Language and Socioeconomic Status: Overt Vs. Covert Prestige
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Language and Socioeconomic Status: Overt Vs. Covert Prestige

Overt prestige is acquired by those speakers who have command of a standard dialect (or dialects) that is socially defined as that spoken to gain social status within the wider community; often that of the elite. Covert prestige, however, is that acquired by those speakers desiring to belong; to be considered a member of a certain community. These are major factors in deciding how we speak.

In many societies, those individuals who do not adopt what is considered the “standard” or proper form of language are considered lazy, uneducated, or anti-social.

Speakers of these “non-standard” varieties are routinely told that the way they speak is wrong, and ultimately inferior. (The prescribed form is the only correct form.)  Invariably, they are expected to adopt the logic that success equates with learning to speak the variety of language typically taught in school.

As a result, children who come from households where non-standard varieties of language are the norm are set at an immediate disadvantage; and second language speakers are daunted by adopting forms of language they do not typically encounter in their home communities--thus, feeling second class until they have mastered this task.

Invariably, some individuals become bidialectic (mastering two dialects), some become only marginally proficient in learning the standard (while eventually mastering the non-standard), while some will give in to the prescribed language premise, mastering the standard while rejecting the non-standard completely--often alienating themselves from friends and neighbors in the process.


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The deciding factor as to which of these three adaptive strategies an individual adopts is quite often a matter of overt “prestige” vs. covert “prestige.”

Overt prestige is acquired by those speakers who have command of a standard dialect (or dialects) that is socially defined as that spoken to gain social status within the wider community; often that of the elite.  Covert prestige, on the other hand, is that acquired by those speakers desiring to belong; to be considered a member of a certain community. And when the need to be recognized as part of a particular group becomes the deciding social factor, success is defined by the amount of “success” that can be achieved within a group vs. without. And in a very real manner of speaking, a nonstandard language--despite the stigma attached by the wider community--can help achieve a much higher level of covert status than that of the overt in the outside world.

Another factor in this decision-making process is that of self-identification. For example, while the vast majority of individual's report that would like to attain a higher level of education than they currently have, a common deterrent is what they perceive as the "group alienating" factor. Many lesser educated see the greater educated as arrogant and “high and mighty“--made apparent by the manner in which they speak.

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Individuals who do not aspire to mingle with the academically-minded see the acquisition of “proper” language as an alienating factor that would ultimately exclude them from their chosen group (a reality this writer can certainly attest to). Thus, linguists recognize that a major factor contributing to how we speak relates to how we want to be perceived; how we self-identify.

Obviously, unless an individual lives and works in two different environments and has mastered linguistic code-switching (standard to non-standard back to standard language at will), by adopting a particular language variety, you are essentially adopting those who speak it as your “community.”

As anthropologists came to recognize over a century ago, one important factor that provides humans with a sense of belonging--which relates directly to security and peace of mind--is the maintenance of cultural connections, most closely tied to how one speaks. And this is not just about how we identify ourselves, but how we want to be identified by others. And this, or course, ties in with ethnic pride, cultural heritage, and sense of place on the world stage. Thus, to the extent to which we are able to make linguistic choices, our selection of social identity plays a very significant role.

Assert one’s individuality as a teen is considered normal--and actually, quite healthy.  It’s recognized as an essential part of maturing. Teens typically reach a point of development when they wish to distinguish themselves from adults.

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As they mature, it’s common for them to seek to distinguish themselves by community (rural vs. urban), and often, by a particular ethnic group. This process by and large requires the acquisition of covert, prestige language--examples of which can be traced back centuries in dozens of cultures around the world.

Thus, while prescription would like to frame “success” in terms of the wider societal picture, in reality, for many, many individuals, language remains a type of social badge. A valued membership card.  And while the socially elite prefer to dictate and define what is “proper,” in reality, the relationship between standard and non-standard language is not a matter of good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, intelligent vs. unintelligent. They are simply different ways of speaking as defined and determined by social structure, function, and community norms. And in many ways, is far more adaptive than one group telling another how to speak.


Language Shock, M. Agar

"Language Variation," Ohio State University Press

"Rethinking Diversity," in Theory and Practice of Teaching and Writing, B. J. Moss and K. Walters

images via wikipedia unless credited otherwise (with my appreciation)

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>  Levels of Linguistic Structure

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Comments (7)

Great analysis. I'm very conscious of this phenomenon, having an uncouth North East accent. It's a shame that regional dialects are often viewed with contempt, because they can offer a fascinating insight into local history and culture.

Thanks, Michael. And quite right. From the anthropological perspective, nothing is more revealing than language variation.

Even if one's grammar is good the accent always betrays a working class background, the type of school attended (private or public) and the social status of your parents. It is encouraging, however, to note that the princes William and Harry do not have their grandmother's, or even their father's accent.

Wow, this is very well put together.

Thanks, Martin. Much appreciated.

Wow, this is a great analytical discussion of an important issue. Thanks

Thank you sir!