pageok
pageok
pageok
Language as Social Signal:

I agree with what Sasha and Eugene have said about the descriptivist view of language, but I think language serves an instrumental goal that has yet to be explicitly described. By speaking (or at least attempting to do so) proper English, I not only potentially impress the elites with my intelligence, I send a signal to the population broadly that I am the type of person who knows and conforms with social norms. This signal labels me as a probable "cooperator" rather than "defector" in human interactions, and thus a good bet to treat them in a trustworthy way in a variety of social or business interactions that might arise. Someone who speaks improper English, much like someone who sports an eyebrow ring, signals a disinclination to comply with customary social norms, and marks themselves as a bad candidate for trust.

Constitutional Crisis (mail):
Without knowing a great deal more about a person's personal history and circumstances-details which would invariably give you more justification for trusting them or not-judging a person based on their ability to speak "proper" English is simply prejudice. I fear that, as an economic man, your using such a heuristic would result in your missing our on so so many valuable transactions.
7.24.2007 8:00am
Sarah (mail) (www):
That depends so much on the company you keep, though. If I walk into Hot Topic looking and speaking the way I usually do (my younger sisters say I look like a kindergarten teacher, or maybe a Mennonite,) I'm not signaling how trustworthy I am to the typical staff and customers in that store -- I'm signaling how different I am. It took me years to stop speaking in a suspiciously fast, "too smart" style after moving to the Midwest; the things that impressed and pleased the people around me as a child in Connecticut and California made people think I was stuck up and just plain "odd" in Ohio. If I say "reckon'" and pronounce "fire" a bit more like "far," people are far more likely to consider me one of their own, which is, at least in most situations, exactly what you need in order to gain trust. And this applied not just in high school, but in the general community. Why do you suppose Bill Clinton, who was a Rhodes Scholar, stuck with his "down home" image? Why do so many rappers, many of whom live in wealthy Midwestern suburbs (some even grew up there,) insist on speaking like they're average gangstas from whichever 'hood is coolest at the moment? They're choosing to fit in with a specific group of people.

On the other hand, it is getting less common for educated professionals to say "reckon'" and in general speak like they're less educated than they are -- at least up around here. My relatives and friends who are highly educated professionals further south still have a tendency to conform to local expectations regarding speech, rather than a single generic "this is how lawyers speak" style.

I guess it comes down to defining "customary," doesn't it. And, the "elite," who in some cases turn out to be 19-year-old football quarterbacks and cheerleaders, and in other cases law school admissions faculty, and sometimes political party convention delegates...
7.24.2007 8:03am
Stephen Carter (mail):
I believe Schlesinger (the elder) wrote about this years ago, in his book on the history of manners, did he not? He wrote of the manner of speech as a passport, a form of identifier to strangers. This is an example of categorization, the use of signals to simplify the world. To dismiss a category as "prejudice" is to place the cart before the horse. We all use heuristic tools to simplify the world in this manner. We need a different tool (let us say, a moral tool) to tell us which of our heuristics we should resist, or even ignore. History has taught us, I hope, of the risks of using, say, race or religion (or, I trust, sexual orientation) as our relevant sorting tools. But does history really teach us that we should not use proper English for the same purpose? I would be interested to hear the experiences of others who in hiring, say, professionals (where the passport matters) have faced this choice. I am not speaking of accent, but of, let us say, following the rules laid down.
7.24.2007 8:52am
steve (mail):
"Someone who speaks improper English...marks themselves as a bad candidate for trust."

Ah, well, there's an election in little over a year.
7.24.2007 8:52am
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
Living down here in the South, if I speak "proper" English, I appear more as an outsider than as a conformist, especially if I head out of the city.

It isn't so much that I disagree with your idea, as that I disagree with the idea that there is some overarching "proper" English -- there are plenty of financially successful and powerful people who are well-known for not speaking with the same dialect as their peers.
7.24.2007 8:54am
Constitutional Crisis (mail):
Stephen: You're mixing up issues. The post defends using ability to speak proper English as a marker of trustworthiness, not as a desirable category for an employer seeking, for example to hire a weatherman for television. In addition, I haven't read the Schlesinger article but - to come full circle - it sounds descriptive, not proscriptive. As for whether those who speak proper English are more likely to "follow the rules," I note that it's been reported that immigrants have a lower crime rate. I assume there is a correlation between immigrants and non-proper-speakers of English. This goes to my original point that I seriously doubt that the ability to speak English, without more, is a justifiable marker of trustworthiness.
7.24.2007 9:35am
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
This discussion started in terms of written English, and there signaling power of language is more profound -- it's essential for many jobs that you be able write "proper" English to a reasonable approximation of what's prescribed by popular style books.

