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Prestige (sociolinguistics)

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Title: Prestige (sociolinguistics)  
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Subject: Sociolinguistics, Linguistic insecurity, Language planning, List of prestige dialects, Singlish
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Prestige (sociolinguistics)

In sociolinguistics, prestige is the level of respect normally accorded to a specific language or dialect within a particular speech community, relative to other languages or dialects. Sociolinguistic prestige is therefore one manifestation of, or analogous to, the more general phenomenon of social stratification – especially social class. In general, a language or dialect associated with an upper class has positive prestige, while a language or dialect associated with a lower class has "negative prestige". Historical examples of prestige languages include the court languages used by royal elites. At the opposite extreme, members of underclasses have often communicated in particular forms of cant.

Prestige languages/dialects are often tied closely to a standardized language/dialect, in that the latter is usually considered more prestigious within a speech community, than a language/dialect that diverges significantly from linguistic norms. However, there are many exceptions to this rule, such as Arabic, in which Egyptian Arabic is widely used in mass media aimed at international audiences, while Literary Arabic (also known as Standard Arabic) is a more prestigious form.[1][2][3]

Sociolinguistic prestige is especially visible in situations where two or more distinct languages are in use, and in diverse, socially stratified urban areas, in which there are likely to be speakers of different languages and/or dialects interacting frequently.

Despite any perceptions that a particular dialect or language is "good/better" or "worse/bad" than its counterparts, when dialects and languages, are assessed "on purely linguistic grounds, all languages — and all dialects — have equal merit".[4][5][6]


  • Causes 1
  • Effects on attitudes towards language 2
    • Language or dialect? 2.1
    • Class and prestige 2.2
      • Dialect differentiation and social stratification in a North Indian village 2.2.1
      • Social stratification of New York City 2.2.2
      • Gender and covert prestige 2.2.3
    • Connection with "standard" language 2.3
      • Racial harmony and language standardization in Singapore 2.3.1
  • In language contact situations 3
  • Effects on language structure 4
    • Diglossia 4.1
    • Vernacularization 4.2
    • Regionalization 4.3
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Different languages and dialects are accorded prestige based upon factors which include "rich literary heritage, high degree of language modernization, considerable international standing, or the prestige of its speakers".[7] Having many of these attributes will likely mean the language is viewed as being of high prestige; likewise, a language or dialect with few or none of these attributes will be considered to be of low prestige. This phenomenon is not limited to English-speaking populations. In Western Europe, multiple languages were considered to be of high prestige at some time or another, including "Italian as the Mediterranean lingua franca and as the language of the Renaissance; and the 17th-18th century French of the court culture".[8]

There is a strong correlation between the prestige of a group of people and the prestige accorded to the language they speak, as "language is intertwined with culture".[9] Linguist Laurie Bauer's description of Latin's prestige exemplifies this phenomenon:

Walt Wolfram, a professor of linguistics at North Carolina State University, notes that he "can't think of any situations in the United States where low-prestige groups have high-prestige language systems".[4]

Effects on attitudes towards language

Language or dialect?

Prestige influences whether a language variety is considered a language or a dialect. In discussing definitions of language, Dell Hymes wrote that "sometimes two communities are said to have the same, or different, languages on the grounds of mutual intelligibility, or lack thereof", but alone, this definition is often insufficient.[11] Different language varieties in an area exist along a dialect continuum, and moving geographically often means a change in the local variety. This continuum means that despite the fact that standard German and standard Dutch are not mutually intelligible, the speech of people living near the border between Germany and the Netherlands will more closely resemble that of their neighbors across the border than the standard languages of their respective home countries. Even so, speakers near the border would describe themselves as speaking a variety of their respective standard languages, and the evolution of these dialects tends to mirror that of the standard languages as well.[12][13] That they are classified as such reflects the fact that "language differences are not only marks of differential group membership, but also powerful triggers of group attitudes".[14] Such fuzziness has resulted in the aphorism "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy." That is, speakers of some language variety with political and social power are viewed as having a distinct language, while "'dialect' is [...] a term that suggests lower-class or rural speech".[15] A canonical example of this is the Scandinavian languages, including Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian, where language differences "constitute barriers to but do not wholly block communication", but are considered distinct languages because they are spoken in different countries.[16]

