More than words: dealing with social aspects of language

Dialect, register, accent, jargon, prosody or tone: few of these themes are approached in the language classroom, and exploring them takes some kind of attitude, outside the trial and error sort of thing. When the linguistic study was more concerned with how context influenced decision making, some people were fascinated with the word, comparable to metaphysics: what I said matters, but why? In a logics class, we’d have categories of statements and their interdependence, rules of argument making like avoiding contradictions and shaping the relationships between bigger layers of discursive practice, and soon enough someone would point out informality doesn’t belong in the media. I bet Bakhtin wasn’t thinking about Instagram when he insisted we were social beings, but my Russian friend doesn’t have an account, as far as I know. We have to elaborate more careful language theories following the popularization of English as a second language worldwide, and nobody who isn’t from Europe is going to be credible, or at least quotable, given their educational experience. Look at how many languages they have: Portuguese, Spanish, English, German, French, Dutch, Czech and others; we get the feeling that the Eastern European countries get considerably less attention, and we’re not wondering what language they speak in Turkey or India, in African countries, in Southeast Asia. Diversity is supposed to be beautiful, but we’re not willing to listen to people who are trying to communicate in a foreign world, which means not just pressing a switch, but dealing with questions of identity, representation, social expectations, empathy, respect and the like. Still, we allow ourselves to be optimistic, and learn that maybe what we’ve said wasn’t actually accurate, so it’s up to us to try harder to reach common understanding, and not resent any sort of interaction that doesn’t end with a smile from an impressed native speaker. We don’t want to impress people; we want to share ideas more broadly, and that can be tough when you go through more rigorous scrutiny based on the thing they called context.

Let’s go back a little. Dialect is the localized language custom. People who come from a specific region, with their culture and tradition, with a history of experiences and a certain social organization, inevitably, are going to speak in a certain way. That’s not the Irish pronunciation of certain vowels, maybe comparable to New Zealanders, but a choice of words that reveal, although it’s always more of a curious fact, how that group we tend to see as very particular describes the world around them. Recently, I saw a map showing how people from different Brazilian regions called the bread they eat every day. From “média” to “cacetinho” to “pão francês”, these are words we wouldn’t find elsewhere, and food is actually a great way to see how culture plays a role: think “pasta”, “guacamole” or “sushi”. There’s other instances where localized knowledge plays a role: street names, monuments and so on; we know the arguments in favor or against their relevance are disputed and that will probably lead you to read some comments on social media, but we don’t always think about that stuff. There’s many definitions of dialect, but the important thing is to remember that if you have a preconception of Americans, just to exemplify, and you only think about your trip to Florida or California in terms of what you wish for, then you’re probably missing the point: today we can meet people from all over, and each of them comes from a specific context and region, though the analysts are starting to enforce the narrative of deglobalization, forgetting about the power of connectivity for reasons unknown – and disputable as well. The other terms deserve a few ten minutes of study: register as the transit of formality; accent as immediate perception of speech; jargon as representation of interest; prosody as standardized, situational procedure in communication; tone as a generic word but a personal characteristic. We don’t need to rewrite linguistic theory, but we need to be aware that the people who studied it weren’t wasting their time with disposable knowledge.

Take register, for instance. The term probably sounds weird. The application, though, is everywhere. In a country where informality reaches a peak, it’s a question of social organization; it’s also a cause, in terms of acceptance and validation. If I can’t belong in a group (social, professional) because of the way I speak, that produces a set of feelings based on experience that are likely to be reproduced; consequently, your opinions about said group are probably going to be amplified, depending on who you talk to, and the question of audience is not being taught in schools: it’s becoming generally accepted, though we’re waiting to see what trend follows in the practical approaches to foster human kindness, that someone is always listening. On the level of prosody or accent, one of the less debated situations where you see how they’re associated with our perception of the other and how society is organized is when a native speaker speaks louder with us because of our pronunciation: we’re likely to think we’ll have misunderstandings of a different nature. You can probably tell I have an academic background, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the more urban use of language in my country or another; the issue is probably my use of the term “urban” while not advocating for immigration reform on a daily basis, which would make a lot of people confused, but also angry. Aside that factor of international exchange, projections and concrete problems, you can think about the way you speak to your friends and the way you speak at work, and we’re not going to prioritize a discussion on what apps we’re using and forget about human interaction as a diverse and complicated process, not always conclusive and not always potentialized in meaning. Whether we’re going to talk about politicians incurring in typos, dads cursing or brands trying to sound cool is another story: the bottom line is that if we didn’t have feelings towards language, we wouldn’t be searching for different modes of expression as frequently as we do.

The problem is distance, but it’s also the reality. It took me a while to understand how that plays out in daily life and future projects, but at first, it was a moment of discovery. Not exactly the unknown, but the possibility, the appeal and the comfort of correspondence. If I couldn’t find something I needed right here, the internet provided me with an alternative. It’s easy to say you have to live real life and quit looking at screens, but there’s a whole chorus out there. There’s many ways to look at this sort of phenomenon, whether it’s in philosophy, psychology, politics or common sense, but there’s also a whole set of situations where one thing is appropriate or not, justifiable or not, pleasant or not, fair or not. None of these are intrinsically related to how we learned to describe a certain word, how we pronounce it or how we move from one context to another simply by clicking a different tab. But it’s important to understand that physical distance and social distance, before the latter became associated with a fundamental precaution, originate somewhere and develop into the next chapters of our life in community.

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