Language Attitudes

The inspiration for this post can be accredited to a conversation I overheard between my elder brother and his American fiancée a few years ago. Having been born and bought up in Manchester all my siblings were accustomed to hearing and talking in a Mancunian accent. But, then one night, my brother was going over wedding plans with his fiancée, and I was shocked to find him conversing with her in an American accent. After he cancelled the call and came downstairs to sit with us; he was back to talking in a Mancunian accent. I remember wondering whether this shift from one accent to another was because he did not find his own accent appealing or prestigious enough to converse in.

A few years later, whilst reading a chapter on the ‘fundamentals of language attitudes’ I found myself re-evaluating my brother’s choice of shifting his accent. My argument being: if he did negatively perceive his own accent then why did he not make the choice to permanently shift his accent to sound more like his fiancée? In fact, a couple of months after their arranged marriage he reverted to his Mancunian accent. Interestingly, this made me question this supposedly ‘negative’ attitude and why it had been so short lived.

The framework provided by Ajzen and Fishbein (1980) in the Theory of Reasoned Action can help find possible links between my brother’s attitude and his behaviour (Garrett, 2010). Firstly, my brother adjusted his speech style based on his beliefs of the consequences of such behaviour. For example, if he switches to an American accent to match his fiancée he can identify as part of her ingroup. Therefore, by breaking down any differences (in the form of different accents) between them, he could build a more intimate and personal relationship. I would argue that he evaluated this as a positive because he loves his fiancée and wishes to please and appeal to her.

Now, the second half of the theory focuses on how his family and friends may view his behaviour. My family thought it quite amusing that my brother would talk to Sara in an American accent but would switch back to the Manchurian accent when talking with everyone else. In fact, we were worried that he might feel ashamed of who he was just to please his fiancée.  Interestingly, my brother chose to ignore our disproval of his behaviour because he felt his fledgling relationship with his fiancée was a higher priority. Therefore, the desire to appease her won over! – which I think is super cute!

I would argue that my brother does not view his accent ‘negatively’ or as ‘less prestigious’ instead he views the American accent as being a more intimate variety to use with his significant other. It is a variety that can be used to maintain and nurture a fledgling relationship which is why he comfortably reverted to his Mancunian accent a few months later.

The million-dollar question that remains is if he did view his accent negatively – could his attitudes have changed? Now, the link between a set of beliefs as well as how we feel about these beliefs and the way in which we act, does not always match up (Garrett, 2010). Even though my brother’s use of an American accent was short lived, this does not necessarily mean that his positive attitude toward the American accent had changed. It is possible that other factors could have motivated his decision to change his behaviour. For example, now that he had moved back to Manchester after studying abroad, it is possible that he felt that it was more convenient to converge with not only his family members but also work colleagues and his patients. These contrasting approaches show that attitudes are a ‘psychological construct’ and unless they are expressed overtly we must rely on inference to dissect the speaker’s true beliefs (Garrett, 2010).

Garrett, Peter. 2010. Fundamentals of language attitudes. In Attitudes to Language, 19-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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