Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Prestige: The "Best" Way to Speak Languages

As a native English speaker, it always amuses me when I travel abroad and come across bars, clubs, and restaurants that use English names as a gimmick to appear fashionable. That said, I've also noticed French being paraded around the UK to make places sound cool.

When businesses use languages in this way, they're trying to make more money by having a cool image. But does a language have an image? We'll leave marketers give you their spiel about various demographics and how they relate to your brand image. We're far more interested in the linguistic side of things.

The root of this phenomenon in linguistics (sociolinguistics to be precise) is prestige. Just like certain restaurants, bars, and clubs, languages can also be prestigious. Depending on your culture, some languages can hold more prestige than others. It's also been found to be true that most cultures afford the highest prestige to the languages spoken by the most prestigious parts of their society. This means that if you're part of a prestigious group, odds are your language is also quite prestigious.

Money seems to bring prestige with it.
Interestingly, in addition to languages, dialects within languages (and dialect continuums, of course) are also subject to prestige. Much like with languages, the most prestigious dialects tend to be those spoken by the members of the society with the most prestige. It seems that prestige often goes hand in hand with wealth and political power.

It is thought that prestige dialects are related to, and the cause of standardized dialects. Standardized dialects are the dialects of a language that are considered to be the easiest to understand by most speakers of the language. For languages with a regulatory body, the standardized dialects are usually regulated by these academies.

That said, there's nothing that inherently makes prestige dialects or prestigious languages the "best" way to speak. In fact, it may even be beneficial to speak less prestigious dialects in certain situations. One example of this is the Geordie dialect of English which is spoken in my hometown. While it is likely considered to be one of the least prestigious dialects in England, it is often labelled as the "friendliest", which is why marketing of all kinds, from television adverts to telemarketing, features the voices of Geordies. There are undoubtedly countless other examples around the world that demonstrate how a non-prestige dialect may be more beneficial in certain situations, so if you don't speak the most prestigious dialect of your area, don't worry!