Class and prestige

While some differences between dialects are regional in nature, there are also social causes for differences in dialects. Very often, the "public prestige dialect of the elite in a stratified community differs from the dialect(s) of the non-elite strata (working class and other)".[17] In fact, in an article which in part tried to motivate the study of sociolinguistics, Raven McDavid wrote that "the importance of language as a mirror of culture can be demonstrated by dialect differences in American English".[18] Thus the relation between the way speakers use a language and their social status is a long recognized tool in sociolinguistics.

Dialect differentiation and social stratification in a North Indian village

One of the earliest studies of the relationship between social differences and dialect differences was done by John Gumperz, who studied the speech patterns in Khalapur, a small, highly stratified village in India. In all, the village has 31 castes, ranging from Brahmins and Rajputs at the top, to Chamars and Bhangis at the bottom, and 90% of the overall population was Hindu, with the remaining 10% Muslim.[19] Gumperz observed that the different castes were distinguished both phonologically and lexically, with each caste having a vocabulary specific to their subculture.[20] Remarkably, the speech differences between Hindus and Muslims "are of the same order as those between individual touchable castes and certainly much less important than the variation between touchables and untouchables".[21] Gumperz also observed that the lower prestige groups sought to imitate the higher prestige speech patterns, and that over time, that had caused the evolution of the prestige away from the regional standard, as higher prestige groups sought to differentiate themselves from lower prestige groups.[21] Gumperz concluded that in determining speech patterns in this community, "the determining factor seems to be informal friendship contacts", rather than work contacts.[22]

Social stratification of New York City

One notable example of the relationship between dialect and social stratification in English is William Labov's 1966 study of the variable pronunciation of r in New York City. Labov went to three New York City department stores that catered to three clearly delineated socioeconomic groups—Saks (high), Macy's (middle), and S. Klein (low)—and studied how their employees pronounced the phrase "fourth floor". His results demonstrated that 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.[23]

Labov attributed his findings to the perceived prestige of each dialect. He noted that New York City's "dropped 'r' has its origins in posh British speech", but after World War II, "with the loss of Britain’s imperial status “r"-less British speech ceased to be regarded as “prestige speech"".[24] In 1966, when Labov performed his study, pronouncing words like car and guard with r was then considered an element of prestige speech.[25] This resulted in middle-class employees, once made conscious of having to pronounce "fourth floor", altering their pronunciation in order to match that of the high prestige dialect. The prestige given to r was also evident in the hypercorrection observed in lower-class speech. Knowing that r-pronunciation was a prestigious trait, many of the lower-class speakers in another Labov study—in which speakers were asked to read from word lists—added -r to words that did not have an r at all. The difference between this study and the "fourth floor" study was the fact that speakers were closely monitoring their speech, not speaking spontaneously, and were thus careful to add r in an attempt to mimic a higher social class.[26]

Gender and covert prestige

Non-standard dialects are usually considered low-prestige, but in some situations dialects "stigmatized by the education system still enjoy a covert prestige among working-class men for the very reason that they are considered incorrect".[27] These situations occur when the speaker wants to gain recognition, acceptance, or solidarity with a specific—and non-prestigious—group of people, or to signal to other speakers their identification with that group.[28] The idea of covert prestige was first introduced by William Labov, who noticed that even speakers who used non-standard dialects often believed that their own dialect was "bad" or "inferior". Labov realized that there must be some underlying reason for their use of the dialect, which he identified as a signal of group identity.[29] One example is a 1998 study on the use of word-final -ing versus -in among college fraternity men in the United States. The fraternity men used "-in" rather than "-ing," from which the author concluded that the men used -in to demonstrate what they saw as working-class behavioral traits, such as 'hard-working' and 'casual,' thus creating a specific identity for themselves.[30]

