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7.7: Sociolinguistic correlations - Social status

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    • Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi
    • eCampusOntario

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    You probably have an intuition about social class and a hierarchy of status in society that is linked with the unequal distribution of wealth and power. You probably also recognize that this inequity is not arbitrary and intersects with other social factors. At the same time, social class is less tangible than other social facts about people like their age, their gender, and their ethnicity. In Euro-American society since the Industrial Revolution, people have been categorized into three groups: ‘upper class’, ‘middle class’, and ‘lower class’. The implied hierarchy of these traditional categorizes reflects the distribution of wealth and power: the ‘upper’ or ruling class holds the most and the ‘lower’ or working class holds the least. Sociological definitions of social class look to objective measures like property ownership, wealth, income, and occupation and subjective measures like life chances, prestige, and reputation in categorizing class membership. In the Canadian context, social class seems that much more intangible because, while we are largely a middle class society, when we consider those at the bottom of the social class hierarchy, there are important interactions and intersections with both geography and other social factors, especially race and ethnicity. Geographically speaking, there tend to be specific areas both within cities and in remote areas that are socioeconomically less advantaged. With respect to race and ethnicity, Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour (especially those who have immigrated recently), are also, on aggregate, in a more socioeconomically precarious situation.

    While social class can be a fuzzy concept, it’s still an intuitive reality. To investigate the role of social class as a conditioning factor of linguistic variation, we need to come up with ways of ‘diagnosing’ or measuring it. Often times, someone’s occupation (or sometimes their parents’ occupations), their education, their income, or their residence can be used as an indication of their social class. In William Labov’s (1966) study of variation in the English spoken in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he made use of three parameters to categorize people into different social classes: occupation, education, and income. Labov examined many different linguistic variables in his data and found extensive correlations between the frequency of use of different variants and an individual’s social class, according to his measure.

    In Figure 10.4. below, based on one of Labov’s results, we can see that the frequency of use of the [ɪn] variant of -ing exhibits social stratification. Participants in the working class speakers have the highest rate of this variant, upper class speakers use [ɪn] the least, and people in the middle of the social class spectrum are somewhere in-between with respect to -ing.

    Graph showing social stratification of -ing in New York City English. There are two levels on the x-axis (Casual Speech and Reading Passage) and three lines of different colours that represent three different social classes). The y-axis shows the percentage of the [ɪn] variant. The lower class line is at 80% for casual speech and about 25% for reading passage. The middle class line is just below 50% for casual speech and at about 12% for reading passage. For the upper class line, casual speech is at about 10% and the reading passage is at 0%
    Figure 12.4. Frequency of [ɪn] variant of variable -ing in NYC English by contextual style and social class, based on Labov (1966, 259).

    Importantly, Figure 10.4. also demonstrates systematic style shifting as discussed in section 10.4. Where Fischer observed one young man shifting his frequency of use of [ɪn] as the formality of the context shifted, here we can see that this happens across the board: in all social classes, the casual speech context contains more [ɪn] tokens than the reading passage context.

    How to be a linguist: Tips for interpreting patterns of data in graphs

    Variationist sociolinguistics is a quantitative field and numbers and graphs can be really intimidating for some people! Here are four tips for helping you to discern the most out of the kinds of graphs you see in this chapter.

    • Tip 1: Carefully read the caption
      • Good captions should clearly identify what data is visualized in the graph. The caption should tell you what was measured (the dependent variable) and what the researcher manipulated or controlled (the independent variables). This is usually expressed in the form of a ‘by-statement’: dependent variable by independent variables. A good caption should also identify the source of the data.
    • Tip 2: Carefully read the legend (if there is one) and the labels of the axes
      • This will tell you what exactly the graph is showing. Usually the dependent variable is plotted on the y-axis (the vertical one) and the independent variables are plotted on the x-axis (the horizontal one) or, if there is more than one independent variable, with distinctions demonstrated in the legend (like colour, shape, or line type). In variationist sociolinguistics, the y-axis is usually the proportion or percentage of one variant of a linguistic variable (relative to the other variant or variants).
    • Tip 3: Try to determine the patterns in the graph before reading the author’s description
      • A good graph will be accompanied by a description of the patterns in the graph. The best way to become more comfortable with reading graphs is to try to understand the pattern before reading the author’s description. If your interpretation differs, look at the graph again and see if you went wrong somewhere.


