The language attitude - language use relationship: a comparative study

Barbara Soukup

Georgetown University, USA

WS157: Doing things with an attitude: Interdisciplinary explorations of the relationship of language attitudes and social action

Social psychological interest in the (by no means straight-forward) relationship between attitudes and social behavior dates back at least to LaPiere's (1934) famous description of the discrepancies between U.S. restaurant owners' self-declared negative attitudes towards ethnic Chinese and their actually observed quite friendly behavior towards Chinese patrons. In the same interest, the present paper contributes a comparative study in which the links between attitudes towards two different linguistic varieties (Austrian German, Southern American English) and speakers' actual social behavior in terms of their use of these varieties as rhetorical devices in conversation are explored.

Participants in different episodes of an Austrian TV discussion show are found to use shifts from standard into Austrian dialect as 'contextualization cues' (Gumperz 1982) to convey meta-messages of antagonism, contempt, and irony. Such negative communicative effects closely mirror general negative attitudes associated with Austrian dialect as elicited in a 'matched-guise'-type experiment (Lambert et al. 1960): 242 Austrian university students were asked to listen to and rate four different Austrian speakers (two standard and two dialect speakers, one male and one female each) on semantic differential scales. Results show that the informants find dialect speakers to sound coarse, uneducated, and aggressive.

In a similar example, (female) speakers of Southern American English (SoAE) reportedly use their dialect to sound charming, perky, and sociable e.g. in sales-encounters (Johnstone 1999). This, in turn, parallels attitudes attaching to SoAE as elicited in another matched-guise-type experiment conducted in the U.S. In this experiment, 291 college students were asked to rate four different speakers (two Standard American English and two Southern speakers, one male and one female each). Results show that a Southern accent, specifically when used by a woman, is favorably regarded in terms of social attractiveness (friendliness, sociability, sense of humor).

On the basis of these two case studies, this paper suggests that an intrinsic dialogic relationship exists between the attitudes attaching to linguistic varieties and the rhetorical uses to which these varieties can be put in interaction. Common, wide-spread stereotypes hearers associate with a specific variety are contextualization resources speakers can draw on to create conversational meta-messages. Thus, negative attitudes such as the perceived coarseness of Austrian dialect allow for the exploitation of dialect to ridicule an opponent. Similarly, positive attitudes towards female speakers of Southern American English concerning their perceived 'sociability' and 'friendliness' allow Southern women to use their accent to 'charm' customers in sales encounters.

Combining the tools of traditional language attitude study, such as the matched-guise technique, with methods of discourse analysis (e.g. the investigation of 'contextualization' in Gumperz' tradition) opens up fruitful avenues for the exploration of this dialogic relationship between language attitudes and language use.


Johnstone, Barbara. 1999. Uses of Southern-sounding Speech by Contemporary Texas Women. Journal of Sociolinguistics 3:505-522.

Lambert, Wallace E., Richard Hodgson, Robert C. Gardner, and Samuel Fillenbaum. 1960. Evaluational reactions to spoken languages. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 60/1:44-51.

LaPiere, Richard. 1934. Attitudes vs. Actions. Social Forces 13/2:230-37.

Gumperz, John. 1982. Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: CUP.

Session: Workshop
Doing things with an attitude: Interdisciplinary explorations of the relationship of language attitudes and social action
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 02