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I. The Psychology of LanguageCharles N. Cofer


II. Language DevelopmentSusan M. Ervin-Tripp


III. Speech PathologyJack Matthews


IV. Language and CultureWilliam Bright



The psychologist tends to look at language in the first instance as he would look at any other problem area. Unique or special problems are confronted as they arise, but there is no unequivocal case for or against a special psychology—one created for language alone. The best, or, perhaps, the only way to discuss the psychology of language at this time is to describe how psychologists have been looking at it. Much of what can be said receives consideration in other articles in these volumes. The present one can serve as an introduction to the other articles, and it will be concerned, in part at least, with an attempt to set the framework which marks psychological studies of language. Certain more specific problems will also be treated—problems which represent some of the writer’s special interests and which are unlikely to receive extended discussion elsewhere.

Early interests of psychologists in language

Studies of language—or, as psychologists prefer to call it, verbal behavior, which applies to both spoken and written forms—began very early in the postphilosophical period in psychology. Several themes may be identified (see Carroll 1953).

The “word-association experiment.”

First, Wilhelm Wundt, often called the first experimental psychologist, was interested in language—but more from a naturalistic than from an experimental point of view. However, workers in his laboratory early took an interest in the “word-association experiment,” the origin of which is usually attributed to Sir Francis Galton. Galton’s pioneering work was carried out with himself as subject: he wrote down stimuli on slips of paper and later looked at each slip (on more than one occasion) and recorded the thoughts that were thereby elicited. He also timed these reactions and noted the tendencies for the same or different thoughts to occur on the several occasions on which he looked at each slip (Warren 1921).

The “word-association experiment,” despite its early entrance into the psychological laboratory (some of the results obtained are still cited today; see e.g. Woodworth [1938] 1960), soon figured more prominently in clinical diagnostic work than in the experimental laboratory. While the associations made by pathological subjects and by normal subjects were often found to differ, on the average, the association method never reached a dominant position in the armamentarium of clinical techniques, in the detection of “complexes,” or, except in classroom demonstrations, in the detection of “guilty knowledge,” although it was applied to all of these problems. It is safe to say that until about 1950 it had fallen into relative neglect. In the years since 1950, however, interest in association methods has reached a very high level because of the demonstrated value of measured associations in predicting other verbal behavior [see alsoMarshall & Cofer 1963; Noble 1963; see alsoAnalytical Psychologyand the biography ofJung].

Verbal learning

The study of verbal learning was begun in the laboratory almost as early as the word association method. Hermann Ebbinghaus reported the first experiments in a classic monograph in 1885. Ebbinghaus, however, was not really concerned with general questions of language or verbal behavior; he was interested instead in the formation of associations, and he attempted to prevent such factors as meaning, meaningfulness, and connectedness from influencing his results by inventing and using the nonsense syllable. A vast outpouring of work on verbal learning followed Ebbinghaus’ pioneer efforts (see e.g. McGeoch [1942] 1952; Conference …1961; Conference…1963), but current opinion is that verbal learning cannot be divorced from features of the subject’s usual language. [SeeLearning, article onVerbal Learning; and the biography ofEbbinghaus.]

Mediational processes

A third concern in psychology’s study of verbal behavior is the role verbal processes may have in mediating between stimuli and responses. Quite early (in the 1890s) there was an interest in “mediate association,” the notion that while two terms may not be related directly to one another they may be linked by a third term. Thus, justice and war may not be directly associated, but they may be related if, when one thinks justice, he also thinks peace. The latter may lead to the word “war,” thus serving to mediate between justice and war.

Mediational processes, especially verbal ones, have provided a mechanism whereby objective and behavioristic psychologists can account for forms of thought, stimulus and response equivalence, and other phenomena which are otherwise refractory to a simple analysis in terms of stimulus and response (Goss 1961a). Much of the impetus to this way of thinking came from studies of semantic conditioning, both in Russia and in the United States (Osgood 1953; Jenkins 1963), in which verbal behavior is given an important role in the control of other behavior (Luriia 1961; Bollard & Miller 1950). There has also been great interest in the possibilities for altering verbal behavior itself (and thus perhaps its control over other behaviors) by means of reinforcement and nonreinforcement (Krasner 1958) or by other means (Cofer 1957; 1960).


The fourth, and final, major trend appeared in the early 1950s and was a convergence of psychology (especially learning theory), descriptive linguistics, and information theory. This convergence was facilitated by the Social Science Research Council and the Carnegie Corporation (Carroll 1953). Essentially, it amounted to the bringing together of linguists and psychologists (see Osgood 1963; Osgood & Sebeok 1954) so that each group could become familiarized with the techniques and concepts of the other. As a result, an interdisciplinary “field”—psycholinguistics—has sometimes been identified, although its methods and concepts perhaps tend to be more aggregations than mergers of the concepts and methods of the disciplines. “Psycholinguisticians” tend to retain their primary identifications as linguists or as psychologists. The development of the notion of a” generative grammar” (Chomsky 1957) in linguistics may well alter the character of psycholinguistics. [SeeLinguistics.]

It must be pointed out that what has been said implies very little concerning language as a process of interindividual communication. It is obvious that communication is a major function of language, but from the present vantage point it seems that matters other than communication per se have engaged the interests of the major psychological students of language or verbal behavior, although studies of communication processes do go on. Also neglected in the foregoing account is speech perception and speech pathology, the study of which can yield important and useful information on a variety of problems. [SeeLanguage, article onSpeech Pathology; Perception, article OnSpeech Perception.]

Viewpoints concerning mediational events

A major theoretical concern among psychologists interested in verbal behavior has been the implicit events which may accompany overt speech production or writing. Cofer and Foley (1942) suggested that a mediating response underlies cases of stimulus equivalence (or transfer or generalization) among stimuli which are physically dissimilar. Thus, if a response is learned to a word like “fashion” and it transfers, without further training, to the word “style” or “mode,” the transfer cannot be explained on the basis of the visual appearance or the sound of the words. The argument advanced, in essence, was that each of these words elicits, as a result of prior experience, a common reaction. If this reaction occurs when fashion is presented, it will be associated with the new response being learned to fashion. Since style and mode also elicit the common reaction, its occurrence when they are presented would also result in the appearance of the response newly learned to fashion. The common reaction mediates the transfer. Cofer and Foley stressed the relation of synonymity among words as an indication of the existence of common mediating reactions among them, but they also spoke of interword associations in such a way as to suggest that associations, also, might serve as mediators.

Osgood’s views—representational mediation

Osgood (1953; 1961) has made the mediating reaction the basis of a theory of meaning. Two words mean the same thing to the extent that they share the capacity to arouse the same representational mediator. The conception is that, with respect to an object, there is behavior, Rt (for total behavior). A sign, e.g., a word, may be acquired in relation to the object; but to have meaning with reference to the object the sign must arouse some representative part of the Rt made to the object. The representational part would ordinarily be those features of, Rt which can readily be detached from the total and occur implicitly without interfering with other behavior.

This formulation led Osgood to make certain distinctions among word relations with respect to meaning. Thus, contrasting or opposite words (antonyms) cannot share common mediators and hence cannot have common meanings. This is because Rt with respect to objects or events must be very different in the case of antonyms. The representational mediators, in turn, would then be very different for antonyms. Thus, Osgood is forced to explain the fact that antonyms are often highly associated in word association tests (e.g., black–white, up–down) on the basis of a rote verbal habit rather than on the basis of common representational mediators. Similarly, he took the position that the existence of interword associations does not demonstrate, generally, the presence of common meanings. He also seemed to hold that transfer and generalization should ordinarily be predicated on common representational mediators rather than on common associations.

The semantic differential. As an index of a representational mediator, Osgood (see Osgood et al. 1957) emphasized the semantic differential. This is a technique by which a given word or concept (e.g., baby) is rated by a subject on each of a number of seven-point rating scales, the extremes of which are defined by polar adjectives. Thus, scales appear whose extreme points are designated by such adjective pairs as hot–cold, bad–good, active–passive, tense–relaxed. Factor analysis of the intercorrelations among such scales has usually yielded three more basic dimensions—evaluative (e.g., bad–good), activity (e.g., active–passive), potency (e.g., strong–weak). It is possible to describe a given word in terms of where its ratings fall in a semantic space defined by these three (and perhaps other) dimensions. As these dimensions are believed to characterize the representational mediator, they are an index of its meaning. Osgood has referred to this as connotative (or emotional) meaning in contrast to denotative meaning.

Among psychological investigators of verbal behavior, Osgood has perhaps been the leader in emphasizing that meaning is a critical factor in verbal behavior and that a satisfactory account of language must deal with it. Others have not been convinced. Skinner (1957) has written a psychology of language in which the concept of meaning does not enter and which treats verbal behavior as a case of the operant. Skinner is concerned with the analysis of this operant (and the classes into which it may be divided) in terms of the variables (reinforcement, stimulus control, deprivation, aversive conditions) which control its strength. This is essentially a descriptive or positivistic procedure, representing an extrapolation of notions developed in the animal laboratory.

Association in mediation

More closely associated with the mainstream of the psychological study of verbal behavior, however, have been the investigators who have emphasized interword associations as the important problem. They have insisted that the test of what is important is not whether a conception explains meaning. Rather, they have argued that the extent to which predictions can be made of the behavior of words in a variety of situations is critical. In other words, they have held forth not the criterion that a conception of verbal behavior explains (or ignores) meaning but the criterion that a theory of verbal behavior must accept measures and procedures which correlate well with other phenomena in the verbal realm.

To give this approach (it can hardly be called a theory) some concreteness, we may describe an experiment made a number of years ago at the University of Minnesota (see Jenkins 1963 for references and discussion). This experiment (and many others as well) was designed, in part, to determine whether meaning (in Osgood’s sense) or association is a more effective variable in predicting transfer in certain situations. Before discussing the experiment, we may turn first to a discussion of contemporary procedures of association tests.

Association tests. The word association test, as it has been typically used, consists of a list of words to which a subject reacts, one at a time, by saying or writing down the first other single word that comes to mind when he sees or hears a list (stimulus) word. This process is called free association since no restriction is imposed on what response the subject can give, save that his response must be a single word and that repetitions of the stimulus word are prohibited. Despite its name, the procedure is not to be confused with the free association procedure as used in psychoanalysis: the two techniques differ widely.

The word association test is usually given to a number of subjects (from fifty to one hundred are considered a minimum for the establishment of norms), and their responses are tabulated for each stimulus. When such tabulations are made (and the stimuli used are relatively common words) the typical result is this: one word is given by a substantial number of subjects, another by somewhat fewer subjects, a third by still fewer subjects, and so on until words are found that are given by only one subject. An illustration will clarify this situation. Suppose the stimulus word is “length,” and we obtain responses from 56 subjects. In such a sample the most frequent, or primary, response is width, occurring 18 times (32 per cent), the next is long, occurring 5 times (9 per cent), the next are height and measure, tied at 4 occurrences each, and there are 6 responses, each occurring twice— short, depth, foot, line, measurement, distance. In addition, there are 13 responses each occurring but a single time.

This set of associations, and others like it, is often termed an association hierarchy, because the responses differ and may be ordered in accordance with their frequencies of occurrence to the stimulus word. Such hierarchies may differ in a number of properties. Thus, the primary frequency may vary considerably (e.g., table elicits chair as a primary from about 75 per cent of a group of U.S. college students, in contrast to the 32 per cent indicated above), and the difference between the primary and other responses themselves may vary. Likewise, the number of different words given to a stimulus varies; usually the higher the primary frequency the fewer other words there are, a fact dictated by arithmetic if we are dealing with a constant sample size.

These differences in associative frequency have been taken as a measure of association or habit strength, not only for the group, but, by inference, for the individual. Though it is by no means a certain inference, there is evidence which justifies it (cf. Russell 1961). At any rate, a number of experiments have been predicated on this inference.

The dominant association to length, as we have seen, is width. The dictionary records a number of meanings for the word “length,” but width is not among them; measure, measurement, and distance are, however, approximations to the dictionary statement of some of the meanings of length. We may say that width is a prominent associative meaning of length, if we wish to, but it certainly does not qualify in a dictionary or denotative sense as a meaning of length. This, of course, illustrates Osgood’s argument that associations are not the same as meaning.

Predictive value of associations. The question, however, may still be raised whether the associations are effective in mediating transfer (and other phenomena) and, if they are, how they compare with synonyms in doing so. To answer this question, the following experiment was performed.

Two lists were constructed, each consisting of a series of word pairs. The subject was required to learn the two lists in succession, and the interest lay in the transfer effects of learning the first list upon learning the second list. Response members of the pairs in the two lists were related in two ways. Some responses were antonyms, but highly associated; since meaning has been ruled out by Osgood as a factor in the interrelation of antonyms, these pairs test the role of association. Other response members of the pairs were synonyms which, according to the word association test, were not associated. These test the capacity of meaning to mediate transfer without association. There were also control pairs, in which the response members of the two lists were neither synonyms nor associates. Table 1 shows the general experimental plan. When compared to control pairs in List 2, the pairs having associative and synonym relations with pairs in List 1 showed the effects of positive transfer in List 2. The associated pairs tended to be learned in a somewhat superior fashion than the synonymous pairs. In this experiment, then, both the postulated factors were effective. One can say that common meaning may effect transfer but that transfer can occur without it if suitable associations are present.

Table 1 – Experimental pla

Many other experiments have been carried out which have explored and demonstrated the role of associations in a variety of situations. Among the situations studied have been free recall, list learning and recall, semantic generalization, recognition of words (in the context of other words) after very brief or inadequate presentations, verbal discrimination, transfer, and concept formation (for references see Deese 1961; Jenkins 1963; Gofer 1957; 1960; and Marshall & Gofer 1963). The role of meaning has also been studied in some of these situations, and some conflict has arisen over whether meaning or association is the better concept or whether one can be reduced to the other (see Bousfield 1961; Osgood 1961). Since the role of mediation is critical to this work, whether interpreted in terms of meaning or association, a good deal of effort has been devoted to basic mediational processes and mechanisms (Jenkins 1963).

Associations in other tasks. Two further areas of inquiry may be discussed to demonstrate the interest of psychologists in the role of associations in such tasks as concept identification and problem solving.

Underwood and Richardson (see Marshall & Gofer 1963) selected a large number of words, to each of which they obtained “sensory” associations from a large group of college subjects. The subjects were carefully instructed as to the kind of association they were to give; thus it was pointed out that to such a stimulus word as “apple” responses like red, sour, or round would be appropriate; responses like tree, fruit, or seed would not meet the criteria for a sensory association. To each stimulus, sensory associations were arranged in a hierarchy according to frequencies, called “dominance levels” by the investigators.

It is possible then to present several words to a new group of subjects, each word having a sensory associate in common with the other words of the set. The subject is asked what these words have in common. For example, one might present the words “chalk,” “milk,” “paste,” and “shirt” and ask what they have in common or in what way they are similar. The instructions here would not mention or suggest sensory attributes. An answer for the set just mentioned might be that they are or can all be white. The subjects are more successful in finding the expected solution for sets with high dominance levels than for sets with low dominance levels.

This finding suggests that in tasks of this kind solution will be more likely if the instances suggest the answer than if they do not. More generally, it is consistent with the idea that problem solution often derives from responses to the materials available. If the materials suggest available and appropriate responses, solution will be quick; if they do not, or if they suggest inappropriate or incorrect responses, solution may be delayed, impeded, or prevented altogether.

A somewhat similar analysis may be made of an experiment by Judson and Gofer (see Gofer 1957). These investigators developed a number of four-word items; in each item, the subject was to exclude the word that did not go with or belong with the others. The critical items had two possible solutions. Thus, the item

skyscraper temple cathedral prayer

can be solved by excluding prayer, as it is not a building, or by excluding skyscraper, as it has nothing to do with religion. In the investigation carried out, an important factor found to determine solution was the word order of the item. As the item is shown above, prayer is excluded more often than skyscraper. If, however, the positions of prayer and skyscraper are interchanged in the item as presented, then skyscraper is excluded more often than prayer. Evidently, associations are initiated by the first word of the item and reinforced by the next two words (which are ambiguous in that they refer both to buildings and to religion) so that the last item is typically seen as not belonging. With highly religious persons, however (as measured by church attendance), the nonreligion item tends to be excluded no matter what its position is. Thus, while word order itself is important to the dominance of the concept to be identified (and thus to the word to be excluded), dominance can also arise from other, perhaps more personal, sources.

Associations should influence behavior over a period of time if their importance is great. A demonstration that is relevant was made by Judson and Gofer (see Gofer 1957). The procedure was divided into two parts, separated by a six-week interval. In part 1, each subject was asked to give ten free associations to each of ten stimulus words. Only one of these sets of associations was used later, however. Suppose one stimulus word was music and the first four associates given by one subject were tune, song, instrument, and melody. In part 2, for this subject, tune was presented on a card along with three other words (each on a card) that were new to the experiment. The subject was told to pick one of the four words. If he was “correct” (i.e., he chose tune) he was told that he was right. If he was “wrong” (i.e., he picked one of the other words), he continued to pick until he chose tune. After performing satisfactorily on this set of cards, he was then shown four more cards containing song and three new words. This time, he simply made a choice, with no information being given as to its correctness. Then he was shown four more cards, containingnstrument and three new words and made a choice (without information); then melody with new words and so on until his sequence of ten associates was used up. The question was, would the subject choose more often the words that he had associated with music after the first response (tune in the example) was said to be correct than he would choose the new words which were not part of the associative chain? As compared to the control group, the subjects answered this question affirmatively, indicating that the chain established in part 1 was still intact and that subsequent choices were influenced by the designation of the first word of the chain as correct.

Another way of investigating the role of associations in problem-solving behavior was used by Gofer, Judson and Gelfand (see Gofer 1957). In this experiment, the subjects were asked to solve certain problems. Prior to attempting the problems, the subject was taught several short lists of words. One of the lists contained a sequence of words, which, if active in the subject’s mind at the time of problem solving, could influence the kind of solutions used in solving the problems. The results were suggestive, if not definitive. That is, for male subjects at any rate, the frequency with which one particular solution appeared for each task was augmented (as compared to controls), and this solution was the one to which the word list was related.

These experiments on concept formation and problem solving do not cover the entire range of these phenomena but, so far as they go, they do suggest that verbal associative processes can have an important effect in these tasks. And experiments such as these illustrate very pointedly what is meant by the role of verbal responses in mediating and controlling other behaviors. [SeeConcept FormationandProblem Solving.]

Work of the kind we have just described illustrates the influence of association tests, learning theory, and the interest in mediation processes in the control of behavior. Our description should be clear on one point: much of what we have said has been concerned essentially with single words and their relations to one another. Language involves more complex arrangements of words than this, and in psychology some attention has been paid to these complexities. Both linguistics and information theory contribute knowledge and techniques to considerations of this problem of complexity.

Contributions of information theory

Information or communication theory has contributed, in addition to a model of the communication process and a means of measuring the amount of information transmitted, the important concept of redundancy. In successive segments of a sequence of words taken from normal English, there are or may be dependency on what has gone before. In such cases, the listener (or reader) can often predict accurately what is to come, and when it comes its occurrence does not contribute any information (i.e., resolve any uncertainty) over and above what the listener or reader already has. [SeeInformation THEORY.] Some of this redundancy arises from structural features of the language; other aspects of it may arise from semantic (associative?) features. In the sentence “Tom went to the ——” there are many items (such as movie, play, concert, game, exhibit) which can be inserted in the blank with equal appropriateness. However, all of them are nouns; we cannot insert pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, verbs, conjunctions, and prepositions if only one word is to be placed in the blank and the sentence is to end with that word. This is an example of structural redundancy: our choice is limited to nouns in filling the blank. We cannot use just any word in the language to do so. As the noun class contains a very large number of items, we still have many choices but we are, nonetheless, restricted by the grammatical situation (here a prepositional phrase which contains an article before the blank) to selection among those words which have the privilege of occurrence in the situation.

In many situations, it is easier to fill in blanks when they stand for items that have chiefly structural rather than semantic significance. Thus, it is more likely that the blank in the following “Tom —— going to the play” will be replaced with the word “is” or “was” than it is that the blank in the first version would be replaced by any of the noun alternatives listed. There is, we may say, more redundancy in the case of is or was than there is in the blank in the noun phrase, although there is redundancy there also. With content words (nouns, adjectives, verbs, or adverbs), the semantic or associative context often severely limits the possible choices. Thus, in the sentence “Tom went to read the part in the ——” few choices (play, drama, for example) remain to the reader or hearer; redundancy here is high.

One of the advantages for learning that connected discourse has over unconnected words is conferred by its redundancy, both structural and semantic (Deese 1961). The influence of structural redundancy is perhaps confined to strings of words in which some features, at least, of the language are preserved. Strings of unrelated words, however, may be associatively or semantically related; thus there may be some redundancy in such terms.

It is clear that redundancy is an important feature of language; it is probably essential to accurate communication (especially in noisy channels), and, for memory, it is very helpful that large amounts of material can be coded (thus reducing the load on memory) in terms of redundant features (Miller 1956). That language is often used to code or categorize (Brown 1958) the environment is perhaps a feature of the greatest importance to intellectual functioning and to the role of language in the control of behavior.

Contributions of linguistics

It is probably fair to say that linguistics has had its greatest impact on psychology because of its knowledge of the structure of language and the rules that govern the structure. Phonemic and morphemic analysis has been instructive, but morphology and syntax are perhaps more provocative.

There are at least two fundamental issues that morphology and syntax raise for a psychology of language. First, it is clear that no theory of verbal behavior which confines itself to semantic and associative relations among words alone is complete. Mechanisms must be developed to cope with semantic and associative changes that undoubtedly occur in the context of other words, and syntactic restraints must be an important aspect of this context. Furthermore, no psychological theory of morphology or syntax has been presented as yet. Analysis so far has largely been confined to specific cues in speech or writing which might elicit word inflections or specific syntactic forms (Goss 1961 b).

The second issue arises from the fact that at a descriptive level it is clear that speech regularities appear very early in the development of the child (Brown & Fraser 1963). Furthermore, many rule-abiding features of speech are known to occur widely, even though the speakers are unaware of the rules or of the fact that they are following rules.

Young children display the operation of a general rule when they pluralize goose incorrectly as gooses or form the past tense of the verb “take” as “taked.” Perhaps more subtle examples are found in the speech of adults. We all recognize that there is something wrong with the expression “the sheer two silk stockings” and would prefer to say “the two sheer silk stockings.” We would have difficulty in formulating the rule that makes one expression acceptable, the other not. Despite its semantic nonsense, we can recognize the grammatical correctness of Chomsky’s (1957) famous sentence, “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” or make the appropriate substitutions of nouns, verbs, and modifiers in such strings as “the glibs duxed the neglan gojeys.” Semantic factors are not essential to the identification of grammaticalness or to the identification of parts of speech.

The facts are, then, that morphological and syntactical principles govern much speech and writing behavior and that many of them cannot be verbalized by a large number of adults and appear in the speech behavior of young children without explicit instruction. These features suggest that a psychological theory or account of morphology and syntax may have to include concepts of a higher order than those of stimulus and response and that explicit coding responses cannot be invoked to mediate these phenomena of grammar.

Structural linguistics has provided descriptions of these phenomena and has described the regularities that prevail in language. However, it has not presented a theory of the behavior involved. Recently, Chomsky (1957) and Miller (1962) have argued for a new conception.

This conception holds that, in addition to a phrase-structure grammar, there is also a set of transformational rules which, when used, modifies a statement from one type to another including the necessary morphophonemic changes. Thus, a sentence model exists which appears to be the basic form (the kernel) of adult utterances, but it is transformed systematically, as needed, by the use of transformational rules like the interrogative, the passive, the negative, and so on. More than one rule may be applied, as when a simple declarative sentence becomes a passive interrogative negative. For example, “Tom hits the girl” would become “Is not the girl being hit by Tom?” by the application of the appropriate transformations.

Chomsky, a linguist, has been explicit in asserting that a simple stimulus–response formation and habit utilization theory cannot, in his opinion, cope with this conception of grammar. Miller, a psychologist, seems to agree, and while he thinks work on association is important, he believes that the mechanisms underlying the transformational grammar can hardly be of the associational kind. A psychological theory of the development and use of transformational grammar has not been formulated, but if these authors are correct it would presumably involve high-order processes not readily reducible to association or meaning.

We have surveyed some of the major interests and problems characterizing psychologists’ work on language. Beginning with the historical trends in the psychological study of language, we have concentrated on mediational processes, conceived from both a meaning and a word-association point of view. While some progress on problems related to mediational processes has been made, many questions and further problems remain. Psychological understanding of language in the sense of connected words has not progressed very far, although concepts and methods of information theory and linguistics have been found useful. Whether the rule using that is evident in the verbal behavior of both children and adults, conceived either in terms of conventional morphology and syntax or in terms of transformational grammar, can be reduced to the concepts of contemporary learning theory is a question to be decided in the near future.

Charles N. Cofer

[Directly related are the entries Communication; Linguistics; Literature. Other relevant material may be found in Information THEORY; Perception, article on SPEECH PERCEPTION.]


