Week 9 Language
How do people understand what
they say to each other?
Mahalia Jackson
• http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9Qq_c
VoLzs Just a closer walk with thee
• http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1qhhd_
• http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLZcoD
sPUkI The upper room
How do people understand what they say to
each other?
The nature of language and implications for sociology.
The content of speech, the structure of language.
Labov, Bernstein, Bourdieu and Foucault on language.
In what ways is language constitutive of culture?
Is language merely a metaphor for society or something
• How does language differentiate people?
• What is the relationship between language and theory
and methods in sociology?
• This lecture will cover two aspects one - language as the
model for culture and two – language as a means of
• Reading: Bourdieu, Pierre. (1992) Language and symbolic
To introduce the theory
• Bourdieu, Pierre. (1992) Language and symbolic power. Cambridge
: Polity Press, 401.4 BOU
• Pip Jones 2003 Introducing Social Theory. Polity Press, Chap. 8
“Language and Social Life: Structuralism, Post-structuralism and
Examples of empirical language studies
• Pier Paolo Giglioli.1972 Language and social context : selected
readings Harmondsworth: Penguin. 301.21 GIG includes – W. Labov
“The Logic of Non-standard English”, and B. Berstein “Social Class,
Language and Socialisation”.
• Labov, W 1972 Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black
English Vernacular Chapter 8 “Rules for ritual insults”. Philadelphia :
University of Pennsylvania Press, 427.973 LAB
Kinds of ways to study language
• Phonetics – study of the sounds that
constitute language. Phonemes as
minimal units of language – sound
contrasts which are recognised as
meaningful. Limited number in all
languages. Patterns of how they can be
put together.
– deer / tear [Voiced vs. Voiceless Alveolar
Stops ]; jeer cheer [Voiced vs. Voiceless
Affricates ]
Kinds of ways to study language
• Grammar. Rules by which elements of
language can be put together
– Word order, definite / indefinite article, gender
• Chomsky, generative grammar. Limited
number of rules which can create an
infinite number of sentences. Language /
grammar as built into human brain, innate
ability to learn language.
Kinds of ways to study language
• Semantics. Study of how meaning is
created. Formal analysis. Semantic space.
Contrasts / oppositions. Meaning is
relational – hence the possibility of
– Examples of colour, kinship terms
Kinds of ways to study language
• Socio-linguistics. Study of contrasting
language communities, who uses what
language in what context.
– Class and regional dialects,
– multi-lingualism
– technical languages
Social theory built on the model of
• Structuralism. Culture was structured like
language, basic elements like phonemes,
assembled by grammatical like rules. Structure
not of institutions but of thought, ways of
• Levi-Strauss. Binary classifications at the root of
all culture. In kinship, in food, in myth. Reveal
the underlying structure of culture.
• Clash with Marxism over role of culture. Clash
with phenomenology (social constructionism)
over agency.
Social theory built on the model of
• Post-structuralism. Attempt to keep insights into
meaning making in culture but in case of
Foucault to see this had to do with power and
had a historical dimension.
• Bourdieu. Originally an anthropologist. Wrote a
master piece of structural analysis “The Berber
House”. His work tries to achieve a synthesis of
structure and agency, and integrate cultural and
institutional analysis. First came to British
attention with ‘Distinction’ – the cultural language
of class in France – concept of cultural capital.
Language and Culture
• So for structuralists like Levi-Strauss language is not
merely a metaphor or an analogy for culture. Language
and culture are part of the same thing and share
fundamental common characteristics – i.e. they are
structures which are supra-individual and which generate
• For others language is a powerful model for thinking
about society but not the thing itself.
• For others in importance of the study of language is that
it can show us something about social diversity and
social processes.
• Each puts a different emphasis on the answer to the
question ‘how do we understand each other?’
– A cultural animal programmed to find meaning.
– Part of a repertoire of learned behaviour.
– Meanings emerge from situated contexts.
Socio-linguistics and situated
• Are some languages better than others?
