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Language and Social Groups

A social group is a group of people who share common characteristics, interact with each other, and share a sense of community.

Social groups can form according to:

  • Age

  • Class

  • Gender

  • Religion

  • Ethnicity

  • Family

  • Interest groups

  • Occupation

Spoken Language and Social Groups Sociolinguistics

Before diving into the main body of the article, let's get some definitions down, starting with the reason we're here: sociolinguistics!

Sociolinguistics is the study of language in society. It looks at how people use the language according to the social groups they are part of.

For example, we may speak to friends and contemporaries in one way and to older people or figures of authority (teachers, parents, the police) differently. We may also use different words or accents with people from our town or city, compared with people from a different place.

Sociolinguistics also looks at how language conveys identity. Language often signals which social groups we belong to. Therefore, people may make linguistic choices to show that they belong to a certain group, or are different from other groups.

For instance, people in certain occupations or interest groups may use jargon (basically fancy, subject-specific words) to show their expertise.

For example, doctors may refer to a cut or a sore as a 'lesion', because the word comes from a shared medical vocabulary.

It is important to remember that language changes all the time. The English of the 14th century was very different from today's English. Take a look at the example of 14th century Middle English below:

language and social groups Middle English StudySmarter

Example of Middle English written by Chaucer (public domain)

Do you get the gist? Many of the words are similar to modern English words, but the spelling and pronunciation are very different, which is especially true when we compare Old English to modern slang.

For example, if you had said to Shakespeare, 'Omg your plays are dope, no cap', he wouldn't have had a clue what you were on about.

Over time, our role within each social group changes. We may even change social groups altogether. You will gradually get older (shocking, I know!) – you may even move to a new city, find a new job, or start new hobbies. In each case, you will acquire new language for each social group. Overall, our language becomes a mix of all social groups that we are a part of, both past and present.

Key Terms in Sociolinguistics

When studying sociolinguistics, some keywords will appear that you need to know. Don't worry; we've got you covered!

Language style

Language style is not just about how cool you sound when you talk...

Language style is how we speak to our audience.

We often choose certain words and ways of speaking to express ourselves and our identity, which defines our language style.

Register

This is probably one you've come across elsewhere in your language studies:

Register is a variety of language associated with a particular situation or context of use.

Register may be influenced by the field (what the topic/subject is), manner (how formal the situation is), or mode (whether the language is written or spoken).

For example, we may use a different language when speaking to a headteacher about school work compared to when we are speaking with our friends or sending a text.

Sociolect

Sociolect is an important one to know:

A sociolect is the language style we use to fit in with a particular social group.

We often change our way of speaking to seem more similar to the social group we belong to by changing our language features, such as our accent or word choices. Sociolects can ensure effective communication (e.g. dentists using jargon to talk about teeth), show belonging to a group, and exclude other people from the group.

language and social groups dialect accent variety StudySmarter

Language is a key factor in creating a sense of identity and social belonging (public domain)

Dialect

Not to be confused with sociolect!

A dialect is the variety of language that people speak in a particular geographical region. You may also hear the term 'regional dialect'.

For example, people from Liverpool speak a dialect called 'Scouse', which contains unique words, grammatical structures, and phrases from other dialects across the UK.

Idiolect

Yet another -lect to learn!

An idiolect is a form of language that is specific to an individual.

Our idiolect is affected by where we live or have lived in the past, our class, age, education, and the other social groups that we are part of. These can affect the words we use, our accent, and the overall creation of an idiolect that is specific to you as an individual.

Can you think of ways your school friends, your friends outside of school, and where you live affect your language? What other social groups are you a part of that might influence your language use?

Standard English

Standard English is the most widely accepted form of the English Language. It follows standardised grammar rules and may often conform to Received Pronunciation (Received Pronunciation, or RP, is the accent used by the Queen). Standard English is the language we are taught in school, and expected to use in exams.

