Daycare Sociolects

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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.

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Comments

  1. #1 PsyberDave
    March 25, 2008

    Not surprisingly a similar phenomenon occurs here in the United States (as it is generically human, I am sure). African-Americans here (usually of middle to lower class origin) have sociolects that are different from “standard” English. In fact, the term “Ebonics” was coined to describe vocabulary and syntax that is culturally originated in the non-upper-class African-American community, though Wikipedia says the term is not widely used by linguists.

    I haven’t heard the term sociolect before. Thanks for the useful concept.

  2. #2 Martin R
    March 25, 2008

    I once saw a movie where a middle-class white teacher tries to teach black high school kids to speak dictionary English. Explaining to them that they shouldn’t say “axing” when they mean “asking”, the rather prissy teacher writes “ASS-KING” on the blackboard. The kids stare in helpless confusion.

  3. #3 ...tom...
    March 25, 2008


    My 9-y-o son, being an avid reader, speaks in polysyllables and abstruse nerdy puns. Chip off the old block.

    As a father-times-three I can say with some basis: ‘You must be so proud’.

    Just teasing and with a smilie.

    My greatest fear as a new father was raising children who had no curiosity about the world around them and/or lacked the language and mental skills to satisfy a natural curiosity.

    Luckily that was not the case, as apparently in your own family. Perhaps no Rhodes scholars here but . . ..

    …tom…
    .

  4. #4 Barn Owl
    March 25, 2008

    The sociolect concept is very interesting. My parents are solidly Midwestern US academic middle class, and my toddler-era babysitter was a working class Boston native (my dad was postdoc at the time, and mom was working in a kindergarten). Apparently I had a pretty strong South Boston accent and dialect for a couple of years, which was subsequently modified by German, Japanese, and Finnish words picked up from the kids with whom I attended Montessori school. A move to Texas and the public school system then sent everything down the linguistic tubes, of course. ;-)

  5. #5 Tor
    March 25, 2008

    “I have been trained to see all norms as socially contingent.”

    Sure, but some linguistic norm systems are more conducive to effective communication than others. Conflating “whither” and “where” is just dumb, and you know it.

    “My daughter isn’t speaking sloppily, she’s following the norm current at her daycare place. [...] If anything, they’re likely to sound a bit too posh eventually.”

    Cool it, Martin. Your daughter is _four_. Of course she’ll get it. You’re not going to have to lower your standards.

  6. #6 Martin R
    March 25, 2008

    Haha, Tor, you’re baiting me!

    The fact is that the Swedish working class communicates just fine in its own idiom, just as legions of Americans use the double negative without ever misunderstanding each other.

    I do however feel that anybody who can’t see the difference between “couldn’t care less” and “could care less” should be shot on sight.

  7. #7 tor
    March 25, 2008

    All right, here’s a serious question for you. If, twenty years from now, Signe is still speaking like a day-care lady, will you still be as serene about it? If not, your liberalism strikes me as disingenuous.

  8. #8 Martin R
    March 25, 2008

    That’s actually an issue I’ve been thinking about. And I feel that if my careerism had paid off more than it has, then I would probably have had a problem with my kids not having great careers. Instead, I haven’t really made it anywhere much, and so have become cynical about careerism. I honestly just want my kids to be happy & healthy. I don’t want them to be me and I don’t expect them to become Nobel laureates.

  9. #9 Tor
    March 25, 2008

    Um… I wasn’t really thinking about careers. Just language. God knows a person can make it bigtime without sounding like Harold Bloom. So you’re saying that wouldn’t bug you at all? My, my, the staunch intellectual élitist I used to know… *Shakes head sadly*

  10. #10 Martin R
    March 25, 2008

    I’m assuming that sociolect goes along with daily occupation. For my kids to become speakers of working-class Swedish, they would have to become workers and most likely pair up with worker spouses.

    I’m still very much an elitist. It’s just that I’ve seen enough of the academic class to know that most of them are as far below my idea of an intellectual elite as any day labourer.

