Dialect cage fights: worldbuilding, language policy, and social power

Alternate title: Macrosociolinguistics: the vitamin you didn’t know you needed.

If you’re writing large-scale stories about political intrigue and pretenders to the throne and so on, the way your societies relate to their language–and how they think those other, terrible people, who they dislike, relate to their language–could be a relevant part of your worldbuilding. Even if your stories are small-scale, the way your characters think about their own dialect and the dialects of others can be revealing of power dynamics in a subtle, useful way.

Sociolinguistics is the combination of sociology and linguistics. Obviously. I was going to go search for a “Duh” gif to fit in with the kids here, but you’re probably making the right face anyways. But the topic is really interesting! So let’s talk a bit about the principles behind large-scale language and dialect shift. At the end of the post, I added some worldbuilding questions I often ask myself to explore how linguistic power dynamics work in societies I write.

Macrosociolinguistics is interested in how whole groups and nations use and abuse language. In order to understand sociolinguistics, one of the things we have to understand is power relationships between groups. Who has political power? Who gets laughed at on TV? Who gets their language taught in schools? Who is right, and who is wrong?

Because here’s the biggest secret in linguistics: No language is wrong. No language is ungrammatical. Just like a biologist would never say a bird was singing “wrong,” you’ll never catch a linguist saying that somebody’s speaking “wrong.” In fact, you can often tell who’s in power by who’s getting to say what’s grammatical and what’s not.

“No language is wrong” is not actually a secret. We’re so obnoxious talking about this that we’ve been blanket banned from every Applebee’s in seven states since 1972.

A lot of social work language does is distinguishing one group of people from another. You speak like the people who you want to be seen to be like, and not like the people you don’t want to be seen to be like.

So aspirational middle-class people try to speak like the high classes. Often they do it even harder than the high classes, because the high classes have got nothing to prove.

On the other hand, groups that are discriminated against often form their own dialect because like, screw you guys. (Also because the originators of this group may have come from another place with another language and features of their language may have become mixed in.) But then this dialect becomes cool to people outside the group because it signals you’re not trying too hard, not like those squares in government. So then the people who actually speak that dialect start changing their speech so it’s clear they aren’t like those posers. Inter-language dynamics are really complicated.

Language is also a common site where governments and institutions try to covertly regulate who’s “good enough.” If you have a group that’s discriminated against, and they all speak a particular dialect, it sure is convenient if that dialect is considered really bad and funny and ungrammatical, so none of them can conceivably get a job in government until they’re willing to assimilate to your standard.

A lot of the time, these are subtle ingroup/outgroup effects. People can pick up on very small cues about how others talk and factor it into their judgements of those people. Or, because they’ve been taught that their way of speaking is the only “grammatical” way, they’re under the very false impression that anyone who got enough education would naturally talk like them instead.

But….it definitely does happen overtly in other cases, especially when we’re talking about a state machine dominated by a single ethnolinguistic group. Australia and Canada both literally took away generations of Indigenous children from their families and made sure they wouldn’t be able to speak the language of their parents. Now dialects of English spoken by Indigenous people are also devalued and considered “uneducated” or “funny”–even pathological–when they, like all dialects, are actually beautiful, complex and shifting expressions of community.

And there are many other places around the world where a single language imposed in schooling, for both logistical and ideological reasons, starts to edge out local languages. There’s also places where everyone speaks one language at work and one language at home. There’s places where everyone knows who the Language A families are and who the Language B families are, and where all grandparents speak Language A and all children speak Language B….any time that people want to distinguish themselves from another group, language starts getting rolled in.

If you’re trying to construct a society with a lot of power dynamics, a lot of the time language will factor into how groups distinguish themselves from one another, as well as how they enforce power over one another. I’ll leave you with worldbuilding questions you could ponder on:

  • Who’s in power in your society? What languages do they speak?
  • What language gets taught in schools? What languages are spoken at home? In church? What language are books and laws printed in?
  • How is the “correct” dialect enforced, socially, legally, politically?
  • Whose dialect/accent is funny?
  • Whose dialect/accent is considered “incorrect”?
  • Whose dialect/accent is sexy?
  • How do women talk in your society as opposed to men? (Women tend to adopt linguistic innovations sooner and men in power devalue them. See: vocal fry, uptalk, “like.”)
  • Are there “tells”  or shibboleths for the dialects in your society? Does everyone know if you can’t say th you’re part of that religious group from the mountains?
  • What dialects do your characters speak? What do people think of them because of it? Have they had to try to learn other dialects? Were they disciplined in school for the way they talk, or socially sanctioned, or have they never thought about the way they talk? How do they feel about the way they talk?