Anthony Pym


Variation in English

Trudgill in Norwich


The work carried out by Peter Trudgill on language change in Norwich, England, may usefully be compared with the studies made by Labov in New York. Both studies are focused on social stratification (‘class’) and speech styles. However, whereas Labov found movements toward the prestige variants of the upper social class, Trudgill found significant movement toward variants of the lower classes. This fits in with what we know about the development of Estuary English. What is most interesting in Trudgill is the use of self-report data as a way of identifying prestige variants, and the significant role played by downward or ‘covert’ prestige.


Peter Trudgill. 1974. The Social Differentiation of English in Norwich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peter Trudgill. 1983. Sociolinguistics. An Introduction to Language and Society. Revised Edition. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

As well as reports in Graddol et al. and Labov 1995.

The Study

Trudgill’s study of Norwich involved three consonantal variables and thirteen vocalic variables. Most of the latter had more than one variant (Wardhaugh 141).

The independent variables were social class (five categories), sex.

Sample: 10 speakers from the five electoral wards (i.e. zone sampling) and ten children from two schools (age and class sampling). In all, 60 subjects.

Variables: occupation, education, income, type of housing, locality, father’s occupation. Each is rated 1 to 5. The sum gives the social ‘class’, combined with frequency of the use of certain linguistic variants. (This is not a very clever way to define ‘class’, as pointed out by Wardhaugh 147).

Method: questionnaire about schools and part of Norwich (i.e. class location); word lists in different speech styles (fast vs. careful), word pairs (paper-baker, bust-burst, etc.); questions about identification of local words; questions about attitudes to Norwich itself.

Inherent variability

Trudgill’s study of Norwich found clear social stratification (by ‘class’) of variables including dropping of final –s in third-person verbs, -in instead of –ing, glottal stops instead of /t/, h-dropping, and vowel qualities in ‘pass’, ‘part’ (1983: 43-48: Wardhaugh 19).

It would be possible to see these features as the mixing of two distinct dialects—the local and the standard—just as s-dropping in Detroit is seen as the mixing of pure Black English with pure American Standard. Trudgill argues, however, that the variation is internal to the one variety, since the same speakers use both terms of the variables depending on the occasion and speech style (Wardhaugh 169 shows how the non-standard forms were more frequent in ‘fast’ speech).

Self-evaluation tests and ‘covert prestige’

The term ‘covert prestige’ was coined by Labov to name the prestige of non-standard varieties to which some speakers aspire (i.e. some speakers seek the values of down-market varieties such as Cockney).

One way of testing for this is the self-evaluation testing used by Trudgill in his Norwich survey. Subjects were given two terms of a variable (e.g. yod-dropping in ‘tune’) and they were asked to pick the variant that they normally used. The self-evaluation results can then be measured against what the speakers actually use. ‘Over-reporting’ is when the subjects say they use the standard form more than they actually do. ‘Under-reporting’ is when subjects say they use the non-standard form more than they actually do (see Wardhaugh 200-201).

Trudgill found than women tend to over-report and men tend to under-report (1983: 89-92). This fits in with the hypercorrectness analyzed by Labov. 

Language change

Trudgill’s analysis of the vowel in ‘top’ showed that the non-standard form was used by more men than women in the middle class, but by more women than men in the lower class. He concluded that this indicated language change, and this would seem to be supported by the age-variable analysis (older speakers use the non-standard form).

This change (use of the RP vowel) was being introduced by middle-class women AND working-class men, who imitated the language being used in the counties around them. In this case, overt and convert prestige coincided (1983: 93-94; Wardhaugh 202). 

Follow-up study

Peter Trudgill 1988. ‘Norwich Revisted. Recent Linguistic Changes in an English Urban Dialect’. English World-Wide 9. 33-49.

In 1983 Trudgill replicated his earlier study as closely as he could, adding 17 younger informants.

He found that some of the earlier changes had progressed: the non-standard forms were more common.

For explanations, see the accounts in Holmes 1992: 228-229 and Labov 1995.

Trudgill also analyzed his own speech used in the interviews, finding a significant degree of convergence with the subjects (in Graddol et al. 1996: 304-305). Should this invalidate his findings?

Question for external students

- What aspects of the Norwich study could be applied to a study of social stratification in Tarragona?

 Transparencies: Wardhaugh 169; Graddol 306

© Anthony Pym 2010
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