Language Change: Progress or Decay?

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For example, he found that the upper middle class pronounced r in words such as car, beard just under 20 per cent of the time in casual speech, but over 30 per cent of the time in careful speech, and around 60 per cent Charting the changes 49 of the time when they read word lists. For the working class the comparable figures were under 10 per cent for casual speech, just over 10 per cent for careful speech, and around 30 per cent for reading word lists.

They have also been extended to old documents, where change within different styles can be examined. First, they give more information about formal than casual speech, because people tend to be extra polite in interviews with strangers. Second, they imply that society is a fairly simple layer-cake with upper class, middle class and working class heaped on top of one another.

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In practice, humans are more like stars than sponge-cakes, since they group themselves into loose-knit clusters. Study of these social networks can reveal the intricate interlacing of human contacts. Potentially, they can show who influences who. So ideally, broad, outline surveys need to be supplemented by smaller-scale studies of speech within networks.

Social networks vary in density. Sometimes they are close-knit, when the same group of people live, work, and spend their free time together. Or they can be loose-knit, as with neighbours who chat occasionally, colleagues who meet only at work, or a choir which gets together once a week for singing practice. Quite often a person is most closely associated with one network, but has weaker links with several others see Figure 3. The study of language change within social networks was pioneered in a project in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where Jim and Lesley Milroy studied three working-class communities in the inner city.

This has led to dense, multi-stranded networks, in which people work, play and live in the same group. The fieldworker Lesley entered one area by mentioning the name of a student who had once lived there. The fieldworker needs to collect enough data from different ages and sexes to make a useful statistical analysis, but the emphasis is on acquiring a rounded picture of the speech of a smallish group, rather than on semiformal samples of a wide range of people.

Lesley sometimes had to be very patient. She notes: A fairly familiar but not necessarily intimate visitor entering a working-class house in Belfast may sit in total silence without the host feeling the slightest obligation to say anything to him at all. I adopted a similar behaviour pattern, on one occasion sitting for nearly two hours in complete silence while two brothers completed their football pools in the same room. Two more people both women well known to me came in during this period, nodded a greeting and remained silent.

Interaction was finally initiated by the brothers arguing over the ownership of a pair of socks. The others laughed mockingly.

Next time the boy spoke, his style had shifted markedly. A broad-range survey, therefore, can show the general outlines of a change. But network analysis can sometimes narrow this down to understanding the mechanisms of language spread in more detail.


And if two people do it. And if three people do it! And can you imagine fifty people a day? I said fifty people a day. The following is a typical comment by an early twentieth-century writer on the seemingly mysterious origins of sound change: No records have ever been kept of these first beginnings of regular changes of sound. We know that English wah has changed to waw, and we can give approximate dates for some stages of this process; but we do not know when or where or in whose pronunciation the first impulse towards the change occurred.

It is still true that, for the majority of past changes, we are unlikely to know who started them, and where they began. However, thanks to the work of scholars such as Labov, whose methods were discussed in the last chapter, we are now in a position to observe changes happening with far greater accuracy than ever before. We can see how they spread, and, in some cases, trace them to their point of origin. This is what we shall be considering in this and the next three chapters. Before looking at the changes in detail, we need to distinguish between conscious and unconscious change, since this difference is likely to affect the way a change spreads.

On the one hand, we find changes which people realize are happening, and actively encourage. On the other hand, we also 55 56 Transition find changes which people do not notice. In this chapter, we will look at one conscious and one unconscious one. Most have tried to change their speech in one way or another, and would be sincerely complimented to be told that they do not sound like New Yorkers.

In the last chapter, we described how Labov tackled the problem of New York r. After a preliminary department-store survey, he went on to a more comprehensive analysis of r-usage in certain areas of New York City. Using survey techniques developed by sociologists, he obtained systematic speech samples from different socio-economic, ethnic, age and sex groups, in a variety of language styles.

Let us begin by looking at Figure 4. What does this chart tell us? First, it confirms the findings of the department-store survey in that it shows that r-insertion in words such as bear, beard is socially prestigious, since it occurs more frequently in the casual and formal speech of the upper middle class than of the lower social classes. A further indication of social prestige is that the more careful the speech style, the more likely r is to be pronounced.

Obviously, when people speak Spreading the word 57 Figure 4. Further evidence of its prestige value was provided by the finding that, when questioned about whether they pronounced r, New Yorkers claimed to insert r more often than they actually did. It is a common observation that many people think that they speak in a more socially prestigious way than they really do.

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The most interesting feature on the chart, however, is the speech behaviour of the lower middle class. There is an enormous difference between the percentage of rs used in casual speech under 10 per cent and those inserted in reading word lists around 60 per cent. When they read word lists, lower-middle-class New Yorkers use even more rs than the upper middle class! What is the significance of this strange over-use of r, or hypercorrection, as Labov calls it?

The more they insert these forms in careful speech, the more they will get into the habit of inserting r in casual speech. In this way, the proportion of rs will gradually creep upwards. This tendency provides a feed-back mechanism which is potentially capable of accelerating the introduction of any prestige feature. On the one hand, they will be familiar with the speech of those who are going to college, whether or not they belong to this group.

On the other hand, their parents and teachers will also use this prestige pattern in formal circumstances. This change seems to be strongest in the languageconscious lower middle class, particularly lower-middle-class women, who are imitating and, in some cases, exaggerating a prestige feature found in the speech of the upper middle class.

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Can we go further, and find out how r came to be in the speech of the upper middle class in New York in the first place? We find, on examination, that r has a strange, fluctuating history in American speech. We know, from spelling and other sources, that both British and American speech once had an r in words such as car, card.

By the end of the eighteenth century, this r had disappeared from the speech of London and Boston. Then New York, apparently following the lead of these fashionable cities, lost its r in the next century. There are reports that it was r-less by the mid nineteenth century, when, for example, a New York poet rhymed shore Spreading the word 10 59 with pshaw. When and how did this sudden change come about?

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The reintroduction of r, which brought New York in line with the use of r in most other American dialects, seems to have occurred around the time of the Second World War. One possibility is that around this time New Yorkers had a growing awareness of themselves as American, and picked a non-British style of speech on which to model themselves.

But this is speculation. All we can say is that the r-less pronunciation began to lose ground from the s onwards. This New York change, then, is a conscious one, in which the lower middle class are playing a prominent role. The change progresses as New Yorkers insert a greater proportion of rs in their speech, starting consciously with the most formal speech styles. It was always present in some dialects of American English. The change occurred when these r dialects were taken as a prestige model by the rest of America. New York is, in many ways, an extraordinary city.

To what extent is this New York change typical of language changes in general? We will discuss this question by considering further 60 Transition examples of change. We will next look at a change which is rather different. Every socio-economic class, age group or ethnic group meets so many different people, and has so many conflicting influences that it is hard to know where to begin. For this reason, Labov in his early work tried to find an area which was relatively self-contained.

The island itself is shaped roughly like a gigantic shark, with its head lying to the east, and its tail to the west see Figure 4. The eastern part of the island is more densely populated by the permanent residents, and is the area mostly visited by the summer visitors, who have bought up almost the entire northeast shore, a fact deeply resented by some of the old inhabitants.

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The western third of the island is known as Up-island. It is strictly rural, and, apart from a few villages, contains salt ponds, marshes, and a large central area of uninhabited pine barrens.

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It is in this western part that most of the original population of the island live. He noted that, Spreading the word Figure 4.