Sociolinguistics is the study of the effect of any and all aspects of society, including culturalnorms, expectations, and context, on the way language is used, and the effects of language use on society. Sociolinguistics differs from sociology of language in that the focus of sociolinguistics is the effect of the society on the language, while the latter’s focus is on the language’s effect on the society. Sociolinguistics overlaps to a considerable degree with pragmatics. It is historically closely related to Linguistic Anthropology and the distinction between the two fields has even been questioned recently.
It also studies how language varieties differ between groups separated by certain social variables, e.g., ethnicity, religion, status, gender, level of education, age, etc., and how creation and adherence to these rules is used to categorize individuals in social or socioeconomic classes. As the usage of a language varies from place to place (dialect), language usage varies among social classes, and it is these sociolects that sociolinguistics studies.
The social aspects of language were in the modern sense first studied by Indian and Japanese linguists in the 1930s, and also by Gauchat in Switzerland in the early 1900s, but none received much attention in the West until much later. The study of the social motivation of language change, on the other hand, has its foundation in the wave model of the late 19th century. The first attested use of the term sociolinguistics was by Thomas Callan Hodson in the title of a 1939 paper. Sociolinguistics in the West first appeared in the 1960s and was pioneered by linguists such as William Labov in the US and Basil Bernstein in the UK.
Applications of sociolinguistics
|Areas of study|
|Accent · Dialect
Sociology of language
|Code-switching · Diglossia
For example, a sociolinguist might determine through study of social attitudes that a particularvernacular would not be considered appropriate language use in a business or professional setting. Sociolinguists might also study the grammar, phonetics, vocabulary, and other aspects of this sociolect much as dialectologists would study the same for a regional dialect.
The study of language variation is concerned with social constraints determining language in its contextual environment. Code-switching is the term given to the use of different varieties of language in different social situations.
William Labov is often regarded as the founder of the study of sociolinguistics. He is especially noted for introducing the quantitative study of language variation and change, making the sociology of language into a scientific discipline.
Traditional sociolinguistic interview
Sociolinguistic interviews are an integral part of collecting data for sociolinguistic studies. There is an interviewer, who is conducting the study, and a subject, or informant, who is the interviewee. In order to get a grasp on a specific linguistic form and how it is used in the dialect of the subject, a variety of methods are used to elicit certain registers of speech. There are five different styles, ranging from formal to casual. The most formal style would be elicited by having the subject read a list of minimal pairs (MP). Minimal pairs are pairs of words that differ in only one phoneme, such as cat and bat. Having the subject read a word list (WL) will elicit a formal register, but generally not as formal as MP. The reading passage (RP) style is next down on the formal register, and the interview style (IS) is when an interviewer can finally get into eliciting a more casual speech from the subject. During the IS the interviewer can converse with the subject and try to draw out of him an even more casual sort of speech by asking him to recall childhood memories or maybe a near death experience, in which case the subject will get deeply involved with the story since strong emotions are often attached to these memories. Of course, the most sought after type of speech is the casual style (CS). This type of speech is difficult if not impossible to elicit because of the Observer’s Paradox. The closest one might come to CS in an interview is when the subject is interrupted by a close friend or family member, or perhaps must answer the phone. CS is used in a completely unmonitored environment where the subject feels most comfortable and will use their natural vernacular without overtly thinking about it.
Fundamental concepts in sociolinguistics
While the study of sociolinguistics is very broad, there are a few fundamental concepts on which many sociolinguistic inquiries depend.
Speech community is a concept in sociolinguistics that describes a more or less discrete group of people who use language in a unique and mutually accepted way among themselves.
Speech communities can be members of a profession with a specialized jargon, distinct social groups like high school students or hip hop fans, or even tight-knit groups like families and friends. Members of speech communities will often develop slang or jargon to serve the group’s special purposes and priorities.
High prestige and low prestige varieties
Crucial to sociolinguistic analysis is the concept of prestige; certain speech habits are assigned a positive or a negative value which is then applied to the speaker. This can operate on many levels. It can be realised on the level of the individual sound/phoneme, as Labov discovered in investigating pronunciation of the post-vocalic /r/ in the North-Eastern USA, or on the macro scale of language choice, as realised in the various diglossias that exist throughout the world, where Swiss-German/High German is perhaps most well known. An important implication of sociolinguistic theory is that speakers ‘choose’ a variety when making a speech act, whether consciously or subconsciously.
