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In the other Language, Class and Style Shifting posts, we learned about how language became a marker of class, due to the plague killing half the population and allowing more social mobility. The remnants of this are still a major part of today’s society, and are visible all around us. Or, rather, audible.

Today, we still use language to indicate class. Generally, upper classes use fewer non-standard variants than lower classes. That’s not to say that there’s a strict division between classes: Prince William will still glottal stop – drop his Ts – but he’ll do it for ‘that time’, dropping the T in ‘that’ ([ðæɁ taɪm]) rather than in ‘butter’ ([ˈbʌɁər]).

Looking at this graph, however, which is taken from one of Labov’s 1966 study, we can see that it’s not actually a scale of the lower classes using the most non-standard variants to the upper classes using the fewest.

 

Labov

Along the bottom of the graph, we have the talking style:

  • Casual style, which is recorded in a situation when the speaker would be least self-conscious about their language;
  • Formal style, which is when the interview is more formal and the speaker is asked about things like politics, and so they speak more ‘properly’;
  • Reading style, when they are asked to read a passage aloud;
  • Word list, when they are asked to read a list of words; and
  • Minimal pairs, when they are asked to read a list of word pairs which are the same except one sound: cat and bat or bat and bet

As expected, nearly all classes use more standard variants (here, a rhotic ‘r’ in New York English) in the more formal styles. As they become more aware of how they pronounce a word, they say it as they think they are supposed to say it.

The classes also use it as would be expected, with Lower Working Class using the fewest standard variants, then Middle Working Class, then Upper Working Class. In the speaking styles – the formal and casual interviews – it is then the Lower Middle Class, Middle Middle Class, and Upper Middle Class.

However, look at the line for the Lower Middle Class. It actually overtakes not only the Middle Middle Class, but also the Upper Middle Class, in the reading styles. This seems quite strange.

In linguistic terms, we call this hypercorrection. The Lower Middle Classes are on the border between Working Class and Middles Class. They really don’t want to drop back down to Working Class, and so, when they’re aware of their speaking style, such as when they read, they overcompensate for being at the bottom of the Middle Class and speak as formally as they can – here, using as many rhotic ‘r’s as possible, in Glasgow or Tyneside, not using any glottal stops; you name it. Trudgill found very similar results, for instance, studying (ing) variants (the difference between ing and in’) in Norwich.

What’s even more interesting is if you add gender into it – but that’s another post for another day!

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