Synopsis: This article explores the cultural significance of language in society. The article then discusses language as a form of cultural capital and the ways in which different groups of people experience language, as well as how language influences quality of life. Finally, the article discusses ways in which marginalized communities empower themselves through reclaiming language.
What Is Sociology of Language?
Sociology of Language is the study of how language impacts society. Sociologists in this field study language in social structures, social identities, socialization and how language plays a factor in inequalities, discrimination and accessibility to resources. It is common for sociologists who study language to compare various identity groups and how they acquire, use, and experience language. For example, a sociologist may compare languages across various socioeconomic classes or among ethnic and racial identities. Similarly, sociologists may focus on a particular group and further delve into the sub-identities such as those within a particular racial group, variations in language across gender, age, and class, etc. (Shoop, 2022) Sociolinguistics is the study of language and the social factors that may influence the formation of language or the evolution of language. The focus is on language itself, such as tone variation, dialect, grammar, and so on. The sociology of language and sociolinguistics are closely connected. In fact, sociology of language is also known as macro-sociolinguistics, whereas sociolinguistics is commonly used interchangeably with micro-sociolinguistics (Sangia, 2014). Additionally, sociolinguistics, both macro and micro, is related to the field of linguistic anthropology.
Language and Culture
Language reflects culture, and culture reflects language. The two are inextricably linked to one another and is part of what makes us unique as human. Language has multiple functions in society. According to the book “Communication in the Real World”, there are five functions of language. These are: language is expressive, language is powerful, language is fun, language is dynamic, and language is relational. (3.2 Functions of Language, 2016)
Language is Expressive
Language is a form of expression whether it is spoken or written. It allows us to express our observations, thoughts, feelings, our needs and our identities. Language is what allows us to report as a witness, communicate what’s on our mind, keep alive our memories of the past and our hopes and dreams for the future and share information and knowledge. Language allows us to express as a collective culture our norms, values, stories, traditions and information we want children and youth and immigrants learning the language to know. It is the main way in which cultural knowledge can be passed from one generation to the next generation. Language is essential in any society’s education system. School and the ways in which school operates is an expression of a broader culture. Children go to school and learn various subjects that is expressed through spoken and written language that are not only academic but also cultural and social. (3.2 Functions of Language, 2016)
Language is Powerful
You may have heard the popular nursery rhyme growing up that parents and teachers would say that went like this:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words shall never hurt me.”
The purpose of using such an expression is to build resiliency among children and convey the cultural notion that physical harm does damage but words do not have to if one does not allow it to. Unfortunately, it is more complex than what this nursery rhyme suggests. Language is quite powerful in the way it exerts coercion and control. Language can be used to control because it can shape a positive, neutral or negative reality for oneself and others. For example a parent or teacher has the power to reward or punish; to build confidence and foster a sense of belonging or to degrade and humiliate. People also have the power to make directives such as insist or command or even warn of consequences and provoke with threats. Language can have a performative quality that represents power and consequences in a cultural context. An example of this is saying “I do” at one’s wedding or swearing under oath in court. To promise, guarantee or impose penalties, charges and sentences can impact someone’s life forever. Furthermore, the written law has a performative quality. Legal language can be vague, contain definitions that exclude or marginalize or laws stated in such a way that it perpetuates oppression and legitimizes discrimination. (3.2 Functions of Language, 2016)
Language is Fun
Writers, poets, comedians, actors, musicians, artists and more are all people in society who use language as play and playful language to communicate. There may be deep and perhaps dark message these people want to convey such as challenging society or sharing a personally vulnerable story. These messages would perhaps not be well received if it were communicated directly so sharing it in a playful manner makes the atmosphere more pleasant and allows people to relax while taking in a new idea. Similarly, advertisements, TV commercials and campaigns may contain catchy words or phrases that use rhyme, pun or alliterations to gain attention and perhaps with an agenda to influence the masses. In another way, language can be for pure entertainment and socializing such as with word games that families and friends can come together to enjoy. Engaging in stories; whether it is through listening to, reading, making or sharing stories are all ways that language may be used for fun and a way to connect to the human experience. (3.2 Functions of Language, 2016)
Language is Dynamic
Language is always changing and evolving. New words and terms become coined. Words and phrases that already exist can change meaning over time too. Slang and in more recent human history language specific to the digital world, are ways that everyday people communicate with one another and usually informally. Likewise, professional email etiquette has developed with the rise of email usage for formal spheres of society such as school, the government and the workplace. (3.2 Functions of Language, 2016)