    Labov, W. (1966). The social stratification of English in New York city. Cambridge University Press.

    5: Other Social Dialects

    Other Social Dialects, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    When we talk about social dialects, African American Vernacular English is definitely the big talking point. I honestly could go on for some time about it, but it would be better to leave that for a different discussion. It's important to bring in two other very big areas with respect to social isolation. Here in California, it's impossible not to talk about Latino English. It is a real thing, and it's not just some crude mish-mash version of Spanish and English; there's actually something going on. I also want to bring up something that probably most Americans don't even know ever existed, a dialect for the LGBT+ society.

    Latino English

    First up, let's talk about Latino English. Sometimes it's called Hispanic English, and there is a clear bilingual element to this dialect. (We'll talk more about bilingualism in a different section of this chapter.) It is important to bring up Latino English as a dialect in and of itself. Clearly, is going to have a mix of influences from Mezo-America, South America, and all of the different dialects that exist in those areas. There is some code switching—of course you would expect that—but what is important to remember is that it is a systematic combination, and we'll get to that in a minute.

    If you ever learn about the history of Latino people in the US, you may have come across a term before called Chicano. The difference between Chicano and Latino and Hispanic is a topic for a different discussion. Frequently, Chicano is referring to a Mexican American from somewhere west of the Rockies: typically California, but it can include Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada. When we talk about these movements remember the root of that term is move, and this is an area that is moving. In the last 10 years, the term Latinx is gaining more and more attention. The use of that term, what it references and who accepts it (and who doesn't) is an ongoing discussion; I won't get into it here, although, if you wish to talk about it in Colloquy, I’m happy to bring it up. Do know that this is an ever-evolving dialect; it's a live dialect, and so things are changing all the time. Another reason to revisit this topic frequently.

    When we're talking about Latino English—which is the term I’m going to use— let's talk about the phonology. Of course, it's going to take the English phonology and bring it a little closer to Spanish. As an example, in Latino English there is a reduction of the number of vowels—we've seen and heard that before—and there's also going to be fewer fricatives. English is a Germanic language—we love our fricatives—while Spanish doesn't. Spanish is a very Romance language and doesn't tend to have quite the number of consonant sounds that English does.

    Speaking of consonants and reductions, there is a reduction in consonant clusters, especially at the end of the lexicon. Again, this is a very common phenomenon in a number of dialects in a number of languages. If you recall in phonology, we talked about the epenthesis rule for Spanish—the fact that you cannot start a lexicon with the combination of [s] and another continent, meaning that [sk] is not going to happen in Spanish. We see that in Latino English, there's frequent epenthesis before that combination of an another consonant: school becomes [eskuL], stripe becomes [estɾaʲp], Starbucks becomes [estaɾbaks]. If you have native Spanish speakers around you or those who speak Latino English, you know that you have heard these tendencies many times.

    When we talk about the morph-syntactic and morph-semantic features again we're going to see some really common themes. Multiple negation, which is common in a number of dialects we've seen it in the previous two chapters. We also have to remember that Mainstream Spanish allows for multiple negation—in fact, doesn't just allow for it, it encourages it—so we see it here in Latino English as well. There's a number of borrowings from Spanish.

