Language ideologies

There’s an old adage of ambiguous provenance, well-known amongst sociolinguists, that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. This captures the traditionally strong correlation between political power and linguistic recognition. Part of getting students to reflect on their linguistic repertoire and the choices they make in relation to it, is thinking about the connotations attached to the languages they have access to. These connotations can be understood as ‘language ideologies’, what Kroskrity (2004) describes as a ‘ubiquitous set of diverse beliefs, however implicit or explicit they may be, used by speakers of all types as models for constructing linguistic evaluations and engaging in communicative activity’ (p497).  These beliefs shape how we understand what it means to use a particular language, so while for many in the UK French may carry associations of sophistication, Panjabi has been associated with a ‘threat to “Britishness”’ (Blackledge, 2002). This also operates at the level of different varieties, with Standard English occupying a privileged position over other forms. However, George Osbourne’s apparent use of Estuary English to demonstrate solidarity when talking to supermarket staff in Kent (see Masters, 2013) shows that language ideologies are complex and tightly bound up with the context in which language is used.

Gal and Irvine (1995) identify iconicity and erasure as two of the key processes underpinning the operation of language ideologies. Iconicity refers to the way language can be seen as an iconic representation of its speakers, ‘as if a linguistic feature somehow depicted or displayed a social group’s inherent nature or essence’ (p973). An example of this is the idea that German has particularly complex grammar, representative of a supposed predilection for rationality on the part of Germans. Erasure refers to the large scale brushing-under-the-carpet of anything which contradicts the notions outlined above. Although conveniently simple conceptions such as “national character” and “correct usage” can be challenged by examining how people actually behave, they still underpin “common sense” ideas about language.