Linguistics 001     Lecture 14    Sociolinguistics

1. Linguistic variation and its evaluation

The way that people talk depends on where they come from and where they belong in their society. Other people notice -- and evaluate -- ways of talking that are different from their own: in the (1916) preface to his play Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw wrote that "[i]t is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him."

Why? Well, as the phonetician Henry Higgins says in the play's first act, "You can spot an Irishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue. I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets." In a society as conscious of hierarchy and origin as Shaw's England was, to "spot" someone in this sense is an evaluation -- and usually a negative or even hostile evaluation -- not just an observation. As Higgins puts it,

This is an age of upstarts. Men begin in Kentish Town with £80 a year, and end in Park Lane with a hundred thousand. They want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths.

Higgins (along with his creator Shaw) shares his society's evaluation of the relative value of linguistic variants. Speaking to the cockney flower-peddler Eliza Doolittle, he says:

A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespear and Milton and The Bible; and dont sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.

However, unlike many members of his society, Shaw saw class differences (and the speech patterns that mark them) as superficial and modifiable, rather than essential. As he wrote in another context, "[p]eople are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them." His character Higgins earns his living by teaching upwardly-mobile businessmen how to talk like their social "superiors," and asserts that he could do the same with Eliza:

You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party. I could even get her a place as lady's maid or shop assistant, which requires better English. Thats the sort of thing I do for commercial millionaires. And on the profits of it I do genuine scientific work in phonetics, and a little as a poet on Miltonic lines.

We think of today's America as a more egalitarian and tolerant place than Shaw's England was. However, it's still probably fair to say that "it is impossible for an American to open his mouth without making some other American hate or despise him."

Listen to these conversational examples of American dialects marked for region, class and race.


For each of the examples above, I can think of at least one specific acquaintance who would confess to a visceral shudder of disgust at the mere sound of the voice. Such reactions may be a source of puzzlement and even shame to people who consider themselves intellectually above regional, class or racial prejudice.

Of course, each examples will also make some people feel homesick for the sounds of their native place, and sometimes an accent may seem merely exotic and interesting to outsiders. Steve Thorne found that the "pleasantness" of 20 English accents was rated very differently by natives and non-natives. For example, British listeners found the dialect of the city of Birmingham (England) to be 'boring', 'wrong', 'irritating', 'grating', 'nasal', and 'whingey', while non-native listeners found it 'nice', 'melodic', 'lilting' and 'musical'.

Did you have any immediate visceral reactions to the examples in the set above -- whether distaste, nostalgia or fascination?

Listen to the samples again. In each case, ask yourself "what kind of person is talking? what sex? what age? from what part of the country? what social class? what race or ethnicity? can you identify individual speakers in more than one example? what other reactions do I have?"

Most people are very good at guessing sex and age and individual identity, and fair at guessing geographic region. We're usually sensitive to social class markers in dialect areas we know. For most listeners, African-American speech patterns stand out across geographic boundaries.

A well-informed sociolinguist -- a modern-day Henry Higgins -- can often place speakers quite precisely in space, time, ethnicity and social stratum. William Labov and colleagues at Penn have used telephone survey techniques to construct a Phonological Atlas of North America. an Atlas of North American English.

We are less likely than Shaw to think of someone's dialect as "keep[ing] her in the gutter to the end of her days." However, I doubt that any of the example speakers -- speaking as in the samples above -- could get a job as a radio news announcer in today's U.S.A.. Depending on the case and the context, they might be at a disadvantage in competing for other kinds of jobs, housing, and so on.

"Matched guise" experiments, in which listeners hear the same material spoken with different accents, show that evaluations of traits such as intelligence can be strongly influenced by social stereotypes associated with ways of speaking. Similar experiments show that African-American or Latino speech markers can make the difference between being shown a house or apartment and being told that it is no longer available.

