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Sociolinguistics seminar paper.

April 27, 2008

Whitney R. Roberts
Dr. Wake
LING 302: Sociolinguistics
Fall 2007

Code-switching and the Age of Speakers:
Negotiation of Intergenerational Identity within the Family Structure

It is well-established in the Sociolinguistic academic community that code-switching, whether between distinctly classified languages, or merely between dialects of one language, functions as social currency and carries significance among speech-communities. Different languages, and indeed different dialects or accents within one language, fall along a spectrum from colloquial to formal speech, denoting the appropriate context for the use of each language/dialect/accent. Linguistically, each of these varieties is equally valid and interesting for the methodological study of human speech-patterns as they intersect social behaviors.
Given, also, that sociolinguists have documented many cultures and languages which change in form given the age of the speaker and of the addressee, there seems to be one gap in this research. Therefore, a qualitative study was needed to discover how code-switching can function as a means of linguistic deference to addressee’s of higher social standing, particularly those older than the speaker. This use of code-switching to acknowledge the seniority of the addressee should be particularly pronounced in languages where there is no inherent phonological or grammatical signifier of social dignity or gender, such as English. As opposed to languages such as Japanese and German, English makes no distinction between the formal and informal uses of speech in the forms of different pronouns, etc. Rather, this distinction, when made, takes the form of certain dialectical signifiers, such as “Ma’am” and “Sir” in Southern American English. Similarly, English lacks the gender-indicators of some Romance languages, such as Spanish feminine and masculine endings of nouns; this void in the specificity of language is filled, in English, by dialect and context, rather than by grammar. Which is not to say, of course, that there are not meaning-bearing dialects and codes in other languages; it is more important to this study that English has no formal outlet for the denotation of status and age.
How does code-switching function in the negotiation of family identity? Is the presence or absence of code-switching related to the age of speakers? It is impractical to talk about the social currency of dialects without mentioning the early works of linguists Fischer and Labov. Introducing Sociolinguistics makes no secret of the fact that “speech can serve to mark the distinctiveness of people not just in terms of their region, but also in terms of their sex and social standing.” (eds. Mesthrie, Swann, Deumert, Leap, 76). To conduct my study, I collected data from four different conversations between two or three speakers, and employed comparative discourse analysis to chart the use of SoAE and SAE among different pairings of speakers:

Questons about linguistic structure, about language change, about meaning, about language acquisition, about social roles and relations, about communication, and about identity. What distinguishes discourse analysis from other branches of linguistics is not the questions […] but the ways they try to answer them: by analyzing discourse. (Johnstone 103)

The first study was a “control;” it featured myself (a speaker of Standard American English (SAE), raised in a home where Southern American English (SoAE) is the primary dialect, and thus able to code-switch), and a peer of my same age who is a speaker of SAE. I did not code-switch, and remained in SAE throughout the thirty-minute conversation. The second data collection featured my conversation with my brother, who is twenty-one months younger than myself, and a primary speaker of SoAE. In this conversation, also casual and about thirty minutes in length, I maintained mostly SAE, with code-switching apparent surrounding certain topics (i.e. shared childhood memories). The third conversation occurred between myself and my grandmother, a speaker of SoAE; throughout this extended conversation (nearly two hours of tape) I maintained the dialect of SoAE, complete with phonological and grammatical markers, and colloquial, regionally-specific idiomatic expressions and nomenclature. The final conversation that I recorded for my study had three participants: myself, my mother (a native speaker of SoAE), and my great-aunt (a native speaker of SoAE); in this conversation, as well, I maintained SoAE for nearly all of my speech acts.
The SoAE observed in my discourse samples belongs primarily to the specific “Lowcountry Dialect” of the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. It differs in some phonological markers from the dialect known as “Inland South,” and is best described in the Atlas of North American English, as follows:

The outer boundary of the South is defined by glide deletion of /ay/ before voiced consonants and finally. Speakers shown [on dialectology map] have glide deletion before voiced obstruents (wide, size, five, etc.) and finally (high, my, etc)…The South is also marked by various stages of the Southern Shift, and by the Back Upglide Shift in law, caught, water, etc.(Lavov)

Discourse Analysis Group One:
Two Young Adult SAE Speakers, With the Ability to Code-Switch to SoAE

