Whom Can Tell One’s Social Class Based on Grammar?

From a New York Times opinion piece by Peter Coy headlined “Whom Can Tell One’s Social Class Based on Grammar?”:

Social class can be hard to discern when billionaires wear hoodies and work late into the night instead of dressing resplendently and lounging poolside like the wealthy of the past. But people are as obsessed by class now as ever, so we need to resort to other characteristics to tell who fits where.

I argue that education has become as important as money in determining class. It’s nice to have both, of course, but an Uber driver with a doctorate in anthropology might look down on the passenger who can’t pronounce the street he’s going to. (And the passenger might look down on the driver — social geometry is funny that way.)

One way to signal your level of education, and hence your class — short of going around in a sweatshirt from your alma mater — is simply to speak. That’s as true today in the United States as it was in 1912 in the United Kingdom, when George Bernard Shaw wrote in the preface to “Pygmalion” (which became “My Fair Lady” on Broadway), “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”

A study by researchers at Yale published three years ago found that listeners have a better-than-random chance of discerning whether someone has a college degree by listening to the person speak just seven words. Put simply, your tongue gives you away.

The world would be a better place if people stopped worrying about class — whom to include and whom to exclude, who’s up and who’s down — and focused on our shared humanity. But I’m writing about the world as it is, not how I would like it to be.

Having said that, and with deference to my colleague John McWhorter, who is an actual professor of linguistics, I want to share my pet theory of pronouns and social class, which I came up with last week.

When it comes to the phrase “me and him,” I divide people into three camps: those who use it when they shouldn’t; those who don’t use it when they should; and those who use it at just the right times and think poorly of the other two camps.

In the first camp are those who say “Me and him got a six-pack” as well as “The six-pack is for me and him.” They’re overusing “me and him.” It’s wrong in the first sentence, although it’s right in the second sentence.

The second camp is the interesting one. People in the second camp are deathly afraid of sounding like those in the first camp but are vague on the rules, so to play it safe they underuse “me and him.” They’ll say, “He and I got a six-pack,” which is correct, but also, “The six-pack is for he and I,” which is incorrect. They’ll also say things like, “It’s time for my husband and I to take a vacation.”

(This isn’t a grammar lesson, but a simple self-check is to try your sentence without the other person in it. “You wouldn’t say, ‘The I.R.S. sent the refund check to I,’ so you shouldn’t say ‘The I.R.S. sent the refund check to my wife and I’ either,” wrote Paul Brians, a retired English professor at Washington State University.)

The linguistic term for what people in the second camp are doing is “hypercorrection.” “You overcompensate in your effort to avoid an error, and actually make an error,” Kaelyn Barron wrote for a publishing company’s website.

One indication that grammar signifies social class is that people can be touchy about being told they’re saying things wrong. That’s why people in the third camp, who know their subjects from their objects, mostly keep their mouths shut when others err. As they should. Some can’t resist a dig, though. PBS sells a T-shirt with the tart slogan, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.”

There’s actually a fourth camp that looks upon the three others with detached curiosity. These are linguists who shrug off the pedants and sticklers in the third camp and say their job is to describe the evolving language as it’s actually used. However, even if these academics don’t care about what’s deemed correct or incorrect, they care very much about drawing the connections between language and class.

Still think people care only about what you say, not how you say it? Give I a break.

Peter Coy writes about economics for Opinion. Before joining The New York Times in July 2021, he spent nearly 32 years writing for BusinessWeek and its successor, Bloomberg Businessweek.

Comments

  1. So basically, he’s mixed up class with various past and present class signifiers (first dress, then education, then conventional usage of subject and object pronouns), and then decided pronoun usage now means class? Then he proclaims that everyone who uses subject and object pronouns correctly agrees with him unless they’re a professional linguist? Extremely NYT take.

    It’s like saying “marathon runners, by which I mean people who prefer Nike shoes….”

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