is the study of the effect of any and all aspects of society
, including cultural norms, expectations, and context, on the way language
is used. Sociolinguistics overlaps to a considerable degree with pragmatics
It also studies how lects 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 class or socio-economic 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. 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
For example, a sociolinguist might determine through study of social attitudes that a particular vernacular
would not be considered appropriate language use in a business or professional setting. Sociolinguists might also study the grammar
, 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.
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.
Studies in the field of sociolinguistics typically take a sample population and interview them, assessing the realisation of certain sociolinguistic variables. Labov specifies the ideal sociolinguistic variable to
- be high in frequency,
- have a certain immunity from conscious suppression,
- be an integral part of larger structures, and
- be easily quantified on a linear scale.
Phonetic variables tend to meet these criteria and are often used, as are grammatical variables and, more rarely, lexical variables. Examples for phonetic variables are: the frequency of the glottal stop, the height or backness of a vowel or the realisation of word-endings. An example of a grammatical variable is the frequency of negative concord (known colloquially as a double negative).
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.
High prestige and low prestige varieties
Crucial to sociolingusitic 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 term of relations between individual members in a community. A network could be loose
depending on members interact with each other (Wardhaugh, 2002:126-127). 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 multiplex
commmunity (Wardhaugh, 2002:126-127) 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, Dubois and Hovarth (1998:254) 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
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 people together, 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 and upper 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
|| Standard English |
| 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 that speaker 1 was likely of a different social class than speaker 2. The differences in grammar between the two examples of speech is referred to as differences between social class dialects or sociolects.
It is also notable that, at least in England, the closer to standard English a dialect gets, the less the lexicon varies by region, and vice-versa.
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.
Differences according to age groups
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.
One example of subgroup vernacular is the speech of street youth. Just as street youth dress differently from the "norm", they also often have their own "language". The reasons for this are the following: (1) To enhance their own cultural identity (2) To identify with each other, (3) To exclude others, and (4) To invoke feelings of fear or admiration from the outside world. Strictly speaking, this is not truly age-based, since it does not apply to all individuals of that age bracket within the community.
Age-graded variation is a stable variation which varies within a population based on age. That is, speakers of a particular age will use a specific linguistic form in successive generations. This is relatively rare. Chambers (1995) cites an example from southern Ontario, Canada where the pronunciation of the letter 'Z' varies. Most of the English-speaking world pronounces it 'zed'; however, in the United States, it is pronounced 'zee'. A linguistic survey found that in 1979 two-thirds of the 12 year olds in Toronto ended the recitation of the alphabet with the letter 'zee' where only 8% of the adults did so. Then in 1991, (when those 12 year olds were in their mid-20s) a survey showed only 39% of the 20-25 year olds used 'zee'. In fact, the survey showed that only 12% of those over 30 used the form 'zee'. This seems to be tied to an American children's song frequently used to teach the alphabet. In this song, the rhyme scheme matches the letter Z with V 'vee', prompting the use of the American pronunciation. As the individual grows older, this marked form 'zee' is dropped in favor of the standard form 'zed'.
People tend to use linguistic forms that were prevalent when they reached adulthood. So, in the case of linguistic change in progress, one would expect to see variation over a broader range of ages. Bright (1997) provides an example taken from American English where there is an on-going merger of the vowel sounds in such pairs of words as 'caught' and 'cot'. Examining the speech across several generations of a single family, one would find the grandparents' generation would never or rarely merge these two vowel sounds; their children's generation may on occasion, particularly in quick or informal speech; while their grandchildren's generation would merge these two vowels uniformly. This is the basis of the apparent-time hypothesis where age-based variation is taken as an indication of linguistic change in progress.
Differences according to geography
Differences according to 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 make more minimal responses (see below) than men 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).
The initial identification of a women's register was by Robin Lakoff in 1975, who argued that the style of language served to maintain women's (inferior) role in society ("female deficit approach"). A later refinement of this argument was that gender differences in language reflected a power difference (O'Barr & Atkins, 1980) ("dominance theory"). However, both these perspectives have the language style of men as normative, implying that women's style is inferior.
More recently, Deborah Tannen has compared gender differences in language as more similar to 'cultural' differences ("cultural difference approach"). Comparing conversational goals, she argued that men have a report style, aiming to communicate factual information, whereas women have a rapport style, more concerned with building and maintaining relationships.
Such differences are pervasive across media, including face-to-face conversation (e.g., Fitzpatrick, Mulac, & Dindia, 1995: Hannah & Murachver, 1999), written essays of primary school children (Mulac, Studley, & Blau, 1990), email (Thomson & Murachver, 2001), and even toilet graffiti (Green, 2003).
Communication styles are always a product of context, and as such, gender differences tend to be most pronounced in single-gender groups. One explanation for this, is that people accommodate their language towards the style of the person they are interacting with. Thus, in a mixed-gender group, gender differences tend to be less pronounced. A similarly important observation is that this accommodation is usually towards the language style, not the gender of the person (Thomson, Murachver, & Green, 2001). That is, a polite and empathic male will tend to be accommodated to on the basis of their being polite and empathic, rather than their being male.
One of the ways in which the communicative competence of men and women differ is in their use of minimal responses, i.e., paralinguistic
features such as ‘mhm’ and ‘yeah’, which is behaviour associated with collaborative language use (Carli, 1990). Men, on the other hand, generally use them less frequently and where they do, it is usually to show agreement, as Zimmerman and West’s (1975) study of turn-taking in conversation indicates.
