How Lower-Class Innovation, Like, Changes the Langwage
Valerie Fridland on the Linguistics of My Cousin Vinny, the Caste System, and the Queen's English
If you’ve never seen My Cousin Vinny, it should top your list of must‑see classic movies. Not only because it features actor Joe Pesci in one of his funniest roles, but because it is a great example of how sometimes it’s hard to look past the way people sound and dress, if black leather jackets and gold chains aren’t your thing.
There is a great scene where Pesci’s “Vinny Gambini,” a streetwise Italian American New York lawyer with no experience, appears before a rural Alabama judge and, impassionedly keeps referring, in his thick New York City accent, to “the yutes” (meaning “youths”).
The judge, of course, can’t understand half of what he says and spends most of the movie offended or aghast at what comes out of Pesci’s mouth. Much of the movie’s success comes from how it comically contrasts his working‑class speech and street sensibilities with the reserved and gentrified towns‑ people in the small‑town South. And for a linguist, it beautifully exemplifies how the impact of what we are trying to say can often get lost because of the way we say it, especially if our accent makes it sound like we don’t “belong.”
And this is not just the stuff of movies. A friend of mine is a very successful doctor and, not surprisingly, extremely articulate and well educated. She has never had any trouble growing a large specialty practice or building a big network of equally impressive friends. But much to her dismay, she has been less lucky in the romance department, often dating similarly career‑oriented men but finding that nothing clicked.
Then she met Tom, an incredibly kind and thoughtful man who works as a manager at a party store. The difficulty is, though, the way Tom sounds (and what he does) makes him stand out in her social circle, which is predominantly made up of upper‑middle‑class professionals. He uses past participles like “had went” instead of “gone” and lots of ‑in’ endings, and leans heavily on contractions like gonna or wanna.
As they got more serious, he became a bit sensitive to feeling like he didn’t fit in with her friends, and that he was just not as comfortable in her world as she was in his. While it may not be as stark as Tom’s experience, we can all relate, whether at work or in a social setting, to feeling judged by the way we talk.
This clash of class culture is neither unique nor unusual in the social world of language. We have always used the way people speak as a gauge to their social standing. In fact, the upper‑crust speech of eighteenth‑century Britain formed the basis of much of what came to be considered proper written and spoken English, valorized in culturally defining dictionaries and writings of the time, such as those by Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Swift.The existence of such caste dialects is the reason why speaking English has become so popular throughout India.
In India, the traditional caste system that so sharply delineated class groups, prohibiting any mixing between them, was divided not only by social practices but also by language practices. Caste could be identified by simply hearing the dialect features some‑ one used—for instance, in Bangalore in South India, a Brahmin speaker would say ide for “it is,” while a non‑Brahmin would say ayti.
The existence of such caste dialects is the reason why speaking English has become so popular throughout India. Existing outside the linguistic shadow of caste, English has offered a way to move beyond the limitations imposed by this rigid status system.
Even without such sharp delineations, we still find language a window into the divide between the upper crust and the salt of the earth. In Boston, the highly recognizable Brahmin accent (actually a reference to the dialect of the highest Indian caste) typifies the speech of New England gentry (think Haah‑vahd or the Kennedyesque Mayor Quimby from The Simpsons), while a “wicked” Southie accent marks you a person of the people (think shawty or fawty, which translate, for others, into “shorty” or “forty”).
In London, we just as easily recognize the difference between a Cockney and a queen. After all, a Cockney accent can make three pints enticingly sound like “free” pints, which is surely the mark of a great accent. In other words, egalitarian as we may like to believe ourselves to be, our linguistic practices (and how they’re perceived) still reveal a sharp class divide. Though we might pay homage to increasing equity across groups in society, our employment, social networks, and educational opportunities conspire to stratify us in ways that recognizably rank us by the work we do, the places we live, the styles we emulate, and the language we speak.
The big reveal here is that without this stratification and its resultant linguistic distinctions, our language would look very different today than the English we have come to know and love. Language evolution, it turns out, loves a mouth that isn’t afraid to let it all hang out. And snooty talkers tend to be a bit too linguistically uptight.
In the same way that increasing written standardization since the rise of the printing press has created less variation in how we write things, rising social‑class affiliation seems to make us more guarded and regulatory about how we talk as well. If your bread and butter depends on making sure you sound like you belong at the top of the linguistic food chain, you will be more likely to suppress any tendencies toward change (especially the ones we talked about earlier that naturally arise in language) and be more inclined toward features that ooze social prestige rather than street smarts or camaraderie.Lower‑status speakers have with great regularity led the linguistic charge in many of the innovations that have become well‑accepted parts of our language.
Working‑class or blue‑collar speakers have more mixed pressures to respond to—sometimes a need to shift toward more high falutin’ norms, or in other realms, the desire to use features that more intimately connect them within their social network, which tends to be more tight knit and locally drawn than upper‑class speakers’ social circles. Both of these forces, it turns out, are the secret sauce behind language change, as these tendencies propel speakers toward using features in less socially restrictive and more novel ways.
A striking and consistent finding in much language research is that lower‑status speakers have with great regularity led the linguistic charge in many of the innovations that have become well‑accepted parts of our language.
To take a few examples, consider the dropping of the y sound (known as yod) before oo vowels (and especially after consonants like n or d made with the tip of the tongue), explaining why some speakers in the South or in Britain sound a bit snobbish when they say nyooz for “news,” djew for “dew,” or tyoon for “tune.” This yod‑dropping is something we Americans share with Cockney and other working‑class dialects and, according to language historian Roger Lass, was decried as a corrupt and vulgar development in eighteenth‑century speech.
Now even upper‑class Brits are sometimes caught yod‑less, following in the footsteps of us lowly, crass, and vulgar sorts. In America, we even find a decent number of speakers who have expanded this deletion pattern beyond the places where it most often occurs—for example, the sort (like me) who use coo‑pons instead of cue‑pons. While this pattern might be interpreted as American English clearly going to the dogs, I put to you the important question of whether you have ever found yourself held back in life by the absence of yod?
But this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of changes that have come full circle, led by those less bounded by the merely social rules we mistake for linguistic grammar. How about that dropping of r we just discussed? While this might be a mark of the Queen’s English today, it began in the speech of the lower classes, gradually moving up the social hierarchy to become the prestige norm in England in the late nineteenth century.
Though now simply just the way we speak, many of what we consider commonplace speech features like these were at one point associated with vernacularity and bemoaned as evidence of the decay of English. But, as with so many of the changes that have entered our language, they have ended up the linguistic legacies of our economically down‑on‑their‑luck ancestors.
Still, speakers in the lower classes didn’t reshape English alone. To understand fully what drives our verbal habits, we have to sleuth out our most important linguistic partners in crime.
From Like, Literally, Dude. Used with the permission of the publisher, Viking. Copyright © 2023 by Valerie Fridland.