Language Variation

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Domains of Language Use: A Fundamental Concept for Framing Language Policy in South Africa ` - Chris Jeffery and Rajend Mesthrie

On behalf of the English National Language Body of the Pan South African Language Board

A valuable achievement of sociolinguistic theory has been to make explicit fundamental facts about language that everyone knows intuitively yet easily overlooks. Two such pertinent facts are: 1. Language is invariably, indeed necessarily, embedded in and given meaning by the situations in which it is used. 2. All communities use language differently according to situation of use; and many communities go a step further and actually use different languages according to situation. Ultimately every situation and every individual user is unique, but for the purpose of analysis it is necessary to make abstractions by organising instances of this concrete reality into categories. Abstractions from individual habits, regarded as tokens, constitute types of

linguistic behaviour known as registers or varieties; and, at a higher level, as languages. As with language, so with situation: situation-types must be abstracted from tokens, that is the particular occasions, by asking who is using language to whom, how, why, when and where. The answers are arranged in sets of categories; and the basic, indispensable category is generally known as domain (of discourse). Linguistic variation typically correlates primarily with domain. The sociolinguistic notion of domain was formalised by Joshua Fishman (1972), who stressed that different settings characteristically call for the use of different languages in a multilingual society (or varieties of the same language in a monolingual society). At one level a domain is a concrete setting like the home, the street, the classroom, a shop, university, a religious institution, the media etc. More plausibly, the determinant of using one language variety over another is not the physical setting alone, but the general activity (“event”) conventionally associated with the setting. So “church” stands for the range of activities associated with religion. In some societies this domain calls for a switch to another language 1

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(Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Ge’ez etc.). In all religious societies the domain calls for a formal, “high”, “sermonistic” and somewhat archaic variety of language. Other broad domains would commonly be home, school, work, sport and recreation; and each has distinct linguistic correlates. Boardroom and bedroom, dining-room and

changing-room all differ in discourse. For the purpose of analysis narrower distinctions of domain may be required. For example, within the work domain, boardroom and shopfloor differ in discourse; likewise, a newspaper office and an IT company; and so on. The association of particular languages or varieties of language with specific domains is a widespread convention in human societies, but it is not necessarily fixed: An influential leader may avoid an over-formal or ornate style in favour of language closer to more informal domains. The language of the home is often associated with customs and traditions of a community; however, where the community itself is in the process of change and/or modernisation, language practices may also change. Since speakers are at least intuitively aware that their practice is meaningful in itself, it is clear that meaning is associated with choice of form. Furthermore, domain has a pervasive semantic effect. In order for the finite resources of language to encompass the potential infinity of meanings in the extra-linguistic world, polysemy is a necessary condition: words must have many meanings, which vary essentially with domain. So for example partners in the boardroom are not (normally) partners in the bedroom. Everyone knows that meaning depends on context; but not everyone appreciates how much more of that context is constituted by the...
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