Language is Relational
Language is the basis of interpersonal communication. It allows us to begin new friendships and relationships, maintain connections, set personal boundaries or end a relationship. Language allows us to connect, bring people together and foster a sense of belonging and inclusiveness. This extends to connecting in a professional network as well. At the same time, language can separate people and create barriers for people when used to exclude or create a sense of an “us versus them” mentality. Language use, fluency in the dominant language, accent and style may be a visible marker that easily allows others to identify and categorize an individual as part of one group or another. An example of this is an immigrant whose first language is not English. Such immigrants can be easily identified as having a language barrier and may face discrimination. When language expresses relational messages, this can be seen between two individuals, within a family, cultural group or collectively between groups of people in a society. Consider as well, that how an individual speaks to oneself; their “inner voice” can reflect how someone feels about themselves and whether they dismantle internalized oppression or perpetuate it. (3.2 Functions of Language, 2016)
Language as Capital
According to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, language is a type of cultural capital that he called “Linguistic Capital”. Cultural Capital is generally understood as the sum of one’s “social assets”. Cultural capital includes both material and symbolic resources that determine one’s status and power in society. Having cultural capital is associated with upward socioeconomic mobility. In addition, certain cultural capitals are preferred in the dominant culture and end up being accumulated and passed down from one generation to the next. This means the members of society who’ve had the preferred cultural capital from the generation before are at an advantage, which sets an inequitable playing field. This goes hand in hand with how socioeconomic status may become static and lack upward mobility. (Cultural Capital, 2022) Likewise, although language exists in every culture and subculture, there are certain languages and styles of, that are preferred and become linguistic capital in mainstream society. (Linguistic Capital, 2022)
Language and Marginalized Identities
Language and marginalized identities can be studied in a variety of ways. This article will focus specifically on how children develop language abilities differently across socioeconomic backgrounds and how that in turn impacts educational outcomes. This article will also address minority ethnic and racial groups and the linguistic discrimination such members of society may face.
Language Abilities and Educational Inequalities
Language development in childhood can be understood from the perspective that language ability is not only linguistic capital but also an indicator for educational outcome, which is also a kind of cultural capital. It is common knowledge that language skills are necessary for achieving academic success, and therefore a lack of those skills puts children at a disadvantage in school and in their future. There are several factors that influence language development. Children develop language through their social-cultural environment, both in the family and in the community. According to the article, “Identifying Pathways Between Socioeconomic Status and Language Development,” socioeconomic status may impact language development as young as in early childhood in a few ways such as, “child characteristics, parent–child interaction, and availability of learning resources—recognizing the complicated interaction between the child’s own language learning skill and his/her environmental support.”(Pace et al, 2017) In other words, because socioeconomic backgrounds tend to be passed from caregiver to child, a child’s language development has a lot to do with the parents’ education level, income, mental and physical health, parenting capacity, and strong familial support. For example, consider a single parent household in which the parent works a minimum wage job and has to work long hours just to pay the bills. The financial difficulties tend to come with high levels of stress, and the simple yet essential act of reading to one’s child can fall by the wayside with so many other issues on the parent’s mind. Educational resources and the social environment outside the home make a significant impact as well, including the quality of playgrounds, daycare centers, schools, libraries, cultural centers, extracurricular activities, babysitters and nannies, and any other community asset that nurtures a child’s educational well-being. While there are many educational resources that may exist outside the home that children may benefit from, the accessibility to these places and opportunities ends up falling upon the primary caregiver’s shoulders to plan and implement. Caregivers must arrange for the child to attend and be involved in these spaces, as well as reinforce learning at home, for full educational benefits. This may be difficult for those who have language barriers themselves and/or have other limitations, including socioeconomic related challenges. (Pace et al, 2017)
Language Oppression and Race/Ethnicity
Linguistic injustice, unlike direct violence against someone’s body, is often subtle and therefore tends to be minimized or dismissed. It can be argued that any bullying, neglect, abuse, discrimination, oppression, or other interpersonal maltreatment has a linguistic component to it. Inherent in the legacy of such trauma is shame, disturbance in one’s identity, disconnection, and isolation that often leaves the victims at a loss of words. Therefore, inherent in the healing to such experiences is to regain a sense of language in order to restore one’s sense of identity and help make sense of the experience. For the purposes of this article, the focus will be on linguistic oppression on a cultural level towards racial and ethnic minority groups.
