Posted by: jrendleshort | July 23, 2009

Intersection between language and society

I’ve been thinking about this intersection between language and society and how sometimes the link is really clear and how other times it is not so clear. In some ways i was shocked in the lecture the other day when everyone was so clear about the teacher being a man (that bastard Mackay). Yet in other situations we are much less certain about the social characteristics of a person that is being referred to. I’m thinking about why it is important to index or point to these social characteristics, like gender, age, class, country. (Are there others? Do we want to include race in here?) And why is the indexing so clear sometimes and so unclear other times? Does this matter?



  1. I was not surprised at the general assumption that the teacher was male in that dialogue. In the context where the term bastard is used as an insult, it is almost always applied to a male (my opinion only, I have done no research) – and in the older Australian use of the word as a term of endearment (“G’Day you old bastard”) it was almost exclusively said by a male to a male.

    Had the teacher been female, I suspect that a different word (also beginning with “b”) would have been the more likely insult.

    There are many cases where it is necessary to be clear about some social characteristic (motorcycle riders or bikies?) , many where it is better to be neutral (firefighters rather than firemen), some where it is actually inappropriate (race, gender or sexual preference in employment advertising), and some where it doesn’t matter one way or the other (that bastard Mackay).

    What matters, I think, is making the appropriate choice for the situation, so that the value and intent of the statement is not compromised.

  2. The discussion last week about the way to address someone was quite interesting. In terms of ‘bastard’ word in the example, I reckon that for non-native speaker like me it is a little bit difficult at once to guess whether ‘McKay’ is male or female. So, from the discussion, I have learnt that social characteristic is also influence by the place of origin (country) especially in specific context like the example.

    I still wonder about the job/occupation in terms of indexing. Is job a part of class?

    Regarding to tshirley’s comment, I do agree that ‘making the appropriate choice for the situation’ is needed, however, for the speakers from different background i.e. country, to some extent, might be lead to a little ‘confusing’, since the meaning of ‘appropriate choice’ is quite related to the background, so the way of getting it across is not so easy.

  3. According to Mesthrie, Rajend (et al.) 2000. Critical Sociolinguistics : Approaches to Language and Power. Ch. 10 of Introducing Sociolinguistics, the degree of ‘power and status’ between the interlocutors is related to the choice of language such as the terms in which they address each other. I think this is clearly seen in many languages, Thai, for example, I and other Thais, usually put honorifics before the names of people who we wish to pay respects to, or those who are in a higher position , or those with whom we are in a special relationship with such as students and teachers, adults and children. For instance, we always call the name of lecturers with his/her title (sort of honoring them) otherwise it will sound like we are regarding the lecturer as a friend of the same age, which sounds rude as a result. However, here in Australia, I have found that addressing the lecturers with or without the title does not matter.

    Thus we should consider whether it is true that language choice such as address terms are less likely to be determined by the differences of power and status rather than the “personal relationships” in European languages, as claimed by R. Brown and Gilman (1960) as cited in Introducing Sociolinguistics (2000) by Mesthrie, Rajend (et al.). Does ‘power’ determines language choice (address terms) in the language apart from factors like gender, age, sex, etc? (which I think is true especially when I am at the shopping center, the customers are usually called ‘sir’ or ‘madam’. )

  4. I agree with Nai’s comment that ‘power’ determines language choice, in this case, the address terms used. In my country (Indonesia) gender, age, social status, power, etc strongly determine the language choice. With regard to sex or gender, for instance, a woman, especially a grown up woman is called Ibu (this term is also used to address a person of superior status, for example by her staff) also used by students to address their school teachers, or by someone not close to or stranger. While the person can just call the people lower than her status for example her secretary or other staff with only their first name. This is also found in the example illustrated by Janet Holmes’s in Introducing Sociolinguistic, a woman of a good position in the office was addressed with Madam by her staff but she can addess her staff by their first name because she has the authority or position to choose that language she use, while her staff would sound disrespectful if they call her just by her first name. Another example is In Javanese language; there are three levels of speech distinguished by choice of vocabulary. A person who is younger or of lower social status can only speak to a person of higher social position or older person using the high form of Javanese called Krama, while the person of higher status can use Ngoko, a low or neutral form used when speaking to social equals or inferiors when speaking to the people of lower social status or to younger people in general. This shows how power determines langauge choice

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