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Creativity In Action: How language constructs our identities

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How creative is our language? How is our communication style affected by world events, or by our sense of self identity? Dr. Emily Lindsay-Smith from the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics at the University of Oxford is fascinated by how language is structured, processed and ever changing. In her article below, Emily explores some of the research she shared with co-curators working on Sign Symbol Sound, the collaborative exhibition exploring language and creativity through fifteen Oxfordshire-based artists. The article is illustrated by key moments from the exhibition.

 

What do you know about your language? You know how to say what you had for breakfast. You know what is and isn’t possible, that is, you’re happy that (1) is acceptable but (2) is not:

  1. Emily ate porridge with raspberry jam.
  2. *Porridge with Emily jam raspberry eats.


What do you know about the following pairs? 

  1. Curious vs Nosy
  2. Aggressive vs Assertive
    A dictionary will claim these are synonyms – however, you probably feel that they have quite different connotations.

 

“Younger people use words that their parents don’t understand (do you know what yeet means?)”

Helen Ganly, Nest (installation image with exhibition co-curators), 2021

 

We can associate certain groups of vowels with speakers of particular regions, we might link particular variants to women’s vs men’s speech, and younger people use words that their parents don’t understand (do you know what yeet means?). If we look at the data, people from different demographic groups do indeed speak differently, even across quite subtle variants.

Let’s take Trudgill’s 1974 study of non-standard English spoken in Norwich. He looked at whether people use ‘ing’ vs ‘in’ (as in walking vs walkin’ ). He found was there were more uses of standard forms (‘ing’) in careful speech compared to casual speech, that more non-standard forms (‘in’) in men’s speech than women’s speech, and more non-standard forms in lower social classes.

‘ing’ = more careful speech, more women
‘in’ = more casual speech, more men, lower social classes

 

“..it’s not just that people of particular ages, genders and classes speak in particular ways – rather, individuals can choose how to marshal their linguistic and stylistic resources to shape their identity.”

 

Angus Irvine, Disorder, 2021.

 

But when we look more closely at what individuals actually do, we find that it’s not just that people of particular ages, genders and classes speak in particular ways – rather, individuals can choose how to marshal their linguistic and stylistic resources to shape and project their identity.

Let’s consider Sam Kirkham’s 2015 study of a school in the Sheffield suburbs. He was interested in the pronunciation of the final vowel in happy – in a distinction linguistics call tense vs lax (lax vowels are also known as short vowels and are pronounced with more or less stationary tongue and lip position. Tense vowels sound longer and are pronounced with the movement of the tongue). The different uses of this vowel weren’t associated with student ethnicity or level of deprivation – rather with particular social groups within the school. Over 15 months of observation, he found that the use of the lax (short) variant was associated with social groups that were anti-school, whereas the tense (longer) variant was associated with social groups that were pro-school.

 

“…for the ‘Rebellious Girls’, it represented the construction of commonness as a stylistic choice. “

 

But it’s not quite that simple, there is rarely a one-to-one correspondence between form and the social meaning it signals. For different groups, the vowel indicated slightly different things – for one group of girls the lax vowel reflected authentic connection to the white working class but for the ‘Rebellious Girls’, it represented the construction of commonness as a stylistic choice. For another group, their vowel choice varied but use of the tense vowel reflected the ‘nerdiness’ choice of their pro-school, whereas for others the tense vowel reflected educational aspiration.


“Our knowledge of this tapestry of meaning influences the creative choices we make in our own speech across all levels of linguistic structure…  a fascinating window onto our social lives.”

 

Deshna Shah, Trace, 2021.

 

Ultimately, the same feature can indicate different social meanings depending on what other features it is combined with, and who is evaluating whose use of it in what context. Our knowledge of this tapestry of meaning influences the creative choices we make in our own speech across all levels of linguistic structure – and as such, is a fascinating window onto our social lives.

If you want to know more about sociolinguistics, check out this crash course video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=of4XzrbkknM), or this video from the Oxford University linguistics outreach website: https://explore.ling-phil.ox.ac.uk/what-is-linguistics/


~Words by Dr. Emily Lindsay-Smith


Dr. Emily Lindsay-Smith
 is an Outreach Officer at the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics at the University of Oxford, as well as a Postdoctoral Research Officer at the University of Surrey. She is fascinated by how words are structured, processed and change over time. For more information about her research, check out her website at emilylindsaysmith.com 

Explore the Sign Symbol Sound online exhibition here.