Internet discussions are particularly interesting. I've been online since the mid '90s, and back then people were expected to write all communications in, if not a grammatically correct manner, then a conversational style that approximated how an educated person would talk. The theory was that you're communicating with people who only know you by what you write, so you want to make a good impression with your words. i always find it odd when i get emails from professionsals who dont use teh shift key or run spellcheck ... and use ellipses in place of full stops making there whole message a giant runon sentnce. AND GOD NOS WHUT WILL HAPPEN 2 TEH KIDZ WHO R GROWING UP WRITE ALL LOLCATZ WHEN THEY IZ GETTING JOBZ LOLOLOLOLOLOLZ!
7.24.2007 10:02am
Kovarsky (mail):
i've seen this argument before. it basically argues that language is the functional equivalent of a bowtie or a country club membership - it's a constituent in a suite of "manners" that signals to elites that you "cooperate."

the "cooperativeness" signaling effect has diminished so much since this idea was originally floated (and I believe debunked by real linguists), that it's "instrumental" value in linguistic communication is at this point negligible. this happens because populations rely on conformity as a signal of trustworthiness less and less as time goes by.

language surely continues to signal something to the elites - but it's more along the lines of "i share your interest in golf" than it is "i'm a trustworthy person."
7.24.2007 10:29am
Houston Lawyer:
It takes a certain amount of care to learn to speak proper English. I do not take into account regional accents or expressions, since we all tend to pick up on the expressions of those around us.

I don't think it is a matter of trust at all, since I would be quite trusting of some people whose English was quite bad. Proper English defines you socially as one of the educated. I think it does little more than that.
7.24.2007 10:39am
Richard Riley (mail):
In answer to Prof Stephen Carter above, and as someone who grew up in Mississippi and is now a partner in a Washington D.C. law firm, I would say the use of "standard" university-English-department English is now probably the single strongest "sorting tool" in my world. Other commenters mention surviving regional linguistic tics, but they're mighty few (really more accent than usage) and used virtually ironically, as self-conscious regional identifiers. I use them myself. But in real life, all my colleagues (nationwide), and all my corporate clients, use the identical kind of English. If this is the world you want to join that's the language you have to use. It's a MUCH stronger signal, I would say, than Kovarsky dismissively suggests above.
7.24.2007 10:47am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
The way we speak does act as a social marker. It used to be much more obvious with the English, with not only different grammars, but also different accents, between the social classes. Here, accent is likely becoming less important, as our society becomes more homogeneous through its mobility.

Just the sort of proscriptive rules that Eugene has been railing against are an integral part of this marking. Getting those rules right in conversation is indicia that someone has the correct upbringing - it was usually either learned from proscriptive parents or by attending the right schools (or both).

What must be remembered is that the most socially conservative portion of society is the middle class, and using "proper" English grammar is indicia that someone was likely raised in the upper middle class or above. It often means that their parents, and often grandparents, were college educated.

I wasn't really that conscious of this until I brought a woman back to meet my friends and family. My family was pretty good, but my friends less so. There were knowing looks all around, when this woman would use the wrong pronoun case, or to use "was" in the hypothetical. The difference was that, though she had a college degree, her parents didn't. And that showed in a group whose parents had been doctors and lawyers.

Does it matter in other situations? Maybe, probably less so now. But I would suggest that the attorney or stock broker who can speak like wealthier clients do is more likely to get their business. Another place where it rears its ugly head is in marriage. Dating is one thing, but families still have a role in marriage, and a potential marriage partner can slip into a family much more easily if trusted to be a member of the right part of society.

