Author logo Language and Society

General introduction
Models of how language interacts with society
Collecting language data
Language and gender
Persuasive language
Language and computing
Data for further study Gender
More on social attitudes
Language fashion
Race: the "N" word
Gender: extended source
Attitudes to age
Semantic non-equivalences
Social class
Non-standard forms and gender


This web page is intended for students who are following GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) syllabuses in English Language. This resource may also be of general interest to language students on university degree courses, trainee teachers and anyone with a general interest in language science.

What features of society affect language? How do they do so?

Any important aspect of social structure and function is likely to have a distinctive linguistic counterpart. People belong to different social classes, perform different social rôles, and carry on different occupations

1995; David Crystal: CEEL; p.3

Language performance (and competence) is likely to be affected by any or all of these:

Aspects of social organization
  • Gender
  • Peer group
  • Health or disability/body image
  • Occupation (trades, law, politics, news media, journalism, broadcasting)
  • Social class
  • Age
  • Ethnic group (may be link to regional variation)
  • Sexuality

Social context - factors which may influence use or response
  • Beliefs and attitudes (science, religion, morality)
  • Notions of propriety
  • Political Correctness
  • Fashions in language use
  • Education of speaker/writer and audience
  • Social situation (work vs. leisure; degree of [in]formality)
  • Intention or purpose
  • Stereotyping

Note that:

  • Most (or all) of these affect real individuals in complex (multiple) ways.
  • The complex effect of these things is itself subject to change.
  • Restricted uses may become mainstream or standard (and vice versa).
  • The process is reciprocal: language use is both cause and effect of things in society.

We need examples from each of these categories (of which most can be further subdivided). We also need theoretical models or explanations of these examples.Explanations must refer to evidence (language data) from texts; they must also show reason.

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Some models to explain how language interacts with society:

Features of society affecting language use and response may be (more or less):

  • Static: e.g. ethnicity, gender, class background
  • Changing: e.g. education, age, social environment, attitudes and fashions
  • Situational/contextual: e.g. immediate social situation (workplace, home, recreation, peer group, perceived formality of situation)
Language features which may be affected by social categories or contexts:

  • Variety used
  • Purposes
  • Prescriptivism - notion of "correct" spoken, written and grammatical forms

  • Meanings (denotation and connotation)
  • Language change
  • Notion of propriety/social acceptability (PC and non-PC forms)

Structural features of language necessary for modelling sociolinguistics:
(special lexicons or register)
(special meanings)
(related to semantics)
(influence on choice of lang)
Discourse structure
(in special forms - liturgy, trials)
(law, politics, advertising)
(figures of speech)

In studying this wide field of language theory, you will find it impossible to have detailed knowledge of all social categories. You should, however, have a range of examples from different areas as shown above. You should also have a wide body of examples from a smaller range of categories - especially any on which you may be examined. You must be able to comment on language features (relevant to sociolinguistics) in these examples.

As well as this, you should practise your skills in interpreting any given text, in terms of appropriate language theory.

Shirley Russell takes the first approach in Grammar, Structure and Style (OUP; ISBN 0-19-831179-6), looking in depth at gender, advertising and law only. George Keith and John Shuttleworth (Living Language Hodder; ISBN 0-340-67343-5) take the second - they do not identify any topic within the general subject area, but give copybook examples of how to "read" a text that embodies attitudes to society in its language use.

Warning: In this part of the course you must use real language data. Texts should be sourced (give author, context, date - including overheard casual speech). Do not repeat uninformed received opinion about language use, as if authoritative. Do not write about theories of, or attitudes to, society expressed in texts. Never make value judgements about these attitudes.

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Collecting language data:

This is very easy in one sense. If you look for particular kinds of language use (and find them), you may develop unbalanced views. You will also exhaust yourself. Rather, observe what you hear and read in all language contexts.

