Hassan Basarally 806007430 LING 2302


Name: Hassan Basarally I.D.: 806007430 Faculty: Humanities and Education Department: Liberal Arts Course Code: LING 2302 Course Title: Sociolinguistics Title: Detail what is known about language variation according to gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic class. Course Lecturer: Dr. V. Youssef Course Tutor: Ms. A. King Tutorial Date and Time: Tuesday 10-11 a.m. Date Due: 4th March, 2008.

The field of sociolinguistics continuously explains the causes and occurrence of linguistic variation. Variation is the change of any variant in a language. A variant is the “realisation of a variable” in terms of differences in pronunciation or “phonetic realisation” (Meyerhoff, 8). Variation can be caused by geography, education, occupation, religion and social networks, amongst others. Gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status cause variation as women use

Hassan Basarally 806007430 LING 2302


standard forms to elicit prestige, groups use specific variation to highlight cultural identity and lower socio-economic brackets shift toward the language of those above them. Variation occurs within a specific speech community that has interaction with others and develops, consciously or not, due to factors such a gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status. A speech community according to Spolsky is “a complex interlocking network of communication whose members share knowledge about and attitudes towards the language use patterns of others as well as themselves” (25). This knowledge encompasses the realities of gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status thereby resulting in a particular linguistic shift. “We generally treat gender as ‘given’ and unalterable, automatically classifying every person we encounter as female or male...” (Holmes, 303). On the contrary gender is formed as a result of social interaction and enculturation, they are “social constructs, they institutionalise cultural and social statuses” (Wodak and Benke, 129). Research into variation has shown that significant linguistic shifts are a direct result of gender attitudes. Milroy and Milroy conducted as investigation into the deletion of medial /ð/ in inner city Belfast. The results showed a gender difference in the variable as opposes to age difference. Milroy and Milroy suggested that “gender difference may be prior to class difference in driving linguistic variation and change” (56). This study left several probing questions that latter linguists tackled. Wodak and Benke describe William Labov’s analysis of similar results in a New York department store in 1966. “Women of all classes and ages use more standard variants than their equivalent men. As the standard is usually regarded as the language of the elite, for the rest of the population an approximation to this standard implies a deviation of one’s own group” (133). The question of why women appear to shift to a more prestigious variety remains. Labov gives general reasons such as women rely on expressive symbols to assert their position (Wodak and Benke, 135). Wodak and Benke also quote Trudgill who states “that it may be more necessary for women to secure and signal their

Hassan Basarally 806007430 LING 2302


social class linguistically” (135). On the other hand the reason for men’s continuous use of the non standard is explained by Milroy and Milroy, “men are subject to more rigid group pressure to speak in vernacular than women...female linguistic behaviour is viewed more tolerantly than local peer-groups, so that women have , in a sense, more linguistic freedom” (136). Language reflects how a particular ethnic group views itself and others. Laferriere conducted a study in Boston in 1979 amongst three ethnic groups: Irish, Italian and Jewish. The

result showed that “the dialect variant

has become a valued trait of Irish and Italians in

Boston. It is clearly their linguistic feature- a mark of identity for them” (613). A group utilises a variant to maintain cultural identity, especially in cosmopolitan societies. A case study done by G. J. Escure, focussing on Carib and Creole in Belize shows that variation occurs as a means of distinctiveness and portraying a particular group as linguistically elite and advanced. Belize has four speech communities, two being Creole and Carib or Garifuna speakers. While both speak the individual varieties in homogenous communities, interaction requires the use of Creole or Belize Standard English. The result is that “socially ambitious speakers strive towards achieving a varieties distinct as possible from the stigmatised, and as close as possible to the prestige model, through two main processes: elimination of marked Creole features, and saturation of marked English forms” (Giles and Saint-Jacques, 113). This situation can be explained in light of Winford’s 1972 study in Trinidad, in which it was believed that unity in a community produces linguistic fusion. The different speech communities have little unity hence the existence of four distinct varieties in Belize and the manipulation of the standard being used as a yardstick of linguistic competence. “The most controversial social variable is socioeconomic class” (54). Socio-economic class proves difficult to examine due to the different criteria used for determining the class an

Hassan Basarally 806007430 LING 2302


individual belongs to. There exists varying positions on what to use as a measure of socioeconomic status. Some criteria used were employment, father’s employment and in the case of women, husband’s education, employment. In 1966 William Labov did a study of Martha’s Vineyard. He interviewed people of English, Portuguese and Native American backgrounds. The results showed that different segments of each group displayed the same type of centralisation of diphthongs /ay/ and /aw/. Centralisation was shown by “those who laid claim to native status as Vineyarders” (Labov, 186). However there were not just cases of centralisation but hypercorrection in which the variant was applied to phonological areas it would not appear. The centralisation is viewed as more desirable and linked to Martha’s Vineyard. Hence Labov infers that “the hypercorrect pattern is more characteristic of upward mobility that of membership in any particular socio-economic group” (Labov, 197). According to Wodak and Benke, Labov believes that “the lower middle class (LCM) “hypercorrects” its language; it copies features of the middle class (MC), whose language behaviour is more standard, in order to gain social prestige” (133). The upward mobility and social prestige Labov refers to is in fact the desired group of the interviewees or the group that identification is most sought with. Labov also states that the socio-economic history of a group would cause variation towards a higher group. After investigation in the Lower East Side of New York, Labov states, “a group of speakers with a past history of upward mobility is more apt to resemble the next higher socio-economic group in their linguistic behaviour” (Labov, 202). This mention of socio-economic history has drawn criticism as it determines class on an individual’s parent’s etc. and does not take into account factors such as education. Despite variation being a topic of constant research, several facts have been discovered through studies spanning decades. The language of women is different to that of men. Ethnicity causes speech communities to choose varieties that best represent the group. Socio-economic

Hassan Basarally 806007430 LING 2302


class causes a conscious shift to the variety to the desired group in society. Through these finding variation is understood better and the foundation for future studies are laid.

Works Cited Holmes, Janet. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2001. Giles, Howard & Saint-Jacques, Bernard. Language and Ethnic Relations. Pergamon Press, 1998. Labov, William. The effect of Social Mobility on Linguistic Behaviour. Sociological Inquiry. 32 (2), 186-203, 1966. Laferriere, Martha. “Ethnicity in Phonological Variation and Change.” Language 55. 3 (1979) :603-617. 25 Feb. 2008 <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=00978507%28197909%2955%3A3%3C603%3AEIPVAC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-H.>

Meyerhoff, Miriam. Introducing Sociolinguistics. New York: Routledge, 2006. Milroy, James and Milroy, Lesley. “Varieties and Variation.” The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Ed. Coulmas, Florian. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1997. 49-56. Spolsky, Bernard. Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Wodak, Ruth and Benke, Gertraud. “Gender as a Sociolinguistic Variable: New Perspectives on Variation Studies.” The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Ed. Coulmas, Florian. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1997. 126-156.

Hassan Basarally 806007430 LING 2302


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