Today’s Weekends With a Sociologist lunges us into the heart of Australian suburbia. There’s revelry in Australiania, a notion that I’ve never been especially comforable with, but we’re plunging in all the same! You’ll see there is much to cringe about, and more delights in store, in Jon Campbell’sWord. The Irish-Australian migrant artist lives in Coburg, an inner Northern suburb of Melbourne. The exhibitionis based on his artworks that use numerous light boxes to emphasise the language of the working class in the inner Northern and Western suburbs of Melbourne, the typical signage seen along country roads, and Anglo-Aussie surf culture. Banners host Aussie venacular, pub menu items, live music posters, and peculiar messages familiar to locals.
This exhibition includes Stacks On (2010) and the 65 metre mural commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Why are spelling conventions in English so peculiar, such as with the silent “b” in “doubt”? It’s due to the influence of Latin culture and symbolic capital. Symbolic capital describes the immaterial resources that people draw on in order to maintain or improve their social status. Language, literature, the arts and other forms of culture act as symbolic capital that signal our belonging to a particular class. Language and culture are also used to elevate the authority and economic achievements of dominant groups.
Throughout history being able to speak and write Latin has been a sign of being upper class. Latin was also important to the religious elites who acted as scribes that documented culture and history.
Latin drew on French language rules as French grew out of Latin. The French word for doubt has a “b” which is why Latin scribes used it when they started to catalogue English in written texts. English is a Germanic language that was spoken by the masses long before it was written down and so the elites reflected their own linguistic norms on the English written form rather than following the spoken rules.
This Chalking Points video documents this history on brief.
In a fun rummage through vintage sociology, I found an interesting study by Isidor Thorner. Writing in 1951, he used a survey of Americans from various backgrounds to determine the relationship between New Year’s Resolutions (NYR) and Protestant values. Below I take a look at the major findings of Thorner’s study, exploring the historical and cultural variations of resolutions.
Protestant culture highly valued the idea of being in full control of one’s emotions. This meant being organised and denying oneself frivolous pursuits so as to be free to fulfil religious duty. Not adhering to these strict values brought about great personal shame.
Thorner argues that the New Year’s resolutions helped Protestants to manage their emotional baggage, and that over time, this practice lost its religious connotation and spread more widely.
Being bilingual opens up new worlds to speakers. It also appears to delay the onset of dementia…
In the Hyderabad region, a language called Telugu is spoken by the majority Hindu group, and another called Dakkhini by the minority Muslim population. Hindi and English are also commonly spoken in formal contexts, including at school. Most people who grow up in the region, then, are bilingual, and routinely exposed to at least three languages.
The patients who contributed data to the study, then, are surrounded by multiple languages in everyday life, not primarily as a result of moving from one location to another. This turns out to be an important factor, as the authors explain:
In contrast to previous studies, the bilingual group was drawn from the same environment as the monolingual one and the results were therefore free from the confounding effects of immigration. The bilingual effect on age at dementia onset was shown independently of other potential confounding factors, such as education, sex, occupation, cardiovascular risk factors, and urban vs rural dwelling, of subjects with dementia.
In other words, thanks in large part to the study’s cultural context, these researchers made great progress zeroing in on bilingualism as the specific reason for the delay in dementia symptoms.
What exactly is it about the ability to speak in two languages that seems to provide this protective effect? Alladi and co-authors explain:
The constant need in a bilingual person to selectively activate one language and suppress the other is thought to lead to a better development of executive functions and attentional tasks with cognitive advantages being best documented in attentional control, inhibition, and conflict resolution.
Sociology defines culture as something we do (social practices). It involves using things such as dress and food to communicate our social belonging to particular groups, as well as using other physical resources (materials). For example, wealth influences our ideas about what “good” culture is or isn’t. If you’re middle class you may see graffiti as a nuisance, but if you’re poor or working class street art is a form of social resistance and community expression. Continue reading Sociology of Culture
A recent survey by the Australian Academy of Science shows that people know less about basic science than they did three years a go. Should we be concerned that people don’t know that it takes one year for the Earth to orbit the sun? If so what should we do about it? What is the social significance of scientific thinking? Continue reading Public Knowledge of Science
A three year study has charted the changes to British Sign Language. Younger deaf people no longer use signs that are now considered culturally offensive, while older people continue to use these signs depending upon region, age and class. Some signs have been re-appropriated by minority groups, such as the “old” sign for gay. Just as spoken language is influenced by sociological factors and historical changes, so too is sign language.
Economist-Staff is a website whose sole purpose is to point out white cultural dominance within The Economist, one of the world’s most respected economic publications. The Economist magazine shapes its global economic analyses through highly specific racial, ethnic and linguistic lenses.
The Economist-Staff website began in response to an article in The Economist that attempted to answer “Why are Korean women so good at golf?” The Economist Staff points out that is a problematic question to begin with, let alone the article itself, which reproduces racial and ethnic stereotypes. Check out the rest of the Economist-Staff site, which refutes The Economist’s claims that the magazine is about diversity, and that it is “the enemy of privilege, pomposity and predictability”. In the graphics below, we see that one way through which whiteness discourses are perpetuated in the magazine is through the English language.
How do you like your rappers? Aged two and super deliciously cute? Here you go.
Cuteness aside, Valerie Chepp provides a very useful postmodernist sociological analysis of this clip. This discourse analysis shows how the social dynamics of learning language, such as emulating patterns of speech, gestures and inflections of emotion, can occur prior to learning the meaning of words.
This home video of 2-year-old Khaliyl Iloyi rapping with his father can be used to illustrate Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1857-1913) concepts of langue and parole which, for Saussure, comprise a larger system of signs he calls language. Langue entails the total system of possibilities; it is the abstract set of structured rules that a given speech community internalizes. Parole, on the other hand, consists of individual speech acts and the message contained within them. Saussure argues that individuals don’t pick and choose what belongs to langue or parole; rather, langue is social (in that it operates according to a set of rules that are in place before and after our existence) and parole is individual. Another way Saussure understood this distinction was that langue is a static, synchronic system while parole is diachronic and contingent. This video clip illustrates how, even at age two, Khaliyl understands the basic underlying structure of language (langue), even if he has yet to master the meaning of individual speech acts (parole). He is engaging in the social enterprise of langue in that he has internalized the abstract rules of language for his speech community, even though a meaningful message has yet to be put into practice (parole).
Essentially, Chepp points out that learning how to act our speech patterns is just as critical as knowing how to speak. The way humans exchange verbal and non-verbal signs is central to the transmission of culture and belonging. The child in the video, Khaliyl Iloyi, comes from a musical family. He has learned how to mimic the behaviourisms of his rapper father even though he cannot speak. These non-verbal cues – what Bourdieu calls habitus, are part of the embodiment of culture and history. We learn how to act out our culture before we really understand verbal meaning. This is why the way we behave as adults seems natural and normal – because we’ve internalised how we are supposed to behave as infants, and we learn to take this for granted.