Social Hierarchy Expressed Through Language

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Speakeasy
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Social Hierarchy Expressed Through Language

Postby Speakeasy » Sat Sep 07, 2019 4:32 pm

Sir! Permission to speak? Although this topic relates to the use of language in the real world, it could be contentious, and I truly do not wish to start another pointless bun fight. What do you think of the following?

When I was a young officer cadet, so many (many) years ago, one of my fellow cadets, affecting a British RP accent and adopting a deliberately haughty tone, disdainfully said:

Horses sweat,
Men perspire,
Ladies glow, and
Officers feel the heat.


I am sure that we can all understand the intended message here; this was the use of language to express social hierarchy. Now then, please do not take offence at my erstwhile fellow cadet. He was, as most of us were, the offspring of a working-class couple and he had entered the military as a means of raising his social standing and improving his prospects in life. He was deliberately ridiculing (the reported) social mores of a previous era and expressing (mockingly) that he had finally “arrived.”

While we may deplore the phenomenon and decry it vehemently (particularly should we have been assigned, by birth, to the lower ranks), we would be blind fools to deny that social hierarchy exists in all human societies, even in self-defined classless ones where apparatchiks are recognized as being “more equal” than others. Furthermore, these notions are communicated through multiple means, at times overt and at other times subtle. However reserved “the message” may appear to be on the surface, it usually passes. Those who “do not get the message” declare their own place in the hierarchy through their lack of awareness of the code. Children learn to do this at an early age, teenagers can be vicious executioners of this style of communicating, and adults learn to incorporate refinements which, although less hurtful, still get the point across.

So then, without wishing to start another bun fight, I was wondering if anyone would like to comment on this socio-linguist phenomenon and provide examples from their own experience (please exercise restraint and show respect for the Forum Rules) .

By the way, my fellow cadet was one of the most charming, witty, out-going, down-to-earth, hard-working, industrious, adaptive and imaginative people that I have ever met. He was just toying with rest of us, possibly because he suspected that we had been taking our own “arrival” a little too seriously. Still, there was one aspect of his world view with which I was at odds: for him, rules were handrails, not handcuffs. While we never discussed the matter, I am sure that he was one of those satanic descriptivists. It would have been just like him. ;)

EDITED:
Typos, as always.
Last edited by Speakeasy on Sat Sep 07, 2019 8:30 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Social Hierarchy Expressed Through Language

Postby zenmonkey » Sat Sep 07, 2019 4:56 pm

The formal / informal registers are all about social hierarchy.

One of my mother’s sayings when someone used a familiar “tu” with her was “no crecimos juntos” - we didn’t grow up together. And in French « on melange pas les draps et les torchons » has the same standard connotations.
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Re: Social Hierarchy Expressed Through Language

Postby Speakeasy » Sat Sep 07, 2019 5:04 pm

zenmonkey wrote:The formal / informal registers are all about social hierarchy. One of my mother’s sayings when someone used a familiar “tu” with her was “no crecimos juntos” - we didn’t grow up together. And in French « on melange pas les draps et les torchons » has the same standard connotations.
Also, customarily uttered in an indigent tone of voice ... "Nous n'avons pas gardé les cochons ensemble!" roughly translated as "We did not raise/keep pigs together" used as a rebuke for unwarranted familiarity/intimacy. http://www.expressio.fr/expressions/nous-n-avons-pas-garde-les-cochons-ensemble.php
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Re: Social Hierarchy Expressed Through Language

Postby zenmonkey » Sat Sep 07, 2019 5:26 pm

Speakeasy wrote:
zenmonkey wrote:The formal / informal registers are all about social hierarchy. One of my mother’s sayings when someone used a familiar “tu” with her was “no crecimos juntos” - we didn’t grow up together. And in French « on melange pas les draps et les torchons » has the same standard connotations.
Also, customarily uttered in an indigent tone of voice ... "Nous n'avons pas gardé les cochons ensemble!" roughly translated as "We did not raise/keep pigs together" used as a rebuke for unwarranted familiarity/intimacy. http://www.expressio.fr/expressions/nous-n-avons-pas-garde-les-cochons-ensemble.php