Likewise, in studies of the speech patterns in British English, Peter Trudgill observed that more working class women spoke the standard dialect than men.[31] Farida Abu-Haidar performed a similar study in Baghdad of prestige in the Arabic language, after which she concluded that in Baghdadi Arabic, women are more conscious of prestige than are men.[32] Other areas in which this has been observed include New Zealand and Guangdong in China.[33][34] As explanation, Trudgill suggests that for men, there is covert prestige associated with speaking the working class dialect.[35] In fact, he observed men claiming to speak a less prestigious dialect than that which they actually spoke. According to this interpretation then, "women's use of prestige features simply conforms to the ordinary sociolinguistic order, while men deviate from what is expected."[36] Elizabeth Gordon, in her study of New Zealand, suggested instead that women used higher prestige forms because of the association of sexual immorality with lower-class women.[37] Whatever the cause, women across many cultures seem more likely than men to modify their speech towards the prestige dialect.

Though women use prestige dialects more frequently than do men, the same gender preference for prestige languages does not seem to exist. A study of diglossic societies by John Angle and Sharlene Hesse-Biber showed that the men were more likely to speak the prestige language than were women.[38] One explanation put forth for this is that men are more likely to have the means of acquiring a second language than are women.

Connection with "standard" language

The notion of a "standard" language in a speech community is related to the prestige of the languages spoken in the community. In general, "greater prestige tends to be attached to the notion of the standard, since it can function in higher domains, and has a written form."[39] While there are some counterexamples, such as Arabic, "prestigious and standard varieties coincide to the extent that the two terms can be used interchangeably."[1] This has a consequence that in countries like the United States, where citizens speak many different languages and come from a variety of national and ethnic groups, there is a "folk linguistic" belief that most prestigious dialect is the single standard dialect of English that all people should speak.[40] Linguist Rosina Lippi-Green believes that this belief in a standard language justifies and rationalizes the preservation of the social order, since it equates "nonstandard" or "substandard" language with "nonstandard or substandard human beings."[4] Linguists believe that no language, or variety of language, is inherently better than any other language, for every language serves its purpose of allowing its users to communicate.[41]

Racial harmony and language standardization in Singapore

One example of the interplay between standard languages and prestige is Singapore. Racial harmony is a stated policy of the Singaporean government, and a racial harmony day is even celebrated.[42] One element of policy designed to promote racial harmony is the usage of four official governmental languages: Mandarin Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English. Bilingualism is also officially promoted in accordance with the belief that the ethnic language is the "carrier of culture" while English is the "language of commerce," a choice motivated by the fact that English had historically been the language of the colonial administration, while being the native language of few Singaporeans at the time of the policy's implementation.[43] With English as the lingua franca, no one ethnicity is favored, but the cultures are preserved. The idea behind this policy is that treating all languages as standard and thus equally prestigious will result in the speakers of each language being treated equally.[44]

While the Singaporean government promotes "Standard English" as a lingua franca, it heavily discourages the usage of Singlish, a Chinese- and Malay-influenced, English-based creole language,[45][46][47] widely spoken by Singaporeans, but virtually unintelligible to foreign speakers of English. Singapore's current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and both its former prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, have each campaigned against the usage of Singlish,[48] declaring it an obstacle to communication with the rest of the English-speaking world, and a substandard, "broken English,"[49] that ought not be part of Singapore's identity.[50] Annually, the government launches a Speak Good English campaign, "to encourage Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English that is universally understood,"[51] while urging citizens to purge Singlish from their speech.[52] In line with government policy, schools emphasize standard English, and try to minimize the usage of Singlish in the classroom, holding that Singlish hinders the learning of "proper" English.[53][54] The Media Development Authority, a statutory board of the government, urges Singaporean mass media to use as little Singlish as possible, declaring it appropriate only for "interviews, where the interviewee speaks only Singlish."[55] Despite these policies, however, the usage of Singlish outside formal, institutional contexts remains widespread.

Similar to its policies regarding the English language, the Singaporean government also promotes a single, standardized form of Chinese, discouraging the usage of dialects. While the Chinese community of Singapore historically spoke several different varieties of Chinese,[56][57] such as Cantonese, Teochew, and Hokkien, the government has promoted Mandarin, both as a means of unifying Chinese Singaporeans under a common language, and to facilitate communication with Chinese people from outside Singapore. Since 1979, the Speak Mandarin Campaign has promoted use of Mandarin, spurred of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's promotion of Mandarin as more suited communication than non-Mandarin dialects are, as it is spoken by a larger number of people worldwide.

