Getting the Right Balance: Pragmatics in Speech and Language Therapy

Pragmatic and Discourse Disorders

Blog post written by Louise Cummings author of Pragmatic and Discourse Disorders.

The clinical education of speech and language therapy (SLT) students in the UK is a tightly regulated process. No less than three bodies have SLT education within their purview. These bodies are the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT), the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). Each of these bodies has a particular role to play in SLT education. The RCSLT provides curriculum guidelines and sets good practice guidelines for the education and training of SLTs and for their continuing professional development. The QAA provides subject benchmarks for SLT. These benchmarks stipulate baseline outcomes which a graduate in SLT will have achieved at the time of graduation. The HCPC is the statutory regulatory body for SLTs and other healthcare professionals. It specifies standards of education and training for SLTs among a range of other standards (e.g. standards of conduct, performance and ethics). Linguistics is so integral to SLT education that each of these bodies makes reference to it within their respective requirements for education providers. Within its guidelines for pre-registration SLT courses in the UK, the RCSLT states that:

‘The content of the linguistics and phonetics strand of the curriculum should facilitate an understanding of those concepts and constituents of Linguistics which underpin speech and language therapy theory and practice. The curriculum should address both typical/atypical patterns and processes of linguistics and phonetics. Study in this area must include linguistics (phonetics/phonology, semantics, lexicon, morphology/syntax and pragmatics), psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, sociolinguistics and multilingualism’. (2010: 34)

However, when one examines these guidelines in depth, it becomes clear that not all branches of Linguistics are afforded the same significance. The phonetics provision of SLT curricula is specified in considerable detail across the areas of articulatory phonetics, acoustic phonetics, hearing and speech perception. The requirements to provide a clinical education to SLT students in conversation and discourse analysis are addressed within just two bullet points.

Students must have an understanding of:

• Theoretical models and frameworks of conversation and discourse

• Current approaches to analysis of pragmatics, conversation and discourse

It was with a view to redressing this imbalance in the Linguistics education of SLT students that I wrote Pragmatic and Discourse Disorders. This workbook sets out from the position that pragmatic and discourse disorders have been marginalized for too long in the clinical education of SLT students and that it is now time for these disorders to have the same status as speech sound disorders or disorders which affect the syntax and semantics of language (e.g. specific language impairment). There are two reasons why this should be the case. Firstly, it is pragmatic aspects of language which are most closely associated with social communication between speakers and hearers. The importance of social communication to psychological well-being and social functioning is increasingly being recognized. This relationship is acknowledged by the inclusion of Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder for the first time in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Secondly, if the ‘development and consolidation of skills in practical phonetics […] entails a considerable investment of time over an extended period’, as the RCSLT guidelines state, then the same is true of skills that are needed to assess pragmatic aspects of language. A workbook which has those skills as its focus is the place to begin that development.

References:

American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Cummings, L. (2015) Pragmatic and Discourse Disorders: A Workbook, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (2010) Guidelines for Pre-Registration Speech and Language Therapy Courses in the UK, London: Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists.

 

Acceleration in the bilingual acquisition of phonological structure: Evidence from Polish–English bilingual children

BIL SI Cover 2015Blog post written by Marco Tamburelli based on an article in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 

The Polish language is well known for its broad range of consonant sequences. Among other things, Polish words may begin with consonant sequences that in languages like English are only allowed in word-medial or word-final position. The sequence /pt/, for instance, is found in the middle and at the end of English words such as raptor or apt, but never at the beginning. In Polish, however, we find words such as ptak (meaning ‘bird’), with the sequence /pt/ occurring word-initially. English does have some types of word-initial sequences that are similar to the /p/> type, notably /st/ as in “stain”,  /sp/ as in “spin”, and /sk/ as in “skate”, but these are a proper subset of the sequences found in Polish.

In this paper we wanted to investigate whether children who acquire English together with Polish might be at an advantage when it comes to consonant sequences. We reasoned that Polish-speaking children might rely on their knowledge of the phonological “superset” provided by the Polish system to buttress their development of a “subset” system such as the one required by English consonant sequences. To test this hypothesis, we examined the production of consonant clusters in simultaneous Polish–English bilingual children and in language-matched English monolinguals (aged 7;01–8;11) using a nonword repetition task. The “nonwords” were made up of sound sequences that follow English phonotactics but that are not actual English words, in order to control for potential prior learning effects.