The hard part is logging evidence and organizing it for future use and revision. This is better done collaboratively (more people to find it). However, texts that are in some way about society (like newspapers or news broadcasts) are a rich source of data. Keep a clippings file, and periodically transcribe your most helpful sources to a permanent record. Try to organize these by sociolinguistic category. In general, if you are alert, you won't need to look for any. In browsing a single newspaper you will usually see enough evidence to sustain a lengthy essay!

For a given item of data, you must have the relevant context - this is especially vital for single lexical items or phrases.

Although you will often look at new lexical forms or new meanings for established forms, do not limit yourself to comment on single words. Often the point of significance is in the order of items in a phrase, or a longer structure. Check any piece of language data against all the structural features in the table above - you won't want to comment on all, or even most, but will often do so on several.

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Language and gender

Look at any material your teacher has given you. See also David Crystal, Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, pp. 368-9; Shirley Russell, Grammar, Structure and Style, pp. 169-175; George Keith and John Shuttleworth, Living Language, pp. 220-223. Apply theories you find there (and here) to all texts you consider. On this sheet you will find simple brief explanations of some of these points of theory. Note: do not confuse gender as aspect of society with grammatical gender (e.g., of pronouns).

Historical bias: Language forms may preserve old attitudes that show men as superior (morally, spiritually, intellectually or absolutely) to women. Today this may cause offence, so we see these forms as suitable for change. But changes may be resisted if they seem clumsy.

The male as the norm: Men, man and mankind may imply this. The term for the species or people in general is the same as that for one sex only.

Personal pronouns and possessives after a noun may also show this implicit assumption. See Guidelines for Nonsexist Usage, quoted by Crystal (CEEL, p. 369), Carolyn Jacobson's Non-Sexist Language and the NCTE guidelines she quotes. See if a given text follows (any of) these guidelines or not.

Names and titles: Consider conventions of naming in marriage. Consider also titles for married and unmarried people of either sex. Why are stage performers often excepted from these "rules" (e.g. Michael Williams is married to Miss [now Dame] Judi Dench).

Look at nouns that denote workers in a given occupation. In some cases (teacher, social-worker) they may seem gender-neutral. Others may have gender-neutral denotation (doctor, lawyer, nurse) but not g-n connotation for all speakers and listeners. Speakers will show this in forms such as woman doctor, male nurse. Listeners may not show it but their expectations can be tested by statements or short narratives that allow for contradiction of assumptions (e.g. about a doctor or nurse depicted as the spouse of a man or woman, as appropriate).

Consider forms that differentiate by gender, in adding diminutive (belittling) affixes: Waitress, usherette, stewardess.

Semantic non-equivalences: These are pairs of terms that historically differentiated by sex alone, but which, over time, have gained different connotations (e.g. of status or value) and in some cases different denotations. Examples include:

Mrs,Ms/Mr; Miss/Master,Mr; mistress/master; governess/governor; spinster/bachelor; tomboy/sissy; Lady/Lord; lady/gentleman; dame/knight; bride/(bride)groom; madam/sir; queen/king; matron/patron; husband/wife; author/authoress; dog/bitch.

Patronizing, controlling and insulting: This is not just a gender issue - these are functions (or abuses) of language which may appear in any social situation. But they take particular forms when the speaker (usually) or writer is male and the addressee is female. In some cases the patronizing, controlling or insulting only works because both parties share awareness of these connotations. It is possible for the addressee not to perceive - or the speaker not to intend - the patronizing, controlling or insulting. Patronizing terms include dear, love, pet or addressing a group of adult women as girls. Note that calling men boys or lads is not seen as demeaning. (Why is this?)

Shirley Russell argues that insulting is a means of control. She quotes Julia Stanley, who claims that in a large lexicon of terms for males, 26 are non-standard nouns that denote promiscuous men. Some have approving connotation (stallion, stud). In a smaller list of nouns for women are 220 which denote promiscuity (e.g. slut, scrubber, tart). All have disapproving connotation. Equally terms denoting abstinence - like the noun phrase tight bitch - are disapproving. In Losing Out Professor Sue Lees argues that men control female behaviour by use of such terms, especially slag. Note that today both dog and bitch are used pejoratively of women. Dog denotes physical unattractiveness, while bitch denotes a fault of character.

