Language and the Social Construction of Reality: Spinning Social Reality with Euphemisms Steve Eliason Montana State University, Billings
ABSTRACT This paper describes an exercise I use in my introductory sociology classes that introduces students to language and the social construction of reality process. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is widely taught in introductory sociology classes and suggests that we perceive the world in terms of our own language, and that individual languages produce different and distinct realities for those who speak them; it holds that the reality we experience is unique to our own language. However, there is a need to make students cognizant of how words within our own language are used to structure social reality. The goal of this exercise is to familiarize beginning students of sociology with euphemisms and how they are used in everyday life, and to stimulate thinking and discussion on the power of language and its relationship to social reality. A group activity is used to introduce students to euphemisms. I=ll discuss theoretical and teaching literature on language as well as euphemisms first, and return to the actual procedure later.
THEORETICAL LITERATURE The social construction of reality refers to the processes humans use to actively create and shape the world through social interaction (Berger and Luckmann 1967). Newman (1995:48) describes it as A...a process by which human-created ideas become externally given realities handed down from generation to generation.@ Berger and Luckmann claim that language is an essential part of our existence as human beings. The following passage demonstrates the importance they place on language in understanding our social world (Berger and Luckmann 1967:37): The common objectivations of everyday life are maintained primarily by linguistic signification. Everyday life is, above all, life with and by means of the language I share with my fellowmen. An understanding of language is thus essential for any understanding of the reality of everyday life. They go on to reaffirm that language is an essential aspect of the social construction of reality process. In their discussion of the omnipresent importance of language for the reality we experience in everyday life, Berger and Luckmann (1967:38) state AI encounter language as a facticity external to myself and it is coercive in its effect on me.@ Research into the social psychology of language as well as studies on language and social interaction has evolved over the past several decades among several disciplines including sociology, psychology, English, anthropology, communication, philosophy, and linguistics (Robinson 1998; Wieder 1999). One way in which language is believed to influence our understanding of social reality 62
goes back to the ideas of Sapir (1929, 1949) and Whorf (1956). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis stresses the idea that we view or perceive the world in terms of our own language. More specifically, it maintains that the social reality we experience is unique to our own language; those who speak languages other than our own perceive the world differently, according to their own language. It holds that terms for specific phenomena in languages often do not have precise counterparts in other languages (Macionis 1996). While the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is widely taught in introductory sociology courses, there is a need to demonstrate to students how various words within our own language that are used to refer to the same phenomenon often convey very different meanings to people, thus creating very different perceptions of social reality. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been very controversial among scholars of language (Cameron 1999). According to Cameron (1999:155-156) AWhorf=s big idea both attracts and repels; we are troubled (though also fascinated) by the >strong= hypothesis that radically different language systems could produce incommensurable realities, but equally we resist...
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