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Language in the City

Pro- und Hauptseminar, SS 2007, Campus

Overview of Sociolinguistics - 1

Sociolinguistics is the study of language in society. It is primarily

concerned with the type of accents people use and - most
importantly - the reason why they choose to use one rather than
the other. Grammatical structures and types of vocabulary are
also of interest here. By and large linguists assume that speakers
use language as a means of conveying social attitudes just like
dress or leisure time activities, i.e. people use the accent of the
social group they identify with or aspire to.
Sociolinguistics a relatively recent discipline which investigates
the possible reasons for language variation are and hence to
understand more about the process of language change. Here
we can distinguish two main types of change: (i) internal change
which takes place for structural reasons in a language, e.g.
regularisation in grammar as with plural forms in English or
German and (ii) external change which is triggered ultimately by
social motivation, i.e. speakers change their language to convey
a social message as when they are showing their identity with a
sector of the society they live in.

There are various kinds of speech community

depending on how a society is organised linguistically.
Diglossia involves a division of languages according to
function: one language/variety is used at home and
another in public as in Switzerland. A bilingual
community has two languages without such a functional
distribution, e.g. in Canada with French and English.
The social development of a language can lead to split
where what was formerly one language becomes two or
more, compare the historical development of Latin into
the modern Romance languages. The split may involve
major varieties of the same language as with the
divergence between British and American English.

The varieties of language examined by sociolinguists are usually

urban and in particular take account of the factors class, age and
gender. The central element in a sociolinguist study is the
linguistic variable - some item of language (phonological,
morphological, syntactic or semantic) - which is suspected of
varying systematically in correlation with the factors such
Sociolinguists collect data directly from speakers and do not use
descriptions in books as their primary source. Various methods
have been developed in sociolinguistics for ensuring that one's
data is random and objective. Speakers can be recorded (on
tape, for instance) in which case they are aware of this or by
memory (where the linguist later on writes down what was said).
The latter type of investigation is used when speakers are not
supposed to realise they are being observed.

Languages may be introduced into a society through various

processes: language contact by invasion or emigration. Immigrant
languages may be maintained in a host society or may be
abandoned depending on the attitudes of the speakers of following
Language contact usually leads to a linguistic influence of one
language on another, e.g. that of French on English in the Middle
Ages or of English on German today. Contact may be direct when
speakers interact or indirect when there is an influence of the
written language, e.g. that of English on so many other languages
today, often through various media like television, science,
technology, music.

Methods in sociolinguistics
In a way it is true to say that sociolinguistics arose out of
dialectology. Those linguists involved in this area in the last
century and the beginning of the present century were
interested in registering language use and as such were half on
the way to being sociolinguists. However, many aspects of
dialectological research are unacceptable to modern
sociolinguists. The chief deficiency of the dialectological
approach is that older, male, rural speakers were given
preference as informants. This went against the basic principle
of all sociolinguists, namely that the choice of informants be
random and thus unbiased by the field worker. Characteristic of
sociolinguistic methods are the following features:
1) The prior definition of one's area of investigation
2) The impartial choice of informants
3) The choice of optimal methods of investigation (e.g. tape
recording rather than questionnaire)

Methods in sociolinguistics

The procedure of interviewing informants has the

disadvantage that the field worker very often has a negative
(or standardising) effect on the informants. This is called
the observer's paradox, namely that the nature of the object
of investigation changes under observation (more on this
A dialogue situation in which the informant is not made
aware of his/her status as informant is much more
favourable and less likely to distort the results.

Types of language variation

Just as the methods of the dialectologists were unacceptable to
sociolinguists so was the terminology they used. For one thing the
sociolinguists wanted to get away from the use of the term dialect. It
carried with it the implication of a rural type of speech which is
particularly conservative. The more neutral term variety was chosen
which had the additional advantage that it did not imply implicit contrast
with a standard variety of language. The term variety simply refers to a
variant of a language. It may be the standard of this language or not, it
may be a rural or an urban variant, a social or peer group variant, etc.
One of the aspects of contact between speakers of different
varieties of a language is accommodation. By this is meant that one of
the speakers attempts, in face to face interaction, to approximate his/her
speech to that of his/her partner in conversation for a variety of reasons,
to make him feel at ease, in order to be accepted, etc. This
accommodation can be long-term or short-term and is most readily
accomplished by children.

