language how to combine different parts of that language. This includes inherent building codes about which sounds and words can be combined together. For example, we all know inherently, if English is our first language, that ‘ngux’ is not a word that is possible in English. The building codes of English sounds (phonemes) tell us that we can’t have ‘ng’ at the start of a word. In the same way, if I tell you that I recently bought a ‘mert’, you would be able to form the question, ‘What is a mert?’. Even though you don’t know what a ‘mert’ is, from the way the sentence is constructed, you know ‘mert’ is a noun. You would already know how to make its plural (‘merts’). This is because of the building codes in English about where certain kinds of words go in sentences (syntax) and how to form plurals (morphology). Theoretical linguists work at discovering these building codes for particular languages, including sign languages. Although sign language uses a different modality, that is, manual, facial and body movements, it is composed of the same components we’ve described for spoken language. Linguists’ research on spoken and sign language can be used to say something about language in general, that is, linguists can come to conclusions about all languages, grouping them according to certain structural criteria, and even make arguments about how the language faculty itself works.
Linguists don’t decide on building codes and then try to make everyone follow them. Rather, linguists examine language to discover what the building codes are that make it work, that is, the things that make communication possible. This means that linguistics is descriptive
(we’ll come back to this important concept). As language changes, new building codes are discovered and described by linguists. Even the variation that sociolinguists
examine is systematic, that is, it appears to be amenable to description i...