Language and Class

This article is about social class and how this can affect a person's language use. There are many linguistic factors that can be linked to class. Some of these are:

Language and Class Language and Class

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Table of contents
    • A person's accent.
    • A person's dialect.
    • The use of standard vs non-standard language.

    A common blanket statement regarding language and class in Britain is that, generally, 'people of a higher class tend to speak with an RP accent and use more standard English whilst people of a lower class speak tend to speak with regional accents and dialects.'

    RP means Received Pronunciation and is the name given to speech that does not have a regional accent but instead is the most 'proper' version of standard English. You can hear an RP accent in the way the Queen speaks or on old radio broadcasts (from around wartime).

    Language and Class, Queen Elizabeth, StudySmarterQueen Elizabeth is the general standard for RP (Received Pronunciation).

    Language and Social Class

    The previous statement is a very basic way of explaining how class can affect language. When we look at this claim in more detail, it becomes clear that certain preconceptions of language use (e.g. saying 'posh people speak like the Queen') are one of the driving forces behind why we sometimes adapt our language depending on the listener. This is the case for both positive and negative preconceptions.

    Language awareness

    We may change our language in cases when there are negative judgements associated with language use. For example, if a person believes their accent or dialect will be judged negatively by others in the group, they might acquire a different way of speaking. We may also change our language in cases of positive judgement. For example, if a person thinks they'll sound of a higher class or more intelligent using Standard English and the RP accent, they may adapt their language to have these traits. This is an example of language awareness.

    Preconceptions and judgements such as these are often rooted in history and usually retain relevance in our modern world, and have the power to change how we speak and adapt our language use.

    As social class differentiates us into different social groups, there are language patterns and trends (dialects) that we use in these groups. These social-group-specific forms of language are referred to as sociolect.

    A sociolect is a form of language used by specific social groups based on social class, ethnicity, and age.

    Social Class Definition

    To understand how class affects language, we must first understand this term.

    A person's social class is defined by their socio-economic status. This relates to their social standing in society and their income. Other factors influencing social class include wealth, education, and occupation.

    When all of these factors are considered, a particular class can be allocated to an individual. Try to conceptualise class based on these examples.

    • The upper class were the people of the highest status who held considerable power. They often lived in huge stately homes, did not do manual labour for work, and owned land and estates. These people were usually born into the upper class.
    • The middle class were people in the middle of the hierarchy who had professional jobs such as doctors or lawyers, earning a good income. These people often worked their way up to their social standing.
    • The working class (or 'lower class') were the people who had manual labour jobs, such as servants in a large house, in a mill, or on a farm.

    These distinctions between the classes are not as relevant today as there is a much greater rate of social mobility. This is primarily due to the greater rate of high-level education in the modern world.

    Social mobility is where someone can change social classes. This can be through any means such as marriage, a change of income, a change of education level, or something else that allows a person's prospects to change.

    Language and Social Status

    The connection between social status and language mainly relates to attitudes towards accents and dialects. This means that people who speak in a 'respectable' way will be viewed as respectable. This is not as simple as it sounds, though, as different people will perceive different accents and dialects as 'respectable.'

    It used to be the case (and still often is) that the RP accent was associated with the higher classes. Anyone who spoke this way was instantly associated with positive attributes such as intelligence, wealth, and education. If people instead spoke with their regional accent, they were often deemed by the upper classes as being unintelligent, poor, and of a lower class. For those who could afford it, it was common to attend elocution lessons to learn to speak in an RP accent to allow themselves to change classes.

    These attributes are not as relevant today as many people of influence, wealth and intelligence do not speak with an RP accent. Instead, the regional accent is often deemed desirable as it is often associated with community and a sense of belonging.

    In the film My Fair Lady (1964), Eliza Doolittle is taught to speak in an RP accent to convincingly mix with the upper classes.

    This perception of accent use relating to social status is now somewhat outdated, but it still holds some weight in how people choose to speak to others, even if they do not consciously realise it. There have been numerous studies showing that people of different classes in the modern world still show differences in their language use - some of which will be discussed further on in this article.

    Language and Class, chess pieces, StudySmarterSome accents are given higher esteem according to the class they're generally associated with.

    Understanding social status and social class in the modern world

    A person's social status can be determined by the individual and their interests rather than just their class. In modern times, class is a person's generic standing in society relating to their income and job. Social status depends less on this and more on the social group to which an individual belongs or aspires to belong. There are many different areas of society where a person can have different social standings.

    Someone who has many academic achievements but does not speak with their regional accent may have a high social standing in the academic world but may feel like an outcast within their regional community if they do not share the same regional accent.

