I have a daughter with severe autism and auto-immune encephalitis. This piece is near and dear to my heart. It is also my first professional publication as a journalist.
I have a daughter with severe autism and auto-immune encephalitis. This piece is near and dear to my heart. It is also my first professional publication as a journalist.
Speech, Status, and Stereotypes:
The Avoidance of Stereotyping in Discourse as Facilitated by the Use of Prestige Speech
By Michele Habel-Coffey
Janet Holmes asserts that we indicate aspects of our social identity through the way we talk. She states, “Our speech provides clues to others about who we are, where we come from, and perhaps what kind of social experiences we’ve had” (Holmes 2). But what exactly are these clues and who gets to decide what they mean in an absolute sense? Where do facts end and where does a biased speculation begin? We may reasonably conclude a person is from, perhaps, the southern United States based on the recognition of a familiar accent but can we also conclude that they are likewise stereotypically uneducated? Certainly, the former would be a relative certainty and the latter a prejudice based on pure conjecture. And similarly, when concerned with the female gender, is there a connection between linguistic choices and resulting conjectures about her sexual behavior that are based on such unfair prejudices? In that vein, do females make choices to shift to a prestigious dialect to gain power, as has been often asserted or is it also to avoid such prejudices?
At the University of Michigan this semester, we discussed a number of overt reasons for the use of a prestigious dialect by both men and women. Dr. Jamie Lee, a professor of sociolinguistics, shared a personal anecdote about an overt choice to use English in a Japanese business meeting. The decision was influenced by the prestige of the English language and the resulting superior position it secured for Dr. Lee, but also by the more covert desire to avoid being stereotyped as an inferior – a possibility given her Japanese may have revealed her non-native status and further, her Korean ethnicity which still triggers stereotypes of inferiority amongst the formerly colonist Japanese culture.
We also studied a number of authors who similarly established the prestige associated with standard dialects, like Standard American and British English, specifically amongst the middle-class population. The most notable of these was William Labov’s study of the post-vocalic /r/ wherein it was discovered that not only did the use of prestige speech increase exponentially within social classes, but was most consistently used amongst the middle-class, with a notable difference between the middle-class and lower-class groups (Spolsky 39-40). Janet Holmes, in her book An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, indicated that sociolinguists describes this pattern as “sharp stratification” meaning that “people are often more aware of social stigma in relation to vernacular grammatical forms, and this is reflected in the lower incidence of usage in vernacular forms among middle-class speakers in particular” (Holmes 151).
A number of the reasons put forth indicate that this behavior in women is necessitated by the fact that “women have less power and social status than men, and that women seem more conscious of their social status than men” (Gordon 47). Researcher Susan Gal found, in 1978, that in a German-Hungarian community in Austria, an increasing use of German (the prestige language) was significantly connected to modern progress and economic advancement. Women dominated this transition and were aware of the possibilities for financial gain that could be facilitated by the use of a prestigious language choice, hence the overall shift to German (Gordon 47).
Rounding this out, is Trudgill’s initial work in 1972 and 1974, that gestures to women’s “greater consciousness of social status” to substantiate the findings of his sociolinguistic study of Norwich speakers, and suggests that “women are highly sensitive to linguistic norms because of their insecure social position” (Gordon 47). The process behind this being that traditional forms of female labor, i.e. housework and child-rearing, do not convey a position status and prestige and women therefore seek to neutralize this assumed inferiority by speaking in a language form that is considered socially superior. Conversely, men can articulate themselves in the vernacular without associated stereotyping because “they possess the covert prestige associated with masculinity” (Gorden 48). In recent years, there have been other attempts to explicate these linguistic choices and yet Trudgill’s findings remain a vital part of the overall academic discussion of this phenomenon, as they were in our course this semester.
