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4.4 – The Basic Variation Theorists – Labov, Trudgill, Cheshire, Millroy & Bernstein


1. William Labov – 1966 New York Study – individual speech patterns are “part of a highly systematic structure of social and stylistic stratification”

–       Labov studied how often the final or preconsonantal (r) was sounded in words like guard, bare and beer. Use of this variable has considerable prestige in New York City.

–       The speech of sales assistants in three Manhattan stores, drawn from the top (Saks), middle (Macy’s) and bottom (Klein’s) of the price and fashion scale. Each unwitting informant was approached with a factual enquiry designed to elicit the answer – “Fourth floor” – which may or may not contain the variable final or preconsonantal (r). A pretence not to have heard it obtained a repeat performance in careful, emphatic style.

–       Frequency of use of the prestige variable final or preconsonantal “r” varied with level of formality and social class – the sales assistants from Saks used it most, those from Klein’s used it least and those from Macy’s showed the greatest upward shift when they were asked to repeat.

–       Of the four classes tested – Lower Class, Working Class, Lower Middle Class & Upper Middle Class – it was the lower middle class that were most susceptible to the overt prestige of the preconsonantal “r” – as they differed the most between the incidence in casual speech style (4%) to most careful speech style (77%).

–       That the Upper Middle Class cohort differed least between the casual and careful speech styles – (19% in casual and 60% in careful), showed that they were least susceptible to the prestige form, changing the way they spoke less than any other social class when thinking carefully about how they spoke.

–       All of the 3 lower classes: Lower Class, Working Class & Lower Middle Class are more aware of the prestige of the preconsonantal “r” , and when they think about it are more likely to change the way they speak to reflect “how they should sound” or how “post people sound”

2. William Labov –Martha’s Vineyard Study – individual speech patterns are “part of a highly systematic structure of social and stylistic stratification”

–       Martha’s Vineyard is an island lying about 3 miles off New England on the East Coast of the United States of America, with a permanent population of about 6000. However over 40,000 visitors, known somewhat disparagingly as the ‘summer people’, flood in every summer.

–       In his study, Labov focused on realisations of the diphthongs [aw] and [ay] (as in mouse and mice). He interviewed a number of speakers drawn from different ages and ethnic groups on the island, and noted that among the younger (31-45 years) speakers a movement seemed to be taking place away from the pronunciations associated with the standard New England norms, and towards a pronunciation associated with conservative and characteristically Vineyard speakers – the Chilmark fishermen.

–       The heaviest users of this type of pronunciation were young men who actively sought to identify themselves as Vineyarders, rejected the values of the mainland, and resented the encroachment of wealthy summer visitors on the traditional island way of life. Thus, these speakers seem to be exploiting the resources of the non-standard accent. The pattern emerged despite extensive exposure of speakers to the educational system; some college educated boys from Martha’s Vineyard were extremely heavy users of the vernacular vowels.

–       A small group of fishermen began to exaggerate a tendency already existing in their speech. They did this seemingly subconsciously, in order to establish themselves as an independent social group with superior status to the despised summer visitors. A number of other islanders regarded this group as one which epitomised old virtues and desirable values, and subconsciously imitated the way its members talked. For these people, the new pronunciation was an innovation. As more and more people came to speak in the same way, the innovation gradually became the norm for those living on the island.

–       Rather than the increased exposure to the standard New-England accent leading to dialect / accent levelling, the islanders exaggerated the pronunciation of vernacular vowels leading to a more pronounced difference and thus a greater level of variation

–       This tendency noted by Labov – how covert prestige pronunciations can take hold and further entrench themselves – can be noted with many current variants in England. For example, the scouse accent is becoming more entrenched. Also, as young people are seeking to define themselves more and more as a group, outside of their gender or class types, the use of MLE can be seen to be getting more exaggerated, which happens either consciously or subconsciously.

3. Peter Trudgill – 1974 Norwich Study – how gender affects dialect in each social class


–       Looking at “walking”& “talking” as the standard form and “walkin’,” “talkin’” as the non-standard form peculiar to the local accent. Also considering at the presence or absence of the third person –s ending, as in “he go to the shop” or “he goes to the shop”.

–       differentiated between relaxed and careful speech in order to assess participants awareness of their own accents as well as how they wished to sound – which saw the non-standard pronunciation quickly decline

–       Found that class is more of a determiner of non-standard usage than gender, though women in all social classes are more likely to use the overt prestige or RP form

–       Men over-reported their non-standard usage – implying that men wished to sound more non-standard, assuming that they used more of the covert prestige forms

–       Women over-reported their standard usage – implying that women wished to sound more standard, assuming that they used more of the overt prestige forms

–       Concluded that women are more susceptible to overt prestige than men (and men more susceptible to covert prestige)

–       In the “lower middle class” and the “upper working class” the differences between men’s and women’s usage of the standard forms were greatest in formal speech, thereby identifying these classes as most susceptible to the prestige of the RP form, with women leading the way on this front

(-ng) in Norwich by social class and sex for Formal Style (Trudgill. 1974a)

  Male Female
middle middle class 96 100
lower middle class 73 97
upper working class 19 32
middle working class 9 19
lower working class 0 3

4. Jenny Cheshire – 1982 Reading Study – relationship between use of non-standard variables and adherence to peer group norms

–       Identified 11 non-standard features and measured their frequency of use in boys and girls in a Reading playground, differentiating between those who approved or disapproved of minor criminal activities

“They calls me names.”