The linguistic background of the two speakers in the first study was parallel. Both the young adults were raised in a household and community that spoke a particular sub-dialect of SoAE. However, moving away from home, geographically, and entering higher education and/or the job market, had influenced both of their speech patterns, bringing them into the fold of SAE. An excerpt from the conversation between them revealed the consistency in use, by both speakers, of speech fillers associated with their age-group. However, SoAE was not employed, though both speakers can speak the dialect; and, indeed, grew up in an environment where it was privileged:



= she was like, (louder) “HELP, HELP! I CAN’T LIVE LIKE THIS! I CAN’T LIVE LIKE [laughing] THIS!” =
= [laughs]
= [laughing] which is like, the funniest thing EVER. [fades into laughter]
= [gasps for breath, keeps laughing]
= at this point like, Ann, fell off the bench laughing
= [laughs] =
= like even though, Alice was like dead serious, tha- this, this was like the saddest dream she’s ever had. =
The overuse of the term “like” is one indicator of the shared age-group of the two speakers. In contemporary SAE, among young adults aged 13-25, the use of this speech-filler is prevalent in relaxed, colloquial environments. What is noticeable about this indicator being present, is that the Young Adult “dialect” has eclipsed any trace of SoAE in the speakers. They are each accommodating and participating in the “majority” dialect, which would be most comfortable for the largest number of their peers. Thus, though they share another dialect in common, the one employed fits the situation: they are not in an environment where SoAE is the primary dialect. Rather, the tape was recorded in their shared apartment, in a town where SAE is dominant, and within a college culture where the “Young Adult dialect” is the most prevalent among peer groups.

Discourse Analysis Group Two:
Two Young Adult Speakers from One Family: One SAE, One SoAE

I found in my second study case, that the first sibling, a speaker of SAE, did employ some level of code-switching in speaking with her brother, a speaker of SoAE. The two young adults came of age in a family and community that spoke predominately SoAE. While the first young adult (sibling A: Whitney) opted to attend a four-year college north of her home, the second (sibling B: Gary) has elected a less formal education in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As a result, Gary’s SoAE dialect has become more pronounced, while Whitney’s has become almost completely normalized into Standard American English. However, at points during the recording, Whitney exhibits glide deletion before obstruents, indicative of some dialects in the American South (ex: in talking about getting a dog, Whitney stated, “remember when we first got Bullet and he chewed up the side of the porch furniture? It’s gonna be like that for like two years.). These vowel shifts tend to become more prevalent when the two siblings discussed childhood memories, and shared experiences.
In part, the difference between the two sibling speech patterns can be explained through the disparity between their environments, and the differing attitudes of men and women to “prestige” dialects. In this case, the privileged dialect in general is Standard American English. However, for the male participant, the privileged dialect is a form of blue-collar SoAE that would allow him to interact with gamesmen in the Blue Ridge Mountains without seeming too “distinguished” or losing credibility in the sub-culture of hunters. In a 1974 Norwich study conducted by Peter Trudgill to describe “the norms of a whole city […using] several linguistic variables,” a marked difference was found in the attitudes of men and women toward code-switching and prestige:
In particular, male informants were much more likely to under-report their use of the prestige variants (in favor of working-class norms). Female informants, on the other hand, had a tendency to over-report their use of prestige norms… Like Labov, Trudgill distinguished between overt and covert prestige attached to speech forms. Women in Norwich seem responsive to the overt prestige of the standard variety, while men seem more responsive to the covert prestige of localized Norwich speech. (Mesthrie 99)

The distinguished difference between “covert” and “overt” prestige-dialects becomes paramount in this particular study, because of the otherwise equal socio-economic and cultural status of the two interlocutors. Because they are members of the same nuclear family, and originated in the same environment of regionally variant dialect, they are sociolinguistically “identical” until their early adulthood. At the age of about eighteen, however, both speakers experienced a linguistically “new” environment, and privileged adaptation to that environment, including the necessary assimilation of speech.

