Definition and Examples of Linguistic Prestige

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In sociolinguistics, linguistic prestige is the degree of esteem and social value attached by members of a speech community to certain languages, dialects, or features of a language variety.

"Social and linguistic prestige is interrelated," notes Michael Pearce. "The language of powerful social groups usually carries linguistic prestige; and social prestige is often granted to speakers of prestige languages and varieties."
(Pearce, Michael. The Routledge Dictionary of English Language Studies. Routledge, 2007.)

Linguists draw important distinctions between overt prestige and covert prestige: "In the case of overt prestige, the social valuation lies in a unified, widely accepted set of social norms, whereas with covert prestige the positive social significance lies in the local culture of social relations. It is, therefore, possible for a socially stigmatized variant in one setting to have covert prestige in another."
(Finegan, Edward, and John R. Rickford. Language in the USA: Themes for the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge University Press, 2006.)

How Linguistic Prestige is Used

"Linguistic prestige is directly associated with power. As [Thomas Paul] Bonfiglio (2002:23) puts it, 'There is nothing in the particular language itself that determines its worth: it is the connection of the language in question to the phenomena of power that determines the value of that language and that contributes to the standardization process.'"
(Herk, Gerard Van. What Is Sociolinguistics? John Wiley & Sons, 2018.)

"Old English certainly had words for 'language' and 'female' and 'face,' and we could perfectly well have carried on using them [after the Norman invasion], but the much greater prestige of French induced many English-speakers to introduce French words into their speech in the hope of sounding more elegant. This attitude is always with us: French no longer enjoys quite the prestige it once had, but you may perhaps know someone who cannot resist spattering his English speech or writing with such French words and phrases as au contraire, joie de vivre, au naturel, fin de siècle and derrière."
(Trask, Robert Lawrence. Language: the Basics. Routledge, 1999.)

Prestige in Grammar

"In grammar, most prestige forms are related to prescriptive norms of standardness or even literary norms. For example, the use of whom in Whom did you see? or the placement of never at the front of the sentence Never have I seen a more gruesome sight might be considered prestige variants in some social contexts. Apart from these somewhat special cases, it is difficult to find clear-cut cases of prestige variants on the grammatical level of language, particularly in the grammar of ordinary informal conversation."

"[F]or present-day American English, it is clear that the vast majority of socially diagnostic structures exist on the axis of stigmatization rather than the axis of prestige."
(Finegan, Edward, and John R. Rickford. Language in the USA: Themes for the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge University Press, 2006.)

Overt and Covert Prestige

"A standard dialect speaker of English who intentionally switches to use of social markers such as ain't and he don't is said to seek covert prestige. Such prestige is 'covert' because its elicitation will often not, if successful, be consciously noted."

"Deliberate (as opposed to instinctive) use of taboo words ..., usage which tends to characterize male more than female speech, may also seek covert prestige, but the strength of these as social markers makes this more difficult to achieve."

"In a contrasting register, one uses unusually formal non-vernacular forms in vernacular contexts. For example, one will ordinarily say It's me to the question Who is it? asked by a familiar interlocutor, but, when asked the same question by one from whom one seeks prestige, the same speaker may say It is I. Similarly, except after prepositions Americans ordinarily say who in preference to whom: Who did you ask?, not Whom did you ask? but in some circumstances, the latter may be substituted. Such usage is said to seek overt prestige because the often dubious prestige one gets from such usage is ordinarily consciously noted, hence 'overt.' One may use jargon similarly seeking overt prestige, saying, for example, semantics when nothing more than ordinary meaning is intended."
(Hudson, Grover. Essential Introductory Linguistics. Blackwell Publishers, 1999.)

Labov on Prestige and Gender

"[American linguist William Labov developed] three principles regarding the linguistic behavior of men and women:"

1. For stable sociolinguistic variants, women show a slower rate of stigmatized variants and a higher rate of prestige variants than men (Labov 2001: 266)
2. In linguistic change from above, women adopt prestige forms at a higher rate than men (Labov 2001: 274)
3. In linguistic change from below, women use higher frequencies of innovative forms than men do (Labov 2001: 292)

"Ultimately, Labov formulates the corresponding Gender Paradox:"

Women conform more closely than men to sociolinguistic norms that are overtly prescribed, but conform less than men when they are not.
(Labov 2001: 293)

"All these principles and the Gender Paradox itself appear to be fairly robust findings with almost universal applicability in contemporary sociolinguistics."
"[E]very language period and every linguistic community must be investigated independently and in its own right (pace Jardin 2000). The actual concepts and functions of class, gender, networks, and, most importantly, norms, standards, and prestige, differ radically in different communities."
(Bergs, Alexander. “The Uniformitarian Principle and the Risk of Anachronisms in Language and Social History.” The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics, by Conde Silvestre Juan Camilo and Manuel Hernández Campoy Juan, John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2012.)

Prestige, Status, and Function

"What do we mean by status and function? The two terms are often confused with one another and also with another term, 'prestige.' Basically, the essential difference between prestige, function, and status is the difference between past, present, and future. The prestige of a language depends on its record, or what people think its record to have been. The function of a language is what people actually do with it. The status of a language depends on what people can do with it, its potential. Status, therefore, is the sum total of what you can do with a language--legally, culturally, economically, politically and, of course, demographically. This is not necessarily the same as what you do with the language, although the two notions are obviously related, and indeed interdependent. They can also be connected with the prestige of a language. Let us illustrate the differences. Classical Latin has had a lot of prestige but it has few functions. Swahili has a lot of functions, but little prestige. Irish Gaelic has status, official status, but few exclusive functions."
(Mackey, William F. “Determining the Status and Function of Languages in Multinational Societies.” Status and Function of Languages and Language Varieties, by Ulrich Ammon, W. De Gruyter, 1989.)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Linguistic Prestige." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Definition and Examples of Linguistic Prestige. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Linguistic Prestige." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).