The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #21 May / June 2016
Language and Power: The Hidden Struggle
by Olivier Elzingre
May / June 2016 | 

It would be difficult to argue against the view that languages has been key in human evolution and an instrument into making large conglomerates of people possible. While defining language would be a very difficult task, one I am not ready to indulge into, certain dimensions within the phenomenon of language have drawn attention in research and in language planning at governmental levels. In this article, I propose to look into one of these dimensions, that of power, and three instances of conversation that characterise language as an instrument of power.

Power is a dimension which has been recognised at all levels of language, including everyday conversations, regulatory texts, and culturally embedded discourses. Strangely enough, the less detached from actual speakers' language is, the less conscious the speakers appear of the power dimension within their language. What I mean here is that when two friends have a chat, power is often not explicitly thought about. Whereas when a Prime Minister is interviewed, power is at the forefront of their thinking. This lack of consciousness at the "pedestrian" level makes often implicit the unequal distribution of power between the speakers. The distribution of power can be felt at all levels of interaction, from chats with your mates, to professional environments, to a simple hello with a stranger.

What I am particularly interested here is the power which is distributed in every day conversations rather than on the discourses that define national political or religious ideology. These discourses influence individual instances of conversation, but I would rather leave them to people who know more than I do about the topic.

Here then are three conversations, two of them spoken, one written, to illustrate what I mean by power through language.

The first example comes from a conversation I overheard as I was visiting a school for my research. Two colleagues were chatting about students' work when the first one, a physical education teacher, uttered the adjective "succinct", pronouncing it /səksɪŋkt/ (as "suksinkt"). The other one, an English teacher, corrected him, arguing the word should be pronounced /səsɪŋkt/ (as "sussinkt"). The first teacher accepted his mistake and moved on. You may or may not know this, but the dictionary will tell you that the PE teacher was correct. Evidently, in the structure of the school, these two teachers were equal in status – both were experienced and of similar age, and their gender difference did not seem to play an evident part in their exchange. But by virtue of their teaching methods, it was assumed that the English teacher was right. The issue is not really whether there is a correct answer to the pronunciation of this word, but rather why the English teacher felt the need to correct his colleague.

If you have ever worked as a teacher or among teachers you might have noticed a sense of misplaced competition among members of different faculty (and among members of the same faculty as well!). Teaching English for example, implicitly places that person as an expert in the subject compared to those who don't teach it. An English teacher may, however, assume that position or as one as an ongoing learner in their field. The English teacher in the example above chose to strengthen her status as the expert, while at the same placing her interlocutor in an inferior position by correcting him.

Reading this example, you may think about the unfairness of the English teacher's behaviour and be drawn to admire the PE teacher for making no fuss about the issue. However, you may also consider that the first part of the conversation, which I didn't witness, was about a student who it seemed had a strong preference for the PE teacher over the English teacher. This part of the conversation may or may not have been mishandled by the PE teacher, but at the beginning of the conversation, the distribution of power would have been in favour of the PE teacher. The English teacher could have felt that her status was threatened in her conversation with him, prompting her to rectify the balance of power through an assertion of language power.

Here's another situation, a frequent conversation between my mother and me. When I speak with my London born mother, I tend to use some Australianisms. One particularly that gets her goat is my answer to her question "how are you". I will say "good, thanks and you?" On occasion, she corrected me, saying that my answer should be "well", rather than "good". Grammatically, my mother is obviously correct: an adverb should be used rather than an adjective. However, my answer is entirely idiomatic. Since I don't intend to speak like a dictionary, I chose to express myself as my fellow Melbournites do.

In this second situation, the relationship is complicated by the fact that each speaker in the conversation may not agree on the nature of their relationship. To my mother, I am still her child, albeit a 40 year old one, and therefore our relationship is unequal. In addition, she is an English native speaker, whereas English is my second language. To me, the balance of power should be more even, based on the fact that I am an adult, and by virtue of my language-specialised education. Therefore, when my mother corrects my English, I take it with a grain of salt. At best, it can be said in this situation that the power negotiation is not settled and that the journey for my claim to a balanced rests in her hands.

