Social stratification of English
This blog post has to do with the social stratification of English. In other words, it deals with how a language use can depend on the social class of speakers. The most well-known classic research in this area was conducted by linguist William Labov (originally industrial chemist) and published in his book entitled “The Social Stratification of English in New York City” (1966, 2006).
In this book, Labov describes the following research study (for the purpose of brevity and clarity, the study is summarized in the form of a table):
|Objective||To find out how language use varies among different social classes.|
|Subject||Presence/absence of [r] in postvocalic position.|
|Variables||Independent: the store (Saks Fifth Avenue [highest-ranking], Macy’s [mid-ranking], S. Klein [lowest-ranking]), floor within the store, sex, age, occupation, accent.
Dependent: casual pronunciation of “Fourth floor”, emphatic pronunciation of “Fourth floor.”.
|Result||62% of Saks Fifth Avenue employees, 51% of Macy’s employees, and only 20% of S. Klein’s employees used all or some [r].|
|Significance of the study||The study revealed that social class of speakers influences the way they use the language.|
In order to conduct his study, Labov dressed up as a middle class shopper and went to the above mentioned stores. He then asked individually store employees where he could find the women’s shoes department (which was located on the 4th floor). When an employee replied, the researcher asked “Excuse me, where?”. The employee then repeated again (with an emphasis) “Fourth floor.” Then the researcher went away to take notes and after that approached a different employee with the same questions. This procedure was repeated the maximum possible number of times at different stores.
The results revealed that, indeed, the social class is an important factor which influences directly how language is used by speakers. Importantly, this study has also shown language as a system: the lowest (phonetic) level is dependent on the highest (social) level.
Many studies have been published after Labov’s research discussed in this post. However, the above mentioned study remains the classics of social linguistics due to its simplicity and efficiency.
Labov, W. (2006). The Social Stratification of English in New York City (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.