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Sociolinguistics Definition and

Examples
Sociolinguistics is the study of the relation between language and society—a
branch of both linguistics and sociology.

American linguist William Labov has called sociolinguistics secular linguistics,


"in reaction to the contention among many linguists working in a
broadly Chomskyanframework that language can be dissociated from its social
functions" (Key Thinkers in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language, 2005).

"[T]he difference between sociolinguistics and the sociology of language is very


much one of emphasis," says R.A. Hudson. "There is a very large area of overlap
between the two" (Sociolinguistics, 2001). In An Introduction to
Sociolinguistics (2013), Rubén Chacón-Beltrán observes that in sociolinguistics
"the stress is placed on language and its role within communication. Sociology of
language, however, centers on the study of society and how we can understand it
through the study of language."

Examples and Observations

"There are several possible relationships between language and society. One is
that social structure may either influence or determine linguistic structure and/or
behavior. . . .

"A second possible relationship is directly opposed to the first: linguistic


structure and/or behavior may either influence or determine social structure. . . .
A third possible relationship is that the influence is bi-directional: language and
society may influence each other. . . .

"Whatever sociolinguistics is, . . . any conclusions we come to must be solidly


based on evidence." (Ronald Wardhaugh, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics,
6th ed. Wiley, 2010)

Sociolinguistic Methods

"The standard way in which sociolinguists investigate [language] use is by


random sampling of the population. In classic cases, like those undertaken in
New York by [William] Labov, or in Norwich by [Peter] Trudgill, a number
of linguistic variables are selected, such as 'r' (variably pronounced according to
where it occurs in a word) or 'ng' (variably pronounced /n/ or /ŋ/). Sections of
the population, known as informants, are then tested to see the frequency with
which they produce particular variants. The results are then set against social
indices which group informants into classes, based on factors such as education,
money, occupation, and so forth. On the basis of such data it is possible to chart
the spread of innovations in accent and dialect regionally." (Geoffrey
Finch, Linguistic Terms and Concepts. Palgrave Macmillan, 2000)

Subfields and Branches of Sociolinguistics

"Sociolinguistics includes anthropological linguistics, dialectology, discourse


analysis, ethnography of speaking, geolinguistics, language contact studies,
secular linguistics, the social psychology of language and the sociology of
language." (Peter Trudgill, A Glossary of Sociolinguistics. Oxford University
Press, 2003)

Sociolinguistic Competence

"Sociolinguistic competence enables speakers to distinguish among


possibilities such as the following. To get someone's attention in English, each of
the utterances

1. 'Hey!',
2. 'Excuse me!', and
3. 'Sir!' or 'Ma'am!'

is grammatical and a fully meaningful contribution to the discourse of the


moment, but only one of them may satisfy societal expectations and the speaker's
preferred presentation of self. 'Hey!' addressed to one's mother or father, for
example, often expresses either a bad attitude or surprising misunderstanding of
the usually recognized social proprieties, and saying 'Sir!' to a 12-year-old
probably expresses inappropriate deference.

"Every language accommodates such differences as a non-discrete scale or


continuum of recognizably different linguistic 'levels' or styles, termed registers,
and every socially mature speaker, as part of learning the language, has learned
to distinguish and choose among places on the scale of register." (G.
Hudson, Essential Introductory Linguistics. Blackwell, 2000)

What does Sociolinguistics study?


Sociolinguistics is the study of the relationship between language and society.
Sociolinguistics is concerned with how language use interacts with, or is affected by, social
factors such as gender, ethnicity, age or social class, for instance. As Coulmas defines, it is
the study of choice and “the principal task of Sociolinguistics is to uncover, describe and
interpret the socially motivated” choices an individual makes.[1]

Sociolinguists are interested in how we speak differently in varying social contexts, and how
we may also use specific functions of language to convey social meaning or aspects of our
identity. Sociolinguistics teaches us about real-life attitudes and social situations. Below is a
video featuring Paul Cooper, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, in which he
outlines some of the reasons studying Sociolinguistics is important in consolidating our
understanding of society.

Some Definitions and Divisions of Sociolinguistics


W. Labov (1966:136-7), Social Stratification of English in NYC:

"We can take 2 different routes to the description of social variation in language.
...We can consider various sections of the population, and determine the values of the
linguistic variables for each group... college-trained professionals... [or] longshoremen.
The alternate approach is to chart the overall distribution of the variables themselves and
then ask, for certain values of each variable, What are the characteristics of the people
who talk this way? ..[This] will tell us what group membership we can expect from a
person who talks in a certain manner.

"The first approach, through social groups, seems more fundamental and more
closely tied to the genesis of linguistic differentiation..When we have finished this type of
analysis, we may turn to the second approach.. [Thus] we will be able to avoid any error
which would arise in assuming that a group of people who speak alike is a fundamental
unit of social behavior."

P. Trudgill (1974: 32), Sociolinguistics:

"Sociolinguistics.. is that part of linguistics which is concerned with language as a


social and cultural phenomenon. It investigates the field of language and society & has
close connections with the social sciences, especially social psychology, anthropology,
human geography and sociology."

