Language and gender 2

If the mind boggled at the sheer amount of labour that went into Jennifer Coates’ paper in this book*, it was still more amazed at the kind of negotiation that must have preceded the tape-recording and transcribing of another series of conversations.

These are described in Linguistic Variation and Social Function by Jenny Cheshire. She managed to record some hours of conversation of adolescent boys in an adventure playground in Reading, taken down when they should have been in school. These were analysed for nine non-standard vernacular features, most of them common to other dialects (e.g. Birmingham) but two at least peculiar to the local dialect in Reading. These were “we goes shopping on Saturdays” and “we has a little fire, keeps us warm”. Cheshire related the frequency of these grammatical features to the degree to which the different boys showed allegiance to the anti-school vernacular culture of their peer group. The boys that were most delinquent (on a “vernacular culture index”, compiled, the reader infers from the recorded conversations) used the most non-standard grammatical features. Continue reading

Language and Gender 1

We have been reading some papers from the book Language and Gender, edited by Jennifer Coates.

The book is a collection of sociolinguistic research work from the seventies and eighties. It is fascinating in a number of ways – first, that it gives objective evidence about the way various social groups use language, and, second, that, like most advances in science, it depends on a breakthrough in technology. The research workers use the sensitive and discreet taperecorders available in the seventies to record long stretches of actual conversation, which they then transcribe and analyse. This work throws new and often unexpected light on how conversation actually works, often contradicting the myths which surround such discourse.

Jennifer Coates’ own contribution, Gossip Revisited: Language in All-Female Groups, is a very interesting example of this kind of work. She recorded some hours of informal conversation between five middle-aged academic women, who had been friends for twelve years.  She calls such conversation “gossip” and says that “the aim of such talk is to create and maintain good social relationships.”

One unexpected finding is that this undirected informal chat follows a quite formal pattern in which the women co-operate to explore different topics. In the furtherance of this aim they interject supportive murmurs (such as “yeah” and “mhm”), which do not interrupt the speaker but shows they are listening. The middle section of each topic consists of a passage in which, instead of clear turn-taking, a number of people speak at once to develop the theme. This “simultaneous speech” is not competitive but, again, supportive.  She also produces evidence that what she calls “epistemic modality” is frequently used – that is, phrases such as “I think”, “perhaps”, “sort of”, “probably” – in order not to assert too strongly the truth of the propositions they are making, which might distort the co-operative exploration of the topic under discussion.

The mind boggles at the sheer amount of work that goes into recording, transcribing and analyzing such conversations. It is clearly worthwhile in that it opens up whole areas of oral language for linguistic description.

Tomasello and Halliday

In my last blog I gave a summary of Tomasello’s triadic theory of human cognition (different from the dyadic communication of the great apes).

Tomasello’s  main theoretical aim is to contest Chomsky’s hypothesis of the Language Acquisition Device,  namely that a Universal Grammar is programmed innately into the human brain. Tomasello argues that, on the contrary, the learning of language can be accounted for more satisfactorily in terms of usage (nurture rather than nature).

There is already a large body of empirical research to support this hypothesis.  Tomasello’s Construction Grammar, as it is called, has the advantage over Chomsky’s Universal Grammar in that, rather than narrowly isolating grammar from all the semantic information which any real utterance has to incorporate, it examines whole utterances at any linguistic level. It also encompasses figurative and abstract language, which Universal Grammar cannot handle.

What I find curious is that the only linguistic schools considered by Tomasello are those derived from Chomsky’s model. There are a number of alternative schools including Systemic Functional Linguistics associated with the work of M.A.K. Halliday* and his successors in the Sydney School. SFL is based on a triadic functional analysis of human language: Continue reading

Tomasello and Watkins

Michael Tomasello is Co-Director of the Max Planck institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. He is a developmental psychologist who has challenged Noam Chomsky’s hypothesis that language is an innate structure in the human brain. Tomasello has studied the social cognition of the great apes and found a crucial difference between their apprehension of the world and ours as human beings.*

The communication of the great apes is what he calls diadic: that is, an ape interacts EITHER with another ape – grooming, threat, sex etc. – OR with the world – finding food, reacting to danger etc.

By contrast, human interactions are triadic: we communicate WITH other humans ABOUT the world. Interestingly, apes do not point to things in the world; human beings do. Continue reading