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رمز الامان : 9221

English Language


Language and social variation

06:44 PM

29 / 7 / 2021


Author : George Yule

Book or Source : The study of language

page : 253


Language and social variation

Admittedly, it is hard to make stylistic judgements on slang from the past, but when we read a seventeenth century description of someone as a “shite a bed scoundrel, a turdy gut, a blockish grutnol and a grouthead gnat snapper” it’s unlikely the writer was using the neutral or “proper” language of the time I think we can safely assume he was using slang.          Burridge (2004)

We focused on variation in language use found in different geographical areas. However, not everyone in a single geographical area speaks in the same way in every situation. We recognize that certain uses of language, such as the slang in Kate Burridge’s description, are more likely to be found in the speech of some individuals in society and not others. We are also aware of the fact that people who live in the same region, but who differ in terms of education and economic status, often speak in quite different ways. Indeed, these differences may be used, implicitly or explicitly, as indications of membership in different social groups or speech communities. A speech community is a group of people who share a set of norms and expectations regarding the use of language. The study of the linguistic features that have social relevance for participants in those speech communities is called “sociolinguistics.”


The term sociolinguistics is used generally for the study of the relationship between language and society. This is a broad area of investigation that developed through the interaction of linguistics with a number of other academic disciplines. It has strong connections with anthropology through the study of language and culture, and with sociology through the investigation of the role language plays in the organization of social groups and institutions. It is also tied to social psychology, particularly with regard to how attitudes and perceptions are expressed and how in-group and out-group behaviors are identified. We use all these connections when we try to analyze language from a social perspective.

Social dialects

Whereas the traditional study of regional dialects tended to concentrate on the speech of people in rural areas, the study of social dialects has been mainly concerned with speakers in towns and cities. In the social study of dialect, it is social class that is mainly used to define groups of speakers as having something in common. The two main groups are generally identified as “middle class,” those who have more years of education and perform non-manual work, and “working class,” those who have fewer years of education and perform manual work of some kind. So, when we refer to “working-class speech,” we are talking about a social dialect. The terms “upper” and “lower” are used to further subdivide the groups, mainly on an economic basis, making “upper-middle-class speech” another type of social dialect or sociolect.

As in all dialect studies, only certain features of language use are treated as relevant in the analysis of social dialects. These features are pronunciations, words or structures that are regularly used in one form by working-class speakers and in another form by middle-class speakers. In Edinburgh, Scotland, for example, the word home is regularly pronounced as [heɪm], as if rhyming with name, among lower-working-class speakers, and as [hom], as if rhyming with foam, among middle-class speakers. It’s a small difference in pronunciation, but it’s an indicator of social status. A more familiar example might be the verb ain’t, as in I ain’t finished yet, which is generally used more often in working-class speech than in middle-class speech.

When we look for other examples of language use that might be characteristic of a social dialect, we treat class as the social variable and the pronunciation or word as the linguistic variable. We can then try to investigate the extent to which there is systematic variation involving the two variables by counting how often speakers in each class use each version of the linguistic variable. This isn’t usually an all-or-nothing situation, so studies of social dialects typically report how often speakers in a particular group use a certain form rather than find that only one group or the other uses the form.

Education and occupation

Although the unique circumstances of every life result in each of us having an individual way of speaking, a personal dialect or idiolect, we generally tend to sound like others with whom we share similar educational backgrounds and/or occupations.

Among those who leave the educational system at an early age, there is a general pattern of using certain forms that are relatively infrequent in the speech of those who go on to complete college. Expressions such as those contained in Them boys throwed somethin’ or It wasn’t us what done it are generally associated with speakers who have spent less time in education. Those who spend more time in the educational system tend to have more features in their spoken language that derive from a lot of time spent with the written language, so that threw is more likely than throwed and who occurs more often than what in references to people. The observation that some teacher “talks like a book” is possibly a reflection of an extreme form of this influence from the written language after years in the educational system.

As adults, the outcome of our time in the educational system is usually reflected in our occupation and socio-economic status. The way bank executives, as opposed to window cleaners, talk to each other usually provides linguistic evidence for the significance of these social variables. In the 1960s, sociolinguist William Labov combined elements from place of occupation and socio-economic status by looking at pronunciation differences among salespeople in three New York City department stores (see Labov, 2006). They were Saks Fifth Avenue (with expensive items, upper-middle-class status), Macy’s (medium-priced, middle-class status) and Klein’s (with cheaper items, working-class status). Labov went into each of these stores and asked salespeople specific questions, such as Where are the women’s shoes?, in order to elicit answers with the expression fourth floor. This expression contains two opportunities for the pronunciation (or not) of postvocalic /r/, that is, the /r/ sound after a vowel. Strictly speaking, it is /r/ after a vowel and before a consonant or the end of a word.