In the Microsoft anti-trust case of a few years ago, Microsoft's chief trial attorney was John Warden. He is from Evansville, Indiana -- in the southern end of the state -- and has a strong regional accent. This has not prevented him from becoming a successful attorney -- perhaps he even exaggerates the accent for effect -- but it obviously rubs some observers the wrong way. In a series of articles on the trial for Slate magazine, a well-known journalist and author named Michael Lewis devoted more space to Warden's "overripe drawl" than to any factual or legal point at issue:

[I]t didn't take him long to prove that technology doesn't sound nearly as impressive when it is discussed in a booming hick drawl. As he boomed on about "Web sahts" and "Netscayup" and "the Innernet" and "mode ums" he made the whole of the modern world sound a little bit ridiculous.

Lewis contrasts Warden's speech to that of Netscape's CEO, Jim Barksdale, who is from Mississippi but has apparently moderated his native modes of speech:

[A]ll that's left of his linguistic origins is the just-below-upper-crust Southerner's habit of transforming soft consonants into hard ones. (For "mature" he says "ma-toor" rather than "machoor.") Of course, Barksdale has made his career in forward looking companies--Federal Express, McCaw Cellular, Netscape--and so perhaps he has been forced to make a business of not sounding like a hick. In any case, he seems to have arrived at a point where he himself doesn't comprehend hick speak. When Warden demanded of Barksdale, "Will you read the first sayntance aloud?" Barksdale replied, "The first SENTENCE?"

Essentially every time that Microsoft's side of the case comes up, Lewis takes another shot at Warden's accent, often throwing in a social stereotype or two for flavor:

Today Microsoft's lawyer John Warden established beyond a shadow of a doubt that employees of Netscape ("Netscayup") have funny names. He proved his point by pronouncing them. For instance, he kept calling a Netscape salesman named Ram Sharam (pronounced Rom) RAM Sha-RAM. (Rhymes with Sha-ZAM!) He then referred to Mitchell Baker, a Netscape lawyer, as MISTER Mitchell Baker. "That's MISSUS Mitchell Baker," said Barksdale. "Some a these nayumes," said Warden, "you just can't tell. Could go either way." And then, finally, as the two men argued about what, if anything, Microsoft had done to harm Netscape's relationship with America Online, Warden was forced to discuss a Netscape employee named Alan Louie. By now Warden knew better than to assume anything about these people from Northern California. "It is MISTER Alan Louee?" he asks. Barksdale nods. "And I assume it is LOU-EE?" His tone said, "These Netscayup people got the boys with the girls' names and the girls with boys' names. What the hayl kind a ennaprise you runnin' anyway?"

Or again:

AOL brings out the very best in Warden's self-conscious accent. He draws out the acronym so long and gustily that it sounds like a yodel. AAAAOOOOLLLL!

It's clear that southern pronunciations strike many Americans as "faintly ridiculous", and that people are not shy about making this clear. But just to show that his own prejudices are not limited to Southern States English, Lewis (who is from New Orleans) provided amusing stereotypic associations for the speech patterns of essentially every witness:

[David Colburn of AOL] has stooped shoulders; short, dark hair; a runaway 5 o'clock shadow; and the economy of motion of a highly skilled hit man. His deadpan North Jersey dialect simply reinforces the general picture that if he is not dangerous himself, he knows people who are. "This guy should be on Saturday Night Live," I heard someone whisper five minutes into his testimony. But his economy of motion was not matched by an economy of speech. When Warden asked one of his many trick questions in hopes of eliciting a simple "yes" or "no," Colburn would set off on some long-winded soliloquy that not only failed to answer the question but undermined its very premise. "Thank yewwwwwww," Warden would boom sarcastically after each speech. "My pleasure," Colburn would reply, witheringly. The scene was a cross of Hamlet and My Cousin Vinny.

Lewis' dispatches were funny, in a politically incorrect sort of way. By focusing on accents and associated stereotypes, he turns the trial participants into vivid cartoon-like characters, who are memorable even if they have little or nothing to do with the people they stand for. In fact, it seems that Lewis is no Higgins, so that his thumbnail linguistic stereotypes are not very accurate. A few days after writing the dispatch quoted above, Lewis confesses that

During the long lull this morning, a reporter from Reuters informed me that what I took for a North Jersey accent in AOL executive David Colburn was in fact a Milwaukee accent.

