This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue.
The relationship between language and culture is deep, and exists on many levels. Social relationships can affect language and its use, occasionally in interesting ways.
One such is the phenomenon of the ‘avoidance language’ or ‘mother-in-law language’. While the formal definition is quite a bit narrower (and more rigorous) than I use here, it’s not entirely inaccurate to describe the phenomenon as a language (or vocabulary within a language) that allows communication between social groups that may not otherwise be permitted to interact ‘normally’. Some examples of this phenomenon—and possibly related ones:
- Among certain tribal societies, most notably Australian aboriginals and some North American tribes, it is forbidden for a person (‘ego’, in such discussions) to talk to (or in some cases, even look at) ego’s spouse’s parent of the opposite sex. In such cases, communication between ego and the ‘taboo’ person may be done through such a language. (This is the origin of the term ‘mother-in-law language’.) Most examples of this type of avoidance language have features such as reduced vocabulary and circumlocutive phrasing (usually because of the reduced vocabulary).
- In discussions of Japanese culture prior to extensive contact with the West, it is often said (with accuracy unknown to the author) that one would use different vocabulary when speaking to someone of higher social status, of equal social status, and of lower social status—and that similar differences of vocabulary applied when men and women spoke to each other. The social-status difference also appeared in Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Farnham’s Freehold.
- A less-extreme example of a similar phenomenon can be seen in hierarchical business/government environments, where the way an idea is expressed changes depending on who is the speaker and who the listener—for example, when something must be done and can only be done by one person, a hierarchical superior may simply say “John, frabulate the potrzebie”, whereas the subordinate will say “Mr Jones, it looks like the potrzebie needs to be frabulated, and you’re the only one that can do it. Would it be possible to get it done soon?”.
- In the German medieval and renaissance periods, it has been suggested that nobles never gave orders directly to their servants. Instead, they would address others in the room, or even inanimate objects, and simply describe what the servant was required to do, e.g., ‘She will bring brandy’, ‘He will bring the carriage to the door’, ‘She will escort the guest to her (the guest’s) room’, and so on. (It has been suggested that this is more of a case of simply never addressing the servant directly, not even to look at, rather than specifically addressing others (or inanimate objects) with the orders for the servant). Similarly, in some literary portrayals set in preindustrial (or early industrial) England, the master of the house never addresses most servants directly, even if the servant in question is in the same room; rather, the order is directed to the majordomo, butler, or valet, (whoever is in the role of “head servant”) who then directs the appropriate servant.
Another way that social relationships can affect language is in the phenomenon of “code-switching”. This term is used, perhaps not entirely properly, in at least three different ways:
- Most commonly, it is when two people are speaking together, where both are bilingual in the same two languages, and words or phrases from one language are injected into the middle of phrases, sentences, or paragraphs in the other. Several reasons have been given for this, including (but not necessarily limited to) the lack of a good word of phrase in the “main” language to express a concept that exists and has the phrase or word in the other language, the use of clichés, to signal membership in an ‘in group’, or merely as a show of ‘prestige’ knowledge. Note that the term does not apply when the words or phrases have been ‘borrowed’ into the other language, nor when the discussion is entirely in one language except for direct quotations of others.
- The phrase has also been used to describe the situation where two people are both knowledgeable in the same pair of languages, but each is more fluent in one of them—not the one that the other is fluent in—and uses that language to talk to the other. This was at one time (and may still be today) seen in immigrant households or communities in the United States, where the older generation speak the language of the ‘old country’, but the young speak English. The author is aware of at least one example where a ‘mixed’ immigrant community (two different linguistic sources) expressed this phenomenon within a single generation, where one person spoke Italian and the other, Yiddish.
- It also appears to be used to describe the situation where the
same person may use different dialects, languages, or speech
patterns in different contexts:
- For example, the pastor of a church in a poor neighborhood of an inner-city will tend to use the same dialect or speech patterns as his congregants when speaking to them—but if he goes to speak on behalf of his congregants and their community needs to a city councillor/alderman/etc. who uses a ‘more proper’ form of the language and sees the congregants’ dialect as ‘less educated/literate’, the pastor will conform to that ‘proper’ usage.
- An immigrant who works in an environment where the expectation is that everyone will be conversant in the local dominant or official language will use that language in the work environment, but may speak to a spouse in the language of their country-of-origin. If there is a comparatively large subset of individuals in the organization who come from the same linguistic background, that language, even if not officially sanctioned, may be used both in work-related and ‘recreational’ discussion in the workplace, if all participants come from that linguistic background. (For example, in greater NYC, all McDonald’s employees are expected to be able to understand and speak English reasonably fluently for interacting with the customers, but background chatter among the employees is quite likely to be in Spanish.) Note that this phenomenon has been known to offend others not fluent in the unsanctioned language.
In so-called ‘immigrant nations’ (such as the US, Canada, Australia, etc.), assimilation to the dominant culture (and language) is generally encouraged—but the immigrants sometimes feel that the pressure to assimilate is excessive, and resist. One manner of resistance is to insist on the preservation of the original language. This might be done de facto via ‘ghettoization’ (as is frequently seen in “Chinatowns” or “Little Arabias” or et cetera), or by the deliberate creation of schools that conform to local educational requirements, but conduct instruction and recreational interaction in the immigrant language. In some cases, this might extend to an official policy of bilingualism (with the extreme represented by Québec, where the policy requires local dominance of French, rather than the de facto dominance of English as in the rest of Canada) or polylingualism (for example, in California in the US, most state governmental forms are required to be available in dozens of languages, and court interpreters must collectively be able to interpret in any of the 220 languages recorded as being spoken in the state).
On the other side of that phenomenon is the ‘accreted’ nation, where many disparate groups are welded together. In such a case, the central government may not demand any sort of assimilation and make official the use at a national level of a language not spoken by any of the disparate groups, while allowing regional and local use of indigenous language (India is one example of this, where English is used as the neutral common language (although Hindi also has official status nationally)); alternatively, a mandate for assimilation may be in place, and the dominant culture to which everyone is expected to assimilate also provides the official language (the People’s Republic of China, with its common written language, uses Mandarin as the official spoken language, though most regions have their own language). There is a third policy, exemplified by Switzerland, where there are only a few regional languages; there (and possibly similar cases elsewhere), the regional languages are all granted coequal official status. Similar to this third option is the use by international organizations of several widely-spoken national languages as official languages, all generally with coequal status (such as the United Nations, with English, Russian, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic all having official status, or the European Union, where all of the member states’ national languages have official status.).