“You just has to do what the teacher says.”

“You was with me, wasn’t you?”

“It ain’t got no pedigree or nothing.”

“I never went to school today.”

“Are you the ones what hit him?”

“I come down here yesterday.”

“You ain’t no boss.”

–       All children who approved of peer group criminal activities were more likely to use non-standard forms, but boys more so

–       All children who disapproved of such activities use non-standard forms less frequently, but the difference between the groupings of girls was more stark

–       Suggests that variation in dialect is a conscious choice, influenced by (declared) social attitude

–       Males are more susceptible to covert prestige, but social attitude is more of a determining factor than gender

–       A more negative attitude to the peer group’s criminal activities can be seen as aspirational, and therefore those children would be less susceptible to the covert prestige forms (and more susceptible to the overt prestige of standard forms)

5. Milroy’s Belfast Study -Members of a speech community are connected to each other in social networks which may be relatively ‘closed’ or ‘open’.

–       A person whose personal contacts all know each other belong to a closed network. An individual whose contacts tend not to know each other belong to an open network. Closed networks are said to be of high density: open networks are said to be of low density. Moreover, the links between people may be of different kinds: people can relate to each other as relatives, as neighbours, as workmates, as friends. Where individuals are linked in several ways, e.g. by job, family and leisure activities, then the network ties are said to be multiplex.

–       Relatively dense networks, it is claimed, function as norm-enforcement mechanisms. In the case of language, this means that a closely-knit group will have the capacity to enforce linguistic norms.

–       She investigated the correlation between the integration of individuals in the community and the way those individuals speak. To do this she gave each individual she studied a Network Strength Score based on the person’s knowledge of other people in the community, the workplace and at leisure activities to give a score of 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest Network Strength Score. Then she measured each person’s use of several linguistic variables, including, for example, (th) as in mother and (a) as in hat, which had both standard and non-standard forms. What she found was that a high Network Strength Score was correlated with the use of vernacular or non-standard forms.

–       In most cases this meant that men whose speech revealed high usage of vernacular or non-standard forms were also found to belong to tight-knit social networks. Conversely, vernacular or non-standard forms are less evident in women’s speech because the women belong to less dense social networks.

–       However, for some variables, the pattern of men using non-standard and women using standard forms was reversed. In the Hammer and the Clonard, for example, more women than expected tended to use the non-standard form of (a) as in hat. Milroy’s explanation for this finding is based on the social pressures operating in the communities. The Hammer and the Clonard both had unemployment rates of around 35 per cent, which clearly affected social relationships. Men from these areas were forced to look for work outside the community, and also shared more in domestic tasks (with consequent blurring of sex roles). The women in these areas went out to work and, in the case of the young Clonard women, all worked together. This meant that the young Clonard women belonged to a dense and multiplex network; they lived, worked and amused themselves together.

–       The tight-knit network to which the young Clonard women belong clearly exerts pressure on its members, who are linguistically homogeneous.

–       Over and above gender differences, or class differences, Milroy discovered that it was how closely or loosely knit a social group a person belonged to that determined their use of the local dialect forms. The covert prestige of such forms works in a more complicated way that previously thought.

–       The idea of closed and open networks can be usefully applied to any case of language variation – e.g. the spread of MLE. Whereas in the past working class London children might have belonged to very closed networks, because of changes to society such as high levels of immigration, exposure to the media and greater sense of identity as teenagers as opposed to class.

6. Bernstein: Language and Social Class – Restricted code and Elaborated code – 1971


–          Rather than distinguishing between Standard English and Regional Dialect, a distinction which carries an inherent bias towards the former, Bernstein wanted to look at language variation in a different way

–          Bernstein came up with the terms Restricted code and Elaborated code in order to distinguish between what he saw as two distinct ways of using language as opposed to the two distinct dialects of Standard English and the Regional Dialect

–          The Elaborated code has a more formally correct syntax, having more subordinate clauses and fewer unfinished sentences. There are also more logical connectives like “if” and “unless”, as well as more originality and more explicit reference

–          The restricted code has a looser syntax, uses more words of simple coordination like “and” and “but”, there are more clichés, and more implicit reference so there are a greater number of pronouns than the elaborated code

–          The codes should not be confused with social dialects because there is nothing in a dialect to inhibit explicit statements of individual feeling or opinion. While dialects are identified by their formal features, and by who their speakers are, codes are identified by the kinds of meaning they transmit and by what the words are used to do.

–          An elaborated code arises where there is a gap or boundary between speaker and listener which can only be crossed by explicit speech.

