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Skip to 0 minutes and 3 seconds Often when people talk about how they feel about a variety of speech, they’ll touch on the idea of “correctness”. They might feel that certain words or sounds are “wrong” or are in some way inappropriate. In doing so, they are comparing that variety with one that they consider “correct”. Languages typically have a standard variety - the kind of language that carries prestige in society. The standard language variety is often taught in schools and used to write formal publications like newspaper articles or other kinds of non-fiction. Taking the English language as an example, even in a relatively small country like the United Kingdom, there is a huge amount of linguistic variation, much of which would not be considered as ‘standard’.

Skip to 0 minutes and 50 seconds In fact, most people who speak English around the world don’t necessarily speak with what could be called a Standard English accent or dialect. Varieties of a language that deviate from the standard - or, rather, users of that variety - can sometimes become associated with negative traits. For example, as we’ll see in Week 4, there is research that links certain British accents with the perception of committing criminal behaviour. Of course, there is nothing intrinsically ‘criminal’ about the particular sounds or words that occur in these accents, which tells us that attitudes like these toward language are arbitrary. In other words, there is no real connection between, say, a speech sound and a concept such as ‘criminality’.

Skip to 1 minute and 33 seconds In a similar vein, people often have very positive attitudes toward standard varieties - for example, associating them as sounding intelligent or authoritative - even though there is nothing intrinsically ‘intelligent’ or ‘authoritative’ about the language variety itself; these attitudes are formed by making a link between linguistic features and more abstract social traits. The association listeners make between a particular accent and a positive or negative trait can be a reflection of the listener’s own attitude towards the people who speak with that accent, and can lead to bias towards or against particular groups of speakers, as we’ll explore further in Week 4.

Language attitudes and correctness

In this video, Dr Claire Childs explains the link between the attitudes we have about accents and how these relate to ideas of ‘correct’ language use.

Let’s take some time now to reflect on the attitudes which relate to our own accents. What attitudes do you think other people might have to your accent?

  • Are there any stereotypes associated with your accent?

  • Have you had an experience of either a positive or negative reaction to your accent?

Share your thoughts with your fellow learners in the discussion below!

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This video is from the free online course:

An Introduction to Sociolinguistics: Accents, Attitudes and Identity

University of York

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