Beauty: Judging women by appearance is well-attested by language forms. Blonde, an adjective of colour, becomes a noun, with connotations of low intelligence. Brunette has a similar origin, as has the compound noun redhead (no common term for a woman with black hair). Babe is both approving (beauty) and disapproving (intelligence). More strongly pejorative (about intellect) is bimbo. A male equivalent - himbo - has not passed into common use. (The software on which this guide is written accepts bimbo but not himbo as a known form.) Hunk (approving) and wimp (disapproving) apply to men criteria of strength and attractiveness, but neither has clear connotation about intelligence.

Crossing gender boundaries: Non-standard terms may cross gender boundaries. In the USA guys is sometimes used to denote mixed-groups. Totty has been recorded to denote men. Bird was current in the late 1990s current for an attractive (young) man in East Yorkshire (female 6th former, 1997).

Gender differences in spoken English: Keith and Shuttleworth record suggestions that:

  • women - talk more than men, talk too much, are more polite, are indecisive/hesitant, complain and nag, ask more questions, support each other, are more co-operative, whereas
  • men - swear more, don't talk about emotions, talk about sport more, talk about women and machines in the same way, insult each other frequently, are competitive in conversation, dominate conversation, speak with more authority, give more commands, interrupt more.

Note that some of these are objective descriptions which can be verified (ask questions, give commands) while others express unscientific popular ideas about language and introduce non-linguistic value judgements (nag, speak with more authority).

Robin Lakoff identifies these ten features of women's language use. Women (allegedly):

  • hedge (sort of, kind of);
  • use (super) polite forms (would you please? I'd really appreciate...);
  • use tag questions (...don't you?...isn't it?);
  • speak in italics (emphatic so and very, intonational emphasis);
  • use redundant qualifiers (just [adv.] charming, divine, sweet, adorable [adj.]);
  • use hypercorrect grammar and pronunciation (including ungrammatical forms, like between you and I [standard syntax = between you and me]);
  • are poor at recounting jokes (this is a subjective judgement unless it is related to objective language data, generally agreed to be important in joke-telling - what are these?);
  • use direct quotation;
  • use special lexis (e.g. of colour);
  • use intonation for questions in declarative contexts.

Consider evidence to see if any of these claims is justified. See, for instance, the 1982 study from Reading, Berkshire, of non-standard forms in spoken English. Note where speakers or writers use different lexical or syntactical forms in ways which may be influenced by their sex. Can you identify the sex of a writer by language data in a text? (Or a speaker, where the text is transcribed to eliminate clues from phonology?)

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Persuasive language - introduction:

Your syllabus requires you to study how language is used to achieve a variety of purposes in a range of social contexts. To do this, we may focus on the contexts, then look for the purposes, or vice versa. One very obvious purpose of language use is to persuade, and this can be found in a variety of contexts, among them advertising, the law, politics and academic debate. Less obvious contexts might be journalism, polemics and philosophy. Students at school are likely to be exposed frequently to (attempted) persuasive public speaking (e.g. in assemblies or personal and social education). Another very special use of persuasive language is in the context of religious gatherings.

In The Language Web, Professor Jean Aitchison claims that language is very good at conveying some kinds of information and poor at conveying different kinds - such as spatial information like that on a map, or how to tie a knot. Language is good at allowing us to guess or predict how others feel, she claims, and at deceiving or persuading (she cites evidence from anthropology about how primates use rudimentary language to do both of these - including "lying"). You are expected to study persuasive language in some (or all) of the contexts listed above.

