Language Change + Variation

Notes on researches including Social Class

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Malcolm Petyt

Social Climbing in Bradford, W.Yorkshire - 1985

  • Petyt focused on the omission of the initial /h/ sound - H-dropping.
  • He measured the frequency of this across social classes.
  • His results followed the basic trend of greater regional accent use in working class, decreasing moving up the social class scale
    --> Lower working class speakers used it in almost all instances of /h/ initiated words 
    --> Upper-middle class speakers used it only app. 1 in 10 opportunities
  • Petyt then developed this; in instances of social mobility where an individual has moved up the socio-economic scale, they may modify their speech closer towards RP, making less use of H-dropping (etc)
  • From here he then found that speakers who have moved up try to implement this modification in their speech
    --> this resulted in hypercorrection and often resulting in incorrect vowel sounds 
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Peter Trudgill

Vernacular in different registers, Norwich - 1974

  • Similar to Petyt, however looked at the distinction between males + females in each social class
  • He used four different contexts: reading a wordlist, reading a passage, formal conversation and casual conversation

  • Respondents treated the word list as a highly formalised activity hence they were highly conscious of pronunciation resulting in lower non-standard use.
  • Casual speech created most informal context, resulting in the possible observer's paradox. 

  • Trudgill's findings mirror Petyt's; upper classes used far less non-standard language than those of working classes
  • The use of gender allowed more results; women generally used non-standard  variants less frequently than men in all social classes
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Jennifer Chesire

Peer groups, Reading - 1980s

  • Wider range of linguistic analysis than Petyt + Trudgill, focused on grammatical variants
  • Identified 11 non-standard features + measured frequency in speech of boys and girls in an adventure playground

  • Group A - middle-class, Group B - working-class 
  • Higher use of non-standard forms in Group B in 5 of 8 grammatical variants, roughly equal in 2 and lower use in 1
  • Possibly shows increased variability of younger language users
  • Chesire concluded that for all children, patterns of non-standard usage are an important part of identity for each group 
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Howard Giles

Perception of 'trustworthiness' interpreted in different accent forms - 1970s

  • The same joke was told to people but in different accents
  • RP meant the mark of a person who was reliable, well-educated and confident
  • Regional varieties scored higher on friendliness, sincerity and were perceived to be more persuasive than RP
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Social Variation Theory

Anti-Language - Michael Halliday

  • Explains forms of sociolect that arise to support subcultures seeking some sort of covert identity.
  • Often related to the idea of deviance - behaviour that is against normal practices of society + sometimes criminality

Michael Halliday identified nine common features

  • language of anti-society that exists within society as an alternative
  • word lists form main evidence of anti-languages
  • mostly formed by relexicalising existing vocabulary items
  • users communicate meanings that are inaccessible to non-users
  • subcultures w/ an anti-language view it as a fundamental part of their identity
  • conversation is main form of communication used to uphold the anti-lang
  • it is a vehicle of resocialisation
  • there is a continuity + exchange between language + anti-language
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  • A new standard variety of language is formed by contact of two existing dialect forms of a language
  • The new koine form that emreges exists separately from source dialects + does not interfere with their use

Paul Kerswill - Milton Keynes - 1990s

  • Identified a regional koine in Milton Keynes as a result of speakers from the south relocating there in mid 20th-Century
    --> Milton Keynes saw large number of speakers come to it w/ existing regional dialect forms different from that spoken by natives
  • Kerswill identified that this emergence was a shared, standard form in the area representing the combination of native + incoming accent forms
    --> the distinct accent forms were retained by communities in their own language use
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Dialect Levelling

Dialect Levelling

  • Strong relation to Estuary English
  • The gradual eradication of marked differences between local dialects or sociolect forms
  • Most commonly applied to changes in accent features of regional forms in recent decades

Kerswill - Milton Keynes + Reading - 1990s

  • Estuary English seen as a variety weilding strong influence over localised, regional dialects
  • Features found in Milton Keynes, i.e. fronting vowel sounds, were of a similar fashion to EE; similar patterns were found in Reading

- Jane Stuart-smith found that TH fronting and the glottal stop were emerging in Glaswegian accents, but not that EE was supplanting the dialect.

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  • describes the ability of a speaker to 'switch' between different language varieties in his/her language use, often w/ other individuals that are able to do this + have shared experiences of several diff language forms
  • can take place across the whole range of accent + dialect forms


  • London Jamaican - speakers of this are able to incorporate SE, RP, Jamaican Creole + Cockney forms in their language use
  • The environment in which this takes place means that some speakers, usually young, will have to adapt to a world in which they encounter many language forms
  • From this is, it is easy to see how London Jamaican or MEYD (Fox) emerges + how this skill enables speakers to deal w/ complexities of their language community
  • Sebba is keen to point out the sophistication of language use + the highly-skilled manipulation of language involved opposed to criticisms that levelled new forms as being 'dumbed down'
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Sociolinguistic Maturation

Sociolinguistic Maturation

  • the age at which a speaker becomes far elss susceptibnle to influence of diff varieties of language on their own usage
  • no set age; most results suggest it 'sets in' around late teens to early twenties, after whicvh an adult speaker is much less likely to significantly alter their accent/dialect patterns due to any new strong sociolinguistic factor i.e. moving to another part of the UK
  • children before reaching this are much more likley to modify + vary usage


  • Sebba - older family members not merging w/ London + English speech forms anywhere near same level as young girls resulting in the girls able to employ techniques ie. code-switching + form new varieties ie. London Jamaican, by becoming main promoters of change
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Sociolinguistic Matuation Cont.


  • In Milton Keynes, he found that older caregivers + parents of children had not had their speech modified by features of new MK dialect emerging
  • Youngest children exhibited patterns of speech similar to caregivers perhaps showing that most language forms experienced were within the home + from caregivers
  • Older girls in mid-teens showed strongest incidence of emerging MK dialect; they were being shaped by the koneisation + were shaping new speech community + form
  • Fox and Kerswill's research in MEYD also hypothesised about the future of such youth dialects + whether they will be carried into adulthood by speakers
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William Labov

Macy's vs. S.Klein - 1966

  • Labov looked into the way people alter their language depending on where they are; he looked at this on a fairly basic level of how workers talk depending on what shop they are in
  • Studying people in S.Klein he found that people spoke a more common form of AE, more typical of SE
  • Those in Saks and Macys, considered more upper-class were found to alter their language much more, making it more similar to a form of American RP
  • Labov denoted this to the perceived prestige attributed to  each place resulting in the need for the accent to "improve" as the shop's status increased
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