Language investigation ideas: Social networks, ethnicity and brokers

Do different social networks adopt new features at different rates? (or: Are specific individuals spreading novel features through their social networks?)

To work well, this idea would need a sharp ear for new features and access to specific sorts of social networks. 

Research by Cheshire, Fox, Kerswill, Khan and Torgersen discusses the presence of certain non-standard features (including h-dropping and the pronunciation of the vowel in ‘goose’) in the speech of people in Hackney (inner London) and Havering (outer London). It found that the non-standard features were most common in the speech of non-Anglo speakers, and least common in the speech of elderly speakers. The Anglo speakers in the study were classified as having either an Anglo network (i.e. mostly white friends) or a non-Anglo network (i.e a largely non-white friendship group), and the research found that the speakers with non-Anglo networks were more likely to use the novel features that those with Anglo networks. The researchers recommend that people interested in change look to minority-ethnic groups in cities for the source of new features. 

Beyond that, they also discussed the ideas of ‘brokers’ – high status individuals with large social networks who seemed to be responsible for taking features from one area of their network and spreading them to another. 

So an interesting investigation is possible if the investigator has access to social networks of minority-ethnic speakers and Anglo speakers. Any element of pronunciation or non-standard grammar could be used as the focus of an investigation – for example, the Cheshire et al. study found that the inner London teenagers were h-dropping (that’s my ouse) much less than the elderly speakers they measured. So if you had access to enough Anglo and non-Anglo speakers in an area you could measure the levels of h-dropping for people from each group. This could also work for things like goose-fronting, ‘dark’ L, the substitution of /d/ for ‘th’ (dem, dere for ‘them’ or ‘there’), more traditionally Cockney features like th-fronting, or any other features currently associated with change (you could do things like slang as well but any specific item of slang will appear much less than a phoneme does so you would probably end up with much less data). 

AO1 – this would be based around whichever features you decided to focus on (discussed above). It would be sensible to look at several to give maximum options in analysis (and it might be hard to know which feature will prove most varied or interesting before actually collecting data, so it could be best to include several possibilities). 

AO2 – the Cheshire, Fox, Kerswill, Khan, Torgersen research is the obvious core of this, but Cheshire’s work in Reading and the Milroys in Belfast would both also be good for discussing social networks and how they affect language. Trudgill’s work in Norwich demonstrates that people associate certain pronunciations with class, and that people can code-switch. Labov’s work on Martha’s Vineyard shows a specific form of pronunciation becoming associated with the identity of a social group and gaining in prevalence because of that – much as some features may become associated with individuals who seem high-status and therefore worth imitating (however unconsciously). 

AO3 – a massive range of factors could be considered here – a map of the social networks involved could be very useful in demonstrating which people know each other and allowing a mapping of the features onto that. And details of speakers’ backgrounds, interests and influences (e.g. someone very into grime might use MLE pronunciations more often than someone who likes baking or lawn green bowls) other languages spoken, and even attitudes to sources of influence like London could be revealing. 


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