In the department stores, there was a regular pattern in the answers. The higher the socio-economic status of the store, the more /r/ sounds were produced, and the lower the status, the fewer /r/ sounds were produced by those who worked there. So, the frequency of occurrence of this linguistic variable (r) could mark the speech samples as upper middle class versus middle class versus working class. Other studies confirmed this regular pattern in the speech of New Yorkers.

Percentages of groups pronouncing postvocalic /r/

Social markers

As shown in last schedule , the significance of the linguistic variable (r) can be virtually the opposite in terms of social status in two different places, yet in both places the patterns illustrate how the use of this particular speech sound functions as a social marker. That is, having this feature occur frequently in your speech (or not) marks you as a member of a particular social group, whether you realize it or not.

There are other pronunciation features that function as social markers. One feature that seems to be a fairly stable indication of lower class and less education, throughout the English-speaking world, is the final pronunciation of -ing with [n] rather than [ŋ] at the end of words such as sitting and drinking. Pronunciations represented by sittin’ and drinkin’ are typically associated with working-class speech.

Another social marker is called “[h]-dropping,” which makes the words at and hat sound the same. It occurs at the beginning of words and can result in utterances that sound like I’m so ’ungry I could eat an ’orse. In contemporary English, this feature is associated with lower class and less education. It seems to have had a similar association as a social marker for Charles Dickens, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century. He used it as a way of indicating that the character Uriah Heep, in the novel David Copperfield, was from a lower class, as in this example (from Mugglestone, 1995).

“I am well aware that I am the umblest person going,” said Uriah Heep, modestly; “ … My mother is likewise a very umble person. We live in a numble abode, Master Copperfield, but we have much to be thankful for. My father’s former calling was umble.”

Speech style and style-shifting

In his department store study, Labov included another subtle element that allowed him not only to investigate the type of social stratification illustrated in last schedule , but also speech style as a social feature of language use. The most basic distinction in speech style is between formal uses and informal uses. Formal style is when we pay more careful attention to how we’re speaking and informal style is when we pay less attention. They are sometimes described as “careful style” and “casual style.” A change from one to the other by an individual is called style-shifting.

When Labov initially asked the salespeople where certain items were, he assumed they were answering in an informal manner. After they answered his question, Labov then pretended not to have heard and said, “Excuse me?” in order to elicit a repetition of the same expression, which was pronounced with more attention to being clear. This was taken as a representative sample of the speaker’s more careful style. When speakers repeated the phrase fourth floor, the frequency of postvocalic /r/ increased in all groups. The most significant increase in frequency was among the Macy’s group. In a finding that has been confirmed in other studies, middle-class speakers are much more likely to shift their style of speaking significantly in the direction of the upper middle class when they are using a careful style.

It is possible to use more elaborate elicitation procedures to create more gradation in the category of style. Asking someone to read a short text out loud will result in more attention to speech than simply asking them to answer some questions in an interview. Asking that same individual to read out loud a list of individual words taken from the text will result in even more careful pronunciation of those words and hence a more formal version of the individual’s speech style.

When Labov analyzed the way New Yorkers performed in these elicitation procedures, he found a general overall increase in postvocalic /r/ in all groups as the task required more attention to speech. Among the lower-middle-class speakers, the increase was so great in the pronunciation of the word lists that their frequency of postvocalic /r/ was actually higher than among upper-middle-class speakers. As other studies have confirmed, when speakers in a middle-status group try to use a prestige form associated with a higher-status group in a formal situation, they have a tendency to overuse the form.


 In discussing style-shifting, we introduced the idea of a “prestige” form as a way of explaining the direction in which certain individuals change their speech. When that Language and social variation 257 change is in the direction of a form that is more frequent in the speech of those perceived to have higher social status, we are dealing with overt prestige, or status that is generally recognized as “better” or more positively valued in the larger community.


There is, however, another phenomenon called covert prestige. This “hidden” status of a speech style as having positive value may explain why certain groups do not exhibit style-shifting to the same extent as other groups. For example, we might ask why many lower-working-class speakers do not change their speech style from casual to careful as radically as lower-middle-class speakers. The answer may be that they value the features that mark them as members of their social group and consequently avoid changing them in the direction of features associated with another social group. They may value group solidarity (i.e. sounding like those around them) more than upward mobility (i.e. sounding like those above them).

