Power and Distributional Sociolinguistics

This chapter, like the others in this volume, demonstrates how distributional sociolinguistics can illuminate complex social issues and relationships. Specifically, it is concerned with the ways in which language mediates the workings of power. At its most basic level, power may be construed as the ability to control or influence the actions of others. While many variation studies focus on the structural aspects of the interplay between diachronic change and synchronic variation, the notion of power often enters into the equation in accounts of social motivations for language variation and change. Eckert’s (1989, 2000) study of phonological variation in an American high school stands out as a prime example. On the whole, the girls in this community make greater use of phonological variation than the boys. Offering ethnographic evidence to support her claim, Eckert attributes this to the fact that while the boys can gain power and status through direct action and physical prowess, the girls have to rely on language and other symbolic means to develop a “whole person” image designed to gain them influence within their own social groups. Looking at the role of gender in sociolinguistic variation from a different perspective, Kiesling (1998) examines the use of the variable (ING) (e.g., walking vs. walkin’) in an American college fraternity. While most of the fraternity men use primarily the standard variant (i.e., -ing) during weekly meetings, several members use the vernacular variant (i.e., -in) more frequently than the standard variant. Kiesling argues that the men with higher rates of the vernacular variant use this linguistic resource to index confrontational stances and working-class cultural models, which are crucial to the construction of a persona based on physical power.

Power also figures prominently in many interactional sociolinguistic studies of cross-gender and cross-cultural communication. Interactional sociolinguistics, like the traditional study of language variation and change, seeks to describe and explain socially conditioned patterns of variation in language use. While variationists focus primarily on differences in grammar and pronunciation, interactional sociolinguists study variation of a different kind. They are interested in such aspects of interaction as turn-taking conventions, politeness strategies, and paralinguistic cues (e.g., pitch, prosody, intonation, and volume). One prolific line of research has explored the occurrence of overlapping speech in different kinds of social interactions. Taking note of the multifunctionality of this discourse strategy, various studies (e.g., Zimmerman & West 1975; Tannen 1981; James & Clarke 1993) have investigated who uses overlapping speech to dominate social interactions, who uses it as a means to show rapport and involvement, and in what contexts this strategy is employed for these purposes. These studies, like Eckert’s and Kiesling’s discussed previously, bring into relief the centrality of power in distributional sociolinguistics.

It may seem rather unorthodox to look at variation in labeling practices for insights into how power works. Labeling, as Cameron & Kulick (2003) explain, is not simply a matter of putting words on things that have always been there waiting to be named; it has the power of changing our perception of the social world. The emergence of the categories homosexual and heterosexual, for example, brought into being what we now call sexual orientation or sexual preference, which had not been part of previous understandings of sexual behavior. McConnell-Ginet (2002) also reminds us that the cognitive structure underlying a social category label is not a definition but a set of beliefs and values about the category that the label denotes. Thus, labels like gay, queer, and homosexual are not merely different ways of calling the same people; they symbolize competing systems of sexual understanding. As such, they serve as an ideal site for investigating the contestation of power and ideology.

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