This brings me to the work of Elizabeth Gordon, a linguist from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Her article, entitled “Sex, Speech, and Stereotypes: Why Women Use Prestige Speech Forms More Than Men”, explores the notion that a women’s choice to use prestige speech forms and to style shift more than men, is not because they are self-promoting or seeking to be classed in a higher social position, but is in fact more a covert matter involving the avoidance of being stereotyped as a member of a lower social class. More specifically, females do so to avoid being labeled promiscuous. Evidence produced in a survey of New Zealand middle class speakers demonstrated that the stereotyping of the female using a lower prestige dialect was not restricted to mere social or class position, but included the assumption of potential sexual immorality. Society continues to maintain a double-standard with regard to men’s and women’s sexual behavior and this necessitates a female’s need to use a prestige form of speech as a way of avoiding association with this lower-class stereotype (Gordon 50).
History demonstrates prolifically that moral judgments are imposed upon people solely because of the dialect. A New Zealand study includes a plethora of comments regarding speech associated with lower-classes noting it is “lazy speech” including “degenerate vowel sounds” and “disgraceful dipthongs” (Gordon 48). Studies by Gordon et al. in 1983, 1989, and 1990 reflect that lower class children were described as “being badly influenced by the “home and the street”; they were characterized as “lazy, rude, vicious, and unwilling to open their lips or move their tongues properly when they spoke” (Gordon 48).
Interestingly enough, Gordon cites the work of George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion, which we studied as “My Fair Lady”. Shaw, in his work, noted that sexual immorality was “the factor that distinguished the respectable from the non-respectable working class” (Gordon 49) which is described as the “deserving and undeserving poor” (Gordon 49). This is a theme that is recurrent throughout literature as well, wherein sexuality and moral normalcy are reflected by members of middle class families.
Here and now, in modern society, Gordon sought to provide evidence that such moral judgments are still being made about lower class people simply on the basis of their speech, in particular with regard to a woman’s sexual proclivity. She found herself inclined to do so after some discussions she was having with 17-18 year old students revealed a tendency toward this stereotyping. In particular, she noted the boy’s labeling of a working-class middle aged woman, introduced in a speech clip, a as “slut” and “slag”, simply on the basis of her speech style. They also stereotyped a woman using a higher-prestige speech style and “snobbish and proud” but made no reference to her sexual inclinations. To Gordon, this provided credibility to the notion that the stereotype equating promiscuity and lower-social class was alive and well in modern society. She drew further distinction by noting the particular differences in the language of sexual labeling itself: a female is “the town bike” or “an easy lay” whereby a male is merely “sowing his wild oats” (Gordon 50).
Her hypothesis was that “a woman is especially likely to style shift to more prestigious language in situations where she might be judged by people who do not know her” (Gordon 50). She even cites Lakoff, who stated in her research that girls are brought up to talk and behave like “little ladies”; thus they are encouraged to be “passive, polite, and refrain from swearing” (Gordon 50). Gordon then postulates that, “style shifting to a more prestigious speech variety therefore conveys that the female speaker is not lower-class, and is consequently a respectable person, because behind the accepted modes of behavior for middle class women there still exists the unspoken implication that these are also indications of morality” (Gordon 50).
To support her hypothesis, she developed a method whereby recordings were made of three speakers, using varying and authentic forms of local dialects associated with social hierarchy. Participants were asked to pair the speaker they heard with photographs of a woman dressed in three different reflections of local fashion. The results reflected that the clothes and dialect most likely to be associated with lower-class women elicited a distinct negative stereotype. The speaker/model called “Linda” was seen by almost all of the 107 participants as having the lowest intelligence, the lowest family income, and being the most likely to smoke and be promiscuous – a conclusion reached solely through the observation of a photo and a corresponding speech clip. Even her friendliness and humor were in doubt for some of the participants, and more so in the eyes of private school girls. The results suggest that today, as historically, lower-class female speakers are still seen as more likely to be sexually promiscuous than females in higher social classes.
