A key interest for sociolinguists has always been the way people construct relations between language and space. Especially in contemporary sociolinguistics, scholars have studied the processes that link nations to “national languages”, rural areas to “dialects”, city areas to urban speech styles, and so on.
It is easy for researchers to show that these bonds between “language” and geographical space are not naturally given things in the world, but products of socio-historical constructions. Nevertheless, the perceptions of the bond between language and space is very strong and tend to serve as central components in constructions of identities such as “Danes”, “Bornholmians”, “street-wise ghetto kids”, and so on.
However, two societal developments (theorized within the framework of super-diversity) have the potential to disturb these bonds: increased human mobility and increased access to the internet. In this column, I will discuss what happens when language resources move into online reality and back.
Some month ago, my seven-year-old son (born and raised in Copenhagen) took me by surprise when he all of a sudden started speaking “Jutlandish”. Let me first give you some background info that explains why I got surprised.
Like most other societies, the inhabitants in Denmark shape stereotypes about people living in other areas of the country than themselves. A particularly significant socio-cultural division is the stereotypes associated with being from Jutland and from Copenhagen, respectively. Simply put, Jutes traditionally view Copenhageners as superficial smart-asses and Copenhageners view Jutes as being mentally slow. (It goes without saying that this generally tells more about the people producing the stereotypes).
The bonds between “language” and geographical space are not naturally given things in the world, but products of socio-historical constructions.
When it comes to language use associated with Jutland and Copenhagen respectively, most Danes recognize a significant difference in prosodic patterns. Roughly speaking and without getting too technical, “Copenhagen speech” is characterized by a low pitch for accented syllables and a higher pitch for the unstressed syllables, and “Jutlandish” is characterized by the opposite.
It follows from this that it does not take too much effort for a young Copenhagen boy to sound “Jutlandish”. However, because of the strong indexical ascriptions, this is not something people in general do unless the specific intention is to parody (or stylize) the other group. This did not seem to be the intention when my son suddenly used a “Jutlandish” intonation pattern. So what triggered it?
A possible answer came the next morning when we watched YouTube together. My son is a dedicated user of the computer game Minecraft where he builds worlds by himself and with his friends. Recently he discovered that a range of Youtubers has specialized in producing videos, where they play Minecraft while commenting the games or speaking as if they were their avatars. In the video we watched this particular morning, the accompanying voices had almost exactly the same intonation as my son had used the day before. When we talked about the video, it became clear that he had watched videos from this YouTube account for a while. Later the same week I overheard him and one of his friends with whom he plays Minecraft interact. Both of them used the same “Jutlandish” (or from the perspective of my son maybe “Minecraftish”) intonation.
My son’s use of these language resources only went on for a few days. When people heard him talk during this period, most of them would instantly ask him why he spoke “Jutlandish”. He seemed surprised when he got this question. He never answered explicitly but I interpret his reaction as if he did not beforehand link his language use to “Jutlandish”.
The counter-question that nobody asked is: Why call this way of speaking Jutlandish? The label “Jutlandish” is based on a perception of diversity where a certain way of speaking is inseparable from belonging to a certain physical space. The way of speaking is in relation to this example probably better described as a resource that suddenly became available to my son and his friends to enforce their social relation based in their shared interest in online gaming. In other words they were languaging rather than speaking “a dialect”
The lesson to be learned here for sociolinguistis is that static views of “languages” and their relations to groups of speakers may prevent us from understanding what is going on communicatively. As argued by Jan Blommaert this calls for “accepting diversity as change”. Predefined ideas of languages and groups of speakers (here Jutland vs. Copenhagen) simply do not help us understand this case. Instead, it is necessary to pay careful attention to the knowledge and experiences of our participants to understand what is going on.
More generally, the case raises the question of how language in online space in the long run will influence our perceptions of language use and linguistic diversity. With the popularity of gaming videos on YouTube in mind, this genre has the potential to cause a serious disturbance to the forceful bonds between language and geographical space. And perhaps it is about time!