    What is interesting to point out is that this is Latino English, and as we talked about earlier, Spanish is a global language. Even if we just focus on the western hemisphere, from Mexico all the way down to the tip of South America, realistically we're talking about anywhere from 20 to 35 different dialects. What has happened with Latino English, there is a substantial amount of neutralization of dialects, and this is especially true with the lexicon. Whichever dialect is the dominant dialect for the area that will determine what gets used for Latino English. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mexican English is very, very dominant and, depending on where you are in the Bay Area, it could be from Michoacán, it could be from Sonora, it could be from Morelia, it could be DF or Mexico City, it could be from a number of places. The Latino English variety of the local area depends on which dialect of Mexican Spanish you're going to encounter. By no means are Mexicans the only Hispanic population; here we have a thriving Peruvian community, as well as numerous cultures from all over Central America represented here., and we have quite a few Cubans here. Yet Mexican Spanish tends to win out in the local Latino English dialect. However, if you were to go to Florida, Cuban Spanish is going to be the dominant Spanish dialect; as a result, that's going to also be the dominant input for Latino English there. If you go to Spanish Harlem in New York, Puerto Rican Spanish is the dominant form. As a result, you're going to get predominantly Puerto Rican Spanish as the mainstay of the terminology in Latino English there.


    Let's switch gears to talk about a specific dialect for part of the LGBT+ community: Polari.

    Polari is something you very probably have never heard of before; in fact, when I started looking at Polari a little bit, I asked a number of my friends in the LGBT+ community if they'd ever heard of it. The only person out of a very large group that ever heard of Polari happened to be from Manchester, England, so he knew of it because, well, it was something that was talked about up there.

    What is pillory? Well, it has a really interesting history, and one that I think should be studied, especially if you are into gender studies or anything having to do with the LGBT+ community. The term Polari seems to have come about in the 19th century, although the roots of this dialect start in the 16th century. We're talking about England, and we're talking specifically about folks who are male, although there may have been some transgender folks in that time as well, and all homosexual. There could have been bisexual male users of this dialect, but the documentation seems to indicate that Polari speakers were more homosexual males than bisexual or trans. We don't seem to hear Polari much with respect to the lesbian community, although it may just not have been documented.

    Polari borrows heavily from certain languages, in particular Italian. In fact, the term Polari is a corruption of parlare, which is ‘to speak’ in Italian. There might be some other Romance languages sprinkled in, along with the language of the Romani. This is interesting because it is not a Romance language; it is in fact more closely related to Hindi than anything else. There's quite a bit of London slang, because it started up in London, and specifically Cockney slang, because it was mostly spoken in the east end of London. (More on Cockney soon enough.) Later into the early- to mid-20th century, you get even a bit of Yiddish in there.

    Polari was a coded dialect; this was not something that people spoke in their everyday lives, necessarily. What they were doing was coding, to see if there were others out there like them. Specifically, it was a way to talk without giving away your sexuality, as it's important to remember that, until the 1960s or even the early 1970s, it was actually illegal to be homosexual in the United Kingdom. Punishments ranged from jail to forced castration, to many other types of ostracization, and isolation in the most grotesque forms. Therefore, if you know it is actually illegal to practice your sexuality or your sexual identity, you're going to find ways to express yourself that most mainstream Londoners or Brits would not understand—that's what Polari is.

    What is really interesting is that once Polari outdid itself or became more known in mainstream, it started dying off. This coincides with the laws that had to do with banning homosexuality; they were repealed in the late 1960s. The movement started in the early 60s, but didn't actually get done till about 1969, and this is when realistically we see the end of Polari. It publicly outted itself in a radio program called Round the Horne, a really popular radio program that was listened to throughout the United Kingdom. In some people's eyes, it led to the Sexual Offences Act of 1969 being repealed. Whether that was actually the case, we might just have a discussion about that later, but what is interesting to note is from that point onwards, Polari started to become part of the mainstream.

    Let me show you some examples. Many of the numbers come directly from Italian.







    una, oney


















    say oney, setter



    say dooey, otter



    say tray, nobber






    long dedger, lepta






    The numbers 11 and 12 have an unclear history; I would hazard a guess that that might be based a little bit more on Polari having connections with Romani, but I’m not quite sure.

    Here are some examples; this is the original outing, as it were, of Polari in Round the Horne, written in a sketch by Barry Took and Marty Feldman. (Marty Feldman might be a name you recall; he was a very legendary comedic actor and writer. If you ever watched Young Frankenstein, the Mel Brooks movie, he was Igor.)

