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Speech Communities Essay

Language is both an individual possession and a social possession. We would expect, therefore, that certain individuals would behave linguistically like other individuals: they might be said to speak the same language or the same dialect or the same variety, i. e. , to employ the same code, and in that respect to be members of the same speech community, a term probably derived from the German Sprachgemeinschaft. Indeed, much work in sociolinguistics is based on the assumption that it is possible to use the concept of ‘speech community’ without much dif? culty.

Hudson (1996, p. 9) rejects that view: ‘our sociolinguistic world is not organized in terms of objective “speech communities,” even though we like to think subjectively in terms of communities or social types such as “Londoner” and “American. ” This means that the search for a “true” de? nition of the speech community, or for the “true” boundaries around some speech community, is just a wild goose chase. ’ We will indeed discover that just as it is dif? cult to de? ne such terms as language, dialect, and variety, it is also dif? cult to de? ne speech community, and for many of the same reasons.

That dif? culty, however, will not prevent us from using the term: the concept has proved to be invaluable in sociolinguistic work in spite of a certain ‘fuzziness’ as to its precise characteristics. It remains so even if we decide that a speech community is no more than some kind of social group whose speech characteristics are of interest and can be described in a coherent manner. De? nitions Sociolinguistics is the study of language use within or among groups of speakers. What are groups? ‘Group’ is a dif? cult concept to de? ne but one we must try to grasp.

For our purposes, a group must have at least two members but there is really no upper limit to group membership. People can group together for one or more reasons: social, religious, political, cultural, familial, vocational, avocational, etc. The group may be temporary or quasi-permanent and the purposes of its members may change, i. e. , its raison d’etre. A group is also more than its members for they may come and go. They may also belong to other groups and may or may not meet face-to-face.

The organization of the group may be tight or loose and the importance of group embership is likely to vary among individuals within the group, being extemely important to some and of little consequence to others. An individual’s feelings of identity are closely related to that person’s feelings about groups in which he or she is a member, feels strong (or weak) commitment (or rejection), and ? nds some kind of success (or failure). We must also be aware that the groups we refer to in various research studies are groups we have created for the purposes of our research using this or that set of factors.

They are useful and necessary constructs but we would be unwise to forget that each such group comprises a set of unique individuals each with a complex identity (or, better still, identities). Consequently, we must be careful in drawing conclusions about individuals on the basis of observations we make about groups. To say of a member of such a group that he or she will always exhibit a certain characteristic behavior is to offer a stereotype. Individuals can surprise us in many ways.

The kind of group that sociolinguists have generally attempted to study is called the speech community. (See Patrick, 2002, for a general survey. ) For purely theoretical purposes, some linguists have hypothesized the existence of an ‘ideal’ speech community. This is actually what Chomsky (1965, pp. 3–4) proposes, his ‘completely homogeneous speech community’ (see p. 3). However, such a speech community cannot be our concern: it is a theoretical construct employed for a narrow purpose. Our speech communities, whatever they are, exist in a ‘real’ world. Consequently, we must try to ? d some alternative view of speech community, one helpful to investigations of language in society rather than necessitated by abstract linguistic theorizing. Lyons (1970, p. 326) offers a de? nition of what he calls a ‘real’ speech community: ‘all the people who use a given language (or dialect). ’ However, that really shifts the issue to making the de? nition of a language (or of a dialect) also the de? nition of a speech community. If, as we saw in chapter 2, it proves virtually impossible to de? ne language and dialect clearly and unambiguously, then we have achieved nothing.

It is really quite easy to demonstrate that a speech community is not coterminous with a language: while the English language is spoken in many places throughout the world, we must certainly recognize that it is also spoken in a wide variety of ways, in speech communities that are almost entirely isolated from one another, e. g. , in South Africa, in New Zealand, and among expatriates in China. Alternatively, a recognizably single speech community can employ more than one language: Switzerland, Canada, Papua New Guinea, many African states, and New York City.

Furthermore, if speech communities are de? ned solely by their linguistic characteristics, we must acknowledge the inherent circularity of any such de? nition in that language itself is a communal possession. We must also acknowledge that using linguistic characteristics alone to determine what is or is not a speech community has proved so far to be quite impossible because people do not necessarily feel any such direct relationship between linguistic characteristics A, B, C, and so on, and speech community X.

What we can be sure of is that speakers do use linguistic characteristics to achieve group identity with, and group differentiation from, other speakers, but they use other characteristics as well: social, cultural, political and ethnic, to name a few. Referring to what they call speech markers, Giles, Scherer, and Taylor (1979, p. 351) say: through speech markers functionally important social categorizations are discriminated, and . . . these have important implications for social organization.

