Social Class and Language

In the traditional European rank society people generally spoke the dialect of their home area, and there was only minor variation between the ranks. On the basis of a person’s language variety you could easily locate her or him geographically, but not at all to the same degree socially.

In the end of the 18 th century and in the beginning of the 19th, this society started to change, as a consequence of industrialization, which created new social strata—particularly a working class and a bourgeoisie or middle class—and opportunities for people to improve their economical and social status.

In the book ‘Talking Proper’. The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol, Lynda Mugglestone tells the story about what happened in England. 12 For centuries England had had a standard written language, but no standard spoken language.

In the end of the 18 th century, however, this situation started to change drastically. The middle class consciously changed their speaking habits in the direction of the most prestigious variety of spoken English, which was the variety used at the royal court in London. At first, this created a situation where the upper class (the aristocracy)—who evidently could not improve their social status by any means—and the lower class (the working class) spoke the local dialect, while the middle class adopted the new spoken standard, which varied much less from place to place. (Linguistics for Students of Asian and African Languages 7, 3)

I think that is a very interesting history. People trying to improve their lot in life by language. It does make a difference, even now. It’s hard to get a professional job if you speak ebonics, for example. (Only ebonics, I mean.)

n the end of the 18 th century, things started to change. Influenced by the orthography, members [of] the new middle class starting using the pronunciation /-ING/ instead of the traditional /-In/. As a result, a socially conditioned variation was created, where the upper class and the lower class used the conservative pronunciation /-In/, while the middle class used the innovating pronunciation /-ING/. Members of the upper class people continued to use the pronunciation /-In/ into the 20 th century, and /-In/ could be heard in parts of the aristocracy into the 1920s. The expression huntin’ and fishin’, which describes typical aristocratic activities in the English society, survived almost to our days. Today, the pronunciation /-ING/ has been adopted also by the upper class, meaning that /-In/ only survives in working class speech. Typically, the traditional /-In/ pronunciation is nowadays regarded as «careless» and as belonging to lower class sociolects. (Linguistics for Students of Asian and African Languages ch. 7, p. 11)

So many pronunciations which are actually quite “accurate” and “correct” become low class. Many traditional Appalachian pronunciations are actually old standards.