Prestige (sociolinguistics)

Prestige is the level of regard normally accorded a specific language or dialect within a speech community, relative to other languages or dialects. The concept of prestige in sociolinguistics provides one explanation for the phenomenon of variation in form, among speakers of a language or languages.[1] Prestige varieties are those varieties which are generally considered, by a society, to be the most "correct" or otherwise superior variety. The prestige variety, in many cases, is the standard form of the language though there are exceptions, particularly in situations of covert prestige where a non-standard dialect is highly valued. In addition to dialects and languages, prestige is also applied to smaller linguistic features, such as the pronunciation or usage of words or grammatical constructs, which may not be pronounced enough to constitute a separate dialect.[2]

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.

The prevailing view among contemporary linguists is that regardless of perceptions that a dialect or language is "better" or "worse" than its counterparts, when dialects and languages are assessed "on purely linguistic grounds, all languages—and all dialects—have equal merit".[3][4][5]

Additionally, which varieties, registers or features will be considered more prestigious depends on audience and context.[6][7] There are thus the concepts of overt and covert prestige. Whereas overt prestige is related to standard and "formal" language features and expresses power and status; covert prestige is related more to vernacular and often patois, and expresses solidarity, community and group identity more than authority.[8]

Standard varieties and covert prestige

Prestige varieties are those that are regarded mostly highly within a society. As such, the standard language, the form promoted by authorities and considered "correct" or otherwise superior, is often the prestige variety. 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.[9][10][11] Prestige varieties do not exhibit features, grammatically speaking, which prove them superior in terms of logic, efficacy or aesthetics.[12] They are the language varieties of the prestigious social classes.[8] Therefore, the prestige variety of a given language community or nation-state has symbolic significance and may act as an instrument of political power.

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."[13] While there are some counterexamples, such as Arabic, "prestigious and standard varieties [tend to] coincide to the extent that the two terms can be used interchangeably."[9]

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 the most prestigious dialect is the single standard dialect of English that all people should speak.[14] 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."[3] 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.[15]

The terms and conditions of prestige assigned to a language variety are subject to change depending on speaker, situation and context. A dialect or variety which is considered prestigious in one context, will not carry the same status in another.[6] The relative status of language varies according to audience, situation and other contextual elements is highly local. Covert prestige refers to relatively high value placed on a non-standard form of language.[7]


Different languages and dialects are accorded prestige based upon factors, including "rich literary heritage, high degree of language modernization, considerable international standing, or the prestige of its speakers".[16] These, and other attributes and factors contribute to how the language is viewed as being of high prestige,[17] leaving a language or dialect with few or none of these attributes to be considered to be of low prestige.

"Language is intertwined with culture," therefore there is often a strong correlation between the prestige of a group of people and the prestige accorded to the language they speak,[18] as 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.[19]

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".[20]

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".[3]

Language attitudes

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.[21]

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.[22][23]

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".[24] 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".[25]

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.[26]

Social class

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)".[27] 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".[28] Thus the relation between the way speakers use a language and their social status is a long recognized tool in sociolinguistics.

In 1958, one of the earliest studies of the relationship between social differences and dialect differences was published 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.[29]

Gumperz observed that the different castes were distinguished both phonologically and lexically, with each caste having a vocabulary specific to their subculture.[30] 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".[31]

Gumperz also observed that the lower prestige groups sought to imitate the higher prestige speech patterns and that over time, it had caused the evolution of the prestige away from the regional standard, as higher prestige groups sought to differentiate themselves from lower prestige groups.[31] He concluded that in determining speech patterns in this community, "the determining factor seems to be informal friendship contacts" rather than work contacts.[32]

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.[33]

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'".[34] In 1966, when Labov performed his study, pronouncing words like car and guard with r was then considered an element of prestige speech.[35] 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.[36]

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".[37] 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.[38] 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.[8] 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.[39]

Likewise, in studies of the speech patterns in British English, Peter Trudgill observed that more working class women spoke the standard dialect than men.[40] 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.[41] Other areas in which this has been observed include New Zealand and Guangdong in China.[42][43] As explanation, Trudgill suggests that for men, there is covert prestige associated with speaking the working class dialect.[6] 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."[44] 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.[45] 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.[46] One explanation put forth for this is that men are more likely to have the means of acquiring a second language than women.

Language contact

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 and their relative prestige levels influence the degree to which a language experiences lexical borrowing and changes to the morphology, phonology, syntax, and overall structure of the language.[47]

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.[48]

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 the Middle East and North Africa, Standard Arabic and vernacular Arabics; in Greece, Katharevousa and Dhimotiki; in Switzerland, Swiss Standard German and Swiss German; and in Haiti, Standard French and Haitian Creole.[49] In most African countries, a European language serves as the official, prestige language (Standard French, English, Portuguese), while local languages (Wolof, Bambara, Yoruba) or creoles (Ivorian French, Nigerian English) serve as everyday languages of communication.

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-.[50]

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, Portugal, Spain, as well as other Roman Catholic nations, 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.[51]

See also


  1. Eckert & Rickford 2002, pp. 2–4, 24, 260–263
  2. Kroch 1978
  3. Fox 1999
  4. O'Grady et al. 2001, p. 7
  5. Fasold & Connor-Linton 2006, p. 387
  6. Trudgill 1972, p. 194
  7. Labov 2006, p. 58
  8. Labov 2006, p. 85
  9. Ibrahim 1986, p. 115
  10. Jenkins 2001, p. 205
  11. Haeri 2003
  12. Preston 1996, pp. 40–74
  13. Leith 1997, p. 8
  14. Niedzielski & Preston 2003, p. 44
  15. Wardhaugh 2006, p. 335
  16. Kloss 1966, pp. 143–144
  17. Kordić 2014, pp. 322–328
  18. Kahane 1986, p. 498
  19. Bauer 1998, pp. 132–137
  20. Kahane 1986, p. 495
  21. Hymes 1971, pp. 47–92
  22. Trudgill 1992, p. 169
  23. Wardhaugh 2006, p. 31
  24. Haugen 1966b, p. 297
  25. Haugen 1966a, p. 924
  26. Haugen 1966b, p. 281
  27. Kroch 1978, p. 17
  28. McDavid 1946, p. 168
  29. Gumperz 1958, p. 670
  30. Gumperz 1958, p. 675
  31. Gumperz 1958, p. 676
  32. Gumperz 1958, p. 681
  33. Wardhaugh 2006, p. 164
  34. Seabrook 2005
  35. Wardhaugh 2006, p. 165
  36. Wardhaugh 2006, p. 167
  37. Leith 1997, p. 96
  38. Chambers 1998, p. 85
  39. Kiesling 1998, p. 94
  40. Trudgill 1972, p. 179
  41. Abu-Haidar 1989, p. 471
  42. Gordon 1997, p. 47
  43. Wang 2008, p. 57
  44. Fasold 1990, p. 117
  45. Gordon 1997, p. 48
  46. Angle & Hesse-Biber 1981, p. 449
  47. Winford 2003
  48. Hock & Joseph 1996, p. 443
  49. Ferguson 1959
  50. Hock 1996, p. 340
  51. Hock 1996, p. 341


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