Conflicting Loyalties & Opposing Social Pressures – Jean Aitcheson

Jean Aitcheson begins her essay commenting on how people do not pay much attention to the behaviour of others unless it differs massively from the norm. However, she comments that if a person’s behaviour is VERY different then this is mostly exaggerated by others and that this pattern of behaviour is similar in language.


Lots of people say ‘wha(t) stupidity’ or ‘ho(t) water’ but don’t realise they are doing so. However, when a few say ‘wha(t)?’ or ‘it’s ho(t)’, not pronouncing the ‘t’ sound at the end of a sentence, it is usually noticed and ‘censored,’ e.g. parents may tell their children to not speak in a ‘sloppy’ way, without realising that their own speech fluctuates, sometimes also using ‘T dropping.’


In Norwich, the Standard British English forms walking and talking alternate with forms ending in ‘n’ e.g. ‘walkin’ and ‘talkin.’ Labov noticed that listeners reacted in one of two ways to this. Up to a certain point they did not perceive the speaker ‘dropping  his g’s’ at all; beyond a certain point they perceived them as always doing so. Any fluctuation was not perceived by the listener.


The relative isolation and traditional independence of Norwich has meant that its local speech habits have remained fairly entrenched. Norwich speech was studied by peter Trudgill-a native of the city- using the same methods as Labov. He interviewed a cross-section of the population in 4 different speech styles: casual speech, formal speech, reading passages and reading word lists. He confirmed Labov’s findings that when there is both class and stylistic variation, a change is likely to be in progress. Trudgill found that in words such as ‘walking’ and ‘talking’, unlike in Standard British English where the sound spelt ‘-ng’ (a ‘velar nasal’) in Norwich it was pronounced ‘talkin’ and ‘walkin.’ This is a remnant of old style of speech. It used to be considerably more common across Britain and even in the 1930s was socially acceptable pronunciation among large sections of speakers of Standard British English.


Its widespread usage in the past is shown in rhymes and misspellings e.g. Shakespeare’s ‘cushing’ ‘javeling’ for ‘cushion’ ‘javelin’ were never pronounced with ‘-ng’  indicating that he added the ‘-g’ as he thought it was the spelling. The current standard use of the ‘-ing’ (with velar nasal) was perhaps due to the spread of a hypercorrect pronunciation in the first part of the nineteenth century, an imposed pattern like the New York ‘-r.’


In Norwich, this pattern never fully imposed and the local ‘–in’ remained. Recently, however, the alternation between the local ‘-in’ and Standard ‘-ing’  has emerged into speakers’ consciousness. Trudgill noted interplay not just between social classes, but also between the sexes in the ‘New York’ change. He found in all social classes, the more careful the speech, the more likely people were to say ‘walking’ rather than ‘walkin.’ He found that more people from the lower socio-economic groups said ‘walkin’ e.g. forms such as ‘walkin’ appeared 100% in the casual speech of the lower working-class and 28% of middle class. The non-standard forms appeared considerably more often in the speech of men than of women in all social classes- men are pulling away from the overt prestige form (covert prestige) and women towards it.   When asked, women said they used the standard form more and than they did and the men said they used the non-standard more than they did = wishful thinking.


Trudgill said this was because…

>Women in our society are more status-conscious than men, are more aware of the social significance of different speech forms.

>Male working-class speech tends to be related to roughness and toughness- masculinity which men aspire too, not desirable feminine attributes though.

>Women are consciously trying to ‘speak better’ because of their social insecurity and in their aim not to sound ‘tough.’ They encourage their children to speak this way so it aids this cycle.

>Subconscious changes, on the other hand, may be aided by working-class men. They imitate the language of other working-class men as they strive to be seen as masculine. These changes are supported by the New York and Martha’s Vineyard changes where women were more likely to use ‘r-insertion’ in both completely different places- this is a widespread phenomenon and found in Switzerland, Paris and Chicago.




To outsiders the language differences in Belfast might not have been so surprising e.g. high unemployment, premature death above average and juvenile crime widespread.  To others though it might be surprising e.g. deep-rooted division between Protestants and Catholics who rarely spoke to each other and at worst, were in open-conflict, but the varying vowel sounds e.g. ‘graws’ (grass) and ‘nacks’ (necks) weren’t between Protestants and Catholics but between men and women.


‘Provincialisms in Belfast’ published in 1860, shows the new changes between then and now, with the vowels ‘a’ and ‘e’. Compared with the mid-nineteenth century more words spelt with ‘a’ are pronounced as though they are spelt with ‘aw’ (e.g. bawd, graws etc). On the other hand, fairly pronounced ‘Irishisms’ of the nineteenth- century such as ‘wren’ ‘desk’ as ‘ran’ ‘dask’ are on the decline. On investigation, it appears that men are dragging ‘a’ words (bad, grass, hand) in one direction and women ‘e’ words (bed, best) in another.


Pronunciations such as ‘bawd’ and ‘graws’ were highest in inner city Belfast; higher number of unemployed, young males.


Shop assistants matched up the language of their customers, seen in Labov’s New York department store survey. This linguistic accommodation is the way that alterations are picked up, according to some sociolinguists. Second, the shop-assistant phenomenon suggests that changes move from one network to another via weak links. When people speak to one another they simply reinforce these trends.




In Reading, it is not uncommon to hear sentences such as ‘we knows how to do that’ ‘they calls me all the names under the sun’ etc. Jenny Cheshire, a linguist at the University of Reading, studied the incidence of these non-standard verb forms in the speech of a number of playground adolescents in places noted as local trouble spots. She noted that among the ‘tough’ children (13 boys and 12 girls studied) these non-standard verbs alternated randomly in their usage. However, there was a clear pattern in their distribution. In casual speech, the overall average of the non-standard forms was fairly high, around 55%. In formal speech e.g. with teachers it was 25%.  There was little difference between the use of non-standard English in casual speech but in formal the girls’ percentage of non-standard language was much lower than that of the boys’.


There is some evidence that these forms of language in Reading are not an innovation but a relic from an earlier time when in Southern-western dialects of English, there was an ‘–s’ all the way through the present tense e.g. ‘I knows, you knows, he knows she knows’ etc. This verbal paradigm gradually lost ground as Standard British English began to spread through London. So perhaps the Reading adolescents are just maintaining an old tradition and so aren’t innovators, but the delayers of a change which may be spreading from above towards Standard British English.




Jocks wanted to follow a conventional lifestyle and the burnouts wanted to breakaway. This was a pattern among teens at Belten High in Detroit, studied by Penelope Eckert. So these teens tried to be as different as they could e.g. wore different clothes, listened to different music etc. Each group also adopted a different style of language; pronunciations, expressions and intonation patterns. Take the sound in the first syllable of words such as mother and butter known as the (uh) variable. Jocks used the nearest to the standard heard in British English e.g. hut, some, whereas the Burnouts used a non-standard vowel like the sound in British put, foot. The teens in neither group (the ones in between) or breakaway Jocks or Burnouts used a variant of the two.   This is an example of geographic diffusion.




Changes usually originate from elements already in language which get borrowed and exaggerated.


There is a grain of truth in that language changes are catching, like a disease, since people tend to conform to the speech habits of those around them. However, in other aspects the disease metaphor breaks down as people do not want to catch diseases. Changes can also be subconscious- people pick language changes up when talking to others without realising it.


Third, conscious language changes are usually in the direction of overt prestige, such as standard British English. These often originate from the middle or upper class and are usually imitated by women. Subconscious changes are usually away from overt prestige and often begin by working-class men, whose speech habits are often associated with toughness and masculinity so is most common in men – covert prestige.


Fourth, people often accommodate’ their speech to fit others’ in minor ways, picking up other’s accents and passing to other friends.


‘The spread of language change is essentially a social phenomenon, which reflects the changing social situation.’ JEAN AITCHESON



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