Introduction to Sociolinguistics

Sociolinguistics is the study of language in relation to various social factors. For the first part of the essay, I will attempt to explain all the variants that affect the way we speak, before narrowing the focus to how the way that we speak affects people’s perceptions of us.

 

 

 

Speaker A

 

Speaker B
I did it yesterday I done it yesterday
He hasn’t got it He ain’t got it
It was her that said it It was her what said it

 

Any English language user will be able to estimate the relative social status of these two speakers solely on the basis of these six quotations, which were used as an example in Peter Trudgill’s book on Sociolinguistics. This is due to the existence of varieties in language, commonly known as social class dialects or sociolects.

 

We can tell that Speaker A has a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent, and therefore we presume that they are from an upper middle class. On the other hand, Speaker B appears to have a cockney, ‘East End’ accent, and we presume that they are from a working class background.

 

It is worth mentioning that there are three variants which fall under the generic term, “accent;” a word which we use to describe any slight difference in one’s voice. Dialect refers to the geographical location affecting how you speak. Sociolect refers to the social factors, such as your age or ethnic group, that affect your linguistic choices, and an idiolect is one’s own personal features of speech.

 

The feature that we look out for when determining how similar a language user’s speech is to Standard English (the English we would expect to find in a dictionary or exam paper) is stigmatisation. As a general rule, the more stigmatised forms a speaker uses, the more regional is his accent, and the more likely we are to presume they are of a working class background. I would think that everyone who reads this dissertation would use stigmatisations of some sort, as only a very small minority of the population of the UK speak in theoretical ‘perfect English.’ I use the word ‘theoretical’ because no grammar is incorrect, merely alternative to that spoken by high prestige language users. Different areas of the UK have different accepted forms of grammar from other areas. At a university, for instance, one is expected to use the appropriate pronoun relevant to the situation. For instance, they would encourage a sentence structured along the lines of “give me some sweets,” employing the first person singular pronoun “me.” This differs greatly from a city such as Manchester, where you would be more likely to use the first person plural pronoun, “us,” as in “give us some sweets,” even when solely referring to one’s self. It is neither correct nor incorrect, but merely more acceptable in that particular area. Again, in Liverpool, it is considered normal to replace the possessive pronoun ‘my’ with ‘me.’ This would be deemed incorrect to speakers of RP, yet it is seen as standard to language users from northern UK.

 

Although stigmatisations are not necessarily incorrect, there is a definitive list of what constitutes them. I have constructed a table showing the different ways in which we use stigmatic forms of the English language, and how a speaker of RP would convey the same idea using a more standard English accent:

 

Type of Stigmatisation

 

Example

 

Equivalent in RP

 

Double negatives I didn’t do nothing I didn’t do anything
Clipping verbs I was walkin’ I was walking
Glottlisation I was /bɪʔn/ I was bitten
Th fronting I /fɔːt/ so I /θɔːt/ so
H dropping I ‘aven’t I haven’t
Yod dropping /ʃuːzdeɪ/ /tjuːzdeɪ/

 

The main sociolinguist that I would associate with studies of social class and stigmatisations is Peter Trudgill. He conducted a significant piece of research in Detroit from which he drew his conclusion that the more stigmatisations a speaker uses, the more likely he is to come from a lower or working class background. He chose Detroit because the city contains clear social stratification (layers of social classes). That is to say, when he conducted the research (in 1974) Detroit was dominated by the General Motors car industry. The bosses represented the upper middle class, the heads of certain departments represented the middle class, and so on until the mechanics represented the lower working class. As a result, it was easy for him to collect data. These were his findings:

 

 

 

 

Double Negation Upper

Middle

Class

Lower

Middle

Class

Upper

Working

Class

Lower

Working

Class

Male 6.3% 32.4% 40% 90.1%
Female 0% 1.4% 35.6% 58.9%
Non pre-vocalic ‘R’ Upper

Middle

Class

Lower

Middle

Class

Upper

Working

Class

Lower

Working

Class

Male 66.7% 52.5% 20% 25%
Female 90% 70% 44.2% 31.7%

 

 

The two tables above clearly show a correlation between class and speech, with the general trend being that the lower the class to which you belong, the more stigmatisations you are likely to use, and the further from Standard English you will sound. Additionally, it proves Deborah Tannen’s Genderlect Theory, which stated that females use less stigmatisations than males.

