Brahmins and Lockjaw
March 30, 2010 7:09 AM   Subscribe

What are prevalent upper-class social markers of speech in the US (if any)? I'm from continental Western Europe; the Netherlands. I asked my US girlfriend what upper class speech markers exist in the US. Because in NL I can place people quite quickly as coming from a specific upper class or lower class background just by hearing the way they speak. She said that that doesn't exist in the same way in the US. I find that hard to believe. Do you notice social markers of speech in your surroundings? And can you give examples? Maybe even youtube fragments?

Somehow that is hard to believe for me since I think that the desire to differentiate social status is universal.
I know of Locust Valley Lockjaw and the Boston Brahmin accent. But I get the impression that it's not prevalent over the US. That it is a quaint remnant of older times but that it's not important anymore to the current upper middle class.
Also there is a similar phenomenon in movies and tv of making an upper-middle class character have a British pronunciation to signify the same thing. That doesn't sound particularly true to me. But what do I know as a Dutchman?
In NL social climbers from humble origins will have a very noticable upper middle class accent after attending university and being part of some student clubs.
So: is it true that the US is this egalitarian world where there's only a neutral received pronunciation but no widely spread upper middle cass pronunciation? And if it does exist; what does it sound like?
posted by joost de vries to Society & Culture (87 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
The thing I think you're not accounting for is the size of the US. There are a wide variety of regional accents, but I would agree with your girlfriend that there is no universal class marker in American speech.
posted by anastasiav at 7:15 AM on March 30, 2010

It doesn't exist in nearly the same way here. Regional variations are much larger than economic variations. While the rich certainly have better spoken english in general, I can't tell the difference between generic rich white dude and generic middle-class white dude. There's definitely an east-coast aristocracy thing going on, but those people area tiny fraction of rich people here.
posted by paanta at 7:18 AM on March 30, 2010

Well, I'm low class and say "ax" instead of "ask". This is apparently a clear indicator of my upbringing. That's how they say it in my hood. I think people who drop r's or add r's are also considered lower class.
posted by mokeydraws at 7:18 AM on March 30, 2010

I can't describe the way they sound when they actually talk, but it's a little noticeable, and less through the nose. I can describe what they say when they adopt a tinge of an accent. Particularly, I've noticed some of my American friends have adopted various English phrases, such as "spot on" and "rubbish" and calling crazy people "nutters." They aren't British, and haven't been to England recently. Additionally, they claim to like the British version of the Office better than the American one.
posted by anniecat at 7:19 AM on March 30, 2010

Oh, but the people I'm describing aren't actually part of the upper class, financially or through kin. It's more of them wanting to be perceived as cultured and distinct. They usually work poor nonprofit jobs and were raised in an upper middle class household.
posted by anniecat at 7:21 AM on March 30, 2010

I would say the class marker is a less obvious regional accent.

Also my impression is that even amongst the sort of people who would have had LV Lockjaw it is sort of disappearing.
posted by JPD at 7:22 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think for the U.S., your grammar is more of a social marker than your accent itself- in an example from my region (NYC area) saying "I says to her" instead of "I said to her," or "ain't" instead of "isn't." I think the way a person spells might also be a social marker - if someone always writes "u" rather than you, for example.

To a small extent, whether you have an regional/cultural accent *at all* other than the kind of standard American accent you see on TV, can be the social marker you mean. But not always.
posted by Ashley801 at 7:23 AM on March 30, 2010 [11 favorites]

Anniecat - that sounds like something from Stuff White People Like.
posted by mokeydraws at 7:24 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

First, I agree that the examples you cited are antiquated.

In my layman's opinion, it's the 'lack' of an accent (meaning 'you talk like a newscaster', which I've heard variously as a midwestern* or California accent) that denotes middle to upper class.

Regional accents almost universally strike me as being 'uncultured'. This includes the common stereotype of a Southern accent (probably most common in the media as a Texas accent; people from Tennessee may talk differently from Florida but it can be lumped together) to the New England practice of a glottal middle consonant in 'mountain'.

Beyond the accent, there are some elements of usage that can be class indicators. Again, to me, these only indicate 'lower' class. Or maybe that's my class bias.

Americans try not to think about class, so you may have a harder time getting answers here.

*The 'flat' newscaster accent is NOT the midwestern Indiana accent I grew up with, although people there often claimed it was. Specifically, the midwestern accent has less distinction between A and E vowel sounds.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 7:24 AM on March 30, 2010

I think it could be said that speaking "proper" English - using complete sentences with correct grammar and pronunciation, with limited use of slang - is becoming a marker of upper-middle social class in the US.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 7:25 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Regional accents almost universally strike me as being 'uncultured'.

I would pretty strongly disagree with this. There are distinctly different upper-class and "uncultured" Southern accents, for instance.
posted by enn at 7:31 AM on March 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Actually- I just thought of an example of the sort of accent you mean. Have you ever seen Silence of the Lambs? Everything about the way Hannibal Lecter speaks - his grammar, accent, word choice, etc, is supposed to indicate that he belongs to a high social class. Jodie Foster's regional accent (but not her grammar, IIRC) is part of what's meant to show you that she grew up poor.
posted by Ashley801 at 7:32 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

As a follow up question: some movies portray 'southern gentlemen'. (Usually in seersucker suits and a racist context). They have a pronunciation that's recognisably Southern even to a European but seems different from Southern 'yokels'. Is there such a thing? A local upper middle class accent in the South? Or other places?

These premises: I have a hard time imagining a glottal consonant in 'mountain'. Can you elucidate?
posted by joost de vries at 7:33 AM on March 30, 2010

I agree with your premise that the desire to differentiate social status is universal. But that desire is not borne out in accents in the U.S.