Variety

This is a pretty standard one:

A variety in the English language is a specific form of language. Each variety of English will include specific registers, styles, and sociolects.

For example, the standard variety (Standard English) will consist of standard grammatical features and a fairly formal register. Varieties of the English language include 'Scouse' (from Liverpool, UK), Aboriginal English in Australia, and so-called 'Singlish' (a form of English spoken in Singapore).

Language and Social Groups Theorists

Language can create a sense of belonging or divisions in society. In the past, the RP accent (sometimes called the 'Queen's English') has often been associated with the upper class. In contrast, more regional accents (such as Cockney) have been associated with the working class. With these biases in mind, people can exaggerate or play down their accents according to how they want to be perceived by others.

Plenty of theorists have conducted research in language and social groups. Here are some that you may come across in A Level English Language:

Giles' communication accommodation theory

Howard Giles' Communication Accommodation Theory1 is a key study in sociolinguistics. Giles showed how people can change their behaviour either through:

Convergence

Adopting someone else's language and communication features to reduce the social distance between themselves and the other person

Divergence

Emphasising differences in language and communication to diverge away from a social group

Labov's sociolinguistic studies

William Labov was also a key theorist in sociolinguistics, researching multiple areas of language in society. Some of his most notable studies include the study of non-standard English, the study of African American Vernacular English, and the study of Martha's Vineyard (see below). In each of these studies, Labov focused on language and its development in specific social groups.

Martha's Vineyard

Labov studied a sociolect spoken by a group of fishermen on an island called Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, USA. He found that other islanders subconsciously imitated the local fishermen's 'traditional sounding' language (their sociolect) as it had positive connotations of strength and courage.2 This study showed how people could alter their language to be more like the social groups they admire and want to be part of. For the islanders on Martha's Vineyard, altering their language would make them appear traditional, strong, and courageous, like the fishermen!

language and social groups Martha's Vineyard StudySmarter

In the Martha's Vineyard study, Labov found that people mimicked the language use of fishermen (public domain)

Difference vs Dominance approach

The difference and dominance approaches are often discussed on the topic of language and gender. These are approaches theorists use to try and describe how men and women speak and why they might speak differently from each other.

The 'difference' approach is the idea that men and women communicate in fundamentally different ways. Theorist Deborah Tannen has suggested that men and women belong to different sub-cultures. Lakoff (1975)3 developed this idea, stating that men and women use different linguistic features. For example, women overlap in conversation, use tag questions, and talk too much (how rude!).

The 'dominance' approach argues that men dominate in society, which is why men and women communicate so differently. Fishman (1978)4 found that men often dominated in conversations, while Zimmerman and West (1975)5 suggested men asserted dominance by interrupting more often.

Politeness theory

Our final theory is called 'politeness theory'. Brown and Levinson (1978)6 suggested speakers use politeness strategies to achieve successful communication.

The notion of face, first established by Goffman, is an integral part of politeness theory. It is the idea that people need approval from the person they are speaking to (positive face) while maintaining boundaries, independence, and freedom of opinion (negative face). People use politeness strategies to find a balance between 'looking good' and maintaining personal space.

Positive politeness strategies include showing interest and sympathy (we all enjoy someone who actually listens to us, don't we?).

Negative politeness strategies that appeal to a person's negative face include apologising and not interrupting to avoid imposing on the speaker. By using both strategies, we can appear friendly while not imposing on the other person.

Language Groups

As you might have gathered by now, language can vary between different social groups in quite a few ways. We've looked at how different social groups can impact language use, but what happens when this occurs on a wider, more geographical scale?

Definition of language group

What do we mean when we talk about a 'language group'?

A language group is a group of languages that have evolved from a common language ancestor or 'parent language'.

Language groups typically consist of several languages with similar linguistic features, vocabulary, and grammatical rules. In essence, they're languages that sound pretty similar and where there might be a lot of shared language components.