Our results showed that the Polish-English bilinguals consistently outperformed the English monolinguals in the production of English-like nonwords beginning with /st/, /sp/, and /sk/. These results indicate that exposure to a language with a broad range of word-initial consonant sequences can accelerate the development of a second language whose consonant sequences are a proper subset of the first. While crosslinguistic influence in bilinguals has been reported numerous times, this is the first time it has been found to positively affect word-initial consonant sequences.

These findings have a number of implications for our understanding of the development of bilingual phonology as well as for competing views of phonological organisation and phonological complexity.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Acceleration in the bilingual acquisition of phonological structure: Evidence from Polish–English bilingual children’ here

Exploring the Indo-European Roots (Part 2)

Blog post written by Asya Pereltsvaig author of Languages of The World & co-author of The Indo-European Controversy.

Missed part one? here’s the link: Exploring the Indo-European Roots (Part 1)

Old World Map

Image: www.flickr.com/photos/pasukaru76/3595826459 via Creative Commons.

Bones and pots found in archaeological digs do not talk. Yet, as discussed in detail in our book, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, we can use the tools of paleo-linguistics to search for the PIE homeland. The general idea is simple: the reconstructed vocabulary of the ancestral language is examined for clues as to its speakers’ physical environment and modes of subsistence. Thus, speakers of a language that has words for ‘snow’, ‘sleigh’, ‘reindeer’, and ‘seal’ must live in a very different place from those of a language with words for ‘palm’, ‘coconut’, ‘rice’, and ‘elephant’. Based on the consensus reconstructions of PIE, its speakers must have lived in a temperate environment, where snow, birch trees, beech trees, and wolves were common features, but salt-water bodies were not. Reconstructions of words for ‘rye’, ‘barley’, ‘sickle’, and ‘to plough’ tell us that PIE speakers had agriculture, while words for ‘sheep’, ‘goat’, ‘pig’, and ‘cattle’ mean that they raised animals. But perhaps most revealing, and at the same time most controversial, are the reconstructed roots *ek’wos- ‘horse’ and *kwekwlo- ‘wheel’ (which survived in English in equestrian and wheel). Since the earliest archeological evidence of wheels and horses dates from about 3500 BCE, the logic of the paleo-linguistic argument tells us that PIE could not have been spoken earlier than that—a timeframe compatible with the Steppe but not the Anatolian theory. The steppe zone is also the most likely place in which humans first came into close contact with wild horses and eventually domesticated them. Other clues, which likewise strengthen the Steppe theory, can be found among loanwords from neighboring languages such as Proto-Uralic, the ancestor of today’s Finnish, Hungarian, and Samoyedic languages, spoken in northwestern Siberia.

But words alone, Martin Lewis and I argue, cannot tell the whole story and sometimes can be highly misleading. Approaches to the Homeland Problem relying exclusively on lexical data—from glottochronology, which was first explored in the 1950s and has since been discredited, to the Bayesian phylogenetic methods employed by Russell D. Gray and his colleagues in recent work—produce notoriously unreliable results because words are subject to speakers’ conscious choices and are easily and frequently borrowed from one language into another. Grammatical structures offer more reliable evidence of family relationships but they are harder to convert into workable binary input for Bayesian calculations. For example, models that rely on lexical data usually show Romani, the language of the Gypsies, as much more distinctive within the Indo-Aryan branch than it actually is, dating its divergence to 2,500-3,500 years ago. In reality, Romani gained a distinctive lexicon not because it diverged from its “sibling languages” a long time ago but rather because it was in contact with, and picked numerous words from, other languages on its path from northern India to Europe, such as Persian, Armenian, and Greek. A look at its structural properties, such as its gender and case systems, indicates that Romani must have split off from the other Indo-Aryan languages only about 1,000 years ago. This more recent date of the Roma exodus from northern India is now confirmed by genetic studies.

Rapid migrations, such as the trek that the Roma made at the turn of the second millennium CE, are key to understanding both population distribution and the spread of languages. In the historical record of the Indo-European language family, such swift population movements, almost instantaneous at the relevant time scale, happened many times: Latin spread with the growth of the Roman Empire, Russian advanced east with the colonization of Siberia, and Norse speakers settled the previously uninhabited Iceland (and for a while also Greenland), to give just a few examples. Yet, recently proposed computational models often take into account only one mechanism of language spread: demic diffusion, a slow and random population movement in all directions, impeded only by water. Such models cannot handle quick migrations, and hence necessarily postulate a much slower spread of Indo-European languages and, as a result, a much earlier date for PIE.