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Omies and palones of the jury, vada well at the eek of the poor ome who stands before you, his lallies trembling.—taken from "Bona Law", a Round The Horne sketch written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman



    "Men and women of the jury, look well at the face of the poor man who stands before you, his legs trembling."


    That kind of sounds like English and kind of doesn't sound like English, so let me translate: ‘Gentlemen and ladies of the jury’; omies are men, palones are women. ‘Vada well’—look well—'at the eek’—at the face—'of the poor ome’—the poor man—'stands before you, his lallies trembling’—with legs trembling. Vada is directly from Italian; vedere is the Italian verb for ‘to see’, and if you're going to command somebody to see well, it's veda; veda bene.

    I'm also going to give you a little bit of a Morrissey song that I absolutely love; it's called “Piccadilly Palare”—and the chorus of it is this one:

    ‘So good to see you, oh your lovely face and your lovely hair.’ Riah is hair, eek is face, and those are both more connected to Cockney.

    There is also a sketch from the BBC comedy, “Are You Being Served?” I have to admit, this is probably one of my all-time favorite situational comedies or sitcoms; it was a very long running sitcom in the UK on the BBC, no less. It was all about this fictional store called Grace Brothers, which was similar to Saks Fifth Avenue or Nordstrom, very high end with the highest level of service. As you can see, this thumbnail is at a meeting: in the middle you have Mr. Rumbold the department manager for the men's and ladies wear; next to him is Captain Peacock, the floor walker who greets and directs folks as they come off the elevator; Mr. Granger is sitting on the other side of Mr. Rumbold, and he's the old head of the men's wear department. Mr. Grace, who is the owner of the store, is supposed to be in his 90s, but is very young minded and decides that there needs to be a change to attract more customers, specifically more younger customers. His change is to talk more like the youth, including some Polari. Take a listen.

    That's Polari. It's also important to point out that the guy in the glitter suit, his name was Mr. Claiborne Humphries. He was considered camp in those days; the truth was they always made innuendos about his sexuality and eventually the character came out as gay, but not for 20 years. He had to play camp in order to be acceptable and get through the sensors at the BBC.

    The final video that I’m going to play down here is a little bit from Rowan Ellis, a prolific YouTuber in the UK. She works predominantly to talk about LGBT+ issues, everything with respect to the culture. She didn't know about Polari much and so she talked about it.

    What is really interesting is that certain aspects of Polari have become a part of mainstream, just like Cockney has certain phrases and lexicon that have entered Mainstream British English. This is also similar to how various aspects of Appalachian English and African American English have become part of Mainstream American English. This has to do with normalization; at some point, a dialect that was either secretive or definitely considered substandard in prescriptive terms becomes accepted, or becomes normalized. Part of that is an evolution of the language and the culture along with it. Those of us that are old enough to remember when rap first started coming out, we remember that there was a huge shock at the language being used—this is before gangsta rap started, back when the Sugar Hill Gang, Run DMC, Big Daddy Kane, and all of these original rappers that were coming out and getting mainstream play. There was a big shock, mostly amongst white Americans, who were shocked at what they were hearing—that African American Vernacular English had been glorified. Within 10 years, to the early- to mid-90s, African American vernacular English became more mainstream. I remember having a fierce debate with my dad because he was aghast that I was listening to rap. He couldn’t understand how I could connect with it; I just liked the rhythm, the beats; white suburban girl here liked it. I have to say my dad changed his opinion about rap pretty early on; he was pretty cool with it mostly because he had the same discussions with his mother when it came to rock and roll. When I brought up that comment, he backed off; he started listening. The same conversations happen with every generation or two: ‘So-and-so's language, so-and-so's dialect is terrible; it's an impoverished blah-blah-blah… that's not what we do with respect to linguistics. We mark the trajectory; we observe and we document. What is true is that marginalized dialects, when they become less marginalized and even folded into the mainstream, pretty interesting things happen to the then-mainstream dialect.

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