Samantha Dennis LIN3010: Introduction to Language Studies Professor Treharne April 23rd, 2012
“How language creates class in a classless society” My goal is to point out the significance of factoring in language characteristics into the creation of American social classes. This is an important area of sociolinguistics that has not been investigated in any great detail, but has potential to high-light the harm caused by derogatory language usage. Language is used to create a defensive barrier by those of the upperclass and authority who continuously exclude those of lower status. Previous research has been done in fields regarding class and language, but most of this work looks at linguistic differences between social classes rather than how linguistic qualities helped to form the class structure. There have been studies in the sociolinguistic field that focused on how differences in language usage may reflect characteristics of the speaker’s social class. However, much less research has been conducted regarding the ability of language to consummate the creation of social classes and support them once they are in place. America is a unique society in the sense that many carry the notion that it is a classless culture. Author, and sociology professor, Paul Kingston used research in areas such as mobility, cultural orientation, and politics to claim that class theory in America has been “developed with little empirical validation” (Lareau 4). For the sake of this essay, we are going to adopt the notion that social classes do exist in America. This will be based on the definition of class, “a division or stratum of society consisting of people at the same economic level or having the same social status” (Class), and the research completed by other scholars in the field, including sociologist Daniel Rossides. In his book, “Social Stratification,” he discusses newer methods scholars are using to measure American social classes and states that since the 1930s, Americans have experimented in identifying social classes within the country. In a nation that was founded on equality for all attitudes, language usage acts as a driving force that establishes and upholds its class system.
There has been a long-standing connection between exerted authority and language used by oppressors. In the 1500s, Africans were sold and brought overseas to serve as laborers for Americans colonists. Physical threats were used by slave owners in order to keep control over their slaves, but even after slavery was abolished in the 1865, blacks were still severely oppressed by Caucasian-Americans, whether or not they were of slavery lineage. Whites were able to maintain their authority by dehumanizing the blacks with racist language. The term coon was used as slang when referring to anyone with black skin. Its origin is thought to come from a variety of past usages such as the term barracoon, which was used to describe buildings used to house slaves that were up for sale. Also, in 1767 one of the first American comic operas, “The Disappointment,” contained a black character given the name Raccoon (Coon). If this is thought of as the first usage, then the term “coon” literally animalizes the person it is being used to describe. With the use of such language, whites were able to make more than just a color distinction by creating not only a racial divide, but also a species barrier between the two groups. By depicting slaves as having nonhuman qualities, their authority was solidified. Power and prestige are what give a class of people hegemony over another, which explains why authority leads to a distinction between classes. Yet, over a hundred years later, many black-skinned people find that they are still not treated equally. Therefore there must be factors that help to sustain social classes and support them once they have been formed in society. Language used by the subordinate class, not to be thought of as interchangeable with that used to describe them by other classes, is a tool used to keep them locked in the lower ranks. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is most commonly found in areas of low economic status. One characteristic of this dialect is that, unlike SAE, it demonstrates the nonrhotic /r/ because its speakers tend to drop the post-vocalic /r/ in pronunciation. For example, a Standard English speaker may pronounce the word d-o-o-r as /du..(r)/ an AAVE would pronounce it as /dOu/. Standard American English (SAE), as the name suggests, is the dialect that has been adopted as the norm, or standard, for speakers in the United States. The problem with this is that anyone who speaks a different variety of the language, or who has a distinct accent that strays from that which is thought to be “normal,” has negative stigmas placed on their language usage. This is the case with AAVE. Because it is different from SAE, which is more widely accepted, and most commonly found in poor socio-economic areas, it receives negative