There are some great examples on that page!
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Re: Social Hierarchy Expressed Through Language

Postby Speakeasy » Sat Sep 07, 2019 5:53 pm

zenmonkey wrote:There are some great examples on that page!
Yes, indeed! I took particular notice of the German version, which is almost identical to the French idiom, save for the animal. Apparently, for the Germans, the very notion of having raised sheep together is more injurious than having been in league in the raising of pigs, evidence of our species' culturally-informed tendency to assign a hierarchical system amongst other species ... uh, er, without the benefit of their (the other species') input.
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Re: Social Hierarchy Expressed Through Language

Postby aokoye » Sat Sep 07, 2019 10:41 pm

One of many many examples of this in English is titles that are used (or not used) with people. I'll narrow down and focus on academia. Why has there been a decision that professors get called Dr./Professor last name and why do some people feel very uncomfortable when they're asked to call their professor by the first name?

The first college that I went to had a policy that all of the professors were called by their first name. Part of this was because the idea was that professors can and do learn from their students. It in no way affected the amount of respect students had for professors. On the other hand, the university that I graduated from doesn't have policies surrounding titles that students use with professors. That said, all of the professors in the Applied Linguistics department would always say upfront that they were ok being called by either their first name or by their last name with a title added (Dr. so and so or professor so and so, but expressly not Mrs./Ms. so and so - more on that later). Given my previous experiences, I had no problem calling professors by their first name if they asked me to. On the other hand, I have witnessed people become incredibly uncomfortable when given that option, when someone else (say a peer) calls the same professor by their first name, or when they're asked to call a professor by their first name by that professor. The perceived flouting of formality and hierarchy can quite literally make some people squirm. Note, these are people from a variety of geographic regions - primarily from various parts of the US, but also from other countries.

With regards to the Mrs./Ms. bit and not calling professors by that title, the general thought is that doing that dismisses the fact that there are other far more formal titles that they can be called and that calling them Mrs./Ms. instead or professor or doctor ignores the fact that they've put in the time and effort to get their doctorate. Similarly, in the German department at the same university, it's very interesting to see who almost always gets called by their first name and who almost always gets called by their last name with a title. Spoiler - the male professors were always Herr, Professor, and/or Dr. so and so where as the professors who are women are almost always called by their first name. This includes by people who haven't had classes with them and weren't told the preferences of the professors.

I would also argue that another part of this is the care that people take in pronouncing someone's name correctly. I would argue that the intentional mispronouncing of someone's name is a form of expressing social hierarchy. This includes when someone is unwilling to ask about or look up the pronunciation someone's name despite knowing that they will mispronounce that name as a result. Note, I'm not talking about situations where someone simply can't make some or all of the phonemes that make up the name or when someone is very clearly trying to pronounce the name correctly.

Related to that is when people change their name. I had an orthopedic surgeon who got married changed her last name between my two most recent knee surgeries (both of which she did - one per knee). I'm very much of the, "you asked me to call you this so I'll call you this" for a lot of reasons including that it's just common courtesy. I also primarily call this person by her first name because she told me, "just call me ___", though when I refer to her I occasionally use her first and last names (say when I'm recommending an orthopedic surgeon). Meanwhile, I once was in a waiting room and heard a father tell the waiting room staff, "I'll never call her Dr. X, she'll always be Dr. Y to me" in a seeming act of defiance. This wasn't said in a warm tone, but rather a, "I'll do what I want" manner.
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Re: Social Hierarchy Expressed Through Language

Postby IronMike » Sat Sep 07, 2019 11:24 pm

Your cadet story, Speakeasy, remind me of instances when I first joined the military in which language was used, improperly, to stress social standing.