For humans, speech markers have clear parallels . . . it is evident that social categories of age, sex, ethnicity, social class, and situation can be clearly marked on the basis of speech, and that such categorization is fundamental to social organization even though many of the categories are also easily discriminated on other bases. Our search must be for criteria other than, or at least in addition to, linguistic criteria if we are to gain a useful understanding of ‘speech community. ’ For very speci? sociolinguistic purposes we might want to try to draw quite narrow and extremely precise bounds around what we consider to be a speech community.

We might require that only a single language be spoken (and employ a very restrictive de? nition of language in doing so), and that the speakers in the community share some kind of common feeling about linguistic behavior in the community, that is, observe certain linguistic norms. This appeal to norms forms an essential part of Labov’s de? nition of speech community (1972b, pp. 20–1): The speech community is not de? ned by any marked agreement in the use of language elements, so much as by participation in a set of shared norms; these norms may be observed in overt types of evaluative behavior, and by the uniformity of abstract patterns of variation which are invariant in respect to particular levels of usage.

This de? nition shifts the emphasis away from an exclusive use of linguistic criteria to a search for the various characteristics which make individuals feel that they are members of the same community. Milroy (1987a, p. 3) has indicated some consequences of such a view: Thus, all New York speakers from the highest to lowest status are said to constitute a single speech community because, for example, they agree in viewing presence of post vocalic [r] as prestigious. They also agree on the social value of a large number of other linguistic elements. Southern British English speakers cannot be said to belong to the same speech community as New Yorkers, since they do not attach the same social meanings to, for example, (r): on the contrary, the highest prestige accent in Southern England (RP) is non-rhotic.

Yet, the Southern British speech community may be said to be united by a common evaluation of the variable (h); h-dropping is stigmatized in Southern England . . . but is irrelevant in New York City or, for that matter, in Glasgow or Belfast. In this sense, ‘speech community’ is a very abstract concept, one likely to create not a few problems, because the particular norms that a community uses may or may not be exclusively linguistic in nature, and even the linguistic norms themselves may vary considerably among small sub-groups.

For example, speakers of Hindi will separate themselves entirely from speakers of Urdu; most Ukrainians will separate themselves from most Russians (but possibly not vice versa); and most Chinese will see themselves as members of the same community as all other Chinese, even though speakers of Cantonese or Hokkien might not be able to express that sense of community to a speaker of Mandarin or to each other except through their shared writing system. The single-language, or single-variety, criterion is also a very dubious one. Gumperz (1971, p. 101) points out that ‘there are no a priori grounds which force us to de? e speech communities so that all members speak the same language. ’

As I observed in the previous chapter, many societies have existed and still exist in which bilingualism and multilingualism are normal. For example, early in the year 2000 London was judged to be the most ‘international’ of all cities in the world based on the number of different languages spoken there – over 300. It is such considerations as these which lead Gumperz (p. 101) to use the term linguistic community rather than speech community. He proceeds to de? ne that term as follows: a social group which may be either onolingual or multilingual, held together by frequency of social interaction patterns and set off from the surrounding areas by weaknesses in the lines of communication. Linguistic communities may consist of small groups bound together by face-to-face contact or may cover large regions, depending on the level of abstraction we wish to achieve. In this de? nition, then, communities are de? ned partially through their relationships with other communities.

Internally, a community must have a certain social cohesiveness; externally, its members must ? d themselves cut off from other communities in certain ways. The factors that bring about cohesion and differentiation will vary considerably from occasion to occasion. Individuals will therefore shift their sense of community as different factors come into play. Such a de? nition is an extension of the one that Bloom? eld (1933, p. 42) uses to open his chapter on speech communities: ‘a speech community is a group of people who interact by means of speech. ’ The extension is provided by the insistence that a group or community is de? ned not only by what it is but by what it is not: the ‘cut-off’ criterion.

Gumperz (1971, p. 114) offers another de? nition of the speech community: any human aggregate characterized by regular and frequent interaction by means of a shared body of verbal signs and set off from similar aggregates by signi? cant differences in language usage. Most groups of any permanence, be they small bands bounded by face-to-face contact, modern nations divisible into smaller subregions, or even occupational associations or neighborhood gangs, may be treated as speech communities, provided they show linguistic peculiarities that warrant special study.

Not only must members of the speech community share a set of grammatical rules, but there must also be regular relationships between language use and social structure; i. e. , there must be norms which may vary by sub-group and social setting. Gumperz adds (p. 115): Wherever the relationships between language choice and rules of social appropriateness can be formalized, they allow us to group relevant linguistic forms into distinct dialects, styles, and occupational or other special parlances.