We use a lot of other signifiers here, as I'm sure you do in Europe. In the U.S., clothing, haircuts (and facial hair ... mullets are low class, mustaches are low class), brand loyalties, and cars are certainly quick ways to "size up" individuals.

Oh, and one quick signifier in writing (in the U.S.) beyond grammar. As a matter of style using the semicolon as you did in your question marks you as HIGH CLASS you dutchman you!
posted by zpousman at 7:35 AM on March 30, 2010

I could be using the wrong term to describe it. However, it sounds to my ear like "Mou - nn". The 'nt' isn't pronounced. I also hear it with "mitten" - pronounced "mi - in".

Maybe it's just frozen tongues on ski slopes.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 7:36 AM on March 30, 2010

TPAA, I agree. Roughly the same subset of the population seems to use "warsh" for "wash."
posted by hal incandenza at 7:38 AM on March 30, 2010

I guess I start to understand the prevalence of grammar nazis on metafilter. I used to think there was just a high percentage of editors on mefi. But it's all about class!
posted by joost de vries at 7:38 AM on March 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Anniecat - that sounds like something from Stuff White People Like.

I hadn't thought of it that way, but they are white and very much like the SWPL website.
posted by anniecat at 7:39 AM on March 30, 2010

I'm probably going to get pelted with invective for this, but among the people I grew up with, pronouncing the "T" in the word "often" was/is considered lower class. Although I think it just falls in with what Juffo-Wup said about correct grammar and pronunciation.

(Yes, I know that nowadays it's considered acceptable. But long ago and far away, it was considered wrong, wrong, WRONG, and it still sounds that way to some of us. My first grade teacher used to have conniptions when someone did it.)
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:41 AM on March 30, 2010

A local upper middle class accent in the South? Or other places?

Yes, on both counts — I've seen this distinction in the South and also in New England, where the Boston Brahmin accent and the Yankee farmer accent are very different; I'm sure it exists elsewhere. The strong Southern upper-class accent, though, seems much more common among older people and less pronounced among the younger.
posted by enn at 7:42 AM on March 30, 2010

Agree with what others have said. Neutral accent is a pretty universal sign of upper-middle class. True upper-class accent is more easily picked out in areas with a strong regional accent: think Boston Brahmin vs Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, or Charleston accent in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil vs backwoods Deliverance accent. And in both, it's "old money" upper class.

Perhaps that's the major difference in the US? Admiration for the self-made, nouveau-riche person, who still retains "common man" affectations, like accent.
posted by supercres at 7:43 AM on March 30, 2010

Inside a hierarchy the markers may be subtle but definitely there. The upwardly mobile mimic the people on the chain above them. In the American system, some of the jargon is tortured. Where the dictionary leads you to "obedience", substitute "performance". And they do not just pick up the terms, but the accentuation as well. My boss says things that I can close my eyes and hear his boss and his boss's boss and his boss's boss's boss saying. This could be confirmation bias because I have had the deja vu of hearing something verbatim and identically paced and accentuated from different level actors across short time intervals.

The top of the chain is northeast boarding school to Ivy League college. When you meet one of these people it is apparent within about fifteen minutes. Within your intestines arises an irresistible urge to kick them in the balls. Class rage is great stuff in small doses.
posted by bukvich at 7:43 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

glottal consonant in 'mountain'. Can you elucidate?
mou'in, or kih'in (kitten) or mih'in (mitten). My Rhode islander roommate would do that.

I concur with the general idea that there is an inverse relationship between class and thickness of regional accent. Oddly, this implies that there is in fact an upperclass accent, which is a completely region neutral american accent, defined by the absence of regionalisms. Like a platonic ideal floating somewhere over the midwest. I'm sure there are experts around that could help define it, (or prove otherwise) but it's a fascinating idea.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:43 AM on March 30, 2010

I guess I start to understand the prevalence of grammar nazis on metafilter. I used to think there was just a high percentage of editors on mefi. But it's all about class!

I think so. I mean, I don't think it's about enforcing class norms or something like that. I do think though that users of this site are probably on average, from a background with more education or money than the internet as a whole, and so you probably would find more of that here.
posted by Ashley801 at 7:44 AM on March 30, 2010

bukvich: do you have any examples?

supercres; interesting point about needing to maintain 'common man' affectations.
posted by joost de vries at 7:46 AM on March 30, 2010

Speaking as someone who's grown up in the American South, I can tell you that there are some subtle variations in speech patterns that could be tied to class, but with all the moving around and transplanting, you don't hear it as much as you used to. Or maybe I don't.

In any case, for Georgia, the 'higher-class/well-bred' accent tends to be a little more broad, a little slower and with clearer enunciation. Like that video of the brahmins, though, it's something of an endangered species.
posted by jquinby at 7:47 AM on March 30, 2010

The upper classes in America, to the extent they exist, will:

-use "standard English" prescriptivist grammar (e.g. not ending sentences with prepositions)
-enunciate their words almost too well (see Will Smith in Six Degrees of Separation, "bottal of beeer.")
-speak in long, complete sentences

George H.W. Bush speaks upper-class American English. His son does not.
posted by callmejay at 7:50 AM on March 30, 2010

I had grandparents who were *truly* upper class. One set from Texas, one from Connecticut. The first time I heard the Texan grandma talk (I met her fairly late in life), I asked my mother why she was faking a British accent.

The Connecticut grandparents also had a distinctive accent, and I'm from Connecticut, so I know it wasn't just the local dialect. I'd be hard-pressed to describe it (they've all long since passed away), but again, it had a tang of British to it.

