Hudson’s Sociolinguistics: The social nature of speech

The social nature of speech

Speech plays different roles in social interaction like people shifting furniture would say: To… go… now up a lot… and so on. It can influence ones action or thought. Speech is used to establish social relations-in relation to Malinowski’s “phatic communication” (an act only to recognize other’s presence). He mentions speech acts like promises, suggestions, invitations etc. as part of social instruction.

He examines speech as skilled work. This he defends by saying that speech is controlled by rules learned as part of our culture. He explains that speech is not a reflex action like sneezing. It requires the ‘know how’ type of knowledge which is applied. This means that one may be better in speech at some time than at other times depending on how much speech skill the person has and that some people may do better than others. Like in speech, some people are more skilled in social interaction than others, mostly based on the type of speech act required. Some people are good at phatic communication while others are better at constructive debates. He explains that social interaction needs skill as it concerns relating with different people in different situations from different linguistic background. He made reference to politeness principle and how people use face. He chooses to use solidarity and power face in place of positive & negative face as used by Broun & Levinson, to explain the approval or rejection work which may regard one another in a social setting.

The norms governing speech

These rules are of different types and they vary according to different styles.

  • There are norms governing the sheer quantity of speech that people produce. In some societies, very little speech is the norm (Hymes, 1971). He refers to Peter Gardener’s (1986) research that shows that people of Puliya tribe in southern Indian don’t talk much and seldom seen to find anything to talk about. He saw these as resulting from these social patterns of the society.

James Fox (1974) describes the Rotinese as people who desire pleasure in talking. Lack of talk here is an indication of distress.

  • The second norm controls the number of people who talk at once in a conversation. In some societies like Antiguan, two or more people can talk at the same time without anyone bordering to stopping for the other to finish speaking.
  • Other norms refer to participant’s information in a conversation. No person is likely to get audience if he has new information for his listeners. In other societies, like Malagasy, people don’t care about giving full information. A person may say, ‘there is a girl who is coming,’ referring to his own sister.

There are norms which may vary from society to society such as how one uses the telephone.

Speech as a signal of social identity

Social characters can usually be associated to certain use of linguistic items. The Yoga language of California has special speech forms used by or to women (Sapir 1929). Trudgill (1974-1983) points out that the commonest characteristic to be reflected by specific linguistic items is sex.

Speech may also reflect the social relation between speaker and addressee. The terms power and solidarity are introduced by Roger Brown. Power may reflect the superiority whereas solidarity refers to the social distance between people, how much they are willing to share intimacies and other factors. For instance the social relationship between a speaker and addressee may dictate the use of the person’s names and the title like Mr. John Brown.

John will be used if there is a light solidarity between the speaker and John. Brown has less power than the speaker.

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