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Osgood, Charles E. 1961 Comments on Professor Bousfield’s Paper. Pages 91–106 in Conference on Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, New York University, 1959, Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior: Proceedings. Edited by Charles N. Cofer. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Osgood, Charles E. 1963 Psycholinguistics. Pages 244–316 in Sigmund Koch (editor), Psychology: A Study of a Science. Volume 6: Investigations of Man as Socius: Their Place in Psychology and the Social Sciences. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Russell, Wallace A. 1961 Assessment Versus Experimental Acquisition of Verbal Habits. Pages 110–123 in Conference on Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, New York University, 1959, Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior: Proceedings. Edited by Charles N. Cofer. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Language development refers to the child’s acquisition of his first language, usually under informal natural conditions. By the end of the first four years of life, children have mastered the essentials of this most distinctively human attribute. Given normal hearing and a normal brain, variations in rates of mastery are small. Indeed, so gifted in language learning are they that many children become skilled in more than one language in their early years. The evolution of a child’s knowledge of his language is basic to his intellectual and social development, yet explanations of this process make demands on theories of human learning which have not yet been met.

Historical aspects

Studies of child language development in modern times fall into three phases. The first studies in the nineteenth century consisted primarily of parental diaries. Authors trained in linguistics (Gvozdev 1961; Leopold 1939-1949) have continued to use case studies. More than any other form of behavior, language reveals obvious internal patterning, and linguists have been loath to lose sight of these patterns by pooling quantitative measures of output. In the second phase of research, carried out by psychologists, standardized measuring methods of large samples were emphasized (McCarthy 1954). For the most part these studies have been atheoretical and have been concerned with variations in performance with age, sex, race, social class, and so on.

A landmark in modern research was Velten’s (1943) application of Jakobson’s (1941) theory of phonemic development. This theory proposed that changes in each child’s linguistic system followed an orderly sequence of increasing differentiation of significant features; thus it related language development to perceptual development and provided a theoretical framework which made comparison of children in different linguistic environments possible.

Subsequent research, particularly on phonology and grammar, is a product of the mating of psychology and linguistics. The differences from the preceding phase lie in the later work’s sensitivity to linguistic theories, respect for the systematic nature of the child’s linguistic knowledge, and emphasis on inferences about the structures or rules which underlie the observed situational changes in verbal behavior.

Prelinguistic phase of infancy

By the end of the first year of life, the average child understands some adult speech and can execute some directions. At first, he merely responds to adult sounds by attention and then by making sounds himself. Later he comes to recognize gross differences between voices and may distinguish intonational contrasts. His gradual discrimination of the critical features in the speech of adults is probably the most important aspect of language learning, yet almost nothing is known about the growth of comprehension.

The infant at first makes sounds which are closely tied to feeding and breathing. His vocalizations become increasingly triggered by vocal stimulation from others. In the first three months cooing comes to be highly associated with vocal stimulation and can also be increased in frequency if followed by other forms of adult responsiveness. On the other hand, the actual sounds uttered seem to be autogenous, since the sounds of deaf children and of children who hear are indistinguishable before six months.

Cooing gradually gives way to the consonant-vowel sequences and repetitive patterns which sound to adults like the syllables of their own language. During the babbling period, there is a rich variety of vocal play by the normal child. Sometimes he persists in making sounds which are idiosyncratic and not present in the speech around him. Further, he readily produces sounds and sequences in the adult repertoire which he will be unable to produce again for years after he begins to use language.

The role of babbling in language development is controversial. A child who lives in a linguistically stimulating environment may babble a great deal, and he may be more fluent than average when language develops. Yet, contrary to popular belief, there is as yet no evidence that babbling is in any specific way practice for language development. Indeed, the formal properties of babbling and of speech are so different that they suggest somewhat distinct central processes in their production.

Semantic system

Early sentences

An average child uses meaningful utterances by the middle of the second year, and by the middle of the third year babbling virtually disappears in play except as a stylistic device.

At first these utterances vary considerably in both sound and meaning. They may be quite idiosyncratic. Because of the simplicity of the child’s phonological system, there may be numerous homonyms if his vocabulary grows rapidly. Meanings are generalized readily, so that a given utterance might on various occasions mean “my coat,” “my hat,” “my baby carriage,” “let’s go for a walk,” “bye-bye,” and so on. Frequently there is a close integration with gesture.

If the first utterances are based on adult words, they may sometimes be very inclusive in reference (“bird”) or very narrow (“Bobby”). Adult beliefs about the semantic contrasts needed by children may influence the words they use in talking with children. From the standpoint of adult meanings, the words used by children tend to refer to animal and human movements and to concrete items with characteristic shapes and sizes (Brown 1958). When the child’s range of reference of a term is actually tested, it appears to depend on the variety of verbal contexts in which a word is heard and, to a lesser degree, on the variety of physical referents.

Conceptual changes

As the size of vocabulary increases, inevitably there is a change in the conceptual system. The number of semantic contrasts marked by vocabulary grows, and the referential range for each word must therefore narrow. A child might begin by calling all adults “papa,” next use the word for his own father, and then later learn the word “adult,” which has a similar referential range to the primitive “papa” (Leopold 1939-1949).

In this example, there has been more than a change in range. By the time the word “adult” is present, the child has a hierarchical system of superordinates. The criteria for each class have increased in specificity and changed in character, becoming less visual. Changes in the semantic system have in fact been only sketchily studied. They may include increases in the specificity of terms, increases in knowledge or in concept range as experience grows, a shift from sensorimotor to relational bases for concepts, and shifts in the verbal structure, so that antonyms, synonyms, superordinates, and other structural relations in the vocabulary reflect the critical contrasts employed in the language.

Studies of the deaf and other experimental research have suggested that conceptual development may have important nonverbal roots. Yet words give society a sure way of imposing its conceptual system. Societies differ considerably in the semantic contrasts marked by their vocabulary of kin, color, quantity, shape, time, space, and so on. The sanctions against deviant denotative use of these terms bring the child’s comprehension, speech, and presumably his conceptual system into line with his language community.

Verbal relations

The basis of the child’s system of relating words shifts by mid-primary school from sounds to meanings and grammatical features. The sound of a word is salient to the preschool child, who readily produces rhymes and alliterative sequences in word play. Words which sound alike are easily confused, leading to contaminations of meaning. On the other hand, children’s greater interest in the sounds of words may facilitate the learning of a spelling system or the sound system of a second language. In contrast, adults, who tend to respond less to the sound and who are concerned more with meaning, are known to have greater difficulty with the phonology of a second language, although they may acquire vocabulary far more quickly.

As children mature, their vocabulary increasingly becomes organized in terms of grammatical and semantic replacement classes, and they become more able to isolate words from their situational and sentence contexts. Each word more readily elicits other words. Interverbal associations are more rapid, more fluent, more specific, and more predictable from the semantic and grammatical system. This high rate of mutual evocation of words may be a help in intelligence tests and in school tasks requiring verbal retention of information. Children vary considerably in their readiness to convert their experience—including nonverbal experience—ipto spontaneous verbal thought. This skill seems to be a consequence of the verbal milieu in which the child is reared, and hence is responsive to training (see Ervin-Tripp in Hoffman & Hoffman 1966).


As soon as a child knows several meaningful utterances it is possible to study his phonological system. The units of this system are phonemes, which are constructs that represent the smallest distinguishable unit of speech and which account for the significant formal contrasts between utterances. A very primitive system is illustrated when a child has two words, such as “baba” and “tata.” At this point there are three phonemes—one vowel and two consonants. Extrapolating from a small number of diary studies, we might expect the following changes to take place: (1) We might next find a system containing four consonant phonemes in which there is a contrast between the stop consonants and continuants. For example, the child might add /m/ and /n/, or /f/ and /s/ to the primitive system. At this point the consonant system would have two intersecting features—place of articulation (front versus back) and type of articulation (stop versus continuant). (2) In the vowels, probably a low versus high contrast will appear first, so the next vowel might be a single higher vowel, followed by a front-back contrast, as in /i/ versus /u/. (3) Typically, a contrast of position is followed by a voicing contrast. When voicing becomes significant, we might find both “dada” and “tata” with different meanings. (4) The consonant system will usually be more elaborate at the beginning of words, so that the number of contrasts may be greater there during the course of development. (5) Syllable repetitions, as in the example, usually decrease in the second year, and the length and variety of word-formation patterns increase. (6) Some sequential arrangements, such as consonant clusters (ts, kr, pi), are absent for a long time, even when the component phonemes are present (see Ervin-Tripp in Hoffman & Hoffman 1966).

This has been a description of the child’s phonology in its own terms, but most observers are more likely to notice the mapping of the adult’s system onto the child’s when the child makes substitutions. Thus, in the above system with three phonemes and a CVCV syllable repetition pattern, any word acquired by the child must become either “tata” or “baba”—an extreme case to be sure. The most obvious substitution patterns are simple replacements, such as the mapping of both stops (t, d) and affricates (ch, j) onto stops when there is no stop-affricate contrast. The word formation pattern of the child may require omission of whole syllables or members of clusters. The conversion of “father” into “papa” is predictable for a child who has not yet developed a stop-fricative contrast (between /p/ and /f/), who has a CVCV syllable repetition rule, and who selects the adult stressed syllable.

The child with a simplified phonemic system sometimes has a preferred phonetic realization of a given phoneme and sometimes has random or free variation. In the first case, he might always say [t] and never use [d] in articulation of “tata.” In the latter case, especially common for vowels, he may oscillate unpredictably. A third possibility is that he may use each predictably in a given context. For instance, he may use [d] at the beginning of words and [t] in the middle to realize a single phoneme (Velten 1943).

Although the number of phonemes in children’s systems usually is less than in adults’, their substitution rules are not always simple and may baffle parents or teachers unfamiliar with phonemic analysis. For instance, some children have a rule making an initial consonant nasal if there is a nasal consonant anywhere in the adult model word, producing imitations like /nil for “green.” There may be phonemic contrasts in the child’s system which are absent in the adult system. Assimilation is very common in children’s word-formation patterns, so that neighboring phonemes or successive syllables may influence each other. Yet all of these are orderly rules. The factors producing these idiosyncratic patterns are as yet unknown.

What makes a child’s phonemic system change? Perhaps the presence of numerous homonyms encourages change; yet some children tolerate extensive homonymy when they have a large vocabulary combined with a very simple phonemic system and restricted word-formation rules. Understanding or hearing a phonemic distinction is not a sufficient condition for producing it, although each process evidently facilitates the other. Thus, in adults, acoustic discrimination is much sharper when the listeners have learned a corresponding discrete articulation. The teaching of reading and spelling and the alteration of phonology when children learn to speak second dialects and second languages might be much easier if teachers knew more about phonological development [see Perception,article on Speech Perception].


Languages differ considerably in their organization of basic grammatical devices, so it will be necessary to study children’s language development in many types of languages to establish well-founded generalizations. For example, in English, the constituent order (e.g., subject-verb-object) has a high degree of regularity; deviations are significant; and the selection of entries in the subject and object position is semantically important. In Russian, on the other hand, there may be much more variability in constituent order, since inflectional suffixes mark the relations indicated by constituent order in English. Children learning both languages show order regularities before they use markers such as inflection or function words consistently, but children learning highly inflected languages have been reported to learn inflections much earlier (Gvozdev 1961).

Simple syntax

From the very beginning of multiword sentences, children usually reveal order regularities in speech. Certain frequent words may occupy fixed positions. For instance, “where,” “there,” and “this” may always be in antecedent position, and “up,” “on,” and “off” in last position. Other words and phrases, such as “broken,” “blue,” “truck,” “the truck,” “the broken,” then could occupy either position in complement to the fixed items. On the basis of position alone, one can identify primitive word classes and usually a nominal phrase also, which can expand one of the complement classes. From the examples it can be seen that these classes are idiosyncratic and do not correspond exactly to adult classes (Bellugi & Brown 1964).

How do primitive classes develop? They cannot be based simply on imitation, since at this stage children’s imitations are at least as simple as their own spontaneous speech, and classes appear even if the adult language has variable order (Gvozdev 1961). They reflect order regularities when they exist in adult language, and in part they reflect semantic features of adult classes (Brown 1958). In their idiosyncratic features they clearly reveal creative and analogizing activity by the child and cannot be based on rote learning. The study of the child’s interpretation of what he hears may provide the key to this enigma. But as yet there have been no true experiments on grammatical acquisition in the very young. There is disagreement as to the character of “rules” in children’s early grammar and as to the relation between the comprehension system and speech.

Inflections and function words

During the period of simple syntax, English-speaking children employ function words like “the” at random, and as their frequency increases such anomalous sentences may appear as “I see the Mary.” The order of mastery of both function words and inflections is influenced by their semantic obviousness.

In English, inflectional suffixes such as plurals are randomly present at first, but in highly inflected languages, such as Russian, often a single form is used before the period of random variation. In many languages there are some irregular inflections, such as “go-went,” which are preserved because of their high individual frequency. Children do not usually learn these first, as tense contrasts at least, even though they are frequent. Among English nouns and verbs, the largest variety of verbs have an inflectional suffix, such as “stop-stopped.” It is these forms which are productive or generalized to new words by children. These analogies can be highly resistant to adult influence; typically, a form like “foots” can remain in a child’s speech for months after he has learned the plural form.

Sometimes alternative inflections depend upon the preceding phoneme; for example, a plural is formed by “-s” in most cases, but by “-es” in some, as in “mats” versus “matches.” Children use the most common form first, then both at random, before discovering the phonemic conditioning rule. During the period of random variation one finds forms such as “handses” and “toasteded” (Ervin-Tripp in Hoffman & Hoffman 1966).

Complex syntax

It is a common observation that children’s sentences grow longer as they get older. This is a superficial effect of deeper changes. As we have seen, this increase is due in part to the systematic use of function words and suffixes. Some of the constituents which were optional in the simple grammars—such as verbs—may become obligatory in the more complex phrase structure. Potentially infinite expansions of coordinate and subordinate structures appear. These are all changes in the child’s syntax itself; in addition, there may be increases in the amount of information a child can include in a given utterance. One might say that programming capacity increases with age.

In the course of these changes, it is not easy to establish criteria for mastery of the adult syntactic rules. Sometimes a given sentence in a child’s speech has the appearance of an adult sentence, but it derives from a different syntax. For example, during the early stages in the development of negation, children commonly use “no” or “don’t” as simple negativizing words, much like the plural. Later, as inflection of verbs appears, one may find “he doesn’t goes.” Eventually the child will arrive at the adult rule, which in the negative marks tense and person only in the auxiliary. The intermediate stages of the evolution of the negation rule can be inferred if one has appropriate tests or a sufficiently large text from a child and is willing to make such inferences.

At the age of six, there remain a number of constructions which are still absent in the speech of many children, such as nominalizations of simple verbs (Menyuk 1964). Some of these constructions may be rare in the colloquial speech used to chil dren. Perhaps, on the other hand, they involve inherently more complex rules requiring conceptual maturation.

Children’s syntactical rules are always inferred from behavior, but the study of comprehension, imitations, spontaneous speech, or other measures may give different results. Comparison of these varying measures may help in the analysis of such inferred processes. Each makes different demands on knowledge, much as recognition and recall make different demands on memory. Imitation, for example, requires phases of perceptions, storage, retrieval, and speech. At different ages imitations are structurally quite dissimilar. At first they appear to be markedly simplified by the child’s speech production rules. Later, restrictions occur in the other phases of the process, but eventually the child can perceive and store even the mistakes which he hears (Ervin-Tripp in Hoffman & Hoffman 1966).

Language functions

Private functions

Vocalizing begins as an autogenous activity, and throughout life there exist varieties of speech in which listeners do not actively mediate the speaker’s satisfactions. In babies these may include cooing, babbling, and at first, crying. Vocal play with sounds continues into the phase of organized speech. Babies vocalize when they see objects and when they engage in action, but around four and five such speech appears to have an implicit audience. Such monologues, for instance, decrease in isolation, are inhibited by strangers, and increase when difficulties are encountered (Vygotskii 1934). Eventually speech not only is a product of play but aids in its organization, perhaps being a precursor, as Vygotskii believed, of some aspects of covert thought.

Social functions

Social play—for example, in gestural games—may be at least as significant in the evolution of early language as demands for goods and services. Such play receives social rewards, and even a three-month-old infant may vocalize more if so reinforced. It thus becomes difficult to mark any point when one can say that vocalizing becomes intentional. The rhetorical question, ritual naming of objects, and many other vocal performances in the second year appear to be socially motivated and probably vary markedly according to milieu. True offering of information, addressed to lacunae in the listener’s knowledge, demands mature social development, and difficulties can still be found in this function during the school years. Because of the heavy dependence of these different functions on social milieu, it is particularly difficult to establish any generalizations in the absence of experimental research.

Children’s speech changes according to the audience, the function, and the setting. The most extreme adaptation occurs in multilingual children, who by three can usually distinguish their languages appropriately. Yet even within a language there may be formal alternations, as in the suffixes “-in” and “-ing” in English, which mark subtle style shifts in the speech of American children.

In many languages there is a special form of speech used in addressing infants, which may be called baby talk, and involves changes in phonology, vocabulary, and syntax. Children may employ baby talk as a stylistic device depending on the listener or the role during play. In languages such as Japanese there may be many changes in syntax or vocabulary according to the age or status of the listener, and these are acquired by children only gradually during the school years. Optional features of syntax, such as use of qualifiers and subordination, may be affected by audience or function. Conversations with adults or expository speech in the schoolroom may draw on syntactic skills not usually employed in conversations with other children.


Schooling may indeed mark the most radical change in language functions encountered by children. In the home and among friends the function and form of speech may be quite different—briefer, situationally imbedded, narrative, repetitive, topically limited, aimed at solidarity or aggression. In school, there is a demand for precision, independence from the speech situation, exposition, novelty, breadth of topics, and transmission of information. The latter functions demand more abstract vocabulary and greater use of grammatical structures that signal analytic differentiations. Written language, since it is private, with neither audience nor situational support, is at the farthest remove from the colloquial practice children bring to school (Vygotskii 1934).

Knowledge of language increases, of course, after early childhood. The everyday vernacular of the peer group, not parents, in the preadolescent years remains as our spontaneous adult speech. We acquire new vocabulary from travel, reading, and the acquisition of skills. Later, as our social relationships become more complex we may come to control a greater range of the structural facilities of the language and its stylistic alternatives for such varied purposes as persuasive, expository, and aesthetic discourse. But these changes usually do not occur in children who lack any secondary education. While it is true that all normal children master the essentials of language before they enter school, variations in the language functions provided by the family and school milieu affect markedly the extent to which children go beyond these essentials.

Susan M. Ervin-Tripp

[Directly related are the entries Learning,article on VERBAL LEARNING; LINGUISTICS.Other relevant material may be found in Developmental PSYCHOLOGY; Hearing.]


Bellugi, Ursula; and BROWN, ROGER W. (editors) 1964 The Acquisition of Language. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Vol. 29, No. 92. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Berko, Jean; and Brown, Roger W. 1960 Psycholinguistic Research Methods. Pages 517–557 in Paul Mussen (editor),Handbook of Research Methods in Child Development. New York: Wiley.

Brown, Roger W. 1958 Words and Things. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Carroll, John B. (1957)1960 Language Development. Pages 744–752 in Encyclopedia of Educational Research. 3d ed. New York: Macmillan.

Gvozdev, A. N. 1961 Voprosy izucheniia detskoi rechi (Problems in the Language Development of the Child). Moscow: Akademiia Pedagogicheskikh Nauk RSFSR.

Hoffman, Martin L.; and HOFFMAN, Lois W. (editors) 1966 Review of Child Development Research. Volume 2. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. → See especially the article by Susan Ervin-Tripp on “Language Development.”

Jakobson, Roman 1941 Kindersprache, Aphasie, und allgemeine Lautgesetze. Uppsala (Sweden): Almqvist & Wiksell.

Leopold, Werner F. 1939-1949 Speech Development of a Bilingual Child: A Linguist’s Record. Studies in the Humanities, Nos. 6, 11, 18, 19. Evanston, 111.: Northwestern Univ. Press.

Leopold, Werner F. 1952 Bibliography of Child Language. Evanston, 111.: Northwestern Univ. Press.

Lewis, Morris M. (1936) 1952 Infant Speech: A Study of the Beginnings of Language. 2d ed., rev. New York: Humanities.

Lewis, Morris M. (1963)1964 Language, Thought and Personality in Infancy and Childhood. New York: Basic Books.

McCarthy, Dorothea 1954 Language Development in Children. Pages 492–630 in Leonard Carmichael (editor),Manual of Child Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Wiley.

Menyuk, Paula 1964 Syntactic Rules Used by Children From Preschool Through First Grade.Child Development 35:533-546.

Templin, Mildred 1957 Certain Language Skills in Children: Their Development and Interrelationships.Institute of Child Welfare, Monograph No. 26. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Velten, H. V. 1943 The Growth of Phonemic and Lexical Patterns in Infant Language.Language 19:281-292.

Vygotskii, Lev S. (1934) 1962 Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press. → First published as Myshlenie i rech’.


Speech pathology is a branch of communications dealing with disorders of speech and language. Speech pathologists concern themselves with diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of speech and language disorders. Although speech pathology in Europe was once a branch of medicine, today, throughout most of the world, the field has developed as an independent speciality, in somewhat the same fashion that clinical psychology has emerged as an area separate from psychiatry. As is the case with clinical psychology, most training programs in speech pathology in the United States are a part of the graduate program offered by colleges of arts and science. A limited number of training programs are affiliated with colleges of education or colleges of medicine.

Unlike the general field of speech, which is concerned with improving the normal and slightly subnormal, the area of speech pathology focuses on defects of speech and language. Speech is considered to be defective when any one or combination of the following conditions exists: speech is lacking in intelligibility; speech differs so much from normal that it calls undue attention to itself, often with the result that listeners pay more attention to the speech deviations than to what the speaker is saying; speech behavior leads to the development of negative attitudes by the speaker toward his own speech, which in turn often interfere with his over-all adjustment.

Speech and language problems can be described in terms of the acoustic end product perceived by listeners or in terms of the etiology of the problem.

Problems of the acoustic end product

From the standpoint of the acoustic end product, speech and language problems can be considered under five general headings: delayed speech and language, defects of articulation, defects of voice, defects of rhythm, defects of symbolic formulation.

Delayed speech and language

Most normal children are able to speak their first word at approximately age one. Language comprehension and production increase along with articulation ability, By age eight the majority of children have learned to articulate all sounds correctly. Speech pathologists use the term delayed speech to describe the speech of children who either do not talk or who per sever ate habits and patterns of infantile speech. If there is vocabulary deficiency, inadequate formulation of ideas, or retarded sentence structure, the term delayed language may be employed (Matthews 1957 a, pp. 394–395). A well-accepted listing of causes is provided by Van Riper (1963) and includes mental retardation, hearing loss, faulty coordination resulting from disease or paralysis, pro-longed illness during infancy, lack of motivation for speech, improper teaching methods employed by parents, confused hand preference, necessity for learning two or more languages simultaneously, shock during the speaking act, emotional conflicts, and aphasia.

The treatment of delayed speech depends upon the significant etiological factors. The child with a hearing loss may need a hearing aid. Other causative factors should be removed or lessened. Van Riper describes therapy procedures for delayed speech. In general these procedures attempt to provide a stimulating environment in which the child is “bombarded” by speech and is taught to associate speech sounds with meaningful people and objects.

Defects of articulation

Defects of articulation in general can be divided into four types: substitution, distortion, omission, and addition. Substitution errors consist of the replacement of one sound with another. A common example is the substitution of w for r, as in “wed” instead of “red,” “twuck” for “truck,” and “dwink” for “drink.” Other common substitution errors are w for /, as in “weave” for “leave” th for s, as in “thick” for “sick”; and d for th, as in “dis” for “this.”

The second type of articulation error involves sound distortion. This can be observed in the s sound when it is faultily produced with a whistling component, nasal air escape, or slushiness. Distortions in the pronounciation of the English r are often produced by speakers who have learned English as a second language.

The omission type of articulation error is illustrated by the individual who omits the r sound and says “ed abbit” instead of “red rabbit.”

The addition type of articulation error is seen in the inclusion of an r sound where it is not called for, as in “idear” for “idea.”

Articulatory disorders are sometimes classified as functional or organic in terms of possible causal factors. Matthews (1957b) has summarized the literature relating mental retardation and articulation disorders. A frequent cause of articulation disorders is faulty training resulting from inadequate speech environment. If a child’s speech model is defective, he is likely to learn defective speech. (A detailed discussion of etiological factors in functional articulation disorders can be found in Van Riper 1963; Johnson et al. 1948; and Berry 0026 Eisenson 1956.)

Although the majority of articulatory disorders are of functional origin, there are organic factors that can adversely affect articulation. West and his associates (1937) discuss in detail articulation disorders resulting from lesions of the central nervous system. Cleft palate, dental anomalies, structural disorders of the peripheral speech organs, and hearing loss can cause articulation disorders.

Where a structural abnormality contributes to an articulation disorder, the organic defect may need correction prior to speech therapy. Sometimes speech therapy may proceed in conjunction with the correction of the organic disorder. Often, complete correction of the structural anomaly is not possible but speech therapy may prove to be beneficial.

The correction of articulatory errors requires teaching the production and habitual use of sounds. As a rule the sound is taught first in isolation, then in combination with other sounds, and finally in words, sentences, and conversation. Milisen describes a variety of approaches to articulation therapy (Milisen et al. 1954).

Defects of voice

Defects of voice can include complete absence of voice as well as problems of pitch, volume, and quality. Voice may be lacking because of total or partial paralysis or removal of the vocal folds, or the vocal structures may be normal and the absence of voice may be a reflection of a hysterical condition.

Pitch may be inappropriate for the age and sex of the speaker. This would be illustrated by a male talking in an extremely highpitched voice or a female talking with low pitch. Monotone consists of a sameness of pitch. The failure to vary pitch can not only result in a speech pattern that is dull and uninteresting to listen to; it can also interfere with speech intelligibility, inasmuch as certain aspects of meaning are conveyed by means of variations in pitch.