Not very helpful. But as as a lower/middle class descendant of the French-vacationing, mansion-dwelling, eveningwear-and-diamonds Old Money set, I would say that there definitely IS an upper class accent lurking in the corners of American society. But they don't mix with just anyone, darling, so who's to tell you about it?
posted by Ys at 7:52 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is there such a thing? A local upper middle class accent in the South? Or other places?
Yes, absolutely. One thing about the South you have to remember is that the accents differ widely from place to place. A real South Carolina lowcountry accent is completely different than, say, a Louisiana accent or even an upstate South Carolina accent. Within each of these regional accents there are social class markers. These are often very subtle differences and I have no idea how I would describe them without trying (and probably failing) to mimic them out loud. Because of the regional differences, too, it's harder for an outsider to hear them - I can pick up class indicators in Charleston accents pretty quickly, for example, but I have no idea what constitutes a class difference in New Orleans. Also, they are going away, in favor of a more amorphous general accent. In my parents' generation (they were born in the 20s) these signifiers were much clearer and more noticeable - you really don't hear people anymore who speak like my friend's aunt Miss Mary, age 94, who has a distinctive and clear upper class western North Carolina accent.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:54 AM on March 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Is there such a thing? A local upper middle class accent in the South? Or other places?

There are many, many different Southern accents. And many, many different New England accents. And the same for every region. Different social classes, backgrounds, education levels, regions - sometimes down to which neighborhood people live in. If you're familiier enough with an area of the country, you can tell if someone from there is "upper class" from the way they speak. But there's no one indicator nationwide. And it's more complicated than that, which is I think why I want to put "upper class" in quotes. Think of George W Bush - born about as "upper class" as you can get in this country, but his speech (the accent, stumbling over phrases, small vocabulary) are things usually associated with "low" classes.

On preview: oh yeah, the New England glottal stop. Here, at least, this can be part of a very "upper class" accent. What would mark you as "low class" would be your grammar: if you said ain't, don't got, etc.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 7:54 AM on March 30, 2010

In the UK, upper-class schoolboys, regardless of their place of origin, all had "received pronunciation" drilled into them. And while RP itself has changed a little over the years, and (AFAICT) has become less universal among the UK's well-educated, it still exists.

In the USA, we've never had anything like that. Back in college, I took a class on the history of the English language, and the professor made the point that good grammar became the American equivalent of RP. He said that this was more in keeping with American notions of egalitarianism, since anyone can aspire to good grammar, but you've got to go to the right schools to get RP.

I would also agree that a neutral American accent is generally a sign of not being lower class. I grew up in Chicago, and had a relatively neutral accent all through life, but would encounter people from my own town who had strong working-class accents that struck me as almost comical.
posted by adamrice at 7:56 AM on March 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

familiier = familiar. typo, not some kind of alternate lower class spelling!
posted by DestinationUnknown at 7:57 AM on March 30, 2010

George H.W. Bush speaks upper-class American English. His son does not.

Although his son is clearly privileged rich upper-class, so what does that say about the entire idea?

It seems more like a distinction between educated and uneducated, which relates to class but is not the same.
posted by smackfu at 7:58 AM on March 30, 2010

Oh, that's funny! I just checked your Boston Brahmin link. The first one sounds so like my father's father it's eerie, and the second speaker sounds just like the wife he took after my grandmother died!
posted by Ys at 7:58 AM on March 30, 2010

These Premises, I think glottal stop is the term you're looking for.

Re your follow-up, joost, not all Americans know this, but there are MANY Southern accents. I grew up in a part of Virginia where "natives" have pretty unmarked speech, but went to school in southern Virginia and North Carolina, and I can identify a bunch of fairly distinct Southern accents off the top of my head: Appalachian, eastern North Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia. Never mind class markers; those do exist, but movies almost invariably get even the broad regional variations very wrong -- the Southern gentleman in your example is typically portrayed with a sort of half-assed generic Texas accent despite that the movie's set in Georgia or whatever. Cringe-inducing! I'll go ask my girlfriend (raised in small town western North Carolina, but went away to school and has retained only about half an accent) to remind me of some movies that get Southern accents right.
posted by clavicle at 8:02 AM on March 30, 2010

Oh, you know what? The lady who plays the mother of Kimmy in My Best Friend's Wedding is a good example of perceived notions of how the upper class sounds. She also played the mother of Greg in Dharma and Greg.
posted by anniecat at 8:02 AM on March 30, 2010

I'm from the South. There are many Southern accents, and they mark you as a native of a particular area. They also mark you as being from a particular socio-economic level. I've noticed that the "upper class" male Southern accent seems to be rapidly diminishing. Still, yes -- there is a difference between the 'yokel' and the 'gentleman' Southern accent, and it's quite noticeable.
posted by infodiva at 8:03 AM on March 30, 2010

Cursing is low class. I've also heard that the use of 'big words' improperly is a marker as well.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:06 AM on March 30, 2010

I agree that grammar is a more important marker than accent in the U.S. Even upper-class people often have a few regionalisms or regional-accent-words in their speech, but grammar is important. Once children are school age, you very often hear mothers (less often fathers) of middle-class-and-upwards children correcting their grammar when they speak ... not obnoxiously, just like it's normal: "So her and I went to the store --" "She and I, dear." "So she and I went to the store ..." It's so common that my friends' kids who are in the 5-to-7 range will often look to the nearest adult for confirmation when telling a story if mom isn't around to autocorrect them. And older children (and teens) will often pause to ask for the correct usage, even from peers. You'll sometime hear teens in the middle of a story about their awesome alcohol-related exploits pause to say to their friends, "gave it to she and I ... wait, is it her and me here? Um ... gave it to her and me? Yeah. So then ..." (As I think about it, I can't imagine seeing this in a TV show or a movie - how dull! - but I do hear it all the time in reality.)

Not that middle-and-up Americans sit around and talk about grammar all the time, but if you stop to listen, there is a fair amount of correcting going on, especially with young children.

I also agree that enunciation is important, and I think middle-and-up people are more likely retain those parts of their regional accent that doesn't interfere with clear enunciation. (So vowel-pronouncing accents are pretty normal, but dropping consonants is seen as more uneducated.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:07 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

And on non-preview...