Discourse Analysis Group Three:
One Young-Adult Speaker of SAE, One Adult Speaker of SoAE
In opposition to the first and second study groups, the variable changed in this recorded conversation was the age of the two speakers. While one speaker remains constant from all of the studies, the young-adult SAE speaker Whitney, who has the capability to code-switch to SoAE, the other has been changed. The second speaker in this study is Whitney’s grandmother; she speaks a highly specific Lowcountry variant of SoAE-the same dialect which was predominant in Whitney’s childhood home. The grandmother, while close to her granddaughter, remains in a place of privilege because of her age.
The findings for this extended recorded conversation were startlingly different from the first two studies. In this third conversation, the young-adult speaker, Whitney, exhibited the phonological markers of SoAE consistently throughout the conversation. What is more marked, however, is her use of some grammatical and idiomatic variants belonging to SoAE. This second level of assimilation with her grandmother’s speech-pattern, reflects a higher level of competence in the dialect. To answer the question of “why” the young speaker would choose to code-switch, the 19075 study of Howard Giles of British English accent variants proves a useful principle:
…in comparison with these regionally accented speakers, the RP speaker was given a lower rating for ‘personal integrity’ and ‘social attractiveness’ (seriousness, talkativeness, good-naturedness and sense of humor). Giles claimed that these positive associations could be a factor in the continuing maintenance of regional varieties of English. While these studies focused on British English accents, later studies report similar findings from other countries. (Mesthrie 150)

The social currency of regional dialects includes not only a semblance of “belonging,” but also the positive “chatty” characteristics of good-naturedness and a good sense of humor. Indeed, in the observed conversation, sense of humor was a large part of the exchanging of narratives. Laughter permeated the entire conversation. The dialect, therefore, served as a facilitator of the pleasant and chatty nature of the intergenerational conversation. Giles’ study facilitates the understanding of reasons for speech accommodation, and the perception of its social currency as positive: “Giles argued that speakers would tend to converge (adopt similar styles of speaking) when they wished to reduce the social distance between one another…” (Mesthrie 151). The chapter highlights a quote from a “speaker from the north-east of England, now living in the south-east,” which easily illustrates the power of accent accommodation:
I don’t think I’ve lost my accent altogether but when I do go back home and speak to my family I’m very much aware that I tend to slide across and speak in a sort of softer Northumbrian accent which is that of my mother […] I’ve noticed in the local shops some of the staff have moved down from Newcastle, and when I find I’m talking to them I slip very quickly back into a northern accent and we joke about where we’ve come from, and it forms a common bond very quickly. (Mesthrie 151).

What is unique about this intergenerational familial relationship, is the way in which dialect is helpful in encoding that relationship. Mesthrie, Swann, Deumert and Leap write:
Sometimes, relationships between speakers and listeners are explicitly encoded in language. In many languages, speakers can signal their relative status through the use of certain forms of address: in English, these would include terms such as madam; a title plus second name; a first name; a term of endearment. (201)

The combined effect of laughter, accent accommodation, and frequently used endearments and regionally-specific nomenclature, is one of total synchronization and reciprocity between the two speakers. Despite their age, they co-construct sentences to form various familial narratives. The importance of traced vowel changes in the speech of both women is highlighted by their overlapping speech. Indeed, this co-constructive form of narrative practiced frequently by women who are close to one another socially, would be impossible without the assimilation of the accent, and the distinguished sound of SoAE vowels:





She remembers…hEr Big Daddy =
Mmhmmm, well HE died =
(and, like, once he got sick =
(? 3 years)
= what she remembers about him is his pAisley pAjamas [laughs]
[laughs] yeah=
[laughing] Once he gOt sIck and came to yOUr house =
[laughs] = he would come to my house once he didn’t feel good and wanted to…get away =
(get in the bed…)
= from, from Big Momma. He would come to MY house, and he would say…and he would make her stay at JOAnne’s. =
[laughing exhale]
= and he would come to MY house and get, go to RA’s rOOm and get in RA’s bEd…and he, sometimes he was there for tWO wEEks.
Yeah [lauging] I always loved that.
She said “I Always, I will Always love pAisley because my Big Daddy Always had his pAisley =
= [laughing] paisley pajamas =
= pajamas on when he was, huh, when he was there
= [laughs]
= ‘cause he was sIck.” And Momma was, what, EIght? When he died? =
= Eight, I think, cAUse Uncle RA was sIxteen? =
(mmmhmmm, mmhmmm, right)
she says, “that’s what I remember; I would go sit on the bed and talk to him, and he would be in his pAisley pAjamas =
= He Always…when WE got mArried =
= MOmma says he was always your Ally.
He was.