It's harder to make "Milwaukee" work with the hit-man character... the cheesehead assassin? Anyhow, Colburn talks differently from Lewis, and Lewis finds it easy to fit that difference into a stereotype-based story about Colburn's character, which would be no more meaningful if Colburn actually were from North Jersey.

In response to such social barriers of dialect, Shaw wrote in his preface to Pygmalion that

The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play.

The "reform" that Shaw has in mind is to teach the lower classes (and the provincials) to speak "noble English," as Higgins does with Eliza. You can find modern-day instructors promising this kind of "regional dialect reduction" for native speakers, as well as services for foreigners and for actors. However, most socially or geographically mobile people either imitate local prestige dialects without formal instruction -- as Lewis hypothesizes that Jim Barksdale has done -- or they simply to continue to speak as they are used to doing, like the "hick" John Warden and the "North Jersey/Milwaukee hitman" David Colburn, and suffer (or enjoy) the consequences.

2. Register and genre variation

Language also varies according to its context of use. Here are three short passages on related topics. One is from an informational article; another passage is from an advertisement; and another is an excerpt from a telephone conversation in the Switchboard corpus. Can you tell which is which?

  1. So, it 's just so complicated anymore, I think. People outlive their savings. And, with medicine being the way it is, you're extending life where sometimes the quality of living has gone down and they 're not necessarily enjoying life anymore. I think the retirement home idea's a nice idea. To go and find older people with similar interests and someplace to stay, because like if your spouse died, so you're all alone, it'd be nice to go someplace with people similar to you. To have friends.
  2. People who have to leave their homes and families and move into a nursing home experience feelings of grief and loss. During this time of change, these people are experiencing one of the most difficult periods of their lives. Not only is it difficult for the person making the move, but also for that person's family and friends.
  3. Situated in a park-like setting on a quiet residential street, Alder House offers private and semi-private rooms that are tastefully furnished and decorated. Cheerful colors, plants, flowers and decor, all those special touches that remind one of home are evident everywhere. Alder House's beautiful surroundings combined with our commitment to excellence creates a caring environment that you so richly deserve.

Obviously, (1) is the phone conversation, (2) is the article, and (3) is the ad. Can you imagine hearing someone say (2) or (3) in a conversation? Can you imagine (1) as part of a magazine article (other than as a quotation)?

Passage (1) has many features that tend to mark it as conversational, including the use of "just so" as an intensifier, the use of "like if" as a connective, and the impersonal "you".

Passage (2), by contrast, is clearly marked as written language: can you imagine someone saying to you in conversation "During this time of change, these people are experiencing one of the most difficult periods of their lives"?

Passage (3) has several turns of phrase that smell of ad-speak: "all those special touches that remind one of home;" "a caring environment that you so richly deserve."

How would you re-work the content of (1) to make it suitable in a formal written essay? How would you re-work the content of (2) or (3) to make it believable as dialogue?

Douglas Biber has coded the frequency of many linguistic features in samples of a large variety of text types (included transcriptions of various sorts of conversational speech). He then used statistical techniques to try to find the important basic dimensions of variation. Here is a rough plot of where a few text types show up on the two dimensions that he found to be most important for English:

The other dimensions that Biber identified include:

  • "situation-dependent vs. elaborated reference" -- roughly the difference between today and November 2, 1998.
  • "overt expression of argumentation" -- explicitly structured argument from assumptions to conclusions, vs. other modes of organization (or none).
  • "abstract vs. concrete style" -- roughly the difference between certain human errors seem to have occurred and John was fiddling with the radio and drove off into the ditch.

Similar analysis of usage patterns in other languages (including Korean and Somali) found analogous dimensions.

This kind of linguistic variation is usually called "register variation," and the different kinds of language involved are called "registers." Some researchers prefer a simpler account of register variation, for instance one that depends entirely on a dimension of formal vs. informal, in order to account for the kind of variation in spoken styles that depends primarily on the speaker's attitude about the situation, rather than on the functional requirements of the communication involved.

The concept of "genre" is closely related to "register." Sometimes genre is used as a synonym for register, but more often it is reserved for socially conventionalized kinds of texts, such as "epic poem" or "romance novel."