The preceding discussion of the importance of migration, however, should not obscure another well-known fact: although languages often spread through the movement of the people who speak them, they do not always travel with genes. Consider, for example, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. In addition to the physical descendants of the Anglo-Saxon invaders, Roman soldiers stationed in Iberia, and East Slavs from the Kievan Rus’, these languages are spoken today by millions of genetically-unrelated individuals—and entire indigenous groups—found in such regions as in Alaska, the Andes, the Amazonian rainforest, Australia, the Caribbean, and Siberia. Consequently, genetic studies that reveal patterns of migration and admixture of various groups sometimes help us figure out certain pieces of the Indo-European puzzle, but they cannot provide conclusive evidence of the PIE homeland.

As the book unfolds, Martin Lewis and I take the reader through a maze of findings from historical linguistics, archaeology, historical geography, and genetics, allowing one to interpret and reconcile these findings within a coherent narrative. Thus, the book is as much about methodology and epistemological issues—how we acquire or fail to acquire knowledge of the human past—as it is about the location of the Indo-European homeland itself. At the time when scientific research becomes increasingly collaborative and interdisciplinary, and when the general public increasingly needs to be able to assess scientific findings on a broad range of issues—from genetic history to climate change and genetically-modified foods—rethinking such epistemological issues becomes ever more critical.

Does the motor system contribute to the perception and understanding of actions?

LCO 2015 coverReflections on Gregory Hickok’s ‘The myth of mirror neurons: the real neuroscience of communication and cognition’

Blog post written by David Kemmerer based on an article in the latest issue of Language and Cognition

It has been said that mirror neurons are “the most hyped concept in neuroscience” (Jarrett, 2012). In his book The myth of mirror neurons: the real neuroscience of communication and cognition (2014), Gregory Hickok does the field a great service by cutting through this hype and showing that, contrary to the views of many laypeople as well as some experts, mirror neurons are not the fundamental ‘basis’ of action understanding.

In this article I argue, however, that he takes his critique too far by effectively denying that the motor system plays any significant role at all in the perception and interpretation of actions. In fact, a large literature strongly supports the hypothesis that motor regions in the frontal and parietal lobes not only subserve the execution of actions, but also contribute to the comprehension of actions, regardless of whether they are directly observed or linguistically represented.

In addition, recent research suggests that although the articulatory system is involved primarily in speech production, it enhances speech perception too, even when the auditory stimuli are not explicitly attended.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Does the motor system contribute to the perception and understanding of actions?’ here

The truth about transitions: What psycholinguistics can teach us about writing

Blog post written by Yellowlees Douglas author of The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You A Better Writer

The Reader's Brain Journalists, particularly those writing for American audiences, practically have transitions drilled into their heads from their first forays into writing for the public. Where’s your transition? their editors persist, as they linger over each sentence. However, those editors and newsroom sages handed on advice with well-established roots in psycholinguistics—and with particularly striking benefits for the reading public. I explore what linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience can teach us about writing in my forthcoming The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer. And using an abundance of transitions is perhaps the simplest advice you can follow to make your writing easy to read, in addition to bolstering your readers’ speed and comprehension of even complex, academic prose.

As a species, we evolved to learn from observing cause and effect—and from making predictions based on those observations. For example, your everyday survival relies on your ability to predict how the driver to your right will behave on entering a roundabout, just as we predict hundreds of events that unfold in our daily lives, all of which dictate our behavior. But we feel relatively minimal cognitive strain from all these predictions, mostly made without any conscious awareness, because we can make predictions based on prior experience. We expect the familiar.

Similarly, in reading, we expect sequential sentences to relate to one another. However, most writers assume that their readers see the ideas represented in one sentence as inherently connected to the preceding sentence. But sentences can become islands of meaning, especially when writers fail to provide explicit linguistic cues that inform readers how one sentence follows another.

Take, for example, your typical university mission statement, the kind invariably featured in American university catalogues and websites:

Teaching—undergraduate and graduate through the doctorate—is the fundamental purpose of the university. Research and scholarship are integral to the education process and to expanding humankind’s understanding of the natural world, the mind and the senses. Service is the university’s obligation to share the benefits of its knowledge for the public good.