Gordon’s study assigns a clear relationship between certain types of vernacular speech patterns and a resulting prejudice about the speaker. She demonstrates specifically that in order to avoid the stereotype of promiscuity by default, some female speakers will make the shift to a prestigious speech form. To Gordon, language is a vessel that can work to undermine a prejudice or to perpetuate it and the psychology of this prejudice is directly related to language. Another recent study that confirms such a relationship between language and prejudice is “Language and Prejudice: Direct and Moderated Effects” by Katherine Collins and Richard Clement (May 2012). Their study indicates that “language is a sign… that makes group membership salient, which, as an indirect consequence, may make the speaker a target of prejudice” (Collins & Clement 383). More significantly, that “the majority of studies show that when language signals group membership, either by accent or by specific in-group-specific phrasing, there is a shift in how the speaker is perceived” (383). Clearly then, that shift in perception can be negative or positive relative to the bias of the recipient toward the particular dialect of the speaker in question. As demonstrated in Gordon’s study, when that dialect is associated with females in a lower social class, the resulting bias is inclined toward the presumption of sexual immorality regardless of a lack of evidence to support it.
So while it is clear that prejudice can be both bred and born based on the language of the speaker and the bias of the listener, what is not clear is then what can be done to counter such prejudices. Certainly, as members of a growing global community, it is desirable to attain a level of communication that avoids the attribution of negative identity traits in the absence of facts to support the existence of such traits. Collins and Clement offer that “while language is generally used to support prevailing social norms that it may also be a tool to change social norms and stereotypes” (Collins and Clement 389). What remains unanswered is how exactly to construct that change amongst a growing and diverse global population. I would assert that education is the key. The beginning to that change is the understanding of how we generate and perpetuate prejudices via our language choices and our perceptions of the choices of others. The journey would then be, through that awareness, to recognize our unsubstantiated prejudices and to alter them accordingly. It is only then that we can take steps to make certain that we see one another by the color of our character and not the color in our words, and even in our skins. Until such a time exists, it is likely that people in general, and women in specific, will have to continue the shift to prestigious speech forms to avoid such prejudices. In addition, to ensure it is the content of their speech and not the speech form itself – subject to unfair biases – that is being considered.
Clement, Richard and Collins, Katherine A. “Language and Prejudice: Direct and
Moderated Effects”. Special Issue of Journal of Language and Social Psychology 31.4 (2012): 376-396. Web.
Gordon, Elizabeth. “Sex, Speech, and Stereotypes: Why Women Use Prestige Speech
Forms More than Men”. Language in Society 26.1 (1997): 47-63.
Holmes, Janet. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2013. Print.
Spolsky, Bernard. Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
Transcendentalism and Puritanism share an enduring relativity embedded in modern American individualism. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau espoused the tenants of a quasi-religion governed by individuality and nature while Puritans like Jonathan Edwards, though influenced by the academics of free thinking, knelt at the altar of altruism governed by an angry God. While we indeed have deep roots within Puritanism as a nation, we are equally influenced by the individualism that is Transcendentalism. In reflecting upon the condition of modern American society, it seems clear that the divisions that separate these two distinct ideologies, their seeds planted during the time of our foundation, still frame the divisions we face as a collective people today.
In order to truly understand both the endurance and the influence of each school of thought, they must first be defined. Transcendentalism cannot be fully comprehended without establishing its relationship to its founding father – Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was born in 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts into a family that had served as esteemed clergymen for generations. It seemed his life was destined to find its path navigated by a pastoral career but his philosophy and theology were so influenced by German and English works that he soon found himself questioning the framework that defined organized religion. Further, a collection of his letters demonstrates that he was likewise greatly influenced by his independent and controversial Aunt Mary, whose unique, feminist spirit and keen mind would no doubt have shaped Emerson’s own penchant for individualism – a core tenant of Transcendentalism.
Though Emerson is credited with the foundation of Transcendentalism, the name itself was actually derived from the work of German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Emerson’s works are laden with inference to Kant’s primary assertions “that the human mind “forms” experience; that the existence of such mental operations is a counter to skepticism; and that “transcendental” does not mean “transcendent” or beyond human experience altogether, but something through which experience is made possible” (Goodman, 2003). Parting somewhat from Kant, however, is Emerson’s postulation that reason is a by-product of vision rather than a mere comprehension borne of the effort-filled workings of the mind seeking answers. He, like his cohorts Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, experienced such vision in the trappings of nature, rather than in the confines of the church.