There are various ways in which linguistic discrimination can occur. One such way is called linguistic profiling. In the book, “The Oxford Handbook of Language and Society”, the authors share a biblical example in order to help create a framework of which to understand contemporary examples. In the biblical example, during one of the wars between tribes, combatants would try to cross the river. In order to distinguish between the enemy Ephraimite and the Gileadites who conquered the river, the individual would have to say the word “Shibboleth” as a sort of test. This is because, Ephraimites would pronounce this word as “Sibboleth” instead due to dialect differences and therefore being unable to pronounce the “sh” sound. The consequence would be Ephraimites were spotted this way and killed. This example clearly illustrates how linguistic differences can bring about severe consequences. However, in contemporary society the examples are significantly more subtle and often harder to tease out. Yet, similar to the Giliead use of language differences to distinguish between tribes, contemporary examples of linguistic profiling may sometimes though not always overlap with racial profiling. Some consequences of linguistic profiling are rejection of jobs due to style of language on application, the name on an application or initial phone call. In addition, numerous studies have shown that due to linguistic profiling over the phone, Black and Latino individuals are denied services or opportunities such as applying to rent or buy property. (García, 2016)
Reclaiming one’s language is one approach to taking back power and embracing one’s social identity whether on a collective or individual level. One example of people reclaiming a previously harmful name is the “black is beautiful” movement which reoriented “Black” as a positive identity for African Americans (3.2 Functions of Language, 2016). Similarly, the reclaiming of language can be seen in the LGBTQAI+ community. According to the article, “The Exorcism of Language: Reclaimed Derogatory Terms and Their Limits”, a group of lesbian women wanted to branch off from the general women motorcyclist club and name themselves “Dykes on Bikes”. This was the group’s way of reclaiming the word “Dykes” which historically has been a homophobic slur towards women who either expressed their gender in a masculine way and/or who are attracted to women. Another example is the word “queer” which also historically had been a derogatory word. The meaning of the word “queer” evolved in the LGBTQAI+ community to express pride and to connect with others rather than the initial harmful meaning. Reclaiming previously offensive language is a controversial approach. The United States Patent and Trademark denied the women from the motorcyclist club. On one hand, deliberately using this slur to change its meaning to one of empowerment and pride was a way to reclaim the language. In this way, the power is returned to the rightful owner; to the people who’ve been oppressed with that word who now can define themselves the way they want to. Reclaiming language means reclaiming one’s voice and one’s story of who they are while challenging others to rethink their own assumptions as well. On the other hand, some may think using the term “dykes” even for positive is not appropriate because it is still an offensive word in the broader cultural meaning. In addition, some people may argue that when a word is offensive, it carries historical weight that can still cause harm because of what it used to mean.
Throughout this article, we have seen that language can be used to oppress and harm, and yet language can also be used to uplift, bring hope, and inspire communities to empower themselves. Further research can be done on using language as a tool for empowerment. Another direction future research can take is studying cultural language in the Deaf community. Finally, though this article has not specifically mentioned it, there have been studies on the Indigenous people in the United States, how colonialism and assimilation negatively impacted these communities, and a possibility of reclaiming native languages as a way to restore traditions and strengthen families on the Indigenous reservations. This type of research opens up exciting possibilities for broadening the use of language as a tool for social change among various marginalized groups in society.
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[Author removed at request of original publisher] “3.2 Functions of Language.” Communication in the Real World, University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing Edition, 2016. This Edition Adapted from a Work Originally Produced in 2013 by a Publisher Who Has Requested That It Not Receive Attribution., 29 Sept. 2016, https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/chapter/3-2-functions-of-language/.