connotations which are then swiftly passed on to directly describe the speaker of the inferior language or dialect. Wealth and power are often times lumped together. The assumption that these two characteristics of a person directly correlate with each other could actually be supported linguistically. Based on median household income data, Brownsville, Texas is considered to be the poorest city in America (McIntyre), and San Jose, California is the wealthiest (Clemence). Brownsville is located in Cameron County where 43% of adults ages sixteen and up are found to have insufficient basic literacy skills. When you compare this number to the 16% found in Santa Clara County, where the city of San Jose is found, a connection between wealth and literacy can be proposed. Factors frequently used when comprising class measurements are environment, opportunity, education, and wealth. While environment can be thought of as an umbrella over the other three, opportunity, education, and wealth create a circle amongst themselves in which the cause and effect arrows freely flow in both directions. Wealth enhances opportunity, including better education choices. A better quality or higher education leads to more opportunities to create wealth. While it’s not necessarily accurate to say that if you are well-off in one of these areas then you are in all three, this tends to be the outcome. This is what makes it difficult for someone in a low socio-economic status to move up the ladder. From birth they are often not given the same opportunities in education because they do not have access to the same materials as children born into upper-class homes. In his book titled “Social Class, Language, and Education,” Denis Lawton describes a study by a man named Goldfarb in the 1940s where linguistic ability of young children was the dependent variable being compared to their environment during early stages of development (Lawton 20-23). Those who were in foster homes for the first years of development were found to be continuously behind in linguistic ability compared to those children who spent that time in educational institutions. Those children who were found to be lacking pertinent language skills were looked down on and described as being “retarded.” This term serves a suitable purpose in the medical field, but is given a derogatory connotation, and even deemed offensive, when used outside that realm. Attributing such a word to children who were not privileged enough to learn to read and write properly degrades them by associating their illiteracy with mental illness. Those who learn to write and speak “properly,” or in accordance with SAE, are automatically awarded a higher social rank than those who do not. Literacy is not only the ability to understand the language most
commonly used in your society, but also the ability to communicate using that language. Since SAE is learned in school, having access to this education is crucial. Having sufficient knowledge of how to speak and write in SAE could be the difference between getting a well-paid job versus a low-income position. English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and SAE is the most commonly understood variety. Employers want to hire those who can effectively communicate. Therefore, having access to SAE broadens job opportunities for the individual, which then increases the opportunities to make more money. Language, in this way, gives an individual the power to create wealth. A person’s ability or inability to use SAE, or a close variant, directly affects what class they are eligible for. Gender-marked language also plays a part in shaping the American class system. Women are surrounded by male-oriented language. Terms such as “man-made” and “patriotic,” whose prefix (patri-) means “of or relating to social organization defined by male dominance” (Parti-), are used in reference to both men and women, but exude male orientation. The structure in question may have been both man and woman-made, and in the sense of national identity a woman can be just as patriotic as a man. Yet there is no female representation in these terms. In the corporate workplace, employment positions of higher authority are referred to as “suit and tie” positions. This phrase suggests that these better paying jobs are reserved strictly for males, even though many women are equally qualified for the work. Such language serves as the platform from which woman suppression was built. In 2007, it was reported that female secretaries only earned 83.4% of male secretary salaries (Fitzpatrick). In 2009, female equity partners in law earned $499, 350 in compensation which was $65, 850 less than that of males in equal positions (Grant). Therefore, people with equal backgrounds, equal parental socioeconomic status, and equal education may potentially be placed in separate social classes based on a difference in gender. For women to receive equal pay, they will have to be equally represented in the language that shapes the schemas recognized in our society. Language is present in all parts of society. People have to be able to effectively communicate, and we do so through a shared language. Standardizing the language gives everyone a level of accuracy to strive for. However, when someone varies from that which is standardized, they become open targets for people generalize them into sub-categories or cultures of the norm. From there, stereotypes are created. Social classes are created through
language in the same way. A personâ€™s language usage can serve as a sign to others as to what class they belong to. Their language can also be the factor that pushes them out of high-class society due to the authority and prestige given to SAE. The oppression of those who are more fortunate and the demeaning language used in reference to those in lower classes is how language usage works to create class distinctions. It is important to realize the role language plays in this area because if it is acknowledged, then there could be future work on how language usage may be used to make the class system more mobile for those in lower classes, or even to eliminate class altogether. If nothing else, a raised awareness of the power of language and its socio-economic effects could open projects for making America a place of true equal opportunity for its citizens.
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