Chances are, even if someone offered you the lottery jackpot for recalling this content in a mere half-hour, you’d fail—at least, not without some serious sweat put into rote memoriziation. Why? Despite the mission statement containing a mere three sentences, nothing connects any sentence to the others—aside from the writer’s implicit belief that everyone knows that universities focus on teaching, research, and service. Unfortunately, only an academic would understand that research, teaching, and service form the bedrock of any research university. As a result, we can safely guess that the writer was an academic. Sadly, the actual audience for the mission statement—the family members tendering up their retirement savings or mortgaging the house for tuition—fail to see any connections at all. As studies documented as early as the 1970s, readers read these apparently disconnected sentences more slowly and with greater activity in the parts of the brain dedicated to reading. In addition, readers also show poorer recall of sentences lacking any apparently logical or referential continuity.

Because prediction is the engine that enables readers’ comprehension, transitions play a vital role in enabling us to understand how sentences refer to one another. In fact, certain types of transitions—particularly those flagging causation, time, space, protagonist, and motivation—bind sentences more tightly together. When you use as a result, thus, then, because, or therefore, your reader sees the sentence she’s about to read as causally related to the sentence she’s just read. Moreover, when writers place transitions early in sentences, prior to the verb, readers grasp the relationship before they finish making predictions about how the sentence will play out. These predictions stem from our encounters with tens of thousands of sentences we’ve previously read. But put the transition after the verb, and your readers have already completed the heavy lifting of prediction. Or, worse, they’ve made the wrong predictions and need to reread your sentences again.

You might think that a snippet like too or also or even flies beneath your readers’ radar. Think again. Transitions are your readers’ linguistic lifelines that link sentences and ideas smoothly together, making your reading easy to understand and recall. You can discover more about not only transitions but also of how your readers’ brains work through every facet of your writing—from the words you choose to the cadence of your sentences in The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer.

No, the rise of the emoji doesn’t spell the end for language

Vyv Evans emojisEditor of the journal Language and Cognition and author of several Cambridge books including the forthcoming The Crucible of Language Vyv Evans has been in the news recently discussing the increase in the use of emojis.

In this post for Cambridge Extra Vyv summaries the main themes and also provides links to some great videos and essays.

The emoji has become one of the fastest growing forms of communication in history. But those who are worried that its growth could mean the death of written language are wrong – emojis are being used to enhance, rather than replace words in our digital communications.

An emoji is an iconic, visual representation of an idea, entity, feeling, status or event, that is used alongside or instead of words in digital messaging and social media. You could call them today’s modern hieroglyphics.

Initial results from market research by the company TalkTalk Mobile that used an emoji IQ study that I developed gives us a first glimpse of how the use of emojis are growing. The survey of 2,000 UK residents aged 18-65 found that 80% of Brits are now using these colourful symbols to communicate on a regular basis. And 62% of smartphone users report that their use of emojis has increased from a year ago. The 18 to 25-year-old age group were the biggest users, with 72% of younger people agreeing that they find it easier to express their emotions using emojis.

Is emoji a language?

Irrespective of the medium, what makes something a language boils down to a couple of things. First, there needs to be a wide set of expressions, like words, that can either be pronounced or signed, or represented in some other form, like writing. While English has well over a million words, depending on education and background, an adult English speaker will regularly use somewhere between 30-60,000, and recognise many more. So, even with the 800+ emojis available today, this falls well short of the vocabulary required to express the semantic range of a full-blown language.

Emojis are mainly used to support and enhance the meaning conveyed by text in a digital message. In spoken language, intonation and gesture provide additional information not always readily gleaned in the spoken message. We rely on intonation to both “punctuate” our spoken utterances, and to provide key cues as to what our words mean and whether we’re asking a question or giving an answer.

You can view some great videos and essays  in the links below:

Videos:

Are emojis the future of communication? Vyv talking about the role of emoji in digital communication–12th June 2015

How to be an emoji master Fun guide to using emoji, based on my research with TalkTalk Mobile–19th May 2015.


Essays:

“It’s official: The twitter hashtag is now a word”. Psychology Today–15th June 2015.

“Sorry, emoji doesn’t make you dumber”. Psychology Today–8th June 2015

“No, the rise of the emoji doesn’t spell the end for language”. Essay in The Conversation–22nd May 2015

Can emojis really be used to make terror threats? Article in The Guardian, February 2015

We will be joining Vyv at the International Cognitive Linguistics conference this week. If you are attending please come and visit the Cambridge stand to explore our key books and journals in this area.