The sociolinguistic study of speech communities deals with the linguistic similarities and differences among these speech varieties. Furthermore, ‘the speech varieties employed within a speech community form a system because they are related to a shared set of social norms’ (p. 116). Such norms, however, may overlap what we must regard as clear language boundaries. For example, in Eastern Europe many speakers of Czech, Austrian German, and Hungarian share rules about the proper forms of greetings, suitable topics for conversation, and how to pursue these, but no common language.

They are united in a Sprachbund, ‘speech area,’ not quite a ‘speech community,’ but still a community de? ned in some way by speech. As we can see, then, trying to de? ne the concept of ‘speech community’ requires us to come to grips with de? nitions of other concepts, principally ‘group,’ ‘language’ (or ‘variety’), and ‘norm. ’ Hymes (1974, p. 47) disagrees with both Chomsky’s and Bloom? eld’s de? nitions of a speech community. He claims that these simply reduce the notion of speech community to that of a language and, in effect, throw out ‘speech community’ as a worthwhile concept.

He points out that it is impossible to equate language and speech community when we lack a clear understanding of the nature of language. He insists that speech communities cannot be de? ned solely through the use of linguistic criteria (p. 123). The way in which people view the language they speak is also important, that is, how they evaluate accents; how they establish the fact that they speak one language rather than another; and how they maintain language boundaries. Moreover, rules for using a language may be just as important as feelings about the language itself.

He cites the example of the Ngoni of Africa. Most Ngoni no longer speak their ancestral language but use the language of the people they conquered in Malawi. However, they use that language in ways they have carried over from Ngoni, ways they maintain because they consider them to be essential to their continued identity as a separate people. Hymes adds that analogous situations may be observed among some native groups in North America: they use English in special ways to maintain their separate identities within the dominant Englishspeaking community.

As we saw too in the previous chapter code-switching can be used to achieve a shared identity and delimit a group of speakers from all others. For Hymes, the concept of ‘speech community’ is a dif? cult one to grasp in its entirety, for it depends on how one de? nes ‘groups’ in society. He also distinguishes (pp. 50–1) between participating in a speech community and being a fully ? edged member of that community: To participate in a speech community is not quite the same as to be a member of it.

Here we encounter the limitation of any conception of speech community in terms of knowledge alone, even knowledge of patterns of speaking as well as of grammar, and of course, of any de? nition in terms of interaction alone. Just the matter of accent may erect a barrier between participation and membership in one case, although be ignored in another. Obviously membership in a community depends upon criteria which in the given case may not even saliently involve language and speaking, as when birthright is considered indelible.

However, he reaf? rms (p. 51) an earlier (1962, pp. 30–2) de? nition of speech community: ‘a local unit, characterized for its members by common locality and primary interaction. ’ He is prepared to ‘admit exceptions cautiously. ’ Brown and Levinson (1979, pp. 298–9) point out that: Social scientists use the word ‘group’ in so many ways, as for example in the phrases small group, reference group, corporate group, ethnic group, interest group, that we are unlikely to ? nd any common core that means more than ‘set’.

Social scientists who adopt the weak concept of structure . . . are likely to think of groups in relatively concrete terms, as independently isolable units of social structure. . . . On the other hand, social theorists who adopt the stronger concept of structure are more likely to think of groups as relative concepts, each group being a unit that is relevant only in relation to units of like size that for immediate purposes are contrasted with it. Thus for a man who lives in Cambridge, his territorial identi? ation will be with Cambridge when contrasted with Newmarket, with Cambridgeshire when contrasted with Lancashire, with England when contrasted with Scotland, with the United Kingdom when contrasted with Germany, and so on. ‘Group’ is therefore a relative concept and ‘speech community’ must also be relative. You are a member of one speech community by virtue of the fact that on a particular occasion you identify with X rather than Y when apparently X and Y contrast in a single dimension.

This approach would suggest that there is an English speech community (because there are French and German ones), a Texas speech community (because there are London and Bostonian ones), a Harvard speech community (because there are Oxford and Berkeley ones), a Chicano speech community (because there are Spanish and English ones), and so on. An individual therefore belongs to various speech communities at the same time, but on any particular occasion will identify with only one of them, the particular identi? cation depending on what is especially important or contrastive in the circumstances.

For any speci? c speech community, the concept ‘re? ects what people do and know when they interact with one another. It assumes that when people come together through discursive practices, they behave as though they operate within a shared set of norms, local knowledge, beliefs, and values. It means that they are aware of these things and capable of knowing when they are being adhered to and when the values of the community are being ignored . . . it is fundamental in understanding identity and representation of ideology’ (Morgan, 2001, p. 31).


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