You may wish to begin with this draft theoretical framework. Be ready to add to it or alter it:

  • distinctions between spoken and written or mixed (e.g. TV advertising) forms
  • distinctive lexis (neologism or semantic change)

  • formal lexis (e.g. forms of address: Madam Speaker; Your Excellency; the Rt. Hon. Lady)

  • formal syntactic structures (e.g. The ayes have it. Prisoner at the bar...)

  • formal discourse structures (e.g. church services, criminal trials, parliamentary debates)

  • complex fixed forms (e.g. How do you plead? Give us this day our daily bread)

  • inclusive and exclusive usage (e.g. in camera; My Learned Friend; Hallelujah)

  • rhetorical devices (e.g. list of [usually] three; redundant questions; antithesis; metaphor)

  • persuasion as a form of social interaction (unsymmetrical: persuader and audience)

  • relevant features of phonology (e.g. demotic speech; RP; prestige accents; pause; pitch)

  • and/or graphology/typography (e.g. serif [body text], sans serif [headline], white space)

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Language and computing

The advent of computing has had an enormous influence on language development. This seems likely to grow, rather than decline.

Lexical growth - neologisms: This is fairly easy to study. These are words or phrases coined to denote new products or technology. These are often acronyms (formed by initials) like CPU (central processing unit), BIOS (basic input output system), RAM (random access memory) or URL (unique [or uniform] resource locator). Others are wholly new words, such as byte (kilo/megabyte) or emoticon (such as :) which represents J ).

Morphology: The affix -ware (as in software) has spawned many new terms in computing, such as shareware, groupware, freeware, authorware and careware (coined, I think, by Paul Lutus, the writer of Arachnophilia, a Web-editing program): the basic morphology is verb or noun + suffix. But this usage has also led to uses of -ware outside computing (designerware), although these may be formed by analogy with such older forms as tableware and . Sometimes we see abbreviation - modem from modulator/demodulator. Compounding appears in emoticon (emotion + icon), hypertext, interface and Internet.

Lexical growth - new meanings for established terms: This is a far more prolific area of lexical growth. Some examples are notorious, such as icon or mouse (sometimes jokingly called a rodent). Windows and desktop are metaphorical names for parts of the interface. A cache is a temporary store (in memory, which also has a new metaphorical meaning). Many of these metaphors are derived from resemblance to human activities (memory, client-server, file, folder, utility); to traditional communications (packet, mail, router, bus), and even, more recently, to refreshments, in Java (a programming language; the name is US slang for coffee) and cookies (files which contain information about Web sites). The most apt metaphor is in the name of the World Wide Web (for which there is as yet no standard written form. MS Word 97 has the form WebPages in its spell checker).

Punctuation: Emoticons are images composed of punctuation marks. Because e-mail does not always show images, these are used instead to express feelings in a jokey way. Some examples are :) = J and :( = L.

Note 1: If you are using a browser other than Internet Explorer, the emoticon images above may not display correctly.
Note 2: If you type the smiley face emoticon in MS Word 97, the software supplies the image in its place! Punctuation rules may be critical in computer languages.

The grammar of computer languages: Programming or Operating System (OS) languages are artificial (invented) languages. They may use characters other than those on conventional keyboards. They will have rules or conventions for writing, and none is a spoken language. However, many resemble natural forms of English (for example Microsoft's DOS, which has commands like type, abort or copy). HTML (HyperText Mark-up Language) works like ordinary typed English with two fundamental differences. Any spaces in a file are ignored by the software which uses it. And any instructions, such as making text bold or drawing a table, are shown by tags. These are pairs of angle brackets, giving an instruction (e.g. <b> = make text bold) or reversing it (e.g. </b> = turn off bold text). The only difference in the form of the instructions is the slash character. HTML has its own syntax and (flexible) semantics.

Note: the author would appreciate comment on this section from those with knowledge of computing and natural languages!