It is a joke in the U.S. military (maybe others?) that those in charge, whether officers or even senior non-commissioned officers (SNCOs), cannot properly use the reflexive. I cannot count the number of times (100s?) that I've been in a briefing and had a supposedly-educated officer tell all of us

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It got so bad that another NCO and I would routinely pull down notices and "grade" them with a red pen, correcting the grammar and giving the author a score. "-5 grammar, improper use of reflexive" or "-5 spelling, your not you're" We would sign these corrections "Airman X." Leadership finally had to make an announcement that they did not appreciate Airman X marking up their memoranda. ;)

In another instance I was working next to another NCO who had edited and offered suggestions to a lieutenant who had written up an official document. The NCO made recommendations and corrections as to the officer's use of passive vs. active, reflexive, misspellings, etc. The LT had an issue with this NCO's corrections and came to our work area to discuss it with him. He attempted to point out to the NCO how the NCO was wrong. The NCO pointed out, properly and respectfully, how the LT was wrong. The LT, flustered, finally said, "I'm a college graduate, SSgt XXX, so I know what I'm talking about." To which my friend replied, "Sir, I'm also a college graduate. And my degree is in English, specifically Teaching English as a Second Language. I concentrated on English grammar. So, with all due respect sir, I'm correct."

The LT threw down the document and said "Do it your way then," and walked away.

Unsure if this is what you're thinking, Speakeasy, but this is what I immediately thought of when I read your post!
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Re: Social Hierarchy Expressed Through Language

Postby aokoye » Sat Sep 07, 2019 11:42 pm

IronMike wrote:In another instance I was working next to another NCO who had edited and offered suggestions to a lieutenant who had written up an official document. The NCO made recommendations and corrections as to the officer's use of passive vs. active, reflexive, misspellings, etc. The LT had an issue with this NCO's corrections and came to our work area to discuss it with him. He attempted to point out to the NCO how the NCO was wrong. The NCO pointed out, properly and respectfully, how the LT was wrong. The LT, flustered, finally said, "I'm a college graduate, SSgt XXX, so I know what I'm talking about." To which my friend replied, "Sir, I'm also a college graduate. And my degree is in English, specifically Teaching English as a Second Language. I concentrated on English grammar. So, with all due respect sir, I'm correct."

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Re: Social Hierarchy Expressed Through Language

Postby Speakeasy » Sun Sep 08, 2019 12:39 am

Aokoye and IronMike, your respective anecdotes caused me to recall a flood memories, some pleasant, some humorous, some otherwise. One of my fellow junior officers in the RCN, a startlingly handsome, charismatic, intelligent and quick-thinking (these traits do not always go together), charming, engaging, sensitive, multi-lingual, Greek-God-come-to-Earth (seriously, "D" had it all!), whose destiny was to rise to top of any organisation he chose to associate himself with, fatigued by military life, left the service and went to work for a multi-national petroleum company. To our collective surprise, he returned to the RCN a year later, rather disgruntled by his recent experience in what-we-all-imagined was the "real world."

One of D's primary complaints was how “civilians” communicated their status in the company’s hierarchy and how they made others beneath them in the organisation feel their own, relatively lower status. I remember him saying that, while no one wore their “rank” on their sleeves, the dress code, the office furnishings, the expense account, the deference of others, the manner of speaking, some of which was heavily-coded but needed to be learned and learned quickly, and many other subtle but tangible features, all contributed to clarifying who was important and who was very much less so. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘we were all on a first name basis, but that was all subterfuge.”
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Re: Social Hierarchy Expressed Through Language

Postby badger » Sun Sep 08, 2019 1:29 am

IronMike wrote:It is a joke in the U.S. military (maybe others?) that those in charge, whether officers or even senior non-commissioned officers (SNCOs), cannot properly use the reflexive. I cannot count the number of times (100s?) that I've been in a briefing and had a supposedly-educated officer tell all of us

If you have any questions, contact myself at ...
I think this is a case of hypercorrection - I think that's the term, it was touched upon in the recent apostrophes/plurals thread/poll.

certainly, when I was a youngish child one of the first grammar rules that was drummed into me was that saying "Dave and me went to the park" was wrong & that "Dave & I went to the park" was correct. I think the hangover from this is that some people aren't confident to use "me" as an object pronoun when refering to themselves. I see/hear it all the time at work & also the torturous use of yourself/yourselves when just "you" would suffice. :shock: they know "I" doesn't sound right, but remember that using "me" for the subject pronoun is wrong, so use the reflexive instead. or maybe just because it sounds "fancier", who knows? ;)
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