English and class in UK urban centres

Posted by on December 08, 2011

Discussion of ‘class English‘ here on Macmillan Dictionary Blog comes to an end with a guest post by Rachael Singh. Rachael is a linguist, translator and sociolinguist researching language contact and the choices and behaviour of multilingual speakers in formal contexts. She spends her moments of freedom cooking, baking, reading, feeding cats and writing blogs about grammar and punctuation (amongst other things).

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When we think about English as an expression of class, we often think of “received pronunciation”, for instance, or the “standard” ways in which English is spoken by members of different social classes.

Research in the field of sociolinguistics examines human language behaviour in a social context from a sociological perspective. Questions posed include why people change their linguistic register, or even switch language in a specific situation, what they seek to express tacitly by such a switch, or which communication strategies are adopted, and the purposes they may serve.

William Labov’s pioneering work, published in The Social Stratification of English in New York City (1966), examines the linguistic and grammatical differences between the social classes in terms of their use of English. He found that while there were considerable differences in accent, pronunciation and sentence structure, each ‘variety’ of English was subject to its own strict rules of grammar that every speaker within a social class obeyed. Labov identified a number of vernaculars, including Black English Vernacular (BEV), which were the subject of subsequent research.

Labov’s work and the innovative methods he employed were precursors to and continue to influence today’s research. Investigations into the use of English latterly conducted in the UK have focused on the ways in which speakers use English in urban centres, and more specifically on adolescents in those areas. Ben Rampton’s research into what he terms linguistic crossing focuses on adolescents in the Midlands. He found that, regardless of ethnic background, his sample subjects interspersed their English speech with Punjabi words. Mark Sebba’s exploration of Black English in London – a vernacular he calls London Jamaican – shows a confluence of Jamaican patois and English, not only amongst members of the Jamaican community but also beyond its social confines.

Among the striking similarities between these studies is the attention they pay – expressly or otherwise – to class. They all focus on the differences between the more ‘standard’ English of the upper classes and the vernacular of the ‘lower orders’. There appears to be a greater degree of ethnic and linguistic fluidity, as well as a larger population in the social classes that are studied. Migration brings with it groups of people and ‘new’ languages, creoles and vernaculars – and English has come into contact with all of these, be it in the UK, the US or in former colonies. The resulting slangs or vernaculars have become an expression of group membership and group identity, a tacit rejection of the ‘standard’ that is expected of them at school, at home or in more formal settings and an expression of a sense of separateness, transcending gender and ethnicity.

It may be argued, then, that class is expressed through an acceptance or rejection of what is perceived as the linguistic standard or norm. Speakers make linguistic choices that reflect their social attitudes and what they see as their place in the society in which they live; they are choices shaped by social class that express social class.

Further reading
Labov, William (1966) The Social Stratification of English in New York City, Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics
Auer, Peter (ed.) (1998) Code-switching in Conversation, London: Routledge (contains chapters by Mark Sebba and Ben Rampton)

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