Of course, there is more to blending into the part of society to which one wants to belong than just language. Dress, sports, travel, and education are also important. But dress is easy to change, and after that, the first impression that people get of someone is often based on how they speak.
7.24.2007 10:57am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
In answer to Prof Stephen Carter above, and as someone who grew up in Mississippi and is now a partner in a Washington D.C. law firm, I would say the use of "standard" university-English-department English is now probably the single strongest "sorting tool" in my world. Other commenters mention surviving regional linguistic tics, but they're mighty few (really more accent than usage) and used virtually ironically, as self-conscious regional identifiers. I use them myself. But in real life, all my colleagues (nationwide), and all my corporate clients, use the identical kind of English. If this is the world you want to join that's the language you have to use. It's a MUCH stronger signal, I would say, than Kovarsky dismissively suggests above.
This fits in well with my previous post.

Why should attorneys at the biggest firms end up sounding so much alike? I would suggest that it is precisely because attorneys who speak like the top management at the biggest companies are more likely to be trusted to do a good job at their legal work. In other words, they are trusted more, because they are more alike. And trust is why someone will pay $400 an hour for an attorney, when they could probably get the job done for half that. So, there should be no surprise that the biggest law firms tend to hire people just like their partners, esp. in terms of their language, both spoken and written. Everyone, including both client and other attorneys, are more comfortable this way.
7.24.2007 11:05am
TarHeel:
I recently received a nasty voice-mail. Fortunately, the speaker had an accent that would peel paint. It is a regional accent for my area. My parents and grandparents hail from here, but none of them sound like that. Perhaps each area has its Jerry-Springer-accent and its church-on-Sunday-PTA-Rotary people-accent, both with associated speech patterns and volumes.
7.24.2007 11:16am
steve (mail):

The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.

...

Finally, and for the encouragement of people troubled with accents that cut them off from all high employment, I may add that the change wrought by Professor Higgins in the flower girl is neither impossible nor uncommon. The modern concierge's daughter who fulfils her ambition by playing the Queen of Spain in Ruy Blas at the Théâtre Français is only one of many thousands of men and women who have sloughed off their native dialects and acquired a new tongue. But the thing has to be done scientifically, or the last state of the aspirant may be worse than the first. An honest and natural slum dialect is more tolerable than the attempt of a phonetically untaught person to imitate the vulgar dialect of the golf club; and I am sorry to say that in spite of the efforts of our Academy of Dramatic Art, there is still too much sham golfing English on our stage, and too little of the noble English of Forbes Robertson.


Bernard Shaw, preface to Pygmalion.
7.24.2007 11:45am
Kovarsky (mail):
Richard

It's a MUCH stronger signal, I would say, than Kovarsky dismissively suggests above.

I don't deny that it's a signal, and a strong one. My point is merely that what it signals is not "cooperation" versus "defection," at least in any sense beyond what cooperation inheres in the commonality conveyed by the shared dialect.
7.24.2007 12:04pm
jimbino (mail):
Russell, you are new to English but eager to please, right? Your "Someone who speaks improper English...marks themselves as a bad candidate for trust" wins the award for Ironic Solecism of the Decade, though Sasha managed to come in second place.

Your little contribution added little to the discussion, as it did no more than beg the question. The question is "Is there such a thing as proper English and why should I care?" Both you and Sasha seem to think that proper English is feminist, likely to sound familiar to the illiterati, and confused in meaning. Just admit that you are lazy, want to fit in, and have an aptitude for repeating what you hear without analyzing it.
7.24.2007 12:07pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
"An Englishman's way of speaking completely classifies him;

The moment he speaks, he makes some other Englishman despise him."

More seriously, people do speak "up" or "down" depending on what social norm they choose to embrace. On Chicago's "East Side", in the 60s and 70s, working-class women tended to imitate the speech patterns of middle-class Jewish women from South Shore, while the men followed the "dese 'n dose" model.

And let us not forget how every professional pilot in America came to speak with a West Virginia accent.
7.24.2007 12:25pm
jimbino (mail):
Constitutional Crisis says, “…judging a person based on their ability to speak "proper" English is simply prejudice.”

Bruce Hayden says: “But dress is easy to change, and after that, the first impression that people get of someone is often based on how they speak” and “trust is why someone will pay $400 an hour for an attorney, when they could probably get the job done for half that.”

