Sociolinguistics of literature: Nonstandard English in Zadie Smith's White Teeth

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. Preconditions for literary sociolinguistics

III. Sociolinguistics, ethnography, and social meaning

IV. Nonstandard English in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and its representation in reality
1. Cockney
2. Youth language
3. Jamaican Creole
4. Language Crossing

V. Conclusion


I. Introduction

White Teeth has widely been celebrated as one of the best multicultural novels in recent years. The Whitbread judging panel called it a “landmark novel for multicultural Britain, as well as a superb portrait of contemporary London.” (quoted in Squires 2002: 80). The novel, however is not only a remarkable representation of multiculturalism in urban Britain, but depicts various language varieties of contemporary London. Claire Squires notes that the

voicing of different characters and their ethnic group is one of the most apparent feature of White Teeth. From Archie’s bumbling homilies to the “appalling pronunciation” of the customers Samad takes orders from in the restaurant (p.55), from Alsana's wacky images to the hybrid street slang of the “Raggastani,” and from Irie’s rising, soap-opera influenced, Antipodean intonation (p. 377) to her accusation that Millat’s Caribbean-toned speech is “not your voice”. You sound ridiculous!” (p.239) Smith displays a finely-tuned ear for linguistic inflections and their sociocultural nuances.

(2002: 64-65)

This paper takes a look at these “linguistic inflections and their sociocultural nuances” and analyses various varieties of English that are employed in the novel. The main concern, however, is not the description of nonstandard varieties, but the question if these varieties are realistically represented with regard London’s linguistic landscape. In other words, in how far can nonstandard language in fiction be taken as a reliable source for a sociolinguistic analysis? For this purpose, various examples of direct speech as well narrative comments will be compared with real language use.

The paper is structured as follows. Starting with a chapter on literary sociolinguistic, I will discuss the conditions and problems that have to be taken into consideration when taking fiction as a source for sociolinguistic research. Then, I will reflect on different approaches in sociolinguistics that are important for the study of nonstandard language that represents ethnic, regional, social and age-related variation. In the major part of this paper, the different nonstandard English varieties that appear in White Teeth, such as Cockney, youth language, and Jamaican Creole, as well as language crossing, will be analysed and compared to sociolinguistic studies. The use of Bengali in White Teeth has to be omitted as the study of a language of its own would go beyond the scope of this paper. In my analysis I will also reveal the semiotic and symbolic potential of the literary nonstandard varieties in comparison to their representation in reality.

II. Preconditions for literary sociolinguistics

Nonstandard language in fiction is often looked at from a literary point of view, i.e. how much language can contribute to the particular style of a book. For linguists, the interest lies primarily in the representation of unplanned spontaneous speech in reality, which language in fiction cannot offer. Nonstandard speech in literature is to a high degree stylised and employed artificially as it has to serve the reader with readability and comprehensibility.

Despite this inaccuracy in its representation of reality, nonstandard language in fiction can still serve as a reliable source for sociolinguistic research. This is the case when the author is conscious about an authentic usage of dialects and varieties, not necessarily in the faithful transcription of phonology, morphology, and syntax, but rather in the realistic representation of varieties in relation to the people who use them. Thus, if a writer wants to illustrate a particular state of reality and society in a novel, he must also consider linguistic realities as well, such as the language of a particular time, place, gender, class, and ethnic group. These language varieties can then be compared with nonstandard speech in reality.

Fiction is not only a reliable source for the representation of various dialects, but also for the depiction and interpretation of attitudes related to these varieties. Hence, only if the writer’s use of a certain language or variety conveys the prestige it is commonly associated with in society, and disregards his own personal prejudices or approval towards a variety, a work of fiction lends itself to a sociolinguistic analysis. However, this remains problematic as the author has to be conscious of the readership of his book. Very often there is not one common opinion attached to a particular nonstandard variety. Different readerships have different attitudes towards specific languages. Although White Teeth, for example, is probably read by mostly young people because of its topics and style, a reader who grew up in a multicultural area might have different language attitudes towards Jamaican Creole than a reader from a mainly ‘white’ area. As Mair explains, “nonstandard is meaningful beyond what a writer chooses to say in it.” (1992: 109)

He also argues that, for a satisfactory linguistic analysis of the semiotic potential of literature, narrative perspective, genre theory, and literary history have to be considered as well (cf. 1992: 113, 114). If a narrator, for example, comments on the dialect of a character, he or she is more likely to do this in an authorial voice as the comment would then seem more convincing. Literary history is of course especially vital when investigating noncontemporary literature, i.e. to evaluate the nonstandard language in connection with the social background of that particular time. Genre theory should be considered as the use of some nonstandard varieties, especially to a very large extent, might not be realistic in some genres at all. If in a detective story, for example, the investigating officer speaks in a rather stigmatised dialect , then this would certainly have a comic effect, but neither would the reader take the investigations seriously, nor would the officer’s speech provide as a basis for a sociolinguistic analysis that relates its finding to reality.