Just as pitch may be inappropriate, it is possible that volume, also, may be inappropriate. Volume may be so weak that it is difficult for listeners to hear what is being said, or it may be so loud that listeners experience a certain amount of discomfort. Normal speakers do not use exactly the same volume from beginning to end of a message. Just as there are normal variations in pitch, so there are normal variations in volume. The absence of these variations in volume would be considered a type of voice disorder.

The third general type of voice disorder consists of defects in quality. These defects are difficult to describe and should be heard to be fully appreciated. Defects of voice quality sometimes are labeled with such terms as “nasal,” “hoarse,” “husky,” “breathy,” “harsh,” etc. The quality is considered defective when it is not only unpleasant to listen to but seriously detracts a listener’s attention from the message of the speaker.

As is the case with articulatory disorders, there are both functional and organic causes of voice disorder. Imitation of poor speech models, psychological maladjustments, adolescent voice change, poor breathing habits, as well as laryngeal pathology, paralysis, and adenoidal obstructions, appear as causes of voice disorders.

In the case of any type of laryngeal pathology, voice therapy should not be attempted until a medical evaluation and laryngeal examination have been completed. Voice training often includes auditory training, to make the client aware of the differences, in both sound and “feel,” between proper and improper use of the voice. Where the voice problem is related to emotional disturbances of any kind, psychological help may be necessary. In those instances where the vocal mechanism has been removed, the client may use an electrical or mechanical vibrator as a substitute for vocal-fold vibration or the client may learn esophageal speech, a technique that involves using air expelled from the esophageal tract as a source of sound vibration.

Defects of rhythm

Defects of rhythm can be described as repetitions, prolongations, or hesitations. Individual sounds, words, or phrases may be involved. Frequently the disruption in rhythm may be accompanied by facial grimaces, tics, or other bodily movements, which in time can become an intimate part of the disruptions of rhythm. Very frequently the disruptions in rhythm and the accompanying grimaces carry with them considerable fear and many negative attitudes on the part of the speaker. The speaker’s fear that he will have problems with his speech often contributes to additional difficulties with speech rhythm.

Stuttering. More has been written on the topic of stuttering than on any other single disorder of speech. Matthews (1957a), in a brief summary of theories of stuttering, cites representatives of three broad theoretical viewpoints: (1) dysphemic theories, which suggest that stuttering is related to constitutional abnormality; (2) personality theories, which hold that stuttering is related to psychological maladjustment; and (3) developmental theories, which suggest that stuttering develops largely as the result of environmental conditions.

Therapy approaches are influenced by the therapist’s theory concerning the etiology of stuttering. Those who view stuttering in terms of a general neurosis will employ some form of psychotherapy. A therapist who sees stuttering as the result of lack of cerebral dominance will seek ways of establishing a dominant gradient of excitation in the central nervous system. Environmental modification is the goal of many therapists, regardless of the theory of causation of stuttering they subscribe to. Van Riper (1963) not only summarizes much of the literature on etiology and treatment of stuttering but also outlines in detail a therapy approach widely employed in the United States. His therapy seeks to help the stutterer stop reinforcing his stuttering. An important aspect of this therapy consists of eliminating the stutterer’s avoidance of feared situations and words.

Defects of symbolic formulation

The defects of symbolic formulation may be of both an expressive and a receptive type. Although defects of symbolic formulation are often categorized as either expressive aphasia or receptive aphasia, in actuality most patients who have difficulty with symbolic formulation have some difficulties in both the expressive and the receptive realm. Individuals with receptive aphasia may be able to hear a speaker say the word “chair” but will not be able to translate the sounds in this word into the concept of a piece of furniture on which a person may sit; they may be able to see and to recognize each of the five letters used in writing the word “chair” but be unable to translate the written letters into the concept of chair. The individual with an expressive type of aphasia may know what a chair is and be able to pronounce all of the sounds in the word “chair” but be unable to put these sounds together so they become a recognizable symbol of the concept “chair.”

The treatment of aphasia involves reeducation and retraining, which utilizes the past speech background of the patient as much as possible. A detailed discussion of therapy for aphasics can be found in Wepman (1951).

Negative attitudes and frustrations

Often the individual with a speech problem is handicapped by more than just the acoustic end product of his speech. Frequently the speaker’s attitude toward his speech constitutes one of his most serious problems. In some instances the speaker may actually talk with a fairly high degree of intelligibility. However, if the speaker’s attitude toward his own speech is apprehensive and fearful, he may experience a handicap far beyond what would normally result from the faulty articulation or faulty voice quality alone.

A speech problem not only can interfere with defective communication in social development but also can lead to the frustration of not being able to make oneself understood and of constantly being made to feel different. Such feelings of frustration, difference, and inferiority can lead to personality problems and attitudes which may be more serious than the original speech problem itself. For this reason, speech pathologists must be interested in the total adjustment of the person who has a speech problem.

Etiology and therapy

If speech problems are examined from the standpoint of etiology, they can be categorized as organic or functional. In actuality it is extremely difficult to fit all speech problems neatly into one or the other of these two broad classifications. The two classifications are presented because they frequently appear in the literature.

Organic and functional factors

Speech problems arising from primarily organic causes would include speech associated with cleft palate, cerebral palsy, dental abnormalities, brain damage, hearing loss, or any other type of anatomical or neurological involvement affecting any of the mechanisms used in speech production.

Etiological factors of a nonorganic type would include lack of stimulation to speak, withdrawal tendencies associated with emotional disturbance, failure to have available good models of speech for imitation, mental retardation, faulty learning, etc. The organic and functional aspects frequently are intertwined. This can be seen in the individual who is aphasic because of brain damage. Because of his aphasia, he experiences considerable frustration. This frustration in turn leads to withdrawal behavior. Frustration and withdrawal behavior contribute to further deterioration of speech. Frequently it becomes difficult to separate the components of the speech problem that are of organic causation from those that represent some sort of functional overlay.

Therapy. The speech pathologist initiates therapy after a thorough diagnosis has been performed. This diagnosis often must include a medical examination, psychological assessment, and determination of hearing acuity. Dental and social-work information are often necessary before an adequate diagnosis can be made. Wherever possible, causative factors are removed or minimized. In the case of cleft palate, for example, surgical or dental procedures may be necessary to provide a mechanism adequate for speech production. In some instances it may be impossible to provide a mechanism that is completely normal. Under these circumstances methods must be found to compensate for the structural inadequacies. In the case of a severe hearing loss, it may be possible to provide sound amplification in the form of a hearing aid.

Articulatory disorders constitute the largest group of speech problems encountered in children. The majority of articulatory problems are not caused by anatomical, neurological, or other organic factors. Most articulatory problems can be traced to lack of stimulation, poor speech models, faulty learning, and other factors quite far removed from defects of the oral structures. An early step in treatment consists of describing adequately the nature of the speech deviation. The speech pathologist helps the individual with the speech problem to understand the detailed nature of the problem. In some cases this consists of the speech pathologist’s helping a client become more aware of his speech errors. A client must learn to distinguish between the correct and incorrect speech productions. A wide variety of procedures will be employed to help the client articulate a sound correctly, to eliminate an undesirable component in voice quality, to produce a pitch level more appropriate to the age and sex of the client, etc. Frequently a client learns to make correct speech productions in isolated sounds or words but finds it difficult to carry over these new patterns into everyday speaking situations. Frequently the newly acquired speech skills result in a pattern of speech that sounds strange to the client. The speech pathologist often spends considerable time helping the client understand his feelings toward his speech problem, as well as his feelings toward the new speech patterns which he acquires. Often the attitude of a parent toward a child and toward the child’s speech is a contributing factor. For this reason, speech pathologists frequently spend a good deal of their time in parent-counseling activities.

Because some voice disorders are associated with organic pathology, the speech pathologist may carry out some of his treatment procedures in cooperation with an otolaryngologist. Such collaborative therapy activities may be carried out with psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, plastic surgeons, and dentists, as well as classroom teachers. The speech pathologist cannot limit himself to a consideration of the mechanical aspects of sound production. His interest must be in the person with a speech problem. The modern practice of speech pathology makes comparatively little use of the tongue, lip, and jaw exercises that were prevalent in the field a decade ago.

Training in speech pathology. Standards for the training of speech pathologists have been established by the American Speech and Hearing Association. The association awards a certificate of clinical competence to individuals who successfully complete the requirements for a master’s degree in the field of speech pathology. This graduate program includes didactic classroom instruction, supervised clinic practice, and four years of successful practice, under supervision, in an environment where speech and language problems are diagnosed and treated. Graduate training programs in speech pathology in the United States are accredited by the American Board of Examiners in Speech Pathology and Audiology of the American Speech and Hearing Association. The association is a clearinghouse for information regarding clinical facilities, training institutions, and other data relative to the field of speech pathology.

Jack Matthews

[See alsoMental Disorders, article on Organic Aspects. Other relevant material may be found inHearing; Language, article onLanguage Development; Mental Retardation; Perception, article On Speech Perception.]


Berry, Mildred F.; and Eisenson, Jon 1956 Speech Disorders. New York: Appleton.

Johnson, Wendell et al. (1948) 1956 Speech Handicapped School Children. Rev. ed. New York: Harper.

Matthews, Jack 1957a Speech Defects. Pages 391–424 in Chauncey M. Louttit (editor), Clinical Psychology of Exceptional Children. 3d ed. New York: Harper. → First published in 1936.

Matthews, Jack 1957b Speech Problems of the Mentally Retarded. Pages 531–551 in Lee E. Travis (editor), Handbook of Speech Pathology. New York: Appleton.

Milisen, Robert et al. 1954 The Disorder of Articulation: A Systematic Clinical and Experimental Approach. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders Monograph Supplements, No. 4.

Van Riper, Charles 1963 Speech Correction Principles and Methods. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. → First published in 1939.

Wepman, Joseph M. 1951 Recovery From Aphasia. New York: Ronald Press.

West, Robert W.; Ansberry, Merle; and Carr, Anna (1937) 1957 The Rehabilitation of Speech. 3d ed. New York: Harper.


The key role of language in all human activities has made it perhaps inevitable that the field of linguistics should represent a mingling of several streams of interest. Modern linguistics has arisen from the philological tradition, concerned basically with the classical and modern written languages, and from the anthropological tradition, which has been concerned largely with preliterate peoples. The anthropologist has long recognized the importance of language, not only as a tool for more effective field work, but as a critical element of the cultural fabric which he studies. Thus we sometimes refer to “anthropological linguistics”, which may be defined as the study of previously unknown speech varieties in the context of their cultures; the term contrasts the anthropological approach to language with philological, psychological, or philosophical approaches. Alternatively, we may wish to speak of “linguistic anthropology,” focusing attention on language as one element of human culture; the term is analogous to “social anthropology,” “economic anthropology,” and the like. The older term “ethnolinguistics” may well be used to refer to the same area of interest.

All writers in this field have struggled with the expressions “language and culture” versus “language in culture,” both of which are in common use as titles for university courses, scholarly symposia, etc. “Language and culture” seeems to imply a dichotomy, which we must then reject in the light of our position that language is part of culture. But if we speak of “language in culture, “we then lack a separate name for all the other cultural areas whose relationship to language we wish to study. Perhaps the best solution is to give formal recognition to what has most often been done in practice and to use the word “culture” in two ways, on two different levels of a semantic hierarchy. Distinguishing these meanings by subscript numerals, culture1, on the higher level of generality, constitutes learned patterns of human habitual behavior. Language is included along with everything else that contrasts with instinctive behavior. Culture2, on a more specific level, is that part of “culture1” which is not verbal communication; in this sense, “culture” contrasts with “language.” In most cases, the context of discussion will make it clear whether we are referring to “culture1” or “culture2,” just as context normally eliminates confusion between “man1” (opposed to “animal”) and “man2” (opposed to “woman”).

Taking the view that language is part of culture, linguistic anthropologists have been concerned with these basic questions: In what respects does language fit into the general conception of cultural systems, and in what ways is it distinguished from other components? What similarities are there between the internal structures of language and of other branches of culture? What role does language play in the over-all functioning of culture? In what way do language and culture reflect each other’s structure at a given point in time or influence each other over the span of history? What techniques may we use to infer linguistic from nonlinguistic behavior, or vice versa, either in terms of predicting the future or of reconstructing the past? At this moment, most of these questions still lack definitive answers; the rapid growth of ethnolinguistics, however, suggests that the near future will bring, if not answers to all questions, at least a more unified framework for discussion.

The cultural nature of language . Language is assured a position as a branch of culture by its distinctively patterned nature, by its restriction to the human species, and above all because languages are learned, not transmitted genetically. In spite of the fact that race and language frequently have a historical connection—so that many people who share ancestors also share a common language—such connections are in no way necessary. The nongenetic transmission of languages is vividly demonstrated by the linguistic “melting pot” of the United States, in which people of the most diverse racial backgrounds share common standards of English usage. However, the fact that individual languages are transmitted culturally, not genetically, does not rule out the possibility that mankind has certain unique inborn capacities for linguistic behavior. For some purposes, we may distinguish between language, an inherited set of capabilities, and languages, particular structures which are built on those capabilities by culture.

The distinctiveness of language . Language obviously stands apart from other communication systems used by humans or animals because of the magnitude of its resources. It is especially impressive to consider that every normal child, by the age of four or five, is capable of using the language of his community to produce a literally infinite number of meaningful utterances. We are far frorh understanding all of the characteristics of language or of the human nervous system which make this possible. Two things, however, are clearly important—man’s ability to invent symbols and the duality of patterning in linguistic structure.

If we understand a sign to be anything from which the existence of something else may be inferred, then we may define a symbol as a special kind of sign—one with arbitarary, conventionally assigned meaning. Thus, black clouds are a sign of rain, the relationship being intrinsic; but a particular weather flag, as a conventional sign of rain, is a symbol. By the same token, the word “rain” is a symbol; our use of this particular word is conventional and subject to change. Other animals may learn to respond to many arbitrary signals, including words of human language, but it is uniquely human to have the ability to assign arbitary meaning to signs, i.e., to invent symbols.

But language goes beyond other symbolic systems, such as those of gestures, in one very specific feature—the duality of patterning. The meaningful symbols of language—such as words and meaningful parts of words, called morphemes— are not indivisible, like a flag or a gesture, but are themselves built up of smaller units. These smaller units are the phonemes or sound units of spoken language, and they are meaningless in themselves. Every language uses a small number of these meaningless units—usually less than fifty—to build up a huge number of meaningful units. It is this two-level structuring which gives language a degree of efficiency that is qualitatively superior to, not merely quantitatively different from, other communication systems.

Similarities between language and culture . The identification of such building blocks of language as the phoneme and the morpheme has given linguistics great prestige among the branches of anthropology; it is sometimes said that linguists are the only social scientists to have identified the basic units of their subject matter. The method used in this process of identification is one which moves from the level of observation to the level of structure. First, raw data are classified in terms of a universal taxonomic grid; in studying sound systems, this is the phonetic classification. Then the investigator finds that some phonetic differences, in particular languages, are not associated with contrastive meaning; e.g., the meaning of the Spanish día (“day”) is the same whether the initial d is pronounced as an occlusive (completely blocking the flow of air with the tongue and then releasing it), or as a fricative (letting air issue continuously between the tongue and the teeth). In every language, however, the linguist also finds that some phonetic differences are correlated with differences of meaning; e.g., the difference between occlusive and fricative, although nonsignificant in Spanish, is contrastive in English, serving to distinguish “day” from “they.” The result of such observations is the replacement of phonetic classifications by phonemic classifications, unique for each language. The phoneme is defined simultaneously by the range of noncontrastive sound differences which it subsumes and by the contrasts which it displays with the other phonemes of the system.

This method of qualitative contrast, first applied in phonological study, has been successfully extended to the identification of morphemes, i.e., grammatical units; and many scholars have speculated about their applicability to other areas of culture. The terms etic and emic have been coined (after “phonetic” and “phonemic”) to refer to the observational and structural levels, respectively, which might be distinguished in such areas as kinship, religion, music, art, and folklore. Such studies are still in their infancy, but they constitute one of the most interesting frontiers of anthropology, based as they are on the assumption that each branch of culture, or indeed culture as a whole, is, like language, an internally cohesive system.

The role of language in culture . Language is not merely one of several aspects of culture: it is, at the very least, prima inter pares, in that it makes possible the development, the elaboration, the transmission, and (particularly in its written form) the accumulation of culture as a whole. One can imagine handicrafts being taught by one generation to the next without the use of language; but social, legal, religious, political, or economic institutions are another matter. It is hard to imagine that a community of deaf-mutes (if they were deprived of such speech surrogates as writing) could carry on human social life.

But how, exactly, does language (or any other symbolic system) relate to experience? It is commonly said that symbols, like signs in general, “stand for” or “mean” something else. The definition of meaning itself clearly cannot be taken for granted. A variety of theoretical models for the concept of meaning, each one valuable for its own ends, has been proposed by philosophers, psychologists, and linguists of various persuasions. The model presented below is not intended to compete with others in defining the “real” nature of meaning, but it may be useful as a framework for ethnolinguistic discussion.

Structural linguists have customarily been extremely cautious in semantic matters, sometimes attempting to exclude them from linguistics altogether. Until very recently, a strictly behaviorist conception of meaning was much in vogue:

We have defined the meaning of a linguistic form as the situation in which the speaker utters it and the response which it calls forth in the hearer. . . . The situations which prompt people to utter speech include every object and happening in their universe. In order to give a scientifically accurate definition of meaning for every form of a language, we should have to have a scientifically accurate knowledge of everything in the speaker’s world. . . . We can define the names of minerals, for example, in terms of chemistry and mineralogy, as when we say that the ordinary meaning of the English word salt is “sodium chloride (NaCl),” . . . but we have no precise way of defining words like love or hate, which concern situations that have not been accurately classified. . . . (Bloomfield [1933] 1951, p. 139)

These statements seem to imply a model of linguistic function with just two parts—on the one hand, the linguistic form, and on the other hand, the associated nonlinguistic events (and, presumably, contextual linguistic events as well). Thus the definition of the word “salt” would be, at least in part, the actual substance NaCl. But Bloomfield seems to ignore the essentially arbitrary association between the word “salt” and the substance NaCl, in that his model has no place for the human individuals or the human cultures which have chosen this particular linguistic form.

A more satisfactory model was provided some two thousand years ago by the Hindu philosopher Patānjali: “Concentrate separately on the word, the meaning, and the object, which are mixed up in common usage”—which a modern commentator explicates with this example—“When we utter the word ‘elephant,’ we find that the word, the meaning and the object are mixed up; the word lives in air, the meaning lives in mind, the elephant lives by itself” (Patānjali, Aphorism . . .). It is indeed true that the word “lives in the air,” in the sense that it is transmitted as vibrations of air molecules. It is equally true that the actual elephant “lives by itself,” i.e., exists independently of all human conventions of nomenclature. The only way that these two isolates are related, then, is through the human mind; and we may define meaning not as a “thing,” but rather as the relationship which associates word and object.

This three-part model is more adequate than Bloomfield’s but still does not clarify the relation of language and culture. In order to do so, we may expand the model still further. First, a division may be made between the observational, or etic, universe, to which “word” and “object” belong, and the structural, or emic, universe, within the human mind. Second, we may distinguish linguistic behavior from its subject matter or content (though

the subject matter may itself, as a special case, be linguistic behavior, as when linguists talk about language). The two dichotomies then intersect as shown in Figure 1.

In this figure, the arrows marked a, b, and c indicate relationships of importance to the ethno-linguist. Arrow a is the relationship which concerns him when he functions purely as a linguist: it may be thought of inductively, in terms of the process by which the investigator sets up a structure to account for his raw behavioral data, or deductively, as the process by which psychological patterns of linguistic competence give rise to observable linguistic performance. Arrow b is the analogous relationship that is investigated by the ethnographer: the actual objects and events which concern a particular human group are here linked, by induction or by deduction, to subjective patterns of organization. Finally, the set of arrows marked c represents the relationships to which we assign the term “meaning” this is conceived of not as a direct connection between the utterance “elephant” and the flesh-and-blood Elephas maximus, but rather as a connection mediated by “elephant” as an item of the English lexicon and by “the elephant” as an item in the cultural inventory of English speakers.

There are two types of structural units which are linked by the relationships of meaning. The relevant linguistic units are not phonemes or morphemes, but units of a higher level, which are called lexemes: these are the minimum units which participate in arbitrary relationships of meaning, Thus, single morphemes like “green” and “house” are lexemes, but so also is the two-morpheme combination “greenhouse” (as opposed to “green house”), since it arbitrarily designates a particular kind of structure. There is still little agreement about structural units of cultural behavior; insofar as they can be identified, they are often called sememes. To be sure, there is not always a one-to-one correspondence between lexemes and sememes; people sometimes show culturally determined differences in behavior where their language provides no lexemic differentiation. However, the general regularity of lexeme–sememe correspondences reflects the close integration between language and the rest of culture, and it is in this way that language may be regarded as a key to culture as a whole.

Ethnosemantics . The study of vocabulary as a guide to the way in which members of a culture divide up their universe has received increasing attention, and the relativity of cultural classifications is emphasized with every new empirical study. Thus, where English vocabulary reflects its users’ approach to spatial orientation with the fourway classification “north, south, east, west,” the Indian languages of northwestern California reflect the functionally similar but incommensurable division “upriver, downriver, toward the river, away from the river.” Anthropologists have begun to pay close attention to such lexemic systems, understanding that they reflect an emic view of the culture being studied, a view uncontaminated by the varying etic frameworks of outside observers. Various terms have been used to identify this study, such as “ethnoscience,” “folk taxonomy,” “structural semantics,” and “ethnosemantics.”

A further development in ethnographic semantics is generally known as “componential analysis.” This method tries to answer the question, Given a particular set of taxonomic terms used by members of a culture, what are the criteria for applying the individual terms? Taking an example from kinship terminology, if some male collateral kin in generations above ego’s are called “uncle” and some are called “cousin,” what does one need to know in order to label a particular kinsman correctly? Attempts to answer such questions have resulted in the idea that terms may be conceived of as bundles of simultaneously occurring semantic components. Thus the term “uncle” is applied when the features of “maleness,” “ascending generation,” and “colineality” are simultaneously present. (A “colineal” in this case is a nonlineal kinsman all of whose ancestors are included in the ancestors of ego.) The term “cousin” is applied in a larger number of cases, but they include those where the features of “maleness,” “ascending generation,” and “ablineality” are simultaneously present. (An “ablineal” is a consanguineal kinsman who is neither a lineal nor a colineal.) This type of analysis, as applied to kin terms, results in definitions which are both more concise and more exact than the extensional definitions given in traditional ethnographies. Application of componential analysis to areas other than kinship holds great promise.

Language and world view . In addition to correspondences between vocabulary and cultural inventory, a much more controversial type of correlation between language and culture has been proposed. This involves, on one side, whole grammatical systems or subsystems, and, on the other side, whole philosophies or ways of life held to be characteristic of particular cultures (though often not brought to the level of conscious formulation). The interest of anthropologists was drawn to such correlations by Edward Sapir, who not only recognized a linguistic relativity, covarying with cultural relativity, but also postulated a linguistic determinism operating on culture:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. . . . The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached. (Sapir [1910–1944] 1949, p. 162)

Benjamin Lee Whorf, a student of Sapir, continued the exploration of the matter, although with less emphasis on the tyranny of language over culture. His position has become known as the “Whorfian hypothesis,” which holds that “language patterns [and] cultural norms . . . have grown up together, constantly influencing each other. But in this partnership the nature of the language is the factor that limits free plasticity and rigidifies channels of development in the more autocratic way” (Whorf [1927–1941] 1956, p. 156). The deterministic role of language is easy to understand when we consider how much of culture is transmitted through the linguistic medium. However, the Whorfian hypothesis is easier to accept intuitively than to prove in a rigorous way; in particular, no correlations can be traced between language and world view until specific world views are themselves defined in terms of observable behavior. Whorf shows that Hopi linguistic structure is compatible with a world view involving a peculiar relation between subjective and objective experience; but he tends to assume, rather than to demonstrate, that the Hopi actually hold such a view of the world. Pending the outcome of extensive, strictly controlled, cross-cultural testing of the Whorfian hypothesis, we may limit our acceptance to the following modified formulation: “Insofar as languages differ in the ways they encode objective experience, language users tend to sort out and distinguish experiences differently according to the categories provided by their respective languages. These cognitions will tend to have certain effects on behavior” (Carroll 1963, p. 12).

Language and society . While the studies mentioned above have regarded each language as a unified whole, another type of research has focused attention on the variation that exists within languages or within multilingual speech communities. Such variation, apart from that associated with geographical dialects or with the idiosyncrasies of individuals, is commonly found to be correlated with one or more socially defined factors, such as the social identity of the speaker, the addressee, or the person referred to, and the social context in which communication takes place. Study of the covariance between linguistic diversity and social structure thus constitutes the new field of sociolinguistics. The findings of this field are applicable, from the synchronic viewpoint, to the diagnosis and analysis of social encounters, and, from the diachronic viewpoint, to examination of the ways in which linguistic patterns and social systems each change under the influence of the other.

William Bright

[Directly related are the entries Cognitive Theory; Componential analysis; Linguistics; Semantics and semiotics;and the biographies of Bloomfield; Sapir; Saussure; Whorf.]


The most valuable reference that can be given for linguistic anthropology is Hymes 1964, which contains not only a rich selection of papers in the field but also very extensive bibliographies.