Machine learning helps computers predict near-synonyms

The article is published in Natural Language Engineering, a journal that meets the needs of professionals and researchers working in all areas of computerised language processing

Choosing the best word or phrase for a given context from among candidate near-synonyms, such as “slim” and “skinny”, is something that human writers, given some experience, do naturally; but for choices with this level of granularity, it can be a difficult selection problem for computers.

Researchers from Macquarie University in Australia have published an article in the journal Natural Language Engineering, investigating whether they could use machine learning to re-predict a particular choice among near-synonyms made by a human author – a task known as the lexical gap problem.

They used a supervised machine learning approach to this problem in which the weights of different features of a document are learned computationally. Through using this approach, the computers were able to predict synonyms with greater accuracy and reduce errors.

The initial approach solidly outperformed some standard baselines, and predictions of synonyms made using a small window around the word outperformed those made using a wider context (such as the whole document).

However, they found that this was not the case uniformly across all types of near-synonyms.  Those that embodied connotational or affective differences — such as “slim” versus “skinny”, with differences in how positively the meaning is presented — behaved quite differently, in a way that suggested that broader features related to the ‘tone’ of the document could be useful, including document sentiment, document author, and a distance metric for weighting the wider lexical context of the gap itself  (For instance, if the chosen near-synonym was negative in sentiment, this might be linked to other expressions of negative sentiment in the document).

The distance weighting was particularly effective, resulting in a 38% decrease in errors, and these models turned out to improve accuracy not just on affective word choice, but on non-affective word choice also.

Read the full article ‘Predicting word choice in affective text’ online in the journal Natural Language Engineering

Can your phone make you laugh?

Funny Texting

Examples of humorous and sometimes awkward autocorrect substitutions happen all the time. Typing ‘funny autocorrect’ into Google brings up page upon page of examples where phones seem to have a mind of their own.

A group of researchers at the University of Helsinki, under the lead of Professor Hannu Toivonen, have been examining word substitution and sentence formation, to see the extent to which they can implement a completely automatic form of humour generation. The results have been published online in the in the journal Natural Language Engineering.

Basing the experiment on the ideas and methods of computational humour explored by Alessandro Valitutti for several years, the researchers worked with short length text messages changing one word to another one, turning the text to a pun, possibly using a taboo word. By isolating and manipulating the main components of such pun-based texts, they were able to generate humorous texts in a more controllable way.

For example, it was proved that replacing a word at the end of the sentence surprised recipients, contributing to the humorous effect. They also proved that word replacement is funnier if the word is phonetically similar to the original word and when the word is a “humorously inappropriate” taboo word.

The experiment involved over 70,000 assessments in total, and used crowd sourcing to test funniness of the texts. This is the largest experiment that Professor Toivonen knows of related to this field of research.

How funny?

People were asked to assess individual messages for their funniness on a scale of 0 to 4 with 0 indicating the text wasn’t funny. And comedians can sigh with relief – the initial median score from the research was just 0.55, indicating that on average the text can hardly be called funny. But by following a combination of rules, this median increased by 67% showing that by inserting certain criteria could impact upon how funny the text message was.

Does this mean that in the future people will ‘rofl’ (roll on the floor laughing) in response to a funny quip or witty banter made by a phone?

Professor Toivonen sees a future where programs will be able to generate humorous automated responses and sentences:

“Some of the first applications of this type of research are likely to be seen in the automated production of funny marketing messages and help with creative writing. But who knows, maybe phones will one day be intelligent enough to make you laugh.”

Read the article ‘Computational generation and dissection of lexical replacement humor’ online in the journal Natural Language Engineering– please note that the article contains language that some may find offensive.

5 of the funniest texts*

Message Original Word Replacement word
Okie, pee ya later see pee
How come u r back so fart? fast fart
Now u makin me more curious…smell me pls… Tell smell
Dunno…My mum is kill bathing. still kill
No choice have to eat her treat eat

*There were funnier texts but due to offensive language we were not able to publish them on this blog

He drug the box to the door before he snuck into the room…or he dragged the box to the door before he sneaked into the room?

ENG 2015Post written by Camilla Søballe Horslund based on an article in English Today 

What is the past tense form of the verb to sneak? Some say snuck and others say sneaked. According to dictionaries, sneaked is the more formal form. Likewise the past tense form of the verb to drag varies between the forms drug and dragged, but while snuck is considered acceptable in informal speech, drug is described as non-standard and is generally not accepted by people with high socio-economic status. Despite the apparent similarity with former forms like holp and clomb, snuck and drug are newer than their regular counterparts sneaked and dragged. In fact, sneak and drag were originally regular verbs with the past tense forms sneaked and dragged but have recently developed the irregular past tense forms snuck and drug. Interestingly, this is a development in the reverse direction from the typical trend of irregular (strong) verbs turning regular (weak), as for instance in the cases of holp/helped and clomb/climbed.

