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Monday, November 12, 2012

Indian Civilization and Speech Variation

I recently read an article on Speech Variation and the Study of Indian Civilization by John Gumperz. If you read linguistic books I'm sure you have heard of him.

John J. Gumperz has a Ph.D. in German linguistics from the University of Michigan. There followed two years of fieldwork in India and an appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, where he became Professor of Anthropology in 1965. He is one of the senior members at the Language-Behavior Research Laboratory at Berkeley. He is a member of the editorial board of the new international journal Language in Society and has been a life member of the Linguistic Research Group of Pakistan since 1968.

If you are at all interested in dialect variation or Indian culture, check out this article when you have a moment. I have a provided you a overview of the findings, so if feel inclined to read on, you can find the article at American Anthropologist.


The main purpose of the article is to explain the correlation between speech and social groupings. The author also focuses on the spread of words and pronunciations, and how they reflect social forces and intellectual currents. The author hopes that newfound research will lead to, and essentially provide, a new scope for cooperative research in language and culture. Gumperz also explains that the effort to analyze speech variation with the current trends of today is essential to understanding Indian civilization from its beginnings. Problem areas are brought to light, because linguistic data not only helps clarify relationships, but it also helps us pinpoint the linguistic tools that can be utilized for relevant research.


This article is more of an oversimplified qualitative and quantitative discussion about the linguistic atlas of the United States, which includes a stratified sample of upper, middle, and lower class speakers. These geographic surveys are used to dissect the relationship between social identity, grouping, and speech patterns. Gumperz also looks into the methodological approach to linguistic analysis via mail questionnaires and recorded speech, “delineating cultural subdivision”, “stratified distribution models” to explain speech variation, distribution at the local level, and boundary lines drawn out to represent isoglosses, thus separating out areas of greater or lesser uniformity (focal area-transition zone model).


There is a clear relationship between speech and land settlement and migration patterns. There is also a strong correlation between speech and social groupings. Investigations of Italian dialects conducted by Jaberg and Jud resulted in the observation of integrative processes, which tie together levels, and centers of interaction and relationships. The levels and centers are defined as supra-local networks of relationships, such as marriage, pilgrimage and trade networks, and relationship with centers, where various sources of innovations are concentrated.

1) all-India level, defined by the subcontinent;
2) region, defined by literary language and distinctive caste patternings;
3) subregion, defined by certain spoken dialects, and showing some peculiar cultural distinctiveness and characteristic castes; and
4) local level, which may constitute either a single village or a group of villages tied by common kinship or other social ties.

There are also the resulting language boundaries that affect the dialect continuum (DC). The DC mutual intelligibility is proportional to geographical distance and not directly related to political and standard language boundaries. There is no issues of language understanding between rural populations on both sides of such a boundary, however in some cases they might be unable to comprehend geographically distant varieties spoken in their own language area. Distinct dialect areas are difficult to define, possibly as the result of Romance dialectologists categorically placing words into their unique history and distribution of usage. Germany dialects exhibit diverse differences in dialect, and part of this finding was evaluated by distinguishing between more or less important bundles of isoglosses.

A survey of three villages of North India yielded data that shines light on phonetic structure, and how one village is not much different than the next. Furthermore, whereas in the west the retroflex and the dental are clearly distinguishable phonetically, when we come closer to the boundary this phonetic distribution becomes more and more difficult to hear. The phonetic interval only decreases in distinction during slow speech.

Lastly, the author mentions the effect of the social change in question, which is directly proportional to the number of speakers of the new argot (language used outside the home), and the number and type of communication roles in which it is employed. It will be inversely proportional to the amount of linguistic interference in the speech of local users of the argot as measured against that of the innovating group. Thus, in most Indian urban communities English is the argot associated with the process of Westernization.


The distribution of dialects can often be explained by the introduction of new local speech or a change in the social system. Lexical terms and certain syntactic patterns are more easily adopted than phonemic contrasts or morphemes and indicate less of a social change. The analysis of speech variation should form an integral part of the study of South Asian civilization. Speech distribution within a single speech community in India may be studied in terms of vernaculars, or as extension of newly introduced dialects called “argots”.


  1.  Local boundaries in India, which tend to explain some distribution of new argots can also be investigated along the lines of marriage networks, geographical distribution patterns of dominant caste groups, or with trading and pilgrimage networks, which may also be affecting dialect changes and patterns. The affect of these patterns needs to be studies further to determine in they have any bearing on kinship.
  2. Anthropologists and researchers need to investigate both uniform and diversified hill areas, thus providing some important insights into the basic processes of social change.
  3. The ordinary villager or city dweller may not distribute their new argot to their caste, however they realize the implications if they do not have a command of the stylistic norm associated with a social situation, therefore he will attempt to modify his speech, borrowing features of pronunciations, verb or noun endings, or lexical items associated with it.
  4. Economic interests of ambitious political figures may manipulate “argots”, because it conforms to the attributes of leadership in India.


Gumperz, J. J. (1961). Speech Variation and the Study of Indian Civilization. American Anthropologist, 63(5), 976-988.


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