In order to give a complete analysis, Mair argues that the different linguistic features should be categorised into a mimetic and a symbolic level. The investigation of distorted spelling, the use of vocabulary, slang, idioms, and grammatical features imitate the nonstandard as it is. But, a symbolic function of nonstandard speech can be illustrated rather on the level of textlinguistics, pragmatics, and the inclusion of sociolinguistics and ethnography. Hence, the nonstandard language can work as a metasign of ethnic identification, as a “reminder that that a disaffected protagonist also dissociates himself from the social mainstream linguistically” (Mair 1992: 118). The analysis of comments on language either by the characters or by the narrator would also constitute such a metalinguistic level. Narrative comments are especially useful when a character’s speech alone would not suffice to convey the associated metalinguistic gesture, e.g. intonation or emotions related to the speech.

Since fiction mirrors society to some extent, its nonstandard language can be examined to mirror linguistic realities in a society, and through such linguistic realities, one also learns about cultural realities. As Susanne Reichl poignantly summarises:

On the whole, nonstandard forms provide another layer of characterisation, of identification with or disassociation from particular ethnic groups; they work as metasigns and draw attention to themselves by their difference from the narrator’s language. Together with translations and / or dubbing, they introduce another culture through another language into an otherwise English text, thus establishing Black British novels as contact zones of heteroglossia. (2002: 111)

III. Sociolinguistics, ethnography, and social meaning

Sociolinguistics can no longer exclusively be seen in the Labovian way that investigates linguistic variability in relation to major demographic categories such as class, age, gender, and ethnicity. The influence of pop culture on adolescents such as reggae and rap, the emancipation from gender thinking, as well as the globalisation of languages are factors why one needs to move away from traditional sociolinguistics and instead consider “specific speech forms, genres, styles, and forms of literacy practice” (Blommaert 2003: 608).

Mair supports this argument. With particular reference to British Creole, he writes that

[i]n view of the frequently conscious and strategic use of Creoles in the diaspora, an interdisciplinary or cultural-studies approach is probably better suited to a study of language in the Caribbean diaspora than a traditional sociolinguistic framework, with its emphasis on documenting correlations between dependent linguistic variables and independent social variables in unreflected and subconscious linguistic practice. (2003: 247)

Blommaert stresses that sociolinguistics must be considered in a more globalised sense as, through economic globalisation, immigration, and pop culture, various language varieties influence the repertoires of speech communities, creating a contact zone for new semiotic potential for the members of these speech communities (cf. 2003: 611).

These approaches of cultural studies and the globalisation of languages are closely related to ethnographic studies as “ethnography will allow us to unravel the details of how language varieties and discourses work for people, what they accomplish (or fail to) in practice, and how this fits into local economies of resources” (Blommaert 2003: 615). Also, Penelope Eckert emphasises the importance of ethnography, which is, according to her, crucial in the research of social meaning in variation as “ethnographic studies have brought us a clearer view of how ways of speaking are imbued with local meaning” (Eckert 2005: 5). By combining ethnography with language variation and social meaning, she explains that ethnography, however, does not mean that somebody speaks a particular language or variety because he or she is born in a particular type of community or belongs to a particular ethnic group. With the focus on social meaning, she is much more concerned about the question what it means that a person makes use of a particular language or style and what function it serves for him and also for his speech community (cf. In other words, people do not talk in a particular way because of who they are or because of which speech community they belong to, but they make up their own identity – something Eckert calls the construction of personae (cf. Eckert 2005: 23) - because of they way they talk. This concept of a constructed identity is also supported by Rampton, who argues for a redefinition of ethnicity, as for him it is not fixed but negotiable. He regards ethnicity not necessarily as a stable part of identity that is given by birth and cannot change through life, but rather as something produced: it is produced in so far that it is constructed. Consequently, if something is constructed and not inherited, it is changeable. It can easily be deconstructed again. Therefore, Rampton proposes to consider the option of adopting somebody else’s ethnicity and constructing one’s own new ethnicity (c.f. 1995: 486-488). It goes without saying that language plays an important with this. Rampton observed the use of Jamaican Creole among adolescents of non-Creole speakers, which results, according to him, in the construction of new ethnic identities. In his studies he found that “through language crossing, youngsters temporarily denaturalised both ethnicity and socialisation in a series of acts which thematised change in ethnic identity and cultivated a spectacular, dynamic, heteroglossic marginality” (1995: 507). This phenomenon of so-called language crossing will be further elaborated on in a separate section of this paper.


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Sociolinguistics of literature: Nonstandard English in Zadie Smith's White Teeth
University of Freiburg
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Sociolinguistics, Nonstandard, English, Zadie, Smith, White, Teeth
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Daniela Wack (Author), 2005, Sociolinguistics of literature: Nonstandard English in Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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