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In sociolinguistics, prestige describes the level of respect accorded to a language or dialect as compared to that of other languages or dialects in a speech community. The concept of prestige in sociolinguistics is closely related to that of prestige or class within a society. Generally, there is positive prestige associated with the language or dialect of the upper classes, and negative prestige with the language or dialect of the lower classes. The concept of prestige is also closely tied to the idea of the standard language, in that the most prestigious dialect is likely to be considered the standard language, though there are some notable exceptions to this rule, such as Arabic.[1] Prestige is particularly visible in situations where two or more languages come in contact, and in diverse, socially stratified urban environments, in which there are likely to be speakers of different languages or dialects interacting frequently. Despite common perceptions that certain dialects or languages are relatively good or bad, correct or incorrect, "judged on purely linguistic grounds, all languages—and all dialects—have equal merit".[2]

Causes of prestige

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".[3] 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".[4]

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".[5] Linguist Laurie Bauer's description of Latin's prestige exemplifies this phenomenon:

The prestige accorded to the churchmen, lawyers and scholars who used Latin was transferred to the language itself. Latin was held to be noble and beautiful, not just the thoughts expressed in it or the people who used it. What is called 'beauty' in a language is more accurately seen as a reflection of the prestige of its speakers.[6]

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".[2]

Effects on attitudes towards language

Language or dialect?

Main article: 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.[7] 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.[8][9] 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".[10] 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".[11] 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.[12]

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)".[13] 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".[14] 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.[15] Gumperz observed that the different castes were distinguished both phonologically and lexically, with each caste having a vocabulary specific to their subculture.[16] 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".[17] 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.[17] Gumperz concluded that in determining speech patterns in this community, "the determining factor seems to be informal friendship contacts", rather than work contacts.[18]

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.[19]

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”".[20] In 1966, when Labov performed his study, pronouncing words like car and guard with r was then considered an element of prestige speech.[21] 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.[22]

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".[23] 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.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26]

Likewise, in studies of the speech patterns in British English, Peter Trudgill observed that more working class women spoke the standard dialect than men.[27] 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.[28] Other areas in which this has been observed include New Zealand and Guangdong in China.[29][30] As explanation, Trudgill suggests that for men, there is covert prestige associated with speaking the working class dialect.[31] 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."[32] 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.[33] 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.[34] 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

Main article: 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."[35] 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. 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."[2] In contrast to common popular opinions about standard languages being "better," 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.[36]

Racial harmony 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.[37] One element of policy designed to promote racial harmony is that each of the four major languages spoken in Singapore is treated as an official governmental language: Tamil, Malay, Chinese, 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, at the time of the policy's formation, English had been the native language of few Singaporeans.[38] 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.[39] While the Singaporean attitude towards different languages aims to promote equality, the opposite approach is taken with regard to dialects of Chinese. Since 1979, the Speak Mandarin Campaign has promoted use of Mandarin, due to then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's belief that Mandarin is more effective than non-Mandarin Chinese languages because Mandarin is spoken by a larger number of people worldwide. Overall, the Singaporean government promotes the idea that all languages are equally prestigious, but at the same time pushes Mandarin due to its prestige.[citation needed]

Linguistic prestige 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.[40]

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.[41]


Main article: Diglossia

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 Arabic; in Haiti, Standard French and Kréyòl; in Greece, Katharevousa and Dhimotiki; and in Norway, Bokmål and Nynorsk.[42]


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 every day 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 Template:IPAblink and [b] for word-initial y- and v-.[43]


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, England, Germany, Denmark, Hungary, and Slavic 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.[44]

See also


  • List of prestige dialects


  1. 1.0 1.1 Ibrahim (1986), p. 115.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 includeonly>Fox, Margalit. "The Way We Live Now: 9-12-99: On Language; Dialects", The New York Times, 1999-09-12. Retrieved on 2009-03-23.
  3. Kloss (1966), p. 143-144.
  4. Kahane (1986), p. 495.
  5. Kahane (1986), p. 498.
  6. Bauer (1998), pp. 132–137.
  7. Hymes (1971), pp. 47–92.
  8. Trudgill (1992), p. 169.
  9. Wardhaugh (2006), p. 31.
  10. Haugen (1966b), p. 297.
  11. Haugen (1966a), p. 924.
  12. Haugen (1966b), p. 281.
  13. Kroch (1978), p. 17.
  14. McDavid (1946), p. 168.
  15. Gumperz (1958), p. 670.
  16. Gumperz (1958), p. 675.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Gumperz (1958), p. 676.
  18. Gumperz (1958), p. 681.
  19. Wardhaugh (2006), p. 164.
  20. includeonly>"The Academy: Talking the Tawk", The New Yorker, 2005-11-14. Retrieved on 2011-08-07.
  21. Wardhaugh (2006), p. 165.
  22. Wardhaugh (2006), p. 167.
  23. Leith (1997), p. 96.
  24. Chambers (1998), p. 85.
  25. Labov (2006), p. 85.
  26. Kiesling (1998), p. 94.
  27. Trudgill (1972), p. 179.
  28. Abu-Haidar (1989), p. 471.
  29. Gordon (1997), p. 47.
  30. Wang (2008), p. 57.
  31. Trudgill (1972), p. 194.
  32. Fasold (1990), p. 117.
  33. Gordon (1997), p. 48.
  34. Angle (1981), p. 449
  35. Leith (1997), p. 8.
  36. Wardhaugh (2006), p. 335
  37. Welcome to the MOE Racial Harmony Website. URL accessed on 2009-03-31.
  38. Clammer (1998), pp. 40–42.
  39. Vasil (1995), pp. 64–66.
  40. Sociolinguistics. URL accessed on 2009-03-29.
  41. Hock (1996), p. 443.
  42. Ferguson, Charles A. (1959). Diglossia. Word 15: 325–340.
  43. Hock (1996), p. 340.
  44. Hock (1996), p. 341.


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