Childcare is a context where people from different class backgrounds come into intimate contact. Indeed, for as long as there has been childcare, this work has been done largely by working class women, even when the kids in question have been middle- or upper-class. There’s a common literary trope where an upper-class young man has a warm “natural” relationship to his working-class nanny and a cold distant one to his blood mother.
I’ve blogged before about how academic middle-class ideals of gender homogenisation clash with more traditional views among working-class daycare ladies. And Saturday I had a conversation that opened my eyes to the effects of our daycare arrangements on language, too: on sociolect.
Simply put, a dialect is a speech norm typical of a region. Within a region, the dialect is split into sociolects, that have to do with social class and other subcultural groupings. Sociolects often span dialect areas, so that the working-class idiom of Gothenburg shows similarities to that of Stockholm, while each is also unmistakeably regional/dialectal in colour.
An older relative pointed out that my 4-y-o daughter says Vart är dockan?, “To where is the doll?”, instead of dictionary Swedish Var är dockan?, “Where is the doll?”. Our relative, being upper-middle-class with a tendency to see her norms as self-evident, simply viewed this as sloppy speech. (Her people write the dictionaries.) In fact, it’s an extremely common sociolectal marker. It wouldn’t surprise me if most living speakers of Swedish say Vart är dockan?, though dictionaries still forbid it. Similarly, many working-class Swedes say Jag gav han dockan, “I gave he the doll”, instead of Jag gav honom dockan, “I gave him the doll”.
A 1990s humanities graduate, I have been trained to see all norms as socially contingent. My daughter isn’t speaking sloppily, she’s following the norm current at her daycare place. Sometimes I can also hear hints of immigrant speech in her idiom, likely picked up from immigrant kids or her Turkish daycare lady. It’s mainly subtle things like word order in dependent clauses, e.g. Hon sa att hon ville inte ha dockan, “She said that she didn’t want the doll”, instead of according to the norm, Hon sa att hon inte ville ha dockan.
I don’t worry about my kids’ ability to blend in linguistically. If anything, they’re likely to sound a bit too posh eventually. My 9-y-o son, being an avid reader, speaks in polysyllables and abstruse nerdy puns. Chip off the old block.