Sociolinguistics since the mid-20th century

The development of sociolinguistics since the War is inextricably bound
up with the activity of American linguists since the early sixties. First and
foremost of these is William Labov who in a pioneering investigation of the
English of New York city, published in 1966, arrived at many new conclusions
concerning language variety and language change.
Labov stressed that 1) structural systems of the present and changes
in languages of the past should be investigated in relation to each other, 2) that
language change can be observed in progress in present-day language
varieties and 3) the fact that so-called free variation was not in fact free at all
but determined by deliberate, if not conscious, choice on the part of the
Labov further stressed the need to collect data reliably. The linguist
must be aware that an informant will show the following features in his/her
speech: 1) style shifting (during an interview), 2) varying degree of attention,
i.e. some speakers pay great attention to their own speech (so-called
'audiomonitoring'); in excited speech and casual speech the attention paid by
the speaker is correspondingly diminished, 3) degree of formality, determined
by the nature of the interview; it can vary depending on the way the informant
reacts to the interviewer and the situation he/she is placed in.

Methods in sociolinguistics
This term refers to the fact that the collection of data from informants involves their
being observed which in turn influences the nature of the data the informants offer.
Labov's answer to this problem was to develop the Rapid and Anonymous
Interview in which informants were not aware they were being interviewed by a
linguist (cf. Labov's experiments in New York department stores).
With regard to language change Labov proposed three phases which can
be summarised as follows: 1) origin, a period in which many variants exist for one
and the same phenomenon, 2) propagation, the period in which one of the variants
established itself and 3) the conclusion in which the remaining variants are done
away with. Various external factors can accelerate the process of language
change, above all social pressure from above or below. Additional factors are the
degree of literacy in a community, the restraining influence of a standard of a
language, etc.
All language change show a particular rate of change which proceeds like
an S-curve (slow start, quick middle section with a tapering off at the top).
Schematically these three phases correspond to the beginning, middle and end of
an S-curve which is frequently used as a visualisation of language change.

Methods in sociolinguistics
Labov proved his theories on language variation and language change by
investigating (in an anonymous manner) the English of various employees in New
York department stores. Here he chose stores with differing social status. The
linguistic variables he was particularly interested in are: 1) the presence or
absence of syllable-final /r/, 2) the pronunciation of the ambi-dental fricatives (the
sounds in thin and this respectively) and 3) the quality of various vowels.
After Labov introduced his methods in America various European
linguists followed suit. Notable among these is Peter Trudgill who started his
career as a sociolinguist with an investigation of the English of Norwich city. His
aim was, like Labov, to show that there is a correlation between language use and
social class. Trudgill was particularly interested in seeing how stylistic variation
causes language change. His investigations of varieties of present-day English
are noted for their methodological rigour. He insisted on absolute randomness and
used statistical devices, such as indexing, to insure that his population is as
heterogeneous as possible. Trudgill is furthermore interested in degrees of
formality and had his informants read a text (reading style), a list of words at
normal speed (word list style) and a series of homophones. In addition he looked
at various forms of casual speech.

Insights of sociolinguistics
Language change can be observed. The reasons for it are ultimately
social, deriving from such factors as forms used by prestigious groups. Any item of
change starts as a series of minute variations which spread through the lexicon of
the language (lexical diffusion). The difference between varying forms increases
with time, due to a process known as phonologisation whereby small differences
are exaggerated to make them distinct from other phonemic items in a language.
Only a subset of any existing variations in a language at any point in time lead to
actual later change. Just what variations result in change depends on their status
for the speakers of a language. This status may be conscious in the case of
identification markers or subconscious, the latter not being any less important than
the former for language change.
Lower middle class speakers figure prominently in language change as
they aspire upwards on the social scale.

Insights of sociolinguistics
3) Women tend to use a more standard type of language than their male
counterparts (due to their uncertain position in western-style
societies?). But on the other hand they also tend to be at the forefront
of linguistic innovations.
4) Language change can in some cases be reversed, i.e. more
conservative (older) forms can be re-established if enough speakers
use them for purposes of conscious or unconscious identification.
5) There is no method of predicting what features in any language will
be subject to change, i.e. which will be picked out as prestige forms
by the social elite. However, language typology does give an
indication as to what forms are likely candidates for change and what
are not. For instance, if a language has front rounded vowels /y, /
then it is likely that if it experiences extensive change then these
elements are probable candidates for loss or substitution by
something else.

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