Peter Trudgill (1983: 2-5), On Dialect:

[Trudgill uses 'language and society' as the broadest term, and distinguishes 3 types of study:]
1. "First, those where the objectives are purely linguistic;
2. Second, those where they are partly linguistic and partly sociological; and
3. Third, those where the objectives are wholly sociological.

"Studies of [the first] type are based on empirical work on language as it is spoken in its
social context, and are intended to answer questions and deal with topics of central
interest to linguistics... the term ‘sociolinguistics’ [here]... is being used principally to refer
to a methodology: sociolinguistics as a way of doing linguistics.

"The 2nd category... includes [areas] such as: sociology of language; the social
psychology of language; anthropological linguistics; the ethnography of speaking; &
[interactional] discourse analysis.

"The third category consists of studies... [like] ethno-methodological studies of


conversational interaction... where language data is being employed to tell us, not about
language but only about society... [This] is fairly obviously not linguistics,
and therefore not sociolinguistics."[emphasis added]

Dell Hymes, Foreword to Gillian Sankoff (1980: x-xi), The Social


Life of Language:

"An integration of linguistics and anthropology, of urban ethnography and cross-


cultural ethnology, is taken for granted... The congeries of interests that coalesced in the
1960s around the goal of a sustained social study of language have tended to separate out
again. In arguing for the social study of language, each had its specific opponent, its
specific disciplinary world to conquer. For some, it was conventional sociology, for some
conventional linguistics, for others philosophy, for still others anthropology... the impulse
to band together depended on a sense of marginality in a home discipline. Achieved
legitimacy has weakened the impulse. Old methodological fault lines tend to prevail –
logic, intuition, transcripts, cultural ethnography, survey and questionnaire, and the like...

"[Sankoff's work] is micro-evolutionary in both its model of the human actor & its
contextualization of language... People are not tacitly reduced to what phenomenological
sociologist Harold Garfinkel has called ‘cultural dopes’, actors who can do only what
cultural roles provide. Yet the existence of indeterminacy, the fact that behavior and
meaning can be newly interpreted and constituted with each situation, does not lead to a
view of actors whose action is an unchartable miasma... What people do is variable
according to situation, interest, need, yet intelligible to themselves and others in terms of
recurrent patterns... The ingredients required for an adequate analysis of the social life of
language in the modern world are[:] technical linguistics, quantitative and mathematical
technique, ethnographic inquiry, ethnohistorical perspective."
Wm. Downes (1984: 15), Language and Society:

"Sociolinguistics is that branch of linguistics which studies just those properties of


language and languages which REQUIRE reference to social, including contextual,
factors in their explanation."

Janet Holmes (1992, 16), An Introduction to Sociolinguistics:

"The sociolinguist’s aim is to move towards a theory which provides a motivated


account of the way language is used in a community, and of the choices people make
when they use language."

Suzanne Romaine (1994, vii-ix), Language in Society:

"Some distinguish between theoretical and applied sociolinguistics. The former is


concerned with formal models and methods for analysing the structure of speech
communities and speech varieties, and providing a general acount of communicative
competence. Applied sociolinguistics deals with the social and political implications of
fundamental inequalities in language use in various areas of public life, e.g. school, courts,
etc. ... [In another subdivision:] Macro-sociolinguistics takes society as its starting-point and
deals with language as a pivotal factor in the organization of communities. Micro-
sociolinguistics begins with language and treats social forces as essential factors
influencing the structure of languages. [SR refers this division to Fasold's Sociolinguistics of
Society vs. Sociolinguistics of Language]… This [is] an artificial and arbitrary division of labor,
which leads to a fruitless reductionism... The large-scale socio-political issues typically
addressed by the sociology of language... and the forms and uses of language on a small
scale dealt with by sociolinguistics... are manifestations of similar principles, albeit
operating on different levels. Variability is inherent in human behavior."

J. K. Chambers (1995, 203), Sociolinguistic Theory:

"Upon observing variability, we seek its social correlates. What is the purpose of
this variation? What do its variants symbolize? … [These] are the central questions of
sociolinguistics."
Ronald Wardhaugh (1998, 10-11), Sociolinguistics: An
Introduction:

"[1] Social structure may either influence or determine linguistic structure and/or
behavior… [2] Linguistic structure and/or behavior may either influence or determine
social structure [Whorf, Bernstein]… [3] The influence is bi-directional: language and
society may influence each other… [4] There is no relationship at all between linguistic
structure and social structure… each is independent of the other… [4a] Although there
might be some such relationship, present attempts to characterize it are essentially
premature… this view appears to be the one that Chomsky holds."

Florian Coulmas (1997), Handbook of


Sociolinguistics "Introduction" (1-11)

The primary concern of sociolinguistic scholarship is to study correlations between


language use and social structure… It attempts to establish causal links between language
and society, [asking] what language contributes to making community possible & how
communities shape their languages by using them… [It seeks] a better understanding of
language as a necessary condition and product of social life… Linguistic theory is… a
theory about language without human beings.