You guys come in third and fourth, right after Sasha and Russell in the Solecism of the Decade award. It seems, Bruce, that I could earn $500 an hour teaching a group of your hoity-toity lawyers to speak English.
7.24.2007 12:27pm
Christopher M (mail):
jimbino: Your broader point that those who champion "proper" English often violate many of its supposed rules is right. That said, if singular "they" was good enough for Austen, Thackeray, Shaw, Ruskin, Shakespeare, Carroll, Whitman, George Eliot, Wilde, and the King James Bible, it's good enough for me.
7.24.2007 12:37pm
Constitutional Crisis (mail):
You got me. But in any event, I don't champion "proper" English, and take it as a point of pride that I'm not a grammarian.
7.24.2007 1:20pm
Constitutional Crisis (mail):
And while you're at it, Mr. Jimbino, you might consider why you choose a comma in your first paragraph and a colon in the second one. Most manuals of style would counsel consistency in punctuation.
7.24.2007 1:21pm
Elliot Reed:
This post seems to me like a pretty absurd use of signalling theory. Isn't this an incredibly cheap signal for someone who is disinclined to follow social norms regarding honesty and trust? Maybe it's a more expensive signal for someone who is also disinclined to follow social norms regarding dress codes, but what evidence is there that that relates to trustworthiness? So how could the signal be evidence of trustworthiness?

On the other hand, speaking "proper" English is cheap for those who grew up in communities where such English, or something resembling it, is spoken and taught, and more expensive the less the language you grew up speaking resembles it. So speaking and writing "proper" English is a pretty good way of signaling that you grew up in a wealthy or "upper-middle-class" (i.e., rich) community in the Northeast or the West Coast, and that you didn't grow up on a poor community in the South or Midwest, an inner city, speaking Spanish, etc.

Whether the underlying trait being signalled (cultural background) has any value or the desire to sort people based on this characteristic is merely snobbishness and prejudice is a subject I won't opine on. But the idea that being able to speak upper-class English signals trustworthiness is just silly.
7.24.2007 2:11pm
Toby:
I find fascinating on a Blog with a generally libertarian bent the absurdism that anything that is legal mmust be allowed. Libertarianism requires minimal rules and maximum freedom. It thereby refuses to make illegal behavior that is odious, but not overtly harmful.

It simultaneously leaves in place the right to shun those who practice behavior that one finds odious, also under the minimal rules theory.

Applying these principles to language comes up with a descriptivist paradise; you can of course speak any way you want. It also comes up with a prescriptivist paradise; I can make any assumptions I want about you based upon the way I speak. Neither can claim the other wrong.

Now if you know I am likely to make those assumptions about you, and you persist, like the middle schoolers who used to inhabit my house, in demanding rights, without incurring responsibilities, you just confirm all those assumptions.
7.24.2007 2:28pm
Ex Korobkin Student:
How close is elite language to the language of prescriptivists? "It was I" strikes me as coming from someone who wants to sound more educated than he is. "He's taller than I" strikes me as awful, too, but that's probably just I. I go for "He's taller than I am" rather than "than me" or "than I." I also go for "strong point" rather than "forte" pronounced pedantically as "fort" or pronounced questionably as "fortay." There's a lot to be said for neutral language choices that avoid signaling.
7.24.2007 2:30pm
Gary Imhoff (mail) (www):
In a discussion dedicated to championing "descriptivist" grammar over "prescriptivist" grammar, the usage pointed out above by Jimbino is telling: "Someone who speaks . . . marks themselves. . . ." "Someone" is singular and "marks themselves" is plural. The old prescriptivist rule would be that they should agree in number, and that correct usage would be either "People who speak . . . mark themselves. . ." or "Someone who speaks . . . marks himself. . . ." This was not only prescriptive, however; it was accurately descriptive. That was the way that most people wrote and spoke. However, Russell obeys the new feminist prescriptivist rule that masculine pronouns are evil and must be shunned, even at the cost of using plural pronouns and verbs with singular subjects. Is the argument, then, that descriptivist grammar is right, unless the prescriptivist rule is promulagated by She Who Must Be Obeyed?
7.24.2007 2:51pm
Elliot123 (mail):
My observation is that much of the descrimination claimed by racial minorities is based on the speech patterns of individuals. A non-white who speaks like Obama will invariably be treated differently than one who speaks with a destinctive minority accent or dialect. This phenomenon may not be right, moral, PC, or beneficial, but it exists.
7.24.2007 2:57pm