• Better able to communicate complex
• Does the language of the poor and
deprived reflect / or a cause of poverty and
low social status.
• Or do class dialects act to exclude others?
Deprived speech?
• William Labov v Basil Bernstein
• Working class have a “restricted code”
• Middle class have an “elaborated code”
• This enables middle class children to do
well educationally and take professional
• “…elaborated codes orient their users towards
universalistic meanings, whereas restricted codes orient,
sensitize, their users to particularistic meanings: that the
linguistic-realization of the two orders are different, and
so are the social relationships which realize them.
Elaborated codes are less tied to a given or local
structure and thus contain the potentiality of change in
principles. In the case of elaborated codes the speech is
freed from its evoking social structure and takes on an
• “restricted codes have their basis in condensed symbols
whereas elaborated codes have their basis in articulated
symbols. That restricted codes draw upon metaphor
where elaborated codes draw upon rationality.” Bernstein
in Giglioli p.164
• “… restricted code gives access to a vast potential of
meanings, of delicacy, subtlety and diversity of cultural
forms, to an unique aesthetic whose basis in condensed
symbols may influence the form of the imagining. Yet, in
complex industrialized societies its differently focused
experience may be disvalued, and humiliated within
schools or seen, at best, to be irrelevant to the
educational endeavour.”
• “elaborated codes give access to alternative realities yet
they carry the potential of alienation of feeling from
thought, of self from other, of private belief from role
obligation.” Giglioli. P.176
• Undermines the deficit theory of educational failure
which locates the problem as within the child. Particularly
aspects of the ‘Head start programme’.
• “In this area, the deficit theory appears as the concept of
‘verbal deprivation’: Negro children from the ghetto area
receive little verbal stimulation, are said to hear very little
well-formed language, and as a result are impoverished
in their means of verbal expression: they cannot speak
complete sentences, do not know the names of common
objects, cannot form concepts or covey logical thoughts.”
• “Unfortunately, these notions are based upon the
work of educational psychologists who know
very little about language and even less about
Negro children; In fact, Negro children the urban
ghettos receive a great deal of verbal
stimulation, hear more well-formed sentences
than middle-class children, and participate fully
in a highly verbal culture; they have the same
basic vocabulary, passes the same capacity for
conceptual leaning, and use the same logic as
anyone else who learn to speak and understand
• Demonstrates how defensive silences are characteristic
of responses by ghetto kids to school based
psychologists’ interviews, by illustrating how difficult it is
even for local black adults to get a meaningful dialog in
such situations.
• But goes on to demonstrate in the right context how such
children exhibit massively articulate and skilled speech
• He demonstrate through detailed analysis of
conversation transcripts both the grammaticality and the
logical structure of the language and contrast it with the
verbosity and loss of the logical thread in an interview
response with a middle class subject.
• That is language styles as symbolic of status not
evidence of competence.
Black linguistic styles
• Southern Baptist revivalist sermonising -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGekpymYWZM&feature=related
• Martin Luther King http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbUtL_0vAJk
• New York, sounding, rap.
– http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rP3qL4UG1TI
• West Indies, bragging competitions, calypso - soca.
– http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2mPnoFC28g
• With hindsight it is amazing that it can have escaped
most white observers that there is a long-standing
tradition of language games within the black
communities not only of American but the Caribbean as
well. But such was the state of de facto segregation that
it was invisible.
UK context
• A paper at British Sociological Association
Conference at University of East London
showing language use in an East London
comprehensive. Showed convincingly that
adoption of ‘posh’ and ‘cockney’ speech codes
was part of the symbolic repertoire for class
identities, the remarkable thing being that less
than 15% of the school was white, and had the
highest proportion of refugees and asylum
seeker’s children of any UK secondary school.
Structure and agency
• Language demonstrates that there is no
separation of structure and agency.
• Language is rule bound, we can specify
those rules, and is also infinitely creative,
as individuals we can creatively express
what ever we choose.
• Indeed it is the structure which enables us
to express and communicate those
individual pieces of creativity.

Week 9 Language