Computer software as a language authority: This is already a reality. Proprietary software has spelling and grammar tools that are hard to ignore. It uses established lexicography in electronic form. The grammar checking is not yet able to recognize complex standard syntax, but spell checking is more secure. In print, the Oxford University Press distinguishes between -ize (derived from Greek) and -ise (which comes through French), where Cambridge only uses the second in all cases. Microsoft does likewise, so supporters of -ize words must add these. Note that OUP only allows -ize in Greek derivation. The Cambridge method is "safer".

Computer users as a group - cyber culture: Traditional groups which are significant for language change, use or interaction were necessarily located in a common place (region or locale) or class or peer groups - and comments on language and society in the "A" level syllabus reflect this. Computer users can meet without being physically close, or even aware of the location of other users. But they are identifiable as a group in their language use, in terms of lexical choice, language fashions and conventions and awareness of language.

Social attitudes to computer users: Where pejorative language use is disapproved in respect to gender or race, it persists in relation to computer users - as in terms such as nerd or geek. The former originally denoted someone lacking social poise, but has developed so that it now implies industry and intelligence, while the original denotation remains but in a weaker form. Pejorative language about race once reflected the speaker's or writer's fear of the unknown or exotic. Pejorative language use about computer users may well express a similar fear (and so tell us more about the speakers or writers than the person to whom these refer). A more approving attitude appears in the noun hacker (which has connotations of daring, stealth and cunning). Most approving of all, for a small élite, is the metaphor guru (as in Web guru Jakob Nielsen) which likens technical understanding to religious enlightenment and wisdom.

Use of computers for social interaction: Interactions conducted in cyberspace may be regarded as not social by definition. They challenge our understanding of the qualifier, because traditional social activities require people to be physically together. But personal relationships in an abstract sense, and intellectual exchanges can and do proliferate. This is found chiefly in the use of distributed networks (internal [Intranets] or the external Internet - Inter here is short for international not internal). Visits to Web sites allow for limited interaction, but mostly this is a new form of reading, with little scope for response. More significant is chat. This is a metaphor from speech, but the interaction is conducted in writing (typing). As in spoken conversation, there is turn taking and contributions may be short. As in social conversation, standard forms are not essential - phrases replace sentences, there is no spell checking, punctuation may be "creative" and emoticons may appear. Some software allows the "chatters" to insert pictures, including cartoon characters to represent oneself in the "conversation". These characters are conventional representations by sex, dress and age. The most prominent form of social interaction through computers is certainly electronic mail (e-mail). Millions of such interactions take place daily, often bringing strangers together.

Cyberspace as a social context: Like other social contexts, cyberspace has protocols and etiquette. For Internet technologies, this is usually called Netiquette. It is easy for a novice to send a mail message to millions of other users, or to ask a question to which the reply is already well known among other users of a service. So there are rules, and names for disapproved practices. Mail sent out en masse (electronic "junk mail") is called Spam (verb = spamming). Sending repeated severe verbal rebukes to those who breach Netiquette is flaming. Postal addresses are rarely exchanged (no need) and many users do not reveal their sex, or even, sometimes, their personal names - the e-mail address is an alias. Since each user may be at home, each may feel some intimacy in the interaction. Cost is minimal (compared to telephone calls) and while the exchange may be swifter than "snail mail" (conventional letters) there is enough time delay for responses to be composed. On Home Truths (BBC Radio 4, Jan 2nd, 1999) John Peel interviewed a young (British) man who claimed to have a cyber girlfriend. He was in Wales; she was in Central America. They exchanged messages by electronic chat and e-mail (and sometimes, now, by telephone). They had no immediate plans to meet physically. This may be weird and unrepresentative of anything - or it may be a glimpse of the future!

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Resources for study of language and society

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"A strapper - a real strapper, Jane: big, brown and buxom..." (Mr. Rochester describes Blanche Ingram); 1847; Brontë, C. , Jane Eyre, Ch. 20.

Perhaps I'll be a Mrs. Mopp,/With dusters, brush and pan./I'll scrub and rub till everything/Looked clean and spick and span." 1979; Twinkle (comic for girls) Annual.

