Oasist Blog

This blog features Linguistics, Engineering&Programming and Life Career.

The Basics of English Linguistics Vol.5 - Faces of Languages -

English Language


1. A Language as a Culture

1-1. Quote

How we address others depends on our relationships to them.
My friends refer to me as Mike.
However, many students refer to me as Prof. Geis or Dr. Geis or Mr. Geis, even though I usually encourage them to call me Mike.
Some other American professors encourage this in order to signal a feeling of solidarity with students.
Nevertheless, the power difference between professors and students is large and many students feel more comfortable using a title plus the last name than just the first name.
Oriental students who study in the United States normally feel very uncomfortable using just a professor's first name, at least at the beginning. Source: Language and Communication

1-2. The Details

We change how we address others based on the following 4 factors.

  • Familiarity
  • Age
  • Social Class
  • Respect

In western society, we should express familiarities to others as a courtesy.
The chances are that people know solidarity contributes a community for better performance.
That is why they encourage others to call them in the first name or nickname as Mike does instead of using a title plus the last name according to mutual agreements and understandings.

On the other hands, what about Asian society?
We refer to Japanese culture as an example.

Oriental students who study in the United States normally feel very uncomfortable using just a professor's first name, at least at the beginning.

For example, Japanese people must appropriately keep psychological distance using 3 forms, Honorific Form, Humble Form and Polite Form.
Someone superior talks his/her subordinates into calling them with the last name plus neutral title "-san".

Then, why do Asian students feel very uncomfortable calling their professors in their first names at least at the beginning?
This is because we embrace our own cultures.

When we live in another culture, there is a conflict between our own cultures and another one we are in.
Asian people are unwilling to address professors in such a manner because of huge gaps between the western culture and Asian one.
Once they adapt to the culture, they will not just use English naturally but call professors in the first name or a nickname.

A language reflects the culture which shapes our cultural identities.

2. A Language as a Dress Code

2-1. Quote

How we talk, just as how we dress, varies with the social context we are in.
A young person will talk very differently when with his or her grandparents than with close friends.
Although one can make finer distinctions, it is useful to distinguish four basic speech styles: formal, consultative, casual, and intimate.
Formal speech style is used in social gatherings that are themselves formal, where people feel they must behave in an especially correct way ― perhaps at a formal banquet, at a funeral of an important person, at a ceremony honoring someone who is very important, at a White House reception, etc.
Consultative speech style is the style used in business meetings, in university lectures, at a meeting of strangers, etc.
Casual speech style is used by persons who are friendly with each other in informal settings.
Intimate style is used by very close friends in private settings. Source: Language and Communication

2-2. The Details

We have the 4 speech styles according to the social situation we find ourselves in.

Speech Style When & Where to Use
Formal Social gatherings as formal banquets, funerals, formal ceremonies where people must behave in a polite way
Consultative Business meetings, university lectures, meetings of strangers etc.
Casual Among people who are familiar with each other in informal settings
Intimate Among very close friends in private settings

In a formal situation, we must pay more attention to exact pronunciation and correct grammar to make ourselves clearly understood.
We are often nervous and stressed out under such a circumstance.

In contrast, we pay less attention to them in informal situations, which makes both a speaker and lister relaxed.
If we talked in the formal speech when having a drink with some of our friends or deliver a speech in a casually one in a formal conference, it would be very strange.

It also applies to our clothes.
In a formal situation, we must pay more attention to the colour and size of what we are dressed in.
So we are nervous and stressed out because we must pay attention to what we look like under such a surrounding.

On the other hands, we may wear T-shirts in a casual drinking party.
It would be weird if we worn well-tailored tuxedo there.

We should change speech styles according to the situation we are in just like we abide by the dress code.

3. Conclusion

  1. A Language as a Culture: 4 factors changing our speech - Familiarity, Age, Social Class, Respect
  2. A Language as a Dress Code: 4 speech styles - Formal, Consultative, Casual, Intimate

4. Reference

  • Michal L. Geis, Language and Communication, Oxford, OUP, 2001