Language Group Examples

Many different language groups exist across the globe – here are just a few key examples:

  • The Nordic Languages: Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic

  • The Germanic Languages: German, Dutch, Flemish, Afrikaans, etc.

  • The Indian Languages: Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali, etc.

  • The Latin Languages: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.

This is nowhere near all the language groups that exist but should give you an idea of what is meant by 'language group'.

Language and Social Groups - Key Takeaways

  • A social group is a group of people who share common characteristics, interact with each other, and share a sense of community. Groups can be based on age, class, gender, hobbies and interests, ethnicity, and occupation.
  • Sociolinguistics is the study of language in society and how language is related to identity and social groups.
  • Giles' Communication Accommodation Theory suggests that people change their language behaviour by either converging towards or diverging away from the person or group they are speaking to.
  • Many theorists have studied how language varies according to social groups: e.g. Tannen developed the 'difference' approach in gender studies, while Zimmerman and West looked at the 'dominance' approach.
  • Language groups are groups of languages that share a parent language and have a similar vocabulary, linguistic features, and grammatical rules.

References

  1. G. Howard and P. Powesland. Accommodation Theory, Sociolinguistics, 1997
  2. W. Labov. The social motivation of a sound change. Word, 1963
  3. R. Lakoff. Language and woman's place. Language in Society, 1975
  4. P. Fishman, Interaction: The work women do, Social Problems, 1978
  5. D. Zimmerman and C. West. Sex roles, interruptions, and silences in conversation, 1975
  6. P. Brown and S.C. Levinson. Politeness: Some universals in language usage, 1978

Frequently Asked Questions about Language and Social Groups

A social group is a group of people who share common characteristics, interact with each other, and share a sense of community. Groupings can be based on age, ethnicity, class, gender, interests and hobbies, and occupation.

Sociolinguistics looks at how language varies according to social groups, including language used by groups formed according to age, class, ethnicity, gender, etc. This helps to give us a wider view of language in society.

Language can often signal which social groups a person belongs to because certain language features are often typical of certain social groups. Shared language can show belonging, togetherness, or even exclude others from the group.

Language use will be influenced by the social groups that a person belongs to, as each social group will expose the person to specific language forms or varieties. Geography, education, and interests will also affect the language used by an individual.

Every social group will have certain linguistic structures, accents, dialects, sociolects, and language features that might be unique to it. Language use within a social group can become quite distinct, as being a participant in a social group leads to a sense of belonging and unity.

Final Language and Social Groups Quiz

Question

A __________ is a group of people who share common characteristics, interact with each other, and share a sense of community. Fill in the blank.

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Answer

A social group is a group of people who share common characteristics, interact with each other, and share a sense of community.

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Question

Give 3 examples of social groups.


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Answer

Examples of social groups include groups according to age, class, gender, religion, ethnicity, family, interests, occupation, and more.

Show question

Question

____________ is the study of language according to social groups. Fill in the blank.


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Answer

Sociolinguistics is the study of language according to social groups.

Show question

Question

What a is language style?


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Answer

A language style is the way in which we speak to our audience. We often choose certain words and ways of speaking to express ourselves, and this is what defines our language style.  

Show question

Question

Register is a variety of language associated with which of the following?:

  • Our social group

  • Where we live

  • A particular situation of use

  • Our favourite place to eat 

Show answer

Answer

Register is a variety of language associated with a particular situation of use. For example, which subject we’re talking about, formality, or whether the language is written or spoken.

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Question

What is a sociolect?


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Answer

Sociolect is the language style we use to fit in with a particular social group. We often use certain language features to fit in with that group.

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Question

What is the difference between dialect and idiolect?


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Answer

Dialect is the language we use within a particular region of the world whilst idiolect is the language we use that is specific to the person. Each individual has an idiolect whilst a dialect is characteristic of a regional group.