Girl Group seeks very attractive slim, fifth Member/Image a must. Age 18-22 only./ Vocals important./ Open auditions on/ Tuesday 12 January at Pineapple Studios. 1999; newspaper advertisement.

ATTRACTIVE ACTRESSES/ required for/DENTAL PROMOTIONS. 1999; newspaper advertisement.

So Nick Harvey "is the son of a civil servant" (Poll for successor; January 21). What does his father do? 1999; Smithson, Philippa; letter to The Guardian.

The Rev Margaret Jones (Letters January 25) should know that when the word "man" appears in Holy Writ [i.e. the Bible] it refers to both genders. An instance appears at the commencement of Lent: "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return." The insistence of differentiations between (sic.) gender only serves to tear man asunder. 1999; Reed, A.J.; letter to The Guardian.

[Ellen McArthur, second in the Vendée Globe Challenge] is to sail up the Thames to a hero's welcome. 2001; BBC Radio 4, Today news, February 21st

Go to extended article from Woman's Own

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Social class:

"Prevents hoarseness [pun on "horse" shown in ad] and stuffiness". 1999; TV advertisement for Lockets (shows an upper-class man knocked off a horse by a giant packet of the sweets).

ATTRACTIVE ACTRESSES/ required for/DENTAL PROMOTIONS/ Must be very well spoken/ and Drama School trained,/ with a lively personality./ £100 per day./ Age 27-37. 1999; newspaper advertisement.

Concerning the future status of Miss Rhys-Jones, could someone explain exactly what is a Royal Highness? By implication, am I a Common Lowness - together with the majority of the great unwashed? The removal of the title HRH from the late Princess Diana suggests it is much cherished by the Windsors, but is it not time this archaic and insulting distinction was abandoned? 1999; Newlands, C.T.; letter to The Guardian

Go to more ideas on this subject

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Attitudes to age:

ATTRACTIVE ACTRESSES/ required for/DENTAL PROMOTIONS/ Must be very well spoken/ and Drama School trained,/ with a lively personality./ £100 per day./ Age 27-37. 1999; newspaper advertisement.

Girl Group seeks very attractive slim, fifth Member/Image a must. Age 18-22 only./ Vocals important./ Open auditions on/ Tuesday 12 January at Pineapple Studios. 1999; newspaper advertisement.

Club 18 - 30 (Name of travel company). 1970s onwards

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"The youth of today are spineless!" shouted Father in his best legal manner. 1965; Daily Mail Girls' Annual.

"Your beard is false!" gasped Soraya. "Please don't tell my men," pleaded Ben Hassan. "I don't look like a fierce bandit chief without it." 1979; Twinkle (comic for girls) Annual.

You study every night/ never miss a lesson/ always try hard/ and get good grades./ Now be sensible (challenges stereotype).1998; Advertisement (poster) for National Union of Students

The Mac versus PC correspondence should once and for all dispel the absurd notion that home computer buffs are sad, repressed geeks who really should get out more. 1999; Keighron, D.; letter to The Guardian

The Vatican has...started posting its documents [i.e. on the World Wide Web]. I consider myself a cybernun. I regularly communicate with other sisters over the Internet...the Internet is wholly compatible with religious order (challenges stereotype). 1999; Byrne, Sister Lavinia; Website review in The Guardian.

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Language fashion:

Cowabunga (exclamation); Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (dir. Steve Barron; 1990).

Not (post-verbal negation) as in "The President is a cool dude...not". For various examples see Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (dir. Stephen Herek; 1998) Wayne's World (dir. Penelope Spheeris; 1992) and sequels.

Way (negation of "No way") Wayne's World (dir. Penelope Spheeris; 1992).

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Language prescriptivism:

Edinburgh English is the purest form of the spoken language. 1995?; Shephard, Gillian; speech at Conservative Party Conference.

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In the long history of the world only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility; I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it, and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans, ask not, what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.

