Grammar and identity: Prestige, gender, and sexual orientation

A number of student in my grammar class have written essays about relative prestige in terms of grammar.

The Wikipedia has a very good entry on linguistic prestige (their linguistic entries are generally very good).

Particularly interesting for many, might be the section on gender and prestige. This section discusses what has become a rule of thumb in socio-linguistics, that men tend to speak a variety that is lower than their actual social class (i.e. is perceived by the speech community as being characteristic of a lower class) whereas women either speak at their social class level or above it.

The usual view is that men are the marked group in this (i.e. that is to say the reason for the difference is that men are doing something, rather than women). What it is thought is going on is that for men, the use of a lower class variety is a form of “covert prestige,” that is to say acquiring prestige in a counter-intuitive way by asserting a lack of prestige (sort of like a false humility or humble brag). In the case of men, this shows up in that they often claim to speak a lower dialect than they actually do.

There are some really neat studies of this. One recent one, cited by the Wikipedia, looks at Fraternity Brothers use of [n] rather than [ŋ] in words ending in – ing (most English speakers consider “dropping your g’s” in this context—that is to say using [n] rather than [ŋ] to be less prestigious).

Whether women speak a more prestigious dialect than their actual class or not is more of a subject of debate. Again the Wikipedia has some interesting references.

The foundational study in all this is William Labov’s famous study of “New York Shop Girls” and their use of /r/. New York city (and New England more generally) is a non-rhotic dialect area (meaning they drop the /r/ in words like Harvard or yard (broadly /havəd/ instead of /harvərd/ and /jad/ instead of /jard/) Since the second World War, however, rhotic pronunciation has been considered more prestigious. What Labov did was spend a day going round different department stores asking the sales clerks questions for which the answer was “the fourth floor.” His theory was that sales clerks in a higher end store (like Saks) would tend to be more rhotic (that is to say more likely to pronounce the /r/ in fourth) than those working in a lower end department store like Kleins. And that those in a mid-range store (like Macy’s) would be between the two in frequency.

The answer was exactly what he thought it would be:

the employees at Saks pronounced r most often, Macy’s employees pronounced r less often, and at S. Klein, seventy-nine percent of the respondents said no r at all. Another trend Labov noticed was that at all three of the stores, but Macy’s in particular, when prompted to say “fourth floor” a second time, employees were much more likely to pronounce the r (Wikipedia).

Finally, on a some what orthogonal note, there’s this study: Sexuality in Context: Variation and the Sociolinguistic Perception of Identity, Language in Society 36.4 (2007): 533-554.

This article illustrates the use of an empirical method for examining the perceptual identification of gayness in male speakers. It demonstrates how, by digitally manipulating the speech of isolated individuals, it is possible to obtain reliable evidence that pitch range and sibilant duration may act as indexical of a gay male identity. Further scrutiny of this result, however, illustrates that linguistic indexicality is not as straightforward as it originally appears. Subsequent analyses of the data highlight the ways in which the perceptual evaluation of sexuality is a highly contingent process, dependent upon a variety of sociolinguistic factors. An envelope of variation in listeners’ affective judgments of a speaker is shown to exist, and it is argued that research on the perception of identity must go beyond identification of salient features, and also consider when and why these features are not salient.

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