Written for an Applied Linguistics Master’s Course: Introduction to Linguistics
Introduction to the Language Site
The language site chosen for observation was the Nottingham City Central Library. This library is located in England and offers a wide range of free resources to the public, including recreational, educational and informative texts as well as other informational and entertainment media (CDs, DVDs, magazines, etc.). The library has function rooms where events take place that are planned either by the staff or by outside parties wanting to utilize the available space. Organizations are also allowed to set up informational kiosks within the library at various times throughout the year for promotional purposes. The British Army was the most recent organization to use the library for such purposes. Library visitors are linguistically and culturally diverse, with Caucasian, African, Middle Eastern and Asian ethnicities being the most prominent demographics represented at the site. Of these ethnicities, there is a generally equitable balance between native and non-native UK citizens. In regards to economic status, the more frequent library visitors range from lower to middle classes and are either a part of the student or working-class groups. The varied characteristics of library staff and visitors at the language site provided many opportunities to observe a wide range of textual and cultural elements within their interactions. Specifically, one can observe that communication between librarians and visitors featured elements of Gee’s Discourse theory, established power relationships in interactions and exhibited specific textual structures as they relate to the rules of cooperation, politeness and formality.
Discourses Observed at the Language Site
Gee’s (1989) theory on Discourse was an integral factor that influenced how librarians and visitors interacted at the language site. The librarians were predominantly Caucasian, British-native, middle class, females ranging from the mid-forties to early sixties in age. There were only two librarians who did not fit this description: one was a native-British, Caucasian female in her mid-twenties; the other was a teenage, British-Indian male. The librarians interacted with each other and with visitors in what would be considered their primary Discourse which, as Gee (1989) would note, occurred through their primary socialization at home (Gee, 1989, p. 7). Not all visitors to the library were native to England, however. Many library visitors who were not British natives were either foreign transfer students to Nottingham, or they were from immigrant groups prominent in England. The cultures represented in these non-native groups were primarily from Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese and Indonesian backgrounds.
Within the context of this language site, these non-native groups had to be able to communicate with other library visitors and librarians in their secondary Discourse, and sometimes they had to switch to their primary Discourse to relay information to their friends or family members during these exchanges. These switches between Discourses required that speakers understood how to appropriately use the different textual and pragmatic structures of their primary and secondary Discourses. Utilizing their primary Discourse only occurred when they were visiting the library with other family members or friends from their Discourse group. In these instances, accessing their primary Discourse served to clarify or confirm information that may not have been understood by the family member or friend present. For example, two immigrant, Middle-Eastern men came to the library to find specific maps for research:
Library Visitor Using Primary and Secondary Discourses
Middle Eastern library visitor asks librarian for help with finding maps:
Visitor 1: Hello, where do you keep your maps?
Librarian: They’re just over there. Let me show you what we have.
(Librarian and Visitor 1 walk to an area away from the desk. Visitor 2 waits at the librarian’s desk for them to return.)
Visitor 1: Thank you.
Librarian: You’re welcome.
(Visitor 1 and Visitor 2 take a moment to look at the maps together at the librarian’s desk and discuss what Visitor 1 has found in a non-English language, presumably, their primary Discourse.)
Additionally, from the example above, we can observe that switching between Discourses sometimes results in forming textual or pragmatic structures that fall short of adhering to the general principles of a given Discourse. Visitor 1, whose primary Discourse was not English, opened the conversation with a short salutation that quickly transitioned into a direct, interrogative structure to solicit information on what he needed. In most conversations observed that took place for similar purposes (i.e. to ask for information or to ask for help), visitors, whose primary Discourse was English, would often open a conversation with a lengthier greeting before using direct interrogative or declarative structures to ask for help or to obtain specific information from the librarian. The difference between how Visitor 1 opened a conversation to how other visitors from English-speaking Discourses opened a conversation could connect in some ways to the differences between the given Discourse groups. Perhaps, in the context of Visitor 1’s primary Discourse, direct interrogative structures formed at the beginning of a conversation are common or perhaps are even expected. In other words, while members of English Discourse groups may necessitate lengthier introductions in order to “say…the right thing in the right way while playing the right social role…” (Gee, 1989, p. 6), perhaps members of Visitor 1’s Discourse group may not have the same requirements.
Power Relationships Established at the Language Site
Power relationships established between librarians and visitors was another factor that influenced how communication was structured. In the various example dialogues illustrated in this section, it is important to note that the primary purpose of interactions between librarians was to learn and/or reinforce comprehension of various library systems, to help each other accomplish tasks amongst themselves or with visitors and to relay daily or upcoming information to each other. The primary purpose of interactions between librarians and visitors was to help accomplish library-related tasks such as using the computers, finding books and accessing information. Interestingly, honorifics were never used in interactions between librarians or in interactions between librarians and visitors, even when an imbalance of power based on a significant age gap or difference in skill level was evident between speakers.
