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Differential Consciousness of Language

A wide range exists among speakers as concerns the degree to which they are aware of the extant differences in speech at any given point in a language’s development. These disparities are due to variation in speakers’ knowledge and experience, including awareness of etymology (word origins). Also, speakers differ in their alertness to stylistic variation, including the kind that is conditioned by overlapping generations and the attendant linguistic peculiarities (dynamic synchrony). Older speakers may preserve features that are regarded as archaic by younger ones.

Here are two examples, the first from Russian, the second English, taken from recent viva voce exchanges, where in each case there is a wide gap between the interlocutors’ age.

(1) A woman art historian/curator in her mid-thirties, born and bred in Moscow, remarks on what she recognizes and immediately labels as a refined word use in the diction of a male native speaker (a scholar) in his early seventies, whose speech reflects pre-Revolutionary usage no longer commonly heard among the Russophone public. Specifically, he has used the verb испариться ‘evaporate’ in a metaphorical sense that the art historian comments on as exemplary.

(2) A restaurant customer in his early seventies says to a waitress in her mid-twenties, “I like the wine,” to which the waitress retorts, “It’s a nice red,” pronouncing red with the vowel [æ] so that it rhymes with bad instead of the normative sound of bed. She is doubtless unaware of the fact that her pronunciation of /e/ as [æ] between consonants marks her speech as belonging to the newly emerged variety of American English heard particularly frequently from young females. To the customer’s ear––given that he is a linguist with a detailed knowledge of language history and contemporary dialectology––the waitress’s pronunciation registers immediately as a departure from the norm connoting all manner of possible inferences about his interlocutor’s background.

These examples illustrate not just the probability of a differential consciousness of linguistic features in actual use between speakers but of their sociolinguistic upshot for the salient role language plays in determining the value system conditioning human communication.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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