1962; John F. Kennedy; broadcast speech made during Cuban Missile Crisis

Suddenly the nation has been plunged into a midwinter election. You must be asking why has Mr. Heath decided to make a desperate run for it. It can't be because of the dispute with the miners. Mr. Heath can't be asking you to vote him back so that he can make an honourable settlement with the miners. No, Mr. Heath is making a run for it, in the hope that the smokescreen of the miners' dispute - a dispute that he has deliberately stoked up - will distract you from the real issues. This election is not about the miners; not about the militants; not about the power of the unions: it's about the disastrous failure of three and a half years of Conservative government which has turned Britain from the path of prosperity to the road of ruin.

1974; Harold Wilson; speech made in General Election campaign.

To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase the "U- turn", I have only one thing to say: You turn, if you want to; the lady's not for turning!

1981?; Margaret Thatcher; speech to Conservative Party annual conference; speech written by Sir Ronald Miller.

I'll tell you what happens with impossible promises: you start with far-fetched resolutions; they are then pickled into a rigid dogma cold. And you go through the years, sticking to that: outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs. And you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council - a Labour council - hiring taxis to scuttle round a city, handing out redundancy notices to its own workers. I'm telling you now: no matter how entertaining, how fulfilling to short-term egos - I'll tell you and you'll listen - I'm telling you, I'm telling you - you can't play politics with people's jobs and people's services.

1985; Neil Kinnock; speech (unscripted) to Labour Party annual conference.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's take-off. I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance, of expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the faint-hearted. It belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future and we'll continue to follow them. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye, and slipped the surly bonds of earth, to touch the face of God*.

1985; Ronald Reagan; TV broadcast after the Challenger (space shuttle) disaster.

* The reference here is to High Flight (an Airman's Ecstasy) a poem by a Canadian pilot, John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941), who writes:

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth...
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

The metaphor of touching the face of God also figured in an informal speech from the fictitious President of the USA in an episode of the TV drama, The West Wing, broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK, in February 2001. The speech was the last bit of dialogue in the episode - were the writers consciously alluding to Magee's poem, Reagan's speech, or both?

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Race: the "N" word:

Please note: these examples are given to illustrate how language shows attitudes to colour. Quotation of these examples in no way implies approval of any derogatory attitudes expressed in them.

"...Out crawls this nigger from somewheres and says he'll help...Of course I judged he must be a runaway nigger...and I never see a nigger that was... faithfuller...I liked the nigger for that; I tell you, gentlemen, a nigger like that is worth a thousand dollars - and kind treatment, too...He ain't no bad nigger, gentlemen." (The old doctor speaks up for Jim, a runaway slave). 1885; Twain, Mark (Samuel Langhorne Clemens); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Chap. 42.

"I seen that black nigger yonder ruttin' on my [daughter] Mayella". (Spoken by Bob Ewell). 1960; Lee, Harper; To Kill a Mockingbird, Pan Books, Chap. 17.

"Woman is the nigger of the world". (Song title and lyric/chorus). 1972; Lennon, J.; Sometime in New York City (Apple Records; album).

Niggaz with Attitude; also NWA. (Name of rap-group). 1980s.

"People of colour". (Spoken by [African-American] leading man to brother). 1991; Lee, S; Jungle Fever.

"Vincent Vega, my nigger!" (Spoken by Marsellus [black] to Vincent [white]). 1994; Tarantino, Q; Pulp Fiction.

"Chill them niggers out and wait for the cavalry." (Spoken by Jules [black] about a group of white men). 1994; Tarantino, Q; Pulp Fiction.

"He said the N-word" (i.e. "nigger"; witness quoting Detective Mark Fuhrmann). 1995; trial of O.J. Simpson.

"Players of colour" (Referring to black and mixed-race cricketers). 1999 (January); Bacher. Ali (President of SA Cricket Board) in radio interview, Today; BBC Radio 4.