Men and women differ in their use of questions in conversations. For men, a question is usually a genuine request for information whereas with women it can often be a rhetorical means of engaging the other’s conversational contribution or of acquiring attention from others conversationally involved, techniques associated with a collaborative approach to language use (Barnes, 1971). Therefore women use questions more frequently (Fitzpatrick, et al., 1995; Todd, 1983).Todd, Alexandra Dundas. (1983) "A diagnosis of doctor-patient discourse in the prescription of contraception. In writing, however, both genders use rhetorical questions as literary devices. For example, Mark Twain used them in "A War Prayer" to provoke the reader to question his actions and beliefs.
As the work of DeFrancisco (1991) shows, female linguistic behaviour characteristically encompasses a desire to take turns in conversation with others, which is opposed to men’s tendency towards centering on their own point or remaining silent when presented with such implicit offers of conversational turn-taking as are provided by hedges
such as "y’ know" and "isn’t it". This desire for turn-taking gives rise to complex forms of interaction in relation to the more regimented form of turn-taking commonly exhibited by men (Sacks et al., 1974).
Changing the topic of conversation
According to Dorval (1990), in his study of same-sex friend interaction, males tend to change subject more frequently than females. This difference may well be at the root of the conception that women chatter and talk too much, and may still trigger the same thinking in some males. In this way lowered estimation of women may arise. Incidentally, this androcentric attitude towards women as chatterers arguably arose from the idea that any female conversation was too much talking according to the patriarchal consideration of silence as a womanly virtue common to many cultures.
Female tendencies toward self-disclosure, i.e., sharing their problems and experiences with others, often to offer sympathy (Dindia & Allen, 1992; Tannen, 1991:49), contrasts with male tendencies to non-self disclosure and professing advice or offering a solution when confronted with another’s problems.
Men tend to be more verbally aggressive in conversing (Labov, 1972), frequently using threats, profanities, yelling and name-calling. Women, on the whole, deem this to disrupt the flow of conversation and not as a means of upholding one’s hierarchical status in the conversation. Where women swear, it is usually to demonstrate to others what is normal behaviour for them.
Listening and attentiveness
It appears that women attach more weight than men to the importance of listening
in conversation, with its connotations of power to the listener as confidant of the speaker. This attachment of import by women to listening is inferred by women’s normally lower rate of interruption — i.e., disrupting the flow of conversation with a topic unrelated to the previous one (Fishman, 1980) — and by their largely increased use of minimal responses in relation to men (Zimmerman and West, 1975). Men, however, interrupt far more frequently with non-related topics, especially in the mixed sex setting (Zimmerman and West,1975) and, far from rendering a female speaker's responses minimal, are apt to greet her conversational spotlights with silence, as the work of DeFrancisco (1991) demonstrates.
Dominance versus subjection
This, in turn, suggests a dichotomy between a male desire for conversational dominance – noted by Leet-Pellegrini (1980) with reference to male experts speaking more verbosely than their female counterparts – and a female aspiration to group conversational participation. One corollary of this is, according to Coates (1993: 202), that males are afforded more attention in the context of the classroom and that this can lead to their gaining more attention in scientific and technical subjects, which in turn can lead to their achieving better success in those areas, ultimately leading to their having more power in a technocratic society.
Politeness in speech is described in terms of positive and negative face. Positive face
refers to one's desire to be liked and admired, while negative face
refers to one's wish to remain autonomous and not to suffer imposition. Both forms, according to Brown’s study of the Tzeltal language (1980), are used more frequently by women whether in mixed or single-sex pairs, suggesting for Brown a greater sensitivity in women than have men to face the needs of others. In short, women are to all intents and purposes largely more polite than men. However, negative face politeness can be potentially viewed as weak language because of its associated hedges
and tag questions, a view propounded by O’Barr and Atkins (1980) in their work on courtroom interaction.
Compliments are closely linked to politeness in that, as Coates believes (1983), they cater for positive face needs.
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- Labov, William (1972), Language in the Inner City. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.
- Lakoff, R. (1975). Language and Women’s Place. New York: Harper & Row.
- Leet-Pellegrini, Helena M. (1980) Conversational dominance as a function of gender and expertise, pp. 97-104 in Giles, Howard, Robinson, W. Peters, and Smith, Philip M [eds] Language: Social Psychological Perspectives. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
- Mulac, A., Studley, L.B., & Blau, S. (1990). The gender-linked language effect in primary and secondary students’ impromptu essays. Sex Roles, 23, 439-469.
- O’Barr and Atkins (1980) ‘Women’s Language’ or ‘powerless language’?, pp. 93-110 in McConnell-Ginet et al. [eds] Women and languages in Literature and Society. New York: Praeger.
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- Tannen, Deborah (1991), You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, London: Virago.
- Thomson, R., & Murachver, T. (2001). Predicting gender from electronic discourse. British Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 193-208.
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- Wardhaugh, Ronald. (2004) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Fourth Edition. London: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1-631-22540-4.
- Todd, Alexandra Dundas (1983), A diagnosis of doctor-patient discourse in the prescription of contraception, pp. 159-87 in Fisher, Sue and Todd, Alexandra D. [eds] The Social Organization of Doctor-Patient Communication, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington D.C.
- Zimmerman, Don and West, Candace (1975) Sex roles, interruptions and silences in conversation, pp. 105-29 in Thorne, Barrie and Henly, Nancy [eds] Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance. Rowley, Massachusetts: Newbury House
- 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.
- 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.
- Wardhaugh, Ronald. (2005) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Fifth Edition. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1-405-13559-X. A sociolinguistics textbook, but assumes little or no previous experience with linguistics.