The Correlation Between Language And Social Class

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The oldest English-language general encyclopaedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, defines the concept of language inter alia as “a system of conventional spoken, manual, or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves.” Even though this description is very accurate and illustrative, it only shows the tip of the iceberg of the topic that will be discussed in this essay, namely the correlation between language and social class.

Even though society in theory is supposed to be classless and egalitarian, in practice nothing could be further from the truth. Both past and present-day Western society was and still is based on a social model in which people are grouped into social classes; concepts as hierarchy and class systems date as far back as the Middle Ages.

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Language specialists have been taking a closer look at variability in English language for more than a decade now. Nevertheless, the specific discipline of sociolinguistics, which examines the relationship between language and society, only emerged during the latter half of the twentieth century. Since then, specialists such as William Labov (1966) have discovered many linguistic insights regarding societies’ social structure since notions such as ‘social class’ and ‘social group’ became the main ideas of the study of language variation and sociolinguists began to focus more on status-based matters instead of regional-based matters. (Romaine, 2015)

Sociolinguistic studies

Due to many years of research, sociolinguists have been able to establish a relationship between sociolinguistic variables and social class. Sociolinguistic variables, such as the postvocalic /r/ for example, can be described as linguistic elements that are not only dependent of other linguistic elements but also of extralinguistic elements such as age, ethnicity, gender, context and social class, a key factor in the discipline of sociolinguistics (Hoenisch, s.d.). The social class or social environment one belongs to is mainly determined by their status, level of education, wealth and power. The distinctios in hierarchical social categories consists of upper, middle and lower or working class, but many more subcategories can be derived from these such as upper-middle-class, middle-middle class, lower-middle-class, upper-working class, middle-working class and lower-working class.

The English language incorporates many different social dialects or sociolects, being varieties of language with respect to the different social classes in this situation. Sociolects typically show certain identifiable features, which will be discussed in the following subsections. Furthermore, it is important to notice that social prestige and class can differ depending on the regional area as well; some linguistic features considered non-prestigious in one part of the English-speaking world can then again be considered highly prestigious in another part. Finally, it must be said that the differences between social dialects are quantitative and not qualitative, which means the data is countable and can be used to discover patterns in research. (Romaine, 2015)

Phonological features

As Romaine (2015) states, “William Labov”, an American linguist, “was the first to introduce a systematic methodology for investing social dialects (…)”. The man’s main focus was examining the pronunciation differences or phonological features of the different English sociolects. By means of his research in 1966, he proved that the way of speaking of individuals, being their idiolect, can be concerned as arbitrary when you observe the data individually. Nevertheless, when he gathered the data of the whole speech community, the pattern seemed to be predictably regulated by the extralinguistic social factors mentioned above, such as social class in this case. (Romaine, 2015)

Postvocalic /r/

Regarding the phonological feature of the postvocalic /r/, Labov (1966) revealed that English varieties of sociolects consist out of on the one hand, social dialects that are rhotic, being r-pronouncing, and, on the other hand, nonrhotic social dialects, being not r-pronouncing. This particular feature was one of the first to be studied by sociolinguists and needs to be considered along with regional variation, as can be seen by looking at table 1 below. In Reading (Britain), a sociolect that pronounces the postvocalic /r/ is considered non-prestigious, therefore the higher one’s social status, the fewer postvocalic /r/’s one uses. In New York City (United States) on the other hand, the opposite trend is occurring: a rhotic sociolect is considered to have more prestige than a non-rhotic. (Romaine, 2015)

Nonstandard forms

Peter Trudgill (1974a) found a similar difference in English sociolects to the one of Labov (1966) mentioned above with regard to the use of nonstandard forms by different social classes. He examined three particular nonstandard forms in his research: a) the variation between the use of the alveolar /n/ and the velar nasal /ŋ/ in words ending -ing, b) the alternation between the presence or absence of the /h/ in words beginning with /h/ and c) the use of a glottal stop instead of /t/. Table 2 below visualises the percentage of these nonstandard forms used by different classes in Norwich (Britain) . (Romaine, 2015)

