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Skip to 0 minutes and 5 secondsOften 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. For example, there was some outrage not too long ago when Steph McGovern – a Middlesbrough English speaker – began presenting the business news on the BBC. For some listeners, her accent did not convey that she was both educated and knowledgeable about this area of expertise. But in order to have an ‘incorrect’ language variety, logically, there must be a ‘correct’ one. In English, there is what is considered to be a standard variety – the sort of language that carries prestige in our society.

Skip to 0 minutes and 45 secondsIt is a variety that is taught in schools, and is used to write formal publications like newspapers or non-fiction. Varieties of English that deviate from this idea of the standard - or, rather, users of that variety - can sometimes become associated with negative traits. But it is important to remember that most people who speak English don’t necessarily speak with what could be called a Standard English accent or dialect. 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.’ For example, as we’ll see in Week 4, there is research that links certain British accents with the perception of committing criminal behaviour.

Skip to 1 minute and 27 secondsOf course, there is nothing intrinsically ‘criminal’ about the particular sounds or words that occur in these accents. What this tells us is 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’. 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 concepts.

Skip to 2 minutes and 7 secondsEven given how seemingly arbitrary or complicated the connection is between language use and identity, we know that listeners still use linguistic cues to form attitudes about other speakers. For our purposes as sociolinguists, 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.

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.

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An Introduction to Sociolinguistics: Accents, Attitudes and Identity

University of York

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