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One very interesting aspect of language and social class is how language variations spread and change within a society. Again, one of the father’s of American Sociolinguistics, William Labov, made several large-scale studies that determined where this change occurs in most class-based societies.


He showed, by carefully plotting a speaker's social position alongside their use of linguistic variables, [remember linguistic variables from the last lecture? ] that linguistic changes tended to be led by certain social groups. In particular, the upper working class and the lower middle class.



A linguistic variable is a linguistic item that has identifiable variants. When a certain way of saying something becomes a set way of expressing it, phonetically, grammatically, or with expressions, etc, it is called a linguistic variable. The different ways a linguistic variable is expressed are called variants.


Labov found that upper working class speakers tended to be the leaders of unconscious linguistic changes that were more common in casual speech, and that the lower middle class led changes towards overtly prestigious standard forms.


  • That is, the working class is most responsible for creating the newest variations in how we speak—the working classes create change.


  • The lower MIDDLE class is most responsible for spreading the prestigious standard forms of the language—the middle classes spread change.


Moreover, social and regional factors are very closely interrelated. The book uses the example of British English:


**SLIDE: Social Variation in Britain (2)


These two pyramids deal with differences in accent and dialect and represent the relationships between where a speaker is, both socially and geographically. At the top are speakers of the highest social class: they speak the standard dialect with very little regional variation. Also at the top are those who speak RP, the educated accent that signals no regional information at all because it’s not regionally specific—its class based.


The further down you move on the social scale, and the further down the pyramid you go, the more you encounter regional accents and dialect variation. When you reach the lowest social class you encounter the widest range of local accents and dialects. As the book says:


“Thus for example speakers from the top social class will all use the same word, headache, and give it the RP pronunciation, but speakers from the lowest class will use, skullache, head-wark, head-warch, sore head, and other forms, in a variety of pronunciations, depending on where they are from.”