Lexical Choice in Apologies as Markers of Social Class in England

Term Paper, 2015

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2 Theoretical Background
2.1 U- and Non-U-words
2.2 Class-conscious Speech Behaviour
2.3 Class-Stratification

3 Method of Research

4 Results and Interpretation

5. Conclusion


List of Figures

Fig. 1 Demographic Data of Respondents and Assumed Social Grade

Fig. 2 Distribution of Relative Frequency of Word Choice Among Example Cases

Fig. 3 Evaluation of Variables According to Formality

Fig. 4 Distribution of Evaluated Formality of Variables Among Social Classes

1 Introduction

The spoken language is always a matter of word choice. Whether it happens unconsciously or planned, it is always aimed at conveying a message to the person or group of persons we communicate with. Whenever a speaker talks, he is constantly revealing information about himself. The speaker's way of speaking, for example the words that he or she chooses or in what tone the message is transmitted, determine what the person listening to him is going to receive. These factors have an important impact on how a speaker is classified regarding his social class membership and have an impact on the listener's response.

This paper is going to deal with the social differentiation in lexical choice in the context of apologising. More precisely, its purpose is the analysis of the correlation of social class and the use of the lexical variants 'pardon', 'sorry', 'excuse me' and 'what'. Another aim of this paper is to prove that at least two groups, in this case members of social classses in England, are distinctly different in their usage of apologies. Apart from that, it is going to figure out whether the variant 'pardon' is socially stigmatised as an underclass utterance, as stated in the popular book "Watching the English" by Kate Fox.

The first chapter is dedicated to explain why some words are related to social classes. This is going to be approached with two important anthropological works that deal with the issue. Further, it is going to examine why speakers behave class- conscious in conversational situations or not, and how this is linked to their active language planning. Following this, the method of social stratification is explained. This chapter focuses on the division of society into classes and on defining a class scheme which could serve as the most reasonable for the analysis. Chapter 3 is going to introduce the method of research of the present study, a quantitative analysis, and explain why this approach had been chosen. Further, it is going to present the layout of the questionnaire. In chapter 4, the results of the quantitative analysis are going to be presented and interpreted in order to approach the research question of this paper. For reasons of simplification, this term paper is going to use the male form of a speaker and a participant.

2 Theoretical Background

2.1 U- and Non-U Words

Within the field of sociolinguistics, many studies had been conducted about the connection of social factors and pronunciation. Nevertheless, there is a small choice that concentrates on the correlation of social factors and lexical choice. The oldest official study of lexical choice among speakers of different social classes is the essay 'U and Non-U' by Alan C. Ross, a professor of the University of Birmingham, from 1959. It is primarily concerned with the way of speaking of the English aristocracy and has been edited by the then-socialite Nancy Mitford. At the beginning of the essay it is said that “It is solely by its language that the upper class is clearly marked off from the others.”(Ross, Mitford, Waugh, Sykes & Betjeman, 1959, p.9). Alan C. Ross was the first scientist to classify deliberate lexical choice into two categories: 'U' as a marker of upper class words and 'Non-U' for the words that are used by the aspiring middle class, which should therewith be seen as the underclass and should be considered separated from the aristocracy. Ross manifested that every U-word had a Non-U counterpart (Ross et.al., 1959, p.11). Among several other examples they also included words from the category of apologising into their list of U- and Non-U words. They defined 'Pardon' as commonly used by non-U, underclass-speakers, in three common cases. Firstly, when a speaker says something that the other speaker has not understood properly. Secondly, as an obligatory apology and thirdly, after someone “hiccupped or belched” (Ross et.al., 1959, p. 27). The upper class variants to apologise in such cases were 'What?' and 'Sorry?'. While the variants 'sorry' and 'what' are easily deemed to sound too simple as to be used by an upper class member, the latter probably seems impolite, if not rude. Here, Ross is advising upper class parents to teach their offsprings more polite versions like 'What did you say?' or 'I'm frightfully sorry' in the first and the second case, because this would be more appropriate for an upper class member. For the third case, the hiccupping or belching-situation, they suggest the more polite version of 'Manners!' or 'Beg Pardon!'. The answer to the here emerging question why they suggest 'pardon' as an underclass-word to the upper class members is not clarified in the further course of their study.

The book that triggered the idea of this paper is a contemporary popular scientific work. It is „Watching the English“ by Kate Fox, who is a self-declared anthropological researcher of English culture and social behaviour. As Kate Fox mentions “one cannot talk about English conversation codes without talking about class” and “one cannot talk at all without immediately revealing one's social class” (Fox, 2004, p. 73), implies that however a speaker is anxious to hide his social background when talking, it will hardly work out (Mesthrie, Swann, Deumert, & Leap, 2000, p. 6). Here, Fox points out that, as soon as somebody starts to speak, people will detect his place in society and judge thereupon.

