“Judgements about dialects are often essentially judgements about the speakers of those dialects

Language is primarily considered to perform two major functions in society. It is designed to convey information to those around us as well as establish and maintain relationships. However, linguistically (albeit from social stereotypes) certain paradigms relating to class, social and financial status are attributed to dialects – a consensus that has been perpetuated in recent times due to the diversity of today’s society and the integration of many differing dialects and languages in cities and countryside alike. Indeed, a stereotype regarding a dialect usually derives from the views held on the characteristics of its speakers.

Although a direct correlation between the aforemented stereotypes and linguistic fact has little scientific basis in reality it has not served to reduce the almost established dialect prejudice rife in the media, judiciary and education systems. In the early 20th Century, the ‘Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’ advanced the theory that the derivative of language we use is respective of our social, cultural and ideological background, and ever since various linguists and sociolinguists have studied dialectal differences and correlation between dialect and social judgments therein to determine the extent and implications of prevalent dialect prejudice.

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The size of the British Isles often leads people to discern that the languages predominant in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are homogenous and that one dialect (‘British English’) is the most prevalent throughout, but even within a nation the size of England there is a great diversity of dialect both regionally and socially. Though these respective dialects can be categorised in vague groups such as ‘north’ and ‘south’ they do not adhere to any sharp boundaries or coincide with county/city lines. Instead, dialects are said to form a “dialect continuum”1 as they merge and alter near other cities or counties (i.e.: other dialects) so therefore one cannot define dialectal boundaries as they would be based on social fact, not linguistic. The most ubiquitous dialects within society (‘Geordie’, ‘Cockney’, Jock’, etc.) often receive the most scrutiny for their variation to standardised English, and it is because of this that the speakers of respective dialects are stereotyped with traits common to their culture.

However, while it is true that some dialects represent certain social and political variants, this is predominantly due to geographical reasons and not because a dialect accurately represents one cohesive body of social genre.

Also, the extent of Dialect Continuum means that dialects are often bandied together into broad categories (Geordie, Scot, etc.) meaning that certain dialects are often misinterpreted as others and therefore leads to people being attributed characteristics of a similar dialect. This reiterates the irrational social judgments by which dialects are often quantified as its speakers can be attributed to a dialectal collective that, while phonetically similar, may be wholly unrelated. An active example of this is in one particular study which showed “attitudinal responses were statistically significant between speakers of different dialectal groups in Great Britain in spite of the fact that respondents were inaccurate in the identification of the area from which the speakers came”.

Indeed, the hypothesis that dialect is representative of one’s background (which is linked intrinsically to social preconceptions) is accepted by the majority of sociolingustical commentators, the established view being that “accents and dialects have come to act as indicators not only of one’s relationship to a locality but also of one’s social class position” 3. The fundamental consensus of the ‘Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’ (formulated in the early 20th Century by prominent linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf) highlighting the striking difference between both languages themselves and their subsequent dialect derivatives, and that the surroundings and ideologies of a community are prominent in its form of speech. Therefore, one could discern that, if dialectal content necessitates the input of social background, judgments of dialects could be verified as the respective social traits of the speaker are evident in what they say and how it is said.

In Britain, “people are often able to make instant and unconscious judgements about someone’s class affiliation on the basis of their accent”4. Indeed, phonetic factors assume a primary role in highlighting ones social background. A 1972 survey undertaken by National Opinion Polls in England provides an example of how significant speech differences are associated with social class variety. Subjects, randomly chosen from the British public, were asked which factor (from eleven provided) was most indicative of a person’s class. The most popular answer was ‘the way they speak’ followed by ‘where they live’. This evidence highlights, albeit only to a certain degree, that speech mannerisms (governed primarily by one’s dialect) are considered to be more indicative of one’s social class than education, occupation or income5.

This is highlighted primarily through the paradigms of ‘Subjective Inequality’, which details the origins of linguistic prejudice in the public domain. Societies throughout the world credit characteristics such as intelligence, friendliness and status according to the traits of respective dialects, though these views are based not on linguistic merit – rather its emulation of the ‘received’ or ‘standardised’ variety of the language (the most revered British dialect utilised by various official establishments such as Government and the BBC). Thus, language is shown to proliferate social stereotypes, as it is one of the qualities (albeit highly unreliable) by which one is initially judged by those in the public domain.

