How does language reveal who we are? Part 1
Often without realizing it, we reveal a great deal about our personal history and social identity through the way we speak. When you think of your identity, do you think of yourself in relation to someone else? For example, do you think of yourself as someone’s daughter or wife, or someone’s father or brother?
Perhaps you see identity in terms of membership of a particular group? If so, how large a group is it? Is it a national group? An ethnic group? A social group? An interest group? A family group?
When members of a group are together for a common purpose, they feel a sense of belonging, of being united, and a sense of having a shared experience. This sense of unity and identity is often demonstrated by the language used by the members of the group, and by the particular choice of language used to express identity.
If you think about this topic, you will probably realize that you cannot define your identity in terms of one of these aspects only. You will realize that there are many sides or facets to your identity, just as there are many facets to cut a diamond.
It is very revealing to hear your speech being imitated or repeated by your own children or by a group of learners in an education situation. You then realize which words or phrases you repeat most often. These words and phrases have become a sort of ‘signature tune’: they are associated with you and almost serve to identify you. They are part of your idiolect.
When you hear someone from Britain speaking English, it is sometimes possible to work out what geographic region or era they come from, using clues such as their pronunciation, lexis, and grammar. You can often tell the difference, say, between the speech of someone from Scotland and someone from London. This was especially true in the past, when it was much easier to identify the origin of a person. Today it is more difficult to identify someone’s origin, because people tend to move around far more than they used to. Today it is rare for people to be born, to live, and to die in the same district. Greater exposure to different accents on radio and television also influences our accents and pronunciation.
South African English accent, for one, is very noticeable. Anyone across the globe can point out the South African English accent within seconds. Even for us, we are able to distinguish between the spoken English of someone from Cape Town or Durban or Gauteng. However, it is my view that mother-tongue or primary language influences, have the greater effect on the way South Africans speak English. We can all think of South Africans we know whose use of English illustrated the ‘pull’ of their primary language. You can probably call to mind specific examples of expressions used by additional-language speakers of English. In the same way, you would just as easily be able to identify an Indian-English accent.
Our sex definitely affects the way we speak. In some languages, males and females use different pronunciation, grammar, and lexis. Speech difference between men and women tend to reflect their different traditional social roles. Men have been conditioned to play a more supportive role. When women ask questions in a group, they tend to give others the chance to express themselves, while perhaps suppressing their own need for expression. In terms of social expectations, a degree of aggression is acceptable in men but often disapproved of in women. It is regarded as normal for men to challenge the views of others, but it is less acceptable when women do so. After saying so, I do not want to fall into the trap of stereotyping and we need to be cautious when we talk in general terms about ‘men’ and ‘women’. Neither category is homogenous, and each included enormous differences between individuals. For the moment, I would simply like to point out the differences in the use of English by males and females. Observe male and female interaction in conversational situations, and see whether you can recognize the contrasts that I have described.