  11. #11 Janne
    March 25, 2008

    As an aside, I question the assertion that “most living speakers of Swedish say vart är klockan”. That may be true in some areas, but most Swedes I ever talk to say “va’ är klockan” (yes, the same va’ for both “var” – where, and “vad” – what). Or to be really picky, “va’ ä hotellet” (where is the hotel).

    My wife, who studies Swedish right now, can’t seem to decide whether to be more frustrated over our pronunciations or our grammar. And yes, she frequently (and loudly) questions the need to swap word order in sentences like “Hon sa att hon ville inte ha dockan”; she tends to look up from the textbook and exclaim “誰が決まったか” – “who decided this?” in an accusatory tone of voice. For non-Swedish speakers, the word order changes depending on whether it is an assertion or a question, and whether the sentence is direct or indirect; and if it’s a part of a compound sentence it gets more complicated still.

    My wife and our immigrants are right of course; there really is no need to do it as far as understanding goes. Context, other grammatical markers and (in speech) tone will always disambiguate the sentence just fine. My guess is, swapping word order like this will become a lingustic relic in another generation or two, like many of our old verb forms have disappeared today.

  12. #12 The Worst of Perth
    March 25, 2008

    Is that the daycare lady who had her chicken burnt?

  13. #13 Martin R
    March 26, 2008

    Janne, I suspect that even in Scanian (the sexiest of all Swedish dialects), the vowel-meet in Va’ä dockan? is punctuated by a hint of a throaty R or glottal stop. In Stockholm, we say something along the lines of VaLé dockan?, with the L being something between the first sounds in “they” and “lay”.

    WoP, the currently chickenless daycare lady is a private contractor in the next municipality over.

  14. #14 z, english section
    March 26, 2008

    When i was four, i learned scanian/swedish. My hungarian parents always wondered why on earth i decided speaking like that when i’m not born in Sweden, and therefore are “allowed” to pick any accent i’d like!
    “Like the news-anchors on tv. Like in Stockholm. Beautiful. Listen to them! Especielly their ‘r’-sounds!”

    But, as a natural fact, i was highly influenced by my surroundings, living in Malmö, Scania,
    and to this day (i’m 33) i cannot understand what would be so wrong about scanian.
    The vowels, sort of, adhere to each other, in a non-twitchy, continuous way.

    Fortunately the scanian tv-chef Tina Nordström charmed my mother so heavily, she now actually fancies the southern ‘r’-sounds.

    I agree with your posting: the spoken language should be upgraded to become as important as the written one!

  15. #15 Martin R
    March 26, 2008

    I love the way each local immigrant argot in Sweden’s suburban housing projects reflects the regional dialect. People from Rinkeby, Hammarkullen and Rosengård, all speaking broken Swedish, can easily be placed by the details of their diction.

    As for spoken language becoming as important as the written one, I’m not sure what you mean. The reason we have sociolects is that each subculture wants to be distinct. Workers don’t want to be mistaken for academics, and vice versa. Speak the wrong sociolect and your peer group will ostracise you.

  16. #16 z again
    March 26, 2008

    I meant that you pointed out that there was nothing wrong about your daughter’s spoken expression “Vart är dockan?”
    (but would one spell it like that when writing?)

  17. #17 Martin R
    March 26, 2008

    Language changes constantly. Old people will always find younger people’s speech sloppy, just like their own grandparents once found theirs sloppy.

    The academic middle class writes the dictionaries, and the ability to speak like a dictionary is important if you want to be part of the middle class. However, the Swedish upper class, the people with really big money, do not speak dictionary Swedish and do not think much of academe. They go to business school.

  18. #18 Martin R
    March 26, 2008

    As to your question, I would never dream of saying or writing “vart” in that context. That’s not my sociolect.

    And if I were a school teacher, I would teach the pupils dictionary Swedish to enable them to become academics if they wanted to. Kids are smart enough in practice to shift sociolects from situation to situation.

