Jenny Cheshire – Linguistic Variation and Social Function

“Adherence to vernacular culture and and frequency and concurrence of non-standard forms.”


Jenny Cheshire is a British Sociolinguist and Professor at Queen Mary University, London. Her research interests include variation and English syntax.

What was she researching?

Cheshire was interested in finding out how frequent nine non-standard features were in adolescents in the Reading variety of English. She focused on the features in the table below.

   Non-standard feature  Example  Class
 1 Present tense suffix with non-standard 3rd person singular subjects “we goes shopping on Saturdays”
 2 Has with non-standard 3rd person singular subjects “we has a little fire, keeps us warm”
 3 Was with plural subjects “they was outside”
 4 Multiple negation “I’m not going nowhere”  A
 5 Negative past tense never, used for standard English didn’t “I never done it, it was him”  B
 6 What used for standard English who, whom, which and that “There’s a knob what you turn”  B
 7 Auxiliary do with 3rd person singular subjects “How much do he want for it”  C
 8 Past tense come “I come down here yesterday”  C
 9 ain’t used for negative present tense with all subjects “I ain’t going”  C




1982, for a period of 8 months.


Reading, in the county of Berkshire.

Her Method:

  • Recorded natural speech in Reading over a period of 8 months.
  • Conducted participant observation to collect the data.
  • There were thirteen adolescent boys and thirteen adolescent girls.
  • The participants that were chosen were notorious for truancy and missing school therefore representing a “delinquent subculture”.[1]


Cheshire’s research rested on the idea of a “vernacular subculture”, whereby those who use non-standard forms have different social “norms”.

These norms include:

a) Trouble
b) Excitement
c) Skill at fighting
d) The carrying of a weapon
e) Participation in minor criminal activities

Cheshire also took into account the kind of jobs that were acceptable and unacceptable to have after the group had finished school, style as marking of status or value in subcultures, and lastly swearing as a measure of vernacular identity.[1]

The boys were divided into four groups 1, 2, 3 and 4 on the basis of which boys adhered to the vernacular culture on the grounds of the indicators mentioned above. Group 1 had the most adherence whilst group 4 had the least.

What did she find out?

The group with the most adherence to the vernacular subculture were the group who most frequently used the non-standard features, whereas the group who least adhered to the vernacular culture less frequently used the non-standard features.

This ultimately shows that language performance is highly structured, the boys that were involved in criminal activities, carrying of a weapon, who chose acceptable jobs such as slaughtering or lorry driving and so on were the boys that used the non-standard features most frequently (group 1).



[1] Cheshire, J., (1982). ‘Linguistic Variation and Social Function’. In: Romaine, S. (ed) Sociolinguistic Variation in Speech Communities. London: Edward Arnold Ltd. pp. 153-166.