The Study of Language Attitudes.

Harold F. Schiffman

Handout for LING 540, Language Policy
U. of Pennsylvania

1 Definitions

Study of the population at large, or a segment thereof, to try to determine what people's attitudes are about:

When questions are asked about any of the above, other factors may enter in, even when the intent to study those factors is not present. There may be an Observer's Paradox, meaning that the fact of asking a question skews the response, affects it in some way. It is important then who asks the question, where, when, how, etc. For example, when the French tried to make minor changes to their orthography in 1989-90, surveys conducted among French citizens about the changes elicited strong emotional responses against the people doing the survey rather than the proposed changes.

2 Previous Attitude toward Attitude Studies:

Before the 1960's, attitudes about language not seen as important; the behaviorist approach to language study saw language as behavior, not as cognitive or mental activity and anything psychological was denounced as mentalism.

Or, study of attitude (esp. toward non-standard language) was seen as dignifying stereotypes and popularizing `unscientific' ideas about language; best to leave this alone. Pseudo-egalitarianism: ignore it and it'll go away.

Some would still advocate ignoring racist and sexist attitudes, especially the social differences associated with racism and sexism.

3 Change of Attitude toward Attitude Studies:

In early 1960's in French Canada, beginning of a change. Study of bilingualism, immersion schooling (St. Lambert experiment), led to an interest in attitude change i.e., to see whether changing schooling patterns (bilingual schooling etc.) led to a change in outlook among dominant sectors of society toward minority sector (i.e. French Canadians). The Lambert and Peal studies focussed strongly on attitude change.

Lambert et al.(Lambert, W. E., R.C. Hodgson, R.C. Gardner and S. Fillenbaum. 1960. 'Evaluational Reactions to Spoken Language.' Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 60: 44-51.) 1960 developed the matched guise technique:

Speakers are chosen who can pass as native in two different varieties (e.g. English and French) and are recorded speaking a short paragraph in both languages. Same content in both paragraphs (English is a translation of the French) so the only variable is the language. If there are 5 speakers, there are 10 `guises' and these are presented to subjects as if they are different speakers.

Subjects are asked to rank the different `speakers' on a number of different personality traits that the subjects think they can detect from the voices. Such traits as:

Outcome: Both English and French subjects rank the English `guises' higher on certain traits; each group differs in some ways on other traits, but there is consistency from both groups on the higher ranking of English guises on the above traits; other traits (religiosity, kindness) were ranked higher for French guises by French S's.

After this initial study, this technique was applied to other sociolinguistic situations involving other varieties of language, e.g. AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) and SAE (Standard American English), Chicano English and SAE, Israeli Hebrew as spoken by Arabs vs. Israeli Hebrew as spoken by Jews, etc. etc.

Other traits or characteristics could also be asked about: what kind of job should this person (or would be this person be likely to) have:

Labov et al. tested the above for certain traits, i.e. the varieties differed only with regard to use of certain phonological (morphological syntactic, lexical) variables, and found significant rankings for (e.g.) the pronunciation of post-vocalic (r) in New York NSE, etc. Labov's work looked even more carefully at the socioeconomic `class' of the subjects, i.e. how they differed in their ranking of certain variables.

3.1 Another technique

Fasold (Fasold 1984, Sociolinguistics of Society, Ch. 6) reports on another technique: Videotape children speaking, both African-American and white, and play tapes to S's, asking them to rank the children's speech on some set of criteria. Teachers typically rank the white children's speech higher.

Then switch the sound track, i.e. play them another tape on which the voices have been switched, with white children's voices dubbed for Black children, and vice-versa. Play the same tape to the same subjects: the S's still rank the white children's speech higher.

Conclusion: ranking is extremely subjective, and S's are unable to separate the white face on the video from the voice heard.

3.2 Anecdotal, Autobiographical, Fictional, or other sources

3.2 Anecdotal, Autobiographical, Fictional, or other sources

Often autobiographical accounts of growing up bi- or multilingual reveal attitudes, perhaps even deep personal trauma, involving some variety of language. Consider this (fictional) account by Jamaica Kincaid, from her short-story Xuela (New Yorker, 1994), told from the point of view of a young girl who has just come to live with her father and stepmother, somewhere in the Caribbean:

I sat down on the bed ...

See also Janet Malcolm's experience.

4 Importance of Attitude Study for Language Policy

  1. Overt vs. Covert: Attitudes that may not be overt may still be covert; they may affect the implementation of policy and cause it to fail. Or results may be obtained that were not anticipated or predicted THE LAW OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES, resources may be wasted, no changes result, with perhaps even backlash against the policy.

  2. My conception of language attitudes is that they are a part of linguistic culture (Schiffman 1996) and since language policy is often rooted in linguistic culture, attitudes cannot be ignored. See also what Hamers & Blanc (1989) say about this.

  3. In the Labovian sociolinguistic paradigm, there is the notion of covert prestige of certain (usually non-standard) linguistic forms, which explains why certain (usually non-standard) forms persist despite attempts to eradicate, stigmatize, or extirpate them. With regard to certain forms, e.g. Philadelphia (sh) forms (e.g. `shtreet' for `street') all subjects negatively evaluate this pronunciation, even those who use it themselves, and if asked what kind of a job such speakers might have, reply that they ``shouldn't have any job!"

  4. Male speech often thus seems to have covert prestige, being associated with `machismo'. Attempts to eradicate non-standard forms will then be seen as an attact on the masculinity of their users, and will fail.

4.1 Other Things to Consider

4.2 Bibliography

4.2 Bibliography

Harold Schiffman
Thu Nov 13 11:49:41 EST 1997