Roughly the same subset of the population seems to use "warsh" for "wash."

Wow, not my experience at all! I associate the glottal stop and the r-insertions with two totally different sets of people: New York/New Jersey and rural mid-America respectively.
posted by clavicle at 8:12 AM on March 30, 2010

In my experience, having lived in the US South my whole life, the clearest distinction is grammar. To a certain extent there is also a less-pronounced "southern-ness" to the accent, but I think that is more common among younger people. Also nth-ing the wide variety of Southern accents. I find the Middle-East Tennessee accent to be a lot more "twangy" than in Virginia, where I grew up, and West Tennessee / Memphis is distinct in a way I can't really describe.
posted by ghharr at 8:12 AM on March 30, 2010

Somehow that is hard to believe for me since I think that the desire to differentiate social status is universal.
This isn't really true in the U.S, certainly, there's no way to tell the difference between middle class and upper class. Sometimes you'll hear people speak with a strong regional accent, but lots of people do that in order to seem more "down to earth", even very wealthy people.

Also, you can tell when people were raised in a lower-class neighborhood if they have a strong accent. But it totally varies from place to place. A lower class accent from down south would sound very different from one from up north, or the inner city, whatever. And there are places where there really are no variations.

Basically, a strong regional dialect might be a marker. But it's not a very good one, because a lot of times wealthier people want to retain their "working class" roots and will speak with a regional accent despite having a lot of money.

I think part of it is the fact that people in the U.S. think, "Anyone can be rich", therefore upbringing isn't supposed to be related to financial success. That's not really true in most cases but it's part of the national mythology.

Also, in the south, most everyone speaks with a southern accent, rich and poor. I think there are more class gradations in southern speech then in, say midwestern speech.

(Also, I totally disagree that "Neutral" = "Upper-middle class". Neutral accents can span the entire class range, and most middle class people speak that way, not just "upper" middle class people. Depends where you live of course.)
posted by delmoi at 8:13 AM on March 30, 2010

I am from NY and went to college and now live in New England. At least for the Northeast, I agree that good grammar and the absence of a regional accent tend to be more common markers for an upper-middle class person than any particular accent. I will never forget at my college's commencement, one of the speakers had the thickest Southie accent I had ever heard. He was a very educated person, but he sounded so uneducated with the way he spoke that it was almost comical.
posted by tastybrains at 8:18 AM on March 30, 2010

As far as vocabulary goes, there is probably some version of in effect in the US today-- again with the caveat that the US is large and never had the stratifications of the UK system. Plus, even when U and non-U was a recent idea, upper class surely said some non-U things.

When I went east for school, I noticed that U types said "guests," not "company," and about a zillion other things like that. They also drove Jeeps. never Blazers, and asked you what dancing school you went to. I was noticing a lot of things that were regional and ALSO class-bound. Back in Chicago, I realized that the over-enunciated way my father talked was his idea of upper-class, which he himself picked up out east. These days, if I hear someone say "God bless" or "thank you kindly" or "home" instead of "house" it sounds it sounds non-U to me. So does anyone pronouncing "route" like "rout" (which even some professors from Chicago do).
posted by BibiRose at 8:20 AM on March 30, 2010

. I find the Middle-East Tennessee accent to be a lot more "twangy" than in Virginia, where I grew up, and West Tennessee / Memphis is distinct in a way I can't really describe.

Agreed. Dolly Parton has the quintessential East TN accent, though I imagine she amps up a little when she's in her full-on shtick. Then there's Alabama, which always struck me as shorter/rounder than what I was used to hearing in mid-Georgia. Past that, you're into Mississippi and eventually the Ozarks and a mild bit of the midwest starts creeping in. Oddly enough, though, Florida has always seemed to elude me.
posted by jquinby at 8:21 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

George H.W. Bush speaks upper-class American English. His son does not.

Although his son is clearly privileged rich upper-class, so what does that say about the entire idea?

But I think the son's affect is really a deliberate "I'm just with the commoners" affect. I don't know if he really speaks like that unless the affect has gone on so long that it has become him. None of Dubya's siblings speak like that, and I've heard archive video of him and it seems he didn't until being a Jes' folks Texan became a way of positioning GWB, the brand. There was a PBS documentary on him and he was giving a speech as Texas governor and he sounded "Genral American" Six months later he announced his candidacy for president and then it was y'all and rasslin and ridin' herd.

So it actually does say a lot about the idea, at least when politics are conerned. That is to say, even if you are from the bluest blood, do anything possible to NOT look like one of the elite.
posted by xetere at 8:31 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Katherine Hepburn cultivated an aristocratic accent that she kept through most of her years but it's very obvious as she plays a wealthy upper crust type in Philadelphia story, but that accent is pretty much gone.
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 8:32 AM on March 30, 2010

The guy featured in this video is low class and sounds like it.
posted by anniecat at 8:34 AM on March 30, 2010

I think about this topic a bit. I was raised upper-middle-class in the Northeast. I now live in East Tennessee (Southern Appalachian mountains).

I can't make any class-based observations because local variations are too bound up with location. People from the backwoods have an Appalachian accent that shares many features (including using you'uns, pronounced "yoonz", as third-person-plural) with Appalachian residents as far north as Pennsylvania. People from Knoxville (a 45-minute drive from the backwoods) have a more generic slight Southern accent. As a general rule, wealthier people have city accents because more wealthy people live in the city. However, there are plenty of backwoods folks who've done well, so it's not uncommon to hear a strong Appalachian accent behind the wheel of a Mercedes.