Understanding language in society means that one also has to understand the social networks in which language is embedded. A social network is another way of describing a particular speech community in terms of relations between individual members in a community. A network could be loose or tight depending on how members interact with each other. For instance, an office or factory may be considered a tight community because all members interact with each other. A large course with 100+ students be a looser community because students may only interact with the instructor and maybe 1-2 other students. A multiplexcommunity is one in which members have multiple relationships with each other. For instance, in some neighborhoods, members may live on the same street, work for the same employer and even intermarry.
The looseness or tightness of a social network may affect speech patterns adopted by a speaker. For instance, Sylvie Dubois and Barbara Horvath found that speakers in one Cajun Louisiana community were more likely to pronounce English “th” [θ] as [t] (or [ð] as [d]) if they participated in a relatively dense social network (i.e. had strong local ties and interacted with many other speakers in the community), and less likely if their networks were looser (i.e. fewer local ties).
A social network may apply to the macro level of a country or a city, but also to the inter-personal level of neighborhoods or a single family. Recently, social networks have been formed by the Internet, through chat rooms, MySpace groups, organizations, and online dating services.
Internal vs. external language
In Chomskian linguistics, a distinction is drawn between I-language (internal language) and E-language (external language). In this context, internal language applies to the study of syntax and semantics in language on the abstract level; as mentally represented knowledge in a native speaker. External language applies to language in social contexts, i.e. behavioral habits shared by a community. Internal language analyses operate on the assumption that all native speakers of a language are quite homogeneous in how they process and perceive language. External language fields, such as sociolinguistics, attempt to explain why this is in fact not the case. Many sociolinguists reject the distinction between I- and E-language on the grounds that it is based on a mentalist view of language. On this view, grammar is first and foremost an interactional (social) phenomenon (e.g. Elinor Ochs, Emanuel Schegloff, Sandra Thompson).
Differences according to class
Sociolinguistics as a field distinct from dialectology was pioneered through the study of language variation in urban areas. Whereas dialectology studies the geographic distribution of language variation, sociolinguistics focuses on other sources of variation, among them class. Class and occupation are among the most important linguistic markers found in society. One of the fundamental findings of sociolinguistics, which has been hard to disprove, is that class and language variety are related. Members of the working class tend to speak less standard language, while the lower, middle, and upper middle class will in turn speak closer to the standard. However, the upper class, even members of the upper middle class, may often speak ‘less’ standard than the middle class. This is because not only class, but class aspirations, are important.
Studies, such as those by William Labov in the 1960s, have shown that social aspirations influence speech patterns. This is also true of class aspirations. In the process of wishing to be associated with a certain class (usually the upper class and upper middle class) people who are moving in that direction socio-economically will adjust their speech patterns to sound like them. However, not being native upper class speakers, they often hypercorrect, which involves overcorrecting their speech to the point of introducing new errors. The same is true for individuals moving down in socio-economic status.
Social language codes
Basil Bernstein, a well-known British socio-linguist, devised in his book, ‘Elaborated and restricted codes: their social origins and some consequences,’ a social code system which he used to classify the various speech patterns for different social classes. He claimed that members of the middle class have ways of organizing their speech which are fundamentally very different from the ways adopted by the working class.
In Basil Bernstein’s theory, the restricted code was an example of the speech patterns used by the working-class. He stated that this type of code allows strong bonds between group members, who tend to behave largely on the basis of distinctions such as ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘older’, and ‘younger’. This social group also uses language in a way which brings unity between people, and members often do not need to be explicit about meaning, as their shared knowledge and common understanding often bring them together in a way which other social language groups do not experience. The difference with the restricted code is the emphasis on ‘we’ as a social group, which fosters greater solidarity than an emphasis on ‘I’.
