Speech Communities

Topics: Sociology, Linguistics, Language Pages: 8 (2981 words) Published: June 21, 2013
Speech Communities

Language is both an individual possession and a social possession. We would expect, therefore, that certain individuals would behave linguistically like other individuals: they might be said to speak the same language or the same dialect or the same variety, i.e., to employ the same code, and in that respect to be members of the same speech community, a term probably derived from the German Sprachgemeinschaft. Indeed, much work in sociolinguistics is based on the assumption that it is possible to use the concept of ‘speech community’ without much difficulty. Hudson (1996, p. 29) rejects that view: ‘our sociolinguistic world is not organized in terms of objective “speech communities,” even though we like to think subjectively in terms of communities or social types such as “Londoner” and “American.” This means that the search for a “true” definition of the speech community, or for the “true” boundaries around some speech community, is just a wild goose chase.’ We will indeed discover that just as it is difficult to define such terms as language, dialect, and variety, it is also difficult to define speech community, and for many of the same reasons. That difficulty, however, will not prevent us from using the term: the concept has proved to be invaluable in sociolinguistic work in spite of a certain ‘fuzziness’ as to its precise characteristics. It remains so even if we decide that a speech community is no more than some kind of social group whose speech characteristics are of interest and can be described in a coherent manner.

Sociolinguistics is the study of language use within or among groups of speakers. What are groups? ‘Group’ is a difficult concept to define but one we must try to grasp. For our purposes, a group must have at least two members but there is really no upper limit to group membership. People can group together for one or more reasons: social, religious, political, cultural, familial, vocational, avocational, etc. The group may be temporary or quasi-permanent and the purposes of its members may change, i.e., its raison d’être. A group is also more than its members for they may come and go. They may also belong to other groups and may or may not meet face-to-face. The organization of the group may be tight or loose and the importance of group membership is likely to vary among individuals within the group, being extemely important to some and of little consequence to others. An individual’s feelings of identity are closely related to that person’s feelings about groups in which he or she is a member, feels strong (or weak) commitment (or rejection), and finds some kind of success (or failure). We must also be aware that the groups we refer to in various research studies are groups we have created for the purposes of our research using this or that set of factors. They are useful and necessary constructs but we would be unwise to forget that each such group comprises a set of unique individuals each with a complex identity (or, better still, identities). Consequently, we must be careful in drawing conclusions about individuals on the basis of observations we make about groups. To say of a member of such a group that he or she will always exhibit a certain characteristic behavior is to offer a stereotype. Individuals can surprise us in many ways. The kind of group that sociolinguists have generally attempted to study is called the speech community. (See Patrick, 2002, for a general survey.) For purely theoretical purposes, some linguists have hypothesized the existence of an ‘ideal’ speech community. This is actually what Chomsky (1965, pp. 3–4) proposes, his ‘completely homogeneous speech community’ (see p. 3). However, such a speech community cannot be our concern: it is a theoretical construct employed for a narrow purpose. Our speech communities, whatever they are, exist in a ‘real’ world. Consequently, we must try to find some alternative view of speech community, one helpful...
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