Social and Ethnic Dialects (Lecture Notes)
From Wolfram, Chapter Six

In contrast to regional dialects, our society often perceives social and ethnic dialects negatively. While we may have a positive sense of nostalgia about quaint folk expressions or words from regional speech, our society often makes more severe judgments about other people if the speech differences are viewed as social or ethnic. These may include judgments about:

SOCIAL DIALECTOLOGY is a relatively new area of linguistic study that emerges in the 1960s at a time that our society was becoming increasingly aware of cultural and ethnic differences.  Instead of simply being interested in the preservation of different dialects or their historical development, it expands the study of language differences and begins to focus on how the study of language can perhaps contribute to resolving certain social problems.

I. DEFINING SOCIAL CLASS-- We are all aware of social differences, but identifying the specific characteristics that correlate with social status is often problematic. Americans, in particular, have a difficult time defining social class. Consider for a moment, what specific traits make one a member of the lower, middle or upper class in America?

Whatever the combination of features is, most sociologists agree that social class distinctions seem to be based on two elements:

In considering these elements, however, we need to include an additional element.  The real discriminators of social class are the members of the particular community who comprise the various social strata who may see social class quite differently than more objective outsiders will. Communities (which can often be viewed as a whole to belong to ONE particular social class) may have designations particular subgroups in terms of the social status hierarchy, and these can be used to determine class distinctions. As a result, the broader categories that determine social class from a national perspective (above) may be defined quite differently.

Can you think of any examples of this?

Finally, in defining social class we need to be aware of how our model typically emphasizes aspects of SOCIAL PRESTIGE and BEHAVIORIAL NORMS; however, other cultures do not necessarily define social class the same way. Consider the differences between these two models:

II. Beyond Social Class: Other Socio-Linguistic Variables

In addition to such factors as region, age, education and gender, the following also influence the development of social or ethnic dialects:

1. The Linguistic Marketplace--
2. Social Networks--
3. Location-- potential differences between urban and rural
4. Where linguistic change occurs (at what class level)

III. The Social Evaluation of Linguistic Features: How we evaluate or perceive linguistic differences.

Our evaluation of linguistic forms related to social class are always ARBITRARY and exist on a CONTINUUM.

These variants include lexical, phonological, and grammatical elements. See page 158-59 for examples.

The distinction between these two forms of prestige is important for understanding why all vernacular speakers do not rush to become standard dialect speakers. It is indeed possible for a socially stigmatized form in one setting to have covert prestige in another.

See examples on pages 159-160

III. Social Class and Language Change

How Change Occurs:

What Social Classes are most likely to start language change?

Changes from Above

Changes from Below