Looking at this table, in the first place it can be concluded that people who belong to a higher social group in Norwich will be more likely to use the velar nasal ending /n/ than the alveolar /ŋ/. Secondly, by collecting and examining this data, Trudgill (1974a) showed that Norwich’s lower classes tend to drop their h’s more than its higher classes; these speakers will pronounce words such as ‘art’ and ‘heart’ in the same way. Alexander Ellis (1869), an English phonetician, considered h dropping “social suicide” due to the social stigma attached to it. Thirdly, it can be stated that the glottal stops are a characteristic of a lower class in Norwich and Britain in general although most speakers of English glottalize the final /t/. (Romaine, 2015)

Grammatical features

Grammatical features in general have not been as frequently studied as the phonological features mentioned above. Nevertheless, they do often show a clear discrepancy, or “sharp stratification” as Romaine (2015) phrases it, between middle and lower or working class. (Romaine, 2015)

Nonstandard verb form

Concerning grammar, the use of the nonstandard third person singular present tense verb form without -s was examined to determine the difference between varieties of English sociolects and social classes. This would imply the use of ‘he talk’ instead of ‘he talks’ for example. The phenomenon was both studied in Detroit (United States) and Norwich (Britain). Table 4 below visualises the percentage of this nonstandard form used by different classes in Norwich (Britain) . (Romaine, 2015)

Observing this table, it becomes clear that the lower one’s social status, the more nonstandard third person singular present tense verb forms without -s one uses, both in the United States and Britain. As mentioned above, once we climb down the social ladder and arrive to the working class, numbers start to show a significant rising trend. (Romaine, 2015)

Double negation

In English, double or multiple negation is regarded grammatically wrong since standard English only requires one negative element when negating. Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones is a perfect illustrative example of this; ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ is the grammatically wrong equivalent of ‘I can’t get any satisfaction’. Due to research, it is known that this use persevered in many varieties of English and mainly in lower class sociolects even despite many generations of teachers correcting this grammatically wrong form of negation. (Romaine, 2015)

Lexical features

Fairly recently, sociolinguists have been slowly turning their attention to lexical features as well when examining the relationship between language and social class. Ronald Macaulay (2002), a linguistics professor, studied the speech community of middle-class Scottish speaker and discovered that they use adverbs ending in -ly more than twice as frequently as people of the working class. Moreover, words such as ‘very’ and ‘quite’ seem to be almost exclusively used by the lower class and they also tend to use fairly simple evaluative adjectives such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ instead of ‘impressive’ or ‘horrible’ for example. But then again, ironically enough, when looking at another study of Alan Ross (1954) that examines class differences in vocabulary, it is noteworthy that through change in language some words considered high-class in the past are considered low-class nowadays or vice versa. Romaine (2015) gives the example of the word ‘toilet’: “[it] was a very smart word for the Edwardians, because it came from French, which was regarded as a prestige language. It went out of fashion, however, when their servants adopted it.” Language in relationship to social class thus is not fixed and can indeed change over time. (Romaine, 2015)


The English language, and language in general, is extremely rich in variety. Experts have studied regional colloquialisms and dialects abundantly in the fairly recent past, but also sociolects, being a variety of speech that is used in a particular social group within society, are gaining more and more linguistic interest nowadays. Diastratic varieties have been studied by many sociolinguists, such as Labov (1966), through examining both phonological, grammatical and lexical features. All these different features, the postvocalic /r/ being the most studied one, show a distinction between the use of language of people of higher and lower social class; all findings from sociolinguistic studies demonstrate a relationship that indicates a certain and predictable connection between language and social class. Nevertheless, it must be taken into consideration that some status-based features can be dependent on regional or time-based matters as well. Taking into account that the study of sociolinguistics has become on the rise only recently and that social hierarchy is something of all time, our Western society will unfortunately not be relieved from the divisions in social class any time soon. Hopefully, the more observations concerning this matter will arise in the coming centuries, the more we will gain insight into social class differences on a linguistic level as well as on other levels.


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