The observed interactions appeared to establish that speakers were usually equals, whether they were personally intimate or not. The interaction between librarians and visitors was often cordial and informal, even if the language structures at the beginning and at the end of an interaction were closed in register (Meyer, 2009, pp. 84-85). However, this power relationship did at times switch from that of equals to that of disparates, particularly when interactions began in a way that a librarian interpreted as impolite:
Disparate Power Relationship between a Librarian and Visitor
Librarian maintains formal/superordinate interaction when the visitor, in a hurry, impolitely interrupts her:
Visitor: I need to [unintelligible request].
(Librarian is on the phone. She doesn’t address him until the phone conversation ends.)
Librarian: What do you want?
(While visitor is walking away.)
Visitor: I need to go to the bathroom, and my computer is on.
Librarian: Let me show you how to log off.
Visitor: I don’t have time. I really need the toilet.
Librarian: I’m going to show you how to do it, so you can do it by yourself next time.
(She catches up to Visitor who is trying to walk away.)
Visitor: I know how to do it. I just need to use the toilet, and [something unintelligible].
(The Librarian continues to show him how to log off of his computer, ignoring what he has said.)
Visitor: Okay, thanks, bye.
(Said abruptly while hurrying away after she shows him how to log off.)
From this example, we first establish that the librarian interpreted the beginning of their interaction as impolite since the visitor attempted to speak with her while she was still engaged on the phone. Secondly, based on the structures she used during their interaction, we can establish that the librarian used her interpretation as grounds to interact with the visitor as a disparate rather than an equal. In some ways we can see how their exchange mirrors the superordinate-subordinate relationship a teacher may establish with a “disruptive” student: she ignored the direct statements he constructed and used specific textual structures to demonstrate her superordinate power in this exchange (Example: I’m going to show you how to do it, so you can do it by yourself…).
The librarians also seemed to be of equal power amongst themselves. Librarians who were similar in age almost always interacted with each other as equals. However, age and level of experience did, at times, play a part in creating more superordinate-subordinate relationships between the librarians. The younger librarians would sometimes switch to more formal tones and structures of language when engaging with older librarians. In particular, the young, male librarian used these formal tones and structures more consistently since he was both the youngest and the least experienced of the librarian group:
Disparate Power Relationship between Librarians
Young Librarian maintains formal tones/structures during training with an older Librarian:
Older Librarian: Okay, has someone shown you how to locate records on this floor?
Younger Librarian: No, not yet.
Older Librarian: Okay, here’s where the different family records are.
(The younger librarian follows the older librarian around the floor and nods while the older librarian shows him where various resources are located.)
Older Librarian: That’s the general break down of where you can find different books. Do you have any questions?
Younger Librarian: Not at the moment, thank you.
Older Librarian: Okay, just make sure to ask if you don’t understand something.
Younger Librarian: Yes, I will, thank you.
However, it is significant to note that the subordinate relationship illustrated above seemed to shift to a more equal establishment of power when the librarians were closer in age. Regarding the youngest and least experienced male librarian, this shift from disparates to equals only seemed to occur when he interacted with the youngest female librarian.
Occasionally, levels of expertise that one librarian possessed over another created a dialogue where the least experienced showed more deference to the most experienced, and age did not influence this switch in power. For example, the youngest female librarian’s main role was to deal with information technology (IT) issues in the library. Since the older librarians did not have as much experience with the technical needs and issues in the library, they often took on a more subordinate role to the youngest female librarian when working out technical tasks:
Disparate Power Relationship between Librarians
The Younger Librarian becomes the superordinate based on her more expert IT skills:
Older Librarian: Can you please show me how to do this?
Younger Librarian: Okay, so what you need to do is go back to this tab.
Older Librarian: Okay. What’s next?
Younger Librarian: Do you see the button that says information?
Older Librarian: Yes, I see it.
Younger Librarian: Just click here and then type in the information you need.
Older Librarian: Ah, I see. Thank you very much.
From this example, it was clear that the younger librarian was the superordinate based on the direct and imperative structures she used to engage with the older librarian. Additionally, it was clear that the older librarian was the subordinate based on her use of questions to elicit more information on how to execute the given task and on her use of a more emphasized polite construction to show gratitude (Saying, “Thank you very much,” as opposed to a more simple, “Thank you.”).
Textual Structures and the Rules of Cooperation, Politeness and Formality
Specific patterns of textual structures were involved in communication between the librarians and visitors. Polite greetings would initiate an interaction. The speaker(s) asked the librarian a question or made a statement, detailing that help was needed. The librarian would respond by looking up information or performing some other action in response to the request. S/He would then relay the requested information to the speaker(s). Then, the librarian would confirm that the speaker(s) understood the information given. Finally, the conversation would end with specific polite structures. Sometimes during the middle portion of this interaction, the speaker(s) requesting help or information would elaborate further on what their needs were to better direct the librarian helping him/her with a request, particularly when the librarian was silently looking up information on a computer:
Basic Textual Structure Most Commonly Followed
The librarian is approached for help by a visitor:
Visitor: Excuse me, hello, how are you?
