Research Findings

Illuminating the linguistic marketplace


May 6, 2021

Language is part and parcel of work. Sociological approaches to the study of language at work have tended to emphasize dramatic differences in language use at work, such as the discrimination that immigrants face when attempting to enter or navigate new workplaces where the language spoken is not their own. Yet language operates on a much more subtle level. Linguistic differences that are difficult to detect can effectively distinguish between people who are engaged in different kinds of work. 

We address these subtleties in a recent study by drawing on precise socio-linguistic measurement techniques to examine how specific dialect features are associated with the development of linguistic employment niches. Our study examines how the expression of six Southern US vowel sounds maps onto the industrial workforce experiences of 190 native Raleigh, North Carolina speakers. We show that dialect features are not only tied to specific industries, but that the dynamic connection between dialect and industry helps to reveal fundamental transformations in a community’s socio-linguistic landscape. 

Raleigh’s linguistic landscape

Using Bourdieu’s theory of the linguistic marketplace as a starting point, we argue that engagement in different forms of economic activity requires demonstrated competence in legitimate language use. In short, regional dialect variation signals symbolic valuation, which in turn shapes economic pursuits and opportunities.  

Raleigh, North Carolina is an ideal place to study the linkages between language and work. Raleigh has a booming metro area in the Southern US with a long tradition of distinctive dialect features. Raleigh has also experienced unique patterns of migration and a shifting industrial mix due to the establishment of the Research Triangle Park in the 1960s, which brought in residents from non-Southern locations to take on jobs in the technology sector. 

How do the dialects of Raleigh’s residents map onto industrial and occupational categories? How have migration and industrial transformations impacted Raleigh’s economic linguistic landscape? 

Measuring variability in dialects across industries

We draw on data collected from the Raleigh Corpus of sociolinguistic interviews conducted with 190 lifelong Raleigh residents. In addition to gathering life histories, the recordings allow for the measurement of precise details of each subject’s speech. Speech recognition software is used to align transcriptions with the sounds from the interviews. Of specific interest is the pronunciation of specific vowels that are quintessential markers of Southern US dialects. 

For example, in most American English dialects, the word “time” is pronounced with a long “i” sound. In traditional Southern dialects, the word sounds more like “tahm.” Phonetic measurement allows one to distinguish between these two pronunciations. In a technical sense, it does so by computing properties of the waveforms produced during speech. In the analysis of vowels, two measures of interest correspond to the height and frontness/backness of the tongue while the speaker is producing the vowel. In short, this technique allows for the precise measurement of the extent to which a speaker produces a Southern accent.

Sustaining and transforming linguistic employment niches

Using these Southern vowel utterances as dependent variables, we examine their correspondence with the industries in which respondents are employed. We find that workers in the technology industry and professional occupations and were less likely to produce Southern vowels than workers in interactive services, law, or government employment. Moreover, analysis of successive cohorts of respondents reveals a retreat over time from Southern speech, particularly among those in the technology sector. 

These results reveal patterns of language by industrial and occupational classification that are largely consistent with notions of the linguistic marketplace. Generally, we see lower levels and greater reductions over time in Southern speech among people in more highly credentialed and compensated work, which is not surprising given the stigmatization of Southern dialects. However, our findings also suggest that Southern speech is tied to the context of work. Expectations for legal, government, and interactive service work in the South emphasize the need for warmth and pleasantness, which helps to explain the higher levels of Southerness and the less rapid decline in Southern features across cohorts. 

The specific mechanisms associated with the development of linguistic employment niches remain opaque. We expect that this phenomenon is partly driven by selection into industrial and occupational contexts based on a perceived fit between personal habitus and perceived work culture. Linguistic matching may also be facilitated by organizational gatekeepers who steer job applicants toward or away from specific types of employment based on stereotypes about language and competency. Furthermore, once employed, people may alter or modulate their dialect to conform to the linguistic norms of their respective fields. While our analysis is unable to adjudicate between these mechanisms, we suspect that all three explanations contribute to this phenomenon. 

Toward the interdisciplinary study of language and work

Language is a unique and understudied contributor to social and economic stratification, yet sociologists have not effectively explored the role that language plays in the economy. Previous sociological research, has examined language difference only at the extremes. Our results imply that subtle distinctions in dialect can be a powerful explanation for reproducing inequality in economic outcomes. 

Drawing from socio-linguistic research, we show how specific features of dialect (like vowel sounds) can be measured precisely. And our study presents only a small window into detailed linguistic analysis, which has far greater capabilities for subtle detection of dialect features, like variation in the expression of syntactic constructions, consonants, cadence, and prosodic features such as intonation patterns. We hope that our investigation opens the door to a wide array of sociological research into the connections between language and work. 

Future research should examine the mechanisms that generate correspondence between language and forms of work: language selection into different forms of work, linguistic gatekeeping at the point of hire, linguistic style-shifting in work organizations. More research is needed into the meanings that people ascribe to dialects and work tasks and how those meanings overlap and diverge for cross-cutting forms of ascriptive statuses (e.g., race, gender, and age). Interdisciplinary collaborations between sociology and linguistics are required to make these advancements. 

Read more

Jon Forrest, Steve McDonald, and Robin Dodsworth. “Linguistic Employment Niches: Southern Dialect Across Industries”in Socius 2021.

Image: Wikimedia (CC 0) 

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