So no, in my experience, there is no reliable class marker in peoples' accents. I agree that congenitally upper-class people tend to be more prescriptivist about grammar, but there's enough social mobility in the US that newly-wealthy and newly-educated people may sound like hicks.
posted by workerant at 8:35 AM on March 30, 2010

Check out this fascinating documentary on New Orleans accents. New Orleans is a unique case, certainly. At the same time, it's arguably just an exaggerated version of some more generalizable dynamics of race, class and language in the U.S..
posted by umbĂș at 8:35 AM on March 30, 2010

In my experience, class in the US is mostly about your education. So to the extent speech is marked:

Lower class = incorrect grammar = you don't care if you're speaking correctly or not, or you don't have the tools to find out, or you want people to know you're from the 'hood.

Middle class = overcompensating. You care, but you sometimes get it wrong.

Upper class = correct grammar. Everyone around you talks correctly because they, too, all went to great schools.

For example:

Lower class = "Him and me went to the store. She gave it to him and me."

Middle class = "He and I went to the store. She gave it to him and I." [This drives me nuts, incidentally.]

Upper class = "He and I went to the store. She gave it to him and me."

Note also that upper class people are more likely to use regionalisms and folksy speech than middle class people, for the same reason that they often wear old clothes: they're not worried that someone will think they're lower class. So you're more likely to hear someone who went to Yale say "Well, that ain't right" than someone who went to, say, SUNY Purchase. But the Eli is using it self-consciously.

(Obviously there are plenty of lower and middle class people who speak perfectly grammatically; we're just talking about people whose speech is marked.)
posted by musofire at 8:40 AM on March 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

In general, the lack of a strong regional accent in a person from the Midwest, South, or Northeast US signifies that the person was able to attend college or travel somewhere out of their hometown for an extended time, and is therefore higher class.

There are exceptions, such as the Kennedy family with their Boston accent; they are wealthy and famous, and attended good schools and worked for prestigious institutions, but kept the accent. However, my experience is that the more someone belongs to the intellectual class in the US, the more neutral the accent; any accent gets watered down at a young age by exposure to other educated people and lots of media. Thus, accents say more about how you grew up than the social class you currently belong to.
posted by slow graffiti at 8:46 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think, musofire, that your use of Purchase is misleading. It's an art school and attracts a different crowd from most public schools. It and Yale have no direct correlation.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:48 AM on March 30, 2010

You'll also note (in this thread as well as generally) that many Americans correlate wealth and class, but of course the two are not the same thing, which sometimes confuses attempts by Americans to identify class distinctions.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:55 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

In Europe, people wear their class proudly. In the United States, it is a slightly shameful thing. George Bush is given as one example. He emphasized his Texan background not his Yale background. To understand why this is so, it helps to look at American mythologies such as the American Dream.

The people others look up to in the United States aren't the aristocrats. They are the self-made men, the people with the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger story, who through their own cunning and determination climbed to the top. This is why, as noted above, many wealthy people will consciously retain regional accents. It says "I earned what I have." vs. "I was just handed this at birth."- this is one of the more powerful social signifiers in the US.

The speech examples cited in the question are also found on the East coast and in the Southeast. If the East still shares some relics of Old Europe, the West coast is more American in that sense of the new wild frontier where the entrepreneur can prosper. The whole Silicon Valley phenomenon of the 1990s was a further flowering of this American Western phenomenon. Billionaires walked around in torn jeans, drove volkswagens and went surfing. The one guy with the suit in the office was probably there to fix the copy machine.

I guess what I'm saying is that the lack of an easily discernible social class in the United States is to a great extent the result of an inversion of the usual meanings of class. Europeans care about "Who are you?" Americans care more about "What have you done?"
posted by vacapinta at 9:09 AM on March 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

For me a memorable marker of lower class status in Maryland where I grew up was the use of the phrase "I seen" instead of either "I saw" or "I have seen". It always sounded so wrong to me, since I grew up in a more educated family. How much money someone had was not as important to us as whether someone had a decent education.
posted by Ery at 9:13 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm another low/middle class decendent of upper class people. The biggest thing that was drilled into me as a kid was being careful and consistent in my speech. Contractions were discouraged. Colloquial shortening of words (ambo for ambulance) and misplacement of emphasis in words (CE-ment instead of ce-MENT, or the more highly preferred cement) were actually punished.

Listening to my grandmother and her parents speak, the best way I can describe it is slow and measured. We were a family of fairly long pausers, and very fast speech was quietly frowned upon as uncouth. Interruptions were not tolerated, and this conflicts with a conversational style that favors shorter pauses and a different approach to turn taking. My ADHD had always gotten me in trouble because I was a sentence finisher (I still am).

Other low class markers were adding consonants to words, and leaving them out. February is a fun one. I could get the r in there in a way that is almost unnoticeable, unless you were listening closely.

But the most important marker was that truly classy people would not correct the grammar or enunciation of those around them, unless they are your children or your students.

There were subsets of people using poor grammar, or different pronunciation. First, people who didn't know better. Second, and more damning, were people who were lazy. I never knew how you were supposed to be able to tell who fit into which group.

Many in my family favor a highly prescriptive view of language, and with my Anthropology training, I favor a descriptive approach to speech. To deny the legitimacy of differences in language is to have an inaccurate perception of what is going on when we open our mouths. However, travel, media, immigration, and education have all been destabilizing forces on these distinctions, through time.
posted by bilabial at 9:28 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

joost de vries: "Somehow that is hard to believe for me since I think that the desire to differentiate social status is universal."

It is! Americans like to tell you otherwise.

This is just my experience, and I am not a linguist.

There are different markers depending on the region. Not coming from these regions, forgive me, but that's why there is a southern gentleman and a southern not-so-gentleman. A wealthy Boston accent and a not-so-wealthy accent. New York City, the same. I'm not from NYC either but live here so my knowledge is a bit wider but still limited.