Librarian: I’m fine, thank you. What can I help you with?
Visitor: I wanted to find these books, please.
(He hands her his book list.)
Librarian: One moment please.
(Librarian is looking up information for the books on the computer.)
Visitor: I checked to see if the books were here, and it said they were.
Librarian: Okay, we have one of these books on floor three. Here’s the book’s number.
Visitor: You don’t have any of the others? It said they were here.
Librarian: I’m sorry no we don’t have the others, but we do have this one. Just make sure to go to floor three and use this number to find the proper shelf. Can I help you with anything else?
Visitor: Right. No, thank you. Thanks for your help.
Librarian: No problem. Thank you.
The example dialogue clearly shows that turn taking was an important aspect in communication. Additionally, interaction that took place in these types of exchanges were more than often direct and could be either literal or non-literal in nature which depended on the point in the conversation (i.e. beginning, middle or end), on how difficult the issue was to solve and on how positively the interaction started. Though directive structures were primarily used in speech acts similar to those used in the example dialogue above, they were balanced with polite phrases to make them seem less direct (Example: Adding, “Please,” “I’m sorry,” and “Excuse me,” to direct statements). Indirect speech constructions were not often used because a speaker’s request(s) almost always necessitated immediate action, and so these requests for help had to be clear and communicated within a short time frame. Additionally, though the librarians and visitors were equals, they were often not intimate enough to quickly understand and address questions that were not directly and explicitly stated. For example, there was a difference in saying, “I’m having trouble logging in,” versus “These computers are difficult, aren’t they?” when the intention was to solicit help. The first statement resulted in the librarian understanding that help was needed, whereas the second, question-based construction was interpreted as small talk, which often led to conversational implicature.
Regarding cooperation, the librarians adhered to Grice’s (1989) Quality and Manner maxims fairly consistently (Meyer, 2009, pp. 56-60). However, the Quantity maxim was occasionally violated by a librarian or visitor when addressing more complex issues or when conversations began in a more informal manner. For example, when librarians were helping someone with computer issues, they would often speak for longer turns, engaging in conversation unrelated to the task at hand while waiting for the computer to perform the needed action(s). Speakers generally followed Leech’s (1983) maxims of polite speech (Meyer, 2009, pp. 65-69). Specifically, Leech’s (1983) modesty maxim was significant within dialogues. Whenever a librarian was praised emphatically, s/he would often respond with a phrase like, “That’s what we’re here for,” or “I’m just happy to help,” in an effort to “minimize praise of self [and] maximize dispraise of self” (Meyer, 2009, p. 69).
The transition between formal and informal was also evident within commonly used textual structures. This shift happened most often in reaction to how politely conversations began between speakers because, as previously mentioned, speakers were generally equals but not intimates. For example, if a visitor began a dialogue with a directive devoid of polite structures (Example: “Hey, this [computer] isn’t working.”), the speech act was often interpreted as impolite, and the librarian would often use more formal tones and structures in his/her speech to establish a more disparate relationship of power, rarely transitioning into informal speech for the duration of the exchange. How well the librarians knew the visitor would also affect the formality of language and structures used in conversation. The more frequent library visitors would interact with librarians in an informal manner, where the maxims of politeness, the structures used and the rules of turn-taking were not regarded or adhered to as strictly. Age also contributed to the formality of language constructed. The younger librarians would often begin conversational exchanges with visitors in a more informal way (Example: “Hey, how’s it going?”) whereas the older librarians more consistently began conversations with formality (Example: “Hello. What can I help you with today?”). How busy the location was also influenced how formal or informal interactions were. The busier the atmosphere in terms of general noise and the number of people present, the less formal exchanges would become. Additionally, volume of voice seemed to be a more formal element of polite speech adhered to more consistently by the older library staff. For example, the older librarians would use lower volumes when the library was not as busy in order to avoid disturbing the quiet atmosphere whereas the younger librarians did not explicitly change the volume at which they spoke, regardless of the number of people in the room, seemingly not considering a loud voice volume in a quiet room an informal or unacceptable speech act.
Conclusion to Language Site Analysis
From the example dialogues and the analysis provided, it is clear that Gee’s (1989) Discourse, power relationships and language structures and their rules for politeness, cooperation and formality were significant elements of communication. To further our understanding of how language is constructed at this site, we would need to observe and analyze other forms of communication that take place there. For example, phone conversations and library events are two of many areas where observing language construction would add to our understanding of how language is used to communicate at this site. Additionally, more specific statistical data on library and visitor demographics regarding age, economic class, education and ethnicity would also add depth to analyzing when, how and why specific language constructions and their rules occur in various contexts.
Gee, J.P. (1989). Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction. Journal of Education, 171 (1), 5-17.
Meyer. C. F. (2009). Introducing english linguistics. New York: Cambridge University Press.