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Language and Occupation

A person's language can differ depending on what social group they're in, and a person can be in many social groups simultaneously. Something that determines one of these social groups is the work a person does, their occupation. Occupational groups are often classified as discourse communities and each has its own sets of rules and trends for language use.

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Language and Occupation

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A person's language can differ depending on what social group they're in, and a person can be in many social groups simultaneously. Something that determines one of these social groups is the work a person does, their occupation. Occupational groups are often classified as discourse communities and each has its own sets of rules and trends for language use.

In this Language and Occupation article, we will look at what a discourse community is, what occupational language is, the pros and cons of occupational language in society, and different linguistic theories surrounding occupational language.

Language and Occupation Occupational Group StudySmarterA group of lawyers or business people would be considered an occupational group.

Discourse community definition

In its most basic sense, a discourse community is a group of people who share interests, beliefs, assumptions, and the language used to discuss these things. It is easier to understand this if we know what discourse means.

Discourse is any form of written or spoken communication.

From this definition, we can say that a discourse community is a group of people whose communication is based on shared topics and interests. If a social group is described as a discourse community, they will have a specific way of communicating within that group that is different from how they would in another social group. Their communication may be specific in areas such as conversational rules, grammar, and lexis.

Occupational language definition

Occupational language refers to the way people speak within their occupational group. This includes all of the rules and topics that apply to the conversations commonly had in the workplace. Each occupational group will have a different occupational language because of their different professions.

An occupational group is a type of discourse community where the members are all in the same occupational field. The common tie between the members of this community is their shared occupation, whether it be 'teaching,' 'dentistry,' or 'nursing.'

The main distinguishing factor of occupational language is that it often isn't language used in every day (casual) conversation. This means that many items of occupational lexis will be considered jargon and won't be commonly known or understood by laymen (someone without specialist knowledge of a particular subject).

Jargon is the name given to specialist words used in a profession that are not part of a person's usual lexicon. In the profession of computer programming, jargon includes the terms: javascript, linux, MVC, PHP, and sprint. As a non-professional might not know what these words mean, they are classified as jargon.

Within an occupational group, there is often a specific semantic field - a selection of words that all relate to a single topic.

Words in the semantic field of cars include: bonnet, wheel, engine, acceleration, and MOT.

It is also possible though for different occupational groups to overlap, such as the groups 'nursing' and 'GP practitioner,' which would most likely share a semantic field. These two groups would be able to communicate with each other while still retaining their use of occupational language, but they will also have some differences in the way they communicate within their occupational groups. This could be in the way they address each other (such as GPs addressing each other as 'doctor' and nurses addressing each other as 'nurse'), or in the formality of their conversations (GP practitioners usually communicate with each other in front of the general public so may be more formal in their workplace talk).

Occupational language examples

As always, it's helpful to consolidate our knowledge with some examples, so here we go!

Here are some examples of different occupational groups and their corresponding semantic fields:

Occupation
Semantic Field
Lawyer
Legal lexis: court, order, jury, guilty, defendant, acquittal, bail, ad litem, caveat, plaintiff, verdict
Doctor
Medical lexis: abrasion, benign, chronic, defibrillator, inpatient, prognosis, suture, epidermis
Dentist
Dentistry: abutment, arch, bicuspid, bonding, caries, cavity, dentin, gingiva, malignant, orthodontist, root
Chef
Cookery: amuse bouche, basting, blanching, crimp, fricassee, ganache, julienne, omakase, roux, sautee

Language and Occupation, chef, StudySmarterEach profession will have its own lexical field and specialised language.

Language and occupational groups

In any setting, it is important to have clear and effective communication. In the workplace, this is achieved through the use of occupational language. Generally, everyone in the workplace will share the same knowledge of their occupational language and so using it will allow for clear and concise instruction or communication whenever needed. This makes for an effective working environment, allowing people to work together like a well-oiled machine.