Fox makes use of Alan C. Ross's word pairs of U and Non-U words in order to see if they are outdated or still in use. She calls them "social shibboleths" and also mentions that a coherence with social class in the contemporary context is not as simple as to put it into a binary model. She not only distinguishes the word pairs that only separate the upper from the rest, but also goes beyond that simplified model by stating that there are some words that “specifically separate the working class from the lower-middle, or the middle-middle from the upper-middle” (Fox, 2004, p. 76). In addition, she states that there can be similarities of word use in the working and upper class, as it is for 'pardon', which is mainly used by lower class members and frowned upon by members of the upper class. Here, she brings on the example of “Pardonia” that refers to lower-middle class suburbs and states that saying 'pardon' is “worse than swearing” (Fox, 2004, p. 75), which stands in direct opposition to what Alan C. Ross defined. Members of the upper-middle class would react with 'sorry' or even 'sorry, what?'. Upper class people as well as working class people would react by saying only 'What?'. People belonging to the upper working class who show aspirations towards the lower middle class may also react by asking 'pardon' not knowing that it, in the eyes of upper class members, catapults them to an even lower class while assuming that it sounds smart. This is, according to Fox, the common case of Genteelism, referring to a rather controlled pseudo-sophisticated word choice in which French loan words are more preferred than “plain old English ones” (Fox, 2004, p.76). Whether both studies, Ross's and Mitford's and Kate Fox's, are reliable sources is not given, since both do not rely on scientific research methods and are more or less taken from anthropological field research.

2.2 Class-conscious Speech Behaviour

Every speaker relies on a set of tools that enables him to deliver a particular expression of himself together with the spoken message. In most cases the speaker uses what is referred to as self-concept as an aid to shape the output in a way that feels appropriate to the speaker's language or the (assumed) language of the counterpart (see chapter 2.2). There are reasons why speakers are behaving class- conscious or self-conscious in conversational situations. This was manifested by Howard Giles in the Speech Accomodation Theory, which states that “speakers accommodate their speech to their addressee in order to win their approval.” (Llamas, Mullany, & Stockwell, 2007, p.96).

From an early age, a person is encircled by a more or less stable cultural and social environment through his relatives. This is where primary socialisation takes place, which means the person gets equipped with the knowledge of appropriate and socially acceptable behaviour and the values of the person's social network (Tagliamonte, 2012, p.36). The social community in which a person is born into, defines its social standard, which does not mean that it is fixed. It is predefined by the above mentioned social and cultural surroundings but, however, as a person's life proceeds, it may change through factors such as establishing relationships to people of another social and cultural background or pursueing personal goals in occupation.

The focus of speaking conscious of one's status lies on the deliberate use of a particular word or group of words, or even whole conversations. The speaker makes use of a set of language that belongs to a different speech community than his own (Labov, 1972, p. 110). It is assumed, that people tend to alter and even sophisticate their speech behaviour to that of the desired target group, which is generally the social class above theirs. They tend towards a more formal speech style when talking to members of a higher class. Whereas, when being within the realms of their own class they feel much more at ease, they losen their conscious speech behaviour and desist from altering it.

William Labov states that a variant changes according to social force, which is said to either come from “below the level of conscious awareness”, i.e. unconsciously speaking, or from “above”. This is the“process of social correction”, because it is the conscious use of formerly propagated variants by a much larger number of speakers (1972, p. 123). According to Labov, the way a speaker is talking and behaving depends on the surrounding conditions. When a speaker feels observed, he makes use of a formal speech style - different from the rather casual speech style the speaker uses in his natural surroundings, where he speaks in his vernacular. The “interview speech” (Labov, 1972, p. 43), as it is monitored and controlled, happens consciously planned by the speaker. The speaker is adapting his speech style to his interlocutor in order to avoid his own, natural speech style being judged by strangers. This is mainly because the speaker is unsure about his social acceptance and anxious about being stigmatised. For this reason, Labov stated that an interview, which has been recorded, is not an appropriate measurement for a quantitative study. In his popular departement store study of New York he, therefore, spoke to people by himself to see how people speak without feeling controlled or observed. If this is the case, people talk without paying much attention to their pronunciation or word choice just like they happen to speak to their relatives or friends in their own speech community where there are no social pressures and where they encounter an acceptance of speech style. Labov distinguishes in this case the style of speaking between a casual style, in which the speaker talks spontaneously and without social pressures, and a careful style, with the focus laid upon speaking in a refined and formal manner (Llamas et.al., 2007, p. 95).


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Lexical Choice in Apologies as Markers of Social Class in England
Technical University of Chemnitz  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
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sociolinguistics, pardon, socialclass, linguistics, society, language, survey
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Diana Kiesinger (Author), 2015, Lexical Choice in Apologies as Markers of Social Class in England, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/313937


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