The relationship between language and social power can be observed across numerous areas of society, from the realms of politics, marketing, the workplace, education, the media, to interaction between people of different identities. This paper will illustrate and then analyse various examples of language and social power within the following contexts: Gender (more specifically, male-to-male interaction) Legal writing Politics Advertisements One example I have noticed amongst friendship groups of men in relation to gender and social power is the attempts to put each other down, whether it is subtle or intentionally obvious.
For instance, this conversation took place between two of my male friends: Male 1: Halo: Reach was fucking shit. How the fuck did it get 10/10 on IGN when Metal Gear Solid only got 9. 8? Male 2: There’s a reason why it got 10/10. I personally thought it was ace. Male 1: Were you even playing the same game? Seriously… If you had actually played the game, you would have seen how everything was flawed. There are no redeeming aspects of this game whatsoever! Male 2: Why were you even playing the 360 in the first place, Mr.PS3 fanboy?
Context: Male 1 was complaining about the high ratings that the game Halo: Reach received on a review website (IGN, UK) after having played the game. Male 2 states a different opinion and Male 1 accuses of Male 2 of not knowing what he is talking about. Male 2 tries to make up for this by implying that Male 1’s anger was his own fault. By using the word “fanboy”, Male 2 is implying that Male 1 is betraying his dedication to the Playstation 3 (PS3), by playing the Xbox (360), thus getting a “one up” on Male 1.
The constant one-upmanship can be seen throughout numerous male social groups, and even carries on to the extent of harshly insulting one another. This idea complies with Holmes’ “sociolinguistic universal tendencies”, especially: “4. Women tend to interact in ways which will maintain and increase solidarity, while (especially in formal contexts) men tend to interact in ways which will maintain and increase their power and status” (Holmes 1998). Women will pay many compliments to other women, especially clothes or accessories that they wear.
Holmes states that this is in order to increase solidarity amongst each other. However, it is rarer for men to complement each other on their appearance. Instead, they will often outright criticise each other and sometimes put down another male’s opinion in a blunt way, as illustrated in the example above. It is to be noted however, that these are tendencies (as Holmes describes) and that there are females who will defy the stereotypes of politeness, and males who do not interact with the intention of increasing their status and power.
Other than language and social power within groups of males and females, language and social power can also be seen through the use of language in legal documents and proceedings. Here is an extract from a legal document: “And any such release settlement discharge shall as between you and the undersigned be deemed to have been given or made upon the express condition that it shall become and be wholly void and of no effect if the assurance security or payment on the faith of which it was made or given shall be void… ” The language used here is typical of language in the law.
The number of conjunctions used is incredibly frequent, to the point where it is confusing to those with no legal background. The syntax is complicated, with a high number of embedded clauses within the legal text, and there is lack of punctuation to clarify meaning. The syntactic structure creates a barrier between the average person and those who are legally trained to understand this type of legal jargon. The status and power of legal terminology is retained by those who understand it, which is often exploited by large companies who are allowed to escape being sued via precise legal clauses within their contracts.
The Plain English Campaign aims to reverse this exploitation of power by campaigning for the use of ‘plain English’ with as little jargon as possible, and aspires to make government and official organisation’s language as clear and accessible as possible. It is a way of promoting democracy and the social power to be distributed equally amongst the public. The Plain English Campaign demonstrates how widespread the use of language as a means of social power is used amongst high-status establishments. Language is manipulated in the field of politics and advertising.
The following extract from a speech by Margaret Thatcher shows a few techniques which she has used to make her dialogue highly effective: “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning’. ” She was criticised by others who discussed a ‘U-turn’ of policies, but there is phonetic wordplay in her speech in which she replaces “u” with “you”, and also the phrase “the lady’s not for turning” comes from the title of a Christopher Fry play “The Lady’s Not for Burning”, which is another play on words.