It is evident that both my mother and I have ulterior motives for pulling the power blanket over ourselves. For my mother, as the long-recognised provider of her children's values, our becoming adult is no reason to no longer subscribe to her maternal influence. As for me, married and father of one, professional and owning my house (or rather its mortgage), the maternal influence, however comfortable and reassuring, appears somewhat irrelevant as far as my language usage goes.

In the two examples above, the power distribution can be negotiated, successfully or not, by the participants. The reason for this is that there is no firm institutional structure that dictates power distribution one way or the other. The negotiation that takes place rests on circumstantial conditions. The teachers teach different subject and the student of their focus has a preference for one whereas my mother and I have differences based on the circumstances of our birth; she carried me for 9 months and we are native of different languages.

When conversations are inscribed in an institutional context, the power distribution is usually pre-established. Difference in status are a key feature allowing for the organisation of the institution and the effective understanding of each and everyone's role within the structure. The inequality between speakers that arises from status differences should be expressed in speech patterns. The next example illustrates this point.

An American professor, Celeste Kinginger, writes that while on exchange, some of her students gained pragmatic knowledge in their target language (French in this case), to a greater extent than their academic language. When emailing her in French, they did not follow the conventions usually afforded to communicating with a person in her position. She wittingly writes that her "students had the pragmatic rope to hang themselves", sharing the following email she received from a student:

Salut madame! Tu vas bien? Je dois t'écrire une vraie lettre sur paper à cause que ici, les ordinateurs sont foutu. Ça marche jamais puis ya des tas de gens dans la salle. Putain, tu peux pas savoir combien ça m'emmerde ! (Hey Madam ! How's it going ? I have to write you a real letter on paper because of that here, the computers are f***ed. They never work and there are heaps of people in the room. S***, I can't even tell you how much that p***es me off!)

Salut madame! Tu vas bien? Je dois t'écrire une vraie lettre sur paper à cause que ici, les ordinateurs sont foutu. Ça marche jamais puis ya des tas de gens dans la salle. Putain, tu peux pas savoir combien ça m'emmerde ! (Hey Madam ! How's it going ? I have to write you a real letter on paper because of that here, the computers are f***ed. They never work and there are heaps of people in the room. S***, I can't even tell you how much that p***es me off!)

Kinginger was making the point that students learn to use colloquialisms before they understand how or when to use it. The example, however, also helps describe language as a power medium. The student who wrote these words is seen as making potentially a major faux-pas, in using language that implies closeness between the speakers as well as an informal context. The context is important. You may be working with your closest friend, but in the work place, you still observe certain "rules of engagement" so-to-speak.

Thus in the context of this communication, the relationship between the participants is clear. One is an undergraduate student, the other a world-acclaimed professor. The status gap between them is so vast that the student's faux-pas cannot be considered offensive. The student not only has no claim to a share of the power, they are also not in a position to negotiate its balance. This is because the institution which frames their relationship is regimented far beyond either of the speakers' realm of influence. You might argue that the professor is in a position to "informalise" the relationship, but she would then expose herself to problems. A doubt over her professional objectivity during assessments being one of them.

Institutions that regiment its employees' communication styles too closely are often criticised. Yet, it is also the clarity of expectations that allows these institutions to function effectively, leaving no employee guessing about their code of behaviour towards others.

When talking about power, it is difficult not to assign a moral or ethical dimension to the problem. However, in many cases there is no need for it. Power is a natural ingredient to language and one which has been reflected in our social organisation. It is natural for anyone to seek what they consider the right balance of power in all relationships, as it is assumed that relationships can only exist with the maintenance of power distribution, equal or not.

What I haven't explored in this article are strategies allowing speakers to exert power in their language: swearing, humour, aggression and even manipulation are just some examples of strategies. These strategies are known and even used by most speakers on regular bases. Behind the curtain of our utterances, we make choices at every turn of phrase to use or not some of them. This is why we can never claim that language is nothing more than a means of communication. It is fundamentally a key to social cohesion.

Language and Power: The Hidden Struggle
Writer: Olivier Elzingre
Janet Burgess: Talking people
Petey: Adult lecture (title); Speaker and crowd sillouette; Mother and child at beacj; Mother and daughter; Man at podium; Teacher in front of class;

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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