Linguistic behavior is shaped by beliefs and attitudes towards language, which affect the process of constitution of identity by language and discourse, as a consequence of this, the variable phenomena are not equally perceived by everyone.
Every time when I visit my father, it’s the same thing: I’m in the middle of his revolt against the use of “a gente”. He is outraged because Globonews journalists use “a gente”, “a gente”, “a gente”. He says “it is a disservice to education”, “it is an impoverishment of the language”, and it makes him worried about the future and what will happen to the world, just because of this “a gente”. Then, after all that speech, he suddenly says “[a gente] need to think about lunch”…
It is curious: the same fact about the rearrangement of the Portuguese pronominal system used by my father to disqualify the use of “a gente” is present in the pathway of “você”, an educated form, according to him, because paulistas only use “você”. I’ve never heard him say “você” is a thing of people who does not know how to conjugate verbs, as he said about those who use “a gente”.
To study linguistic change it is not enough to know how much and when people use a variant form.
My father is no exception: a study with undergraduate students shows that they practically only used “a gente” during one hour of sociolinguistic interview, and when asked which form they use most on a daily basis, almost all of them answered that they used “nós”, the “most correct” pronoun. It means that to study linguistic change it is not enough to know how much and when people use a variant form, but also how people judge that form, conscious and unconscious. Thus, we will have an idea of the social force of a linguistic change, and this is a field still unexplored in Brazilian sociolinguistic studies. The sociolinguistic research in Brazil has contributed to characterize the different varieties of Brazilian Portuguese, with studies of sociolinguistic production, which produce descriptions about the linguistic behavior of certain groups of people.
But we must not forget that the linguistic behavior is shaped by beliefs and attitudes towards language, which affect the process of constitution of identity by language and discourse, as a consequence of this, the variable phenomena are not equally perceived by everyone; this variation in evaluations has effects on the way people assume and recognize certain linguistic uses as marks of their identity, whether group, regional or national.
The evaluation is one of the central problems of a theory of linguistic variation and change: “the level of social consciousness is an important property of linguistic change that has to be determined directly” (Weinreich, Labov, Herzog 1968, 124) .
In the production studies, the linguistic variables have been stratified into three levels of social appreciation: stereotypes, strongly sensitive to social evaluation, markers reasonably sensitive to evaluation, and indicators with little evaluative force (Labov, 1972). This stratification is derived from the distributional patterns of a linguistic form according to the social features of the people who use them. For example, if a form is used by older people with higher schooling level, in contexts of greater formality, we have evidence for the behavior of a linguistic marker. On the other hand, if a form is used by younger people with lower schooling level, in all contexts (in formal or informal situations), we may have evidence of a linguistic stereotype.
Knowing whether a person positively uses and evaluates a form, as well as using and evaluating it negatively, may give us a direction for the change, whether below or above the level of social consciousness. And, to know the evaluation of a form, in the sociolinguistic perception studies, one of the strategies is to apply tests of attitudes and linguistic beliefs, in which people are asked explicitly about their linguistic uses and what they think about them. Another type of test is the subjective reaction test, in which people judge certain uses of a given variable form. These tests have been applied and come very close to what I have reported that my father does: for certain phenomena present in their linguistic behavior, people express negative beliefs and judgments.
Knowing whether a person positively uses and evaluates a form, as well as using and evaluating it negatively, may give us a direction for the change, whether below or above the level of social consciousness.
Today, a quite instigating field of research is to find out if the positive evaluation at the conscious level of attention reflects in the evaluation at the unconscious level. For this, it is necessary to consider, besides the judgments that people make of linguistic forms in function of their scale of social evaluation inferred by the results of studies of sociolinguistic production, the cognitive effort that people demand during tests, with the control of pupil dilation and response latency time. The study of the cognitive effort involved in the judgments of linguistic forms is the object of the project “Salience, perception and sociolinguistic attitudes”. From non-invasive technological resources, such as the eye-tracker, we are trying to understand what does not emerge at the conscious level of evaluation: what people are thinking while listening to linguistic variants that are socially stigmatized. The clues we have are the response time and the dilation of the pupil. The longer it takes to respond, the greater the monitoring of the consequences of the response. And pupil dilation is associated with the demand for cognitive effort. With this type of test, we can identify the socially accepted responses, those that pass through a previous filter so as not to express linguistic prejudice, for example.
I am living far away from home; my visits to my family are not as frequent as I wish they were. Before, I tried to convince my father that language is dynamic, that “a gente” is a legitimate form, etc. But I stopped doing it. I listen to him, and after I say a backchannel marker. If my father measures the latency of my response and follows the dilation of my pupil, he will see that I am lying in my judgment.
Suggestions for further reading
FREITAG, R. M. K.; SEVERO, C. G.; ROST SNICHELOTTO, C. A.; TAVARES, M. A. Como os brasileiros acham que falam? Percepções sociolinguísticas de universitários do Sul e do Nordeste. Revista Todas as Letras, v. 18, p. 64-84, 2016.
FREITAG, R. M. K. Uso, crença e atitudes na variação na primeira pessoa do plural no Português Brasileiro. DELTA. Documentação de Estudos em Linguística Teórica e Aplicada, v. 32, p. 889-917, 2016.
FREITAG, R. M. K.; SEVERO, C. G.; ROST SNICHELOTTO, C. A.; TAVARES, M. A. Como o brasileiro acha que fala? Desafios e propostas para a caracterização do “português brasileiro”. Signo y Seña – Revista del Instituto de Lingüística, v. 28, p. 65-87, 2015.