 

Deborah Tannen did not actually coin the term ‘Genderlect,’ but it was simply inherited as the obvious term to refer to the variety of speech between males and females. That is to say, etymologically speaking, ‘gender’ refers to one’s sex, whilst a ‘lect’ is a variety. In 1990, Tannen wrote the book “You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in conversation,” in which she highlighted the principal differences between male and female speech. First of all, the purposes contrast – women speak in, what she terms, “rapport talk,” which is the usage of language to build connections and relationships, whereas men speak with the primary purpose of completing a task, or getting a job done. She claims that men interrupt more often, as a means of displaying their status and woman tend only to use overlaps when in a small group, suggesting that men make more utterances than woman when in a larger group, and are more likely to be the dominant speaker and in charge of topic shifts and loops. Men will use direct imperatives (“shut the door,” “open the window”) whereas, women encourage the use of superpolite forms (“could I possibly…?”, “would you mind if …?”). Tannen stresses that most women avoid conflict in language at all costs, and instead attempt to resolve disagreements without any direct confrontation so as to maintain positive connection and rapport. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to use confrontation as a way of resolving differences and negotiating status. Similarly, Walter J. Ong’s 1981 publication ‘Fighting for Life’ asserted that “expressed adversativeness” is more an element of male culture than female culture. Tannen stresses that both forms of communication are valid ways of creating involvement and forming bonds. She states that men favour independence, whilst women are more likely to seek intimacy. For instance, most of the time, a husband would make a decision without consulting his wife. She theorises that he does so because he doesn’t want to feel a loss of independence that would come from saying, “Let me consult this with my wife first.” Women, on the other hand, like to demonstrate that they have to consult with their partner, as this is seen to be proof of the intimacy of the relationship. Therefore women, seeing the world as a network of connections and relationships, view intimacy as key to achieving consensus and avoiding the appearance of superiority, whereas men, who are more likely to view the world in terms of status, see independence as being key to establishing their status. However, as widely regarded as Tannen’s Genderlect theory is, it has been criticised for being largely anecdotal and not accurate for mixed-gender conversations. Overall, though, it is an accurate insight into how the speech of the two genders differs.

 

Another way in which men differ from women is convergence; that is the changing of the way you speak, either to a more high prestige form of English or a more stigmatised one. Returning to the work of Peter Trudgill, he found that men are more likely to display signs of downward convergence than women. It has been pointed out that working class speech, like many other aspects of working class culture in our society, seems to have connotations with masculinity and toughness, traditionally supposed to be characteristic of working class life. This is a desirable quality for men, provoking them to attempt to sound more like a working class speaker. In doing so, they tend to use more non-standard linguistic forms (otherwise known as stigmatisations), thereby downwardly converging. A common example of this would be when attending a football match. Football is a traditionally working class sport, so men downwardly converge to fit in with those around them. This contrasts with women, who are far more likely to upwardly converge, or hyper correct; that is speak in a way that is closer to Standard English. According to Trudgill, this is because of a social pressure on females in society to speak correctly, or closer to Standard English. Women are therefore more likely to avoid stigmatisations due to their negative connotations in society, and instead, speak with an RP accent. Perhaps more so than men, women like to seem wealthy and of a higher social class, again demonstrating their common upward convergence. A likely scenario in which hyper-correctance might occur with women is in a job interview, where they want to seem more competent, a quality we strongly associate with an RP accent. The word convergence itself refers to making your voice sound more similar to other speakers in a conversation, whilst the opposite, divergence, describes the action of changing your voice to make it sound more distant from other speakers in a conversation. Divergence enables a speaker to show identity and affiliation with, perhaps, a less ‘established’ and powerful social group. Some language users create a media persona for themselves on the basis of speaking differently from their peers. It can also be used to express dislike of another speaker, as upwardly or downwardly diverging can alienate those who speak with a noticeably different prestige. William Labov, an American linguist, termed the downward convergence to sound more like people of a working class background, ‘Covert Prestige.’

