Language Attitudes and the Marketplace

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2011

12 Pages

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As much as language is a human phenomenon, it is also a social phenomenon. When someone utilizes language they are acting out a certain behavior. Thus, all language users have specific beliefs about what kinds of language are appropriate in different social situations. Furthermore, it is common knowledge and linguistic fact that there are many regional and ethnic varieties of English spoken across the United States (and, more broadly, around the world). These varieties can differ from the standard dialect in grammar, phonology, and lexicon. However, because some of these varieties are valued higher than others, when a speaker uses a dialect that is nonstandard they are often taking a social risk. Choosing the wrong dialect at the wrong time can have heavy social consequences. It is also common knowledge and even considered acceptable that using nonstandard grammar on a resume or in an interview might cost a potential applicant employment.But should someone’s dialect, for example, keep them from being able to buy a home? Many would argue that the previous example is an extreme one, but such incidents known as “linguistic profiling” occur frequently, and on grounds much more subtle.

Having mentioned that language plays an active role in society and that certain linguistic varieties are more desirable than others, it should come as no surprise that language also plays a crucial role in society where desirability matters most: the marketplace. Language is used to sell virtually everything, but consumers rarely stop to think about what linguistic varieties are being used to market certain items.

The purpose of this project—a marketing survey—is to determine how linguistic attitudes affect the economic marketplace. Furthermore, the project was meant to examine the social attributes that consumers project onto speakers of certain dialects, and whether those attributes contributed negatively or positively to the desirability of a certain product. This is especially important because there is not much research on this topic. Because those interested in the subject tend to be those involved in business, research usually resembles manuals about how to use the most effective language to sell a product more than scholarly texts.The dialects examined in this project are Mainstream United States English (MUSE, though also known as Standard American English), African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and Southern American English (simply called Southern English from this point forth).


In his paper on British English in Norwich, Peter Trudgill stated that women use more standard forms than men do, and found that men tend to favor more working-class varieties. These working class varieties allow men to index masculinity. In carrying out this project, it was my hope that the survey would reveal whether Trudgill’s findings were applicable to white American males with regard to Southern English and African American Vernacular English. The idea that Southern English could be perceived as ideal by those outside the speech community is interesting because many studies focusing on Southern English illustrate the fact that Americans perceive it as one of the most inferior dialects in the country (Preston 399).

Such attitudes are also portrayed in the media. For example, Cynthia Bernstein from the University of Memphis argued that film writers often use the Southern English dialect to portray a lack of culture, education, and civility (339). In the 1988 documentary “American Tongues,” which is also cited by Bernstein, Texas columnist Molly Ivins goes further, saying that the Southern accent represents both “ignorance” and “racism” to the Northern mind (i.e. to anyone who is not from Southern United States).

Geneva Smitherman argued that there are acceptable and unacceptable forms of AAVE in her 1977 book Talkin and Testifyin. The lexical forms of AAVE are considered “hip,” and are often used without reservation by middle-class African Americans, while the syntax and grammar of AAVE is considered unacceptable and is associated more with the working-class. This phenomenon has been called the “great divide” by the Reverend Jesse Jackson.In her linguistic analysis of African American Vernacular English, Lisa Green writes about how AAVE is portrayed in the media. Specifically, she states that AAVE is often used to reference street life (209). This said, this study will examine who exactly is referencing urbanness when using or listening to AAVE.

Sparse until recently, works concerning the role of language attitudes in advertising have recently begun to surface. In 2011, Hungarian linguist DorottyaP´etery studied 208 prime-time Hungarian commercials and found that there was a trend concerning when advertisers chose to include English in their advertisements (21). English is used in Hungarian advertising to market to a demographic that identify as young, innovative, and modern (28). Robert Baumgardner and Kimberley Brown came to a similar conclusion in their analysis of over 300 Farsi magazine advertisements (292). Though such studies can result innew findingsconcerning language attitudes, they do not directly measure the attitudes of the consumer. In addition to this, what remains to be seriously studied is whether such efforts to appeal to linguistic preferences and opinions are truly effective.


I made a set of three commercials for a fictional energy/sports drink called JouLes. Each commercial was identical, except for the voiceover. One voiceover artist spoke in Mainstream United States English (MUSE), one in Southern English, and another in African American Vernacular English (AAVE). The words that each voiceover artist said were also identical. The reasoning for this is to account for the “great divide.” Also, I wanted to have what was said be control within the study, and I thought that it would be interesting to study whether the phonology of AAVE and Southern English would have a negative effect on the language attitudes of those studied even if those speaking were using MUSE grammar.

It is important to note that in my initial search for voiceover artists, I was adamant that each person be a native speaker of the dialect that he or she was representing. Due to time constraints, I had to abandon my search for a male native speaker of AAVE who could deliver the lines in the manner that I wanted them read and simply had someone deliver the lines with the appropriate phonological alterations that I wanted.

The AAVE speaker utilized [n] word-finally where a MUSE speaker would have [ŋ]. He also had word-initial [d] corresponding to MUSE [ð]. Interestingly (and unprompted by me), like the Southern English speaker, the AAVE speaker showed one instance of fronting/raising of the vowel [ɑ] to [ʌ] in the word water, and also one instance of monopthongization in the word chloride, making it sound like [klɔrɑ:d]. The Southern English speaker had completely uniform monopthongization of [ɑʸ], which was evident in the words lifestyle, by, why, iron, chloride, and vitamin. There was also fronting of many vowels characteristic of the Southern Shift as seen below:

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Language Attitudes and the Marketplace
University of Virginia
English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics
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ISBN (Book)
File size
598 KB
language, attitudes, marketplace
Quote paper
Samantha Mauney (Author), 2011, Language Attitudes and the Marketplace, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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