In language contact situations

When different languages or language varieties come in contact with one another, a variety of relationships can form between the two, all typically influenced by prestige. When the two contact languages have equal power or prestige, they form adstratum, as exemplified by Old English and Norse, which shared elements with each other more or less equally. Far more common is for the two languages to have an unequal power relationship, as is the case of many colonial language contact situations. Languages that have a higher status in relation to a certain group often manifest themselves in word borrowing. One example is in English, which features a large number of words borrowed from French, as a result of the historical prestige of French. Another potential result of such contact relationships includes the creation of a pidgin or eventually creole through nativization. In the case of pidgins and creoles, it is usually noted that the low prestige language provides the phonology, while the high prestige language provides the lexicon and grammatical structure.

In addition to forming of a new language—known as a creole—language contact can result in changes to the languages in contact, such as language convergence, language shift or language death. Language convergence is when two languages have been exposed for a long period of time and they begin to have more properties in common. Language shift is when a speaker shifts from speaking a lower prestige dialect to a higher prestige dialect. Language death is when speakers of a language die off, and there are no new generations learning to speak this language. The intensity of the contact between the two languages, as well as their relative prestige levels, influence the degree to which a language experiences lexical borrowing, as well as changes to the morphology, phonology, syntax, and overall structure of the language.[58]

Effects on language structure

When two languages with an asymmetrical power relationship come into contact—such as through colonization or in a refugee situation—the creole that results is typically largely based on the prestige language; as noted above, linguists have observed that the low-prestige language usually provides the phonology, while the high-prestige language provides the lexicon and grammatical structure. Over time, continued contact between the creole and the prestige language may result in decreolization, in which the creole begins to more closely resemble the prestige language. Decreolization thus creates a creole continuum, ranging from an acrolect (a version of the creole that is very similar to the prestige language), to mesolects (decreasingly similar versions), to the basilect (the most “conservative" creole). An example of decreolization described by Hock and Joseph is African American Vernacular English (AAVE), in which older, more conservative versions preserve features such as the completive marker done, while newer, less conservative versions do not.[59]


Some instances of contact between languages with different prestige levels have resulted in diglossia, a phenomenon in which a community uses a high prestige language or dialect in certain situations—usually for newspapers, in literature, on university campuses, for religious ceremonies, and on television and the radio—but uses a low prestige language or dialect for other situations—often in conversation in the home or in letters, comic strips, and in popular culture. Linguist Charles A. Ferguson's 1959 article "Diglossia" listed the following examples of diglossic societies: in Switzerland, Swiss Standard German and Swiss German; in the Middle East and North Africa, Standard Arabic and vernacular Arabics; in Haiti, Standard French and Haitian Creole; in Greece, Katharevousa and Dhimotiki; and in Norway, Bokmål and Nynorsk.[60]


In diglossic societies, the prestigious language tends to be very conservative and resist change over time, while the low-prestige language, the local vernacular, undergoes normal language change. For instance, Latin, the high prestige language of Europe for many centuries, underwent minimal change, while the everyday low prestige languages which were spoken evolved significantly. If, however, the two languages are spoken freely, the prestige language may undergo vernacularization and begin to incorporate vernacular features. An example is Sanskrit, an ancient prestige language that has incorporated the vernacular pronunciations of [] and [b] for word-initial y- and v-.[61]


The prestige language may also change under the influence of specific regional dialects in a process known as regionalization. For example, in medieval times, Ecclesiastical Latin developed different forms in various countries where it was used, including Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and other catholic countries, notably in pronunciation – see Latin regional pronunciation. Some of these differences were minor, such as c before i and e being pronounced [tʃ] in Italy but [s] in France, but after English underwent the Great Vowel Shift between 1200 and 1600, the vowel system in England became nearly unrecognizable to its European ecclesiastic counterparts.[62]