 

Before we evaluate how an accent can change our first impression of a person, it is vital that we analyse the characteristics and connotations of each dialect that we study.

Received pronunciation, or RP, is seen as the most ‘correct’ way of speaking, shown by the inclusion of the word ‘received,’ meaning ‘accepted’ or ‘approved.’ Unlike other UK accents, it is not identified so much with a particular region as with a particular social group. That is to say, despite having connections with Southern England, it is spoken all over the United Kingdom in multiple varieties. I should add that by using the term RP in this essay, I am referring to both the traditional RP that the Queen speaks and the modified RP spoken by a much larger percentage of the UK. RP is associated with educated speakers and formal speech, justifying its intelligent connotations. In fact, when phonetician Daniel Jones wrote the Pronouncing Dictionary in 1916, he described RP as the accent most usually heard from the families of people who have been educated at the great public boarding schools. It is the accent represented in dictionaries that give pronunciations and is used by teachers of English as a foreign language. The main feature of the RP accent is the lack of stigmatisation. According to Peter Trudgill, if a speaker displays any stigmatic forms at all, then he does not have an RP accent, but, with a new, more modified version of RP, the accent is becoming somewhat more relaxed. That is to say, glottlisation is now finding its way into the RP accent, in words such as /fʊʔbʊəɫ/ (football), which, using an RP accent, was formerly pronounced /fʊtbʊəl/. The RP accent is young in linguistic terms, shown by the fact that it was not around in 1757 when Dr Johnson wrote “A Dictionary of the English Language,” and the actual phrase ‘received pronunciation’ was only coined in 1869 by the linguist, A J Ellis. RP received its greatest boost when Lord Reith, first General Manager of the BBC, decided to use the accent as a ‘broadcasting standard,’ which is why we still use the term ‘BBC English.’ Reith believed that this accent would be the most widely understood to everyone watching from all areas of the world, whereas a regional accent might alienate some viewers, or would perhaps be deemed incomprehensible to non-speakers of the chosen dialect. This is most probably the principal reason for why we have a negative perception of regional accents in comparison to RP.

 

East London is a fascinating area to study in the field of accent. Traditionally, it is the home of cockney. The term ‘Cockney’ has had several distinct geographical, social and linguistic associations.  Originally it was a term used to describe those born within the sounds of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow in east London’s Cheapside district, although it has spread to mean working class people generally. Cockney is a very distinct accent, with clear features that give us clues that a speaker comes from the East End of London. Cockneys use a raised vowel in words such as ‘chap’ and ‘flat,’ modifying them to sound more like ‘chep’ and ‘flet.’ It is a non-rhotic accent, which adds some similarity between cockney and other London accents. The accent displays the London vowel-shift, where vowel sounds are modified so that words such as “day” are pronounced /dæɪ/. A very common feature of cockney, like other non-standard dialects, is glottlisation. This is a stigmatic form of English whereby the letter ‘t,’ when in between vowel sounds, is pronounced with the back of the throat (called the glottis), so the word “better” would become /beʔə/. Essentially, the /t/ sound is replaced by the glottal stop (ʔ). Finally, Th-Fronting is evident, where the /θ/ sound is replaced by /f/, so /θiŋ/ (thing) would become /fiŋ/. The reason for which I remarked that East London’s accents are fascinating is that the area is in the process of a huge dialectal shift. Ten years ago, all you would have heard in East London was cockney, but now, a newer, more internationally influenced accent called Multi-Cultural London English (MLE) is taking over, which has pushed the Cockney accent out to towns such as Kent. MLE is said to be “the voice of young London,” with influences from places as diverse as the Caribbean, Greece, Asia and Africa. There is an increasing number of immigrants in East London from these areas, who have greatly influenced the way people talk. A distinct feature of the MLE accent is that speakers do not drop the letter ‘h’ in the same way as cockneys, and whilst cockney employed mainly diphthongal vowel sounds, Multicultural London English favours monopthongal vowel sounds. Phonetically speaking, cockneys mainly talk using the front of the mouth whilst MLE speakers largely use the back of the mouth, with the alveolar ridge in particular providing the majority of sounds they produce.