In NYC, what usually determines class is a mixture of ethnicity and time off the boat. This also can be involved with your last name and how you look. Hence the alleged existence of a Brooklyn accent, New Jersey accent, etc. These indicate not-so-much-money but they also seem to indicate that your family got here relatively recently, but not that recently. Italian immigrants' families are the most archetypal. See: The Sopranos. There are also different ways of speaking that indicate race which is, of course, intimately tied into class. Any accent or manner of speaking that indicates any culture or race but white will usually not read as upper class or upper-middle-class. Unless you're from another country, then it's a whole 'nother ball game.

Where I'm from in Colorado there is an accent that will automatically label you as not from the middle class. It resembles this parody accent but less California uptalk. It's related to Mexican immigration and Spanish as a first or second language, but white, non-immigrant-family people pick it up, too. My high-school friends who wanted to move "up" in the world purposefully changed their speech patterns to be more like, well, mine. I'm mixed race but was raised "white". Here's where class comes in again. My mother was incredibly poor growing up. She has a lot of mannerisms that don't quite fit in with her current wealth. Hard for me to pinpoint, but she talks too loud, as one example. So where we're from she's sort of puzzling with regards to class. My sister and I land firmly in the "wealthy" category, at least where I'm from. That has to do with how we dress, too, but the accent is sort of a pre-requisite.

However, right after I moved to NYC, people were often confused about my class status. This also has to do with the other class signifiers, not just speech or accent. The way I talked came off as very midwestern, slow, maybe not that bright. One variation of the "hick" accent or manner of speaking. Different word pronunciations got some laughs, pronouncing aunt as ant, roof as rough, pop instead of soda, etc. I certainly didn't come across as an East-coast born-and-bred upper-middle-class kid. Once I figured out the nuances, I fit in much better with wealthy East coast people, though I am obviously not one of them. Of course, it's not just about speech, but part of it is.

I find that it's easier to buy your way into the middle and upper classes the further West you go. On the East coast it's a lot more settled and, I think, nuanced.

Hope that adds another piece to the puzzle.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:28 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've studied this a bit in an English Language course; you may be interested in
  • Labov's study on New York department stores, in which the post-vocalic "r" was used as an indicator of social class.
  • Trudgill's study, using "ng" and "n'" on the ends of words as a similar indicator.
Generally, you're looking for research in the field of sociolinguistics.
posted by katrielalex at 9:30 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know I'm repeating answers a little here, but this is my perspective, growing up in an upper-middle class home in California.

I don't perceive any difference in the speech of upper class and upper-middle class speakers. Correct grammar, no regional accent (or a very slight accent), and correct spelling in writing are essential. I consider California speech to have no accent.

There's more of a difference between middle class and lower class speakers. Grammar is probably the biggest marker - using ain't, regional expressions that aren't standard, etc. Accent matters, even though that really seems unfair when I'm thinking about it. Basically, if you wouldn't hear it on NPR, it signifies less education and lower class. I think there are a lot of racial undertones to this too; the standard ways many nonwhites grow up talking is perceived as lower class/less educated, but it's actually due to racism, not reality.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:30 AM on March 30, 2010

In Europe, people wear their class proudly.

This is completely, ridiculously false.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:35 AM on March 30, 2010

The dead give-away for me what the question (asked of one U to another): "Where did you prep?"
Middle class, and even most upper-middle class do not generally go to prep schools. If they did, the answer to the question reveals volumes about their background and wealth.
posted by dbmcd at 9:35 AM on March 30, 2010

It's striking how grammar remains the one thing it's mostly ok to look down on people for in the U.S. Even in this thread note how many people casually refer to "good grammar" and "poor grammar" as if there were some objective reason "she and I went to the store" is more correct than "me and her went to the store." Most people who were raised with "good grammar" aren't even aware that it is a prejudice, even as they look down on people who speak like the people they grew up with rather than as the textbooks instruct.

The good news is that American tend not to want to be prejudiced and as soon as you point out how arbitrary a lot of the "rules" are (the ban on sentence-ending prepositions, the ban on double negatives despite them being common in other languages, etc.) they will change the way they look at people. The old ask/axe thing, for example, has been established as a largely racist critique in the general population and polite people no longer mention it for that reason (although the pronunciation does not divide exactly along racial lines.) Even the preposition thing is going away because of jokes like "Where's the library at, ASSHOLE?" and Churchill's ridiculous "up with which I shall not put!" But grammar remains one of the few things upper- and middle-class Americans will openly mock the lower classes for.
posted by callmejay at 9:40 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Being 'well-spoken' is a pretty good indicator of class. This is less about accents or wealth or breeding and more about intelligence and good manners. When you speak well, you speak softly, correctly, clearly and kindly. If you do this with a mid-Atlantic Ocean accent while wearing your grandfather's woolen overcoat over your Brown T-shirt--well, that's just overkill. Not classy!
posted by Pennyblack at 9:43 AM on March 30, 2010

> bukvich: do you have any examples?

If by example you mean youtube video I do not. vacapinta's answer was the most lucid here I have seen to the question I believe you are asking.

I will tell one more short anecdote. Many years ago we had a boss whose last name was Howell who was a stereotypical northeast boarding school ivy league guy. His nickname was "Thurston", after the character in Gilligan's Island who has the Larchmont accent. Our Thurston had nothing like a Larchmont accent. The distinctions in his speech were subtle, but unmistakeable if you paid any attention. I never encountered a single person who asked WTF is up with the guy's nickname.
posted by bukvich at 9:43 AM on March 30, 2010

Note the difference in accents between the Professor and Mr. Howell. Mr. Howell had the stereotypical upper crust accent (he attended Harvard and was a multi-millionnaire). The Professor is highly education and speaks precisely, but with no trace of the haughty, clenched-jaw pomposity. Mrs. Howell had a similar upper-crust accent, even though she grew up (according to the storyline) in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. These types of "higher class" accents are much less common these days; not as many blue blood families send their children to boarding school where they are given elocution lessons. And vast amounts of money no longer automatically equals class.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:44 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

In Europe, people wear their class proudly.