Another interesting though lesser known contributor to the tenants of Transcendentalism was Amos Bronson Alcott who wrote Conversations with Children Upon the Gospels. Goodman defines his philosophy thusly, “He found anticipations of his views about a priori knowledge in the writings of Plato and Kant, and support in Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection for the idea that idealism and materiality could be reconciled”. In order to demonstrate this reconciliation, Alcott looked to the children he taught arguing that “the truth of Christianity could be found in the unimpeded flow of children’s thought” (Goodman, 2003); it’s a possible reflection of Matthew 18.3 which reads, “And He Said: “Truly I Tell You, Unless You Change and Become like Little Children, You Will Never Enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18.3, NAS Bible). The reconciliation he gestures to is the idealistic purity of a child observed in an environment most unrestrictive to his/her natural inclinations, which have yet to become wholly perverted by the expectations of societal conformity.
Rejection of conformity is also at the heart of Transcendentalism. Emerson’s essay entitled Self Reliance aims right at the heart of the conformity imposed by society and categorically dismisses anything that resembles a herd mentality. He believed that each person should strive to find his own unique relation to the universe rather than one prescribed by dogmatic doctrine or societal pressure. He admonishes the reader of Self Reliance to “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string” (Anthology 685) and further states, “there is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion…” (Anthology, 684). His hope, like his fellow Transcendentalists, for his time and that of future generations, was that “we have heard the last of conformity and consistency” (Anthology, 690).
Lastly, the exploration of the core tenants of Transcendentalism sheds the greatest light on that which differentiates it from its Puritan opposition. It is a form of philosophical idealism that calls upon the individual to rise above the animalistic impulses in life, as well as the cultural restrictions imposed upon the individual. In Transcendentalism, God is a life force found in everything which negates the necessity of churches or holy places. God is found in both nature and human nature; he is a “light” in everyone. As a rule, one must ruminate over and nourish the inner light to keep it alive and healthy. Everyone is in possession of intuition or an inherent understanding of right and wrong but culture and society tend to corrupt the intuition. To actualize the authority of our intuition, we must learn, think, and reflect. Further, neither our past nor our future should limit the present. We must live close to nature because it is our greatest teacher and our connection to God. Individualism is that the very heart of Transcendentalism and self-empowerment is borne of the defiance of social conventions – even God is not the ultimate authority. To the Transcendentalist, evil is not the opposite of good, it is simply the absence of good, but good is thought to be more powerful. Finally, all things are encompassed and contained by the Oversoul, which has spiritual power.
The opposition to Puritanism in the immediately preceding tenants is only fully realized when placed in juxtaposition with the Puritanical beliefs. Where Transcendentalists assert their natural right to an individual relationship with God, defined only by one’s own will and a communing with nature, Puritans “sought both individual and corporate conformity to the teaching of the Bible, with moral purity pursued both down to the smallest detail, as well as ecclesiastical purity to the highest level. They believed that man existed for the glory of God, that his first concern in life was to do God’s will and so to receive future happiness” (Wikipedia, Puritan). Puritans were largely responsible for amendments that mandated public education inspired by their belief that children could only conform properly to biblical and legal tenants if they could read them for themselves. For Puritans, conformity was essential lest humanity lean toward absolute barbarism.
Even more inclined toward conformity was the Puritan notion that the purpose of humanity could not be fulfilled in a way pleasing to the God they served without engaging in the institute of marriage and procreation. To the Puritan, it was sinful to regard oneself in priority above servitude to God through marriage; marriage was the utmost expression of unity and deference to God’s will. Emerson’s Aunt Mary, was herself of Puritanical inclinations, and yet refused to marry and lived out her years as a single woman in defiance of this tenant. It is likely that this also spurred the beginning notions of individualism in Emerson’s philosophy; his eccentric Aunt was practicing such a regard for self first long before Emerson began to embrace it and teach it.
Finally, there is the difference in the very definition of God Himself. For the Puritan, God was something separate from humanity and it was only through conformity, hard work, marriage, and good deeds that one could strive for closeness to God and eventually, entry into his eternal kingdom. God was ever disappointed in humanity; a point never so emphatically made as in Jonathan Edwards famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. Edwards admonishes his congregation to “consider the fearful danger you are in: ‘this a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell; you hang by a slender thread…” (Anthology, 298). So while the Transcendentalist communed peacefully with a God alive both within and without, the Puritan lived in constant fear of the wrath of a separate being ever ready to cast him into a burning hell for his humanistic selfishness and sin.
