Change from Above and Change from Below
Change from above and change from below indicate the degree to which the speakers in a speech community are consciously aware of the linguistic change affecting a particular linguistic variable.
Change from above and change from below do not have a direct connection with the socio-economic status of speakers. That is, ‘above’ does not necessarily indicate that a linguistic change is set in motion in higher socio-economic status groups. Likewise, ‘below’ does not mean that a change is triggered by lower socio-economic status groups.
Change from above denotes linguistic change in a speech community above the level of a speaker’s conscious awareness. That is, speakers are consciously aware of an ongoing change and they can comment on this linguistic innovation. An example for a change from above is the variable (r) studied by William Labov (1966) in New York City (see here). New Yorkers are aware of both the r-ful and the r-less variant of this variable. They regard the innovative r-ful variant better, which is thus positively valued and accredited with prestige.
Change from below denotes linguistic change in a speech community below the level of a speaker’s conscious awareness. In this case speakers are not consciously aware of a linguistic change in progress in a community.
(Information adapted from Meyerhoff, 2006)