Center for the Study of Language and Society (CSLS)

Summer/Winter Schools
CSLS Summer School

The Social Meaning of Language: Integrating approaches from linguistic anthropology, pragmatics and third wave variationism

Dienstag, 14.06.2022, 09:15 Uhr

Veranstaltende: Center for the Study of Language and Society
Redner, Rednerin: Emma Moore (University of Sheffield)
Datum: 14.06.2022
Uhrzeit: 09:15 - 10:15 Uhr
Ort: 028
Hochschulstrasse 6
3012 Bern
Merkmale: Öffentlich

Imagine an interaction between two friends: one is talking about her ex-boyfriend and says to the other, “He were bad, though, weren’t he?” What is required to decode the meaning of this utterance? We need to be able to decode the content conventionally associated with the words that are used and the way they are structured, following the conventions of the language it is uttered in (English). Decoding this information gives us the semantic meaning of the utterance: it enables us to perceive the reality and truth about what is described. However, our understanding of the utterance also relies upon our ability to understand meanings that are not abstractly entailed by the words and structures used. Some meanings are recoverable from the fact that words and structures are used in particular ways at particular moments of interaction. For instance, it could be considered marked that the utterance includes a tag question, as opposed to being a simple declarative. The markedness of an utterance can help us to determine what a speaker is inferring beyond what is said in a purely semantic-referential way (Horn 2004; Acton 2019). This is pragmatic meaning: it requires us to consider what is implied or presupposed by an utterance, beyond its referential content. Utterances may be marked for the amount of interpretative effort they require (as in Gricean pragmatics), but they may also be marked because they are heard less frequently than alternative utterances, or they may violate dominant social norms. For instance, the utterance includes a form of verbal agreement that differs from standard English: ‘he were bad, though, weren’t he?’ Acton (2021) has argued that utterances can gain meaning from their sociohistorical use. That is to say, we may infer something about an utterance based upon what we associate it with and our beliefs about this association. For instance, this nonstandard use of were is more frequently used by people in lower social class groups. If a listener is aware of this association they may decode this utterance as a symbol of working class status or, at least, as a symbol of the speaker’s alignment with working class practice. In turn, the listener may infer that the speaker has any number of social characteristics that are associated with working class status. ‘Social meaning’, then, is what can be inferred about a person’s interactional position or character on the basis of how they use language in a specific interaction.

In this lecture, we will consider how pragmatic and social markedness interact to make language meaningful. Using data, excerpts and anecdotes from an ethnographic study of high school girls, we will explore how some forms of social meaning are rooted in pragmatics (what the structure of an utterance allows it to convey about alignment or positioning), whereas others derive from the ideological links between language and social groups (the main purview of variationist sociolinguistics). Any study of social meaning requires us to consider language as a sign: “something which stands to somebody for something” (Peirce 1955: 99). We will consider the components of signs to understand what makes an utterance socially symbolic; we will pay particular attention to the role of ideology in mediating the relationship between signs and social meaning; and we will also explore how signs cluster to make actions and identities discernible in a landscape of diverse sociolinguistic styles and identities.

This lecture will be useful to anyone who seeks to understand the processes involved in the social embedding of language. This might include (but is not limited to) research on: how people use language to construct styles or identities; how social categorisations or stylistic contexts relate to language variation; how language and language use is perceived or evaluated; how cultural ideologies might influence language variation; and why some types of language are more marked than others.

Zoom Link: