Language Theorists Put to the Test

JENNIFER COATES – Subculture and Conversational Style

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Subculture and Conversational Style

     JENNIFER COATES is Professor of English Language and Linguistics at Roehampton University. Her published work includes Women, Men and Language (originally published 1986, 2nd edition 1993), Women in their Speech Communities (1989) (co-edited with Deborah Cameron); Women Talk. Conversation Between Women Friends (1996), and Language and Gender: A Reader (1998) as well as many chapters in edited books and articles in refereed journals. She has just completed a book on men, masculinity and narrative, entitled Men Talk, to be published later this year. Her current research interests include the construction of gender through talk, language and sexuality, conversational narrative, and turn-taking patterns in conversation. She has given lectures on her research all over the world, in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Germany, Italy, Denmark and Switzerland. She is Editor of the Blackwell sociolinguistic series ‘Language and Social Change’ and Senior Editor of the Longman ‘Real Language’ series. She is on the editorial board of the Journal of Sociolinguistics and of Language and Discourse, as well as being a member of the editorial board of the John Benjamins series ‘Studies in Narrative’. She has recently been made a Fellow of the English Association.

     Coates theorises that girls and boys develop different styles of speaking due to their largely differing interactions in their all boys and all girls friendship groups. Girls and boys tend to belong to same-sex groups where they will sit apart from one another and generally avoid confrontation and when it is required it is often antagonistic. It has been observed that the peer group of a child is directly influential upon their social linguistic development, and gender is the main principle with girls being encouraged to be typical ‘girls’ and boys being encouraged to be typical ‘boys’.

     Coates acknowledges the tendency of girls to stick to playing in smaller groups, maybe with just one or two other girls where their relationship is based predominantly on talk whereas boys will adhere to play in larger, hierarchical groups which are based on joint activity, for example sport, where there is often an undisputed ‘boss’.

     Two other theorists whom Coates mentions in her own theory are Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker, who put forward the idea that boys and girls both acquire different purposes of speaking. They theorise that girls learn to do the following three things: create and maintain relationships of closeness and equality, criticize others in acceptable ways, and to interpret accurately the speech of other girls. Boys on the other hand are more inclined to do the following three things when speaking: to assert a position of dominance, to attract and maintain an audience, and to assert themselves when another speaker has the floor.

     Maltz and Borker make note of gender specific patterns of interaction which begin to develop very early and continue throughout childhood. They specify girls’ talk as collaboration-orientated, where they will often agree and work together to achieve something, for example two girls may team up against one other girl because they want to play with something she is playing with. On the other hand, boys are thought to be competition orientated, where someone always has to have or be the best. Conflict is resolved between boys and between girls in highly contrasting ways and often boys will argue over something for a lot longer than girls will do, who are less likely to be as obstinate and will often reach a compromise or acquiescence by negotiating with one another, whereas boys would often resort in physical attacks with adversarial results where play is disrupted as the protagonistic boys would be less likely to give in to the other. Both boys and girls would be involved in disputes over ownership and in excluding third parties from their play but girls would often work together to achieve something whereas boys would remain independent. Arguments between children either of same or mixed sex use common strategies, one important one being that they organize their talk to emphasise disagreement or opposition. One strategy used only by girls is the widely used ‘he said she said’ accusations where the girl involves a wider range of people in the dispute, and only indirectly challenges the other participant.


     I hypothesise using the basis of Coates’s theory that the girls will demonstrate strong friendship bonds with one another, but criticism will not always be deemed acceptable as it sometimes may hurt another girl’s feelings even if it was not meant to be taken to heart. I also predict that in concurrence with Coates’s theory that some of the boys will be fighting to assert their dominance and masculinity, however not all will be aiming to attract and maintain an audience or permanently attempting to be centre of attention, as I believe that is a characteristic which may belong to either a boy or a girl instead of being exclusively that of a boy’s, and is unlikely to be a general male attribute.


      I went along to a children’s after school club where I could listen to children’s conversations and investigate the theory further. I managed to record some of their conversations and I was also able to observe other details such as expressions and body language. I found that a selection of the boys lived up to Coates’ theory of all boys learning to assert dominance, attract and maintain an audience and regain the attention for themselves when someone else was in the limelight, although it was by no means all of them who were so sure of themselves. Respect from those who didn’t try and take all the attention became apparent towards those who did.

     When observing the girls’ styles of talk I noted displays of affection which resembles their closeness between them for example when they were eating biscuits one of the girls said ‘this is me and this is you’, referring to two halves of her biscuit, and then put the one representing her friend in her mouth, to which the response was hysterical from everyone else at the table, including her friend. I didn’t take note of any attempts of accurate interpretation of speech from other girls, perhaps they were too young to go into that much detail. The girls seemed to have large groups as well as the boys, but there were girls within the group who would come more to life when in a smaller group.

     I also noticed that as opposed to Coates’ idea that boys and girls would cringe away from each other at this age, in this instance some, although not all seemed to get along well. There were same sex groups mainly but interaction between the two genders didn’t seem particularly antagonistic although at times their seemed to be competition between the two sexes for example ‘girls are better than boys’ and ‘boys are stronger than girls’.

      I found that there were more dominant children in either group of gender and they would often assert themselves by ordering the other children around in such a fashion that the others felt obliged to do as they wished. One example is that of a girl aged 8, who was playing ‘shops’ with another girl. She was the shopkeeper and was telling the other girl what she could and could not buy. When she wanted her to lift some books up she told her several times over with her voice becoming increasingly raised, although she was laughing as she did so which made her seem less pushy. This reinforced Coates’ theory that children have an obsession with ownership and things being theirs and emphasis was used in any dispute.


I can conclude form Jennifer Coates’ theory and my own research that I do not believe Jennifer Coates was completely accurate with regards to the way children use language and for what purposes they achieved. I gathered evidence which supported some aspects of her theory but challenged some areas and suggested that some elements could be applied to either gender depending on the perspective with which you saw it.

C Buckingham

Janet Holmes & Politeness in men’s and women’s conversation

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Language and Gender differences:

  • Politeness


  • Compliments


  • In general conversation


Are women more polite than men?


  • what you mean by politeness


  • which women and men you are comparing


  • the context in which they are talking


Despite this …

Janet Holmes thinks that when all the necessary reservations and
qualifications have been taken into account, the answer is
‘yes, women are more polite than men’

Holmes bases her research on Brown and Levinson’s idea of positive and negative face. She says that women use more positively orientated politeness and that men use more negatively orientated politeness.

Holmes suggests the reason for this is that women and men have different perceptions of what language is used for;

  • Men use language as a tool to give and obtain information ( also referred to as the referential function of language )
  • Women use language as a means of keeping in touch ( also known as the social function )

As Holmes includes politeness, which is defined as “an expression of concern for the feelings of others”, with the social function, it seems that women are more polite then men.

Holmes uses 2 speech acts within politeness to re-enforce her ideas;

  • Compliments
  • Apologies


What are the differences in the use compliments between men and women?



  • Pay and receive more compliments.
  • Regard compliments as positive and affective politeness devices



  • Tend to consider compliments as less positive than women do.
  • Often see compliments as face threatening or at least not as unambiguous in intentions.


Janet Holmes suggests that the discrepancies in male to male and female to female complimentary language may be due to differences in perception concerning the purpose of compliments. The hypothesis is that women use compliments to build connections, while men use compliments to make evaluative judgments.


  • Female; “I love your hair” This is to create a connection between the two women.
  • Male; “nice car” This is not used to create a connection but rather make an evaluative judgement on the car.


What are the differences between men and women in speech?

There is certainly plenty of evidence of differences between women and men in the area of language. It is well established, for example, that girls are verbally more intelligent than boys.

Over many years, women have demonstrated an advantage over men in tests of;

  • fluency,
  • speaking,
  • sentence complexity,
  • analogy,
  • listening,
  • comprehension of both written and spoken material,
  • vocabulary,
  • spelling.
  • Men are more likely to stutter and to have reading disabilities.
  • men are also much more likely to suffer aphasic speech disorders


The Test.

My test was on compliments and how men compliment differently to women. I asked 25 men and 25 women two questions and tallied their answers in a chart. This is what I found.

What do you think of my dress?

  Technical terms Empty adjectives Intensifiers Question
Female 5 14 9 5
Male 6 8 2 12


What do you think of my phone?

  Technical terms Empty adjectives Intensifiers Question
Female 4 16 5 5
Male 11 5 2 9


My results showed that technical terms vary according to the subject however on the whole women use more empty adjectives and intensifiers. Questions also vary according to the subject. The fact women use more empty adjectives and intensifiers re-enforces the view that women talk rapportly and enforce Holmes positive politeness and that women compliment more than men; the empty adjectives were all positive and the intensifiers made the compliments stronger. Men tended to comment on the technical side and also tended to ask technical questions like “why?” and “when did you get it”. This re-enforced the view that men use speech to get things done, referential speech, and that men use compliments to make evaluative judgements.

B Hunt

September 27, 2009

Robin Lakoff

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Robin Lakoff was born in 1942, she was a professor of linguists at the University of California, and her most famous work was the subject of women’s language where she believed women’s speech can be distinguished in certain features. Lakoff wrote various books such as ‘The logic of politeness’s in 1973 which Lakoff argued governs conversations, she devised the ‘politeness principle’ in 3 maxims

  1. Don’t impose
  2. Give options and
  3. Make your receiver feel good


Other areas of interest that she studied were ‘The ranking of power’ in 1990,’ Language war’ in 2000, ‘What you can do with word’s’ in 1977. ‘Father knows best’ in 1993 and Taking power in 1990.

I found the main area of interest in the work that Lakoff was most famous for, her theories on gender discrimination through language.  Lakoff was one of the first serious linguists to look into the social implications of the differences in men and women’s use of speech. She analysed the links between language, gender and power in her novel ‘Language and women’s place’, where she questions who holds the power and how they use it. Lakoff argued that language is fundamental to gender inequality and it could contribute to the lack of women’s power in two areas- Language used about women and the language used by women.  Lakoff claimed that there were certain features of women’s language that gave the impression women are weaker and less certain than men are. Women’s language was distinguished in a number of ways including

  1. Hedging- uncertainty and lack of authority e.g. ‘sort of’
  2. Super polite forms – ‘If you don’t mine please may you..’
  3. Hypercorrect grammar and pronunciation- e.g. women avoid ‘ain’t’ or double negatives
  4. Tag questions – show that women want approval from their utterances e.g. ‘I’m coming with you, all right?’
  5. Speaking in italics – women use exaggerated intonation or stress for emphasis, expresses uncertainty e.g. ‘I am very frustrated with you’ 
  6. Empty adjectives approval- Lakoff claims that if a man uses these terms he appears more feminine as it damages his masculine prestige e.g. ‘divine, lovely, adorable, delightful and sweetie’
  7. Use of implication- Lakoff claimed women use this because they do not feel the authority to give orders e.g. ‘it’s cold in here, isn’t it’ instead of ‘shut the window’
  8. Special lexicon- Lakoff states that such words are trivial and evidence of the fact that women have been allowed control over unimportant things e.g. purple of blue women would say ‘lilac’ or ‘violet’
  9. Question intonations in declarative statements- women raise the pitch of their voice at the end of statements expressing uncertainty e.g. ‘Dinner’s in half an hour?’

10.  Sense of humour lacking- Lakoff argued that women don’t joke as much or understand jokes.

11.  Speak less frequently – men speak more often than women, proves women to be less certain of themselves.

12.  Indirect speech- ‘Wow, I’m so thirsty’ instead of asking for a drink.

13.  Avoid coarse language of expletives

14.  Apologies- ‘I’m sorry, but I think that… ’

The study between language and gender caused many debates and research. Linguists argue that the differences are universal, inherent, biologically determined or even leaned behaviourists. Lakoff’s interest in the features and characteristics of men and women’s language made her look into the social implications of speech in her book. In this she analysed and explained the variation of speech and gender, in which her theory questioned whether language contributed to women’s status in Western Europe and their lack of power. Robin argued that women’s language is polite and gives the impression that women are weaker and less certain than men, justifying the treatment of women as having low status and men’s treatment towards women.

I tested Lakoff’s theory by recording a conversation between a man and women and analysed the differences in the way they spoke, she states that there are certain features which men and women use separately which show gender inequality e.g. the way women use super polite forms such as ‘Would you mind’.  I tested whether she was correct that there are differences in men and women’s speech and if so does that contribute to women’s lack of power. My hypothesis was that there is no syntactic rule in English that only women may use and that her theory can’t apply to society today. My first experiment was when I recorded a conversation between my sister and father to test Lakoff’s theory, he’d just come in from work and they were sat down at dinner.

In my conversation both the man and woman didn’t use certain features but there was a mixture response. I found that women use hedges more in my conversations e.g. when my father asks are you ok, my sister replies ‘yeah, kind of, bit tired though’, yet the male still uses hedge phrases. Both people in my recordings raised their voices in utterances when they wanted to draw attention to it. Also like Lakoff said, question intonation in declarative statements e.g. ‘you’re coming back at half twelve?’ yet this was spoken by the male character in the conversation. My sister used the only tag question in the dialogue- ‘you went to the beach, didn’t you?’ which didn’t prove that women used them more as the conversation was brief and tag questions were only used once. Neither speakers used superpolite forms, but this could be because of their close relationship, whereas if it was a more formal situation these may not have been used more often, nor did each spokesman use hypercorrect grammar or empty adjectives. I used another testing of my aunt and uncle in a conversation, I found the male speaker using more italics and frequent use of implication e.g. ‘I’m really hungry’ and the majority of jokes came for from the female speaker.

I found that Lakoff’s theory couldn’t argue that women use certain features in language, in society today people are from different places, different ages and are in different situations therefore speak in a dissimilar way applying to these factors and it can’t necessarily be tested through one conversation between a male and female. Like my hypothesis stated, my research found that there is no rule in English that only women use more often, yet there are certain features which allow speakers to appear less assertive and lack confidence. I believe that language can contribute to lack of power and status in society, O’ Barr and Atkins  were linguists who questioned Lakoff’s theory’s and believed that speech behaviour can be a reflection of social status yet I don’t believe that all characteristics Lakoff claimed were features of women.

 D Ng

Pamela Fishman’s Theory

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Pamela Fishman (1980)

Pamela Fishman’s Theory, Experiment and Results

Pamela Fishman conducted an experiment and involved listening to fifty-two hours of pre-recorded conversations between young American couples. Five out of the six subjects were attending graduate school; all subjects were either feminists or sympathetic to the women’s movement, were white, between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. Fishman listened to recordings and concentrated on two characteristics common in women’s dialect, including tag questions for example ”you know?”

Fishman begins by examining the use of tag questions being asked and states that women frequently use tag questions ‘isn’t it?’ or ‘couldn’t we?’ following a thought or suggestion. For females questions are an effective method of beginning and maintaining conversations with males. Fishman argues that women use questions to gain conversational power rather than from lack of conversational awareness. She claims that questioning is required for females when speaking with males; men often do not respond to a declarative statement or will only respond minimally.

Fishman also analyzes the frequent use of the phrase ”you know” used by women. ”You know” is an attention-getting device to discover if the conversational partner is listening. When ”you know” is combined with a pause, she realized that the woman is inviting the listener to respond. When little or no response is heard from the male the pause is internalized by the speaker and she will continue the conversation. With her study she found that women in her study used four times as many yes/no and tag questions as the men. But she was adamant that this was not because women were more uncertain and tentative as Lakoff suggested but because women are the ones generally trying to keep the conversation going. Fishman therefore concludes again that women’s style of communicating is not from lack of social training, but to the inferior social position of women.

My Theory, Experiment and Results

I believe that women hedge and use more tag questions than men for a variety of reasons.  I believe that men sometimes let women dominate the conversation because they think that their input to a conversation will either bore the woman or not relevant to the conversation. Therefore this leaves it to the woman to keep the conversation going.  I also believe that as the man’s input to a conversation is minimal, the woman feels the need to reassure herself that the man is listening and not just speaking to herself. As if the woman does not hedge and ask tag questions the man may not have any input to the conversation at all in which the woman would feel she is talking to herself.

To test my theory and Pamela Fishman’s theory I recorded part of a conversation between a woman and a man. To try and make it a fair test I did not make them aware that I was recording them until after.  The findings of my experiment were very similar to that of Pamela Fishman.

I found that during the conversation the woman said “dya get me?” twice in which the male replied “uh hu” and the second time no answer (so I assume he nodded). This shows that women do use tag questions to make sure that the male is listening and following the conversation. The reply of the male shows that they lack involvement in a conversation and therefore have very little input and I noticed throughout the conversation the male did not promote a topic shift; it was purely the woman that changed the subject of the conversation. 

Throughout the recorded 3minutes of part of the conversation statistically I counted that the man had said approx 11 utterances such as “yeah” “um” . I also noticed that and each one was only after the woman had asked a tag question. This shows that there is very little support in the conversation and proves that there is a lack of turn taking.

After I had recorded the conversation I told the couple what I was doing and I got some helpful feedback. The male said that he often just agrees with woman as he doesn’t want to ask questions and appear “dumb”. He said he remains to just answer with basic utterances such as “yeah” even if he has lost what the conversation is about. I also asked the woman why she asked so many tag questions such as “y’know” and “dya know what am sayin’ ” because she wants to be assertive that the male is listening. She doesn’t mind dominating the conversation but just likes to know that she is being listened to.

Overall I found that my results were similar to Pamela Fishman and that women use tag questions to keep the conversation going and just to get some kind of response is rewarding. I don’t believe that women ask tag questions because they feel an ease of uncertainty and unassertiveness.  However Fishman assumes, then, that men would feel intimidated when speaking to a superior and unconsciously begin to use a woman’s conversational tone. Whereas I believe that men do not adopt the women’s conversational tone I believe that they find it just easier to agree and have a small input than to make a point and carry it through.

One of the weaknesses of my results was that I only experimented on one couple. This means my results could be biased and so I would need to carry out my recordings on several couples of different age groups to check my result wasn’t an anomaly. I have also based my research of Pamela Fishman on a secondary source:- internet therefore the information may not be accurate. I only recorded 3minuites, in contrast to Pamela’s 52 hour, of part of a conversation and so this limits the data that I found and again could lead to very biased results.

 R Webb

September 21, 2009

Peter Trudgill

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Peter Trudgill


Peter Trudgill investigated the dialects of England and who uses them. Where we are from is important to people, we know this because people support football teams from their home region and people return to their homes at Christmas etc. Most people have regional features in their speech and this is part of their identity.

We all speak with an accent and we all speak a dialect.

Accent– the way we pronounce English. Because we all pronounce when we speak we all have an accent.

Dialect– not only pronunciation, but also the words and grammar people use. For example “I haven’t got any.” or “I haven’t got none

Standard English is the dialect normally used in writing and spoken by the most powerful and educated members of the population. It is a minority dialect, spoken by about 12% of the population. Scottish and Irish standard English are also a little different. English standard English can vary a little between north and south.

There are regional dialects and there are two types; Traditional Dialects and Mainstream Dialects. Traditional Dialects are spoken by a minority of the population. They often differ from standard English and from each other. They can be difficult to understand at first. Mainstream dialect includes both the standard English dialect and the Modern Non-standard dialects. Most native English speakers speak some variety of Mainstream dialect. These dialects are associated with native speakers outside the British Isles for example in Australia. In Britain they are particularly associated with the areas which standard English orignally  came from; the south east, most urban areas, places that have fairly recently become English speaking (Scottish highlands, Wales, Cornwall), the speech of younger people and middle and upper class speakers everywhere. These mainstream Modern Non-standard Dialects don’t differ that much from standard English or from each other. They are often distinguished by their accent instead of their grammar.

A question always asked is why do people speak different dialects? This is easier to answer if we ask; why doesn’t everyone speak the same? Like all languages English is constantly changing. Some changes spread out to cover the whole country, others only spread so far, which leads to dialect differences bwtween areas. Language can sometimes be explained by external factors like using words from the French after the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

This is what Trudgill thinks about the future. The fact that English has been spoken in England for 1500 years and for only 200 years in Australia explains why we have so many more regional dialects. In Britain it is possible to tell where someone comes from within 15 miles. In Australia there has not been time for such regional variety to develop, though small differences are starting to appear. Also we won’t all end up speaking the same dialect eg. American English. There are changes taking place in American pronunciation which are not happening in England and vice versa. For example more people in England are starting to pronounce words like better with a glottal stop.

Complaints about the language degenerating are a feature of all generations. Language change is a natural and inevitable process, but there are always some people who worry about it. For example some people object to glottal stops maybe because the glottal stop has been associated with lower social class dialects which are now finding their way further up the scale. Some people think that all English Dialects are inferior to standard English. People think Standard English is the English Language. However standard English came to people’s attention because of its location; the southeast of England, an area that contained London, Oxford, Cambridge and Parliament. If the capital of England had been York then Standard English would have shown a close resemblance to northern dialects of England.

The fact is that all dialects, both traditional and modern are equally grammatical and correct. They only differ because of their social significance. As a result of a historical accident the Standard English dialect is the dialect that is used in writing and so is used for official purposes. This is why it’s taught in British schools for reading and writing.

Trudgill’s theory has a lot to do with overt and covert prestige.

  • Overt prestige- is the prestige that comes with using the type of language that is nationally recognised and is used in official and educational contexts. Speakers who use standard English are therefore considered well educated, intelligent because they are using the “correct” and “best” version of English.
  •  Covert prestige- on the other hand, comes from not identifying with the standard language. It is the prestige that comes with group loyalty and solidarity. Working-class speakers show their solidarity with their class and region by sticking to non-standard norms.

One theory is that women are socially insecure so they are more careful to use the overtly socially prestigious forms than men.

Another is that working class language is associated with being rough and tough. In a survey people were asked to rate how well they thought recorded speakers would do in a street fight. Those with regional accents came out on top every time. These traits are considered macho and tough so men tend to lean towards talking like this and women seem to lean away from talking like this.

It is worth considering that everyone uses accent and dialect more in more informal situations like at home with friends and family. However in an interview they would speak very differently.

Trudgill found that in Norwich the ending “ng” on words like walking and talking is the prestigious variable. Like the “r” in New York, it is used by upper class and more in formal situations than informal situations. Trudgill took his research a step further and looked at the sex as well as the class of the speaker.

  • Trudgill found that…
  1. Women of each class use the prestige variant more than men of the same class.
  2. Using the nonstandard variable is not just a working-class thing it’s also a male thing.

Then Trudgill did some self evaluation tests. He showed people in his survey prestigious and stigmatised pronunciation and asked them to say which they thought they normally used. He already knew the truth of what they spoke from his survey, so he was able to compare how people actually speak compared with how they thought they did. What they actually told him was how they would like to talk. He found that women of all classes tend to over-report (claim they’re using the prestigious variant when they actually don’t). Men of all classes tend to under-report (claim they used the non-standard form when in fact they use the prestigious one). This suggests that men and women as well as upper and lower class  are aiming to speak a different type of language.

My Investigation


I asked a male and female of similar age and similar backgrounds to speak about what they did over the summer for one minute. I recorded what each of them said and counted how many non-standard dialect features each used.

The male used…12 non-standard dialect features.

The female used…6 non-standard dialect features.

However it might have been more for the male if he had been speaking for longer. The male found it more difficult to talk for a minute and so there were a lot of long pauses.

This proves Trudgill’s theory and shows women try to speak in a more prestigious way whereas men prefer to speak with a more non-standard dialect.

The transcripts were as follows…

The Female

Q: What did you get up to in your summer holidays?

A:  Well I work at a school and erm I get all the school holidays off so the first week n a half I was just pl pottering about around the house and getting ready for my holidays and then erm on the 4th of August we went to Tenerife for two weeks and we went with three other families and erm their children also. We had a really nice time we’ve never been to Tenerife before and erm we really like the place so much so that when we came back we tried to get in for the October half term break but it was already full up the place that we stayed at. Erm then when we got back from Tenerife after two weeks in the sun which was really nice erm I had to get the children ready then for school so I had to go n take my youngest daughter to buy some shoes which was an absolute nightmare and erm get ready for school really get uniforms sorted out and everythink erm because I work in a school at the beginning of the holidays I always think to myself ooo I’ve got 5 weeks off now and erm I’ll get loads of jobs done n jobs that I av set in my mind that I want to get done I’ve never ended up doing n the time went so quickly.

The Male

Q: What did you get up to in your summer holiday?

A: Well on the August the 4th we went away for two weeks to Tenerife in a place called Fanabe er it was very nice about 15 of us WENT the weather was really really hot for the fourteen days we were there the erm the only trouble was the beach was a bit black sand coz volcanic which I dint really like much n the sea was very very rough erm managed to watch Manchester city (missing an “a”) couple o times while away luckily which they won. We would go out for a meal n then hopefully find a bar somewhere which normally had a singer on or karaoke which a few of the people had a go at n then we found a place called the Wigan Pier which we went to three or four times.

T Murray

September 20, 2009

Dialect Levelling

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Paul Kerswill

Dialect Levelling

Dialect levelling is a form of standardisation whereby local variations of speech lose their distinctive, regional features in favour of a more urban or mainstream dialect. This means that the speech forms of different parts of the country are becoming more similar over time and this results in a reduction of language  diversity.  There are several factors involved in dialect levelling:

•Geographical mobility results in greater dialect contact between commuters.

•Social mobility and consequent breakdown of tight knit working class communities.

•Increased interaction with people of other speech varieties.

•Children are less likely to adopt their parents’ pronunciation as they come under peer pressure to conform to the linguistic norm of the group. Adolescents take on a vital role in language change.

•Economic change lead to loss of rural employment and construction of suburbs and new towns.

•World Wars meant a change in roles within society especially WWII when women went out to work and soldiers mixed with a wide range of geographical and social backgrounds which may never have previously clashed.

Dialect levelling is a form of standardisation whereby local variations of speech lose their distinctive, regional features in favour of a more urban or mainstream dialect. This means that the speech forms of different parts of the country are becoming more similar over time and this results in a reduction of language diversity.  There are several factors involved  in dialect levelling:

  • Geographical mobility results in greater dialect contact between commuters.
  • Social mobility and consequent breakdown of tight knit working class communities.
  • Increased interaction with people of other speech varieties.
  • Children are less likely to adopt their parents’ pronunciation as they come under peer pressure to conform to the linguistic norm of the group. Adolescents take on a vital role in language change.
  • Economic change lead to loss of rural employment and construction of suburbs and new towns.
  • World Wars meant a change in roles within society especially WWII when women went out to work and soldiers mixed with a wide range of geographical and social backgrounds which may never have previously clashed.


Traditional Dialect Features


        ‘tha’ for ‘you’

    ‘hissen’ for ‘himself’

        ‘I is’ or ‘I are’ for ‘I am’

    ‘reet’ for ‘right’


  ‘her’ for ‘she’

   ‘I be’ for ‘I am’

   ‘umman’ for ‘woman’

Modern Dialect Features

• Multiple negation ‘I don’t want none’ • Use of ‘ain’t’ for negative auxiliaries • Use of ‘them’ as a demonstrative adjective ‘Look at them big spiders’ • Use of glottal stops for /t/ at the end and in middle of words ‘bu/?/er’ ‘le/?/ me’ • Replacement of /th/ sounds by /f/ or /v/ so ‘thin’ becomes ‘fin’ and ‘brother’ becomes ‘bruvver’

Order of Spread of Levelling

i.London and surrounding area


 iii.Central England – Midlands, East Anglia

iv.Northern England

v.Northeast England and Scotland

The outcome of levelling is a convergence of accents and dialects towards each other. In some cases, this leads to southern features being adopted in the whole country contributing to the spread of Estuary English as a nationwide dialect.

Testing the Theory

Kerswill investigated the changes in dialect in Milton Keynes, Reading and Hull by interviewing local residents of different ages and studying their pronunciation of certain speech sounds. He generally used children of the ages 4, 8 and 12 (equally divided by sex) and one caregiver, usually the mother.

  The recordings were from either specific tasks given to the children such as quizzes or spot the difference games or spontaneous speech obtained by interviews or playground recordings. The children’s caregivers were also interviewed.

  Milton Keynes and Reading are both viewed as towns where social and geographical mobility is high as there are plenty of newcomers from all social classes expanding the economy of the areas. However, as Reading is a more established town the population is more stable and local they do not rely on commuters as much. 

Hull is geographically more isolated and more economically depressed than the other two towns; cut off from the south by the River Humber and remote from other large metropolises, the town is less attractive to commuters. Social networks are closed as the city is largely working class while surrounding villages are middle class so working/middle class children attend different schools and teenagers living on the estate studied were often third generation locals.


•Milton Keynes

Older residents used vowel sounds typical of the traditional, local accent, newcomers

(e.g. parents) spoke with a variety of regional accents, while children spoke like their parents/carers for the first 4 years ( school age – one child sounded Scottish at 4 yrs but had changed to local accent by 5 ½ yrs. before changing to a new Milton Keynes accent) which had developed into Estuary English (watered down cockney with some vowels closer to received pronunciation) and were typical of south-eastern speech.


Gradual change as children were influenced by their local born-parents and grandparents. Some change was apparent with older residents pronouncing the post- vowel /r/ sound in ‘start’ and ‘nurse’ and young speakers replacing /t/ with a glottal stop /?/.


Young speakers retained the northern accent of their older relatives, notable in vowel sounds such as /u/ in ‘but’. They differed again in the use of glottalling and /th/ fronting in words like ‘think’ and ‘brother’.


•North/South Levelling

Kerswill identified a gradual move among adolescent, Southern speakers towards the

more standardised, less localised variations of speech. However, in Hull, the closed

social networks encourage the continuation of traditional pronunciations, for example,

dropping the /h/ was widespread in both old and young residents of Hull but far less

 so in Reading and Milton Keynes. He suggests an economic factor – the prosperity of

southern towns makes social mobility and achievable goal for young people, however,

the high levels of unemployment in northern towns such as Hull makes children

unconvinced of the value of education as a passport to social mobility and therefore

reject the pressure from authoritarian systems such as the educational one to modify

 their accents. Why the /th/ fronting and glottalling in Hull then, as this is common in

Reading and Milton Keynes as well? Kerswill says that these linguistic variations are

associated with youth culture rather than social class as they are spread though the

media and celebrity culture popular with adolescents. Hull teenagers can signify their

allegiance to their region and class by maintaining the traditional northern accent as

well as identifying themselves with their peer group  by adopting new phonemes

popular with youth culture which may still be working class but not traditionally


S Morgan

The Language Trap

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John Honey- Language is Power, The Language Trap

John Honey argues in his books that Standard English, both written and spoken, is superior to dialect in many respects. These include range of vocabulary and therefore scope for self-expression, and flexibility, which means the ability of Standard English to absorb words from other languages. He advocates that Standard English should be taught in schools and that an organisation should be set up to regulate language change. He thinks those who do not speak Standard English have a much worse chance of becoming successful than those who do, and accuses linguists of attempting to subjugate the working classes by preventing them from learning Standard English. I tested people’s attitudes to spoken Standard English and dialect to see whether having a dialect affects a person’s chances of success, and therefore whether Honey has any grounds to accuse linguists of holding back the working classes by not teaching them Standard English. I also asked participants whether, in their opinion, a ‘best’ way to speak exists, to test the popularity of Honey’s view that Standard English should be taught in schools.

I researched this theory by presenting samples of Standard English speech and regional dialect and then asking interviewees questions about what they thought of the person speaking. I used four samples of speech. I asked my respondents what they thought about each speaker’s level of education, whether they would mind hearing them on the TV or radio, and whether a ‘best’ way to speak exists. My first three samples spoke with regional dialects, the last spoke Standard English with RP pronunciation. If Honey’s theory is correct, my interviewees should have prejudice against the speakers of dialect and show preference towards the Standard English speaker.

Comments about the speaker of a London dialect included that she had ‘poor diction’ and that she was ‘difficult to listen to’. One respondent thought that she was Afro-Caribbean, showing how this dialect has become representative of Afro- Caribbean communities in places such as Brixton. One respondent, when asked if she was degree educated, stated that she could be ‘doing a degree that’s not relevant to English’, showing how people perceive Standard English to be necessary for English students.

Many respondents struggled to understand the speakers of Geordie and Lancashire dialect. Both of these northern dialects had very thick accents and used a lot of dialect features. For example, the Lancashire dialect speaker used ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ instead of ‘you’ and ‘your’. Both of these speakers were judged by many to be less likely to have a professional job than the Standard English speaker. The Standard English speaker was judged unanimously to be ‘more educated’ than all of the accented speakers. His speech was described as ‘the Queen’s English’, and one respondent said he ‘sounded quite clever’, suggesting that there is a link between dialect and judgements about intelligence.

When I asked my respondents whether they would mind hearing any of the voices on TV or radio or from someone in a position of power, such as a politician, answers were heavily weighted towards ‘no’. Most said that as long as the person could speak fluently and could be understood, their accent was unimportant. However, one person did say that they would be irritated by the Lancashire and North Eastern voices as they found them ‘difficult to understand’. This suggests that Honey’s theory that non-speakers of Standard English are at a disadvantage when it comes to communication has some basis in truth. When asked if there was a ‘best’ or ‘correct’ way to speak, all respondents said ‘no’, asserting that accents and dialects form part of peoples’ character, and that speaking naturally was the best method of communication. Some respondents also felt very strongly that the ‘disposing of regional accents’ was wrong and that many people spoke with a ‘put on’ RP accent in order to sound more intelligent. All of the people that I asked claimed that they did not judge peoples’ intelligence on grounds of their accent, although when asked if this is a common judgement made by other people, many said ‘yes’. One person said that ‘poshness sounds more intelligent’, although denied that they themselves felt that there was any link between accent and intelligence.

Honey’s theory claims that Standard English should be taught to those who do not speak it in order to prevent them from being held back. My research to some extent indicates that he is right. The people whom I spoke to showed preference towards the speaker of Standard English, describing him as ‘better educated’ and ‘easier to understand’; although they denied that they employed active discrimination against dialect speakers. They also indicated that the dialect speakers were difficult to understand, highlighting the divisions and difficulties in communication that can arise between dialect and non-dialect speakers, creating problems for the minority dialect speakers. The comment that the London dialect speaker ‘could be doing a degree that’s not relevant to English’ also highlights the view that spoken and written dialect are inextricably linked and that those who speak in a dialect are bound to have trouble with written Standard English.

               Many peoples’ reactions to the dialect speakers suggest that there is an almost unconscious prejudice against dialect speakers, or that people are afraid to admit a preference for Standard English, as assumptions about the profession and background of the dialect speakers were often made. For example, the Lancashire dialect speaker was described as sounding like ‘a farmer’ and when asked if it was likely that he had a degree, the vast majority of people said ‘no’. The assertion that RP pronunciation sounds ‘posh’ and therefore ‘more intelligent’ was also a fairly common one.

             The response to the question about whether there is a ‘best’ way to speak suggested that Honey’s preference for an organisation to regulate language change, and his support for the teaching of Standard English in schools would not be widely popular, as many people think that the loss of regional dialects is a shame for the identity and diversity of the country. Honey’s measures would involve the phasing out of regional dialects, and many respondents expressed opposition to the loss of dialects.

Honey’s theory that those who do not speak Standard English are at a disadvantage could to some extent be true, especially when it comes to speakers of extremely thick dialects, such as the Lancashire dialect. However, the response to my survey indicated that there is not widespread conscious discrimination against dialect speakers, and therefore that Honey’s measures would perhaps be a little heavy-handed. In fact, they would probably meet widespread condemnation, as the loss of dialects is a point of contention for many of my respondents, who feel that the ‘putting on’ of RP pronunciation and Standard English should not be encouraged.

o Rudgard

William Labov

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William Labov  –

“An enormously original and influential figure”

Born in 1927, William Labov, has researched and studied various elements of the english language, including the grammatical rules of African American Vernacular English and referencial indeterminacy (where when confronted with the same object different people call it different things, e.g. cup/mug/beaker). However, the majority of William Labov’s work is in sociolinguistics and language prestige.

He once hypothesised that pronunciated of the “r”, seen as prestigious in New York, would be most evident in higher social classes and more formal situations. To test this he visited three New York department stores (Saks, Macy’s and Klein’s) all of which target and represent a different social class. To test his theory Labov asked sales assistants in each store a factual question to which the answer was, “fourth floor.” As he had hypothesised, sales assistants in Saks (the highest end store) pronounced their “r” the clearest, with Macy’s (the middle store) coming second and the assistants  at the lower-end Klein’s having little or no pronunciation of the “r”. Another observation he made was that assistants at Macy’s, when asked to repeat their answer, had the most marked difference in pronunciation, speaking ‘up’ and pronouncing the “r” far more clearly than they had previously.

To test my own hypothesis, that in the north west using an “υ” instead of “Λ” is seen as less prestigious, I mimicked Labov’s test and went around large stores in Manchester. The two most common ways that people from Greater Manchester pronounce a “u” are “υ” and “Λ”. The vowel difference makes a word such as “upstairs” either sound like: “υpstєərz”, which sounds something like, “uhhpstairs” with a much longer vowel sound. Or as : “Λpstєərz” where the shorter vowel sound makes it sound closer to “ahhpstairs”. I hypothesised that the “Λpstєərz” version would be more prevalent in higher-end shops like Selfridges as it’s closer to “BBC english” and what is promoted by the media as a more ‘proper’ way of speaking and that the more regional “υpstєərz” would be more comonly found in lower-end stores such as Primark.

By asking a factual question, as Labov had done, to which the answer was “upstairs” I was able to listen to people speak free of the inhibitions that come with being aware that you are being taped, the lack of taping does however mean that the margin for human error was wider. I found that in Selfridges far more of the sales assistant replied with “Λpstєərz” than with “υpstєərz” but many answered with floor numbers (as in Labov’s test) rather than with the required “upstairs”. In primark I found three people who said, “υpstєərz” and one who said “Λpstєərz”, but this is only out of 10 people and my results in Primark on the other hand were some what skewed by the high proportion of foreign sales assistants. With many Eastern-European shop assistants a large portion of my results came closer to, “æpstєz”, although this isn’t completely accurate because many of them spoke quickly and quietly making it difficult for me to note.

F Heggie

O’Barr & Atkins

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William O’Barr and Bowman Atkins

Their Theory

The theorists William O’Barr and Bowman Atkins are known for developing the idea that language differences are situation-specific, relying on who has the authority and power in a conversation, rather than the gender of the people involved. This challenged the theory that Lakoff had presented, that variants in speech were due to gender, and in my opinion is much more accurate, since generalisations about gender seem to encompass too wide a variety of people to make a theory, regarding solely gender, valid. A simple example to explain their theory may be that in an interview situation, if a man were interviewing a woman, then perhaps the man would seem more assertive in the conversation, not due to his gender, but simply because he has more authority in that circumstance.

O’Barr and Atkins studied courtroom cases for 30 months, observing a broad spectrum of witnesses, and examining them for the ten basic speech differences between men and women that Lakoff proposed. These differences or “women’s language” components consisted of; hedges, empty adjectives,  super-polite forms, apologising more, speaking less frequently, avoiding coarse language or expletives, tag questions, hyper-correct grammar and punctuation, indirect requests and using tone to emphasise certain words. O’Barr and Atkins discovered that Lakoff’s proposed differences were not necessarily the result of being a woman, but of being powerless. They used three men and three women to prove this. The first man and first woman both spoke with a high frequency of “women’s language” components. The woman was a 68-year-old housewife and the man drove an ambulance, suggesting stereotypically that power and control would perhaps be lacking from their lives. Pair number 3, a doctor and policeman respectively, both testified as expert witnesses, suggesting that the power they experienced in their jobs and lives meant that they had less components of “women’s language”. Man and woman number 2 fell between the first two pairs in the frequency of hedges and tag questions in their speech, ie. “Women’s language” components.

From this study, O’Barr and Atkins concluded that the quoted speech patterns were “neither characteristic of all women, nor limited to only women”. According to the researchers, the women who used the lowest frequency of women’s language traits had an unusually high status. They were well-educated professionals with middle class backgrounds. A corresponding pattern was noted among the men who spoke with a low frequency of women’s language traits. O’Barr and Atkins tried to emphasise that a powerful position “may derive from either social standing in larger society and/or status accorded by the court”.

Following this research, another study investigated the language used by participants in legal proceedings (judges, attorneys etc). It was hypothesised that the language of judges, who hold the most power in the courtroom, would contain the least number of women’s language features, specifically “politeness”. Tape recordings from two California courtrooms were transcribed and coded. The results supported O’Barr and Atkins’ findings, but not the hypothesis proposed. It is suggested that judges, regardless of sex, use a great deal of politeness to redress the many face-threatening acts that they must perform as part of their careers. The findings indicate that future research on gender difference in language usage should move from the documentation of sex differences towards an examination of underlying social and situational factors.

My Data: A conversation between a mother and daughter about what the daughter will venture into as a career after university

M: So, what do you think you’d like to do after uni?

S: Erm (1) maybe work.. at first in a zoo or something | | before

M:                                                                                   | | Really?

S:                                                                                                   Well I’m doing zoology so I have to  do something with animals (2) If I’m changing my degree to like  | | biol (inaudible speech)

M:                                                                                                     | |I thought you were doing general | |biology

S:         | | yeah but you have honours in something(1) you have biological sciences and honours in a particular (1)

M:                | |right

S:                 | |subject area

M: And you want to do it in zoology

S: Yeah well the other ones are like pharmacology and stuff and I don’t really want to do that (2) or you can do ecology but that would mean changing course again and I don’t really want to change course to just ecology I wanna have it a bit of biology (1) so then it’s biology and then its zoology

M: Mmm do you think you might end up as a zookeeper?

S: Maybe hopefully we’ll do more fun stuff than zookeeping. I don’t | |know

M:                                                                                                          | | You think you’ll travel the travel the | |world?

S:             | | Well that’s why me and Becca want to go to Madagascar (1) so we can see the lemurs (1) but yeah. I mean obviously like we’ll have to get a little job at first.

M: Yeah

S: Like in a zoo or in an animal sanctuary or something mmm

M: You think you could work at the animal sanctuary down the road?

S: Noo cause that’s volunteer (1) mm | |I dunno

M:                                                        | | yeah but there should be some (inaudible)

S: No cause it’s like a volunteer centre

M: Yeah but they’ll have a manager

S: Yeah but (1) I don’t really want to be a manager cause that’s just (.) being a manager (.) not being an animal person (slight laughter) (2) so I dunno (.) maybe I can see if Tom will give me a job in the safari park (1) which obviously won’t happen (.) cause he’s not the manager he just works on the children’s rides

M: he doesn’t have any contact with the animals?

S: No, well he drives past them (.) then waves at them (3) but umm yeah that’s what I’m going to do

I used two women in this conversation as a way of comparing the similarities in the speech of two women on quite an equal level of power. As a conversation between a mother and daughter (my mother and sister) about the daughter’s future career, it could be expected that my mum might have slightly more power in the conversation, since as a parent she would want to influence my sister’s decision. However, it could also be argued that my sister, as the one asserting what she wants to do after university, could have the most authority in the conversation. Therefore, taking both of these ideas into account it should be expected that each person should have spoken a similar amount of “women’s language” traits.

Aside from the typical language traits of women, the conversation seems to be rife with overlapping in speech, which supports the idea that both participants are on an equal level of power, both fighting to take control of the conversation. Person S seems to dominate the conversation with her volume of speech, but person M also seems to have some control as she asks questions, so as to keep the conversation flowing in a certain direction.

The conversation seems to lack tag questions completely, which are very typical traits of “women’s language” in speech, which again suggests equal footing in the conversation. Being at a more-or-less equal level may mean that each participant doesn’t really need reassurance that the other is listening, since they just expect it of each other, due to their close relationship.

In the conversation, person S seems to hesitate much more than person M, as in ‘but umm yeah’ which perhaps suggests uncertainty on the part of person S about what to say, possibly due to the fear of person M disagreeing. On the other hand, person M seems to simply blurt out questions, without many hesitation indicators, although at the opening of the conversation, ’so, what do you think you’d like to do after uni?’ uses many examples of hedging around the subject, with the long-winded way of asking what person S wants to do as a career. This could be due to the slightly forced nature of the conversation, in that it was being set up and recorded, but on the other hand, this slight hedging could be because of person M’s ignorance of what person S wants to do as a career, and therefore is uncertain about how to approach the subject.

Person S can also be seen to be controlling the conversation’s direction despite person M’s use of questions. The example ’so we can see the lemurs’ is a good example of a topic shift, and when person S realises she has moved away from person M’s question, she then re-shifts the topic back by saying ‘but yeah. I mean we’ll obviously have a little job first’. This could suggest that person S has control of the conversation, shifting and re-shifting the topics, yet another interpretation could be that person S feels she has to shift the topic back again, suggesting that person M has the most power. The use of the exclusive ‘we’ involves both person S and ‘Becca’ and so suggests that perhaps person S does not want the blame for her decisions to be completely on her and therefore involves her friend in her decision to get ‘a little job first’, as a way of avoiding any direct conflict with person M. Also, the adverb of modality ‘obviously’ could be seen as an attack on person M, since S is implying that the other person would be quite ignorant to think that anything but what she is saying could happen, but I personally feel that the ‘obviously’ is a way of protecting herself, since saying this means that she cannot be questioned in what she is saying, as if again she does not want conflict.

Lakoff’s proposal that women use italics in language, ie. Tone to emphasise certain words, is supported here in participant S, who puts stress on certain words such as ‘again‘ and ‘just‘ to highlight the important parts of what she is saying. However, since Lakoff’s proposal is suggested for all women, I believe it is more proved wrong from this than right, since participant M doesn’t stress any words in the entire dialogue, possibly because she has more power in the situation.

As a whole I think the conversation seems to support O’Barr and Atkins’ theory. Although different variations of ‘powerful’ features of language may be present in each participant’s speech, it is mainly M, as a parent, who seems to have the control, in that her daughter does not want to disappoint her. This does suggest that the way people speak does depend on who has the authority in conversation, as opposed to their gender, since if all women spoke in the same way, then my sister and mother would be showing the same features of ‘women’s language components’ which just isn’t the case.

A Wright


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William Labov, born 1927, looked at change in language and how different social factors effected language change, ranging from age to social class to gender. He found language change was either conscious of unconscious, unconscious being when people change their language without noticing, and conscious being when people realise they are changing the way they speak, and actively encourage it.  This investigation looks at conscious speech change and uses the example of Labov’s New York Department Store study with the involvement of PRESTIGE.

Prestige can be separated into ‘overt prestige’ and ‘covert prestige’. Both are used when changing speech to gain prestige – appearing to have a high reputation/standing/success etc- but do so in different ways. If someone uses ‘overt prestige’ they put on an accent that is generally widely recognized as being used but the ‘culturally dominant group’. In England this would be R.P, so putting on a more ‘posh’ accent than their regional one would be using overt prestige, to fit with the ‘dominant group’. This is the traditional definition, although with the rise of other accents such as Estuary English it may be questioned. ‘Covert prestige’ is the opposite, as ‘covert’ means secret. Therefore it means to put on an accent to show membership to an ‘exclusive community’ in the area, rather than to fit with the ‘dominant culture group’. Using covert prestige would therefore be putting on a more ‘street cred’ accent rather than R.P, and even though the ‘dominant culture group’ generally sees it as being inferior, using language fitting with the local community would lead to earning respect with those also in the community.

In 1966 Labov completed the “New York department store study” which examined overt prestige involving both class and gender. Labov investigated the pronunciation of the ‘post-vocalic’ /r/ sound in American speech, which is the /r/ sound that comes directly after a vowel in words such as the middle of the word ‘fourth’ and the end of the word ‘floor’. Labov carried out his experiment by walking into 3 different department stores in New York representing different social classes, being Saks (upper class), Macy’s (middle class) and S. Klein (lower class). He went on to ask shop assistants where the location of departments were that he knew were on the fourth floor, to allow them to spontaneously say the words ‘fourth floor’ which includes the /r/ pronunciation. Furthermore as an added factor he then pretended he had not heard the assistant, making them repeat their answer of ‘fourth floor’ to see if their pronunciation had now changed, as their speech had become careful rather than spontaneous.

His findings were that the sales assistants from Saks used the /r/ sound most, showing that the current overt prestige form in New York was to pronounce the /r/. Those from Klein’s used it least as they would have used more covert prestige, so would not have pronounced the /r/ sound, and said an utterance along the lines of “flaw”. Finally those from Macy’s showed the greatest upward shift of pronouncing “floor” rather than “flaw” when they were asked to repeat their utterance.

Therefore Labov found that the pronunciation of /r/ increased as the class of the store increased, as well as an increase of /r/ in careful speech, and concluded that the more careful the speech was the more likely the /r/ was to be pronounced. Labov found the overuse of /r/, known as hypercorrection, was most common in the lower middle class(Macy’s), as they were most likely to be aware of which speech forms are ‘classy’ and would use these forms in careful speech to improve prestige and appear to belong to the higher middle classLabov also found hypercorrectness to be strongest in the language conscious middle class women, showing that overt prestige seemed more common in women than men, the factor that I chose to investigate in my experiment.

As my investigation was based on Labov’s theory of overt and covert prestige, I would expect that female speech would contain more overt prestige, so contain changes in speech from their regional accent to R.P to appear more ‘posh’ and to fit in with the ‘culturally dominant group’. Therefore, they may adopt phonological features of R.P. such as elongating the /a:/ sound. In contrast male speech would be expected to have more covert prestige, therefore speaking more with their regional accent.

I carried out the investigation by looking into careful speech, as the data would be more straightforward to collect, and decided on four words which have different pronunciations in a local Manchester accent compared to R.P. To make sure the pronunciation of the chosen words weren’t completely unnatural they were placed in sentences, which I asked 20 males and 20 females to read aloud, whilst recording whether the chosen words were pronounced in a regional accent using covert prestige, or in R.P, using overt prestige.

My chosen words were ‘lunch’, ‘book’, ‘cinema’ and ‘garage’ placed into the following sentences:

–          ‘I bought a sandwich for my lunch.’

–          ‘I went to the library and borrowed a book.’

–          ‘I went to the cinema and saw a film.’

–          ‘The car was parked in the garage.’

I identified the two contrasting ways of pronouncing the chosen words, and written using the International Phonetic Alphabet are:

Chosen word Regional accent R.P.
Lunch l nt∫ l      nt∫
Book bu:k b k
Cinema sInIm sInIma:
Garage gærId3 gæra:d3


The Recorded Data:


  said with a regional accent said in R.P
 ’lunch’ 13 7
 ’book’ 0 20
 ’cinema’ 19 1
 ’garage’ 17 3



  said with a regional accent said in R.P.
 ’lunch’ 16 4
 ’book’ 0 20
‘cinema’ 20 0
‘garage’ 18 2


The results showed that regarding certain words in the female data there was an outright majority in the pronunciation, as everybody chose to say ‘book’ in the style of R.P, rather than with a strong Manchester accent. On the other hand, ‘cinema’ was said almost always with the regional accent rather than in R.P. This is an interesting observation, as it shows in the female group there was no outright result as to which accent was used when asked to read the sentences, it depended on the word. There was a similar result with the male speakers, that everyone said the word ‘book’ in R.P, and ‘cinema’ with a regional accent. Because the results for male and female were so similar, it questions Labov’s theory that women use more overt prestige than men.

However, the words ‘lunch’ and ‘garage’, in particular ‘lunch’, are more in favour with Labov’s theory of prestige and prove my hypothesis. When asked to read the sentence containing the word ‘lunch’ 80% of the males used the regional accent and 20% with R.P. Yet when females were asked to do the same task 65% of them used a regional accent whereas 35% used R.P. This supports Labov’s theory, as there was a 15% increase in the use of R.P. between males and females, suggesting women used more overt prestige than the men, who used more covert prestige. The results for the word ‘garage’ were along a similar theme, as 5% of females used more overt prestige, uttering the word in an R.P accent. This result is not a strong as the result concerning ‘lunch’, but still proves my hypothesis and Labov’s theory.

In conclusion of the results, certain words in my experiment prove my hypothesis that women use more overt prestige than men do. However, other words in the experiment disproved Labov’s theory, not because men used more overt prestige than women did, but because the results were very similar between male and female, which showed that neither sex used prestige that was more overt. When looking at the results though there is an added conclusion, because the words ‘book’ and ‘cinema’ had an almost completely one-sided result. This questions whether prestige was in fact considered at all when uttering the words, and that the differences between pronunciation of the words ‘lunch’ and ‘garage’ that seemed to contain prestige were actually due to outside factors, such as differences in accent due to background, class and age. This theory is reflected in Labov’s work, who also concluded in any language experiment other factors are involved and prestige in fact ‘complicates matters’.

When evaluating this investigation several issues need to be addressed. As explained in the conclusion of results there are other outside variables, suggesting the experiment was not a ‘fair test’. Although the people involved in the experiment were all from the same location, they did not all have the same background, i.e. some people spent large majorities of their childhood in different areas. This suggests their accent may not have fit to the typical ‘regional accent’ and made them appear to be speaking in R.P. and using overt prestige, when they were not at all, therefore skewing the results. Other added factors were that the people were not all from the same class, they were of different ages, and the relationship I had with most of them was one that may have meant speakers were unlikely to feel the need to include prestige of any sort in their speech.

Additional problems involved how the experiment was carried out, effecting the reliability of the data. The data was only collected from 20 members of each sex and, as there were added factors besides prestige, it meant anomalies would have highly effected the overall conclusions. To improve reliability of the data I would increase the number of people asked, and possibly have a larger number of words to test, to leave room to discard anomaly results. I would also consider the words I select more carefully. In my experiment the word ‘book’ was possibly an incorrect word to choose, as 100% of both male and females pronounced it in R.P. This highlights the fact the regional accent pronunciation that I chose, being /bu:k/, may not have been correct for the area I was testing in, as the results for the other words showed over 60% of the utterances were made in the regional accent, male or female.

If I were to review my results again with the knowledge the figures for ‘book’ may be anomalies, my conclusions are different, and more decisive. Even though with both male and female the majority of utterances were made with the regional accent, those made in R.P. are slightly higher in the female utterances for all 3 words of ‘lunch’, ‘cinema’ and ‘garage’. Therefore assuming there were not additional factors, Labov’s theory, and my hypothesis, have been proved correctly, that women use more overt prestige.

H Eakin

John Honey: The Standard of English

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John Honey: The Standard of English

John Honey believes that the standards of the English language are falling. Language is evolving all of the time-the most noticeable of course are slang terms-which means that young people speak in an entirely different way to the older generation.

The two things that are most important in the standard of spoken English are accent ad dialect. Accent is the way one sounds when speaking, and is attached to an area for example; a Mancunian accent originates in Manchester, a Liverpudlian accent in Liverpool. Dialect is the words and grammar used by people in different areas, generally spoken with a corresponding accent.

John Honey states that the grammar he believes should be taught is that of ‘standard English’, and he claims that ‘standard English’ is “…the language in which this book is written, which is essentially the same form of English used in books and newspapers…”

He argues that ‘standard English’ allows him to pronounce the beginning of the word financial as either fine or fin, but to pronounce it as foyn would be incorrect. Standard English ahs long been the preserve of the ‘educated’, and only imposed on those lacking such education to empower or improve them. This suggests that ‘standard English’ is a class-based dialect, and is not the format spoken by those of a more working-class background. At the same time however, John Honey contradicts himself by rejecting the idea that standardisation in history was an attempt to force this way of speaking amongst all English speakers.

The two ideas I have looked at in this investigation are whether young people speak differently to their elders, and whether ‘standard English’ is the preserve of the middle and upper classes.

To research my first idea, I conducted a survey consisting of slang words and their meanings among a group of retired adults. It consisted of terms regularly used by teenagers such as sick, and safe, and required them to know in what context each word was used.

For the latter, I recorded a conversation between two people in a café in Altrincham, and between two people at home in Fenham, Newcastle. By comparing the two, I was able to see the differences not only in accent, but in dialect as well.

Slang terms are very popular among young people today. Identify the words below and their current slang definition.








Kick Lairy:





When conducting my survey, I asked ten retired people local to my area of Sale what each word meant. I was surprised to see how many were correct, which is contradictory to what Honey believes. On average, the people I asked knew 7 out of 12 of the words in the survey. This suggests that the slang terms that are currently popular may not be totally new words. Certain words have a tendency to reappear through time, going in and out of fashion, which could be evidence as to why the people I asked knew so many. Another explanation is that slang terms aren’t just limited to young people, and that older generations can pick them up at work, in the pub, while shopping or from younger relatives or friends.

Analysing the recorded conversations was more difficult, as the content was very different. Also, as they were recorded in two different cities, it could be argued that this is not a fair representation of whether ‘standard English’ is only present among those of a better education, as the two areas do not correspond.

However, from my recordings I found that the two girls in the café were generally more hesitant about when speaking than those at home in Fenham. Perhaps this is because they are in a public place, and do not want others to know every minute detail about their lives, or it may be because they are formulating their sentences before speaking so as to sound more fluent when doing so. The conversation held in the house was more informal, with overlapping and breaks in speech more common. This however again could be argued as not being a fair representation as the subjects are in different environments.

Another factor I picked out was that slang terms and swearing were more common between the pair in Newcastle compared to those in Altrincham. Again, whether this was due to the surroundings I do not know, but it still reflects that people in a more affluent area tend to speak more politely, and that taboo language is more associated with those in poorer or more working class areas.

While both pairs talked about intimate details of their personal life, it was clear that the couple in the café were much more reserved when it came to revealing their problems, whereas those in Fenham were very open and brazen about their dilemmas, using more fillers and follow ups like “you know what I mean”.

In this particular comparison, I found that the two girls in the café were much more well-spoken, with a lesser pronounced accent than the two at home in Fenham, who both had strong Geordie accents and used a lot of regional dialect. This can be used as proof that ‘standard English’ is familiar in more typically middle-class surroundings than in strong working-class areas, which supports John Honey’s theory that ‘standard English’ is a class-based dialect. However, both pairs used slang terms, which suggests that it is widespread, and that ‘standard English’ has no effect on the colloquialisms used by teenagers.

From my first investigation, I found that although different generations may speak differently in regular conversation, the dialect over the years hasn’t changed as slang terms were still recognised by older people. As I have previously mentioned, language can be picked up anywhere, so it is inevitable that new words will circulate around people of all ages.

Personally, I do not agree with John Honey that the standard of English is slipping. I believe that the language is growing, by adding new words and phrases to everyday vocabulary. It is clear from my research that people still speak in ‘standard English’, albeit with various accents in varying degrees, otherwise nobody would be able to understand those in different areas to their own. However, I do find that speaking in ‘standard English’ is looked upon as being posh and pretentious in some circles, and as someone who has quite an indistinguishable accent I find that people make assumptions about me from the way I speak. Perhaps this is why speaking ‘standard English’ has been taken on by some, to project a better image of themselves in different company, to appear more intelligent or wealthier. Still, my research neither proves, nor disproves John Honey’s theory that the standard of the spoken English language is declining.

A Kermath

Men are Not from Mars, Women are Not From Venus

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Professor Deborah Cameron’s Language Theories

“Men are Not from Mars, Women are Not From Venus”

Since 1999, and the publication of John Gray’s book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” there has been a huge surge in popularity for the theory that men and women are so different in their communication, they might as well be from entirely different planets.  Deborah Cameron, however, believes that not only are these books inaccurate and based on extreme stereotypes, that they also have the potential to be very dangerous.  She believes books such as Gray’s bestseller, and similar titles “The Essential Difference” by Simon Baren-Cohen, “If men could talk” and “Why Men don’t Iron,” can lead to sexism and stereotyping, especially in the workplace.  She believes that they have only stormed up the charts because the people attracted to them are desperate to understand why they sometimes have difficulties understanding, and being understood by, others.   Suggesting that the differences are deeply ingrained within us all due to the way nature wired our brains rather than anything else, makes people feel at ease and less to blame.  These people find comfort in the ‘Mars and Venus’ theory because it is the popular belief.

Cameron also claims that these ‘popular books’ (ie. The ones that are bought a lot) are written in an often humorous, easy to read style to attract the average person to them, thus increasing their potential sales.  This means that they are far from the academic papers that they are attempting to be and so do not have to stand up to the same rigorous criticism and scrutiny and in fact do not really have to have reputable research to back up their claims.  This instead supports her theory that they are merely myths with little or no scientific backing whatsoever, and it is true that in the academic world the Mars and Venus theories have little support.  She indicates that people buy the books because they support the misconceptions that people often hear and believe, following the argument that you see what you are looking for and refuse to acknowledge (or simply ignore altogether) any counter-example.  She says writers who, nowadays, announce these sex-differences to be natural, are simply following a line of argument that has, thanks to the bestseller charts, turned from a hypothesis to be investigated, to an “unquestioned article of blind faith.”

Her latest book, “The Myth of Mars and Venus” sets out to prove exactly what you would expect from the title; that John Gray’s theory, and all other versions of it, are wrong.  To do this she quotes evidence gathered from various surveys and experiments carried out by other people.  By doing this, she claims, she is finding the truth by looking “beyond Mars and Venus.”

The Myths and the Evidence Against Them.

Cameron is keen to dispute many ‘myths’ with regards to language and communication differences between the sexes.  The first of these is that any differences that exist, are caused by male and female brains being wired completely.  In fact, Cameron does not believe that men and women really differ fundamentally in the way that they communicate and use language, or that women are naturally better at it.  She points to the TV programme “Ladette to Lady” in which working-class girls are coached to sound and act like upper-class women, to show that there is no generic way in which women speak. 

Another popular ‘misconception’ is the one that says that “Women talk more than men.”  Here, Cameron points out the wild inaccuracy of the many statements floating around the self-help universe, that say “women say over X words a day, whereas men say just Y,” with values of X ranging from 14000 to 35000, the most quoted value is 20000, and Y generally being just 7000. There has never actually been a controlled study of this, says Cameron, and so these facts are just pure guesswork (hence why they vary so much).  She claims that this is just a statement made up to sound clever, that has somehow found its way into the general public belief. 

Other claims made by the authors in the ‘Mars and Venus’ camp include that language and communication matter more to women, men use language in a competitive way (to get things done; they prefer to talk about things and facts) whereas women’s use of language is co-operative (to maintain equality and harmony, to make personal connections; they prefer discussing people, feelings and ideas).  She does not believe that, even when these differences exist (and she says they are definitely not just due to gender) they cause miscommunication between the sexes, causing problems in situations where men and women have to regularly interact, such as relationships.  She says that ‘miscommunication’ is fast becoming a wrongly used word meaning “I’m not getting what I want.”

A Summary of the Myths.

1 The differences in the way that men and women communicate is due to a fundamental difference in the way our brains work, and not down to the upbringing and environment of an individual.

2 There is a generic way in which female-brained people (and likewise male-brained people) communicate.

3 Language and communication matter more to women than to men; women talk more than men.

4 Men’s goals in using language tend to be about getting things done, whereas women’s tend to be about making connections to other people. Men talk more about things and facts, whereas women talk more about people, relationships and feelings.

5 Men’s way of using language is competitive, reflecting their general interest in acquiring and maintaining status; women’s use of language is cooperative, reflecting their preference for equality and harmony.

6 These differences routinely lead to “miscommunication” between the sexes, with each sex misinterpreting the other’s intentions. This causes problems in contexts where men and women regularly interact, and especially in heterosexual relationships.

Evidence to Disprove the Myths

The work of J Hyde, who looks at the effect of gender on many different aspects of life, including verbal and communicative behaviour, goes against the “Mars and Venus” theories.  This is done by working out a formula for ‘d’ the difference, which can then be compared over the categories.  The results show that in ‘almost every case’ the overall difference made by gender was either small or close to zero, ie. in conversation interruption, talkativeness and assertive speech.  The only two categories that showed a moderate difference were spelling accuracy and smiling (both of which females were moderately better at).  Hyde did find some differences that were very large such as in aggressiveness and distance they can throw, and she suggests that males perform better in these tests because as children, some mothers have been shown to act more warmly towards a boisterous boy than a quiet one, and vice versa for girls, encouraging certain behaviour.  Enforcing these gender stereotypes from birth is what causes these differences, pushing the case for nurture over nature in the differences between the sexes.  Hyde’s studies, Cameron says, show just how little difference there is between the sexes, disproving the “Mars and Venus” theory once and for all.

Why the Myths are so Dangerous

A lot of what Cameron has to say about the differences between the way men and women speak is to do with language and power being linked to nature versus nurture.  She says that because women in the past have always been expected to ‘serve’ men, that is why there are so many misconceptions about communication, and Mars and Venus gives men an excuse because it is always the woman who has to change the way she speaks; for example they are told to give direct requests like “Stop watching TV and take out the rubbish, now” rather than “The rubbish bin is full, could you sort it please?”

Cameron asks why it is the females who are expected to change and accommodate to the way men ‘communicate,’ even in the 21st Century when the sexes are apparently equal.  This is especially dangerous, Cameron says, in events like rape-cases, where juries often let a man off if he claims to have “misread her signals,” making the rape therefore the woman’s fault.  In the workplace it can lead to stereotypes which often lead to women’s disadvantage.  For example, in Baren-Cohen’s book, he lists jobs which he believe are more suited to either the female or the male brain.  According to him, women make better nurses because they are more compassionate and have better people skills, whereas men make better lawyers due to the ‘analytical and precise’ nature of their brains.  Cameron points out that if nurses cannot give out precise doses of drugs to their patients, they will cause harm, and that lawyers, no matter how well versed in the law, will get nowhere without communication and people skills.   She says that Baren-Cohen’s claims are “sexism, not science.”

Testing Cameron’s Ideas

Cameron’s ideas are hard to test, because I am unable to look at the brains of some male and female subjects and determine exactly what has made them work the way they do (be it childhood influence, environment or even that they come from different planets) so instead I have chosen to look at the ‘myths’ themselves, about the differences between men and women communicating.

I did a test which someone showed me, based on the diagram shown here:

A sentence is read to the subject, with the stressed parts of the sentence placed  along the red parts, and filler in the black bits.   Apparently, according to one variety of the myth, men will only hear the stressed, red bits, and ignore or not be able to process the black unstressed bits.

I read the sentence (stressed bits in bold) I’m feeling tired tonight, because school was really cold and exhausting but I’m looking forward to going out even though it’s a lot of effort but hopefully it’ll be fun and then asked the participants to tell me what I had said to them.

Participant 1, male, told me that I had said I was tired because school was cold, but “something’ll be…fun, right?”

Participant 2, female, told me I had said I was tired, and “going out was a lot of effort”

Participant 3, male, repeated the whole sentence back to me.  I asked him to put it in his own words and he said “You don’t want to go out because you are tired, but hopefully it’ll be fun”

Participant 4, female, said “You’re feeling tired after school but you still want to go out tonight because it’ll be fun,”

Participant 5, female, said “You’re feeling tired, school was tiring, but you want to go out because it’ll be fun, but it might be hard work.”

Participant 6, male said “You’re tired because school was exhausting, you’ll still go out tonight because it’ll be fun, but you’re probably going to find it takes a lot of effort.”


                M/F         STRESS1 FILLER1  STRESS2 FILLER2  STRESS3

1              M            Y              Y              N             N             Y

2              F              Y              N             Y              Y              N

3              M            Y (Y)        Y (N)        Y (Y)        Y (N)        Y (Y)

4              F              Y              Y              Y              N             Y

5              F              Y              Y              Y              Y              Y

6              M            Y              Y              Y              Y              Y

There was both a male and a female (5 and 6) who told me everything I had told them, casting doubt on the thought that men could not process the filler parts of the sentence.  All participants were able to repeat the first section of the sentence back to me, and four out of the six could tell me the next section too. 

For the males, Participant 1 focused on the beginning of the sentence and the last bit, picking up on 2 out of 3 stressed sections and 1 of 2 filler sections.  He also used a tag question for reassurance, something that is stereotypically female. Participant 3 was able to repeat the whole sentence word for word, but when I asked him to put it in his own words, he only remembered the stressed sections, which does prove the theory, as he had not processed all of the information in his head.  Participant 6 correctly repeated all of the sentence, and put it in his own words, which shows he had processed the information fully.

Of the females, Participant 2 picked up on 2 of 3 stress sections and 1 of 2 fillers, (the same as P1) which suggests that not all men and women process and pick up different information.  Participant 4 picked up on all but one of the filler sections, in her own words which suggests that her focus was at the beginning of the sentence but was lost in the middle (much like what the ‘myth’ says happens to men).  Participant 6, like 5, correctly told me all the information in her own words, which shows they had both processed the information and were able to recall it.

Overall, there was no definite trend between which sex could recall which parts of the sentence, which casts some doubt on the theory that men and women communicate differently.  It is clear that for both sexes, the beginning of the sentence is the easiest remembered, proving the need for front-focusing, but this experiment also cast a lot of doubt in my head that the way men and women communicate and understand is different.

 z williams

September 6, 2009

Sapir & Whorf

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The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis


Why does it matter that language may be sexist, racist and so on?  Apart from the obvious point that such language is offensive, many people that the language we hear and use has a big influence on the way we think.

There are two extreme views of this issue, the universalist and the relativist.

The universalist position is that all humans share common ways of thinking, a set of basic concepts about the world which we may call conceptual primes.  One example is relative distance, the distinction between “near” and “far”.  All languages, whatever their apparent differences, will provide means of expressing these essential concepts.  According to this view, language simply reflects our thoughts.  For example, racist terms exist because people have racist attitudes.  The notion that language reflects thought is known as reflectionism.

The relativist position is the opposite of the universalist.  We rely on language to form our ideas.  Individual languages differ greatly in both lexis and grammar.  It follows that the speakers of different languages will experience and understand the world in very different ways.

This position is mainly associated with two American linguists, Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941).  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as it is usually known, is that language actually determines thought.  This theory is described as linguistic determinism

Whorf studied the language of the native American Hopi people and observed that it was “timeless“.  It lacked time adverbs and did not mark verbs for tense as we do in English.  Hopi grammar was more concerned with distinguishing between what is objective and what is subjective.  Whorf concluded that a Hopi speaker must view the world very differently from a native English speaker. 

Other studies have focused on colour words.  Some languages have more words than others for labelling colours.  Many have around a dozen basic colour terms while others have as few as four. Different languages use colour words to divide up the spectrum in different ways.  Research into the Mexican language Tarahumara, which has only one word to cover both blue and green, suggested that its speakers distinguished between these colours less well than English speakers.

More recent work has largely discredited this extreme view, however. 


  • Even if we do not have a word or structure equivalent to one in another language, we can still find ways of expressing an idea from that language, using the words at our disposal.  For example, Australian aborigines whose native languages lack words for numbers can still learn numbers and be taught arithmetic.
  • It is doubtful whether we actually think in words.  How often have you heard someone say, “I know what I mean but I can’t put it into words”?  Some famous thinkers have claimed to rely more on mental images than language.
  • Language changes.  New words appear regularly.  Could this happen if our thinking was limited by our existing language?


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, then, is no longer accepted in its absolute form.  Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence that our thinking is influenced by language.  This can be seen as the weak version of the hypothesis

Elizabeth Loftus investigated eye witness testimony and its reliability.  How easy is it to influence a witness’s recall of an event?  She showed her subjects videos of traffic accidents and asked them to fill in a questionnaire.  However, there were different versions of the questions.  Some people were asked to estimate the speed of the vehicles “when they contacted”.  For other groups, the verb “contacted” was replaced by “hit”, “bumped”, “collided” or “smashed”.  The answers she received differed noticeably.  The more violent the verb used, the higher the estimated speed.  A week later, she asked some of her witnesses whether they had seen any broken glass.  (There had been none).  Again, the people who had been asked about cars “smashing” into each other were far more likely to say yes than those who had been asked about cars “hitting” each other.

You have probably studied persuasive language.  Rhetorical techniques such as the “power of three” are used because we see that they work. 

 However, all these examples show people being influenced by the language used to represent ideas or events to them.  This is not the same thing as saying that our native language structures our ability to think.

 Most linguists today accept that language and thought are interdependent.  Sexist language exists because of sexist attitudes.  But growing up in a society where such terms are current may encourage people to accept or adopt those attitudes.


            An important debate in linguistic theory is whether thought controls language or language controls thought. In their most extreme forms, the first of these positions is called reflectionism, the second determinism.

            The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests that language divides the complex flux of impressions we experience from the world into arbitrary categories. The result of this is that the way we perceive the world is influenced by the way our language organises and classifies it.

            However, the question as to just how much impact this has on thought has led to different versions of the hypothesis developing. Moderate Whorfianism asserts that thought processes are merely influenced by language organisation, whilst extreme Whorfianism says that thought processes are completely controlled by it. Therefore, in this latter form, the hypothesis is deterministic – i.e. the language you speak determines how you can think, or that you cannot have a certain thought without a particular word for it.

(However, Sapir and Whorf distanced themselves from the behaviourist stance that there is no difference between language and thought, thought being entirely linguistic.)

Linguistic relativism – the gulf between different languages

            Whorf, who was a student of Sapir, brought the hypothesis close to linguistic determinism. He developed the related idea of linguistic relativity: this suggests that, due to the control language has over thought, people who speak different languages perceive and think about the world quite differently from each other. He gave the example of Inuits having a supposedly large number of words for snow, and suggested that this meant they could better perceive minute differences in weather conditions than people of other languages.

            Analysis: There is some support for this. Researchers Kay & Kempton tested this   by asking participants to look at different coloured chips. They found that people      who possessed more specific colour words in their vocabulary were better able to            perceive differences in colour, ie, if you have a word for light-blue, your chances            of perceiving a difference between a light-blue and dark-blue chip may be enhanced. However, Pinker has dismissed this experiment as flawed, suggesting that all it showed was that subjects remembered of each chip both a non-verbal            image and a verbal label, as two forms of memory would be more reliable.

            This means that it can be difficult to translate language. Translating occurs between languages but also, Whorf argues, by reformulating within the same language the words used to express a thought. If you change the words with which you express an idea, you aren’t just expressing the same idea ‘in a different way’; you are expressing a subtly different idea. Further, this suggests that meaning does not reside ‘in’ a text itself, particularly in expressive forms of communication such as poetry, but rather is brought to the text through readers’ responses to specific words, which is in turn shaped by the reader’s cultural context.

            Analysis: There is both research and anecdotal evidence that ‘translating’ ideas      between different words can be problematic. An experiment by Loftus aimed to         gauge the impact of word usage on memory, specifically eyewitness testimony.             Showing participants the same film of a car crash, she then used different words –             contacted, hit, collided, smashed into – to trigger their recall. She found that this   affected how they remembered the film, suggesting that language used does    influence thought. Further, many authors and poets have resented the translation           of their works into different languages, feeling that changing the words used to             communicate their meaning will drastically alter the meaning itself. However,        others suggest that ‘no language is untranslatable’ as basic ideas (often scientific)    remain the same no matter how they are verbally expressed – this is universalism.         A cross-cultural version of Kay & Kempton’s study by the BBC found that people from 100 different societies grouped the 300 chips into the same six basic colour   groups.

The hypothesis today

            Although few support the hypothesis in its deterministic form, many linguists now accept the ideas of moderate Whorfianism. As well as emphasising the influence rather than control language has over thought, they suggest that it is a two-way process and the way we see the world, as communities or individuals, affects the language we use; and stress the importance of social context in shaping language use. However, some dismiss the hypothesis completely in favour of universalism. Indeed, evidence such as the BBC’s study and the Inuits’ fictional words for snow does seem to suggest that words used for specific concepts (especially if they are visibly observable) do not fundamentally change people’s perceptions of them. Nevertheless, this does not disprove the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis by any means. It seems likely not only that the verbal presentation of abstract concepts should do much more to affect their meaning than it does to concrete concepts such as colour, but also that language in the way it is formed, eg, questions, negation, line of argument leading to a conclusion, etc, affects more fundamentally the way that humans think.

Ways of testing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

            If our thoughts were really influenced by the language at our disposal, it follows that change in the terms a language uses for certain things will also alter people’s ideas of the things themselves. A good example of this is the growth of political correctness in the UK.

            Political correctness is a movement that started in the 1970s that aimed to change the language used towards minority groups and women, thus behaving more politely towards these groups. Established ways of referring to these groups in ways that often showed low regard for them were challenged and began to change. It shows the extent to which political correctness has made an impact that many of such commonplace terms from the 1970s are regarded as highly offensive today.

            However, the prejudice remaining in today’s society means that the actual effectiveness of political correctness is unclear. Reflectionists would argue that this is because the human impulse to fight for superiority by belittling others is still constant, regardless of whether it is expressed differently today. But there is the possibility that the development of less offensive terms for women and minority groups has lessened people’s prejudice against them.

            I am going to test this and thus the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I shall first establish whether certain words create a more negative picture of women than similar ones do of men, and then see whether changes in terms used to describe women has reduced the negative response.


a) Terms referring to a certain concept in women will provoke more negative connotations than terms describing a similar concept in men (see below, ‘gawky’ v.s ‘dowdy’, ‘slut’ v.s ‘rake’).

b) Terms used for women during the 1970s (‘housewife’, ‘actress’) will provoke more negative connotations than modern terms (‘stay-at-home mum’, the gender-neutral ‘actor’). 

METHODOLOGY: I presented 3 people with the following instructions and list of words, and gave them five minutes to record their responses.

What do these words make you think of?

What kind of person are these words describing?

What would they be like? How would they behave?

Housewife, Actor, Slut, Gawky, Actress, Stay-at-home mum, Dowdy, Rake

RESULTS: Housewife

Middle aged  working class woman, during 1940’s or 1950’s- caring little for her appearance or her own needs, doing tedious tasks for others. Proaly aproned and wearing scarf over her hair

Dowdy, small, unambitious, unassuming, old fashioned as a social role

Downtrodden woman, old-fashioned, dull, ignored, cleaning/cooking all day


Flamboyant quirkily dressed person with clear anunciation and distinct mannerisms, male, youngish

Talkative, extravert, demonstrative, flamboyant, observing others’ behaviour, mannersims and speech

Loud, self-confident, charismatic, cultured


Female young tending to plump, little care in her appearance,  for example laddered tights grubby clothing  too tight and slightly too small, underwear visible, promiscuous, working class, little education

Loud, blonde, make up, swaggering, overtly sexual in speech and behviour

Female, promiscuous, “lower-class”, cheap, wears lots of make-up but not very well, emotionally shallow


Tall awkward looking quality of a person, usually male

Clumsy, shy, male, adolescent, long limbed, all fingers and thumbs

Awkward mannerisms, male, socially unskilled, teenager, long-limbed


Female more demonstrative and extroverted than the male version but otherwise fairly similar

Insightful, articulate, stylish, ambitious, highly socialised with other men and women

Diva, flighty, glamourous, vain, melodramatic, egotistical, not very intelligent

Stay-at-home mum

Modern woman who has made positive choice to look after her children

Hardworking, conscientious, gossippy, maternal, would love a proper job but has sacrificed this

Caring, has made a choice not to work to help her children


Frumpish woman, lazy, dull

Female, small, hunched, grey, old fashioned with limited horizons

Older woman, small-minded, dresses drably, unattrative – has let herself go

Rake (not the garden implement kind)

Young male, historical figure tending to hedonism, misogynistic no doubt

Male, young, rich, languid, upper class young man of the old order

Male, young, rich, allowed licence to behave how he wants, successful with women but won’t commit


a) Responses also differed in the terms applying similar concepts to males and to females. For example –

Common ideas about ‘slut’/number of times occurring

Too sexually active – 5

Appearing seedy/unattractive – 3

Not very intelligent –2

Common ideas about ‘rake’/number of times occurring

Sexually successful/indulgent – 2

Wealthy/upper class – 3

Allowed freedom – 2

In contrast to the former response, the only implication ‘rake’ indicating sexual excess is in the description ‘tending to hedonism’ – and even this more suggests a chosen way of life rather than a character flaw. Meanwhile, the word ‘gawky’ was seen as more a physical trait, rather than a sign of unattractiveness or a flawed character as ‘dowdy’ was.

b) There was significant difference in response to 1970s terms compared to modern terms. For example –

Common ideas about ‘housewife’/number of times occurring

Low status – 3

Unimportance as an individual – 6

Old-fashioned – 3

Common ideas about ‘stay-at-home mum’/number of times occuring

Choice/ability to do other things – 4

Positive feminine attributes, nurturing instinct etc – 3

The difference in attributed qualities suggests that the participants’ ideas about the concept were shaped by the words they used. The responses to ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ were also different, with ‘actress’ seen as more social, but the difference was less marked. On reflection, this is probably somewhat due to ambiguity in the test material – at least one participant assumed ‘actor’ referred exclusively to males, rather than being an inclusive gender-neutral term as I intended it.


a) As comparing terms for similar male and female attributes showed, language carries prejudices within it against certain groups, here, women. This conclusion alone could be used to support either reflectionism or determinism. However –

b) Comparing 1970s terms for women with modern terms for women suggests that it is often the words themselves that carry the prejudice. Changing terms used for minority groups and women can actually change people’s views about them, as political correctness has done. This suggests that language at least influences the way we think, supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

1970: Your wife won’t be able to stall the car or grind the gears – and there’s even one pedal fewer to confuse her with the Mini Automatic



R Lewis

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