Basil Bernstein also studied what he named the ‘elaborated code’ explaining that in this type of speech pattern the middle andupper classes use this language style to gain access to education and career advancement. Bonds within this social group are not as well defined and people achieve their social identity largely on the basis of individual disposition and temperament. There is no obvious division of tasks according to sex or age and generally, within this social formation members negotiate and achieve their roles, rather than have them there ready-made in advance. Due to the lack of solidarity the elaborated social language code requires individual intentions and viewpoints to be made explicit as the ‘I’ has a greater emphasis with this social group than the working class.
Deviation from standard language varieties
The existence of differences in language between social classes can be illustrated by the following table:
|Bristolian Dialect (lower class)||…||Standard English (higher class)|
|I ain’t done nothing||…||I haven’t done anything|
|I done it yesterday||…||I did it yesterday|
|It weren’t me that done it||…||I didn’t do it|
Any native speaker of English would immediately be able to guess thatspeaker 1 was likely of a different social class than speaker 2, namely from a lower social class, probably from a working class pedigree. The differences in grammar between the two examples of speech is referred to as differences between social class dialects or sociolects.
It is generally assumed that non-standard language is low-prestige language. However, in certain groups, such as traditional working class neighborhoods, standard language may be considered undesirable in many contexts. This is because the working class dialect is a powerful in-group marker, and especially for non-mobile individuals, the use of non-standard varieties (even exaggeratedly so) expresses neighborhood pride and group and class solidarity. There will thus be a considerable difference in use of non-standard varieties when going to the pub or having a neighborhood barbecue (high), and going to the bank (lower) for the same individual.
Studies in the field of sociolinguistics typically take a sample population and interview them, assessing the realisation of certain sociolinguistic variables.
A commonly studied source of variation is regional dialects. Dialectology studies variations in language based primarily on geographic distribution and their associated features. Sociolinguists concerned with grammatical and phonological features that correspond to regional areas are often called dialectologists.
There are several different types of age-based variation one may see within a population. They are: vernacular of a subgroup with membership typically characterized by a specific age range, age-graded variation, and indications of linguistic change in progress.
Variation may also be associated with gender. Men and women, on average, tend to use slightly different language styles. These differences tend to be quantitative rather than qualitative. That is, to say that women use a particular speaking style more than men do is akin to saying that men are taller than women (i.e., men are on average taller than women, but some women are taller than some men).
- ^ John J. Gumperz and Jenny Cook-Gumperz, “Studying language, culture, and society: Sociolinguistics or linguistic anthropology?”. Journal of Sociolinguistics 12(4), 2008: 532–545.
- ^ T. C. Hodson and the Origins of British Socio-linguistics by John E. Joseph Sociolinguistics Symposium 15, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, April 2004
- ^ Paolillo, John C. Analyzing Linguistic Variation: Statistical Models and Methods CSLI Press 2001, Tagliamonte, Sali Analysing Sociolinguistic Variation Cambridge, 2006
- ^ a b Wardhaugh, Ronald (2006), An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, New York: Wiley-Blackwell
- ^ Dubois, Sylvie and Horvath, Barbara. (1998). “Let’s tink about dat: Interdental Fricatives in Cajun English.” Language Variation and Change 10 (3), pp 245-61.
- Lakoff, Robin T. (2000). The Language War. Berkely, CA: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-21666-0
- Meyerhoff, Miriam. (2006). Introducing Sociolinguistics. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-39948-3
- Milroy, Lesley and Gordon. Matthew. (2003) Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation London: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-22225-1. (More advanced, but has lots of good examples and describes research methodologies to use.)
- Paulston, Christina Bratt and G. Richard Tucker, editors. 1997. The early days of sociolinguistics: memories and reflections.(Publications in Sociolinguistics, 2.) Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
- Trudgill, Peter. (2000). Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society(4th Ed.). London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-028921-6 This book is a very readable, if Anglo-centric, introduction for the non-linguist.
- Watts, Richard J. (2003). Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-79406-0. A sociolinguistics book specializing in the research in politeness. It’s a little tough at times, but very helpful and informational.
|Look up sociolinguistics inWiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Applied Linguistics at the Open Directory Project
- http://www.ncsu.edu/linguistics/ncllp/aboutfieldwork.php About sociolinguistic fieldwork
- Sociolinguistics: an interview with William Labov ReVEL, vol. 5, n. 9, 2007.