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Question

‘Standard English is the ‘official’ way of speaking that has standardised grammar rules’. True or false?

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Answer

True. Standard English is what we are taught in school and what we use in formal situations.

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Question

American English, Indian English, and Standard English are all varieties of English Language. True or false?


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Answer

True. These are all different forms of the English language.

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Question

Which of the following are ways in which people can change their linguistic behaviour according to Giles' accommodation theory?

  • Insurgence 

  • Coincidence

  • Convergence

  • Divergence

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Answer

Convergence and divergence are ways in which people can reduce or increase the social distance between each other.

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Question

What approaches can be used when discussing language and gender?


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Answer

The difference approach and the dominance approach are used when studying language and gender.

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Question

What is the difference between the difference approach and the dominance approach?


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Answer

The difference approach argues that men and women are fundamentally different and this is why we speak differently. The dominance approach argues that men dominate over women in our society and that is why we speak differently.

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Question

What theorists proposed politeness theory?


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Answer

Brown and Levinson developed politeness theory. Goffman also played a role in establishing key concepts.

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Question

Brown and Levinson (1978) suggested that speakers use ________________ to achieve successful communication. 


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Answer

Brown and Levinson suggested that speakers use politeness strategies to achieve successful communication.

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Question

What is the difference between positive politeness and negative politeness?


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Answer

Positive politeness is the idea that people need approval and appreciation from the person they are speaking to whilst negative politeness is the idea that you need to maintain boundaries and independence from the other person to be polite.

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Question

Where did the concept of face originate?

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Answer

China.

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Question

Which American sociologist established face as a sociological concept in the 1950s?​​​​​

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Answer

Erving Goffman.

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Question

Goffman identified three levels that influence an individual's actions in order to meet their face needs. What are they?


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Answer

Pride, Dignity, and Honour.


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Question

What theory did Brown and Levinson establish in the 1970s?


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Answer

Politeness Theory.

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Question

What are face-saving acts?


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Answer

Face-saving involves doing or saying something to avoid embarrassment or a loss of social status.


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Question

What are face-threatening acts?


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Answer

A face-threatening act is when communication can damage a person’s sense of face.

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Question

According to Brown and Levinson, individuals have two different faces. What are they?


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Answer

Positive face and Negative face.

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Question

What did both Goffman and Brown and Levinson fail to account for in their theories?


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Answer

That culture can affect individuals’ behaviours. 


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Question

Who created the Face-negotiation theory?


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Answer

Stella Ting-Toomey.

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Why has Face-negotiation Theory been criticised?


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Answer

 Because the theory relies on the assumption that everyone from a certain place behaves in the same way.

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Question

How could your occupation influence your use of language?


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Answer

Your occupation can impact how you use language. For example, a lawyer would be far more likely to use legal jargon than a teacher. Jargon is a kind of slang specific to a workplace or small group, it is hard for people outside said group to understand.


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Question

Why are assumptions based on sociolinguistic evidence sometimes problematic?


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Answer

Observations based on sociolinguistic evidence are often generalizations that people may find offensive. Simply because someone has had a 'lower quality' of education it does not mean they are not capable of using complex vocabulary and understanding grammar. 


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True or False: There are 3 types of sociolinguists.


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Answer

False. There are two types of sociolinguists micro and macro. 

Micro-sociolinguists- Explore the social aspect of language and its variations.

Macro-sociolinguists - Look at how societies use language.


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Question

True or False: Our parents / carers opinion impacts our sociolect.

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Answer

 True. The opinions of those around us impacts our sociolect.

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Question

What are the three types of sociolinguistics?


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Answer

There are three key concepts of sociolinguistics: community speech, social network, and high and low prestige. 


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Question

What does the community speech concept entail?


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Answer

Community speech refers to a group that uses language in a unique way accepted by the members of the group, forming a community. These communities take shape in the form of office groups using jargon together, or friendship groups in school.