Despite the judgements of dialects categorizing the speaker with various socio-political elements, one should note that, from a purely linguistical standpoint, no regional dialect displays any signs of deficiency in its ability to convey information – social predispositions are therefore centred wholly on the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of each respective dialect. This is a consensus supported by the majority of linguistic research (“there is nothing at all inherent in non-standard variety dialects that make them linguistically inferior”6). People will invariably draw conclusions upon one’s persona regarding the characteristics of speech, not on its content. Indeed, due to the lack of linguistic discrepancy between the respective British dialects it is discernable that, aside from social factors, they are arbitrarily stigmatised. However, many maintain that this linguistic superficiality is perpetuated by the media; characters on television or radio that represent non-standardised dialects are often simply manifestations of traits commonly associated with their respective culture.

Furthermore, some Sociolinguists have propagated the theory that perceived linguistic inequality (namely those dialects that do not conform to standardised forms of pronunciation and syntax) is a consequence of social inequality as “language is one of the most important means by which social inequality is perpetuated from generation to generation”7.The language and style utilised within a society has an innate relationship with the geography, occupation and ideologies prevalent in the community – making dialectal prejudice easier to circulate as the social traits of a speaker are evident in his diction and style of conversation. This is again based upon the ‘Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’, maintaining that language (and thus dialect) structure is, to some extent, influenced by a society’s surroundings which in turn affects the way the community perceives the world around it.

In reality, dialect prejudice is apparent in every sector of society, from education to business, highlighted through the ‘matched-guise’ experiments conducted by Strongman and Woozley in 1969. These experiments served to highlight the extent to which people are quantified on the basis of their dialect and consisted of groups of subjects listening to people reciting a passage to assess the perceived traits of prevalent ‘RP English’, Yorkshire, Northern and Scottish dialects. The subjects were then asked to gauge certain attributes regarding each speaker (friendliness, intelligence, success, etc.). The results showed that several of the dialects emerged with stereotypical traits – despite the fact that linguistically, none of the speakers had recited the passage any better or worse than the others as each speaker had been the same person adopting a series of dialects.

Table 1 – Results from W.P. Robinson ‘Language and Social Behaviour’ (1972).

RP English Intelligent, successful, not friendly.

Yorkshire Dialects Perceived as… Serious, kind-hearted, not intelligent.

Scottish Dialects Friendly, good-natured.

Northern Dialects Industrious, reliable, lower class.

It is clear from this that society assumes characteristic inferences upon others based primarily on their dialects. In short, speech characteristics of a social stereotype inherit the stereotypes evaluation.

Further evidence of this is seen from an experiment conducted in America to highlight the prejudice between public reception of prominent ethnic and native dialects. A single speaker was recorded and played to listening subjects saying the word ‘hello’ in three dialects: Standard American English (SAE), Chicano English (ChE), and African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Variation in the tenseness of the vowel and pitch prominence on the first syllable of ‘hello’ was enough to elicit a significantly accurate identification of the dialects by listeners. When the stimulus was expanded to include ‘Hello, I’m calling about the apartment you have advertised in the paper’, in actual calls to landlords (who were obviously unaware of the experiment), the SAE speaker guise was given an appointment to see housing at roughly the seventy percent level. Both the AAVE and ChE guises were given appointments only about thirty percent of the time8.

This underlines the universal presence of dialect prejudice, the latter dialects are shown be regarded in certain sectors as less prestigious than the former.

There is a great deal of evidence to underline lack of knowledge that institutes these social judgements of dialectal variety. Firstly, the prominent linguist Edward Sapir maintained that dialect and culture are not always intrinsically associated and that many unrelated cultures can share very similar dialectal derivatives of the same language. An active example of this was prevalent in aboriginal America – the Athabaskan varieties are clearly unified despite the wide distribution of its people, from the hunting communities of Western Canada to the ritualised Southwest.

The illogical stigmatisation of dialects highlighted in the stigma towards the employment of double negatives in certain dialects (an action that is derided as a sign of low social standing or poor intelligence). Whilst being both widely considered a standard linguistical construction in other languages (e.g.: French and Arabic) and prevalent in such classical literary works as Shakespeare and Chaucer, modern English encourages the marginalisation of its usage. Thus, it is evident yet again that perceptions regarding dialects are not founded upon established linguistic principles, the case in point highlighting that syntactical and grammatical constructs are more figurative in a dialects perception. This has in turn lead sociolinguists to conclude that dialects cannot be adversely regarded on account of grammatical inconsistencies, as “these features have no intrinsic consequences for our capacity to communicate or restrict the range of meanings we can express”9.

Furthermore, the illogical parameters by which dialects are linguistically quantified are reiterated in the cultural paradox of ‘American’ and ‘British’ English. In England, dialects without a non-prevolic /r/ are given prestige and constitute an integral part of the ‘RP’ dialect; those that do not share this trait are stigmatised and portrayed as belonging to a rural and/or uneducated populace. Conversely, in New York those containing a non-prevolic /r/ are socially marginalized whilst non-prevolic /r/ usage is commonplace in upper class society. In English towns such as Reading and Bristol this pattern is again reversed – serving to reiterate that value judgements regarding dialect are completely random (at least from a linguistic standpoint).

