Linguistic insecurity

Language psychology

Why are we afraid of our words?

Photo by Moose Photos on Pexels
Photo by Moose Photos on Pexels

The storehouse of human fears is immense, and here, we continue to talk about those that affect our linguistic self. One of these fears is called linguistic insecurity, a phenomenon somewhat similar to linguistic anxiety but with its specific unpleasant flavour. Linguistic insecurity is a state in which we think that our speech does not conform to the ideal standard of the language and is therefore wrong. As a result, we, social animals, feel uneasy about our social status and try adjusting to the more prestigious i.e. 'correct' language. That means we deliberately change our pronunciation, grammar of sentences and choose our words more carefully. Simply put, we move away from the manner we usually communicate.

Why, in the first place, is there any conviction that our speech does not meet conventional expectations? Because languages are diverse even within themselves. Dialects, regional accents, and other differences often not typical of the language variation once chosen as national and/or literary one.

As is often the case in linguistics (and indeed in many other sciences), all started in the second half of the 20th century. One of the first names for insecurity was 'schizoglossia' coined by the American linguist Einar Haugen. In his paper, "Schizoglossia and the Linguistic Norm", he described societies where two languages are in use, but only one is considered prestigious. For example, Haiti, where Haitian Creole contrasts with standard French and is clearly losing out. Haugen even mentions specific symptoms typical of schizoglossia, namely discomfort in the diaphragm and vocal cords. Well... let's assume...

Sometime later, in the 1970s, another linguist, William Labov (who was the one to label the phenomenon with the word 'insecurity'), became interested in the topic. Labov is known for his studies of pronunciation among people from different social strata in New York. In particular, one of his most famous works is the study of how employees from three different retail shops pronounced sounds / r / and / θ /. Labov noticed that middle-class representatives tried copying the pronunciation more than others, which, according to their beliefs, was characteristic of a higher social stratum. The scholar surmised that being on the economic periphery between rich and poor, the middle class logically tends to align itself with the former and therefore imitates its mode of speech. Interestingly, the middle class, as observed by Labov, is more inclined to stigmatize those who use colloquialisms or make speech errors. Labov assumed it only further confirms their linguistic insecurities.

Although Labov studied only the phonological aspect, he believed that we may observe similar processes in grammar and vocabulary, too.