    There are also different statuses within a class. For example, many people can be categorised as 'middle-class' due to their job and income (teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc.). These people can all be viewed as being on a continuum regarding their language use. Within these groups, there will be people who:

    • speak with their regional accent (at one end of the continuum)
    • speak in standard English and may have slight regional accent features, but are otherwise nondescript in their language and accent (in the middle of the continuum)
    • speak with an RP accent (at the other end of the continuum).

    These people can all still be classified as 'middle class' but are further differentiated within the class by how they either naturally speak or have chosen to speak.

    Perceptions of Language Based on Social Class

    As we've discussed, there have been some outdated views relating to language use and class. Speaking with a regional accent was associated with the working class, and speaking with an RP accent was associated with the upper class. However, some of these perceptions still hold true in today's society.

    Convergence and divergence

    When it comes to perceptions of language use, people tend to alter how they speak to accommodate the perceptions they either want to associate themselves with or distance themselves from. This is done through convergence and divergence and can be either a subconscious or conscious choice.

    What is convergence?

    Convergence is a type of change in which a speaker uses an accent or dialect they view positively. Doing this, they hope to be associated with the common perceptions of the accent or dialect they're viewing favourably. Convergence often occurs when a speaker wants to sound like someone they look up to or try to impress someone.

    For example, someone may converge to an RP accent because they think they will sound more intelligent and confident. Alternatively, someone may converge to a Yorkshire accent when wanting to sound more friendly, approachable, and trustworthy.

    What is divergence?

    Divergence occurs when a speaker tries to distance themselves from negative perceptions. If negative perceptions are associated with a person's accent, they may choose to diverge from their accent and use fewer of their dialect features. Divergence also happens when a person speaks to someone they don't like. If the unfavourable speaker has a particular accent, their interlocutor may diverge in an effort to not sound like them and therefore not be associated with them.

    For example, two speakers (A and B) both have a Birmingham accent. If speaker A strongly dislikes speaker B, it is highly likely that speaker A will diverge from speaker B and use fewer Birmingham accent and dialect features.

    Overt and covert prestige

    People may use predetermined and known perceptions relating to language use and class to exhibit either overt or covert prestige.

    Overt prestige is when a speaker takes pride in using more standard, formal language as they associate it with a certain level of prestige. This is most commonly seen by those who aspire to be in a higher class as they're using common preconceptions of language to give themselves a high social status that is publicly acknowledged.

    Covert prestige is when someone takes pride in using their regional accent or other non-standard forms of language. From doing this, the speaker gains status within their peer group. This retains a high social status within a specific social group without them needing to exhibit themselves as being of a higher class.

    Language and Social Class Theorists

    There are many important theorists within the study of language and social class. We're going to look at a few key studies.

    William Labov: New York Department Store Study (1966)

    In 1966, linguist William Labov carried out a study looking at differences in accent across different socio-economic groups. He focused on three department stores in New York: Saks, S. Klein and Macy's. Of these stores, S. Klein was the cheapest, Saks was the most expensive, and Macy's had average prices. The different price ranges of the stores were used as indicators of the socio-economic class of the people shopping in them. For example, the people in Saks were assumed to be of the highest socio-economic class in the study. Within the study, Labov was looking at the /r/ sound and how the pronunciation differed between different classes.

    In each store, Labov asked random shoppers where something was that would require them to reply with 'the fourth floor.' He would then pretend not to hear them and get them to repeat it, giving him two items of data to record. The first time they respond would be completely natural language and the second time would be more careful speech to ensure they're heard correctly.

    The results

    The use of /r/ was highest in Saks and lowest in Klein's, showing it to be a typical language feature of the higher socio-economic classes of New York. In the careful speech of the lower-class shoppers, the /r/ was also present, suggesting that they used overt prestige and altered their speech when they were more aware of being listened to by a stranger.

    William Labov: Martha's Vineyard (1961)

    Labov's other study carried out in America in the 1960s took part on the island Martha's Vineyard, where he looked at the changing pronunciation of the vowel sounds /au/ and /ai/. Martha's Vineyard is a fishing port that has become a popular tourist destination during the summer. A small group of local fishermen began to subconsciously alter their language and exaggerate the older, more traditional pronunciation that made them different from tourists. This is an example of covert prestige as the fishermen took pride in their language and local identity.

    The results

    The change in language use was most noticeable in the fishermen aged between 30 and 45 who wanted to actively identify themselves as being from Martha's Vineyard. The language change was then subconsciously adopted by other islanders as they admired the traditional way of life associated with the fishermen and the way they spoke. In this case, the fishermen had high social status within their community due to their way of life and traditional language features, even if they didn't necessarily have an overall high socio-economic status.

    Language and Class Language and Class Theorists StudySmarterThe Martha's Vineyard study showed how sense of belonging influences accent.

