Chapter 10: Language Variation and Change

10.7 Sociolinguistic correlations: Social status

You probably have an intuition about social class and a hierarchy of status in society that is linked with the unequal distribution of wealth and power. You probably also recognize that this inequity is not arbitrary and intersects with other social factors. At the same time, social class is less tangible than other social facts about people like their age, their gender, and their ethnicity. In Euro-American society since the Industrial Revolution, people have been categorized into three groups: ‘upper class’, ‘middle class’, and ‘lower class’. The implied hierarchy of these traditional categorizes reflects the distribution of wealth and power: the ‘upper’ or ruling class holds the most and the ‘lower’ or working class holds the least. Sociological definitions of social class look to objective measures like property ownership, wealth, income, and occupation and subjective measures like life chances, prestige, and reputation in categorizing class membership. In the Canadian context, social class seems that much more intangible because, while we are largely a middle class society, when we consider those at the bottom of the social class hierarchy, there are important interactions and intersections with both geography and other social factors, especially race and ethnicity. Geographically speaking, there tend to be specific areas both within cities and in remote areas that are socioeconomically less advantaged. With respect to race and ethnicity, Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour (especially those who have immigrated recently), are also, on aggregate, in a more socioeconomically precarious situation.

While social class can be a fuzzy concept, it’s still an intuitive reality. To investigate the role of social class as a conditioning factor of linguistic variation, we need to come up with ways of ‘diagnosing’ or measuring it. Often times, someone’s occupation (or sometimes their parents’ occupations), their education, their income, or their residence can be used as an indication of their social class. In William Labov’s (1966) study of variation in the English spoken in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he made use of three parameters to categorize people into different social classes: occupation, education, and income. Labov examined many different linguistic variables in his data and found extensive correlations between the frequency of use of different variants and an individual’s social class, according to his measure.

In Figure 10.4. below, based on one of Labov’s results, we can see that the frequency of use of the [ɪn] variant of -ing exhibits social stratification. Participants in the working class speakers have the highest rate of this variant, upper class speakers use [ɪn] the least, and people in the middle of the social class spectrum are somewhere in-between with respect to -ing.

Graph showing social stratification of -ing in New York City English. There are two levels on the x-axis (Casual Speech and Reading Passage) and three lines of different colours that represent three different social classes). The y-axis shows the percentage of the [ɪn] variant. The lower class line is at 80% for casual speech and about 25% for reading passage. The middle class line is just below 50% for casual speech and at about 12% for reading passage. For the upper class line, casual speech is at about 10% and the reading passage is at 0%
Figure 12.4. Frequency of [ɪn] variant of variable -ing in NYC English by contextual style and social class, based on Labov (1966, 259).

Importantly, Figure 10.4. also demonstrates systematic style shifting as discussed in section 10.4. Where Fischer observed one young man shifting his frequency of use of [ɪn] as the formality of the context shifted, here we can see that this happens across the board: in all social classes, the casual speech context contains more [ɪn] tokens than the reading passage context.

How to be a linguist: Tips for interpreting patterns of data in graphs

Variationist sociolinguistics is a quantitative field and numbers and graphs can be really intimidating for some people! Here are  four tips for helping you to discern the most out of the kinds of graphs you see in this chapter.

  • Tip 1: Carefully read the caption
    • Good captions should clearly identify what data is visualized in the graph.  The caption should tell you what was measured (the dependent variable) and what the researcher manipulated or controlled (the independent variables).  This is usually expressed in the form of a ‘by-statement’: dependent variable by independent variables.  A good caption should also identify the source of the data.
  • Tip 2: Carefully read the legend (if there is one) and the labels of the axes
    • This will tell you what exactly the graph is showing.  Usually the dependent variable is plotted on the y-axis (the vertical one) and the independent variables are plotted on the x-axis (the horizontal one) or, if there is more than one independent variable, with distinctions demonstrated in the legend (like colour, shape, or line type).  In variationist sociolinguistics, the y-axis is usually the proportion or percentage of one variant of a linguistic variable (relative to the other variant or variants).
  • Tip 3: Try to determine the patterns in the graph before reading the author’s description
    • A good graph will be accompanied by a description of the patterns in the graph. The best way to become more comfortable with reading graphs is to try to understand the pattern before reading the author’s description. If your interpretation differs, look at the graph again and see if you went wrong somewhere.


Labov, W. (1966). The social stratification of English in New York city. Cambridge University Press.


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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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