This study investigates the historical development of the neologisms snuck and drug in American English as well as their current distribution across both spoken and written registers in British and American English with data from the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the British National Corpus (BNC).

Snuck and drug are first attested in American English in the 1880s, but while the occurrences of snuck increase over time, reaching a proportion of 48% of the past tense forms of the verb to sneak in present day English, drug remains a minority form over time only taking up a mere 1% of the past tense forms of the verb to drag in present day English, and there is no evidence that the form is becoming common. Both irregular past tense forms are more frequent in American English than in British English; no occurrences of drug are attested in the BNC.  With respect to register, the irregular form of both verbs is most common in the spoken register for both American and British English and least common in the academic and newspaper registers.

Explore the full article ‘How snuck sneaked into English and drug is still dragging behind: A corpus study on the usage of new past tense forms for sneak and drag in British and American English’ here

The Language of Organizational Styling

The Language of Organizational StylingPost written by author Lionel Wee discussing his recently published book The Language of Organizational Styling

Organizations are interesting because of the promise and problems they represent. They have promise because they allow individuals to pool their resources and scale up their activities, thus making it possible to achieve things at a supra-individual level. In fact, one might say that this is the very reason why organizations exist at all. At the same time, there is great irony in the fact that, having been created, many organizations then go on to acquire an existence and independence beyond the goals and wishes of their founders. Especially when constituted as virtual persons, organizations can make claims and exert rights that sometimes come into conflict with those of individuals.

One might say, with perhaps only slight exaggeration, that organizations are a form of artificial intelligence – created by us but then coming to have priorities and values that are not always within our control. And just like their better-known computational counterparts, organizations, too, are often portrayed in dystopian terms. Especially in popular media, big businesses are ideologically characterized as faceless, anonymous and profit-seeking entities that undermine the authentic nature of life in small towns and neighborhoods by eroding their individuality and rendering them homogeneous. Scholarly analyses are of course more nuanced, but even here, while organizations have figured prominently as direct objects of study in sociology and business studies, they have been somewhat neglected in sociolinguistics. Organizations usually come into play as part of the backdrop against which the activities of individuals or communities are constrained or enabled; they are rarely the actual focus.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, however, organizations are fascinating because – just like individual speakers – they are entities that employ various semiotic resources, in particular, linguistic resources in order to project specific kinds of identities, cultivate certain kinds of relationships with other organizations, and foster ties with the various communities. But precisely because organizations are entities sui generis, their communiqués and other linguistic activities cannot be reduced to those of the individuals who populate them without at the same time raising a number of conceptual problems. This is because the organization in principle exists above and beyond the intentions and activities of any single individual, however powerful or senior that person might be. And this raises the rather interesting question of how organizations might be best studied.

This is where the sociolinguistic notion of style proves useful, in my view. The analytical beauty of a style-theoretic framework is that it raises issues of strategy, agency and choice as being in need of more careful attention. Speakers make stylistic choices, though not always freely, which means that they have to be mindful of the social and political consequences of these choices. But curiously, the stylistic practices of organizations have not been subjected to any in-depth sociolinguistic analysis and theorizing, even though the extrapolation of style from speaker activity to organizational activity seems a natural one to make. And once this extension is seriously contemplated, we can start asking questions such as the following: Do organizations engage in styling the other? What might prompt an organization to attempt to re-style itself, and what kinds of linguistic maneuvers are involved? Given that big businesses are often seen as anathema to the preservation of a community’s identity, how do big businesses then attempt to overcome this ideological bias? How does talking about organizational styling differ from talking about branding or corporate communications? And perhaps most fundamental of all, does the application of the notion of style to organizational activity require us to revisit and re-evaluate any of our current assumptions about the nature of style (since the predominant tendency is to think of style in connection with people rather than organizations)?

The sociolinguistic study of organizations is relatively new but important, given how ubiquitous organizations are in our lives. Many of us work in organizations; we have our lives regulated by organizations; and more than a few of us join (religious, political, grassroots) organizations because we feel that the goals they pursue can give meanings to our lives.

Find out more on Lionel Wee’s new book ‘The Language of Organizational Styling’ published by Cambridge University Press.