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Unconscious elements in linguistic communication: Language and social reality

Seuren, P. A. M. (2015). Unconscious elements in linguistic communication: Language and social reality. Empedocles: European Journal for the Philosophy of Communication, 6, 185-194. doi:10.1386/ejpc.6.2.185_1.
The message of the present article is, first, that, besides and below the strictly linguistic aspects of communication through language, of which speakers are in principle fully aware, a great deal of knowledge not carried in virtue of the system of the language in question but rather transmitted by the form of the intended message, is imparted to listeners or readers, without either being in the least aware of this happening. For example, listeners quickly register the social status, regional origin or emotional attitude of speakers and they react to those kinds of ‘paralinguistic’ information, mostly totally unawares. When speaker and listener have a positive attitude with regard to each other, the reaction consists, among other things, in mutual alignment or accommodation of pronunciation features, lexical selections and style of speaking. When the mutual attitude is negative, the opposite happens: speakers accentuate their differences. Then, when this happens not between individual interlocutors but between groups of speakers, such accommodation or divergence phenomena may lead to language change. The main theoretical question raised, but not answered, in this article is how and at what point forms of behaviour, including linguistic behaviour, achieve the status of being ‘standard’ or ‘accepted’ in any given community and what it means to say that they are ‘standard’ or ‘accepted’. It is argued that frequency of occurrence is not the main explanatory factor, and that a causal explanation is to be sought rather in the, often unconscious, attitudes of individuals, in particular their desire or need to be integrated members of a community or social group, thus ensuring their safety and asserting their group identity. The question thus belongs to the province of social psychology. Qualms about analyses of this kind being ‘unscientific’ dissipate when it is realized that consciousness phenomena are part of the real world and must therefore be considered to be valid objects of scientific theory formation. Like so many other ill-understood elements in scientific theories, consciousness, though itself unexplained, can be given a place in causal chains of events.
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