Bloomfield, Leonard (1933) 1951 Language. Rev. ed. New York: Holt.

Carroll, John B. 1963 Linguistic Relativity, Contrastive Linguistics, and Language Learning. 1RAL: International Review of Applied Linguistics 1: 1–20.

Diebold, A. Richard Jr. 1964 [Review of] Sol Saporta (editor), Psycholinguistics. Language 40:197–260. → An extensive review of the whole field of psycholinguistics, including many matters of interest to linguistic anthropology.

Hammel, Eugene A. (editor) 1965 Formal Semantic Analysis. American Anthropologist New Series 67, no. 5, part 2 (Special publication).

Hymes, Dell H. (editor) 1964 Language in Culture and Society: Reader in Linguistics and Anthropology. New York: Harper.

Nida, Eugene A. 1964 Toward a Science of Translating. Leiden (Netherlands): Brill. H→ Chapter 5, “Referential and Emotive Meanings,” summarizes recent work in ethnosemantics.

PatānjaliAphorisms of Yoga. Translated into English with a commentary by Shree Purohit Swami. London: Faber, 1938.

Romney, A. Kimball; and D’Andrade, Roy Goodwin (editors) 1964 Transcultural Studies in Cognition. American Anthropologist New Series 66, no. 3, part 2 (Special publication). → Contains contributions by linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists to problems of ethnosemantics.

Sapir, Edward A. (1910–1944) 1949 Selected Writings in Language, Culture, and Personality. Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Whorf, Benjamin L. (1927–1941) 1956 Language, Thought and Reality. Edited by John B. CarroU. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press.


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Peter Burke

If social history is defined to include the history of everyday practices as well as social structures, the history of language is necessarily an important part of the enterprise. It is no accident that the shift toward the history of the everyday and the history of practices in the 1970s and 1980s—not to mention the so-called linguistic turn—was accompanied by a growing interest in what some of its practitioners described as the "social history of language." Such topics as gossip, proverbs, conversation, and public speaking, once considered peripheral to social history if not impervious to change, began to attract the attention of historians. Some scholars analyzed the uses of language in the shaping of political movements such as the French Revolution and English Chartism, emphasizing the connections between the invention of a new vocabulary or a new type of discourse and a new political culture, a new political consciousness, or a more acute awareness of possible alternatives to old regimes.

In their pursuit of a social history of language, some historians turned to the linguists, especially the sociolinguists, for assistance, often adopting their vocabulary ("speech community," "speech domain," "code-switching," and so on), and sometimes collaborating with them, as in the case of Geraint Jenkins's Social History of Welsh. Linguists had of course long been interested in history—indeed, an international conference on historical linguistics took place in 1973—but not so much in social history, preferring to produce either an extremely precise and self-contained account of linguistic changes over time or an extremely general discussion of the relation between language and national history. As for the sociolinguists, for whom the relation between language and society was of paramount importance, with few exceptions (Dell Hymes, for instance), they focused on the present and neglected history. A few historians of earlier generations, among them Lucien Febvre, had taken more than a passing interest in linguistic forms, writing essays on language and nationality in eighteenth-century France, for example, or the language of the law in England, or the language of diplomacy in Sweden. However, the new social history of language differs from the scattered studies that preceded it by being more systematic, more self-conscious, and concerned with "society" in a more precise sense of that ambiguous term.

One obvious focus for the new interest was the language of class, or more generally the ways in which differences in social status were expressed or constructed in everyday language. Another was the slang, jargon, or semiprivate languages of particular social groups, from beggars to bureaucrats. A third was the study of the forms of language considered appropriate for particular social situations or contexts, the language of insult, the language of compliment, and so on. A fourth was the study of changes in language over the long term considered in relation to changes in a given society—nation-building, the spread of literacy, and so on. These four themes will be considered in order in the following pages, in which it should become clear how much linguistic territory still awaits exploration by historians.


Throughout the history of postmedieval Europe, if not before, differences in language at the level of grammar, vocabulary, or accent have been associated with differences in social status. Some scholars in sixteenth-century Italy were already aware of this point and drew attention, for instance, to the archaic language of the peasants of Tuscany. These linguistic differences are sometimes unconscious, but they have often served as a means for certain individuals and groups to distinguish themselves from others. In some parts of Europe, the upper classes or status groups have literally spoken a different language from their social inferiors. Thanks to Tolstoy's War and Peace, it is easy to remember that Russian nobles of the early nineteenth century often spoke to one another in French. So did the upper classes in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century and in parts of the German-speaking world in the eighteenth, while the Danes of the period used German as a status symbol and the Norwegians used Danish. French in Languedoc, Provence, and Brittany, like English in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and Castilian in Catalonia, served a similar function.

More common as a means of distinction was the adoption by the upper classes of what they considered to be a "purer" or more rational form of speech, a form closer to the written language. They showed their civilization and their connections with the wider world by abandoning the local dialect, or patois, a symbol of the popular culture from which they were gradually distancing themselves (in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in western Europe, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries farther east). In similar fashion, the habit of speaking in proverbs was gradually abandoned by the upper classes at this time. Proverbs became associated with the archaic world of the peasantry, while the employment of a pure form of language was taken as a sign that the speaker too was refined and rational. In 1690 the dictionary-maker Antoine Furetière defined patois as "corrupt and crude language, such as that of the lower orders" (langage corrompu et grossier, tel que celui du menu peuple). In the mid-eighteenth century, the Encyclopédie offered a similar definition, "a corrupted language which is spoken in almost all the provinces."

Some speakers went still farther in this direction and adopted a vocabulary so refined that it was scarcely intelligible outside their own circle, like the seventeenth-century French bluestockings, or précieuses, ridiculed in the plays of Molière, who distanced themselves from ordinary language by employing euphemisms and other circumlocutions such as un nécessaire for a servant. The language of the précieuses was an aspect of the culture of the salons in which women led the way in polishing the language of upper-class males, while the Académie Française, with its famous dictionary, continued and institutionalized the process. In Italy the Florentine Accademia della Crusca had a similar function, compiling a dictionary of acceptable words as a way of sorting the wheat from the "chaff" (crusca). In Spain the motto of the eighteenth-century Royal Academy, which had a similar function, was "it purifies, it fixes, and it dignifies" (limpia, fija y da esplendor). Generally speaking, the criterion of acceptability was that words or phrases should not be associated with the common people, with the provinces, or with particular occupations. The rejection of technical terms is a reminder that the upper classes defined themselves as ladies and gentlemen of leisure.

In England in the late seventeenth century, where there was no academy, a sense of distance from common speech was produced in fashionable circles by introducing French phrases into ordinary conversation. John Dryden's Marriage à la Mode (1673) mocked fashionable people who peppered their English with French terms such as grande monde, risque, épuisée, or à la mode itself. In similar fashion, Germans with social pretensions introduced such words as galanterie, goût, and politesse into their everyday speech.

Accent too carried a social message. In the Jesuit college of Milan, teachers were already trying in the 1590s to eliminate provincial accents from the language of their pupils. In France in the early eighteenth century, a duke criticized a duchess for speaking with the accent (ton) as well the vocabulary of the common people. In England the accent of the southeast was becoming associated with the court in the time of Queen Elizabeth, although Sir Walter Raleigh apparently never lost his West Country accent. The painter Sir Joshua Reynolds also spoke with a Devonshire accent, although it had become more of an embarrassment by his time, when a "Yorkshire tone," for example, was condemned in handbooks on good English. The rise of what would be known as "received pronunciation," and the habit of using accent to place acquaintances socially was already noticeable at that time. By the nineteenth century, schools in England, France, and elsewhere were inculcating standard forms of speech as well as writing and stigmatizing dialect as an inferior form of language.

As some of these examples suggest, the concern with the linguistic signs of social class is not—as it is often thought to be—a peculiarly English obsession. All the same, England in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries does offer a particularly rich field of observation in this respect. The English novel of the period is also a wonderful source, provided that representations of speech in novels are used with caution, in other words, that novels are not assumed to be a simple reflection of linguistic practice but are read with awareness of the process of literary stylization. Like the guides used to correct language, they illustrate contemporary concern with avoiding a provincial accent, as well as vulgarisms such as "I had no call" or "I'll tell you for why," the use of proverbs, and above all, "dropping one's Hs" and speaking of "ouse," "appen," and so on.

Certain forms of language were also associated with gender. "Talking like a lady," as the nineteenth-century phrase went, meant distinguishing oneself at once from men and from "common" women, who were supposed to speak and especially to swear like men. Talking like a lady meant using a particular vocabulary, including modes of address such as "Papa" and, in the mid-nineteenth century, euphemisms such as "bosom" for breast and "limbs" for legs. These turns of speech are so often described as Victorian that it may be worth emphasizing that they had their equivalents in other European languages, as the example of the précieuses has already suggested.


The language of the précieuses might be described as a kind of jargon, a pejorative term rescued by linguists and used to refer to a virtually private language used by a particular social group. The classic case of jargon in modern Europe is the language of beggars and thieves, whether it was adopted as a way of keeping their affairs hidden from prying outsiders, as a way of creating solidarity, or both. This language was not exactly international, but there were significant features in common between the German Rotwelsch, as it was called, the French argot, the Italian gergo or furbesco, the Spanish gringo, and the English cant. These secret languages became much better known from the sixteenth century onward because they attracted the attention of both magistrates and professional writers, and dictionaries of various jargons became available in print. Less well known, but equally widespread, were the technical or semiprivate languages of other occupational groups such as students, soldiers, and masons—itinerant occupations all three, giving their jargons an international flavor.

Awareness of these jargons encouraged some men of letters to stigmatize the language of professors, lawyers, physicians, and officials in similar terms. In England from the late seventeenth century, for instance, the phrase "the jargon of the schools" came into use to refer to academic language, which was still laced with technical terms of medieval Scholastic philosophy such as "quiddity" and "entity." In France, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere there was a similar rejection of pedantic language, which was increasingly considered to be out of place in polite discourse, a speech genre that the writers of the many books on "the art of conversation" (especially common in France and England in the eighteenth century) attempted to regulate.

A similar point might be made about the "lawyer's dialect" or "court gibberish," as nonlawyers called it. Doctors too liked to blind their clients with science or at least with "hard words," whether in Latin or the vernacular. We should not forget the language of bureaucracy, a jargon that appears to have been particularly elaborate and formidable in Vienna and Berlin from the eighteenth century. The jargon of the clergy should not be forgotten either. Still more striking, however, is the special language of religious movements or sects, including German and Scandinavian Pietists, English Quakers, and French Jansenists. The Society of Friends, for example, expressed their spiritual egalitarianism by their rejection of deferential forms of speech, replacing them with what they called the "plain" language of "Thee," "Thou," "Friend," and so on. They were also distinctive in their rejection of oaths in their vocabulary (in which "church," for example, was replaced by "steeple-house"), and in their emphasis on the religious value of silence.

The particular speech forms of religious groups should not be confused with religion as a special domain in which ordinary speakers of ordinary language "switch codes," as the linguists say, to a higher or more formal variety of speech, the linguistic equivalent of wearing their Sunday best to church.


After they had distanced themselves from ordinary people in the ways described above, the upper classes in Italy, France, and elsewhere continued to use dialect in certain situations, or "domains." That they needed to do so in order to speak to their servants or their tenants will be obvious enough. More significant culturally, because it is less utilitarian in motive, is the upper-class use of dialect on festive occasions as a symbol or marker of relaxation. They did this at Carnival, for example (a practice that continues in Switzerland to this day), or during the proceedings of festive societies such as the Accademia della Valle di Bregno in sixteenth-century Milan, a group of townspeople who imitated the language of the local peasants for fun. In similar fashion, or perhaps to distance himself from what he was saying, the poet Alfred Tennyson adopted a rustic Lincolnshire accent whenever he told bawdy stories. Conversely, a peasant in nineteenth-century France might use standard language as a sign of formality or emphasis, to invite a girl to dance, to talk about national politics, or even to swear.

These examples illustrate the way in which the same people often use different varieties of language—and sometimes completely different languages—according to the situation they find themselves in. The use of Latin in the Catholic liturgy before Vatican II is an obvious example, while the use of German on the Stock Exchange at St. Petersburg until the end of the nineteenth century is a striking one.

In the sixteenth century, King John III of Sweden is said to have rebuked a fellow ruler who had written to him in French by replying in Finnish. However, French gradually became established as the language of diplomacy in the course of the eighteenth century, replacing Latin, Italian, and German (although the chancery of the Holy Roman Empire insisted on Latin until the early 1700s). Frederick the Great was supposed to have spoken French everywhere except in the stables, a story that surely refers to the celebrated if apocryphal saying of the polyglot emperor Charles V that one should speak French to ladies, German to horses, and Spanish to God. In contrast, the French Renaissance princess Margaret of Navarre considered Spanish the language of love.

One of the most distinctive linguistic domains all over Europe was that of the law. What was sometimes described by contemporaries as the jargon of lawyers might be more objectively described as the language of the law courts, full of Latinisms, pleonasms, and technical terms. In England the lawyers quite literally spoke and wrote a different language, "law French." Archbishop Thomas Cranmer remarked that he had "heard suitors murmur at the bar because their attornies pleaded their causes in the French tongue, which they understood not." The standard work on landholding was known as Les tenures de Monsieur Littleton, written, according to the title page of a seventeenth-century edition, "al request des Gentilhommes, Students en la ley Dangleterre." Not until the eighteenth century did the vernacular become the exclusive language of the English law. Even when lawyers spoke English, contemporary critics suggested that the function of their jargon was to exclude the client and thus make them more dependent on professionals.

Linked to the language of the courts, but increasingly distinct from it, was the language of public administration in chanceries and elsewhere. In the case of German, for example, a distinctive "chancery language" (Kanzleisprache) developed relatively early, in the later Middle Ages, in order to make imperial decrees intelligible to the laity all over the empire, whatever dialect they spoke. This administrative language, or Curialstyl, developed characteristics of its own. It was pompous, probably deliberately so, and drew on Latin and on the languages of the law and sometimes of finance for terms that were lacking in everyday forms of the vernacular. Sometimes assumed to be a German peculiarity, this "bureaucratese" had its equivalents in other parts of Europe: in Italy (where Spanish rule encouraged the adoption of Hispanisms), in the Swedish empire (where Germanisms as well as Latinisms are noticeable), and in Russia, where it was known as prikazni jazyk ("departmental language"). Common characteristics of these official languages are circumlocutions and euphemisms, for example, the notorious euphemism of the Third Reich "special handling" (Sonderbehandlung) as a way of describing official violence.

One speech domain that has attracted a good deal of interest from social historians in the last few years is that of insult. There are several reasons for this interest. Judicial records offer rich sources, while the confrontations leading to insult make latent tensions manifest and reveal something of the attitudes and prejudices of ordinary people whom other sources do not reach. For example, insult is gendered. Women are most often attacked through their supposed sexual behavior and described as whores, while insults to males are more various, ranging from "spy" through "cuckold" to "idler" or "bankrupt." Forms of politeness, on the other hand, have attracted less attention and are sometimes thought to be essentially unchanging. However, recent work on Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries emphasizes changing ideas of politeness, or "civility," linking them to political and social changes such as the rise of the middle classes or the reaction against the bitterness of the conflicts between the Whig and Tory parties.

Writing is a domain of its own, and in many cultures there is a difference, lesser or greater, between spoken and written forms of language. However, the written language like the spoken may be subdivided into smaller domains in some of which a foreign language might be thought appropriate for a variety of reasons. In nineteenth-century Finland, for example, the language of bookkeeping was German, probably because German had long been in use as a commercial lingua franca in the multilingual Baltic region in which the German merchants of the Hanse played an important role. In eighteenth-century Germany, some of the bourgeoisie (including the fiancée of the writer Johann Christoph Gottsched) thought it "plebeian" to write letters in German, preferring to use French for the purpose. For the last five hundred years or so, however, this linguistic separation of spheres has been gradually but steadily undermined by the rise of many vernaculars, a process closely linked to the processes of state- and nation-building.


One of the major long-term trends in the history of the languages of Europe since the end of the Middle Ages is the decline of Latin, particularly as a written language, and its replacement by vernaculars. The decline of Latin must not be dated too early. Translations from vernacular into Latin were common, and they reached their peak in the first half of the seventeenth century. All the same, the increasing importance of written Italian, French, Spanish, English, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Czech, Polish, and Hungarian is particularly obvious by the sixteenth century, and it was accompanied by statements of the "dignity" of those vernaculars as well as by decrees like that of 1539 in which the king of France ordered legal documents to be drawn up in French. The increasing employment of vernacular for literary purposes was accompanied by their standardization and codification, making them distinct from spoken languages as well as from Latin. The trend to standardization was assisted by the spread of printing, especially when the new medium was consciously exploited for this purpose, as it was, for example, by Martin Luther.

Luther's problem was he wanted to appeal to ordinary people as well as scholars, so that he could not confine himself to Latin. For the same reason, both in his own writings and in his translation of the Bible, he needed to employ a form of German that would be intelligible from Alsace to Saxony. Luther based his German to some extent on the chancery language that, as we have seen, was already current throughout the empire, but in order to reach as many people as possible, he simplified it. In turn, Luther's Bible helped create literary German, just as the Kralice Bible (1579–1594) contributed to the development of literary Czech and the Authorized Version of 1611 contributed to the development of literary English.

In Catholic countries in particular, an alternative to the Bible as a means of linguistic codification was the academy. Academies were discussion groups of men of letters, some of which acquired official status and prepared dictionaries from which inappropriate words were carefully excluded, whether the selection was made on moral or social grounds. The Florentines had their Accademia della Crusca, the French their Académie Française, which had the task of cleaning up the language (nettoyer la langue des ordures), and the Spaniards their Real Academia Española. In Russia the first important linguistic reformer was the polymath academician Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–1765), whose Russian grammar played an important role in the secularization of Russian culture, helping to create a new written language that could compete with the traditional one, church Slavonic, the function of which in the Eastern or Orthodox Church had been comparable to that of Latin in the West.

Language and politics. Governments not infrequently lent their support to these enterprises. In the sixteenth century the grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de' Medici, tried to turn Florentine cultural capital into political capital by associating himself with dictionary-making and the Accademia Fiorentina. In the seventeenth century Cardinal Richelieu was involved in the foundation of the Académie Française. There were good pragmatic reasons for statesmen to concern themselves with language. The political theorist Giovanni Botero noted in his Reason of State (1589) that conquerors "will do well to introduce their own tongue into the countries they have conquered." As if following his advice, the emperor Ferdinand II made German the official language of Bohemia at the expense of Czech in 1627, six years after his victory at the Battle of White Mountain. Continuing this policy of linguistic centralization, the emperor Joseph II attempted to replace Latin with German in the Hungarian Diet (1784) and made German obligatory in the schools of the empire in 1790. In the Swedish empire, the government encouraged the spread of the Swedish language at the expense of Finnish.

For a dramatic and well-documented case study of the relation between language and politics, we may turn to the French Revolution. The revolutionaries faced a problem not unlike that of Martin Luther in the early years of the Reformation. They needed to broadcast their message as widely as possible in a country in which the majority of the population did not speak standard French, while minorities—Occitan, Breton, German, Flemish, and Basque—did not speak French at all. An early solution to the problem, reached in 1790, was to translate government decrees into patois. However, it was argued that French was the language of the revolution and that speakers of patois, let alone speakers of other languages, were at best unenlightened and at worst counterrevolutionary. The revolution's specialist on language, the abbé Henri Grégoire, claimed that it was necessary "to destroy patois" (anéantir les patois) and make French universal (universaliser l'usage de la langue française). The language policy followed by the French government from 1794 onward thus resembled that of Joseph II discussed above. The Third Republic took that policy a stage further, through the educational reforms of 1880 and the prohibition of Breton in the religious domain (sermons and catechism classes) in 1902.

Linguistic revivals. Competition between languages ensured that the emergence of the vernacular languages of Europe was no simple success story. We should not forget the losers, especially in the domain of writing. The decline of written Czech after the Battle of White Mountain is one well-known example, a decline lamented later in the century in a treatise by the Jesuit Bohuslav Balbín. Literary Catalan was declining at much the same time, as Madrid tightened its grasp on the rest of Spain. In the British Isles, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh were all retreating as English was advancing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, first as a written language and later as a spoken one. In France, Occitan and Breton were in retreat. No wonder that in the eighteenth century the less literate half of the hexagon (southwest of an imaginary diagonal line from Saint-Malo to Geneva) included not only the poorer part of the country but also the principal regions (Brittany, Languedoc, and Provence) in which French was not the mother tongue. The competition between dominant and dominated languages is not a new phenomenon.

In all these regions, the choice whether to speak the local or the metropolitan language both expressed and contributed to the increasing cultural distance between different social groups. In Scotland, Gaelic became, in the words of the eighteenth-entury social theorist Adam Ferguson, "a language spoken in the cottage, but not in the parlour." In Wales the gentry of Glamorgan switched to English in their everyday speech in the eighteenth century, thus expressing their identification with the values of the metropolis and their withdrawal from local popular culture. By the nineteenth century, Scottish, Irish and Welsh parents who wanted their children to rise socially were encouraging them to express themselves in English, while Breton parents were taking a similar attitude toward French. In the nineteenth century, the great agent of linguistic acculturation was the school. In late nineteenth century France, for example, it was forbidden to speak Breton in the schools of the region, although the teachers themselves often spoke Breton at home. Whether the teachers were aware of this or not, a major function of the school at this time was to undermine dominated languages and replace them with dominant ones.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the decline and even extinction of the minority languages already appeared virtually inevitable. All the same, the nineteenth century was to be an age not only of the spread of dominant languages in official domains but also of revivals of dominated languages in unofficial or informal settings. In the Austrian Empire, for instance, as if in reaction against the germanization favored by Joseph II, four Slav languages were revived from the late eighteenth century onward, Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian, and Slovene. In the case of Czech, there was a conscious return to the usage of the sixteenth-century "golden age," while in the other cases a new written language was shaped by standardizing spoken forms. In all these cases, a linguistic movement, complete with societies, journals, meetings, and so on became associated with a movement for political autonomy. Modern Greek developed in a similar way at the time of the independence movement of the early nineteenth century. In similar fashion in Provence, the poet Frédéric Mistral (1830–1914) was one of the leaders of the Félibrige, a movement founded in 1854 to revive literary Occitan. There was a similar movement in Catalonia at about the same time. The two groups were in contact, and both revived the medieval poetry competitions known as the floral games (jocs florals).

Gaelic too enjoyed a revival. Welsh, which had declined least, was also the first to be revived. The Eisteddfod, a poetry competition associated with the days of the Druids, increased in popularity during the late eighteenth century and was held on a national basis from 1858 onward. Dictionaries of Welsh were compiled and an attempt was made (as was the case with Czech) to return to a sixteenth-century golden age. In Ireland, on the other hand, it was only in 1876 that the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language was founded, followed in 1893 by the Gaelic League. Children were taught Irish in school from 1878 in small doses and from 1922 onward in larger ones. A demand for the preservation of the Breton language was demanded by one wing of the Breton national movement.

In England and Italy, by contrast, there was competition not between languages but between varieties, between the standard form of the language and dialects. In Italy the dialect tradition was of course much stronger; it has been calculated that only 2.5 percent of the population spoke Italian at the time of the unification of Italy in 1861. However, urbanization and emigration weakened the hold of dialect, and the rise of Italian in the twentieth century, like that of other standard national languages, was assisted by a variety of institutions, notably the school, newspapers, the cinema, radio, television, and (thanks to compulsory military service) the army. In England this process of linguistic unification took place much earlier. Even in England, however, it is possible to discern a revival of dialect in the nineteenth century, notably the rise of printed poetry in the Yorkshire and Lancashire dialects from the 1840s onward. Once the agent of linguistic standardization, by the nineteenth century the printing press was also serving the causes of regional resistance and revival.

Linguistic purification. Dominant and dominated languages alike were subjected to purification from foreign words, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In France postwar governments struggled against franglais, the contamination of the French language by contact with English, especially American English. In Greece and Germany, purification also became a political issue. In Greece the movement for pure speech (katharevousa) aimed at deleting foreign words and restoring classical elements to the Greek language. The reformer Adamantios Koraïs, for example, denounced "borrowing from strangers . . . words and phrases amply available in one's own language." In place of the foreign, the reformers suggested learned, archaic, and pseudo-archaic words. Thus the potato, traditionally patata, became gêomêlon, a rendering into classical Greek of pomme de terre. The new Greek state founded in 1830 officially adopted katharevousa. In the late nineteenth century, however, there was what might be called an antipurist campaign in favor of the language of the people, demotic Greek (demotike). In the twentieth century the Left has championed demotike, while right-wing governments in 1921–1923, 1935–1936, and 1967–1974 all restored katharevousa.

In Germany following unification, there was a movement to remove French, English, and other alien terms from the language, a movement linked to the return to the Gothic script, another symbol of national identity, and institutionalized in the form of a society, the Allgemein Deutsche Sprachverein (founded in 1885), and a journal, Muttersprache. The 1930s were the high point of the society's attempts to hunt down and replace foreign words, the so-called Fremdwortjagd. Thus Universität became "Althochschule," Student "Hochschuler," Rationalismus "Vernunftum," and so on. The Nazis supported the movement at first but put an official end to the hunt in 1940 after Hitler's speeches were criticized by purists.

