Spreading the Word – Jean Aitcheson
Aitcheson discusses how language change occurs in two ways, named ‘pressures from above’ (conscious changes) and ‘pressures from below’ (unconscious changes).
- ‘Pressures from above’ or ‘conscious changes’ is when we are aware of the change we are using: “changes which people realise are happening and actively encourage”.
- ‘Pressures from below’ or ‘unconscious changes’ is when changes spread without awareness: ‘changes which people do not notice’.
- Labov’s New Yorkers are an example of ‘pressures from above’ as they ‘show a strong dislike for the sound of New York City speech’.
- Those who were upper middle class inserted the ‘r’ in words such as ‘bear’ and ‘beard’ more frequently in casual and formal speech suggesting that the ‘r-insertion’ is socially prestigious.
- Those who were lower middle class and working class inserted the ‘r’ less frequently in casual and formal speech, but when reading word lists, pairs and passages they actually inserted it more frequently. This is an example of a conscious change or ‘pressures from above’.
- Labov claims that ‘the hypercorrect behaviour of the lower middle class’ is an ‘indicator of linguistic change in progress’
- The lower middle class members tend to be socially and linguistically insecure and so they are anxious to improve their status. Therefore they are more likely to be aware of the forms of ‘correct’ speech and so in careful speech will insert the change
- Eventually they get used to inserting the change into careful speech, and it begins to move into their casual speech also.
- In this way the proportion of the change (in this case the r-insertion) will gradually creep upwards.
- Martha’s Vineyard is situated off the east coast of America, part of the state of Massachusetts. Each summer it has over 40,000 visitors.
- The eastern part of the island is more densely populated by the permanent residents and is mostly visited by ‘summer visitors’. The western part is where most of the original population live.
- Thirty years previously, a linguist had visited Martha’s Vineyard and interviewed the older families of the island. When Labov compared his findings, he discovered that the vowel in words such as ‘trout’ and ‘white’ had changed.
- He interviewed a cross section of the islanders (excluding the summer visitors) after devising questions and passages that would display this change.
- Labov discovered that (regarding this change) there was no ‘conscious awareness on the part of the islanders that it was happening’.
- This is an example of an unconscious change or ‘pressures from below’.
- ‘To summarize, Labov found that, compared with mainland America, a change was taking place in certain dipthongs on Martha’s Vineyard. This change seemed to be most advanced in the speech of people in their early thirties and forties, and was particularly far advanced in the speech of a number of fishermen in [the western part of the island]’
- This suggested that the change began with a small group of fishermen living on the west of the island, and had then spread.
- Labov discovered that the fishermen had begun exaggerating a tendency rather than altering the way they talked.
- The vowels that had changed appeared to be an ‘old fashioned’ feature in the fishermen’s pronunciations.
- The reasons behind the change seem to be the rise in popularity of the island as a tourist destination and the disapproval of these ‘summer visitors’ by the old inhabitants.
- The fishermen were seen as the examples of the traditions of Martha’s Vineyard and were looked up to by the younger islanders.
- They began to subconsciously imitate the vowel, to identify themselves as ‘true islanders’.
- This was supported by the fact that the change was much more prominent amongst those who intended to live on the island permanently.
- “Middle-aged, lower-middle-class speakers tend to adopt the formal speech patterns of the younger, upper-middle-class speakers. This tendency provides a feed-back mechanism which is potentially capable of accelerating the introduction of any prestige feature.”
- “[The fishermen] did this seemingly subconsciously, in order to establish themselves as an independent social group with superior status…”
- “… in both places the changes took hold when one group adopted another as its model.”
- “A change tends to sneak into a language, like a seed, which enters the soil and germinates unseen. At some point, it sprouts through the surface.”
- “Changes from above tend to be those moving in the direction of the socially accepted norm, while changes from below tend to be those moving away from it.”