Understanding Language

Topics: Linguistics, Sociolinguistics, Ideology Pages: 45 (10749 words) Published: February 3, 2014
Language Ideologies
Paul V. Kroskrity
1. Introduction
Though the relationship of language and thought has received much academic and popular attention, "thoughts about language" by their speakers have, by comparison, been neglected, dismissed, denigrated, or proscribed as objects of study and concern until relatively recently. Language ideology, as succinctly defined by Errington (2001a:110,) "refers to the situated, partial, and interested character of conceptions and uses of language." These conceptions, whether explicitly articulated or embodied in communicative practice, represent incomplete, or "partially successful," attempts to rationalize language usage; such rationalizations are typically multiple, context-bound, and necessarily constructed from the sociocultural experience of the speaker. At the outset it is important to note that although interdisciplinary scholarship on language ideologies has been extremely productive in recent decades (Woolard 1998,) there is no particular unity in this immense body of research, no single core literature, and a range of definitions. One of the most straightforward, though controversial, definitions is that of Alan Rumsey (1990:346): "shared bodies of commonsense notions about the nature of language in the world." This definition properly highlights the informal nature of cultural models of language but--and here is the controversy--does not problematize language ideological variation (by age, gender, class, etc.) and therefore promotes an overly homogenous view of language ideologies within a cultural group. Why is this unsatisfactory? Since social and linguistic variation provide some of the dynamic forces which influence change, it is more useful to have an analytical device which captures diversity rather than emphasizing a static, uniformly shared culture. Used in opposition

to culture, language ideologies provide an alternative for exploring variation in ideas, ideals, and communicative practices.
A graphic example of the importance of multiplicity and contention in language ideological processes, one that has noticeably changed the grammar of English within my generation's lifetime, resulted from the feminist challenge to the once standard "generic he" (Silverstein 1985). Once upon a time, a sentence like (1) below would have been regarded as needlessly redundant and viewed as the dispreferred version of (2). (1) If a student wishes to be considered for financial assistance, he or she must complete an application.

(2) If a student wishes to be considered for financial assistance, he must complete an application.
But American feminist objections to generic "he", as in (2) above, sought to define it as untrue by virtue of referential exclusion and therefore emblematic of being unfair, viewing a previously accepted grammatical convention of the standard register as not just a neutrally arbitrary grammatical convention but as a discriminatory, gendered practice (Silverstein 1985). Relevant interest groups, in this case feminists, constructed a stance against a rule of grammar that speakers of standard English had been following for hundreds of years. Other sensitizing definitions of linguistic/language ideologies have often shown a tension between emphasizing speakers’ “awareness,” as a form of agency, and foregrounding their “embeddedness” in the social and cultural systems in which they are enveloped. In addition these definitions also illustrate the mediating role of linguistic anthropology as an interdisciplinary field concerned with relevances of both Linguistics and Sociocultural anthropology, including notions about the structure and relationships of both linguistic and social systems. Michael Silverstein (1979:193), for example, defined linguistic ideologies as “sets of beliefs about language articulated by users as a rationalization or justification of perceived language structure and use”. This definition emphasizes the role of linguistic awareness as a...

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