See also


  1. ^ a b Ibrahim 1986, p. 115
  2. ^ Jenkins, Siona. Egyptian Arabic Phrasebook. Lonely Planet Publications, 2001. p. 205
  3. ^ Haeri, Niloofar (2003). Sacred Language, Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in Egypt. Palgrave Macmillan, passim.
  4. ^ a b c Fox 1999
  5. ^ O'Grady et al. 2001, p. 7
  6. ^ Fasold and Connor-Linton 2006, p. 387
  7. ^ Kloss 1966, pp. 143–144
  8. ^ Kahane 1986, p. 495
  9. ^ Kahane 1986, p. 498
  10. ^ Bauer 1998, pp. 132–137
  11. ^ Hymes 1971, pp. 47–92
  12. ^ Trudgill 1992, p. 169
  13. ^ Wardhaugh 2006, p. 31
  14. ^ Haugen 1966b, p. 297
  15. ^ Haugen 1966a, p. 924
  16. ^ Haugen 1966b, p. 281
  17. ^ Kroch 1978, p. 17
  18. ^ McDavid 1946, p. 168
  19. ^ Gumperz 1958, p. 670
  20. ^ Gumperz 1958, p. 675
  21. ^ a b Gumperz 1958, p. 676
  22. ^ Gumperz 1958, p. 681
  23. ^ Wardhaugh 2006, p. 164
  24. ^ Seabrook 2005
  25. ^ Wardhaugh 2006, p. 165
  26. ^ Wardhaugh 2006, p. 167
  27. ^ Leith 1997, p. 96
  28. ^ Chambers 1998, p. 85
  29. ^ Labov 2006, p. 85
  30. ^ Kiesling 1998, p. 94
  31. ^ Trudgill 1972, p. 179
  32. ^ Abu-Haidar 1989, p. 471
  33. ^ Gordon 1997, p. 47
  34. ^ Wang 2008, p. 57
  35. ^ Trudgill 1972, p. 194
  36. ^ Fasold 1990, p. 117
  37. ^ Gordon 1997, p. 48
  38. ^ Angle 1981, p. 449
  39. ^ Leith 1997, p. 8
  40. ^ Niedzielski and Preston 2003, p. 44
  41. ^ Wardhaugh 2006, p. 335
  42. ^ Ministry of Education, Singapore 2010
  43. ^ Clammer 1998, pp. 40–42
  44. ^ Vasil 1995, pp. 64–66
  45. ^
  46. ^ Tien, Adrian, Chinese-based lexicon in Singapore English, and Singapore-Chinese culture (PDF) 
  47. ^ Leimgruber, Jakob, From Post-Creole Continuum to Diglossia: The Case of Singapore English (PDF), University of Oxford 
  48. ^ Deterding, David (2007) Singapore English, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 90-91.
  49. ^ Singapore to launch Speak-good-English campaign – Agence France Presse in Singapore, 30 August 1999. Retrieved 18 November 2010
  50. ^ Au Young, Jeremy (2007-09-22). "Singlish? Don't make it part of Spore identity: PM". The Straits Times. 
  51. ^ Speak Good English Movement – What We Do Retrieved 18 November 2010
  52. ^ "'"Singapore attack on 'Singlish.  
  53. ^ Foley, Joseph (2001) "Is English a first or second language in Singapore?", in Vincent B. Y. Ooi (ed.), Evolving Identities: The English Language in Singapore and Malaysia, Singapore: Times Academic Press, pp. 12-32.
  54. ^ Deterding, David (1998) 'Approaches to Diglossia in the Classroom: The Middle Way. REACT, 2, 18-23.' (on-line version)
  55. ^
  56. ^ 'A Critical Evaluation of Singapore's Language Policy and its Implications for English Teaching by Manfred Wu Man-Fat, Hong Kong.' Retrieved on 4 November 2010
  57. ^ Bokhorst-Heng, W.D. (1998). Unpacking the Nation. In Allison D. et al (Ed.), Text in Education and Society (pp. 202–204). Singapore: Singapore University Press.
  58. ^ Winford 2003
  59. ^ Hock 1996, p. 443
  60. ^ Ferguson 1959
  61. ^ Hock 1996, p. 340
  62. ^ Hock 1996, p. 341


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