Miscellany 10: Linguistic revolt

Miscellany 10: Linguistic revolt

Continuing our exploration of the origins, conundrums and variety of language

In the US, Martha’s Vineyard is well known as a “summer colony” where New England elites retreat to beat the heat. Over half of the homes in this community off the coast of Massachusetts are seasonally occupied, and house prices are 96% higher than the US average. However, the average weekly wage on the island is only 71% of the state’s, pointing to stark income inequality between part-time and full-time residents.

These are modern figures, but the divide has existed for quite some time. It was certainly there in 1961, when linguist William Labov conducted a study of Martha’s Vineyard that became the foundation for the field of sociolinguistics.

In the early 1960s, 2.5% of the population was still involved in the fishing industry. For reasons that may be obvious given the aforementioned statistics, these fishermen strongly disliked and resented those they called the “summer people”.

Labov interviewed Vineyarders of various ages and ethnicities. Rather than give his participants lists of words to pronounce or ask them directly about their language usage – traditional approaches in linguistics research – he asked them to talk about their lives.

By studying both the content of the recordings and the phonetic differences among speakers, Labov arrived at an interesting conclusion: some younger Vineyarders had reverted to a more archaic style of speaking. They used the same “closed-mouth” diphthongs (vowel pairs) as the fishermen.

Labov reached two main conclusions based on these observations: 1. The fishermen were exaggerating a tendency already present in their dialect to differentiate themselves and assert in-group membership. 2. Younger people who felt positively toward the island and intended to stay were mimicking the fishermen’s pronunciation for similar reasons.

In other words, the closed-mouth diphthong users were subconsciously fighting against the social changes taking place around them – and this resistance subtly manifested in their everyday speech.

Today, sociolinguistic studies that examine such phenomena are all the rage in academic circles – and for good reason. There’s more to language than meets the ear at first listen, and change rarely happens without reason. Discovering and understanding why is key to tracking social evolution at a larger scale.

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