    Peter Trudgill: Norwich Study (1974)

    In Norwich in 1974, Peter Trudgill analysed the variables (ng), (t), and (h) to see if a person's use of particular variants was related to their social class and the formality of the situation. He tested this by recording people of different classes speaking in different situations, recording their speech during a conversation (the least formal situation), when they were reading a passage from a book (more formal), and when they were reading a list of words (the most formal). Doing this allowed him to see if language differences were dependent on both a person's class and the formality of the situation.

    The variables (ng), (t) and (h) are the standard forms. Instances of non-standard variants would be:

    • (ng) - G-dropping so words ending in (-ing) would instead end in (-in), e.g. 'running' becomes 'runnin'.
    • (t) - T-dropping where the (t) in the middle or at the end of words is dropped in favour of a glottal stop, e.g. 'twenty' is pronounced 'twenny'.
    • (h) - H-dropping where the (h) at the beginning of words is dropped, e.g. 'house' sounds like 'ouse'.

    The results

    When the style was kept consistent, the incidence of the non-standard variant was higher in the language of the lower classes. When Trudgill only changed the formality of the situation, the incidence of the non-standard variant was higher in less formal speech. In the speech of a lower-class speaker, the standard variants were still present, just less often than in the speech of the higher-class speakers.

    In summary:

    • Lower class speakers used more non-standard variants.
    • Higher class speakers used more standard variants.
    • All speakers used more non-standard variants in informal speech.
    • All speakers used more standard variants in formal speech.

    Malcolm Petyt: Bradford Study (1985)

    In 1985, linguist Malcolm Petyt looked at the occurrence of H-dropping (i.e. the omission of the /h/ variable) across different social classes in Bradford, Yorkshire. Within this study, Petyt looked at classes in detail, using subcategories of lower-working class, mid-working class, upper-working class, and so on, up to the upper-middle class. The two groups where he expected to see the most difference in language use were the lower working class and the upper-middle class.

    The results

    Petyt found that there were cases of H-dropping 93 percent of the time in the lower-working class, while in the upper-middle class, H-dropping only occurred 12 percent of the time. He also found that, in cases of social mobility, where people had moved up the socio-economic scale, speakers tended to modify their language further towards an RP accent. In some people, this caused hypercorrection.

    Hypercorrection is where someone uses a feature associated with prestige to the extent where they use it where it doesn't need to be. In Petyt's study, this means adding /h/ to the beginning of words where it was not, such as pronouncing the 'h' in 'hour.

    These findings show the linguistic division between the working class and the upper-middle class, specifically regarding h-dropping.

    Language and Class - Key Takeaways

    • Class is a way of dividing society according to socio-economic status. It is defined by factors such as their job, income, and position in their social group and in wider society.
    • Class can affect a person's language use. For example, higher-class speakers typically speak with more standard or received pronunciation features, whilst lower-class speakers typically use more accent or dialectal features in their language.
    • Social mobility occurs when someone can change social classes; this usually occurs in an upwards trend.
    • Speakers exhibit overt prestige when they take pride in using standard forms of language - often seen in the higher classes.
    • Speakers exhibit covert prestige when they take pride in non-standard language forms - often seen in the lower classes or those proud of their heritage.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Language and Class

    What is social mobility?

    Social mobility is when someone changes social classes through a change of authority, job, or income. This change is often reflected through language use, too, as people higher up the class hierarchy tend to use more standard and RP features.

    How does language relate to social class?

    People of different social classes often exhibit differences in their language use. Studies have found that higher-class people tend to speak with Standard English and/or an RP accent. Lower-class speakers often exhibit more regional accents and dialect features.

    What is social class in linguistics?

    A person's class refers to factors such as their income and job, which give them status in society. Social class can also include factors such as the influence someone has within a particular social group; for example, if someone is popular in their social group but has a low income, they can retain a high social status, but they may technically be of a low class.

    Is language a power?

    The way someone uses language can be done to manipulate the perceptions associated with different ways of speaking. For example, power, intelligence, and wealth are associated with the RP accent, so speaking with this accent can give a speaker power in certain social situations.

    What is language and class?

    Language and class is a part of linguistic research into how social groups affect language use. In this instance, the social group being analysed is class.

    What is an example of language and class?

    A person's class can affect their language use. For example, a working-class speaker will often exhibit accent and dialect features such as h-dropping in their language. An upper-middle-class speaker will often exhibit fewer accent and dialect features - perhaps never h-dropping - and instead speak with standard language.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was Labov’s research paper called?

    William Labov is an American linguist known for his influential research in the field of _________.

    What percentage of employees at Macy’s used the rhotic (r)?


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