A speech community is a group of people who share a set of linguistic norms and expectations with regard to how their language should be used.
Exactly how to define speech community is debated in the literature. Definitions of speech community tend to involve varying degrees of emphasis on the following:
- Shared community membership
- Shared linguistic communication
Early definitions have tended to see speech communities as bounded and localized groups of people who live together and come to share the same linguistic norms because they belong to the same local community. It has also been assumed that within a community a homogeneous set of norms should exist. These assumptions have been challenged by later scholarship that has demonstrated that individuals generally participate in various speech communities simultaneously and at different times in their lives. Each speech community has different norms that they tend to share only partially. Communities may be de-localized and unbounded rather than local, and they often comprise different sub-communities with differing speech norms. With the recognition of the fact that speakers actively use language to construct and manipulate social identities by signalling membership in particular speech communities, the idea of the bounded speech community with homogeneous speech norms has become largely abandoned for a model based on the speech community as a fluid community of practice.
A speech community comes to share a specific set of norms for language use through living and interacting together, and speech communities may therefore emerge among all groups that interact frequently and share certain norms and ideologies. Such groups can be villages, countries, political or professional communities, communities with shared interests, hobbies, or lifestyles, or even just groups of friends. Speech communities may share both particular sets of vocabulary and grammatical conventions, as well as speech styles and genres, and also norms for how and when to speak in particular ways.
History of definitions
The adoption of the concept of the "speech community" as a unit of linguistic analysis emerged in the 1960s.
John Gumperz described how dialectologists had taken issue with the dominant approach in historical linguistics that saw linguistic communities as homogeneous and localized entities in a way that allowed for drawing neat tree diagrams based on the principle of 'descent with modification' and shared innovations. Dialectologists rather realized that dialect traits spread through diffusion and that social factors were decisive in how this happened. They also realized that traits spread as waves from centers and that often several competing varieties would exist in some communities. This insight prompted Gumperz to problematize the notion of the linguistic community as the community that carries a single speech variant, and instead to seek a definition that could encompass heterogeneity. This could be done by focusing on the interactive aspect of language, because interaction in speech is the path along which diffused linguistic traits travel. Gumperz defined the community of speech:
Any human aggregate characterized by regular and frequent interaction by means of a shared body of verbal signs and set off from similar aggregates by significant differences in language usage.— Gumperz (1968)
This definition gives equal importance to the structural and interactional layers, and does not aim to delineate either the community or the language system as discrete entities. The community is a group of people that frequently interact with each other. This is not a definition of a discrete group because frequency of interaction is relative and graduated, and never stable. The definition of the language system is also not exclusive because it is defined as being set off from other systems by significant differences in usage.Furthermore Gumperz refines the definition of the linguistic system shared by a speech community:
Regardless of the linguistic differences among them, the speech varieties employed within a speech community form a system because they are related to a shared set of social norms.— Gumperz (1964)
Here Gumperz again identifies two important components of the speech community: its members share both a set of linguistics forms and a set of social norms that govern the use of those forms. Gumperz also sought to set up a typological framework for describing how linguistic systems can be in use within a single speech community. He introduced the concept of linguistic range, the degree to which the linguistic systems of the community differ so that speech communities can be multilingual, diglossic, multidialectal (including sociolectal stratification), or homogeneous - depending on the degree of difference among the different language systems used in the community. Secondly the notion of compartmentalization described the degree to which the use of different varieties were either set off from each other as discrete systems in interaction (e.g. diglossia where varieties correspond to specific social contexts, or multilingualism where varieties correspond to discrete social groups within the community) or whether they are habitually mixed in interaction (e.g. code-switching, bilingualism, syncretic language).
concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech-community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance.— Chomsky (1965:3)
Where Gumperz formulation was designed to incorporate heterogeneity, by focusing on shared norms of language use rather than a shared linguistic system, Chomsky's definition explicitly rejected it. Chomsky argued that linguistic competence was logically prior to linguistic performance, and that competence was necessarily homogeneously distributed among all speakers of a linguistic community, or language acquisition wouldn't have been possible.
Another influential conceptualization of the linguistic community was that of William Labov, which can be seen as a hybrid of the Chomskyan structural homogeneity and Gumperz' focus on shared norms informing variable practices. Labov wrote:
The speech community is not defined by any marked agreement in the use of language elements, so much as by participation in a set of shared norms: these norms may be observed in overt types of evaluative behavior, and by the uniformity of abstract patterns of variation which are invariant in respect to particular levels of usage.— Labov (1972:120–1)
Like that of Gumperz, Labov's formulation stressed that a speech community was defined more by shared norms than by shared linguistic forms. But like Chomsky, Labov also saw each of the formally distinguished linguistic varieties within a speech community as homogeneous, invariant and uniform. Labov's model was designed to see speech varieties as associated with social strata within a single speech community, and it assumed each stratum to use a single variety with a well-defined, uniform structure. This model worked well for Labov's purpose which was to show that African American Vernacular English could not be seen as structurally degenerate form of English, but rather as a well defined linguistic code with its own particular structure. Labov's model was designed to explain variation between social groups within a single speech community, and for this reason it assumed a structural integrity of the linguistic system of each social group, and it also assumed each social group within the speech community to form a neatly bounded unit definable in terms of discrete and correlatable variables, such as ethnicity, race, class, gender, age, ideology, and specific formal variables of linguistic usage.
