Hypercorrection is a term of high significance in sociolinguistics. This article aims to clarify what exactly is meant by this widely discussed phenomenon. In this context, it is not only important to explain what is meant by the term itself, but also to describe hypercorrection as a factor in linguistic change. Very fruitful and extensive research on this topic has been carried out by William Labov, who examined “Hypercorrection by the Lower Middle Class as a Factor in Linguistic Change” (Labov [a]). It is Labov, who shows that there is another factor, which is of high significance when it comes to hypercorrection and which consequently needs to be further clarified in this context: social status.
II. Hypercorrection as a Factor in Linguistic Change
Regarding its status as widely discussed phenomenon in sociolinguistics, it may seem astonishing that there is still discussion on the term hypercorrection itself: “Hypercorrection is an interesting word. Is there a way for something to be more correct than right?” (Trippel 1). Of course, it is not worth further pondering on such a question as it does not refer to what is really meant by the original term. Nevertheless, the question shows the necessity to define carefully what is meant by this sociolinguistic phenomenon as its naming can obviously lead to misinterpretation.
Mindell puts it in a very straight way: “You are hypercorrect when, instead of comfortably speaking the language, you err by going beyond what’s needed. As a result, you overpronounce words and make grammatical errors because they sound “fancy”” (Mindell 42f.). The author ascribes hypercorrect speakers a lack of control concerning their language. Additionally, Mindell describes daily examples of hypercorrection in the English language like the “use of /when me would have been correct:”Please send the memo to her and /’’’ (Mindell 43).
Rather than concentrating on such general examples of hypercorrection, it is the author’s aim to refer to hypercorrection as it becomes obvious in prestige markers by different social groups. According to Trippel, hypercorrection “means the correction of mistakes and transferring [sic!] the new rule and applying [sic!] it to correct utterances” (Trippel 1). The definition however runs the risk of disregarding the sociolinguistic perspective in favor of a purely linguistic dimension. This suspicion is extended by the matter of fact that hypercorrection “is always a function of rule generalization, though the converse does not hold” (Decamp 87). Decamp accounts for this statement by clarifying that it is not necessarily the grammatical rule itself, which is generalized, but rather another added rule, which is symmetrical to it (cf. Decamp 87). It is Labov’s approach to language, which maintains a clear correlation between the occurrence of hypercorrection and a particular social status. One of the main goals in this paper will be to show how this sociolinguistic phenomenon especially affects the lower middle class. Decamp gives a definition of hypercorrection (alternatively hyperurbanism), which takes notice of its inherent social dimension. The linguist describes it as “an incorrect analogy with a form in a prestige dialect which the speaker has imperfectly mastered” (Decamp 87).
Hypercorrection obviously stimulates speakers to take over a dialect originally not specific for their social group. In order to demonstrate this phenomenon, Labov’s approach appears as a suitable means as it examines “the hypercorrect behavior of a single class group in the speech community of New York City, and the consequences of this behavior for the process of linguistic change” (Labov [a], 123). Due to formal reasons, it cannot be the main goal of this paper to describe the methodological details of Labov’s approach, however, the description of very basic characteristics must be considered indispensable. Labov mainly bases his study “upon the quantitative measurement of phonological indexes” (Labov [a], 123), ascribing lexical as well as grammatical behavior of the interviewees a secondary status. The underlying methods are applied in a survey, which is carried out in the Lower East Side of New York City, an area with a population of about 100.000 people. In this study however, the total number of interviewees is restricted to 207. Since quantitative research is always restricted concerning a sample size, the total number of people, “whose speech was studied in the greatest detail” (Labov [a], 123), is 81. Concerning the occurrence of hypercorrection as a factor in linguistic change, Labov exposes the lower middle class as social class showing an extraordinarily high dynamic considering its speech behavior (which shall be demonstrated later).
Due to the fact that the speech of any person shows its own structural characteristics when it is compared with the overall pattern of the community’s social as well as stylistic variation, Labov is able to show how frequently different social classes use particular linguistic forms (which work as prestige markers) in different speech styles. In this context, it is worth mentioning that the observation of 1) determination as well as 2) structure in a single person’s linguistic behavior compared to the overall pattern of variation is relatively new knowledge. One significant linguistic form, which has become relevant as a prestige marker within the last 20 years, is the pronunciation of /r/. Previous investigations rather describe the pronunciation of /r/ in terms of free variation: “The speaker hears both types of pronunciation about him all the time, both seem almost equally natural to him and it is a matter of pure chance which one comes to his lips.” (Hubbell 48)
Labov points out that while “at one time, the dialect areas of the eastern United States were sharply divided into r-less and r-pronouncing areas, according to where consonantal r is pronounced in words like carand card' (Labov [b], 234), the pronunciation of r “has become accepted as standard of broadcast networks and of careful middle class pronunciation almost everywhere” (Labov [b], 234f.) today. As one consequence, the linguist describes the emergence of r in final and preconsonantal position as a sociolinguistic variable in all areas, including those ones, which are originally r-less. This phenomenon particularly applies for younger speakers, who modify their speech so that “in the more formal styles they will use more r and in casual speech practically none at all” (Labov [b], 235).
The amount of r-pronunciation as a prestige marker used by different social classes (as well as the peculiar use of /r/ by the lower middle class) can be exemplified in terms of a development on a horizontal line. Figure 1, which is based on Labov 1972, tries to depict the characteristics of this development.
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- Hypercorrection Linguistic Change William Labov Social Status Sociolinguistics Lower Middle Class Hyperurbanism Stylistic Variation Prestige Linguistics Prestige Marker Speech Pattern Hypersensitivity