Language and Communication

By George A. Miller | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES

Language most showeth a man; speak that I may see thee.

-- BEN JONSON

According to the Book of Judges ( xii: 4-6) Jephthah managed to separate his Gileadites from the Ephraimites by taking advantage of differences in verbal behavior. The Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites. When an Ephraimite said, 'Let me go over,' the men of Gilead asked, 'Art thou an Ephraimite?' If he said, 'Nay,' they persisted, 'Say now Shibboleth,' and he said 'Sibboleth,' for he could not pronounce it. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

Individual differences in verbal behavior seldom have such drastic consequences, but they go far to put us in our social niche. In addition to the information we intend to convey, our speech inadvertently helps the listener guess our nationality, sex, age, region of the country, social background, and education. Whether we like it or not, our listeners type us--stereotype us --according to the impression they gain from our verbal habits ( Pear, 1931). Every word we speak is a shibboleth.

Thus far our concern has been with language in general. The particular talker has been ignored in favor of an imagined average talker. Often, however, we are interested in a particular individual's verbal behavior--is he above or below the average in some respect, and how does this relate to other facts known about him?

The fact that different peoples talk different languages is perhaps the most glaring source of individual differences. The language we speak is a part of our social inheritance and is not particularly diagnostic of what is called our personality. Jespersen ( 1923) has suggested that one cannot expect much vigor or energy in the people who speak the musical, vowel-dominated languages of Spain, Italy, or Hawaii, but such suggestions do not seem to lead anywhere. In this chapter we are more concerned with the differences that exist among people who have been exposed to nearly the same cultural background. These can be referred to as differences in verbal style.

It is apparent that people differ in their verbal styles and that these differences are fairly consistent. Suppose, for example, that we conduct the following experiment: A group of subjects writes short essays or themes that we

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Language and Communication
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Preface to Revised Edition vi
  • Preface vi
  • Contents ix
  • Foreword to the Teacher xi
  • Chapter 1 - By Way of Introduction 1
  • Chapter 2 - The Phonetic Approach 10
  • Selected References 46
  • Chapter 3 - The Perception of Speech 47
  • Selected References 79
  • Chapter 4- The Statistical Approach 80
  • Selected References 99
  • Chapter 5 - Rules for Using Symbols 100
  • Selected References 118
  • Chapter 6 - Individual Differences 119
  • Selected References 139
  • Chapter 7 - The Verbal Behavior of Children 140
  • Selected References 158
  • Chapter 8 - The Role of Learning 159
  • Selected References 173
  • Chapter 9 - Verbal Habits 174
  • Selected References 198
  • Chapter 10 - Some Effects of Verbal Habits 199
  • Selected References 222
  • Chapter 11 - Words, Sets, and Thoughts 223
  • Selected References 248
  • Chapter 12 - The Social Approach 275
  • Bibliography 276
  • Index 287
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