 

Northern England, in cities such as Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool also has very distinct, recognisable accents. The most notable feature is commonly referred to by linguists as the “foot-strut merger.” It describes how the /ʊ/ syllable in ‘foot’ is pronounced exactly the same way as the /ʌ/ syllable in ‘strut.’ Another distinct feature of Northern English is the modification of the /aɪ/ dipthong in words such as ‘time’ and ‘high’ to /aːɪ/, although the IPA representation of this sound is often disputed. The IPA dictionary is essentially a list of phonemic symbols and signs representing different sounds. The Geordie (Newcastle) accent also uses the ‘foot-strut merger,’ but its most distinct features are the modification of the /aɪ/ dipthong to /ɛɪ/, so ‘light’ would essentially be pronounced ‘late,’ and the pronunciation of the /au/ dipthong as /uː/, so ‘round’ would become ‘roond.’ These two dialects sound very distant from Standard English spoken with an RP accent.

 

Finally, Scottish English is the dialect we would expect to hear spoken in Scotland. Like accents such as American English, West Country and East Anglia, it is rhotic, meaning that pre-vocalic, rhotic ‘r’ sounds are used. This is seen to be a lower working class stigmatisation or non-standard form in the UK, whereas in America it is seen as a high prestige form of English. Like cockney and Estuary accents, Scottish English speakers display glottlisation. However, unlike most UK accents, it encourages the monopthongal pronunciation of multiple dipthongal vowel sounds.

 

Research has shown that people make assumptions about others on the basis of their accents. Accents promote the idea that a speaker belongs to a particular social group, most of which we associate with different qualities and features. For instance, RP speakers are seen as more competent generally. They are associated with qualities such as intelligence, self-confidence, ambition, determination and industriousness. However, they are not regarded highly in terms of personal qualities and general social attractiveness; features such as friendliness, warmth, talkativeness, good-naturedness and sense of humour.  For regional accents, those with rural associations, such as West Country accents are usually viewed more positively than those with urban associations such as Cockney and Liverpudlian. Multiple linguists, who used several different methods, have tested these assumptions.

 

The first of these is Howard Giles. In an experiment that he conducted, he presented five groups of students with an identical set of arguments against capital punishment. The constant was the content of the argument and the variable was the accent in which the argument was presented, with the four accents used being Received Pronunciation, Somerset, South Wales and Birmingham. As a control variable, one group was given a written text instead. Giles asked the students how impressed they were by the competence of the presentations. The two groups with the RP speakers and the written text were the most impressed, whilst those with the Birmingham accent were the least impressed. Incidentally, this backs up a recent poll that found that the Brummie accent is the least liked out of all dialects based in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, when Giles assessed the persuasiveness of the different accents (by comparing the students’ views on capital punishment before and after the presentations), he found that it was regional accents that scored most highly. They were the accents that caused students to change their minds about capital punishment. Similarly, the Worcester College of Higher Education conducted an experiment where they hired male actors to reproduce police interviews using different accents, testing their hypothesis that speakers with Birmingham accents are more likely to be presumed guilty when suspected of a criminal offence. This was found to be the case, as when the tapes were played to a large group of students, the suspect with the Birmingham accent was more often deemed guilty and was also regarded as less intelligent, less socially competent and more likely to be poor and working class.