Among younger speakers in the middle class, there is often covert prestige attached to many features of pronunciation and grammar (I ain’t doin’ nuttin’ rather than I’m not doing anything) that are more often associated with the speech of lower-status groups.

Speech accommodation

As we look more closely at variation in speech style, we can see that it is not only a function of speakers’ social class and attention to speech, but it is also influenced by their perception of their listeners. This type of variation is sometimes described in terms of “audience design,” but is more generally known as speech accommodation, defined as our ability to modify our speech style toward or away from the perceived style of the person(s) we’re talking to.

We can adopt a speech style that attempts to reduce social distance, described as convergence, and use forms that are similar to those used by the person we’re talking to. In the following examples (from Holmes, 2008), a teenage boy is asking to see some holiday photographs. In the first example, he is talking to his friend, and in the second example, he is talking to his friend’s mother. The request is essentially the same, but the style is different as the speaker converges with the perceived speech style of the other.

C’mon Tony, gizzalook, gizzalook

Excuse me. Could I have a look at your photos too, Mrs. Hall?

In contrast, when a speech style is used to emphasize social distance between speakers, the process is called divergence. We can make our speech style diverge from another’s by using forms that are distinctly different. In the third line of the following example, the Scottish teenager shifts to a speech style with features that differ substantially from the first line.

TEENAGER: I can’t do it, sir.

TEACHER: Oh, come on. If I can do it, you can too.

TEENAGER: Look, I cannae dae it so …


The sudden divergence in style seems to be triggered not only by a need to add emphasis to his repeated statement, but also by the “We’re the same” claim of his teacher. This teenager is using speech style to mark that they are not the same.

Register and jargon

Another influence on speech style that is tied to social identity derives from register. A register is a conventional way of using language that is appropriate in a specific context, which may be identified as situational (e.g. in church), occupational (e.g. among lawyers) or topical (e.g. talking about language). We can recognize specific features that occur in the religious register (Ye shall be blessed by Him in times of tribulation), the legal register (The plaintiff is ready to take the witness stand) and even the linguistics register (In the morphology of this dialect there are fewer inflectional suffixes).

One of the defining features of a register is the use of jargon, which is special technical vocabulary (e.g. plaintiff, suffix) associated with a specific area of work or interest. In social terms, jargon helps to create and maintain connections among those who see themselves as “insiders” in some way and to exclude “outsiders.” This exclusive effect of specialized jargon, as in the medical register (e.g. Zanoxyn is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug for arthritis, bursitis and tendonitis), often leads to complaints about what may seem like “jargonitis.”


Whereas jargon is specialized vocabulary used by those inside established social groups, often defined by professional status (e.g. legal jargon), slang is more typically used among those who are outside established higher-status groups. Slang, or “colloquial speech,” describes words or phrases that are used instead of more everyday terms among younger speakers and other groups with special interests. The word bucks (for dollars or money) has been a slang expression for more than a hundred years, but the addition of mega- (“a lot of”) in megabucks is a more recent innovation, along with dead presidents (whose pictures are on paper money) and benjamins (from Benjamin Franklin, on $100 bills).

Like clothing and music, slang is an aspect of social life that is subject to fashion, especially among adolescents. It can be used by those inside a group who share ideas and attitudes as a way of distinguishing themselves from others. As a marker of group identity during a limited stage of life such as early adolescence, slang expressions can “grow old” rather quickly. Older forms for “really good” such as groovy, hip and super were replaced by awesome, rad and wicked which gave way to dope, kickass and phat. A hunk (“physically attractive man”) became a hottie and instead of something being the pits (“really bad”), the next generation thought it was a bummer or said, That sucks!. The difference in slang use between groups divided into older and younger speakers shows that age is another important factor involved in social variation.


However, the use of slang varies within the younger social group, as illustrated by the use of obscenities or taboo terms. Taboo terms are words and phrases that people avoid for reasons related to religion, politeness and prohibited behavior. They are often swear words, typically “bleeped” in public broadcasting (What the bleep are you doing, you little bleep!) or “starred” in print (You stupid f***ing a**hole!). In a study of the linguistic differences among “Jocks” (higher status) and “Burnouts” (lower status) in Detroit high schools, Eckert (2000) reported the regular use of taboo words among both males and females in the lower-status group. However, among the higher-status group, males used taboo words only with other males, while females didn’t seem to use them at all. Social class divisions, at least in the use of slang, are already well established during adolescence.

