Status and Style in Language
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 14: 557-581 (Volume publication date October 1985)
J T Irvine
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor…

My dearest Simone,

My mind was instantly filled with various language experiences just from reading the title of this article. I am learning that I will likely continue reading articles on linguistics after my year of self-study, so I could stand to read some type of basic introduction to linguistics.

During a discussion of studies on variance in language-use according to caste in India, Irvine writes that sometimes speakers would attempt to “caste-climb” by using speech forms associated with higher ranks and how this dynamic was “at odds with the stereotypical picture of Indian castes as rigid, immutable strata, unchallengeable and unmanipulable.” This idea of status climbing by changing the manor of speech put me in mind of several language experiences I had/observed while living in London. Several times before class or during breaks in law school lectures I heard a concern repeated. The speaker said to her group that they had to be careful not to socialize with Oxbridge people who hadn’t gone to the proper (pre-university) schools, in other words, those who weren’t genuinely members of the upperclass. The speaker seemed concerned that a non-upperclass person might try to use the prestige of having gone to Oxbridge combined with having adopted an acceptable accent to “class-climb.” One of the most vocal speakers on this matter was an upperclass person from the Indian subcontinent. I wonder whether she had a special sensitivity due to experiences in India. (Note: Many applications for upper-level jobs required the applicant to list schools as far back as middle school for similar reasons.)

American movies sometimes show Londoners with widely different accents getting together as couples or being members of the same family without comment. The reality that I observed was much different. Several times I observed (middle class) Londoners who seemed to be from similar economic backgrounds, in similar places in their careers and otherwise compatible refuse to date each other because of a difference in accent – at times a level of difference that wouldn’t seem significant to an American ear. It seemed some couples made due if they had the same accent, but their parents had different accents; but it was a source of discomfort.

Part of legal study in the UK involved acquiring a two-year training contract with a law firm. Several of my classmates significantly shifted their speaking styles to match what might be expected at a perspective law firm. One friend  said that she did so unconsciously during a short internship at a law firm. She could not reproduce the same accent outside that law firm’s environment. She was from a well-to-do Taiwanese family which placed her outside the normal British accent scrutiny to a certain extent. It appeared that successfully adopting the right accent could make things a lot smoother for her than it would for a non-upperclass British person doing so.

Irvine didn’t engage in a detailed discussion of status and style in British English, but I believe she pointed to some relevant literature in the bibliography. I’m sure I will want to revisit her bibliography at a later date.

Thank you for your many kindnesses,