  19. #19 Jonathan Jarrett
    March 26, 2008

    “I have been trained to see all norms as socially contingent.”

    That always bothers me as an approach. I mean, as it stands it is fine and makes good sense; but how do you take account of someone genuinely trying to act counter to a norm? It seems to me unhelpful to just class that as a `norm of one’. I’m not accusing you of this (or your children of deliberately mangling their dictionary Swedish!), just that I don’t grok this bit of the theory.

  20. #20 Mary E
    March 26, 2008

    About 4 is when I started getting corrected for speaking like a field hand instead of a lady. And it went on as long as I was at home, from my grandparents. They had gone thru the same process, as they and my parents all also grew up in a small white minority surrounded by largely illiterate or minimally literate black farm workers, and had to be sent off to learn to speak proper English even tho they could already write it very well. Now that I am tutoring English, I have to fight verb tense/person every day. I prefer the casual or kitchen speach in my daily life, but have no problem sounding like an academic when it is called for. Plenty of people can speak in several sociolects as you call them.

  21. #21 Martin R
    March 26, 2008

    Jonathan, norms are largely a matter of majority view within a group. Not everyone’s vote has equal weight, but no single person can decide the norm for an entire group. In fact, shared norms are important parts in the definition of social groups.

    Someone who deliberately acts counter to the most important norms of his group will become ostracised. If lucky, he will be accepted into another group with whose norms his behaviour is more compatible. There’s hardly any behaviour that is completely unacceptable to all social groups.

  22. #22 Martin R
    March 26, 2008

    Mary, could you give a few examples of “fighting verb tense/person”?

  23. #23 DuWayne
    March 26, 2008

    Speak the wrong sociolect and your peer group will ostracise you.

    This is pretty much the way of it in the U.S. Nor is it limited to the African Americans. Though the distinctions may be fine at times, they are there nonetheless. I am extremely grateful to my dad, who taught me by example to talk to most anyone.

    On a weekly basis, my oldest son and I go to breakfast at a blue collar grill. We mingle there, with a range of people, many of whom use more of a working class dialect. I occasionally slip and either use rather “big” words or use what are to them, rather archaic modes of speech. Whenever this happens, I get (gently) harassed for being a college boy. I find this most ironic, because at thirty-two, I am finally getting into the college track, having spent much of my adult life as a high school dropout.

    I have to say though, that speaking in a socialect that is “above” ones station, is unlikely to cause one to be seriously ostracized. You might get razzed for it, but there are few enough folks who are actually serious about it. OTOH, speaking “below” the station of those they are around, is far more likely to cause one to be ostracized.

  24. #24 Martin R
    March 26, 2008

    I hear working-class people who study tend to meet with quite a bit of hostility from their home peeps.

  25. #25 Liesele
    March 26, 2008

    I grew up speaking English at home (in an English-language-dominant area) and French at school. We had a student come to school who spoke neither language, but whose parents wished him to learn both. They were assured by the principal that despite hearing only French during the schoolday, he would quickly discover that English was the local “language of power” and be sure to learn that too. He did indeed learn both.
    Unfortunately, my education in French ended when I was 12 years old. I did indeed speak it fluently–but I had the vocabulary and comprehension of a 12 year old. It wasn’t much help when my father would bring home journal articles on propulsion systems and ask me if I could translate them into English for him; I didn’t have the vocabulary in either language.
    I grew up with a healthy appreciation for languages and learned Italian, German, Hebrew, and Russian as well (not bad for an American).
    And now my youngest child’s daycare provider is Armenian, and asked my permission to speak her own language with my daughter some of the time. Needless to say I encouraged it.

  26. #26 Martin R
    March 26, 2008

    Impressive! I learned English in the US when I was four and then left for Sweden when I was six. What made me somewhat capable in grown-up English was that I started to read reams of fiction in English when I was twelve. The habit is with me to this day.