 

There are countless ways in which we can justify the research of these linguists. To begin with, I will discuss the effect of accent on advertising. Recently, I conducted research into the accents and genders used as the voiceovers in adverts. Here is a sample of the results:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COMPANY PRODUCT ACCENT GENDER
Morrison’s Shopping discounts Scottish Female
xBox Video game RP Male
Dreams Beds RP Female
Boots Face cream RP Female
Alpro Yoghurt RP Female
Tresemene Hair conditioner RP Male
Asda Roast beef RP Female
Douwe Egberts Coffee RP Male
PayPal Online payment RP Female
Volkswagen Fiat 500 RP Female
Carpet Right Carpet Geordie Female
Littlewoods Furniture RP Female
Google Online Information App RP Male
SCS Carpets Carpets Northern Female
Sainsbury’s Food RP Male
Kellog’s Cereal RP Male
Muller Light Yoghurt RP Male
Yorkshire Tea Tea
Kinder Chocolate Scottish Female
Bensons Beds RP Female
O2 Smartphone RP Male
Wilkinsons Razors RP Male
Aunt Bessies Yorkshire Puddings Northern Female
Sky Sky Plus RP Male
Purina Cat food RP Female
Mercedes Cars RP Male
Travelodge Hotel rooms and accommodation Northern Female
Sanex Shower gel RP Female
Aptamil Follow on milk RP Female
MacDonalds Fast food Cockney Male
Apple Mobile app RP Male
British Gas Gas Northern Female
Actimel Yoghurt RP Female
JD Williams Clothes Scottish Female
Wickes DIY Cockney Male

Martin Montgomery argued that advertising agencies in their preparation of nationally broadcast television commercials display a developed aptitude for trading on cross currents of prejudice, and I consider his belief to be alarmingly accurate. As Giles suggested, RP accents are effective at making people trust you, whilst regional accents are effective at persuading people. Thus, depending on the product a company is advertising, they will choose their desired accent accordingly. In my own research, I found that in the advertisements for essentials, RP accents were mainly used, with an even mixture between male and female speakers on the voiceovers. For example, Aptamil uses an RP speaker as their advertisement voiceover. The company sells follow on milk, which is the milk that women give to their children when they feel they should no longer be breast-feeding them. This is an essential product, so Aptamil are not aiming to convince the viewer to buy follow on milk in general, but are attempting to make the viewer trust them and pick their product over other companies that make and sell follow on milk. The trust aspect accounts for the justification of using an RP speaker, backing up Giles’ suggestion that we are more likely to trust a speaker with such an accent. Returning to Aptamil follow on milk, the RP speaker used on their advert is female, in an attempt to make the advert relatable to viewers, giving the impression that the woman on the advert is going through the same difficulties as the female, adult viewer.  What’s more, this advert is certainly not an anomaly, as when comparing it to other adverts made by companies who sell follow on milk, I discovered that the voiceovers all have these two features in common. Cow & Gate and SMA, two companies that sell follow on milk, both use a female RP speaker in their advertisement. Similarly, nearly all car insurance adverts (car insurance being another essential) use an RP accent in their voice over. All of the well known insurance companies, Churchill’s, LV and Direct Line use RP male speakers, further proving the hypothesis made by Montgomery that companies are heavily influenced by accent when choosing the actor or actress to perform the voiceover on their advertisements.

 

On the other hand, Kinder, a chocolate-making company, use a female, Scottish accent in an attempt to convince you to buy their product. As chocolate is a luxury rather than a necessity, they do not require trust, which would be gained from an RP speaker and instead opt for the more persuasive qualities of a regional accent. Again, JD Williams, a woman’s clothing store, use a female speaker with a Scottish accent to convince viewers to spend their money on their non essential, luxury items. They even go so far as to use a famous actress and celebrity, Lorraine Kelly as their voice over, with a ‘she shops here therefore so should you’ kind of message.