This is completely, ridiculously false.
posted by ethnomethodologist

Well, in contrast to my Bush example, yes, I think it is valid. If you feel that this is misguided please feel free to add more information rather than a brief dismissal which I don't think adds to the discussion here much.
posted by vacapinta at 9:45 AM on March 30, 2010

Yup, this is sociolinguistics.

It is hard to separate out characteristics of speech that denote class specifically, and across the United States, because of the vastness of the country, and because of the other things that accents indicate. Beyond class, a person's idiolect (their individual dialect, including accent, syntax, and word choice) may indicate:
  • region
  • education
  • race
  • gender (beyond the fact of higher and lower registers)
  • whom they're speaking with
and beyond. Some accents indicate some of these characteristics more prominently than others. My usual accent, for example is most revealing about my level of education (high) than the region I'm from (I've got that accent which is sort of generally "Eastern American"—it could be from anywhere East of the Mississippi and North of the Mason Dixon).

The studies katrielalex linked to are good class and language studies, but you'll notice that both of them are very narrow, both in terms of the features they examine, and the geographic area they're concerned with. This narrowness is necessary to control for all of these other variables.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:30 AM on March 30, 2010

It's striking how grammar remains the one thing it's mostly ok to look down on people for in the U.S.

I don't think it's the *only* thing. I think that often, people can be judgmental of others for not knowing things that are generally taught in elementary school. Not just grammar, but also spelling, really basic math, geography, etc. Jay Leno has a whole segment mocking people for not knowing stuff like that that's supposed to be common knowledge.

But I do think it underlines the comment vacapinta made earlier, that Americans might be more concerned with what you've done than who you are. Whether it's entirely true or not, I think a lot of people see education as something that's within your own control, unlike who your parents were or where you grew up.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:33 AM on March 30, 2010

> But it's all about class!

That's what I've been trying to tell people as long as I've been on MeFi. But your girlfriend is right: class marking doesn't exist in the same way in the US. That is to say, there are forms of speech considered "lower-class," but there has not been for many decades a form of speech considered "upper-class," and the very concept is alien to the US in many ways. I am not, of course, saying that class doesn't exist in the US, but that it basically equates to wealth. If you can walk into a place and start tossing hundred-dollar bills around, you're of high status and everyone will defer to you. There is no longer a "Four Hundred" to snub you if you're not the "right sort," as there was in the days of the Astors.

In short, vacapinta pretty much has it.
posted by languagehat at 11:35 AM on March 30, 2010

Class does not "basically equate to wealth" and old money still frowns on new money if the new money is uncouth. Walking into a restaurant and conspicuously throwing money around will indeed buy you deference. But it does not buy you class.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:54 AM on March 30, 2010

If you can walk into a place and start tossing hundred-dollar bills around, you're of high status and everyone will defer to you.
Is that how it would work in a country club in an old affluent neighbourhood in the US? Or in a high status fraternity at an ivy league university?
posted by joost de vries at 11:58 AM on March 30, 2010

Thanks for answering my question before I posted it E McGee.
posted by joost de vries at 11:58 AM on March 30, 2010


I'm not British or ethnomethodologist, but I've been interested in language and in Britain for a long time, and after watching and reading a lot about it, I think it's pretty safe to say that a lot of people in the UK are about as conflicted about class as we are. I can't speak about other European countries because I don't know as much about them.

Just in terms of accents, there's the whole phenomenon of Mockney, which is upper class people pretending to have a Cockney (lower class) accent and failing miserably (like Jamie Oliver), which seems pretty equivalent to George W to me.

Also I think that a large number of upper middle class people in London these days speak Estuary English, which is a more subtle downplaying of the RP accent (It mixes RP with a SE England accent. Think David Tennant in Doctor Who). Estuary has become very common because it's a good compromise between snobby and lower class.

And there are still strong enough negative assumptions about a lower class northern accent that it's a big deal when an actor like Christopher Eccleston keeps that accent when he plays a major role. And Eccleston has a reputation as a sourpuss, I think partly because he won't just give in and pretend he's from a middle class background.

(Anyone from Britain, feel free to correct me about any of that).

joost de vries, as for your original question, I think in America race is a stronger card than accent in people's automatic assumptions about where someone fits in the class strata. In other words, more bluntly, I think if you're brown, white people are more likely to assume that you're lower class or that you started out as lower class. I don't know how it works in reverse, but I'm white and I know that when I'm not monitoring myself carefully, I find myself making that kind of assumption more regularly than I would like--which makes me pretty uncomfortable, because I would like to think that I was more educated than that--

Also, as far as I can tell, the only people in the U.S. who think that "class basically equates to wealth" are the ones who have never spent any time with people who were born into the upper class. Granted, that may be a large segment of the population, but still.
posted by colfax at 12:08 PM on March 30, 2010

Ehm, colfax I'm not so much interested in how things are in Britain. Or elsewhere in Europe. I'm just interested in social class markes of speech in the US. Not whether having money or being a self-made man is more important or should be more important.

the only people in the U.S. who think that "class basically equates to wealth" are the ones who have never spent any time with people who were born into the upper class. Interesting observation colfax.
posted by joost de vries at 12:16 PM on March 30, 2010

Sorry for the derail.

I'm just interested in social class markers of speech in the US. Not whether having money or being a self-made man is more important or should be more important.

