Example research essay topic: Examination Of Language Within Social Context – 1,382 words

… rm and fair, where the next sound is not a
vowel in the same word (as in very). At that time,
New Yorkers sometimes used one variant and
sometimes the other, which was of particular
interest because the choice seemed to represent a
change currently taking place, as New Yorkers
moved from the previous norm of consistent (r) :
? (as in British RP) towards a new and
relatively consistent (r) : [r] (as in many other
United States accents). The study of linguistic
changes currently taking place has been one of
Labov’s recurrent interests, ever since his
Martha’s Vineyard work). Labov predicted that the
proportion of (r) : ? would be highest in
the speech of older people (since (r) : [r] is an
innovation), and of lower-status people (since the
new standard, (r) : [r], is the result of
influence from the high-status community outside
New York). He farther predicted that (r) :
? would be most frequent when speakers were
paying least attention to their speech, since they
would then be worrying less about how their
hearers were assessing their social status; and
finally that the linguistic context of (r) would
influence the variant used, (r) : ? being
favoured more by a following consonant than by a
following word-boundary as could be predicted on
general phonetic grounds from the widespread
tendencies to simplify consonant clusters.

The
results of Labovs survey were that the amount of r
increases by social class and by formality of
style. However, there is one noticeable exception:
Lower middle class speakers outperform the upper
middle class speakers on word-lists and pairs.
Labov calls this a crossover in the graph an
explains it as the phenomenon of hypercorrection.
Lower middle class speakers realise how
prestigious r-pronunciation is and therefore
outperform the next highest social class, whenever
they are able to monitor their speech, that is in
word-lists and list of pairs. Another
investigation is that by James and Lesley Milroy
in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The methods used are
quite different from those of the classical
Labovian approach. The main difference between the
Milroy’s work and that of Labov is that Lesley
Milroy, who did most of the field-work, was
accepted as a friend by the groups whose speech
she studied, which made it unnecessary to use the
formal interview, technique. This had the great
attraction that it was possible to study genuinely
casual speech, as used between friends, because
the researcher’s presence did not increase the
formality of the situation.

By becoming a friend
of the people one is investigating one becomes
part of a network of relations among them, and can
use the structure of this network as social data
to which speech may be related. In her study,
Lesley Milroy concentrated on the speech of
working-class people in Belfast, only. Three
specific working-class areas were selected,
between which there were important differences
still. Two were unambiguously Protestant and one
Catholic, and in one of the Vritestant areas the
traditional local industry, the ship-yard, was
still employing local men, whereas the traditional
employer of men in the other Protestant area and
the Catholic area was -the linen industry, which
has declined, leaving men either unemployed or
travelling outside the area to work. As a result
of her efforts, Lesley Milroy became accepted as a
friend who could ‘drop in’ at certain houses at
any time, to sit in the kitchen listening or
taking part in the conversation for as long as she
wanted and even to use her tape-recorder, after
explaining that she was interested in Belfast
speech. Under such circumstances it seems unlikely
that her presence, or even that of the
tape-recorder, affected the way in which people
spoke.

The most obvious source of influence on
linguistic variables is the speaker himself, i.e.
the kind of person he is and the experiences he
has had. An individual’s use of a linguistic
variable depends on the degree to which he is
influenced by one or more norms in his society.
The Milroys have specifically investigated this
aspect of variation. They selected their speakers
through personal introductions within a network of
contacts, and they were able to spend a great deal
of time in the households concerned, getting to
know the structure of their social relations. The
three communities studied were all typical poor
working-class areas, and many of the families
involved were typically working-class in being
part of a ‘closed network’, a network of people
who have more contacts with other members of the
same network than with people outside it. This
affects the kinds of relations they have, for, in
a traditional working-class area, ties of
friendship, work, neighbourhood and kinship will
all reinforce one another. One effect of belonging
to such a closed network is that people are very
closely constrained by its behavioural norms and
there is consequently little variation between
members in their behaviour (or at least in the
norms which they accept).

Conversely, people who
do not belong to a closed network, or who belong
to a network united by fewer types o bond, might
be expected to show a relatively low degree of
conformity to the speech norms of any closed
network. Some of the people the Milroys recorded
were from extremely closed networks, but others
had looser relations to the community. Each
speaker was therefore scored for the ‘strength’ of
the network connecting him or her to the other
members – a so-called ‘network strength score’
(NSS), which was calculated by taking account of
five factors, for example, whether or not the
person concerned has substantial ties of kinship
in the neighbourhood, and whether he worked at the
same place as at least two other people from the
area. Five of the eight linguistic variables
studied showed an overall correlation with NSS,
i.e. were influenced by NSS in all subsections of
the communities studied – whereas the other three
were influenced by network strength in some
subsections, though not in all. It is also
possible to use the NSS to connect scores on some
linguistic variables with known facts about social
structure.

For instance, there are clear
differences between males and females for most of
the variables in Belfast, and equally there are
differences in NSS, where men score higher than
women. Since the sex differences on linguistic
variables show that men use more of the core
variants than women, sex differences on the
linguistic variables can be explained as an
automatic consequence of differences on the
network strength variable, and consequently we
need no longer postulate sex as an independent
social factor influencing this linguistic
variable. The theory of networks provides an easy
answer: assuming that men go out to work more than
women do, and that they work with men from their
own neighbourhood, men form more work bonde than
women, but have roughly the same number of other
bonds. Overall, therefore, their networks have
more bonds and their NSS will thus be higher. The
differences in speech can therefore be explained,
more or less directly, with reference to
differences in employment patterns. Linguists have
tended to select relatively focussed communities
for their studies, and have consequently
constructed theories of language which have
relatively little room for variability.

Even in
the small, closely knit communities studied by the
Milroys, there was a considerable amount of
variation in detail, so we may expect relatively
gross variation in more diffuse communities. But
the results of the Milroys remain: the stronger
the social network, the greater the use of certain
linguistic features of the vernacular. Milroy’s
hypothesis: a closeknit network has the capacity
to function as a norm enforcement mechanism, could
be confirmed. They also stated beforehand that a
closeknit network structure appears to be very
common in low status communities. Low-status
varieties enable those who use them to show their
solidarity with one another and achieve some kind
of group identity. Sociolinguistics studies have
only a short history in the canon of linguistic
sciences and there remain some open questions that
are worth to be asked.

I.e. what social forces
kept these norms alive and do they influence the
middle or higher class? Can the same phenomenons
of the Milroys research be seen in the middle
class too? We may look forward to understanding
these processes better after a few more decades of
sociolinguistic research..

Research essay sample on Examination Of Language Within Social Context