A person may also use occupational language to their advantage, using specific words to show their intelligence. This could be done simply to feel as clever as their peers, or it could be done to exert power. If someone uses a lot of occupational lexis, they may give the impression of knowing more than their peers. In a similar way, occupational language can be used to differentiate people within a social hierarchy in the workplace. For example, the boss is likely to have the most knowledge and therefore use the widest variety of workplace-specific lexis, making it clear that they are someone who can provide knowledge and answers where needed.

Another positive is that it can create a sense of professionalism and integrity in the workplace. This level of professionalism at work can then encourage a better work/life distinction as a person's language use may differ greatly between work and home. This gives them a clear point in the day where they can switch off and communicate with a different social group, such as friends and family, leaving work at work.

Criticisms of occupational language

Although occupational language can be very beneficial to a good workplace environment and work ethic, it can also bring with it some negative consequences. These can be separated into problems faced by the workforce and problems faced by the general public.

A problem faced in the workplace is sometimes encountered when there is a new hire. In this instance, the new member of a team may be either new to the occupation or just unfamiliar with how the new team functions and communicates. This means they won't be familiar with all of the occupational language that goes with it, which can cause someone to feel excluded and unmotivated at work.

If we look at the interaction between professionals and laymen, we encounter another problem. With occupations that require interacting with the general public such as doctors and dentists, it can be hard sometimes for laymen to understand what is meant. Although the general public has the opportunity to ask for a simpler explanation, it can leave them then feeling inferior and unintelligent. This can lead to a very hesitant rapport which can hinder efficiency in reaching the end goal.

This lack of understanding can be a further problem when there's no one around to ask for help. In situations where laymen encounter occupational lexis, it can leave them feeling confused and frustrated. This could happen when having to read and fill out any legal documents which may have confusing wording, or even when following a recipe.

When reading a recipe, words such as 'blanche' may appear as part of an instruction. If you're not a frequent cook and you don't speak French, then you're much less likely to know what that would mean, leaving you in a likely heated kitchen not knowing what to do next.

Language and Occupation Theorists

John Swales

In 2011, linguist John Swales researched discourse communities and defined them as having members who:

Share a set of common goals

This applies to language and occupation as people within one discourse community or occupational group will share common goals. These could be generic goals within the workplace such as having a productive day and clear communication, or it could be something more company-specific, such as completing a certain project as a team.

If we look at an occupational group in marketing, their shared goal could be to gain five new returning clients within three months. This would be a shared goal between all members of this discourse community as it would lead to greater company success.

Communicate internally

Within a discourse community, there will be specific ways in which the members communicate. This communication may differ from how they would normally communicate in their social lives. While in everyday social life, people may communicate through speech, texting, social media and any other means available, in the workplace discourse community, it is more likely that specific genres of communication will be favoured over others.

If we look again at the example of a marketing occupational group, it is most likely their main modes of internal communication would be through speech, email and telephone calls to ensure they can get relevant information as quickly as they can.

Use specialist lexis and discourse

This relates to what we discussed earlier about semantic fields. Every discourse community will have a semantic field of lexical terms they frequently use in their communication. Swales also states that discourse communities share specialist discourse, meaning there will be specific ways of communicating. In an occupational group, this may be in the way that orders and instructions are given by people with the highest authority.

Posses a required level of knowledge

Swales' final point suggests that someone cannot be a member of a discourse community if they don't have the required knowledge. If discourse communities or occupational groups didn't have shared knowledge among their members, communicating ideas and information would become very difficult and hinder the group's functionality.

Almut Koester

After a study in 2004, Koester said that phatic talk is important in the workplace for getting jobs done.

Phatic talk is communication that functions to create and maintain social relationships. This may include talking about the weather, sharing a joke, or discussing traffic on the way to work.

Koester suggests that being sociable and using banter within an occupational group is key to creating a positive and productive working environment. This encourages members of the group to engage in personal chat and gives a more personable atmosphere, in turn creating a more effective working environment.

