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This content is taken from the University of York's online course, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics: Accents, Attitudes and Identity. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds So far we’ve talked about language as something which varies both between people and for an individual. We’ve also seen that language is something we hold attitudes towards The attitudes that people have towards language are arbitrary in themselves, but as we’ll see later on in the course, these attitudes can have a real impact on people’s lives. But language doesn’t just reflect who we are - it also allows us in a sense to “make” ourselves. For example, I’m speaking English to you, an audience that shares my language. But the way that I’m speaking is, of course, not the same as how each of you would speak English. Perhaps most obviously, there are anatomical differences between individuals.

Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds This means that the parts of the body that we use to produce speech are physiologically different to one another. In effect, we’re each producing speech with our very own unique instrument, so in that sense, our language use is a product of who we are. But we are also different from one another because of our personal and social identities. On this course, we have learners from lots of different places, of different ages and genders, and perhaps different social classes or educational backgrounds. We also each have our own hobbies, friendship groups, beliefs and so on. This means that each of us are members of lots of different social groups.

Skip to 1 minute and 30 seconds What’s more, we communicate our membership of these groups through the way we use language. There will be certain words that you would only use when talking to people who you share an interest with, but not to others. This allows us to project our membership of a group, and in turn, allows our ties to that group to be strengthened. A big part of what motivates our research in sociolinguistics is exploring how people express all of these aspects of their identity through their language. We’ll look at some of the major theories and approaches used by sociolinguists to explore language and identity in this week of the course.

Skip to 2 minutes and 6 seconds But for now, let’s take the time to think about how our own language is shaped by belonging to different social groups. What social groups would you consider yourself to be a part of? And how does your language change when you’re communicating with those groups? Take a moment to reflect on these questions, and share your thoughts with us.

What do we mean by identity?

This week is all about how we use language to express our identity - something we touched on briefly back in Week 1. Before we get into the sociolinguistic theory on identity, let’s take a moment to reflect on what makes us ‘us’.

Central to sociolinguistics is the notion of ‘identity’ and how we go about expressing this through speech. Dr Claire Childs explains this a bit more in the short video above.

Before we get into some theory, let’s chat about our own personal and group identities. Some of the things to consider here could be:

  • How would you describe your personal identity?

  • Can you give it a single label, or would you need to use multiple labels?

  • Is it even possible to put a label on your own identity?

  • What social groups would you consider yourself to be a part of?

  • Does your language change when you’re communicating with different groups?

If you don’t feel comfortable describing yourself in much detail, you’re very welcome to be less specific or to talk about a fictional character instead.

Tell us more in the discussion below!

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This video is from the free online course:

An Introduction to Sociolinguistics: Accents, Attitudes and Identity

University of York

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