–          A restricted code arises when speech is exchanged against a background of shared experience and shared definitions of that experience; it realises meanings that are already shared rather than newly created, communal rather than individual. The speech is “context dependent” because participants rely on their background knowledge to supply information not carried by the actual words they use.

–          Whilst the elaborated code is used to convey facts and abstract ideas, the restricted code is used to convey attitude and feeling.

–          The elaborated code is the one which, in the adult language, would be generally associated with formal situations, the restricted code that associated with informal situations.

–          E.g. Two five-year-old children, one working-class and one middle-class, were shown a series of three pictures, which involved boys playing football and breaking a window. They described the events involved as follows:

(1) Three boys are playing football and one boy kicks the ball and it goes through the window and the bail breaks the window and the boys are looking at it and a man comes out and shouts at them because they’ve broken the window so they run away and then that lady looks out of her window and she tells the boys off.

(2) They’re playing football and he kicks it and it goes through there it breaks the window and they’re looking at it and he comes out and shouts at them because they’ve broken it so they run away and then she looks out and she tells them off.

–          In the earlier articles it was implied that middle-class children generally use the elaborated code (although they might sometimes use the restricted code), whereas working-class children have only the restricted code. But Bernstein later modified this viewpoint to say that even working-class children might sometimes use the elaborated code; the difference between the classes is said to lie rather in the occasions on which they can use the codes (e.g. working-class children certainly have difficulty in using the elaborated code in school). Moreover, all children can understand both codes when spoken to them.

–          As well as avoiding the negative and positive stereotypes associated with regional Dialect and Standard English, Bernstein wanted to understand when either code would be used as well as the advantages conferred on the speakers through using one or other of the codes.

–          In situations where you don’t know the person you are speaking to and there is little shared knowledge, most speakers, regardless of class or level of education, will default to a variety of the elaborated code, as it is necessary to getting the message across. However, where there is a lot of shared knowledge between interlocutors who are known to each other, the restricted code is far more efficient, eliding unnecessary grammatical constructions and logical connectives as well as the tiresome formulations of “polite conversation”.

–          The question is then: when to use the elaborated code? Is it that middle class children are better judges of when to use which code, or that they are trained to automatically default to the elaborated code? Or is it the case that Working Class children aren’t fully comfortable with or knowledgeable of the elaborated code?

–          This way of looking at the matter can make us look at the John Honey Standard English Debate in a new light. If its not a question of teaching one dialect over any other (Standard English over the local dialect), then who could disagree with the need to teach all children the code they need for professional/working life?

–          Might there be another issue with the elaborated code in the minds of the lower class children? Might this way of speaking, be seen as somehow “other” and not of their place or lives? Just as Standard English and Received Pronunciation might have negative connotations, and the local dialect have covert prestige, might not the restricted code be seen as distinctive of their group identity?

–          However, if both codes have a neutral value but are used without prejudice in different contexts by all levels of society and all ages, how can we account for society’s use of how people speak to label them and subjugate them?

–          Is there some kind of ‘cognitive deficit’ in an inability to use the elaborated code, and thereby to think logically? Labov (1969) has argued that young blacks in the United States, although using language which certainly seems an example of the restricted code, nevertheless display a clear ability to argue logically. One example quoted by Labov is a boy talking about what happens after death:

You know, like some people say if you’re good an’ shit, your spirit goin’ t’heaven…’n’ if you bad, your spirit goin’ to hell. Well, bullshit! Your spirit goin’ to hell anyway, good or bad. (Why?) Why! I’ll tell you why. ‘Cause, you see, doesn’t nobody really know that it’s a God, y’know, ’cause I mean I have seen black gods, pink gods, white gods, all color gods, and don’t nobody know it’s really a God. An’ when they be sayin’ if you good, you goin’ t’heaven, tha’s bullshit, ’cause you ain’t goin’ to no heaven, ’cause it ain’t no heaven for you to go to.

The speaker is here setting out ‘a complex set of interdependent propositions’; ‘he can sum up a complex argument in a few words, and the full force of his opinions comes through without qualification or reservation’.

–          In addition Labov notes the common faults of so-called middle-class speech: ‘Our work in the speech community makes it painfully obvious that in many ways working-class speakers are more effective narrators, reasoners, and debaters than many middle-class speakers who temporize, qualify, and lose their argument in a mass of irrelevant detail.’ There is no clear relationship between language and logical thought.

–          Cazden (1970) showed that lower class 10 year olds needed much more prompting to give sufficient information for the interviewer to identify a picture from among a selection. The lack of explicit speech, giving clear information, seemed to support Bernstein’s theory.

–          Bernstein says that lower working class children do not use elaborated speech at all, whereas others prefer to say that differences lie in the degree to which elaborated language is used. Also it is unclear that the ability to use elaborated speech in one type of situation guarantees its successful usage in other types.

Adapted from Cruttenden, A., Language in Infancy and Childhood, Manchester University Press, 1979


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