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Question

What are two terms that describe the different levels of prestige associated with sociolects/dialects?


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Answer

The different levels of prestige associated with sociolects / dialects have terms to describe them. These terms are acrolectal and basilectal.


  • Acrolectal - means standard dialect with neutral assumptions associated with it 

  • Basiclectal- refers to dialects associated with less prestige, potentially negative connotations.  

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Question

Who came up with the two sociolinguistic language codes and what are they called? 


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Answer

Basil Bernstein came up with two social language codes that can help us understand sociolinguistics. 


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Question

How does the restricted code emphasize extraverbal communication? 


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Answer

Depending on where we are, our actions can become predictable because we will be expected to use particular forms of extraverbal communication (body language and actions that help us communicate in a non-verbal way) in different areas.


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Question

How is dialect related to sociolinguistics?

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Answer

As dialect is a term describing how where we are from influences our grammar and lexical choices, it feeds into sociolinguistics by studying how our surroundings (social factors) influence how we speak.


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Question

True or False: Idiolect is not related to sociolinguistics because it is about the individual rather than society.


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Answer

False. Idiolect is a term describing the speech habits of an individual. We develop these speech habits, much like accent and dialect, as a result of where we grow up. Once again, social factors influence our use of language, even on an individual basis. 



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Question

How does Bernstein's theory impact children? 


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Answer

A child who is only exposed to the restricted code is more likely to struggle in an academic setting, as they are used to communicating using extraverbal methods. They would have a limited vocabulary compared to someone exposed to both restricted and elaborated codes because they have relied on extraverbal communication.

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Question

Explain Bernstein's elaborated code.


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Answer

Bernstein describes the freedom that some scenarios provide us to choose from a range of social roles. For example, if someone finds themselves in a situation when they have more liberty to choose what they do, the social setting they are in does not dictate their actions as much. 


Show question

Question

What is the Difference Approach?

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Answer

The difference approach looks at the fundamental differences in how men and women communicate with each other.

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Question

What is the Dominance Approach?

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Answer

The Dominance Approach suggests that women are conditioned from childhood to be subordinate in language.

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Question

What is the Diversity theory?


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Answer

The Diversity model argues that society and socialisation, not gender, influence the way men and women communicate.

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Question

True or false? Janet Holmes further developed the dominance theory.

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Answer

False. Janet Holmes further developed the difference theory.

Show question

Question

Name theorists who support the difference approach.


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Answer

For example: Janet Holmes, Jennifer Coates,  Deborah Tannen, Christine Howe.

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Question

How many contrasts in communication does Tannen identify? Give some examples.


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Answer

Tannen identifies six contrasts. For example, status vs. support, independence vs. intimacy,  conflict vs. compromise, etc.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Howe’s research suggests:

  • Women are …  listeners and avoid ... language.

  • Men use language in a more …  way than women to seek ....

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Answer

Howe’s research suggests:

  • Women are active listeners and avoid strong language.

  • Men use language in a more competitive way than women to seek power.

Show question

Question

True or false? Deborah Cameron claims there is as much difference and similarity within each gender group as there is between men and women.


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Answer

True.

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Question

True or false? Cameron suggests we should think about 

gender in linguistics in a less complex way than we have done so far.


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Answer

False. Cameron suggests we should think about gender in linguistics in a more complex way than we have done so far.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: 

Hyde proposes the gender similarities hypothesis (2005), which indicates that there are actually fewer ... between men and women than there are … .


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Answer

Hyde proposes the gender similarities hypothesis (2005), which indicates that there are actually fewer differences between men and women than there are similarities.

Show question

Question

What does male genderlect use 

communication for?


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Answer

  • ‘Report’ talk (exchanging information)
  • To show independence.
  • To show status.

Show question

Question

What does female genderlect use 

communication for?

Show answer

Answer

  • ‘Rapport’ talk (networking)
  • To connect.
  • To develop intimacy.

Show question

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