Now that these rather binary ideologies have been defined historically and philosophically, how then is it that they endure and hold relevance in modern society, as was previously asserted? Patrick Deneen, in his essay “Transcendentalism, Ancient and Modern: Brownson versus Emerson” ruminates accordingly, “A question that hangs over contemporary America is whether our story will end-perhaps even self-destruct- with this emphasis on individualism and democracy understood as freedom without restraint, or whether America, like Brownson, will view the implications of its reaction against its Calvinist (Puritan) past as itself excessive and, if not convert en masse to Catholicism (religion), nevertheless come to accept a form of Christian realism-what Peter Lawler has described as “post-modernism rightly understood” (Deneen, Transcendentalism). Deneen asserts that “what the final “Brown-sonian” turn away from our transcendental inheritance would necessitate above all is a reining in of our belief in unlimited human freedom in favor of an acceptance of limits and democracy understood better as self-restraint than thoroughgoing liberation”. The final result of such a turning would not result simply in a re-emergence of the Puritan lifestyle nor wholly reject Transcendentalism but would instead become a hybrid of the best of both ideologies, uniting modern society as a collective whole retaining a measure of individuality in absence of an all-consuming self-interest. Deneen postulates the hybrid is therefore a “democratic faith” that “will foster transcendence of individual identity within a more comprehensive human whole while simultaneously resisting the absorption of the ego into an undifferentiated collectivity, thereby allowing us to retain our claims to individuality-yet an individuality that was most fundamentally itself when immersed in the whole”.
Elections in recent years, polarizations of liberalism vs. conservatism, reflect the deep divisions that exist yet today in American culture – divisions borne of the founding ideologies of Transcendentalism and Puritanism. Democrats and Republications, conservatives and liberals, are a near equal divide as poll numbers in elections, as well as the resulting percentages at election’s end, have revealed. Their core tenants, political positioning if you will, are a direct reflection of our roots embedded in the binary ideals. Is it possible that the hypothetical recipe for a unified hybrid could at some point end this division once and for all? While desirable, well-researched, and well-articulated by Deneen, it seems highly unlikely given the current state of affairs. One can only hope.
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Belasco, Susan. “Emerson: Self-Reliance.” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature.
Vol. 1. Boston. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2008. 683+. Print.
Deneen, Patrick J. “Transcendentalism, Ancient and Modern: Brownson Versus
Emerson.” Perspectives on Political Science 37.1 (2008): 8-16. ProQuest. Web. 21 Nov.
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(1999): 1590-2. ProQuest. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
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Nov. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puritan>.
“Nothing goes by luck in composition. . . . The best you can write will be the best you are. Every sentence is the result of a long probation. The author’s character is read from title page to end” (Thoreau, 2009:159)
I’m writing about Transcendentalism tonight and its enduring relativity embedded in modern American individualism. Hence, the quotes and poems by Transcendentalist founders. While we indeed have deep roots within Puritanism as a nation, we are equally influenced by the individualism espoused by this quasi-religion. In reflecting upon the condition of American society today, it seems clear that the divisions that separate these two distinct ideologies, their seeds planted during the time of our foundation, still frame the divisions we face as a collective people today.
Self or Denial of Self? That is the question…
Moby and Melville. These names frame one of the most enigmatic and yet magical periods of my entire life. Melville’s writing is a once in a lifetime adventure through some of the most complex and relevant issues of existence. I shared Melville with a small group of culturally and chronologically diverse students; a chance collection of the best kind of individuals one could only hope to ever meet. Truly, I can’t imagine having gone through my life without them and I miss them often; their open minds, their curious souls, their compassionate hearts, not the least of which was a professor I am certain I will never meet a superior to. (Dearest Lord, I ended in a preposition, forgive me!) All of this, amidst the immersion and subsequent discussion of over 20 significant novels, works, histories, and poems culminating with a party the focus of which was upon a white whale cake with a red velvet center.
Read. Moby. Dick.
And find someone to share the experience with. You won’t regret it.