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Semantic non-equivalences:

Mrs/Ms/Miss; Mr/Master

mistress; master

authoress; author

governess; governor

spinster; bachelor

tomboy; sissy

Lady; Lord

lady; gentleman

dame; knight

bride; (bride)groom

madam; sir

queen; king

matron; patron

wife; husband

actress; actor

bitch; dog

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Non-standard forms in spoken English - frequency of use by gender:

The data that follow come from a study of the speech of a group of sixteen-year old boys and girls in Reading, Berkshire in 1982. The groups had similar social backgrounds. The first column lists non-standard forms of English, with examples of this form. The figures in the next two columns show the frequency with which the non-standard form was used by boys and by girls, expressed as a percentage.

Non-standard form used with examples
Boys, %: Girls, %:
Negative concord (double negative)
e.g. I don't want nothing.
88.33 51.85
Non-standard never
e.g. I never went to school today
46.84 40.00
Present tense -s
e.g. I walks
53.16 52.04
Non-standard has
e.g. You just has to do it
54.76 51.61
Non-standard was
e.g. You was with me, wasn't you?
88.15 73.58
Non-standard what
e.g. That video what you've got
36.36 14.58
Non-standard auxiliary do
e.g. she cadges, she do
57.69 78.95
Non-standard come (imperfect, not present tense)
e.g. I come home yesterday
100 75.33
Ain't for auxiliary have
e.g. I ain't seen her for years
92.0 64.5
Ain't for auxiliary to be
e.g. Course I ain't going there
74.19 42.11
Ain't as copula (here form of verb to be)
e.g. You ain't no boss
85.83 61.18

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Gender: extended source

This is an extract from a story, published in the weekly magazine Woman's Own, in June, 1990.

It had been so different three years ago, the night she'd met Stefan de Vaux. There'd been a party. Bella always threw a party when she'd sold a picture because poverty, she'd explained, was a great inspiration. She'd been wearing a brilliant blue caftan, her fair hair twisted on the top of her head, the severity of it accenting her high cheekbones, the little jade Buddha gleaming on its silver chain round her neck.

Claire, pale from England and the illness that had allowed her to come to Tangier to recuperate, had been passed from guest to guest - "Ah, you're Bella's cousin" - like a plate of canapés, she thought ruefully, attractive but unexciting. Until Stefan de Vaux had taken her out onto the balcony and kissed her.

"Well?" he'd said softly, in his lightly accented voice, letting her go at last, and she had just stood there, staring at him, at his lean, outrageously handsome face, his laughing mouth, amber brown eyes. "Angry? Pleased? Shocked?" And she'd blushed furiously, feeling all three.

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Social attitudes:

The lists on this page are of terms which may express social attitudes. Some (e.g., teenager, intuitive) may also be used neutrally. The category of the social attitude appears first, in bold type.

Age: past it, wrinkly, pensioner, old bag, old fogey; youth, teenager, adolescent; kid, nipper

Gender: ugly, pretty, gossip, housewife, sensitive, intuitive, hysterical; bitch, cow, sheila (Australian); untidy/ scruffy/dowdy, pushy/confident; practical, calm, logical

Sexuality: feminine, maternal; wimp, masculine, macho, hunk, tall, dark and handsome; poof (also poofter, pooftah, pouffe), queer, fairy; bent, perv; butch, dyke; wild oats, lad, one of the boys, Lothario, Casanova; vamp, femme fatale, tart, slag; dog, old maid

Region: cockney, brummie, geordie, scouser, scally, mick, taff, jock; Essex man/girl; bumpkin, wurzel, Tractor boy (Ipswich Town supporter), townie, streetwise

Politics: leftie, loony left, commie, red; fascist, Nazi

Class: posh, toff, aristo; Hooray Henry, Sloane (Ranger), green wellie brigade, yuppie; lager lout, yob, Tracey

Miscellaneous: Kraut, Frog, Dago, Paki, pommie (Australian); wog, nigger, honky; couch potato; fatty, skinny, slob; terrorist, freedom fighter

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