The links between linguistic revivals and politics are well known, particularly for their place in a more general reaction against centralization. On the other hand, the social composition of these movements remains to be studied. In the precise sense of the term "social," the social history of linguistic nationalism remains largely unexplored territory. Much work also remains to be done on the place of language in the construction or presentation of the self and of the emotions in letters and other personal documents in different places, periods, and social groups.


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Browning, Robert. "Greek Diglossia Yesterday and Today." International Journal of the Sociology of Language 35 (1982): 49–68.

Burke, Peter. The Art of Conversation. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Burke, Peter, and Roy Porter, eds. The Social History of Language. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Corfield, Penelope J. "Historians and Language." In Language, History, and Class. Edited by Penelope J. Corfield. Oxford, 1991. Pages 1–29.

Durkacz, Victor. The Decline of the Celtic Languages. Edinburgh, 1983.

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Jenkins, Geraint, ed. The Social History of Welsh. Cardiff, Wales, forthcoming.

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Kirkness, Alan. Zur Sprachreinigung im Deutschen: Eine historische Dokumentation1789–1871. Tübingen, Germany, 1975.

Klein, Lawrence E. Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Lartichaux, J.-Y. "Linguistic Politics during the French Revolution." Diogenes 97 (1977): 65–84.

Leith, Dick. A Social History of English. 2d ed. London, 1997.

MacDonagh, Oliver. "The Politics of Gaelic." In his States of Mind: A Study ofAnglo-Irish Conflict 1780–1980. London, 1983. Pages 104–125.

Mugglestone, Lynda. "Talking Proper": The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol. Oxford, 1995.

Obelkevich, James. "Proverbs and Social History." In The Social History of Language. Edited by Peter Burke and Roy Porter. Cambridge, U.K., 1987. Pages 43–72.

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Phillips, Kenneth C. Language and Class in Victorian England. Oxford, 1984.

Phillipson, Nicholas. "Politics and Politeness in the Reign of Anne and the Early Hanoverians." In Varieties of British Political Thought 1500–1800. Edited by John G. A. Pocock. Cambridge, U.K., 1993. Pages 211–245.

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Weber, Eugen. "A Wealth of Tongues." In his Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914. Stanford, Calif., 1976. Pages 67–94.


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236. Language


language typical of academies or the world of learning; pedantic language.
a word, phrase, or idiom peculiar to American English. Cf. Briticism, Canadianism.
the art or practice of making anagrams. Also called metagrammatism.
anything characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon race, especially any linguistic peculiarity that sterns from Old English and has not been affected by another language.
Linguistics. the loss of an initial unstressed vowel in a word, as squire for esquire. Also called apharesis, aphesis. aphetic , adj.
of or relating to languages that have no grammatical inflections.
a word, phrase, idiom, or other characteristic of Aramaic occurring in a corpus written in another language.
Obsolete, a courtly phrase or expression. aulic , adj.
the study of the Basque language and culture.
1. the ability to speak two languages.
2. the use of two languages, as in a community. Also bilinguality, diglottism. bilingual, bilinguist , n. bilingual , adj.
the state or quality of being composed of two letters, as a word. biliteral , adj.
coarse, vulgar, violent, or abusive language. [Allusion to the scurrilous language used in Billingsgate market, London.]
a word, idiom, or phrase characteristic of or restricted to British English. Also called Britishism . Cf. Americanism, Canadianism.
1. a word or phrase commonly used in Canadian rather than British or American English. Cf. Americanism, Briticism.
2. a word or phrase typical of Canadian French or English that is present in another language.
3. an instance of speech, behavior, customs, etc., typical of Canada.
1. a word, phrase, or idiom characteristic of Celtic languages in material written in another language.
2. a Celtic custom or usage.
an idiom or other linguistic feature peculiar to Chaldean, especially in material written in another language. Chaldaic , n., adj.
a word or phrase characteristic of Cilicia.
Rare. the use of euphemisms in order to avoid the use of plain words and any misfortune associated with them.
a word, phrase, or expression characteristic of ordinary or familiar conversation rather than formal speech or writing, as Shes out for She is not at home. colloquial , adj.
a colloquial word or expression or one used in conversation more than in writing. Also conversationism.
a mania for foul speech.
1. the science or study of secret writing, especially code and cipher systems.
2. the procedures and methods of making and using secret languages, as codes or ciphers. cryptographer, cryptographist , n. cryptographic, cryptographical, cryptographal , adj.
1. the study of, or the use of, methods and procedures for translating and interpreting codes and ciphers; cryptanalysis.
2. cryptography. cryptologist , n.
a word or expression characteristic of the Danish language.
1. of or relating to the common people; popular.
2. of, pertaining to, or noting the simplified form of hieratic writing used in ancient Egypt.
3. (cap.) of, belonging to, or connected with modern colloquial Greek. Also called Romaic .
a student of demotic language and writings.
an expression of scorn. deristic , adj.
1. a dialect word or expression.
2. dialectal speech or influence.
a bilingual book or other work. diglottic , adj.
the condition of having two syllables. disyllable , n. disyllabic, disyllabical , adj.
the use of language that is characteristic of the Dorian Greeks.
1. a deliberate substitution of a disagreeable, offensive, or disparaging word for an otherwise inoffensive term, as pig for policeman.
2. an instance of such substitution. Cf. euphemism.
a pithy statement, often containing a paradox.
equivocality, equivocacy
the state or quality of being ambiguous in meaning or capable of double interpretation. equivocal , adj.
a book of etymologies; any treatise on the derivation of words.
the branch of linguistics that studies the origin and history of words. etymologist , n. etymologie, etymological , adj.
1. the deliberate or polite use of a pleasant or neutral word or expression to avoid the emotional implications of a plain term, as passed over for died.
2. an instance of such use. Cf. dysphemism, genteelism . euphemist , n. euphemistic, euphemistical, euphemious , adj.
the customs, languages, and traditions distinctive of Europeans.
a custom or language characteristic peculiar to foreigners.
French characterized by an interlarding of English loan words.
a French loanword in English, as tête-à-tête. Also called Gallicism .
1. a French linguistic peculiarity.
2. a French idiom or expression used in another language. Also called Frenchism.
1. the deliberate use of a word or phrase as a substitute for one thought to be less proper, if not coarse, as male cow for buil or limb for leg.
2. an instance of such substitution.
Germanism, Germanicism
a German loanword in English, as gemütlich. Also called Teutonism, Teutonicism.
the study of the origin of language. glottogonic , adj.
1. the worship of letters or words.
2. a devotion to the letter, as in law or Scripture; literalism.
Hebraism, Hebraicism
1. an expression or construction peculiar to Hebrew.
2. the character, spirit, principles, or customs of the Hebrew people.
3. a Hebrew loanword in English, as shekel. Hebraist , n. Hebraistic, Hebraic , adj.
the state or quality of a given words having the same spelling as another word, but with a different sound or pronunciation and a different meaning, as lead guide and lead metal. Cf. homonymy . heteronym , n. heteronymous , adj.
heterophemism, heterophemy
an unconscious tendency to use words other than those intended. Cf. malapropism.
1. an Irish characteristic.
2. an idiom peculiar to Irish English. Also called Hibernicism. Hibernian , adj.
a Spanish word or expression that often appears in another language, as bodega.
holophrasis, holophrase
the ability, in certain languages, to express a complex idea or entire sentence in a single word, as the imperative Stop! holophrasm , n. holophrastic , adj.
the state or quality of a given words having the same spelling and the same sound or pronunciation as another word, but with a different meaning, as race tribe and race running contest. Cf. heteronymy. homonym , n. homonymous , adj.
1. a word formed from elements drawn from different languages.
2. the practice of coining such words.
a compilation of idiomatic words and phrases.
the advocacy of using the artificial language Ido, based upon Esperanto. Ido, Idoist, n. Idoistic, adj.
the tendency in some individuals to refer to themselves in the third person. illeist , n.
an artificial international language, based upon the Romance languages, designed for use by the scientific community.
excessive use of the sound i and the substituting of this sound for other vowels. iotacist , n.
Rare. an Irishism.
1. a word or phrase commonly used in Ireland rather than England or America, as begorra.
2. a mode of speech, idiom, or custom characteristic of the Irish. Also Iricism.
the numerical equality between words or lines of verse according to the ancient Greek notation, in which each letter receives a corresponding number. isopsephic , adj.
an Italian loanword in English, as chiaroscuro. Also Italicism.
1. an Italian loanword in English, as chiaroscuro.
2. Italianism. See also 328. PRINTING .
a style of art, idiom, custom, mannerism, etc., typical of the Japanese.
Rare. a person who makes use of a jargon in his speech.
a word or expression whose root is the Kentish dialect.
1. a mode of expression imitative of Latin.
2. a Latin word, phrase, or expression that of ten appears in another lan-guage. Latinize , v.
1. a particular way of speaking or writing Latin.
2. the use or knowledge of Latin.
the writing or compiling of dictionaries. lexicographer , n. lexicographic, lexicographical , adj.
1. a person skilled in the science of language. Also linguistician.
2. a person skilled in many languages; a polyglot.
a custom or manner of speaking peculiar to one locality. Also called provincialism . localist , n. localistic , adj.
a system in which ruling power is vested in words.
Rare. a cunning with words; verbal legerdemain. Also logodaedalus.
veneration or excessive regard for words. logolatrous , adj.
1. a dispute about or concerning words.
2. a contention marked by the careless or incorrect use of words; a mean-ingless battle of words. logomach, logomacher, logomachist , n. logo- machic, logomachical , adj.
a form of divination involving the observation of words and discourse.
a mania for words or talking.
a lover of words. Also called philologue, philologer.
an abnormal fear or dislike of words.
1. an excessive or abnormal, sometimes incoherent talkativeness. logorrheic , adj.
1. the unconscious use of an inappropriate word, especially in a cliché, as fender for feather in You could have knocked me over with a fender. [Named after Mrs. Malaprop, a character prone to such uses, in The Rivals, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan]
2. an instance of such misuse. Cf. heterophemism.
a word or expression that comes from the language of the Medes.
a member of an order of Armenian monks, founded in 1715 by Mekhitar da Pietro, dedicated to literary work, espeeially the perfecting of the Armenian language and the translation into it of the major works of other languages.
metaphrasis, metaphrase
the practice of making a literal translation from one language into another. Cf. paraphrasis. metaphrast , n. metaphrastic, metaphrastical , adj.
a person capable of speaking only one language.
the condition of having only one syllable. monosyllable , n. monosyllabic , adj.
Obsolete, speaking foolishly. morologist , n.
excessive use of or fondness for, or incorrect use of the letter m and the sound it represents. Also mutacism.
neologism, neology
1. a new word, usage, or phrase.
2. the coining or introduction of new words or new senses for established words. See also 392. THEOLOGY . neologian, neologist , n. neologistic, neologistical , adj.
Rare. neologism. neophrastic , adj.
1. a neologism.
2. the use of neologisms. neoterist , n.
New Yorkerism
a word or phrase characteristic of those who reside in New York City.
nice-nellyism, nice-Nellyism
a euphemism. See also 28. ATTITUDES .
a word or expression characteristic of a northern dialect.
the science of defining technical terms. orismologic, orismological , adj.
the art of correct grammar and correct use of words. orthologer, orthologian , n. orthological , adj.
the ability to speak any language. pantoglot , n.
the addition of a sound or group of sounds at the end of a word, as in the nonstandard idear for idea. Also called epithesis. paragogic, paragogical , adj.
paraphrasis, paraphrase
the recasting of an idea in words different from that originally used, whether in the same language or in a translation. Cf. metaphrasis, periphrasis. paraphrastic, paraphrastical , adj.
1. word formation by the addition of both a prefix and a suffix to a stem or word, as international.
2. word formation by the addition of a suffix to a phrase or compound word, as nickel-and-diming. parasynthetic , adj.
the use of equivocal or ambiguous terms. parisological , adj.
the collecting and study of proverbs. Cf. proverbialism. paroe-miologist , n. paroemiologic, paroemiological , adj.
1. an artificial international language using signs and figures instead of words.
2. any artificial language, as Esperanto. pasigraphic , adj.
Linguistics. a semantic change in a word to a lower, less respect-able meaning, as in hussy. Also pejoration.
a book or other work written in five languages. pentaglot , adj.
1. a roundabout way of speaking or writing; circumlocution.
2. an expression in such fashion. Cf. paraphrasis . periphrastic , adj.
Archaic. a pleonasm.
1. an idiom or the idiomatic aspect of a language.
2. a mode of expression.
3. Obsolete, a phrasebook. phraseologist , n. phraseologic, phraseological , adj.
1. an addiction to spoken or written expression in platitudes.
2. a staleness or dullness of both language and ideas. Also called platitudinism. platitudinarian , n.
1. the use of unnecessary words to express an idea; redundancy.
2. an instance of this, as true fact.
3. a redundant word or expression. pleonastic , adj.
a specialist in Polish language, literature, and culture.
1. a person who speaks several languages.
2. a mixture of languages. See also 53. BOOKS . polyglot , n., adj. polyglottic, polyglottous , adj.
the ability to use or to speak several languages. polyglot , n., adj.
Rare. verbosity.
a diversity of meanings for a given word.
the condition of having three or more syllables. polysyllable , n. polysyllabic, polysyllabical , adj.
the creation or use of portmanteau words, or words that are a blend of two other words, as smog (from smoke and fog).
excessive fastidiousness or over-refinement in language or behavior.
excessive wordiness in speech or writing; longwindedness. prolix, adj.
a phrase typical of the Biblical prophets.
the composing, collecting, or customary use of proverbs. Cf. paroemiology. proverbialist, n.
a love of vacuous or trivial talk.
obfuscating language and jargon as used by psychologists, psychoanalysts, and psychiatrists, characterized by recondite phrases and arcane names for common conditions.
the policy or attempt to purify language and to make it conform to the rigors of pronunciation, usage, grammar, etc. that have been arbitrarily set forth by a certain group. Also called prescriptivism . See also 23. ART ; 104. CRITICISM ; 249. LITERATURE ; 352. REPRESENTATION . purist, n.,adj.
coarse, vulgar, or obscene language or joking. ribald, adj.
something characteristic of or influenced by Russia, its people, customs, language, etc.
a rustic habit or mode of expression. rustic , adj. rusticity , n.
a word, idiom, phrase, etc., of Anglo-Saxon or supposed Anglo-Saxon origin.
Scotticism, Scoticism, Scottishism
a feature characteristic of Scottish English or a word or phrase commonly used in Scotland rather than in England or America, as bonny.
1 . the study of meaning.
2 . the study of linguistic development by classifying and examining changes in meaning and form. semanticist, semantician , n. semantic , adj.
a word, phrase, or idiom from a Semitic language, especially in the context of another language.
the study of Semitic languages and culture. Semitist, Semiticist , n.
the practice of using very long words. Also sesquipedalism , sesquipedality . sesquipedal, sesquipedalian , adj.
a slangy expression or word.
a Slavic loanword in English, as blini.
one who specializes in the study of Slavic languages, literatures, or other aspects of Slavic culture. Also Slavist .
the transposition of initial or other sounds of words, usually by accident, as queer dean for dear Queen. [After the Rev. W. A. Spooner, 1844-1930, noted for such slips.] spoonerize , v.
Archaic. the use of a secret language or code; cryptography. steganographer , n.
the study of the language, history, and archaeology of the Sumerians. Sumerologist , n.
a syllabary.
1 . a table of syllables, as might be used for teaching a language.
2 . a system of characters or symbols representing syllables instead of individual sounds. Also syllabarium .
a word that cannot be used as a term in its own right in logic, as an adverb or preposition. syncategorematic , adj.
an expression whose origin is Syriac, a language based on the eastern Aramaic dialect.
Rare. tautology.
needless repetition of a concept in word or phrase; redundancy or pleonasm. Also tautologism . tautologist , n. tautological, tautologous , adj.
1 . the classification of terms associated with a particular field; nomenclature.
2 . the terms of any branch of knowledge, field of activity, etc. terminologic, terminological , adj.
1 . anything typical or characteristic of the Teutons or Germans, as customs, attitudes, actions, etc.
2 . Germanism. Teutonic , adj.
a word, phrase, or idiom in English that is common to both Great Britain and the United States.
a trite, commonplace or hackneyed saying, expression, etc.; a platitude.
1 . the use of the second person, as in apostrophe.
2 . in certain languages, the use of the familiar second person in cases where the formal third person is usually found and expected.
3 . an instance of such use.
Rare. the state or quality of having only one meaning or of being unmistakable in meaning, as a word or statement. univocal , adj.
1 . a verbal expression, as a word or phrase.
2 . the way in which something is worded.
3 . a phrase or sentence devoid or almost devoid of meaning.
4 . a use of words regarded as obscuring ideas or reality; verbiage.
wordiness or prolixity; an excess of words.
Facetious. misuse or overuse of a word or any use of a word which is damaging to it.
meaningless repetition of words and phrases.
an excessive use of or attraction to words.
the quality or condition of wordiness; excessive use of words, especially unnecessary prolixity. verbose , adj.
1 . a word, phrase, or idiom from the native and popular language, contrasted with literary or learned language.
2 . the use of the vernacular. vernacular , n., adj.
a word or phrase characteristic of a village or rural community.
a speaker or advocate of Volapük, a language proposed for use as an international language.
a word or phrase used chiefly in coarse, colloquial speech. vulgarian, vulgarist , n.
the habit of referring to oneself by the pronoun we.
a word or form of pronunciation distinctive of the western United States.
a remark or expression characterized by cleverness in perception and choice of words.
Facetious. the art or technique of employing a vocabulary of arcane, recondite words in order to gain an advantage over another person.
1 . a Yankee characteristic or character.
2 . British. a linguistic or cultural trait peculiar to the United States.
3 . Southern U.S. a linguistic or cultural trait peculiar to the states siding with the Union during the Civil War.
4 . Northern U.S. a linguistic or cultural trait peculiar to the New England states.
a Yiddish loanword in English, as chutzpa.
the language and customs of people living in the county of Yorkshire, England.


views updated Jun 11 2018


Over the course of U.S. history, the language used to describe, criticize, and affirm same-sex sexuality and gender variance has exhibited great complexity. The terms used have varied greatly across time, space, and social and cultural groups (defined, for example, by class, race, gender, and sexuality). Scholars have generally concluded that rather than representing different names for the same phenomena, these terms are associated with the existence of multiple systems of sexual and gendered meanings.

Key Terms in Early America

In Changing Ones, Will Roscoe presents documentation for 157 Native American groups ("tribes") with male gendermixing or gender-crossing roles and fifty with female ones. In some instances there were distinct terms for the male and female transgender roles; in others a generic term was used. Europeans and Euro-Americans applied the word berdache (originally an Arabic and Iranian word meaning "slave" and lacking any sex or gender meaning) to Native Americans who would now be categorized as transgender but not to their sexual partners, who were conventional in appearance and sexual role.

Until the second half of the nineteenth century, Euro-Americans most frequently used terms derived from Judeo-Christian religious traditions when referring to same-sex sexuality and gender variance. "The abominable sin not to be named among Christians" was the long label; sodomy and buggery were the short ones for what were considered crimes against nature. Sodomites, according to interpretations of the Judeo-Christian Bible, were men of the city of Sodom who sought to violate a seemingly male angel; buggerers were heretics (the original heresy was Albigensian, but the term was generalized and in 1533 began to be used in English law in the sense of illicit sexual acts). Sodomy and buggery referred to different sexual practices in different contexts (including, at times, oral sex, anal sex, and bestiality), but generally encompassed a variety of nonreproductive sexual acts. The terms were generally used to refer not to distinct types of people but rather to sinful behaviors that anyone might commit.

New Language

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a variety of English-language terms came into use, many of which conflated sexual and gender meanings, drew on ancient historical references, and were associated with identities as well as behaviors. Scientific experts invented and used a variety of terms, including inverts and inversion, to refer to what many conceptualized as psychological hermaphroditism (combining elements of the male and female in one person) and transvestism. Some believe that dyke derived from the dite in hermaphrodite. The verto root in inversion, perversion, invert, and pervert means "turning," which conveyed the sense of turning away from sexual and gender norms.

As far as can be determined, the term homosexuality was first used in the United States in James Kiernan's 1892 translation of work by European sexologists. The initial diffusion of the word homosexual (applicable to those born female or male) remained linked to conceptions of gender deviance, though some scholars argue that over time the term lost those associations and came to refer exclusively to same-sex sexual orientation. Similarly, while bisexual was initially used to refer to what would later be called androgyny (combining masculine and feminine elements), some scholars argue that over time it lost those associations and came to refer to a sexual orientation to both males and females. In contrast to the heavy weight of religious and legal opprobrium carried by inversion and perversion in medical discourse, homosexual was a more neutral descriptive term.

Lesbian had a vaguely positive etymology, linked as it was to the pre-Christian "cradle of western culture," ancient Greece, and more specifically to the island (Lesbos) where the great female poet Sappho lived. (The French word lesbienne was used for females sexually engaged with females in the seventeenth century, but not in English until the late nineteenth century.) A similar grasping for an ancient Greek analog for males wasDorian. Oscar Wilde's unnatural character, Dorian Gray, may have been an allusion to the Dorians as supposed inventors of pederasty; Wilde's highly visible trial in the 1890s made the label insufficiently covert for those who saw themselves as continuing the tradition of "Greek love" but not wishing to share Wilde's fate. Karl Ulrich's mid-nineteenth-century contrast of Urning (from Aphrodite Urania in Plato's Symposium) for homosexuals and Dioning for heterosexuals was partially carried from German into English as Uranian, but—with the common pronunciation of the distant planet as a homonym for "your anus"—did not provide adequate camouflage.

According to George Chauncey, in New York City by the 1910s and 1920s the men who identified themselves as part of a distinct category of men primarily on the basis of their homosexual interest rather than their womanlike gender identity and self-presentation usually called themselves queer. They rejected the terms fairy and pansy (commonly used for feminine men). Both queer and fairy referred to the sexually receptive partner and stood in contrast to normal, a category that included trade, males who, though available as insertors to be serviced, preferred sex with women or told their male sexual partners that they did. Chauncey asserts that gay began to be used in the 1920s and began to catch on in the late 1930s: "By the late 1940s, younger gay men were chastising older men who still used queer, which the younger men regarded as demeaning" (Gay New York, p. 19). Typically, the earlier history was unknown to a new generation: "Younger men rejected queer as a pejorative name that others had given them," rather than having been advanced to distinguish masculine men from fairies. Even for those involved in male-male sex, the gender-variant sense of fairy had seeped into what had been the contrasting term queer. The then-young generation wanted to narrow their contrast with normal and to downplay effeminacy as an inextricable part of homosexuality: "In calling themselves gay, a new generation of men insisted on the right to name themselves, to claim their status as men, and to reject the 'effeminate' styles of the older generation" (p. 19).

Similarly, the hero of the gay-affirmative 1933 novel Better Angel specified his objection to the term homosexual:

"I don't like that word."

"It's highly scientific."

"Oh, I know that, but it makes me sound like a biological
freak of some sort—to be classed with
morons and cretins and paranoiacs"

(cited in Meeker, p. 174).

Movement Language

After World War II, gay and homosexual continued to be used for both men and women, but when the homophile movement developed in the 1950s, new terms came into use. Under an ancient Greek aegis, the Daughters of Bilitis served as a euphemism for (the already euphemistic) "lesbian" in the name of the first American female homophile group. Bilitis was appropriated from nineteenth-century lesbian-themed French poetry (written by a man, Pierre Louys, in the poem "Chansons de Bilitis").The first sustained male homophile group used the similarly obscure label mattachine, a kind of European masked dancer, when it named itself the Mattachine Society. Daughters of Bilitis and Mattachine were used within and for the homophile movement; gay continued to be the favored popular term. Meanwhile, in the late 1940s David O. Cauldwell was the first American to use the term transsexual to refer to a person who wanted to change their sex surgically.

In the early 1970s, gay liberationists more forcefully rejected the term homosexual, breaking with what they perceived as the abjection-embracing reformers of the earlier homophile movement and the medical experts who had coined homosexuality. Some elders, however, sneered at the desexualization of gay and others decried erasing differences between outlaw/rebel queers and straights (persons conventional in all ways, including heterosexual partnering). One letter-writer to Fag Rag complained in 1977 that "movement gays want to persuade people that gay is a 'homosexual whose heterosexuality is expressed through homosexuality'." In this same period, lesbian feminists criticized the use of gay and homosexual for women and pressed for the use of terms (such as lesbian) that distinguished women from men.

Valorizing general nonconformity beyond identification with homosexuality was central to the challenge by a younger generation who attempted to reclaim and revalue queer during the 1990s. Although fashionable in academia, where claims about inclusively and transformations of negative meanings are common, on the streets and playgrounds of America queer continues to be a slur, in particular a slur on apparent departures from gender orthodoxy. The venerable conflation of gender unorthodoxy and same-sex sexual desire has also seeped into the use of gay by children and adolescents as a general-purpose insult. Similarly, in its international diffusion, the word gay, borrowed to differentiate "modern"/egalitarian homosexuality from traditional hetero-gender homosexuality, often devolves into being a new synonym for the gender-variant participant in same-sex relations.

Hostile Terms

The labels so far mentioned range from pejorative ones deployed primarily by those hostile to homosexual relations (abomination, sodomite) through originally hostile terms taken up by those involved in homosexual relations (homosexual, lesbian, queer, dyke) to those proposed by those involved in homosexual relations (gay, Uranian, Dorian).