Michael Nelson

Linguist Michael Nelson carried out research while at Manchester University into the possibility of the existence of specific business lexis. He compared the corpora of business English with the more generic English corpora and found that business lexis exists. From this research, Nelson concluded that business lexis coincides with a semantic field of business, including categories such as business, people, companies, institutions, money, time and technology. In business lexis, people were found to avoid personal topics, reserving those for when they weren't at work or in the business environment.

Nelson's research also highlighted the topics that weren't a part of business lexis. These included personal and social subjects such as weekends, family, relationships, personal issues, house and home, and personal activities and hobbies.

As a final point, the research also showed a significant lack of negative lexis in business communication. Instead, a lot of the language used in the 'business' occupational group was neutral and used with the main goal of being informative.

Drew and Heritage

In 1992, linguists Drew and Heritage applied conversation analysis to the language used in institutional settings. They came up with the theory of institutional talk, which refers to six characteristics that appear in speech in the workplace or within an occupational group. These characteristics are:

  • Goal orientation - People conversing will want to reach the same outcome from their interaction.
  • Turn-taking rules - These differ from institutional talk to ordinary conversation as someone may have more power and therefore be allowed to interrupt more often, disregarding ordinary turn-taking conventions.
  • Allowable contributions - There are constraints on what someone may contribute in institutional talk. Talking about your weekend plans, for example, may not be an allowable contribution.
  • Professional lexis - This is the language specifically used in an institutional setting, such as workplace-specific jargon.
  • Structure - Certain interactions in institutional talk may have particular structures that are followed every time, such as a business meeting being led by the highest-ranking person in the room, who then invites people to talk at different intervals.
  • Asymmetry - Institutional talk interactions can be one-sided due to one speaker having more power and is, therefore, able to speak for longer without being interrupted.

Language and Occupation Theorists StudySmarterSpeaking about personal matters at work is not an example of occupational language.

Herbert and Straight

When studying language and communication in 1989, Herbert and Straight found a link between compliments and authority. People of higher authority were more likely to give compliments to those of lower authority than the other way round. In workplace settings, this means that compliments are used as a form of praise from someone higher to someone of a lower rank. If the reverse were to happen, the lower-ranking employee may be seen as being condescending or self-important, potentially harming workplace relationships.

Hornyak

In 1994, Hornyak studied the link between language and occupation and found that the shift from work talk to social or personal talk follows a pattern. This pattern is that the shift is always initiated by the highest-ranking person in the room.

In a situation where an intern is talking to an employee that has been at the company for three years, the intern should stay focussed on the job and only shift to personal chat when the long-term employee initiates it. This way, the intern knows personal chat is then an allowable contribution.

If the lower-ranking person in the workplace were to initiate personal chat, they may be viewed as being unfocused and not dedicated to the job.

Language and Occupation - Key takeaways

  • Occupational groups are types of discourse communities.
  • A discourse community is a group of people who share a common interest, like an occupation.
  • Occupational language is the language used in a workplace or occupational group.
  • Each occupation will have a semantic field of workplace-specific lexis.
  • Occupational language can contribute to effective communication, professionalism and maintaining a hierarchy in the workplace.
  • The use of occupational language can cause misunderstandings between professionals and the general public.

Frequently Asked Questions about Language and Occupation

Language and occupation is a section of linguistic study into the way people's language use differs from everyday communication when at work.

Koester found that phatic talk and banter are key to getting jobs done at work.

Occupational groups can have a semantic field of frequent workplace-specific lexis used by its members.

The language used by people while at work and communicating in their occupation.

Occupational language can cause misunderstandings between professionals and the general public.

The shift from work talk to personal talk is initiated by the highest-ranking person in the room.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Which of these is required in order for a conversation to be successful?

How many types of phatic communication are there?

Phatic communication in the workplace is not __________ and can be used to maintain____________. 

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