How to linguistics #2.1: you talkin’ to me?

Sociolinguistics is the subfield of linguistics that aims to reveal and explain the different ways in which language is used in its social context(s). It is also the field that contains three of my favorite linguistic phenomena, namely politeness, accommodation, and code-switching. I know that these are three of my favorite linguistic phenomena because I am slightly nerdy and also because if you were to ask my mom or my little sister about any of these, you would get surprisingly accurate answers, which means I must have spent too many dinners orating about them.

The term ‘code-switching’ in particular has wormed its way into our collective vocabulary; in our household, it’s not uncommon to be interrupted by someone yelling “Code-switch!” at you when you are innocuously incorporating a string of English words in a Dutch sentence or vice versa. (More on bilingual code-switching and its flip side, language interference, in how to sociolinguistics #2.2, forthcoming.)

I’ve written about politeness in language before. Code-switching and accommodation are interrelated concepts, as code-switching is one of the many ways in which accommodation can occur, and accommodation is one of the many reasons why code-switching might occur. Up first: accommodation.

Accommodate, per favore
Let’s start off with a few definitions. (Just so you know, the Sociolinguistics notes I’m basing all this on are stored in a folder named ‘Fall 2011’. Creative license applies.) Accommodation is about how speakers consciously or unconsciously adapt their communication to the people they are talking to, a.k.a. their interlocutors. Convergence is adjusting your communication in order to reduce differences between you and your interlocutor; divergence is adjusting your communication in order to enhance differences between you and your interlocutor.

Convergence (“that’s how I roll, motherfucker”) and divergence (legibility and correct punctuation) explained in one snazzy comic.

Another personal example. We have this family friend, a wonderful Italian guy who owns a pizzeria in the center of town. When he moved here five years ago, he couldn’t speak a word of Dutch and only several words of English. By now he knows many words in both languages, and all of us communicate in a cute little hybrid of English and Dutch with a pinch of Italian (I personally know prego, grazie, and two swearwords).

The weird thing is, when we talk to him, we spontaneously forget how to English a little. We slow down ever so slightly. We construct simpler sentences. We put emphasis in odd places. We adopt a mysterious intonation pattern that probably has the Dutch and English circuits in our brains going, “What the hell are you doing? Stop. Your life is not a musical. Stop.” We end our every sentence on a high note or, worse, a cheerful “Yesss?”

What’s happening here is not spontaneous cognitive failure in anticipation of crispy, freshly-made, authentic Italian pizza straight from the oven. What’s happening here is linguistic convergence, the unconscious variant—as evidenced by the fact that my brother and my dad have, on different occasions, shaken their heads and said, “Why does that keep happening?” after one of these conversations.

Why does that keep happening? Enter Giles.

One of us vs. you can’t sit with us
It’s entirely possible that we already entered Giles a while ago; he might have been the one to come up with the concepts of convergence and divergence in the first place. I can’t remember. He definitely came up with communication accommodation theory (CAT), though, which explains why we accommodate, whether ‘toward’ (convergence) or ‘away from’ (divergence) someone.

Why does everyone in my family simplify their English and adopt a melodious, Italianeqsue intonation pattern when we talk to our Italian friend? According to my three-year-old notes, the process of convergence at its core “reflects people’s basic desire for social approval”. Some of the reasons why people converge are

– to be perceived positively by their interlocutor(s);
– to emphasize common social identities;
– to convey empathy or respect;
– to strengthen social bonds;
– to increase the chance of being understood.

When we inadvertently converge to our Italian friend, then, we are basically saying, “We like you! We want you to like us! We want you to feed us crispy pizzas!” Except in a more subtle way—so subtle we don’t even realize we’re doing it. (Once you’ve started converging, it’s very hard to stop. This only goes to show how deep mankind’s desire for pizza social approval runs.)

Divergence, the opposite of convergence, is a means of maintaining or accentuating social identity in communication. The social groups we identify with form essential parts of our self-concepts, and we often—again, whether consciously or unconsciously—show our group affiliations through the way we talk.

Meeting someone who speaks impeccable British and hearing your own accent grow stronger? Unconscious divergence to stay true to your own roots. Loudly swearing in church or in class? Conscious divergence from the language use expected in that situation to make sure that everyone around you knows that you are a super cool person who, like, totally doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks, man.

Divergence can be a way to emphasize identity by increasing the social or emotional distance between you and your interlocutor(s). It can also be a way of excluding someone from a conversation entirely. The most flagrant—and effective!—form of divergence, of course, would be to switch to a language the person you want to disassociate yourself from doesn’t understand. We have arrived at the topic for next time: code-switching.

Image credit: talking faces | comic | CAT


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