December 09, 2017

Sociolinguistic concepts through popular culture, Part 3: Bernie Sanders and factors that drive language variation

Part three of my examples linking sociolinguistics to popular culture kinda follows up on Part 1 which showed (via drag queens) how no two speakers are identical. (Part 2 skipped over to communities of practice in Mean Girls).

I have to confess, this episode is less about my own creativity and more about finding a pretty perfect video on YouTube that did the job of linking sociolinguistics to the real world for me. Worth sharing all the same...

Key concept: Variability in language (which exists everywhere) is caused by geographic and social factors.

Concept in more detail: The subfield of sociolinguistics makes no bones about the fact that language varies everywhere, all the time. No two individuals speak exactly the same way and no individual speaks the same way all the time either. Many sociolinguists are concerned with not just describing this ubiquitous variability but figuring out the causes of variation.

For a long time, where someone is from (i.e. geography) was investigated as the main cause of variation. Then sociolinguists got cleverer and saw how variability can be explained by factors like age, gender, ethnicity and class - factors that are social rather than geographical.

Exemplifying the concept: If you can remember back to the wonderful days before Donald Drumpf ruled America, you might recall a nerdy old dude called Bernie Sanders who had quite different ideas about what an American president should do. While Bernie was in the presidential candidacy spotlight, people noticed he talked funny.

As a result, the American news site Vox put together a clever, entertaining and brilliantly edited video explaining key features of Bernie Sanders' speech. It proved to be the perfect explainer of how social and geographic factors can explain linguistic variation:

When we looked at this video in class, students were able to appreciate the ways in which Sanders' speech deviates from what most people consider to be a typical American English accent. The video also gives enough information so that students can easily connect the dots and, based on the excellent explanations in the video, describe the factors causing variation. After a quick in-class Q&A, students can summarise Sanders' variable features (called variants) and the correlating geographic and social factors:
  • 'Thought' vowel: 
    • geography factor - New York English
    • age factor - used less by younger New "Yawkers
    • ethnicity factor - the age-based change is more obvious among white people
  • Lack of 'r's (non-rhotic accent): 
    • geography factor - New York, Boston, Savannah English
    • age + class factors - seen as prestigious in early-mid 1900s, non-prestigious in late 1900s
    • ethnicity factor - associated with Jewish community
  • Final 't' sounds released:
    •  ethnicity factor - associated with Jewish community
Thanks Vox for making this great video linking sociolinguistics to popular culture. It made for a very useful learning tool!

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