African American English

In much of the preceding discussion, we have been reviewing research on social variation based mainly on examples from British English and what we might call “European” American English. Labeling one general social variety according to the historical origins of the speakers allows us to put it in contrast with another major variety called African American English (AAE). Also known as Black English or Ebonics, AAE is a variety used by many (not all) African Americans in many different regions of the USA. It has a number of characteristic features that, taken together, form a distinct set of social markers.

In much the same way as large geographical barriers between groups foster linguistic differences in regional dialects, social barriers such as discrimination and segregation serve to create marked differences between social dialects. In the case of AAE, those different features have often been stigmatized as “bad” language, following a regular pattern whereby the social practices, especially speech, of dominated groups

are treated as “abnormal” by those dominant groups who are in charge of defining “normal.” Although AAE speakers continue to experience the effects of discrimination, their social dialect often has covert prestige among younger speakers in other social groups, particularly with regard to popular music, and certain features of AAE may be used in expressions of social identity by many who are not African American.

Vernacular language

The form of AAE that has been most studied is usually described as African American Vernacular English (AAVE). The term “vernacular” has been used since the Middle Ages, first to describe local European languages (low prestige) in contrast to Latin (high prestige), then to characterize any non-standard spoken version of a language used by lower status groups. So, the vernacular is a general expression for a kind of social dialect, typically spoken by a lower-status group, which is treated as “non-standard” because of marked differences from the “standard” language . As the vernacular language of African Americans, AAVE shares a number of features with other nonstandard varieties, such as “Chicano English,” spoken in some Hispanic American communities. Varieties of what has been called “Asian American English” are also characterized by some of the pronunciation features described in studies of this vernacular.

The sounds of a vernacular

A pervasive phonological feature in AAVE and other English vernaculars is the tendency to reduce final consonant clusters, so that words ending in two consonants (left hand) are often pronounced as if there is only one (lef han). This can affect the pronunciation of past tense -ed forms in certain contexts, with expressions such as iced tea and I passed the test sounding like ice tea and I pass the tess. Initial dental consonants (think, that) are frequently pronounced as alveolar stops (tink, dat), with the result that the definite article (the) is heard as [də], as in You da man!. Other morphological features, such as possessive -’s (John’s farms) and third person singular -s (she loves it), are not typically used (John farm , she love it). Also, when a phrase contains an obvious indication of plural number, the plural -s marker (guys, friends) is usually not included (two guy, one of my friend).

The grammar of a vernacular

It is typically in aspects of grammar that AAVE and other vernaculars are most stigmatized as being “illogical” or “sloppy.” One frequently criticized element is the double negative construction, as in He don’t know nothin or I ain’t afraid of no ghosts. Because the negative is expressed twice, these structures have been condemned as “illogical” (since one negative supposedly cancels the other). Yet, this feature of AAVE can be found in many other English dialects and in other languages such as French: il ne sait rien (literally, “he not knows nothing”). It was also common in Old English: Ic naht singan ne cuðe (literally, “I not sing not could”). There is nothing inherently illogical about these structures, which can extend to multiple negatives, allowing greater emphasis on the negative aspect of the message, as in He don’t never do nothin.

The “sloppy” criticism focuses on the frequent absence of forms of the verb “to be” (are, is) in AAVE expressions such as You crazy or She workin now. It may be more accurate to say that wherever are and is can be contracted in the casual style of other varieties (You’re, She’s), they are not articulated in AAVE. Formal styles of Standard English require are and is in such expressions, but many regional varieties do not. Nor do many other languages such as Arabic and Russian require forms of “to be” in similar contexts. This feature of AAVE speech can’t be “sloppy” any more than it would be “sloppy” in normal Arabic or Russian speech.

While AAVE speakers don’t include the auxiliary verb is in expressions such as She workin now, to describe what is happening currently, they can use be (not is), as in She be workin downtown now, as a way of expressing habitual action. That is, the presence or absence of be distinguishes between what is a recurring activity or state and what is currently happening. To talk about a habitual action that started or happened in the past, AAVE uses bin (typically stressed), not was, as in She bin workin there. In effect, the use of habitual be or bin, and the absence of forms of “to be” in present state expressions, are all consistent features in the grammar of AAVE. The negative versions of these verbs are formed with don’t (not doesn’t) and the verb is not used with a contracted negative. So, in AAVE, She don’t be workin is grammatical, whereas *She doesn’t be workin and *She ben’t workin would be considered ungrammatical.