There are many more derogations, including ethnically specific ones such as the African American punk (for weak, dominated males sexually used by more aggressive and masculine males called jockers/wolves in prison argot) and bull-dagger (for a bulky and masculine woman impaling others with dildos or with a protruding clitoris). Derogatory Hispanic terms include maricón (for weak, dominated, and sexually used males), marimacho (a macho María, for a mannish lesbian), and cachapera (for a female who splits open female sex partners). In Spanish, the gender-conventional sexual partner often goes unlabeled, though labels do exist and include mayate and vampirio, for masculine males who are "serviced" by males, and tortillera (making tortillas is a metaphor for rubbing together, a widely shared view of what two lesbians must do together in bed perpetuated in a culture that has difficulty conceiving of "sex" that does not involve a penis).

Within postwar homosexual networks and subcultures, particularly gay bars, a large lexicon of disparagements for the specialized tastes of gay men developed. The x + queen construction was and is particularly generative, with x being a metaphor for the kind of male the queen seeks. For example, the "chicken" queen desires the young, the "rice" queen desires Asians and Pacific Islanders, the "dinge" queen desires black-skinned partners, the "potato" queen desires white-skinned partners, and the "size" queen desires men with large penises. That construction also extended to passions other than a particular "type" of sex partner, for example, drama queen for those who makes every event and relationship in "her" life a major dramatic production, fire queen for activists (metaphorically on fire to bring about better regard and treatment for homosexuals), and opera queen for those with an inordinate fascination (in the view of the labeler) for opera (and usually for diva sopranos). Many terms disparaging particular ethnicities have been attested, including boogaloo for eager-to-dance blacks, Nubian for subservient blacks, Samurai Sue for gay Japanese males, flip for Filipinos (with the connotation of being easily flipped into a sexually receptive position), and so forth. Breeder is a contemptuous term for heterosexuals (including those who have not procreated); pussy-pusher is a more graphic sneer at heterosexual males that may have been inspired by fudge-packer, a straight (and prototypically black) sneer at an anal penetrator (fudge being slang for feces).

Although many of the pejorative labels that were flung about by queens of the preliberation era have fallen into disuse, most of the somewhat or very contemptuous labels still in use date back to that time. As the foreword to The Queens' Vernacular put it, the flamboyant and often hostile lexicon was "the street poetry of queens,… invented, coined, dished, and shrieked by the gay stereo-types," those who could not or would not pass (for straight). Those who were out (of the closet) were very aware of and resentful toward others regularly engaging in same-sex sex who passed and avoided the high price of harassment and most of the public stigma borne by the obvious queens and dykes. Pretensions—especially pretensions to superiority by males who sought male sexual partners and who looked and acted straight—were vigorously shredded in sneering comments from queens.

Wit and verbal agility were highly valued in queenly circles and were turned on straight harassers as well as on those who sought to pass as straight. In contrast, dykes got into fistfights with those verbally disrespecting them and their partnerships with femme females. Dyke verbal agility was not distinctively valued (either by femmes or by other butches). The normative model of a dyke was strong, silent, and able to prevail in physical fights. (Already in 1941 Legman attributed the relative paucity of lesbian slang to a "tradition of gentlemanly restraint among lesbians [that] stifles the flamboyance and conversational cynicism in sexual matters that slang coinage requires" [p. 1156].) Protected by their butches, the femmes did not need to fire back disparagements. Wit and verbal agility was similarly not a part of the role of the "real man" who was desired and sometimes snared by queens (but who often disappointed the queens when they were physically attacked). Seeming to be slow in comprehension and not skilled at verbal retorts was part of the trade role. Such catches were desired for unspoiled/"natural" masculinity and scoffed at as "unevolved" by those with highly developed repartee skills who sometimes wanted their mouths stuffed with more tangible objects than witty barbs.

Dichotomies of Sexual Behavior

The dichotomization fem[me]/butch for the gendered appearance of lesbian pairs seems to have originated among participants in lesbian bar culture. That sexual conduct does not necessarily follow heterosexual analogs, however, is clear from the characterization "butch in the streets, femme in the sheets." Gay men similarly seem to have made the distinction between dominating/penetrating tops and submissive/penetrated bottoms. Contrary to the fantasies of some seeking to be penetrated by hyper-masculine thugs, however, those who look masculine are not necessarily tops, and those in drag frequently report topping males who are masculine in appearance and heterosexual in self-identification. The term versatile has long been adopted by those who are not committed to being either tops or bottoms (activos or pasivos in Spanish, with gay having the meaning of sexual versatility).

Changing Terms for Lesbians

At least for a time during the late 1970s and early 1980s apogee of lesbian feminism, it was widely considered archaic to present oneself as butch or femme or to seek a partner who was butch or femme. The word dyke temporarily fell out of use in politically correct circles (joking about "political correctness" seems to have begun among lesbians laughing at themselves or their slightly more zealous sisters). Changing terms (history to herstory, women to wimmin) was also embraced as a political project (or in place of political projects) by believers in linguistic determinism. In this period there were also feminist women who called themselves lesbian and woman-identified but who did not have sex with other women. Such women were classified by women who had sex with other women as political lesbians, and the large rank of women who later renounced college-age lesbian identification have been dubbed hasbyterians (abbreviating "has been lesbian" plus the suffix -ian for a class of persons).

Ways of Speaking

Research on language and homosexuality published before 1970 was almost entirely vocabulary lists without consideration of who used or understood the argot of the underworld/subculture. Research slowly turned toward use of a specialized lexicon and eventually to how homosexual identity and desire were performed by whom and to whom. In a path-breaking 1970 article, Julia Stanley argued that "homosexual slang" beyond a few basic terms was unknown to many of those heavily or even exclusively involved in same-sex sexual relations. Women who had sexual relationships with women but did not go to gay bars were especially unlikely to know most of the terms. From this, Stanley concluded that there was not a distinct speech community of all homosexuals. Stanley also stressed that there were particular terms used by some (especially queens) in ways that were unintelligible to most straights, and that there were standard ways to generate new terms. Noun + noun combinations are particularly common with rhyming components regarded as especially felicitous (e.g., fag hag, frou-frou); truncation is recurrent (e.g., DiFi for San Francisco politician Dianne Feinstein, bi for "bisexuals"); and the diminutive-ette (e.g., in dykette) is applied to nouns beyond the loan-words from French that arrived already having the suffix.

LGBT Ways of Speaking

It is widely supposed (and not just by straight people) that gay males speak at a higher pitch than straight males, that lesbians speak at a lower pitch than straight women, and that the range of pitches (intonational contour) is similarly greater among gay men than among straight men and lesser among lesbians than among straight women. Although research has failed to sustain such hypotheses, some intonational patterns are heard as "gay" or "lesbian" by hostile others and are produced to make characters in mass media representations register as gay or lesbian, especially the stereotypical screaming queen (the "scream" referring more to pitch than to volume). Lisping is also culturally coded as effeminate (and homosexual) to the extent that native speakers of Spanish from Mexico hear native speakers of Spanish from Spain as faggy because of Spanish speech patterns that sound like lisping to Mexicans. A more generalized "sounding mannish" stereotypes some females as dykes.

During the 1970s, some feminist scholars such as Robin Lakoff posited the existence of "woman's language," which she argued was characterized by various features such as using tag questions (transforming a statement into a request for confirmation by appending "right?" or something similar to the end). Examination of the speech of men and women found some men using the features more than some women. The propounders of the "woman's language" thesis failed to address the way sexuality is read into what is regarded as crossing from conventionally gendered speech patterns, so that a man using what is stereotypically feminine language is assumed to be gay and a woman who "talks like a man" is perceived as lesbian. Most proponents retreated from claiming distinctive features to tabulating higher frequencies for these features among women than among men; in other words, they retreated from making categorical claims and made statistical ones instead.

Lesbian and gay language scholars similarly sought to find and categorize lesbian ways of speaking and "gayspeak," especially any that seemed to promote group solidarity rather than castigate fellow sufferers of society's denigration of homosexuals. The project was daunting for lesbian separatists trying to identify a distinct "mother tongue." Dorothy Painter concluded that "lesbians do not possess a repertory of verbal and nonverbal cues they can explicate or knowingly use to interpret lesbianism" (p. 73).

Though she pioneered in questioning the universality and uniqueness of "homosexual slang," Stanley sought to celebrate women bonding through a shared and distinguishable way of speaking ("mother wit") even while acknowledging that its distinctness was not conceived by most lesbians, that many did not participate in it, and that intentions were frequently misunderstood (not just jokes failing): "Some of those lesbians who fail to recognize lesbian humor as such fail to do so because they lack awareness of themselves as a community with shared experiences" (p. 305). (Understanding this statement required the background knowledge of the lesbian feminist project to change the social world rather than to describe the existing one, and to raise the consciousness of the mass of lesbians who lacked the vanguard's sense of how social relations should be arranged.)

Objections to Joseph Hayes's 1976 positing of "gay-speak" were less utopian. Hayes tried to incorporate both the politically hypercorrect ways gay liberationists influenced by lesbian feminism spoke and the wildly politically incorrect (or parodistic) ways traditional queens spoke into a singular "gayspeak." This made describing and analyzing a distinctive way of speaking particularly difficult, though the two could be considered two separate registers in which some gay men spoke with each other. The more fundamental problem, as James Darsey pointed out, was that none of the ways of speaking identified as "gayspeak" was "exclusively a product of the gay subculture, or universal within that subculture….Hayesfails to provide us with any words or word patterns that have a constant function and usage across settings which might illuminate something uniquely and universally gay" (p. 63). Those who command the queenly register do not always talk that way; many openly gay men (and almost all lesbians) never do; and some straight men and women do. Even within the ranks of gay rights advocates, there is a divide between assimilationists who argue that "we're just like straight people, except for what we do in bed" and romantics who see gay specialness, a distinctive "gay sensibility," or even a special mission to challenge conventions of all sort (not just sexual and gender ones).

Language to Promote Community

As for challenges to using the term community, the standard for a gay or a lesbian way of speaking seems to be unfairly elevated. Not all of the words in what is labeled "the English language" are known to all speakers. Moreover, much of the lexicon and the particular sounds used in English are also used in other languages. Nor is the prototypical subject-verb-object order unique to English. Still the range of sound, knowledge of specialized lexicon, and syntactic and pragmatic devices (ways of constructing sentences and of communicating) among gay or lesbian speakers of English do not differ substantially from the range among straight speakers of English. The same is true for speakers of other languages. Lesbians and gays use the same language devices to signal solidarity and to cooperate in building coherence in conversation as straights do. A distinctive "gay English" is dubious and there is probably more similarity in the ways of speaking of American Masons (to take a somewhat secret organization historically famous for covert signals of member-ship) than among those who consider themselves gay or those who consider themselves lesbian. Claims about ways of speaking that are recognized by participants continue, despite the lack of objective features.

During the 1970s, many supposed that queen-speak would disappear, that it was a self-hating response to external oppression, so that both were destined for oblivion as oppression ended. LGB movement activists criticized the perceived misogyny of using "she" in reference by queens to gay males (especially ridiculing those striving not to appear feminine). Such denigrations were also abhorrent to clones, whose simulation (or parody) of hypermasculinity devalued verbal display and who developed elaborate nonverbal codes (placement of key rings, placement and colors of handkerchiefs in back pockets) for communicating specific kinds of desire (and, coincidentally, gay identity) on the streets and in discos where the music was too loud for conversation. Clones under-took much of the style, including the nonarticulateness of trade, without pretending to be uninterested in having sex with men and sought homogender (butch-butch) relations and relationships. The "bitchy" speech style did not, however, disappear, and the general exhortation to "accept being who you are" eventually extended to those who enjoyed and excelled at camp humor. Those men with exaggerated feminine features were reconceptualized as fearless social critics of the naturalness of gender (performing the glamour and toughness of women who excelled in "a man's world" rather than stereotypically feminine demureness and domesticity) rather than as perpetuators of denigration of women.

The Celebration of Queenspeak

"Queenspeak" has not died out and it is now celebrated as part of the academic fascination with gender as the key to most everything, including homosexuality and "gay language." Similarly, a revival and rationalization of femme/butch lesbian relationships emerged after some years of insisting on abandoning or transcending role dichotomization among (homogender) woman-loving/woman-identified women. Like the once demonized queens, the lesbian butches and femmes (present and past) were reconceptualized at playing with and parodying gender rather than being victims of false consciousness.


The science of linguistics that differentiated itself from the study of literature during the decades between the World War I and the launching of Sputnik focused primarily on the patternings of sound contrasts in particular languages (for example, the contrast between "vat" and "bat" that does not register with monolingual speakers of Spanish). No one has ever maintained that LGBT speakers differ from non-LGBT speakers in the significant sound contrasts (phonology) of their language. Similarly, although as already noted, some ways of (re) forming words are more used by gay or by transgender persons, most of the words they use are performed, that is, already in use (albeit a few with somewhat different meanings).There is not a distinctive morphology unique to transgender, lesbian, or gay persons.

American linguistics, funded as never before by the National Defense Act following the Soviet satellite Sputnik's launch, turned from phonology and morphology to syntax, the study of sentence-formation. Gay English is as much an SOV (subject-object-verb) order language as the English of straight people. There are no syntactical patterns unique to LGBT speakers or any serious claims of syntactical specialties by any category of the nonheterosexual. Insofar as there is an LGBT linguistics, it is concerned with specialist vocabulary and with performing identity in speech, especially with performing in covert ways recognized by the like-minded. Performativity is a concept developed by British speech-act philosopher John Austin and deployed particularly to ways of doing gender (with a special focus on those performing a gender discordant with their natal sex) in the theorizing of Judith Butler and others. The most influential American linguist, Noam Chomsky, has always cast the variabilites of "performance" by individuals or by those included in any social categories as outside linguistics, the latter being the study of underlying syntactic principles (and phonological and morphological principles, though these are not separate levels in Chomskian linguistics). Thus, there is no LGBT linguistics within the dominant tradition of what is "linguistics." In the Chomskian view, what LGBT linguists analyze is "only performance" and thus not worth consideration.

Intra-language variability by social categories has been central to sociolinguistics and some linguists have dubbed their study of language use "pragmatics" (a "level" above syntax). The results of inquiry by sociolinguists and scholars of communication are drawn on in discussions of LGBT "ways of speaking." Although bisexual ways of speaking would seem an interesting topic for those asserting distinctive or recognizable gay/lesbian ways of speaking, little research has examined three categories of sexual identity/orientation.


Chauncey, George. Gay New York. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Darsey, James. "'Gayspeak': a response." In G ayspeak. Edited by James Chesebro. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1981.

Dynes, Wayne R. Homolexis. New York: Gay Academic Union, 1995.

Hayes, Joseph J. "Gayspeak." Quarterly Journal of Speech 62 (1976): 256–626.

Hofstader, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics. New York: Knopf, 1966.

Kulick, Don. "Gay and Lesbian Language." Annual Review of Anthropology 29 (2000): 243–325.

Kulick, Don. "Transgender and Language." GLQ 5 (1999): 605–22.

Lakoff, Robin T. "Language and Woman's Place." Language in Society 2 (1973): 45–79.

Leap, William L. Word's Out: Gay Men's English. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Legman, Gershorn. "The Language of Homosexuality: An American Glossary." Appendix to George W. Henry, Sex Variants. New York: Hoeber, 1941.

Meeker, Richard [Forman Brown]. Better Angel. Boston: Alyson, 1990 [1933].

Murray, Stephen O. "Stigma Transformation and Relexification in the International Diffusion of Gay." In Beyond the Lavender Lexicon. Edited by William Leap. New York: Gordon & Breach, 1995.

Murray, Stephen O. Theory Groups in the Study of Language in North America. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1994.

Nestle, Joan. "Butch-fem Relationships." Heresies 12 (1981):21–24.

Painter, Dorothy S. "Recognition Among Lesbians in Straight Settings." In G ayspeak. Edited by James Chesebro. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1981.

Rogers, Bruce. The Queens' Vernacular. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1972.

Roscoe, Will. Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Stanley, Julia P. "Homosexual Slang." American Speech 45 (1970):45-59.

Stanley, Julia P., and Susan Robbins. "Mother Wit." In Lavender Culture. Edited by Karla Jay and Allan Young. New York: Jove, 1979.

Weston, Kathy. Render Me, Gender Me. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Stephen O. Murray


views updated Jun 08 2018

1. A human system of COMMUNICATION which uses structured vocal sounds and can be embodied in other media such as writing, print, and physical signs. Most linguists currently regard the faculty of language as a defining characteristic of being human.

2. A particular instance of this system, such as ARABIC, FRENCH, English, Kwakiutl, SANSKRIT, SWAHILI.

3. Any more or less systematic and extensive means of communication, such as animal cries and movements, GESTURE, CODE (including in COMPUTING), and FIGURATIVE USAGE: the language of dreams; machine language.

4. The usage of a special group, such as scientific and technical REGISTERS, JOURNALESE, SLANG.

5. Usage that is socially suspect, often with a modifier, as in bad/foul/strong language, but sometimes alone, as in Mind your language!

Students of language

Language is the concern of LINGUISTICS, the systematic or scientific study of language, and those who practise it are (scientific) linguists. They do not, however, monopolize the study of language and languages, which takes various other forms. Many literary humanists, in particular, feel that objective analysis cannot replace the subjective insights of those steeped in LITERATURE; some deny or doubt the usefulness of linguistics.

The nature and properties of language

Language is a system in which basic units are assembled according to a complex set of rules. There is a major division between natural language (traditional human use of languages) and artificial language (devised languages like ESPERANTO; computer languages like BASIC). Human communication is multimodal, in that speech, gesture, writing, touch, etc., all interact. Language as such has the following properties:

1. A vocal-auditory channel.

This channel is often referred to as the phonic medium, that is, sounds produced by the vocal organs, which are then received by the ear.

2. Convertibility to other media.

Such media are writing and print (the graphic medium), sign language (a visual medium), and Braille (a tactile medium).

3. Use of arbitrary symbols.

There is no link in most words between the form used and the meaning expressed.

4. Duality or double articulation.

Language is made up of two layers: a layer of sounds, in which the units (phonemes) do not normally have meaning, but combine into another layer which does.

5. Interdependence.

Language can be regarded as an integrated structure in which the role of every item is defined by that of all the other items in the same system.

6. Open-endedness

(productivity, creativity). The number of utterances which can be produced is indefinitely large.

7. Displacement.

Language is used to refer to events removed in time and place, and to situations which never existed, as in lying and telling imaginative stories.

8. Continual change.

Language is always changing, and there is no evidence that overall progress or decay results from such change.

9. Turn-taking.

Spoken language involves structured interchanges in which people take it in turns to talk.

In addition to these features, there has in recent years been a search for universal characteristics which are somewhat more abstract. The difficulty of finding such universals has led to renewed interest in assigning languages to different types.

Language as a mental phenomenon

Language appears to be behaviour that is controlled by maturation, in that it is ‘programmed’ to emerge at appropriate stages in an individual's development, as long as the nervous system and the environment are normal. Some language disorders are environmental; others may be inherited. Language ability is believed by most linguists to be genetically in-built, at least in its broad outlines, though the nature and extent of the innate contribution is controversial. The mental aspects of language are the concern of PSYCHOLINGUISTICS, which deals primarily with the acquisition, comprehension, and production of language. Some theoretical linguists also attempt to produce models of the human language faculty, though many of these are controversial. The link between language and thought is another contentious issue. Few linguists accept the claim that language determines thought, but many consider that language influences the way a person thinks.

Language as a social phenomenon

The social aspects of language are the concern primarily of SOCIOLINGUISTICS and anthropological linguistics. There have been various attempts to define the sociocultural notion of ‘a language’. Political and geographical boundaries do not necessarily coincide with linguistic boundaries, nor do ethnic names: many Belgians, for example, speak FRENCH. Different varieties of the ‘same’ language may be mutually incomprehensible even within the same country: in England, a COCKNEY accent may not be understood by someone with a GEORDIE accent. Linguists usually therefore regard a language as being defined by those who speak it: the many varieties of English used around the world are all defined as English because this is the language the speakers agree that they are speaking. A variety, however, may be regarded by its speakers as a distinct language if there is a strong literary, religious, or other tradition, as in the case of SCOTS.

Variation in a language

Within a language, there are subdivisions traditionally known as DIALECTS, increasingly as VARIETIES, which are most commonly geographical but may also be social. A dialect is more than a simple difference of pronunciation. In the British Isles, many people speak the same dialect of English, but with different accents. Sometimes, one dialect becomes socially prestigious and is adopted as the norm; it is then usually referred to as the ‘STANDARD’ LANGUAGE. Social variation in language may be due to social class, ethnic origin, age, and/or sex, and within these, to the level of formality employed at any time. Sometimes this variation remains stable, but is often the forerunner of a change. LANGUAGE SHIFT usually appears as variation within a community, one variant increasing in frequency of use and in its distribution.

Languages in contact

The use of more than one language is common, particularly in frontier regions and in polyglot countries. Also common is the use of a restricted form of a language for a specialized purpose, such as AIRSPEAK, the restricted variety of English used worldwide for air traffic control. Occasionally, formal and informal varieties of the same language may differ to such an extent that they are used virtually as different languages, as until recently in modern Greece. Sometimes, contact between languages may give rise to a system so different from the original(s) that it can no longer be regarded as the same language. A PIDGIN is a limited language system, with rules of its own, used for communication between people with no common language. A CREOLE is a pidgin which has become the first language of a community. A mixed language is one in which elements from two or more languages have become so interwined that it is unclear which is the ‘basic’ language.

The world's languages

There is no agreed figure for the number of languages spoken in the world today. Estimates cluster around 4,000–5,000, with a great deal of variation on either side. Some of the reasons for this uncertainty are: (1) From a linguistic point of view, some parts of the world remain unexplored, including areas where it is known that many languages are in use, such as New Guinea and Central Africa. The rate at which languages are dying, in the face of Western exploration, as in Amazonia, is an unknown factor. (2) Only after a great deal of linguistic enquiry does it become apparent whether a newly encountered community turns out to be speaking a new language or a dialect of an already ‘discovered’ language. (3) In some areas, it is not easy to decide on the status of what is spoken. Although normally those who can understand each other's spontaneous speech would be said to be speaking the same language, even if there were noticeable differences (as with AmE and BrE, or Cockney and WEST COUNTRY in England), in some places such relatively minor variants are considered important indicators of social, cultural, or political differences. In such cases, it proves necessary to talk of different languages, not different dialects. This has happened, for example, with Flemish and DUTCH, HINDI and URDU, and Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian. In these circumstances, a precise statement about the number of the world's languages is impossible to obtain. Similar differences are encountered when making estimates about the number of speakers of particular languages.

Language and linguistics


Language groups


Individual languages



views updated May 11 2018


Human mental life includes biologically unprecedented ways of experiencing and understanding the world, from aesthetic experience to spiritual contemplation. Nevertheless, the origins of many of the most distinctive human mental attributes are likely intertwined with the origins of language. Language is without doubt the most distinctive human adaptation. There is almost no realm of human cognition unaffected by it. Yet there is still debate over even the most basic aspects of its nature, including the degree to which linguistic competence can be coaxed from other species (e.g., apes, dolphins, and parrots); what the neural basis for this distinctive capacity is; and when exactly in human ancestry this capacity emerged and matured to its modern level. There is little doubt that some substantial role is played by distinctive aspects of human biology. Both the special adaptations for language and language itself have played important roles in the origins of human moral and spiritual capacities.

The evolution of language ability in humans

The relative contributions of biological versus cultural aspects of language cognition depend on its evolutionary antiquity. If languages have a shallow prehistory (less than one hundred thousand years), we can expect little correlated biological restructuring of cognition as a result, except insofar as required to get this capacity off the ground. In this case, most of its influence will be traced through cultural processes. If languages have a deep pre-history (on the order of a million years), however, then we can expect that human cognitive and emotional systems have been substantially shaped by its ubiquitous presence in all aspects of human social life. This also should correlate with the extent to which human ethical and spiritual sentiments have become a part of human nature, as opposed to mere cultural overlays on ape nature.

Assessing the origins of these abilities is complicated by the fact that no direct consequences of language use are preserved in the fossil record. Paleolithic archeological evidence for symbolic expression that may signal well-developed linguistic and spiritual activities is well known from European cave paintings and carvings and Australian rock paintings, and from evidence of intentional burials (possibly including Neanderthal burials, as well as the burials of anatomically modern humans). Though the creation of icons and burial of the dead are not guarantees of shamanistic or religiouslike activities, they do suggest the existence of sophisticated symbolic reasoning, and this is a crucial correlation. The first sculpted and pictorial forms can be dated to no earlier than about sixty thousand years ago, and the most well known date to within thirty thousand years ago. This is quite recent, considering that hominids have been on a separate evolutionary track from other African apes for at least five million years, that members of species similar enough to be included in the genus Homo have been around for 1.8 million years, and that the human species Homo sapiens is at least two hundred thousand years old. In general, these earliest samples of expressive symbolism must be understood not as evidence for the initial evolution of symbolic abilities but rather for their first expression in durable media. They likely had long been incorporated into conventionalized social activities by that time. The origins of the symbolic traditions that these works express in material form could easily anticipate this data by an order of magnitude.