As well as this, another example of social perception strongly influencing the respective status’ of dialects was conducted in New York by Labov, who examined shop assistant speech patterns in three differing department stores of high, medium and low repute. The procedure was then to ask several clerks a question regarding the department (e.g.: ‘where are the woman’s shoes?’) with two possible occurrences of non-prevolic /r/, to test the hypothesis that non-prevolic /r/ usage correlates with social class.

Table 2 – Results of the Labov’s Survey, taken from P. Trudgill (1983).

High-ranking Store 38% used no non-prevolic /r/.

Medium-ranking Store 49% used no non-prevolic /r/.

Low-ranking Store 83% used no non-prevolic /r/.

Thus Labov discerned that, to a certain extent, his hypothesis was verified: those dialects that do not frequently use non-prevolic /r/ are usually of a lower class. Also, this experiment demonstrated the paradigm that dialects are socially affected; the fact that this dialectal trait is marginalized is due to its affiliation with lower classes, reinforcing the fact that views on dialect are socially governed10.

The communal view of certain dialects is not determined arbitrarily; they have as much to do with personal opinions regarding the dialect as the social and cultural values of the respective community. Certain dialects are given more prestige and status than others, which leads to some being more favourably evaluated than others (some are considered ‘good’ or ‘attractive’ whilst others are regarded as ‘slovenly’ or ‘bad’ in comparison). Dialects judgements are again propagated through the media, the frequent usage of ‘RP’ English in official reports and programs responsible for the high level prestige attributed to those that utilise it. Judgements about dialects are therefore based on social connotations as opposed to any inherent linguistic properties. In short, it is the speaker that is judged, rather than the speech.

This consensus is reiterated by Giles and Sassoon11, who cite consistent findings of subjects evaluating anonymous speakers with more standardised dialects more favourably for such characteristics as intelligence, success and confidence. In Britain the middle class is associated with not only its widespread representation of the standard dialect (‘RP’ or ‘Estuary English’) but also speaking with in a formal, articulate style than more common or marginal dialects (‘Cockney’ and ‘Indian English’ respectively).

However, whilst many linguists conclude that social judgments are the parameter that separates dialects, the linguist Brown12 proposed the notion that perhaps there was a linguistic discrepancy between the standardised and stigmatised dialects in society. Brown contrasted the speech characteristics of upper and lower social class French Canadian speakers of varying dialects reading a pre-set passage and discovered, relative to the lower class dialects, the upper class subjects were considered as more articulate and had a better range of intonation and diction.

From this, one could discern that there is an argument to support the idea that dialects are not wholly based on social judgment and that dialects utilised by the upper classes are generally more articulate and a more accurate representation of standardised diction (widely considered the quintessential form of a language). Nevertheless, there is a great deal that negates the validity of this information; firstly, as the subjects were reading prepared material and not speaking freely they could have been judged partly on their reading ability – not their dialectal traits. Secondly, it is difficult for subjects to not be affected by their personal views with respect to certain dialects, as neutrality can be hard to maintain in the artificial environment in which the is experiment was set (which could also be considered an adverse factor in itself).

Though some experiments have shown that dialects are, in certain respects, revered on a purely phonetic level, analysis of large amounts of data seemed to group together paired opposites which pointed to competence, personal integrity, and social attractiveness constructs in the evaluation of speaker voices. A great deal of subsequent research in this field confirmed that these constructs were regularly at work, and, more interestingly, that standardised (or “RP English”) speakers were most often judged highest on the competence dimension while nonstandard (or regionally and/or ethically distinct speakers) were rated higher for the integrity and attractiveness dimensions13. Irrespective of social background, we can see that dialects can be judged (albeit very rarely) solely upon the speaker’s representation of a particular dialect.

In summary, the views surrounding many of today’s modern dialects are primarily based upon out-moded stereotypes of the culture that said dialects represent. Though linguists have proved that language is influenced by predominant factors within a community (surroundings, ideologies, etc.) it does not justify dialectal prejudice as the information upon which these are founded are often erroneous and generalised. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that no dialect is linguistically inferior to any other as they all possess the capacity to convey information effectively (if they did not, they would have been discarded or adapted by its community, making their very presence today confirmation enough of their abilities).

Limiting the social and occupational possibilities of a certain group of people through dialect prejudice (albeit for many a machiavellian-esque social stigma), simply preserves social asymmetries and propagates tension between differing cultural factions.

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