Fair enough. It's pretty hard to get away from discussing class in the U.S. though without discussing the idea of the self-made man. The idea that anyone can become anything they want if they just work hard enough is pretty fundamental to our ideas about how class works.
posted by colfax at 12:54 PM on March 30, 2010

Just a theory, but I think possibly a significant factor in the decline of upper class markers in this country might be related to politics: Politicians live the upper class lifestyle (regardless of origin), but conspicuously get there by appealing to how much they can relate to "Everyman." Basically, we live in a system that's rewarding blending down over standing above and apart. And as noted earlier, those who stand above and apart, class-wise, are often particular about whose company they keep and where they can be seen.
posted by Ys at 12:57 PM on March 30, 2010

I have a PhD (well, almost) and went to a very exclusive undergraduate college in the Northeast, but I was raised in a lower-middle-class Italian/Irish/Jewish neighborhood in New York, and as a result I code-switch a lot. I've noticed that when I'm speaking to other academics I have a flatter accent, I do not curse, and I am comfortable using an extensive vocabulary. On the other hand, when I code-switch into a working-class accent, I use a simpler vocabulary, I have a heavier New York accent, and I use a lot more slang. I can literally hear myself doing it and it can be quite strange.

The idea that the only upper-class in the United States is Northeast prep school/Ivy League is antiquated. That is certainly one upper-class culture, but if you spend any time at all among, say, software billionaires in Silicon Valley, tenured professors at R1 universities, or investment bankers (to name three high-status, upper-class groups of people), they differ markedly in their customs and class markers. The US is an enormous, multicultural country, and so there are a wide variety of high-status cultures. The difference between class, wealth, and status is best exemplified by the phrase "income-status disequilibrium", which David Brooks, the pop sociologist, uses to describe a person whose income does not match his or her status. Brooks suggests that a professor earning $80,000 a year is a higher status individual than a CEO with a GED earning a million dollars a year. (Although this implies that there is a single status hierarchy that the entire United States adheres to, which I do not think is the case.)
posted by alicetiara at 1:03 PM on March 30, 2010

I may be a little late to the party, but can anybody explain the difference between class and wealth in America? I understand the difference between new money and old money, both of which I thought were upper-class (more like sub-classes, I guess).
posted by AtomicBee at 1:36 PM on March 30, 2010

New money can still be low class.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:43 PM on March 30, 2010

Atomic Bee: Upper Class is mostly breeding and partly training, would be my take on it. You can be Upper Class in 'financially difficulty' --you've still got the breeding and the training. But it's in horribly bad taste & likely to lose you friends if you let the 'difficulties' become readily observable to the untrained eye. Money cannot vault you into the Upper Class, only the Upper Class lifestyle. You can marry in.

And "Class" and "classy" are two completely different things. One can be the former without any of the latter, so long as you have the pedigree and (metaphorically speaking) know which fork to use.
posted by Ys at 5:46 PM on March 30, 2010

Correction: You can marry in to have Upper Class children. YOU will always be remembered as a have-not, even when people are smiling and being polite.
posted by Ys at 5:55 PM on March 30, 2010

America has a weird relationship with class - it's not that we care less about it, or are less affected by it, but I think it's less of a conscious thing. Everyone pretty much considers themselves middle class. If you're richer then you're upper-middle class.

This article says "Even among people with incomes under $25,000 a year, 41 percent describe themselves as middle class. So do 38 percent of those with household incomes over $100,000."

(The poll discussed within says less than half of Americans consider themselves middle class, but apparently the three options it gave were "working class" ( "middle class" and "upper-middle class." -- which I think it pretty telling.)

So while one might judge someone who uses certain grammar/slang or has a certain accent as lower-class, and someone with the faux-british-prep-school accent as upper class, that's pretty just much the outer limits. The vast majority of people just seem sort of middle-class and don't stick out as long as they don't speak too abnormally (How much money do they make? $30,000? $90,000? Who knows?) Even grammar isn't really a good indicator of more than just educated (and thus "middle class"!)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:23 PM on March 30, 2010

throwing around $100 bills

Wow, no. If you did that at Dalton or Yale, people were think you were a crass idiot.

I have spent time with all sorts of extremely rich people. I have never heard them evaluate anyone's personal merit based on how much money they had, unless they were remarking on someone having made it themselves.

Class and wealth are related, but not the same thing. Wealth can buy your kid the education that makes him U, but it won't make you U. On the other hand, doing U things -- buying real art, sitting on charity boards, hell, playing polo -- will make you U if you are trying to fit in. On the other hand a lot of self-made rich folk don't want to come off as U -- they want to make sure everyone knows they grew up poor.

The class/wealth divide isn't new. Aristocrats have often been poorer than merchants. Only recently (and in a few historical places like Renaissance Venice) have merchants had higher social status than aristocrats.

I have noticed that Americans who make money often drop their speech markers, particularly accents, while Brits keep theirs. If you're born Cockney, it seems, you never want to sound like a toff.
posted by musofire at 8:12 AM on March 31, 2010

I may be a little late to the party, but can anybody explain the difference between class and wealth in America? I understand the difference between new money and old money, both of which I thought were upper-class (more like sub-classes, I guess).

Atomic Bee: Yeah, I think it's not so cut and dried. I think one factor is the idea of social capital. For example: two wealthy parents have a child, the child grows up, graduates from art school, and lives in East Williamsburg making $18,000 a year. On the other hand, you have another guy who grew up East Williamsburg, never graduated high school, mostly only knows other people who never graduated high school, and makes $18,000 at a low level job.

The first person has education and resources, and knows many other people with even more education and even more resources. The second person doesn't have any of those things.

So even though they have the same salary, live in the same neighborhood, probably have the same rent, I would still say the first person is at least a middle-class person, and the second person isn't. I think part of it is the wider resources that a person has access to.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:37 PM on March 31, 2010

Thank you for addressing my question. I was hoping for more examples from experience. But there we are.
Of course any answer to this question will be complicated in a country as large as the US. Thank you for trying though.
posted by joost de vries at 1:02 PM on April 29, 2010

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