To get some idea of the possible extremes of this range of possible dates consider the following. The earliest direct archeological evidence of language is, of course, in the form of early forms of writing, which are all less than ten thousand years old, and most considerably more recent (about five thousand years ago). Since not even the most radical theorists among archeologists and paleontologists would date the appearance of modern languages more recently than about fifty thousand years ago, this late externalization of language offers a curious challenge: Why did it take so long for this most important means of communication to exhibit direct external expression? The same question can be asked of the first evidence of pictorial and carved forms, which date back about sixty thousand years in Europe and Australia and possibly earlier in Africa (though this African evidence is currently less well known). Assuming some comparable difficulties in externalizing these different modes of symbolic expression, we might suggest that, most conservatively, the corresponding distinctively human symbolic communication must be at least ten times as old; that is, 5,000 to 50,000 years for modern language, and 50,000 to 500,000 years for some form of language.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is a series of apparently linked paleontological transitions evident between 1.6 and 2.4 million years ago in Africa that suggest that the beginnings of symbolic communications in some form may date to this fossil epoch. The first clear evidence for the regular production of stone choppers, at a site called Gona, can be dated to about 2.4 million years ago. These are associated with fossil species of the genus Australopithecus (possibly A. garhi ). Australopithecines exhibited ape-sized brains, relatively large jaws with heavy dentition (evidence of a vegetarian dietary adaptation), relatively modern bipedal locomotion, and also a characteristic sexual dimorphism (males much larger on average than females), which is indicative of male competition over females in a polygynous mating system that is fairly typical of monkeys and great apes. By 1.8 million years ago a number of fossil sites begin to demonstrate hominid species with larger brains and reduced dentition, correlated with extensive stone tool assemblages. These features have prompted paleontologists to cite this as the point where our genus, Homo, begins. By 1.6 million years ago members of our genus, with brains beginning to cross into the low end of the modern range, had left Africa to spread into Asia, Southeast Asia, and possibly throughout more temperate Asian regions as well, taking with them more sophisticated tools. Given these unprecedented features, there can be little doubt that some significant changes in communication and cognition also are contemporaneous with these transitionsthe first forms of crude symbolic communicationthough it is likely that the evolution of modern forms of linguistic communication took much longer to develop.

If symbolic communication has been around in some form for as much as two million years then we can expect it to have had significant consequences not just for human culture but also for human brain function. The evolutionary biological effect of a behavioral adaptation such as this may be usefully compared to that of dam building in North American beavers. The evolution of this ability has changed the niche in which beavers mature and live, and this has changed the natural selection forces affecting beaver physiology and behavioral propensities in succeeding generations. Thus, beavers exhibit extensive aquatic adaptations as a feed-forward result of beaver behaviors. This evolutionary process has been called niche construction. The effects of human symbolic communication and culture can also be understood as a form of niche construction, though symbolic culture is in many ways a far more all-encompassing niche than a beaver pond. This niche likely favored the evolution of certain cognitive capacities and social predispositions relevant to symbolic learning and communication, but also, as in the case of beavers, there may be many special features of this artificial niche that are idiosyncratic to it. Thus, there is good reason to expect that human brains have been reorganized in response to language, a reorganization that included changes affecting emotional, social, and communicative tendencies, as well as mnemonic, attentional, and motor capacities supportive of symbolic communication. Anatomical hints of this effect are evident in the changes in regional brain proportions (e.g., disproportionately expanded prefrontal cortex), cortical vocal control (unprecedented among mammals), and lowered laryngeal position. Hints from behavior are even more extensive. These include the convergent contributions of many systems to this capacity, its robustness in the face of variations in learning conditions and the effects of early brain damage, its highly predictable developmental progression, the remarkable universality of many of the structural features of languages, and its unprecedented efficiency. These effects need to be understood also with respect to the complex cultural dynamic of language change, which itself is a kind of quasi-evolutionary process. The ways different languages carve up the meaning and reference "space" and the syntactic systems that organize linguistic expression clearly change and evolve over historical time, and probably with respect to these biological predispositions and abilities as background.

Consequences of language ability for religious and spiritual development

The consequences of this unprecedented evolutionary transition for human religious and spiritual development must be understood on many levels as well. There are reasons to believe that the way language refers to thingssymbolic referenceprovides the crucial catalyst that initiated the transition from species with no inkling of meaning in life to a species where questions of ultimate meaning have become core organizers of culture and consciousness. Symbolic reference is reference to things and ideas that is mediated by an intervening system of symbol-symbol relationships, as well as conventions of use that allow there to be considerable conceptual "distance" between a sign vehicle and its object of reference. Unlike icons, which refer by means of structural similarities between a sign vehicle and its object, or indices, which refer via their physical contiguity or invariant causal correlation with their object, this conceptual "distance" is an intermediate referential step that allows the form of symbols to be entirely independent of the objects to which they refer. Symbolic reference is thus both arbitrary and capable of providing considerable displacement and abstraction. Displacement refers to the capacity to refer to things distant in space or time, and abstraction refers to the ability to represent only the more spare and skeletal features of things, including their logical features, such as whether they are even ontologically existent. So it is with the evolution of this symbolic capacity that it first becomes possible to represent the possible future, the impossible past, the act that should or shouldn't take place, the experience that is unimaginable even though representable. These capacities are ubiquitous for humans and largely taken for granted when it comes to spiritual and ethical realms, but this is precisely where crucial differences in ability mark the boundary that distinguishes humans from other species.

Consider the ethical dimension of humanness. Though the family cat may gleefully torment a small animal causing its terrifying and painful death, few among us would consider this a moral issue concerning the cat, though whether to intervene may be a moral dilemma for us. Even when a large predator, say dog or bear, happens to maul and kill a human being, efforts to destroy the animal are not accompanied by moral outrage, just a desire to prevent further harm. But the situation is very different in cases where humans perform similar actions. It is not merely that we consider non-human predators to be guiltless because it is in their nature to kill. We hold them guiltless because we believe they lack a critical conception of the consequences of their actions on their victim's experience. This ability to anticipate and to some extent imagine the experience of another are critical ingredients in this moral judgment.

This does not mean that other creatures are merely selfish robots. Selfless behaviors of a sort are not at all uncommon in other species. Care-giving behaviors by parents are nearly ubiquitous in birds and mammals, and what we might call prosocial emotional responses and predispositions that cause individuals to behave in ways conducive to social solidarity are especially widespread among social mammals. However, there need be little or no role played by intersubjective considerations in the generation of these emotions and their associated care-giving, protective, and comforting behaviors. And if that is so, then it may not be appropriate to consider these as moral or ethical, even incipiently.

There is good reason to believe that the capacity to represent the intentions and experiences of others is deeply dependent on human symbolic capacity. This is because it is a difficult cognitive task. It involves generating something like a simulation of oneself in different circumstances (i.e., projected from another individual's point of view), and it must include the emotional experiences this would invoke as well. This representation is perhaps supported by recall of images from analogous past experiences, juxtaposed against the images and emotions of current experience. But the salience of direct experience, especially one's current emotional state, poses a difficult impediment to simultaneously representing the perspective of this other simulated emotional experience. Holding such mutually contradictory representations in mind at once is a difficult task, even when there is little emotion involved, but it becomes deeply challenging when the exclusive states are heavily emotion-laden.

All such cognitive tasks depend critically on the prefrontal lobes of the cerebral cortex. This brain region is essential to any mental process that requires holding the traces of alternative associations and behavioral options in mind to be compared, so that one can act with respect to likely consequences and not merely with respect to their general reinforcement value or their stimulus salience. Reduction of such stimulus drives allows the most effective sampling of options. It is suggested that the prefrontal lobes are disproportionately enlarged in human brains as an evolutionary adaptation to the demands imposed by symbol learning and use. The indirectness of symbolic reference demands a shift of attention away from immediately associated features and to the relational logic behind the symbols, which binds them into a system. So this neuro-anatomical divergence from the ancestral condition likely contributes to the capacity and perhaps even a predisposition to generate the "simulations" required for the representation of others' experiences.

But it is the referential displacement provided by symbols themselves that is probably critical to reducing the differential in salience of competing emotional state representations to make this mental comparison possible. Studies with primates and children have shown, for example, that failures to make optimal choices when highly arousing stimuli (e.g., candy) are presented can be overcome by substituting representations for the actual thing. By a somewhat ironic logic, then, it may be the capacity to use representations to reduce the emotional salience of particular experiences that has enabled the development of intersubjective empathic abilities.

Symbolic reference also provides a critical support for an additional element of ethical cognition: the need to project forward the consequences of different possible alternative actions. Projecting the plausible physical consequences with respect to one's own needs and desires is difficult enough, but simultaneously projecting the likely affect on another's experience is doubly complicated. This is the mental equivalent of running simulations of the effects of simulated actions on simulated emotions, all in conflict with current experiences and emotional states. As the numbers of potentially interfering images and the intensities of the potentially conflicting emotions increase, the importance of symbolic support grows. For this reason, not only do we recognize that young children have difficulty performing anything beyond simple moral assessments, but all cultures actively provide narrative and ritual exemplars for guiding its members in handling ethical matters. The symbolic traditions that constitute cultures almost universally transmit the expectation that one is responsible for considering experiential consequences for others before actinga moral imperative. Of course, it is also this capacity for imagining the experiences of others that makes possible the most heinous of human acts, such as extortion and torture. The emergence of good and evil are not, then, just mythically linked. Both are implicit in the symbolic transfiguration of emotional experience and the gift of intersubjectivity that results.

Ultimately, humanness may be most clearly marked by this transformation of the merely physical and physiological into the meaningful and implicitly value-laden by virtue of symbolic reference. Under the influence of the generalizing power of symbols this experience of ethical significance can be extended well beyond the social sphere, to recognize an ethical dimension implicit in all things. This suggests a way to think about two additional features that are characteristic of most spiritual traditions: the ubiquitous assignment of symbolic meaning, purpose, and value to things outside human affairs (e.g., origins, places, natural phenomena, and life and death itself), and the presumption that there is something like intentionality or intelligence behind the way that things are and the unfolding of worldly events.

Both of these nearly universal tendencies reflect a complex interaction between the cognitive predispositions that have evolved to ease the acquisition of symbolic communication and the implicit power of symbols to alter conditions of life in the world. Since a prerequisite to symbolic reference is the "discovery" of the logic of the system of inter-symbolic relationships that supports any individual symbolic reference, there are reasons to believe that the changes in prefrontal proportions contributed not just an ability to sample these non-overt relational features, but also a predisposition to look for them. With symbols, what matters is not surface details, but a hidden logic derived from the complex topologies of semantic relationships that constrain symbol use.

So the neuropsychological propensity to incessantly, spontaneously, and rapidly interpret symbols should express itself quite generally as a predisposition to look beyond surface correlations among things to find some formal systematicity, and thus meaning, behind them, even things that derive from entirely nonhuman sources. Everything is thus a potential symboltrees, mountains, star patterns, coincidental eventsand if the systematicity and intentionality is not evident it may mean merely that one has not yet discovered it. Symbolic meaning is a function of consciousness and symbols are produced to communicate. So if the world is seen as full of potential symbols, it must implicitly be part of some grand effort of communication, and the product of mind. Whether this projected subjectivity is experienced as different personalities resident in hills, groves of trees, or rivers, or as some single grand infinite mind, this personification also taps into the intersubjective drive that is also fostered by symbolic projection.

In summary, the role of symbolic communication, and especially language, in moral cognition is ubiquitous. It has played a role in the evolution of a brain more capable of the cognitive operations required; it has provided critical tools for easing the implicit cognitive strain of performing these mental operations; and it has made it possible for societies to evolve means for developing these abilities (as well as opening the door for the horrors of their abuse). Moreover, the capacity for spiritual experience itself can be understood as an emergent consequence of the symbolic transfiguration of cognition and emotions. Human predispositions seem inevitably to project this ethical perspective onto the whole world, embedding human consciousness in vast webs of meaning, value, and intersubjective possibilities.

See also Semiotics


deacon, terrence. the symbolic species: the coevolution of language and the brain. new york: norton, 1997.

deacon, terrence. "how i gave up the ghost and learned to love evolution." in when worlds converge: what science and religion tell us about the story of the universe and our place in it, ed. clifford matthews, mary evelyn tucker, and philp hefner. chicago: open court, 2002.

dennett, daniel. darwin's dangerous idea: evolution and the meaning of life. new york: touchstone, 1995.

katz, leonard, ed. evolutionary origins of morality: cross-disciplinary perspectives. thorverton, uk: imprint academic, 2000.

langer, susanne. mind: an essay on human feeling, vol. 2. baltimore, md.: johns hopkins university press, 1972.

wilson, david sloan. darwin's cathedral: evolution, religion, and the nature of society. chicago: university of chicago press, 2002.

terrence w. deacon


views updated May 11 2018


Language is central both to gender ideologies and to gender and sexual identities as they are performed in the course of social practice. What people say (or write) and, as importantly, what they do not say but imply or take for granted by their utterances, is critical in constructing, maintaining, and challenging assumptions about sex, gender, and gender relations. Different languages offer different resources to their users, and broader sociocultural and historical contexts also affect just how language enters into matters of gender and sexuality. But though details differ, sometimes dramatically, language is always critical for understanding gender and sexuality in social life.


U.S. second-wave feminists in the late 1960s and early 1970s pushed language reform, emphasizing how English represented women and when it seemed to obscure their presence. One target was sexually charged, derogatory, or trivializing terminology to refer to girls and women, such as cunt, chick, bitch, girl (for mature women), and baby (for nonintimates). Another involved the nonparallelism of male and female forms, as in cleaning lady versus the nonexistent garbage gentleman; in the absence of marital status information in the male social title Mr. versus its presence in Mrs. and Miss (Ms. was introduced to parallel Mr. but it cannot do that with Mrs. and Miss still in use); and in the laudatory ring of stud (sexually promiscuous male) versus the derogatory tone of slut or whore (sexually promiscuous female). Also targeted was he/man language, the use of the same forms to talk about both humans in general and male humans in particular—for example, the pronoun he in certain generic contexts or the use of man in speaking of humanity. Efforts to change such usages often met with resistance (Harvard University linguists of the early 1970s cried "pronoun envy!"), but nonsexist guidelines had been widely adopted by the end of the twentieth century, and he/man language was rare in public contexts by the early twenty-first century.

Other cultures have looked at content issues somewhat differently, sometimes apparently for linguistic reasons. For example, in French-speaking Canada and other places using languages with grammatical gender (such as France, Spain, and Germany), rather than seeking to get gender-neutral terminology in occupational terms (such as how Americans substituted flight attendant for stewardess), shifts have been more toward creating feminine gender forms to pair with traditional male ones. Studies of metaphorical source domains for speaking of women or of sexual activity have been done in many languages. Often women are spoken of using the terminology of food (especially fruits and desserts, but also sometimes less-appetizing substances), small animals, or flowers, and heterosexual engagement is represented in terms of eating or violent combat. But there is considerable variety and ongoing change in many societies using very different languages.

New or reclaimed terminology has helped change gender and sexual relations. Terms such as sexism (on the model of racism), date rape, queer (as a prized oppositional identity), and transgender do not just label phenomena independently identified but facilitate people's collective work on new political analyses of their situations and their selves. Innovations are not confined to North America or English-speaking countries: Hong Kong activists, for example, adopted tongzhi (comrade) to designate those whose erotic preference is for same-sex partners.

Content goes far beyond word meanings. Messages conveyed implicitly in ongoing discourse count as much or more. Conflating humanity with maleness can happen without apparently ambiguous forms such as man—as in "pioneers and their wives." And content itself can be debated: Consider the discussion in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries on whether marriage is appropriately applied to long-term committed relationships of two people of the same sex. What matters is how people engage with one another in ongoing discourse—drawing inferences (often unnoticed and unintended by the speaker) and actively making meanings, sometimes challenged and sometimes effective.


How people say what they say (or write or speak) is as important as what they say, especially in constructing social identities and relations. To explore vocal dimensions of gendered and sexual identities, linguists have looked at vowel pronunciations and voice quality, intonation and pitch, rhythm and tempo, and volume along with many other subtle but significant features of sound. Vocabulary (content domains, slang or learned terminology, euphemisms, obscenities) and grammatical choices (sentence structures, choice of competing forms) have also been investigated, as have higher-level features of language: kinds of speech events or activities, narrative structure, and genres.

Early research on linguistic dimensions of sex and gender seemed to assume that identities somehow automatically produced styles. A woman would speak women's language because that was who she was (albeit perhaps made who she was through social forces). A gay man would display the voice because he was gay. (Less attention has been paid to the possible social forces that might have led gay men to speak in certain ways.) Male-to-female transsexuals were instructed to choose supposedly feminine vocabulary, breathy voices and swoopy intonations, apologetic requests, and hedged assertions or directives. Research, however, continued to show that real women (and real men) were very diverse, with access to far wider arrays of speech styles than stereotypes might suggest.

By the 1990s much research embraced Judith Butler's notion of gender performativity, that is, that gender (and sexual) identities are not (merely) properties people have—ways they are—but depend on what they do and are sustained in ongoing performances that echo but do not completely reproduce previous performances. Linguists began exploring the fine linguistic texture of the social construction of identities.

How could linguistic resources be deployed to convey (varieties of) femininity and masculinity or straightness or gay or lesbian identification, all interwoven with other identity features? Looking at people who sometimes deliberately perform identities quite different from those they might claim or have attributed to them in other contexts (often thought authentic identities) shows what social meanings speech patterns can convey. African-American male drag queens, for example, draw on (and frequently exaggerate) speech features canonically linked to middle-class European American women. Phone-sex operators who in private life identify as lesbian or bisexual or straight and as female or male effectively present themselves over the phone line as heterosexually desirable and desiring young women of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. Discovering how people manage these explicit performances gives some insight into more everyday and less self-conscious uses of language in styling oneself as a certain kind of person.

Exploring how a single individual's speech changes from situation to situation is another good tool for better understanding the social meaning of linguistic choices. A young gay male physician is likely to operate in very different linguistic styles in interacting with patients, in exchanges with colleagues, and in backyard parties with close friends. A middle-aged woman scientist who is also the mother of a school-age child will use different styles in discussing her research with peers at a conference, during a meeting with her child's teacher, and at the dinner table with her partner and children.

As with content, available styles keep changing, and their changes help constitute changes in other social practices. English-speaking students of Japanese are often told about its women's language, marked by certain honorification devices, sentence-final particles, pronouns, and verb forms. Letters to Tokyo newspapers in the early twenty-first century continued to bemoan the way so many young women reject these traditional forms, speaking roughly. But even their mothers and grandmothers may well have seldom, if ever, used the canonically feminine forms, which were associated with a Tokyo elite and were foreign to those in other social groups and regions. Miyako Inoue (2006) argues, offering evidence from many different sources, that Japanese women's language was given currency as a form to aspire to during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as part of efforts to develop Japanese national pride and solidify a modern but non-European, non-North American Japanese state. Early twenty-first-century Japanese women (and men wanting to sound feminine) can still exploit some women's language features for various purposes, but linguistic practice in Japan is far more complex and variable than Japanese language classes for foreigners have standardly conveyed.


Ultimately, what matters for both content and style is how linguistic resources enter into doing the many things that constitute gender and sexual dimensions of social practice. Analysts cannot look just at linguistic forms in isolation but must consider their functions in flirting, condescending, bossing, deferring, suggesting, imploring, joking, gossiping, insulting, arguing, and everything else people do linguistically. And such speech acts and activities do not happen in isolation. They are part of parties, classes, job interviews, playground confidences, sports team practices, family dinners, TV watching, backyard barbecues, coming on, coming out, and the rest, and as such they are deeply embedded in social practice.

Since the early 1990s sociolinguists have tended to emphasize how language functions in gender and sexual practice. Of course, this has made research more difficult. It is easy to count linguistic forms: How many times did she say sorry or did he say dude? How many times did he say goin' or going? How often does she use the singular they ("every student has handed in their paper")? It is far more difficult to figure out what those forms are doing—the significance of their use.

Some insight into the work linguistic forms are doing has come from observations of language use in friendship groups, workplace units of various kinds, families, informal play groups, and musical or sports groups—what have been called "communities of practice" (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2003). More abstract and larger communities have been useful for analyzing language in magazines aimed at teen girls or at gay men, or in online discourse of various kinds (chat rooms, blogs, social networking sites).


Linguistic interpretation has been less systematically studied than has production, with analysts often assuming it is essentially automatic. Assigning functions or meanings to utterances, however, can be influenced by interpreters' assumptions about those who produce the utterances. A woman may be heard as unsure if her declarative ends with a rise, whereas a man doing the same thing may be heard as checking on whether the hearer has understood. (Of course, both might be at play in many utterances.) Even what sounds are detected is affected by assumptions about who has produced them. But it would be wrong to conclude that speakers alone determine the meanings conveyed by their utterances. Though some might intend marriage to include same-sex couplings, they cannot always succeed in conveying that. And though some might intend praise by labeling a person or project feminist, not all interpreters will so understand that label. Interpretation involves inferences that go beyond simple decoding of linguistic expressions: Interpreters are actively involved in the meaning-making process.

Linguists and other scholars of language have often been dismissive of ordinary people's ideas about how language is used and structured, dubbing them folklinguistics, and about self-conscious efforts to regulate language use, called prescriptivism and sharply criticized. But since the 1980s, research on language, gender, and sexuality has increasingly highlighted language ideologies as important subjects of scholarly investigation in their own right as well as important influences on actual language use. And attempts by feminists and queer activists to reform language—through, for example, nonsexist language guidelines or hate-speech policies—have been seriously studied along with other instances of what Deborah Cameron (1995) dubs verbal hygiene.

Not surprisingly, ideologies of language compete, and students of language themselves are not immune to taking sides. Is language and gender about separate cultures in which girls and boys grow to be women and men? Or is it about male power and female subordination? Even those seen as advocates of the difference or the dominance approach do not take these questions as adequate for framing investigations of language and gender. Nonetheless, debates about separation versus sexual politics continue to some degree into the twenty-first century. In the area of language and sexuality, there has been debate about what matters in thinking about language: sexual identities—being gay or lesbian or bi or straight or …, or sexual desire—how linguistic practices not only express but help shape erotic preferences and activities. Here too, most researchers find this a false dichotomy, pointing to interrelations of identities and desires and to the necessity of studying both.


Bergvall, Victoria L.; Janet M. Bing; and Alice F. Freed, eds. 1996. Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice. London: Longman.

Bucholtz, Mary; A. C. Liang; and Laurel A. Sutton, eds. 1999. Reinventing Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cameron, Deborah. 1995. Verbal Hygiene. London: Routledge.

Cameron, Deborah. 2006. On Language and Sexual Politics. New York: Routledge.

Cameron, Deborah, ed. 1998. The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader. 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

Cameron, Deborah, and Don Kulick, eds. 2006. The Language and Sexuality Reader. London: Routledge.

Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 2003. Language and Gender. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ehrlich, Susan. 2001. Representing Rape: Language and Sexual Consent. London: Routledge.

Hall, Kira, and Mary Bucholtz, eds. 1995. Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. New York: Routledge.

Harvey, Keith, and Celia Shalom, eds. 1997. Language and Desire: Encoding Sex, Romance, and Intimacy. London: Routledge.

Hellinger, Marlis, and Hadumod Bussmann, eds. 2001–2003. Gender across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men. 3 vols. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Holmes, Janet, and Miriam Meyerhoff, eds. 2003. The Handbook of Language and Gender. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Inoue, Miyako. 2006. Vicarious Language: Gender and Linguistic Modernity in Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Johnson, Sally, and Ulrike Hanna Meinhof. 1997. Language and Masculinity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kotthoff, Helga, and Ruth Wodak, eds. 1997. Communicating Gender in Context. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Livia, Anna, and Kira Hall, eds. 1997. Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Okamoto, Shigeko, and Janet S. Shibamoto Smith, eds. 2004. Japanese Language, Gender, and Ideology: Cultural Models and Real People. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tannen, Deborah. 1994. Gender and Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tannen, Deborah, ed. 1993. Gender and Conversational Interaction. New York: Oxford University Press.

                                    Sally McConnell-Ginet


views updated Jun 11 2018





Indo-European Family . The Greek language is one of a group of related languages called the Indo-European language family. This family gets its name from the fact that it includes most of the languages of ancient and modern Europe, including Greek, Latin, and English as well as some languages of central and southern Asia as far east as the Indian Subcontinent. Hindi, Pashto (the main language of modern Afghanistan), and Farsi (Iran) are all members of the family. In ancient times Sanskrit (the language of sacred Hindu writings) and the language of the ancient Persians were Indo-European.


In the play Lysistrata (411 b.c.e.) by Aristophanes, the Athenian woman Lysistrata has called a congress of women from all over the Greek world to discuss how they can stop their menfolk from fighting. When the representative from Sparta, Lampito, arrives, she speaks a comic version of the Dorian dialect. The translator has tried to replicate the effect this would have had on the audience by having her speak a caricature of hillbilly vernacular.

LYSISTRATA: And here’s our lovely Spartan. Hello Lampito dear. Why darling, you’re simply ravishing! Such a blemishless complexion—so clean, so out-of-doors! And will you look at that figure—the pink of perfection!

KLEONIKE: l’ll bet you could strangle a bull.

LAMPITO: I calklate so. Hit’s fitness whut done it, fitness and dancin’. You know the step? Foot it out back’ards an’ toe yore twitchet.

KLEONIKE: What unbelievably beautiful bosoms!

LAMPITO: Shuckins, what fer you tweedlin’ me up so? I feel like a heifer come fair-time.

Source: Aristophanes, Lysistrts translated by Douglass Parker (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964).