Probably because of their considerable explanatory power, Labov's and Chomsky's understandings of the speech community became widely influential in linguistics. But gradually a number of problems with those models became apparent.
Firstly, it became increasingly clear that the assumption of homogeneity inherent in Chomsky and Labov's models was untenable. The African American speech community which Labov had seen as defined by the shared norms of AAVE, was shown to be an illusion, as ideological disagreements about the status of AAVE among different groups of speakers attracted public attention.
Secondly, in the eagerness to describe all kinds of variation in communities with a shared linguistic standard, the concept of the speech community was extended to include very large scale communities such as entire nation states, or the entire international community of English speakers. By over-extending the concept in this way Gumperz' basic requirement that the community be united by routine interaction between its members could no longer be meaningfully evoked.
Thirdly, while Chomsky and Labov's models eschewed the possibility of significant variation taking place at the level of the individual, research in interactional sociolinguistics made it increasingly clear that intra-personal variation is common. It also became clear that choice of linguistic variant is often a situational choice made in relation to a specific speech context, than it is an expression of a permanent social identity, such as class, gender, or age.
Finally, the models of speech communities that assumed a set of shared norms that differed slightly among different social classes, were criticized for assuming that each individual have equal access to all linguistic forms, but just choose to produce the kind of speech associated with their particular social group. This assumption did not take account of power differentials within the community that sometimes work to restrict individual speakers' access to speech forms of other social groups, or which impose certain linguistic varieties on certain groups and individuals.
The force of these critiques led to a general unease with the concept of "speech communities" because of the many contradictory connotations of the term, and because of the general turn in anthropology towards looking at social organization in terms of hierarchy and power relations rather than studying social coherence and the construction of shared norms. Some scholars recommended abandoning the concept altogether as a preexisting object that can be studied instead conceptualizing it as "the product of the communicative activities engaged in by a given group of people." Others have proposed simply acknowledging the community's ad hoc status as "some kind of social group whose speech characteristics are of interest and can be described in a coherent manner".
Practice theory, as developed by social thinkers such as Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens and Michel de Certeau, and especially the notion of the community of practice as developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger has been influentially applied to the study of the language community by linguists such as William Hanks and Penelope Eckert.
Eckert's primary interest was in finding an approach to sociolinguistic variation that didn't presuppose any social variable as a given (e.g. class, gender, locality). Instead she aimed to build a model which was able to discover which variables are in fact the ones that matter to the group of individuals in question, the common purposes around which communities organize themselves. For Eckert the crucial defining characteristics of the community is a persistence of over time and commitment to shared understanding.
Eckert wished to focus on the subgroups and how tension between the goals and practices of subgroups that coexisting within a macro-community dynamically interrelate and generate social change. She acknowledges that Gumperz' definition of the speech community is not incompatible with the practice approach, but rather complimentary to it, and she suggests to study the two simultaneously as they mutually affect each other. Eckert's perspective on the community of practice privileges the study of how social identity is produced, and as such it studies language primarily as it relates to questions of identity.
Hanks' concept of the linguistic community as defined by linguistic practices is different from that of Eckert and Gumperz, in that rather than studying the dynamics of identity production, it studies the ways in which shared practices relate to the production of linguistic meaning. Where Eckert primarily studies how communities of practice employ linguistic practices informed by shared ideologies to demarcate themselves from other such communities, Hanks studies how linguistic practices are related to a variety of inhabitable positions within the different social fields that are constructed through shared practices.
The notion of speech community is most generally used as a tool to define a unit of analysis within which to analyse language variation and change. Stylistic features differ among speech communities based on factors such as the group's socioeconomic status, common interests and the level of formality expected within the group and by its larger society.
In Western culture, for example, employees at a law office would likely use more formal language than a group of teenage skateboarders because most Westerners expect more formality and professionalism from practitioners of law than from an informal circle of adolescent friends. This special use of language by certain professions for particular activities is known in linguistics as register; in some analyses, the group of speakers of a register is known as a discourse community, while the phrase "speech community" is reserved for varieties of a language or dialect that speakers inherit by birth or adoption.
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