 

Voice overs with female speakers almost always have RP accents. As I previously stated, this is due to a social pressure in society on females to speak ‘correctly,’ or ‘closer to Standard English.’ In my research, I recorded that out of 40 female voiceovers, 34 of them had an RP accent. This differs from men, who tend to downwardly converge to gain a social respect from others. From my own private research, I found that out of 72 male voiceovers, 61 used an RP accent, a slightly lower proportion than that of female voiceovers. This does not necessarily back up the hypothesis that women are more likely to speak with an RP accent than men, but it certainly does not disprove it.

 

It is rare to hear accents associated with working class backgrounds, unless the product they are selling is closely associated with people from a lower working class. The advertisement that springs to mind is Wickes, a DIY company that employs a cockney accent as its voiceover. Nevertheless, the rarity of these occurrences promotes the idea that accents with urban connotations are less desirable. On the other end of the spectrum, the extreme traditional RP would only be used as a spoof or by one of the actors in the advert, but is unlikely to be used as a general voice over. As for foreign accents, they are virtually unheard of as voiceovers, although they do exist in the actual characters from advertisements, often for comedic effect. An example of this is the recent Enterprise rent-a-car advert, in which they compared the language used by the English and the Americans for humour. To conclude this section, it goes without saying that advertising provides conclusive evidence that we associate different accents with different qualities, and that advertising agencies are heavily influenced by how the public react to accents and genders when casting for a voice over in their advertisement.

 

Another means by which I can prove how strongly our perceptions of accents can influence our feelings and actions is The News. When we think of newsreaders, despite there being no discrimination between males and females, we imagine an RP speaker. This is not simply a stereotype, as although we live in a more socially accepting society today, there is still an overwhelming majority of newsreaders with RP accents, especially on Government-owned channels such as the BBC.

 

Tom Leonard, a Scottish poet, wrote a poem about reading the news with a broad Glaswegian accent, and it certainly provokes me to agree with Giles’s statement that RP accents are considered to be more trustworthy than regional accents. It is hard to imagine a newsreader speaking with this accent, as they would not sound as erudite and reliable as an RP speaker. In fact, even Scottish regional news channels employ RP speakers for this reason. The poem helps us to realise the superiority that Leonard believes RP speakers have. Perhaps, Scottish accents could have been used on the BBC if the history of Scotland and England had been different. That is to say, all English dialects are equally complex, structured and valid linguistic systems, so it is simply the connotations of wealth and power that make the RP accent favourable. So, it is possible that if Newcastle, for example, was the most educated and wealthy area of the UK, the BBC would only employ newsreaders with Geordie accents. Dennis Freeborn, in his book, ‘Varieties of English,’ said that “Prestige dialects and accents do not arise because of their beauty or linguistic superiority, but because those who originally speak them are influential, and others copy them.”

 

If any further proof was required that we discriminate against people because of their accents, during the Second World War, the Yorkshire broadcaster Wilfred Pickles was employed to read the news in his Halifax accent, but the attempt at using his popularity as a well known entertainer to integrate different accents into news reading was a failure, causing thousands of complaints from people who “couldn’t believe the news if it was read in a regional dialectal accent.”

 

I would like to conclude this essay with the poem, “This is the six o’clock news – belt up!” by Tom Leonard, as it causes me to consider the prejudices against people, simply because they don’t speak in a high prestige form of the English language. It is supposed to be read in a broad, Glaswegian accent.

 

This is thi                                                            

six a clock

news thi

man said n

thi reason

a talk wia

BBC accent

iz coz yi

widny wahnt

me ti talk

aboot thi

trooth wia

voice lik

wanna yoo

scruff. if

a toktaboot

thi trooth

wia voice

lik wanna yoo

scruff yi

widny thingk

it wuz troo.

jist wanna yoo

scruff tokn.

thirza right

way ti spell

ana right way

ti tok it. this

is me tokn yir

right way a

spellin. this

is ma trooth.

yooz doan no

thi trooth

yirseltz cawz

yi canny talk

right. this is

the six a clock

nyooz. belt up.

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