"All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in."
A conversation with an old friend from Paris this week got me thinking about our ability and decisions to use language to conform. Just as we find ourselves following certain trends in fashion, sport or lifestyle to ‘fit in’, if we really analyse the way we write and speak according to the different situations we find ourselves in, we notice that we follow these trends using language as well.
Before we start thinking about the way we change and adapt our language, it is useful to think about the form of language we start from – the ‘standard’. Standard language is often defined as the language ‘whose norms have been established and which is associated with dominant social groups’ (Offord). I often think it better, however, to think not in terms of a clear-cut boundary between standard and non-standard language, but in terms of a ‘linguistic continuum’ on which the two shade into each other, and that our choice of linguistic position along this continuum is based on various factors. We can therefore think of language as a ‘plastic malleable organism’, which moves up and down this continuum, and varies through choice of register and vocabulary.
Our choice of language variant along this ‘linguistic continuum’ is perhaps most often governed by the need to communicate clearly and effectively to the listener. Social factors play a huge part in this. Let’s use French as an example. A doctor could, for example, discuss his or her profession with another person of the same professional background using technical vocabulary, such as ‘tachycardie’, whereas with someone of a different profession or who is less well educated, the phrase ‘accélération du rhythme des battements du coeur’ would be necessary.
In the same way, both males and females also use a different register depending on whether they are talking to a member of their own sex. A male communicating with someone of his own sex, may address him as ‘mec’, however this would be completely inappropriate to say to a female. Male to male communication demonstrates clearly the phenomenon of ‘in-groups’ where, although the people involved are using a form of non-standard language to accommodate linguistically to each other, they are also doing so to conform with community norms and to therefore ‘acquire covert prestige as a mark of machoism and male bonding’ (Posner), and to linguistically exclude those not part of the ‘in-group’.
Aisde from gender conformity, age is another defining factor of ‘in-groups’. An example of the way the French use language to conform within this critera is the use of l’argot. It is described as a secret language that ‘cache le sens aux non-initiés’ (Calvet), therefore youths’ decision to use this extremely low register is not driven by the desire to make communication more effective, but to prevent comprehension to those who are not familiar with it. An example of this is the use of verlan, of which the reversal of morphemes is the main idea, for example ‘femme’ becomes ‘meuf’ hence hiding the meaning of the word from those who do not use it and therefore acting as a form of identity.
It is often easy to forget the power of language, and to neglect its uses aside from aiding communication. Just as French speakers adjust their language to conform to norms and exclude others from ‘in-groups’, examples of speakers from all other languages all over the world using language to the same effect can be found, and I would love to hear about examples of this from any of you have experienced it at some point. Language really is fascinating and its enormous variability and capabilities of therefore changing the way we see, hear and feel in different situations should never be underestimated!