It's now just one month until the publication of Language and Identity: Discourse in the World. Publishing on 18th December, this book examines the closely interwoven relationships between language and identities, finding that words themselves are inscribed with ideological meanings. With advance copies hot off the press, we've invited editor David Evans to write us a guest blog post to whet your appetite.
Theoretical Narratives of Language and Identity
The theoretical section in Chapter 2 of Language and Identity looks at language as a representation of rational mind and also as language as socio-cultural behaviour. These are essentially two different paradigms. The former is the domain of formal linguistics which views language as a feature of innate rationality ordered through the mechanism of a deeply embedded grammatical structure within human mind. The latter is a socio-cultural view of language as a behavioural practice without predetermined structures. In the latter model language is creative, interacting with the world, continually constructing the social world and our own identities.
So the former linguistic paradigm addresses the inner workings of language and mind and the latter socio-cultural model addresses the outer functions of language and culture.
To some extent Halliday’s Systemic Functional Linguistics attempts to reconcile inner and outer of language by showing how language in social interaction as discourse can act back on its inner features and influence lexicogrammar. For Halliday, semantics or meaning systems come before grammar and are driven by human agency in the context of social situations and speech communities. Semantics and lexicogrammar are then realized through the social system which Halliday defines as ‘field’, ‘tenor’ and ‘mode’. Field is the social context, Tenor is social relationships and Mode, the channels of communication such as the telephone, face to face interaction or group interaction. Thus social groupings of class, ethnicity and regional variations can construct non-standard lexicogrammar within language with features such as ‘we was’, ‘if I’d have went’, ‘we are going, innit’, ‘me and our Fred was goin’....’. These are just as much features of ‘working’ social class language in the same way that the use of the subject pronoun ‘One’ is a feature of ‘upper middle’ class language in such as ‘One is pleased with ----.’ Such class identity in linguistic lexicogrammatical constructions is of course reinforced by accent and pronunciation.
However, do grammatical variations really impact upon the fundamental structural identity of language? Are they not just ‘chips off the same structural block?’ It would perhaps seem that the structural nature of language involves very fundamental generic human identities such as subject pronouns, object pronouns and a state of being or acting in whatever order subject, verb, object may appear. These are known as universals in formal linguistics being common to all languages. Then there is the fundamental identity of our position in time, expressed grammatically in most languages. Added to this, again in many languages, adjectives qualify identities, adverbs qualify actions and conjunctions tie it all together. Word orders in universals may differ between languages but it seems that such underlying structural features are common in the majority of languages. One would therefore wonder if there were not an underlying common structure of grammar at this level which reflects rational mind more than evolving social cultures. Again we have the dichotomy of linguistics as mind as against linguistics as social culture. We might talk about language as having perhaps two layers of identity:- socio-cultural for language in action and an underlying generic structural identity for language as a feature of mind.
Language utterances, it could be argued, may start at surface level in action without any predetermined structure by pointing out and naming objects? However isolated utterances devoid of a structured language context would not make sense and would be random without a surrounding support system. De Saussure maintains that words derive their meanings from other adjacent words in the system and that the word is not intrinsically connected to the object but simply points to the object. Words thus can shift their semantic orientation from object to object according to convention. Words then relate as much to each other as they do to signified objects. This idea is the beginning of discourse as a concept which refers as much to mental contents as it does to the external world.
De Saussure famously differentiates between everyday language or ‘Parole’ and the formal support system of ‘Langue’ or linguistic system. Therefore, for a word-sound or utterance to become meaningful, it has to connect with a meaning potential within the semantic and linguistic systems. It therefore draws its meaning from its linguistic context as well as the wider social context.
This makes sense but cannot happen without some corresponding mental structures, in the same way that an athlete or a dancer cannot physically manoeuvre without a body or that the computer program software cannot function without the hard drive.
This psychological inner and social outer linguistic debate is echoed by the problem of knowledge. Is knowledge uncovered because its structures have always been present in the human mind as Descartes would claim or is knowledge constructed free from any pre-ordained structure? Descartes’ claim for knowledge is similar to Chomsky’s claim for language in that both have pre-determined structures in the mind which allow us to discover knowledge and learn language. Thus the mental structures for these events are an enabling device. There is, in my opinion, a balanced argument for a link between these inner structures and outer events and consequently formal and applied linguistics need not be totally opposed and antithetical paradigms. Vygotsky maintains, that our mental contents all derive from the social world and that there is nothing individual that has not at one time also been social. However the inner structures allow the cognitive processing to occur and so, in terms of language, Chomsky’s Universal Grammar seems to be a rational mechanism whereby we can translate between languages, even though the functional grammars may be different.
Yes to the many variations of grammars within and between different languages which can all translate to and from each other, albeit often approximately, thanks to a commonality of universal properties of grammatical identity . So underneath the functional grammars it may seem reasonable to argue for the enabling potential of a universally common grammar, and both linguistic paradigms are then part of a more holistic process rather than mutually exclusive.
Language and Identity publishes on 18th December