Origins . How related languages came to be spoken in such far-flung places is a mystery, since it is something that occurred in the prehistoric period, long before any of these languages had writing systems that might have been used to record the movements of the people who spoke them. Based on evidence from the earliest written records of non-Indo-European peoples, archaeology, and clues in the Indo-European languages themselves, linguists believe that the Indo-European family began as a single language, or set of related dialects, spoken by nomadic people who inhabited the plains of central Asia to the east of the Caspian Sea. Sometime in the late Stone Age or early Bronze Age, between 4000 and 2000 b.c.e., these people began migrating in all directions. Some of them went to the East and South and brought with them the ancestors of the Sanskrit and Farsi languages, while others moved West

and began to infiltrate Europe. These movements had a profound effect on the population and language of Asia and Europe, but it is incorrect to speak of an Indo-European race or people who managed to dominate all of this vast territory by conquest. Language and ethnicity, though often closely related, do not always go together. Modern Indo-European language speakers include people of all races, colors, religions, and ethnic origins, and the same was likely the case in antiquity as well. Under the proper conditions, a relatively small influx of newcomers speaking a different language can have very wide-ranging effects on the language spoken in any given area without having much of an influence on the population’s genetic makeup.

Expansion . The exact date at which Indo-European speakers began to come into Greece is unknown. One famous archaeologist, Colin Renfrew, believes that they came in along with the practice of agriculture at the beginning of the Neolithic Period (6000-3000 b.c.e.), but most scholars place the date at around 2100 b.c.e. The spread of an Indo-European language into the entire territory known today as Greece was probably a gradual thing. The island of Crete, later populated by Greek-speakers, was controlled by the non-Greek-speaking Minoan civilization until late in the Bronze Age (3000-1100 b.c.e.). By the time that historical records begin to appear, however, Greek is the only language that is attested on the mainland, and if any islands other than Crete were non-Greek-speaking at the end of the Bronze Age they probably became Greek-speaking during the vast migrations and changes of population that occurred in the wake of the Mycenaean collapse.

Dialects . As the proto-Greek language spread into the various isolated valleys and islands that make up the Greek landscape, communities of speakers became seperated from one another and began to develop dialects, that is, versions of the language which are not sufficiently distinct from one another to be considered separate languages in their own right. While speakers of different languages cannot understand one another, speakers of different dialects of a language can communicate, though variations in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary are capable of instantly marking a person out as being a member of a specific group. An example is the difference between American English and British English. Speakers of these two dialects of English pronounce many words differently and have different vocabulary to designate certain things: for instance, what the British call a “lift,” Americans call an “elevator.” British and American speakers of English rarely have trouble understanding one another’s speech, but whenever the speaker of one dialect hears a speaker of the other, he or she immediately perceives the difference and uses that information to categorize the person as being foreign or different.

Four Groupings . Similarly, the Greek dialects were mutually intelligible, but the characteristic vocabulary and pronunciation of each marked its speaker as belonging to a specific group. There were almost as many dialects of Greek as there were city-states, but most of them have been traditionally grouped into four major categories: the Attic-Ionic group, which included the dialect of Athens and those of most of the Aegean islands and some major cities in Anatolia, including Ephesus and Miletus; the Doric Group, comprising the dialects of most of the Peloponnese, Crete, and southwestern Anatolia; the Aeolic groups, including the dialects of Boeotia, Thessaly, and Lesbos in the northern Aegean; and the Arcado-Cypriot group, which included members in Arcadia (the landlocked interior of the Peloponnese) and Cyprus. This last group is closest in

Athena (goddess)AthênâAthênêAthanaAthanaa
Poseidon (god)PoseidônPoseideônPoteidanPoseidan

many respects to what seems to be the dialect recorded in the Mycenaean Linear B tablets of the Bronze Age. The following chart illustrates the differences in pronunciation for some common Greek words in various major dialects.

Social Indicators . As is the case with modern English, the Greek dialects had more of an effect as social indicators than they did as barriers to communication. To the ears of an Athenian, the Doric dialect connoted rustic simplicity, and whether this was a bad thing (implying ignorance and a lack of sophistication) or a good thing (honesty and traditional values) depended on the situation and the attitude of the listener. Yet, the Doric dialect was used in Athenian drama for the odes that the chorus sang between episodes. (Drama first arose in Doric-speaking areas.) The use of Doric in Athenian choral odes shows the familiarity of the idiom and suggests that the difference in dialects was hardly a barrier to communication between the Greek cities. Toward the end of the Classical Period (480-323 b.c.e.), a common dialect, called koinê, began developing all over the Greek world. The dialect resulted from the interaction of peoples in various cities. Since the Athenians and other Attic-lonic-speaking peoples were at the forefront in this interaction, their dialect was the one that the koine most closely resembled. The common dialect develops mostly, as one might expect, among traders, members of the elite, and others whose business took them outside of their home territory on a more-than-casual basis. Those who spent their entire lives on their farms or within the confines of their native villages probably clung to their local dialects for centuries.

Foreigners . When scholars look at how the Greeks communicated with the non-Greek world, some surprises present themselves. Historians have no evidence that foreign language instruction was even an important part of a Greek education. Despite the fact that the overseas activities of the Greeks brought them into contact with dozens of non-Greek-speaking populations, they seem to have made little effort to learn the language of any of them, relying instead on either their trading partners learning Greek or on the presence of interpreters who could translate their dealings with foreign peoples. This impression of ignorance of foreign languages on the part of the Greeks, however, may be somewhat magnified by the practices of historians from the period. It seems to have been part of the Greek literary tradition to pretend that the problems of communication between languages did not exist. Even in the earliest literature, Homer’s tales of the Trojan War, matters of language and culture were regularized on the Greek pattern. The inhabitants of Troy, a non-Greek city, speak Greek in Homer’s writings. They also worship Greek gods and live in the same sort of society that the Greeks do.

Interpreters . Most travelers were probably assisted in foreign lands by hosts or other local contacts, people who somehow had learned their languages and who could act as interpreters. Historical sources also mention professional interpreters who were hired to serve that function. The historian Herodotus was not always conversant with the languages of the places he visited, and sometimes he relied on interpreters. When visiting Egypt, he saw a hieroglyphic inscription that his interpreter told him listed “the amount spent on radishes, onions, and leeks for the laborers” who worked on the Pyramid of Cheops. No inscriptions recording such mundane details have ever been found in hieroglyphics, and it is likely that either Herodotus himself was making a joke or, more likely, that his interpreter was taking advantage of his ignorance.


Herodotus traveled all over the non-Greek world in researching his expansive History of the Persian Wars (circa late fifth century b.c.e.). Although he occasionally acknowledged the existence of different languages, they were rarely allowed to impinge upon his collection and presentation of information. Reproduced here is a good example from Herodotus’s account of Egypt. Many important questions are suggested in this passage. When Herodotus’s Greek informants conversed with the Ammonian king, what language did they do it in? In what language did the Ammonian king converse with his Nasamonian visitors? Why does the Ammonian king, presumably a Libyan and not a Greek, have a Greek name, Etearchus (meaning “True Ruler”)? All these questions are posed by the passage; none of them are answered. Herodotus and other Greek writers of the period seem to have had little interest in such problems. All the different nationalities mentioned in this passage except for the sub-Saharan pygmies give the impression of inhabiting an international Mediterranean community where problems of cross-language communication have been solved. Did they all know Greek? Egyptian? Libyan? Or was polyglotism, the knowledge of several different languages, common among the traveling classes in these various societies; so common that no comment about it is made in our sources?

At that point the river runs from west to east; beyond, nobody knows its course with any certainty, for the country is uninhabited because of the heat. I did, however, hear a story from some people of Cyrene, who told me that during a visit to the oracle of Ammon they happened, in the course of conversation with Etearchus the Ammonian king, to get on to the subject of the Nile and the riddle of its source. Etearchus told them that he had once had a visit from certain Nasamonians, a people who live in Syrtis and the country a little to the eastward. Being asked if there was anything more they could tell him about the uninhabited parts of Libya, these men declared that a group of wild young fellows, sons of chieftains in their country, had on coming to manhood planned amongst themselves all sorts of extravagant adventures, one of which was to draw lots for five of their number to explore the Libyan desert and try to penetrate further than had ever been done before. . . . After travelling for many days over the sand they saw some trees growing on a level spot; they approached and began to pick the fruit which the trees bore, and while they were doing so were attacked by some little men—of less than middle height—who seized them and carried them off. The speech of these dwarfs was unintelligible, nor could they understand the Nasamonians.

Source: Herodotus: The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt (Harmondsworth, U.K. & Baltimore: Penguin, 1954).


Stephen Colvin, Dialect in Aristophanes and the Politics of Language in Ancient Greek Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

J. P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1989).

Leonard R. Palmer, The Greek Language (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1980).


views updated May 23 2018

language may be the most appropriate trait by which to classify humans within the order of nature, even more so than rationality (Homo sapiens) or technology (Homo faber) — and not only because language is less honorific than rationality and more intrinsic than technology. In a sense Homo loquens trumps all other terms, since the very act of definition is itself a move within language. Speculation that all three species-specific capacities — reasoning, tool use, and language — were bound together in an evolutionary nexus is supported by recent paleoanthropological evidence that the beginnings of language were linked to the sociability of hominids and the growth of co-operative tool production. Localized brain mechanisms correlate with the lateralization of the neo-cortex and are common to both speech and manual skills.

Evolution of language

There is now more scholarly interest in the origin of language than at any time since the eighteenth century, although among linguists, anatomists, and anthropologists no consensus has emerged as to its timing and nature. When over the course of the nineteenth century no evidence of any ‘primitive’ languages was found, discussion of origins was for a long time officially proscribed. One current view has it that an explosion of cave art and symbolic behaviour some 40 000 years ago coincided with the abrupt extinction of Neanderthals, and was causally related to the emergence of language. But this is probably based on an illusion of synchronicity. The adaptation of the vocal tract for speech production — in particular the lowering of the larynx — seems to have been complete at least 125 000, and perhaps 200 000 years ago. This would seem to support a much earlier origin for language; some form of proto-language may well have been present in the earliest hominids.

The question — which exercised Charles Darwin — as to whether there is evolutionary continuity between animal signalling systems and human language, has prompted, over the last thirty years, a number of widely publicized experiments involving attempts to teach human language to apes. Some of the early efforts foundered on the fact that other primates do not have the anatomy necessary for human speech production; later attempts using sign language seemed to fare better. The enduring ambiguity of the results lies not only in the slippage around definitions of language, but also in the tendency of primatologists, as linguistic creatures, to impute sense to their subjects, and to project the human world onto the realm of nature. The assumption of cross-species continuities and homologies with respect to language, implicit in the methods of ethologists and behaviourists working on very old associationist principles, was flatly rejected in a notorious 1959 polemic by the linguist Noam Chomsky, who argued that human language was based on entirely different principles from animal communication. Some detected, in this unqualified assertion of the absolute uniqueness of the human language faculty, an echo of the Victorian geologist Charles Lyell's remark, when he told Darwin that, despite being a supporter, he was unable ‘to go the whole orang’.

The power of the language faculty, however it came to be part of the species endowment, is acknowledged across all human cultures. The first words of a child are universally recognized as a momentous threshold; for an adult to have speaking privileges, or to decide who may talk or not, is a sure sign of social power. Those without language, infants (from the Latin infans: ‘non-speaking’) and domestic animals, as well as those denied language — the shunned, the gagged, the silenced — are in real ways disabled members of a community. Speech impairment typically results in discrimination; despite the partial success of the disability rights movement and the recognition that signing is no less a linguistic system than spoken language, ‘dumb’ is still widely unchallenged as a term of abuse.

It has often been claimed that in gesture lies the origin of language, but, if so, speech very early achieved primacy, perhaps because a vocal–auditory system had crucial advantages: no mutual visibility was necessary between speaker and audience, the mouth was otherwise unoccupied except when eating, and the hands were freed for other employment. The language faculty co-opted brain and body structures (mouth, ear) that had been developed for other functions (breathing, eating, balance). Spoken language makes use of sound carried on out-breathed air from the lungs, which is modulated by articulators (tongue, lips, etc.) to produce the vocal repertoire of a natural language. No single language uses anything like the full range of sounds of which humans are capable, and certain classes of sound — for example, clicks and implosives, where the airstream is reversed and moves inwards — are rare in the world's languages.

Grammar and the body

The discovery and analysis of the fundamental unit of spoken language, the phoneme (which had been intuited in antiquity by the Levantine inventors of the alphabet, and which corresponds roughly with the letter) was facilitated by formalist experiments in the disintegration of sound and meaning in certain centers of European modernism following World War I, in particular Moscow, Prague, Paris, and Geneva. Notwithstanding the interest of avant-garde poets in the sounding body, the legacy of Cartesian rationalism and the privileging of mind cast a long shadow far into the twentieth century. Indeed, the dominant traditions of inquiry into language continue to discount the body by way of an implied hierarchy in which speech is only the (more or less) imperfect performance of an abstract system, whose formal and logical structure it is the task of linguistic science to reveal. Such abstraction, idealizing away to a genderless speaker-hearer and relegating gesture, posture, and expression to the limbo of ‘paralanguage’, has led to far-reaching insights into grammatical theory. But the body lay hidden in the closet. That is to say, after all the abstraction, there remains a residue — or rather a core — of human language that cannot be reduced to context-free formulation. The phenomenon that linguists call ‘deixis’ (‘pointing’ in classical Greek) sets limits to the decontextualization of language; even so austere a logician as Bertrand Russell acknowledged that the body could not be eliminated in the analysis of language, and that ‘deictic’ categories such as personal pronouns (I, you), demonstrative (this, that), and adverbs (here, now) depend for their interpretation upon the relative, and reflexive, positioning of bodies in space and time.

The body and meaning

Anthropocentrism is deeply embedded in the fabric of language, which reflects the shape and properties of the body, which in turn grounds the linguistic encoding of social relations — from empathy and solidarity to politeness and deference. The physical experience of gravity and the asymmetries of the human anatomy establish the meaning, for example, of ‘up’ and ‘down’, ‘front’ and ‘back’, ‘right’ and ‘left’. (More than one science fiction plot has turned on the problem of conveying the concepts of ‘right’ and ‘left’ to an alien being whose body does not share with humans the necessary asymmetry.) Nor is it arbitrary that ‘up’ and ‘front’ tend to be positively valued relative to ‘down’ and ‘back’, since upright, confronting encounters are taken as the norm for humans in speech situations. Modernity's array of communications media — radio, film, television, video, the internet — are greatly extending what the invention of writing first set in train, namely, the uncoupling of language in complex ways from its primordial face-to-face matrix. It is hardly clear what will be the outcome of the new relations of virtuality, but human meanings will necessarily continue to rest on embodied understandings, however much they are mediated. Indeed, such is the power of gesture that a wink or a sarcastic intonation inevitably reframes and inverts the ‘literal’ meaning. The classic studies by the sociologist Erving Goffman of the management of daily encounters show how centrally the body is involved in the making of meaning; they reveal the significance and complexity of sight and touch in the business of opening, organizing, and closing conversations — synchronizing turns at speaking by gesture and gaze, assessing one's reception through visual back-channel cues, and helping to ‘perform’ talk.

More recently, the linguist George Lakoff, collaborating at the intersection of cognitive linguistics, computer science, and neurology, likewise contends, from a quite different perspective, that meaning is grounded in the body. He makes a radical break with the rationalist tradition of his teacher, Noam Chomsky, by asserting the centrality of metaphor and by claiming that it is only through the body that concepts can be formed, since the human conceptual system grows out of the sensorimotor system.

Discourse and the body

Conversely, understandings of the body and its conduct are largely mediated through language and metaphor. Metaphors, moreover, are never innocent; they have cognitive, affective, and political import. The human body is truly the trope of tropes; body parts (‘head’, ‘foot’, ‘face’) are everywhere mapped onto nature's body — head of the river, foot of the mountain, face of the deep. Bodily functions are a universal reservoir for terms of profanity and scatological abuse. When the body is in distress, the power of language to organize its experience is attested in those healing traditions where speech is focal; ‘a disease named is a disease half cured’. In all cultures linguistic taboos circumscribe the body; where the naming of certain body parts in front of doctors may involve a loss of ‘face’, figurines have been used, allowing the patient to point to the affected part without showing or naming it.

The deportment of bodies in social space, and the gearing of language into the infinite variety of improvised and ritual encounters, show that humans converse as ‘communities of co-movers’. But no community is homogeneous, and speaking takes place in a discursive forcefield constituted through a pragmatic negotiation that registers asymmetries of power in the bodily movements and speech of those co-present. ‘Voice quality’, for example, is an unavoidable accompaniment to the act of speaking, and conveys culturally coded, and often finely textured, meanings about the speaker's identity in multiple intersecting dimensions — age, class, sex, gender, region, subculture, ethnicity, nationality, and so forth. The existence of etiquette and elocution manuals, and the importance of diplomatic protocols, suggest that such ‘signs’ are partly, but only partly, under the control of the speaker. Reading (and writing upon) the body has taken on fresh meaning in the late twentieth century, with the penetration of advertisements onto personal clothing, and the related vogue for inscriptions on the body surface itself.

The language animal

The practice of inscribing the body is at least 40 000 years old — no surprise, perhaps, for the primate that speaks. Language seems to have been the evolutionary Rubicon for Homo sapiens, though the Berkeley paleolinguist Johanna Nichols rejects the notion of linguistic monogenesis implicit in the image of a single crossing over into language. She believes it happened many times, and that hundreds of distinct languages were already being spoken in the Rift Valley of East Africa — as many as are spoken today in Papua New Guinea — before humans had fanned out on the way to planetary hegemony, armed with the mythomanic power of speech. The scandal of representation once prompted the critic Kenneth Burke to summarize the species in his own wry definition: ‘the symbol-using animal, inventor of the negative, separated by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection’.

Iain Boal


Foley, W. (1997). Anthropological linguistics. Blackwell, Oxford.
Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh. Basic Books, New York.
Lieberman, P. (1984). The biology and evolution of language. Harvard, Cambridge MA.

See also evolution; human; gesture; speech; voice.


views updated May 29 2018


What is meant by "language" in the context of the early Republic? Do we mean simply the English language, the dominant spoken and written language in the early United States? If so, does it make sense to speak of one "language"? After all, there were (and are) many "Englishes." For instance, there is the language spoken by New Englanders and then there is the one spoken in the Smoky Mountains. We may choose to define these as separate dialects, implying that English speakers in these regions can easily understand each other. But for linguists, levels of mutual intelligibility are not necessarily meaningful. After all, the English spoken in northern Maine differs significantly from that spoken in the Smoky Mountains. And the reason for this is partly the very real difference in the character of these varieties of English: they had (and have) distinct vocabularies, distinct syntax, and widely differing pronunciation.

varieties of american english

The various types of English in the new United States had their origins in patterns of immigration during the colonial era. Settlers from different regions of England and Britain carried with them distinct patterns of speech. Settlers in Virginia came primarily from the East Midlands of England. Those who traveled to New England came from London as well as the East Midlands. The British migrants to Pennsylvania and the Delaware Valley were primarily from the North and North Midlands. And through the eighteenth century Irish and Scottish migrants settled regions adjoining the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. As these initial foci of settlement expanded to the West, North, and South, they carried with them their regional English.

Although the varieties of American English had their origins in British English, by the early nineteenth century they had acquired distinctive American qualities. Americans, for example, came to prefer "fall" to "autumn," and they came to use the term "creek" to mean small stream or brook, whereas in Britain the term refers more specifically to a small seacoast inlet. American spelling also came to be very different from English spelling. Because printers in the Northeast were prepared to adopt Noah Webster's more economical spellings, Americans now write "color" and "labor" instead of the English "colour" and "labour." Aside from being simpler, these spellings saved printers money by reducing the amount of costly metal type required for printing.

non-english languages

Beyond simply the varieties of English spoken in the new nation was the variety of other languages that were heard. German was a virtual official language in parts of eastern and central Pennsylvania; French, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Greek, Portuguese, and Ladino were among those also present in the early national years. As long as African slaves continued to be imported into the country—and for at least a generation after—native speakers of dozens of distinct African languages lived in the early United States. Similarly, Native Americans continued to speak several hundred distinct, mutually unintelligible languages and dialects in North America. To this mix of languages we might add the dozens, perhaps hundreds (given their evanescent nature, the exact number is unknown), of Creoles, pidgins, and trade jargons that combined elements of different languages.

It is also important to note that spoken languages—contrary to the wishes of lexicographers and authors such as Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) and Noah Webster (1758–1843)—are constantly mutating and evolving. Like culture itself, language cannot be fixed. Hence, the prevalence of Native American loan words such as caribou, moose, powwow, bayou, and tepee or African words such as banana, yam, cola, and goober (peanut) in American English. And in much the way that the computer revolution has transformed modern English, so the industrial revolution transformed nineteenth-century English. Words such as factory, mill, and engine acquired meanings that would have been almost totally unfamiliar to English speakers in eighteenth-century America. Much like vocabulary, whole languages themselves come and go. From the colonial era to the early nineteenth century, European languages—usually some variety of English or French—and various pidgins and Creoles supplanted an untold number of non-European languages and dialects. In the South Carolina low country, for example, Gullah, a New World Creole combining elements of English and a variety of African tongues, became the dominant language among some African slaves.

Any complete assessment of language in the early United States must also account for the fact that language is not necessarily a spoken medium. Hence, although elite young American men learned Latin and Greek and possibly Hebrew, few actually knew them as spoken languages. Similarly, a variety of symbol systems and sign systems that themselves might be characterized as languages were used during the period. Native peoples of the Great Plains had developed an elaborate sign language to serve as a sort of lingua franca in that vast, diverse part of North America. In the late 1820s, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the principal of the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford, Connecticut, announced the creation of a new sign language designed to allow the deaf to communicate. Several years later Samuel F. B. Morse devised the system of coded dots and dashes subsequently called Morse Code.

language and culture

Finally, "language" does not necessarily mean specific systems of speech. It can also refer to that collection of thoughts, sentiments, values, or assumptions that allow certain behavior (sometimes involving speech or writing; sometimes not) to have a specific meaning in a specific time and place. To modern Americans, for instance, the "tweaking" or twisting of a nose has little real meaning. But to politicians in the early United States, such an act carried with it very specific and widely recognized implications: it was one man's way of accusing another of being a liar and a coward. In other words, those distant figures—Aaron Burr or Alexander Hamilton or Andrew Jackson—understood a very different language of politics from the one that would be familiar to us. Instead of discipline and party loyalty, the governing values—some might even say the "grammar"—of their political language was personal honor and reputation. Indeed, every profession or social grouping uses a distinct language—a language sometimes involving speech, sometimes centering on gesture or comportment, sometimes having to do with clothing or insignia.

Insofar as we can generalize about language in the early United States, we can thus say that language was many, many things to many, many people. Much like the values or customs or cultural habits of the early United States, so the languages of the nation reflected a vast array of social, ethnic, and economic imperatives.

a national language

For some members of the founding generation, much as for some Americans in the early twenty-first century, this was a disturbing reality. A nation of many and diverse languages would—in their minds—be a weak, incoherent nation and as such a nation prone to the sorts of corruption and conflict that appeared to plague the bodies politic of the Old World. Indeed, the entire philosophical project of the American Enlightenment (and, really, everything we call the Enlightenment) was founded on faith in the idea that human speech, and its accrued conventions, obscured truth and, in doing so, produced human conflict. Whether Patrick Henry's oratory or the social facts and statistics in Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) or Noah Webster's lexicon—all sought more transparent, less historically inflected modes of communication. Human beings, they believed, needed to find ways to communicate and discover truths unhindered by the cumulative effects of politics and self-interest that left language a cloudy, imprecise, and deeply flawed medium.

Although everyone who gave the issue any thought at all assumed all language to be flawed and opaque, they also believed that some languages were simply better than others (a notion that has no currency among turn-of-the-twenty-first century linguists). The thinking went something like this: as human creations, languages bore the imprints of the minds that fashioned them. Crude minds would thus fashion crude tongues. Hence, among Americans inclined to think about such things, there was no doubt that some form of English, the product of the most historically advanced society on earth, would be the language of the United States. Because the language had been fashioned by people achieving the highest known levels of literacy and social development, it would be well suited to the needs of a modern republic. As such, it would inevitably displace minority languages, whether those of native peoples, African slaves, or non-English-speaking Europeans.

Contrary to what is occasionally asserted, no one ever seriously proposed German or any other European tongue as an alternative language for the new nation. Noah Webster and others may have believed that English would have to be improved to adequately serve the new Republic, but no one ever seriously proposed that America be anything other than an English-speaking country.

It is one thing to envision an English-speaking nation, and another to create one. Noah Webster may have envisioned a simplified, standardized idiom bringing the republican people of the United States together, and he may have believed his lexicon and his spelling texts could produce such a result. But he was profoundly mistaken. Languages become national not because of the interventions of pedants and grammarians. Of far greater importance has been the growth of mass media such as cheap newspapers and magazines. Still, even with the regularizing influence of print, one has to feel for those purists among us making usually futile efforts to protect American English from neologisms, regionalisms, and other developments that they might call "corruptions." For most linguists, language change represents neither corruption nor improvement. It simply is. It is an inevitable facet of that ever-fluid and endlessly adaptive thing called language.

See alsoEuropean Influences: Enlightenment Thought; German-Language Publishing; Immigration and Immigrants .


Algeo, John, ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language. Volume 6: English in North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Cmiel, Kenneth. Democratic Eloquence: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Morrow, 1990.

Fliegelman, Jay. Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance. Stanford Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Gray, Edward G. New World Babel: Languages and Nations in Early America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Howe, John R. Language and Political Meaning in Revolutionary America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003.

Lepore, Jill. A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Mencken, H. L. The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States. 4th ed. New York: Knopf, 1965.

Romaine, Suzanne. Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Simpson, David. The Politics of American English, 1776–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Sollors, Werner, ed. Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Edward G. Gray