Language: A Social Class Indicator?

June 15, 2012 by admin

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Within the general “social class” theme (if there is still such a thing) that we are touching upon this month, the language-related section will be looking into the social stratification of people based on their language use and more specifically the way they pronounce (or not) a specific linguistic variable, the [r] variable.

William Labov conducted research in New York in the 1960’s that is widely and broadly studied in sociolinguistics. Labov started with the assumption that if any 2 subgroups of New York speakers are socially stratified then the same ranking should apply in relation to their differential use of the [r] variable.

The reason Labov specifically chose the [r] variable for his study was that [r] is a social differentiator in all levels of New York speech. The problem with linguistic research in particular however is that, most times, in order to be able to examine and analyse speech, it needs to be recorded and the subjects of the study therefore need to be interviewed.

In this context however, the observers’ paradox prevails, namely when the subject is aware that they are being interviewed it is less likely that they will be using their vernacular way of speaking. One way to overcome this would be to record the subjects in everyday settings, while conversing with peers or family for example. Even in this case though there is always the aspect of the observers’ paradox if the subjects are aware that they are being observed and/or recorded during their conversations.

To overcome this hurdle, Labov conducted his research in the form of rapid and anonymous observations of language use. There was no point in comparing groups such as lawyers, clerks, and janitors as they are not all of the same occupational background, albeit very similar.

Therefore Labov conducted his study by finding a more obvious case of stratification within a single occupational group and his subjects were the sales people of 3 well-known department stores in Manhattan, namely Saks 5th Avenue, Macy’s and S. Klein.

These stores are already socially stratified, Saks being at the high end of the social scale, Macy’s in the middle and Klein in the lower end of the scale. This stratification is based on aspects like the fashion and price scale of the stores and indicators such as the location of the stores as well as which newspaper each of these stores is being advertised in.

A not so unreasonable assumption put forth by C. Wright Mills is that salespeople in such large department stores normally have the tendency to “borrow” prestige from their customers. If one assumes this is correct, then the same social stratification should be evident in the language use of the department store’s staff and specifically in their use of the [r] variable.  After all, a person’s own occupation is one of the main, if not the most important, factors correlated with their linguistic behaviour, more than any other single social characteristic.

Labov’s method involved walking into every aisle as many times as possible and asking for directions to a specific department, always located on the fourth floor. The question was asked twice in order to have two samples of the utterance “fourth floor” (and four instances of the variable), a more casual one and a more emphatic one. The data Labov would immediately record were more general information like the name of the store, the floor, the person’s sex and age, the specific occupation of the person within the store as well as their race or whether they had any foreign or regional accent.

Labov would also make note of the use of the [r] variable in all four instances. He would note whether the subject made a more clear, constricted use of the variable, whether they made more unclear use of it, as well as whether they made a more doubtful or partly constricted use although these latter instances wouldn’t be taken into account in the tabulation.

The results of Labov’s 264 interviewees, totaling roughly 6.5 hours of interview time, confirmed his hypothesis, namely the staff of the high-end store would make more clear uses of the variable, the staff of the middle-end store would make more intermediate uses and the staff of the lower-end store scored low rates.

Labov was not the only one who looked into the social stratification of language use.  Other linguists also worked on the same subject and supported through their research that language use can be socially stratified. And this shouldn’t strike as unusual because as Bernard Barber mentions, social stratification and evaluation shouldn’t imply race or caste; the way society works alone produces systematic differences between people, institutions etc. and these differences are ranked in status or prestige by general agreement.

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