The role of the audience

Features of a given language vary with geography, class, ethnicity and age -- in other words, dialects exist, and languages change. A single speaker will use language differently, in systematic ways, in different registers. Within a given register, a given speaker will talk differently for different audiences.

Some plausible reasons for audience-dependent variation come easily to mind: a speaker may accomodate to the speech patterns of conversational partners, or choose a distinct linguistic identity in opposition. In other cases -- say talking to young children or foreigners -- a speaker may adopt a style believed (not always correctly) to be helpful.

3. Modeling variation: g-dropping in English

Language varies with geography, class, ethnicity, register, audience and individual idiosyncrasies. Over the past few decades, sociolinguists have devised general ways of describing and explaining this complex tapestry of linguistic variation. You can learn more, both about the techniques and the conclusions of such research, by taking Linguistics 102, Introduction to Sociolinguistics.

One of the many interesting results of this research is the discovery of systematic analogical relationships among different social and registral dimensions. For instance, there is a systematic relationship between social class and formality. Let's examine this relationship in a small case study: g-dropping in English.

What is g-dropping?

The term comes from the conventional orthography: -ing is written as -in', as in she's openin' the door.

In fact, there is no "g" involved at all, except in the spelling. Final -ng (in English spelling) stands for a velar nasal, which is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet as an "n" with a hook on its right leg: , a symbol called "eng." In IPA, opening is written as , while openin' is written as . The only difference in pronunciation is whether the final nasal consonant is velar (made with the body of the tongue pressed against the soft palate) or coronal (made with the blade of the tongue pressed against the ridge behind the front teeth).

Thus is "g-dropping" nothing is ever really dropped -- it's just a question of where you put your tongue at the end of the word.

What words are candidates for g-dropping?

English does not have a general alternation between final velar and coronal nasals: boomerang does not become boomeran', and ring does not become rin. We are only talking about unstressed final -ing at the ends of words. In some dialects, g-dropping applies only to the inflectional suffix -ing (as in present participles such as trying), and not in words such as wedding or morning.

Where does g-dropping come from?

G-dropping is actually a more conservative pattern. The present participle suffix was originally pronounced with a coronal, not a velar nasal: in early middle English, this inflection was -inde or -ende. There was a derivational ending -ung for making nouns out of verbs, which produced words like present-day "building." These eventually merged into the modern -ing suffix. In 19th- and early 20th-century England, the g-dropping pattern (which really was the "not g-adding pattern") marked the rural aristrocracy as well as the lower classes. Thus Crystal (p. 39) quotes this passage from John Galsworthy's 1931 novel Maid in Waiting:

'Where on earth did Aunt Em learn to drop her g's?'
'Father told me once that she was a school where an undropped "g" was worse than a dropped "h". They were bringin' in a country fashion then, huntin' people, you know.'

The velar pronunciation, a middle-class innovation a couple of hundred years ago, has since become the norm for most educated speakers. By the way, you should note that this is exactly the type of change that many prescriptivist language mavens rail against -- an innovation that blurs a distinction between two formerly separate categories of words.

How does g-dropping work today?

Nearly all English speakers drop g's sometimes, but in a given speech community, the proportion varies systematically with class. For instance, in a 1969 study done in New York City, Labov found that in casual conversation, g-dropping varied with social class as follows:

  Lower class Working class Lower middle class Upper middle class
Percentage of g-dropping 80 49 32 5

In other words, as class status "rises," percentage of g-dropping falls.

However, formality also matters: members of a given social stratum drop g's more often in less formal speech. Thus for the lower class members:

  Casual speech Careful speech Reading
Percentage of g-dropping 80 53 22

In the 1969 NYC study, this pattern was maintained across the full interaction of social class and degree of formality:

A similar pattern was found in percentage of g-dropping from a study done in Norwich, England:

  Casual speech Careful speech Reading
Middle-middle class 28 3 10
Lower middle class 42 15 10
Upper working class 87 74 15
Middle working class 95 88 44
Lower working class 100 98 66

Overall g-dropping rates seem to be somewhat higher in Norwich compared to New York. However, the general pattern of double dependence on social status and formality is maintained.