In this discussion, we have focused on the linguistic features of social dialects. Yet, the groups who use those dialects are not only distinguished by the language they use, but by more general factors such as beliefs and assumptions about the world and their experience of it. This is usually discussed in terms of “culture,”.

فيلسوف العرب .. أول من حمل لواء الفلسفة في الإسلام

عاشوراء.. دروسٌ وعِبَر (5)

الإمامُ زينُ العابدينَ عليهِ السَّلامُ في مجلسِ يزيد

عاشُوراء.. دروسٌ وعِبَر (4)

عاشوراء.. دروسٌ وَعِبَر (3)

عاشوراءُ.. دروسٌ وعِبَر (2)

عاشُوراء.. دروسٌ وعِبَر (1)

ما ضرورةُ تهيئةِ العَوائلِ قبلَ حُلولِ المُصيبَةِ؟ عائلةُ الإمامِ الحُسينِ-عليهِ السَّلامُ- أُنموذجاً

دورُ الأمّ والزَّوجَةِ الصالحَةِ في كربلاء

الحسن والحسين الإمتداد الطبيعي لرسول الله

البنوّة السنخيّة بين الإمام الحسين وجدّه رسول الله

الأدلّة على مشروعية زيارة القبور

ما الفرق بين المناداة والمناجاة ؟

سيبقى الحسين صوتاً مجلجلاً تخشع له القلوب والضمائر

لماذا نحيي ذكرى عاشوراء؟

(لعبتْ هاشمُ بالملكِ فلا... خبرٌ جاءَ ولا وحيٌ نزل) تلخيصٌ لمنهج الضلالة الذي جابهه الحُسين (عليه السلام)

في ذكرى عاشوراء نستجلي الحسين (عليه السلام) فكرةً وموقفاً وإباء

أصحاب الإمام الحسين (عليه السلام) صفوة المسلمين ومخاض مدرسة النبوة

ما هِيَ أولَويّاتُ التعلُّمِ بالنِسبَةِ للمرأةِ؟

خمسةُ ألوانٍ في بيتِكَ تُشعِرُكَ بالسَّعادَةِ

كيفَ نُنشِئُ أسرَةً صالحةً؟

سَبعَةُ نشاطاتٍ لتخفيفِ التَّنَمُّرِ الأُسريّ

سَبعُ عِباراتٍ تحفيزيّةٍ لبعضِ المشاهِير

دورُ أهلِ البَيتِ (عَليهِمُ السَّلامُ) في المُحافَظةِ على البِناءِ الأُسَريِّ

أخلاقُكَ بعدَ مَمَاتِكَ!

كيفَ تُصَمِّمُ أهدافَكَ؟

هل يُمكِنُ تأهيلُ الأطفالِ تربوياً

إنشاء أدمغة مصغرة في المختبر تحاكي مرض باركنسون أملا في إيجاد علاج له

الأمم المتحدة تحذر من الذكاء الاصطناعي غير الخاضع للرقابة و انتهاكه لحقوق الإنسان

جلد متحجر يكشف لأول مرة عن شكل ديناصورات نادرة آكلة للحوم

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أوبل تكشف النقاب عن سيارة كهربائية بقيمة 7000 دولار وقيادتها لا تتطلب رخصة!

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في اكتشاف هام.. العلماء يكشفون سر كون لدغات النمل قوية جدا ومؤلمة!

عالم آثار هاو يعثر على كنوز ذهبية فريدة عمرها 1500 عام

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نمط النوم يمكن أن يزيد بشكل كبير من خطر صحي قد يؤدي إلى النوبة القلبية أو السكتة الدماغية

5 أطعمة تضاعف خطر الإصابة بـ داء الملوك و5 أخرى تخفف من أعراضه

طبيبة عيون توضّح تأثير كوفيد-19 في جودة الرؤية

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دراسة تدق ناقوس الخطر حول علاقة نمط الحياة المستقر بالإصابة بالسكتة الدماغية

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اكتشاف نظام لم يسبق له مثيل لحرق الدهون العميقة في دراسات على الفئران

خبيرة تكشف عن 7 عوامل تزيد من خطر الإصابة بأكثر أمراض الخرف شيوعا

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شَهِد تأبين المتوفين من خَدَمة أمير المؤمنين(ع) ... العتبة العلوية تقيم مجلس عزاء الإمام الحسن(عليه السلام) بدار ضيافة الإمام علي – صور -

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