Alright Mate? Why Do We Change Our Accent When Talking to Manual Workers and Tradesmen?

We all talk differently depending on where we find ourselves and who we’re talking to. But why do we code-switch? Read on to find out.

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“Alright mate. Yeah, cheers for fixin’ the sink. Fancy a cuppa?” said my public school educated brother to the plumber one day after he’d helped us out with a leaky pipe.

“You don’t say ‘mate’!”, I told him after the plumber had gone. “Since when have you started talking like that?”. It turns out he was completely unaware of what he had said and how he’d said it, surprised to learn he had ‘code-switched’ without thinking. 

Code-switching occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation or situation. The language varieties my brother had been switching back and forth between all afternoon as he watched football on TV with me and from time to time went through to chat to the plumber, were what the British sociolinguist Basil Bernstein termed ‘elaborated’ (middle class) and ‘restricted’ (working class) speech variants or codes.

Bernstein theorised that the codes we use depend on the social class we belong to. Restricted code, he suggested, is used predominantly by the working class who grow up in ‘positional’ circumstances, that is in households where traditional familial roles are keenly upheld. Bernstein’s point was that accepted roles and social positions within a fixed hierarchy generate a particular kind of ‘restricted’ language use, whereby vocabulary and syntax choice is limited to negotiating the social situations encountered in a rigidly organised society. Because traditional working-class family units were tight-knit patriarchal hierarchies, the use of “we” and “our” tended to be more frequent than in other social class structures. Martin Montgomery (2008) notes that, in restricted code, “language will typically be used to affirm solidarity and invoke shared understandings”. This language, he states, is often ready-made and predictable, focused on the shared experience of everyday life. Phrases such as “you know…”, “ain’t it?” and “sort of” are used to invite others to identify and agree with what the speaker is saying.

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Middle-class language users, often not tied into a traditional wider family structure, he argued, have much more agency when deciding what language to adopt. Modern approaches to the construction of the family unit, whereby children are encouraged to have their own ideas, opinions and freedoms and where fathers are just as likely to cook the dinner as mothers, encourage individualism and a greater sense of the self. This kind of middle-class thinking might place emphasis on the “I” as opposed to the “we”, to construct individual identities and thoughts. Because utterances in so-called elaborated code are not likely to be about something familiar to the group, they need to be more elaborate and less predictable; group members have their own unique experiences that are not tied to the common experience and the language used to convey these experiences must necessarily be of a more complex variety.

So why then, do middle class people code-switch when talking to people they perceive as working class, such as tradesmen? What was my brother up to calling the plumber “mate” every 30 seconds?

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Well, code-switching has been viewed as a kind of linguistic survival mechanism. Bernstein, while credited with making some important observations, has had his theory superseded by a perhaps more plausible thesis, which is that speakers adopt a degree of ‘restrictedness’ or ‘elaboratedness’ to maximise communicational effectiveness in whatever situation they find themselves in, rather than speak exclusively in restricted or elaborated code. People who are adept at this can move seamlessly between different groups and social situations. Of course, the degree to which we adopt a restricted or elaborated code depends on our linguistic ability to do so, but also on the perceptions we have of the person or people we are communicating with.

My brother’s unconscious bias caused him to adopt a significant and highly unusual degree of ‘restrictedness’ in order, he believed, to most effectively communicate with a person he perceived to have come from a positional role system, or in other words, the working class. He felt that by putting himself on what he perceived to be the same linguistic level as the plumber, he would receive better service as an ‘equal’, be less likely to be judged as middle class and ‘unmanly’ for not being able to do the manual work in question himself, and deflect attention away from his own elaborated speech patterns that he perceived might cause division and consternation between the two parties. He was subconsciously doing his best to ‘survive’ the situation and get the best outcome.

My brother, it seems, is not alone in this. Contributors to the website Mumsnet provide similar examples of code-switching from their husbands, and suggest similar explanations as to why this phenomenon occurs:

“I think they’re (middle class men) consciously or unconsciously responding to the imaginary challenge ‘So, why aren’t you capable of doing your own DIY, Mr Middle Class and Effete?'”

“It’s blokes who are worried they aren’t manly because they can’t put in their own kitchen. So they are trying to find a way to bond, rather than treating it as a business transaction.The tradesman has a skill my husband doesn’t, so we are paying for that skill. But it doesn’t seem to be as straightforward as that.”

Code switching then, is something we all do, often without realising it. Have you had a similar experience? Do your friends and family talk differently when mixing with people from different backgrounds? If so, share your experience in the comments below.

Published by nickteacher

Nick Simpson is a UK-born English professor living and working in South Korea. He writes about life in Korea, cross-cultural differences and family life.

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