Sociolinguistics is the descriptive study of the effect of any and all
aspects of society, including cultural norms, expectations, and
context, on the way language is used, and society's effect on
language. It differs from sociology of language, which focuses on the
effect of language on society.
Sociolinguistics overlaps considerably
with pragmatics. It is historically closely related to linguistic
anthropology, and the distinction between the two fields has been
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, language usage also 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 Louis
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
his 1939 article "
Sociolinguistics in India" published in Man in
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. In the 1960s, William Stewart and Heinz
Kloss introduced the basic concepts for the sociolinguistic theory of
pluricentric languages, which describes how standard language
varieties differ between nations (e.g.
American/British/Canadian/Australian English; Austrian/German/Swiss
German; Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian Serbo-Croatian).
2 Traditional Sociolinguistic Interview
3 Fundamental Concepts
3.2 High prestige and low prestige varieties
3.3 Social network
4 Differences According to Class
4.1 Class aspiration
4.2 Social language codes
4.2.1 Restricted code
4.2.2 Elaborated code
4.3 Covert prestige
5 Sociolinguistic Variables
6 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
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, 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.
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 them 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.
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
distinct group of people who use language in a unique and mutually
accepted way among themselves. This is sometimes referred to as a
To be considered part of a speech community, one must have a
communicative competence. That is, the speaker has the ability to use
language in a way that is appropriate in the given situation. It is
possible for a speaker to be communicatively competent in more than
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.
Community of Practice allows for sociolinguistics to examine the
relationship between socialization, competence, and identity. Since
identity is a very complex structure, studying language socialization
is a means to examine the micro-interactional level of practical
activity (everyday activities). The learning of a language is greatly
influenced by family but it is supported by the larger local
surroundings, such as school, sports teams, or religion. Speech
communities may exist within a larger community of practice.
High prestige and low prestige varieties
Main article: Prestige (sociolinguistics)
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 diglossia that exist throughout the
world, where Swiss-German/High German is perhaps most well known. An
important implication of the sociolinguistic theory is that speakers
'choose' a variety when making a speech act, whether consciously or
The terms acrolectal (high) and basilectal (low) are also used to
distinguish between a more standard dialect and a dialect of less
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 would be a looser community because students
may only interact with the instructor and maybe 1–2 other students.
A multiplex community 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
A social network may apply to the macro level of a country or a city,
but also to the interpersonal level of neighborhoods or a single
family. Recently, social networks have been formed by the Internet,
through chat rooms, Facebook groups, organizations, and online dating
Differences According to Class
Further information: Linguistic insecurity
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.
In any contact situation, there is a power dynamic, be it a
teacher-student or employee-customer situation, this power dynamic
results in a hierarchical differentiation between languages.
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 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 that is
fundamentally very different from the ways adopted by the working
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
that 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 that 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'.
The time when "restricted-code" matters are the day when children
start school where the standard variety of language is used. Moreover,
the written form of a language is already very different from the
everyday form. Children with restricted-code, therefore, struggle at
school more than those who speak an "elaborated-code".
However, this type of communicative skills may not be understood by
other children who belong to other classes. What's more, children with
restricted-code may have difficulty in understanding the teacher, the
only source of information for them at school. Therefore, it is
suggested that working-class children should have pre-school training
within their early childhood period. Early schooling may provide them
with opportunities to acquire a manner of speaking that is considered
appropriate at school.
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 on
this social group than the working class.
The following table illustrates differences in language associated
with social position:
(associated with lower classes)
(associated with higher classes)
It looks like it ain't gonna rain today.
It looks as if it isn't going to rain today.
You give it to me yesterday.
You gave it to me yesterday.
Y'gotta do it the right way.
You have do it the right way.
Main article: Prestige (sociolinguistics)
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 generally considered 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.
Main articles: Variation (linguistics), Dialectology, and
Studies in the field of sociolinguistics typically take a sample
population and interview them, assessing the realisation of certain
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).
Another Method is the Guise Technique, this technique has the listener
listen to a pair of words and evaluate them based on personality and
dialect. As some groups have shared views on language attitude. 
Further information: Complimentary language and gender
Axiom of categoricity
Social network (sociolinguistics)
Sociolinguistics of sign languages
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"About sociolinguistic fieldwork". The North Carolina
Sociolinguistics: an interview with
William Labov ReVEL, vol. 5, n. 9,
History of communication
Intercultural / Interpersonal / Intrapersonal communication
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