The global in the local: Examining social meaning potentials using ethnography and verbal guise experiments

Marie Maegaard

University of Copenhagen, Denmark

WS133: The macro/micro of language attitudes, ideologies, and folk perceptions

The global in the local: Examining social meaning potentials using ethnography and verbal guise experiments

The use of verbal guise experiments has a long history within the field of language and social psychology. The method is commonly used to elicit attitudes toward people who speak in different languages or accents, and in the original matched guise experiments it was the same persons who appeared in different guises, i.e. using different languages. The purpose of these studies often was to reveal the hidden language ideology of a society, and to demonstrate that there are very strong social stereotypes connected to language use.

In the paper I want to present a somewhat different use of the verbal guise method. Through seven months of ethnographic fieldwork among 80 pupils in 9th grade in a Copenhagen school, it became possible for me to distinguish several social categories and clusters of social practices that helped to create and maintain the social order among the pupils. The social analysis of this community of practice was combined with a linguistic analysis, which showed how the use of different phonetic variants was related to both category membership and practice.

It is clear from many studies that the local construction of social meaning draws on meaning potentials that are of a more global nature. However, the community of practice perspective emphasises local meaning making, and since most researchers study only one community of practice, the relation to the larger society is often difficult to see. I suggest that a way to shed some light on this relation is to combine the community of practice study with a verbal guise study.

In the present study, seven pupils were chosen as representing seven style clusters. Each person was represented twice, with two different speech samples. These samples were then played at different schools in Copenhagen, using respondents similar to the speakers in age. The question was to what extent the respondents were able to ‘recognise’ the speakers, solely on the basis of speech samples; i.e. to what extent the respondents’ evaluations could be seen as corresponding to the day-to-day reconstructions of personae that the speakers engaged in in school.

Results showed that respondents are able to recognise the speakers' personae, just by listening to eight seconds of speech, but also that some speakers were not recognised. The patterns show, among other things, that speakers of the old ‘working class’ accent are not recognised, and this is seen as indicating that this accent is not known by young people in other parts of the city to relate to the same meaning potentials.

The use of verbal guise techniques in studies of this kind, gives insight into the interplay between the local construction of meaning and global meaning potentials. The ‘classical’ focus on the hidden – potentially oppressing – language ideologies of society is in this kind of study shifted to a focus on the constructive use of linguistic features associated with certain social meaning potentials.

Session: Workshop (part 1)
The macro/micro of language attitudes, ideologies, and folk perceptions
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 11:00-12:30
room: 08