  27. #27 DuWayne
    March 26, 2008

    Martin –

    Such hostilities do occasionally foment, even today, but they are very rare in my experience. For the most part folks in my line and other blue collar careers, are really just happy for the person that might actually get out of that sort of work.

    This could of course, be very different in other places. I have only lived in fairly educated and reasonable portions of the U.S. I know that even here, in the south and parts of the east coast, there is more hostility displayed towards edumacated folks. Is this also true of Sweden?

  28. #28 Martin R
    March 26, 2008

    It’s all hearsay to me. I haven’t got that background. Though Swedes don’t much like tall poppies.

  29. #29 Rikard
    March 26, 2008

    Hmm. In the same way that it isn’t “wrong” to speak a dialect, why should it be considered to be “wrong” or “sloppy” to speak a sociolect? Spoken and written language are not the same, never have been and never will be. There has been a tendency in Sweden (discussed by Fredrik Lindström) for the spoken language to become more like the written language. If I remember correctly he attributes this to the growing of the middle class, when from the ’50s and forward the working class grew into the new middle class, and to the homogenization of language across the country.

    I think that just as you can’t say it’s wrong to say “vars är dockan” (Northern dialect) it shouldn’t be wrong to say “vart är dockan”. But it would be wrong to write it.

  30. #30 Martin R
    March 27, 2008

    “Wrong” isn’t the word I’d use. If you write “vart” or “vars”, then educated people who read it will assume that you are poorly educated. This can be a practical problem.

  31. #31 Stina
    March 27, 2008

    I’m glad that my daughter learns other sociolects and various types of broken Swdeish at daycare/pre-school. She has a natural talent using languages (Swedish and to some extent English) and I see it as an unvaluable asset that she encounters variations of the Swedish language. We live in a rather mixed-population area where many kids can’t tell ‘han’ from ‘honom’.

    Currently most daycare-ladies are recruited among jobless immigrant ladies (with little or very different educational background) as there is a scarcity of pre-school teachers. It works great; an obvious raise in self esteem among the women and it means good care for our children by resposible much-experienced people. Unfortunately their pay is a shame as they aren’t hired as pre-school techers but as child carers (barnskötare). Their salaries are unbelievable low. = A new working class.

  32. #32 Martin R
    March 27, 2008

    Better working class than jobless! Though I agree that their salaries are a joke. Supply and demand, I guess.

  33. #33 Stina
    March 27, 2008

    Or ethnicity and gender.

  34. #34 Martin R
    March 27, 2008

    Yes, of course. The Swedish situation in this respect is either extremely bad, if you look at it with expectations of gender equality, or extremely good, if you compare with the world at large.

  35. #35 DuWayne
    March 27, 2008

    Better working class than jobless!

    There is actually a big part of me that is going to miss it, when I get far enough along in school that I have to quit. If the work is steady enough, I actually make a really good living. Unfortunately it is somewhat seasonal work, which just doesn’t quite do it for us. That, and I am getting to the point where my body doesn’t care for some of the work I do. But I really do enjoy quite a bit of it, especially when I get the higher end remodels.

    It is immensely gratifying to look at what I have done, when it’s finished and know that I did that. Whether it’s fabricating copper trim or coverage panels, milling and installing gorgeous trim details, doing a complicated tile job, or building beautiful cabinetry, it’s a very good feeling when the home owner is so thrilled about what I was able to do for them. It’s also very thrilling to have my work pictured in magazines, which has happened twice now.

    Stina –

    I’m glad that my daughter learns other sociolects and various types of broken Swdeish at daycare/pre-school.

    I think that this is almost always a plus. There is nothing wrong with having the ability to communicate with people in different parts of the social structure. Indeed, this is something that can provide kids with benefits that are not inconsiderable.

    Being a person who is capable of relating to those at the very top end of society, those at the bottom and everyone in between, has been immensely beneficial to my livelihood. It has also put me in good stead with the various people I deal with every day, from store clerks, to unskilled laborers that I often need to hire. No matter who I am dealing with, I am generally considered, “good people” as it were.

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