Similar studies have been done in many places, for many linguistic variables other than g-dropping, and the pattern is always the same: there is a sort of systematic analogy between social class and formality. There are several competing theories -- all interesting -- about why this is true, but the parallel between class and formality always holds.

Class is not the only social variable that tends to work this way. Another study of g-dropping, this time in Los Angeles, compared males and females of similar socio-economic status. Male speakers (other things equal) tend to use more informal (or lower-class) modes of speech than females do, and this study was no exception. At the same time, for both males and females, the percentage of g-dropping was greater in joking than in arguing -- presumably because joking creates a more informal speech style:

  Joking Arguing
Males 46 24
Females 28 21

Another analogy

Consider the following passage from D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel Lady Chatterly's Lover. Here Lady Chatterly (Connie), first encounters her husband Clifford's gamekeeper, Mellors.

Lord Clifford 'Thanks, then, for the help, Mellors,' said Clifford casually, as he began to wheel down the passage to the servants' quarters.
Mellors 'Nothing else, Sir?' came the neutral voice, like one in a dream.
Lord Clifford ' Nothing, good morning!'
Mellors 'Good morning, Sir.'
Connie 'Good morning! it was kind of you to push the chair up that hill. I hope it wasn't heavy for you,' said Connie, looking back at the keeper outside the door.
Mellors His eyes came to hers in an instant, as if wakened up. He was aware of her.
'Oh no, not heavy!' he said quickly
Mellors Then his voice dropped again into the broad sound of the vernacular:
'Good mornin' to your Ladyship!'

Lawrence tells us explicitly when Mellors is switching into a different part of his linguistic repertoire. Though he has used -ing in his 'Good morning, Sir', to Lord Clifford, he "drops into" the broad sound of the vernacular as he bids good morning to Lady Connie. This pattern is continued in the passage below, when Connie and Mellors meet next.

Connie 'I wondered what the hammering was,'
she said, feeling weak and breathless, and a little afraid of him, as he looked so straight at her.
Mellors 'Ah'm gettin' th' coops ready for th' young bods,'
he said, in broad vernacular.
[...break in text...]
Connie 'I'm just going,' she said.
Mellors 'Was yer waitin' to get in?'
he asked, looking at the hut, not at her.
[...break in text...]
Mellors 'I mean as 'appen Ah can find anuther pleece as'll du for rearin' th' pheasants. If yer want ter be 'ere, yo'll non want me messin' abaht a' th' time.'
Connie She looked at him, getting his meaning through the fog of the dialect. 'Why don't you speak ordinary English?' she said coldly.
Mellors 'Me! Ah thowt it wor ordinary.'

The question is, what is ordinary? Mellors is capable of approximating the language of his lord and lady; but for him, ordinary English is the vernacular.

He always uses "cold, good English" in speaking to Lord Clifford, but he varies his speech to Connie according to how he feels:
(Mellors discussing the motor of Lord Clifford's motorized wheel chair)
Mellors 'Doesn't seem anything broken,' he said.
'There's certainly nothing obviously broken.'

Lord Clifford 'I hope I have said nothing to offend you,' he added, in a tone of dislike.'
Mellors 'Nothing at all, Sir Clifford!'
[...break in text...]
(Mellors discussing his job as a game keeper with Connie)
Mellors 'I had to go getting summonses for two poachers I caught, and, oh well, I don't like people.'
He spoke cold, good English, and there was anger in his voice.
Connie 'Do you hate being a game-keeper?' she asked.
Mellors ' Being a game-keeper, no! So long as I'm left alone. But when I have to go messing around at the police-station, and various other places, and waiting for a lot of fools to attend to me...oh well, I get mad...'

After Connie and Mellors have become lovers, he consistently uses the vernacular in speaking with her, including -in rather than -ing.

Mellors 'It isna horrid,' he said, 'even if tha thinks it is. An' tha canna ma'e it horrid. Dunna fret thysen about lovin' me.

Here the dimensions of formality and class have become aligned with the dimension of intimacy. And this is not only a fact about inter-class romance in the England of 1920 -- g-dropping is apparently used to communicate empathy by contemporary American politicians, including both of our last two presidents.








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