Discourse Analysis Group Four:
One Young-Adult Speaker of SAE, and Two Adult Speakers of SoAE

The final discourse analysis I performed was a test of the significant prevalence in code-switching I found in Group Three, on the part of a younger speaker addressing older speakers, whose primary speech-pattern is that of the prescribed dialect. In this final study, the speakers were myself (just as in all of the other studies), my mother (a native speaker of SoAE), and a great-aunt (also a native speaker of SoAE). In this thirty-minute conversation, the young speaker exhibited consistent code-switching into SoAE. However, unlike in the example of Group Three, my own grammar did not reflect a compromised, regionalized set of norms. Rather, my grammar, and frequently my diction, was reflective of SAE, while my accent and phonemes were those of SoAE.
This may be explained one of three ways: the presence of an adult of “mediating” age and relationship to the speaker, the shorter length of the sample taped, or the variant in conversation topic. The conversation centered around present events, and functioned as a “catching-up” of the speakers on the status of one-another’s lives. Therefore, when it was my turn to speak, I was usually answering a question about my progress in school, etcetera. The very fact of the question-and-answer format of the conversation may have triggered less co-constructed utterances and fewer instances of diction or grammar changes on my part to accommodate the regional variance.
More interesting is the prospect that the presence of my mother became a sort of “mediating” force-reducing the likelihood that I would code-switch in terms of grammar and diction. This is a possibility because she has observed my speech in settings where I have used SoAE, and in those where I have used SAE. Also, both adults spoke SoAE, but it was not an exact regional match. My great-aunt speaks a form of “Inland South” dialect, which Labov notes as being different from the Lowcountry dialect my mother favors. Therefore, having two accents to amalgamate and accommodate, may lead to less ability to accommodate either accent on the part of the code-switcher.
If given more time to conduct this study, I would have controlled for more variants-such as topic of conversation, location, age of speakers, etcetera. It is notable that through this research, I cross-pollinated the issues of code-switching and dialectology, with that of family communication, and particularly the communication between generations of women within one family, due to the test-subjects to whom I had access. This cross-pollination resulted in too many uncontrolled variables to be completely one-hundred percent sure of my findings.
It may be discerned, however, that younger persons have the most dexterity in their ability to code-switch, and that environment is paramount when making the decision to adopt an “accommodating accent.” The importance of this study, overall, was to prove the usefulness of an ability to code-switch between regional variants and standard forms, and the emotional and social impact of these different codes.
Whitney R. Roberts
Dr. Ginny Wake
LING 302: Introduction to Sociolinguistics
Fall 2007
APPENDIX I: Transcription Symbols

… Noticeable Pause

CAPS Emphatic Stress

= utterance continued, despite interruption

┐ second speaker’s utterance latched onto first without pause

— self-interruption to repair speech

A indicates emphasis on a particular syllable of a word

/?/ inaudible utterance, but one that takes up time-space in dialogue

[laughs] indicates vocal expression other than speech

APPENDIX II: Reading the Transcription Table

The initial column of the table denotes the line number, for reference during research. The second column lists the name of the speaker, aligned with the speech utterance, horizntically. The third column allows for arrows () to indicate foci for research, especially during a presentation. The final column contains the speech acts themselves.
Works Cited

Johnstone, Barbara. Qualitative Methods in Sociolinguistics. New York, NY: Osford UP, 2000.

Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg. The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology, and Sound Change. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2006.

Mesthrie, Rajend, Joan Swann, Andrea Deumert, and William L. Leap. “Language Variation and Change,” Introducing Sociolinguistics. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company: 2004.

Mesthrie, Rajend, Joan Swann, Andrea Deumert, and William L. Leap. “Social Dialectology,” Introducing Sociolinguistics. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company: 2004.

Mesthrie, Rajend, Joan Swann, Andrea Deumert, and William L. Leap. “Language Choice and Code Switching,” Introducing Sociolinguistics. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company: 2004.

Mesthrie, Rajend, Joan Swann, Andrea Deumert, and William L. Leap. “Language in Interaction,” Introducing Sociolinguistics. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company: 2004.

Souto-Manning, Mariana. “Families Learn Together: Reconceptualizing Linguistic Diversity as a Resource.” Early Childhood Education Journal. Columbia, South Carolina. U of South Carolina P: 2006, 443-446.

Thomas, Margaret. “Linguistic Variation in Spike Lee’s School Daze.” College English. Boston: Boston College UP, 1994, 911-27.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam Jacot de Boinod permalink
    August 13, 2009 11:41 am

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