Sociolinguistics is the study of the sociological aspects of language. The discipline examines how different social factors, such as ethnicity, gender, age, class, occupation, education, and geographical location can influence language use and maintain social roles within a community. In simple terms, sociolinguistics is interested in the social dimensions of language.
Sociolinguists study linguistic features used by groups of people to examine how social factors influence language choices.
William Labov (1927-present day), an American psychologist, is widely considered the founder of sociolinguistics. Labov drew on linguistics, sociology, psychology, and anthropology to apply a scientific approach to the study of language varieties.
Example of sociolinguistics
Let's look at an interesting example.
African American Vernacular English (AAVE)
AAVE is a variety of English spoken predominantly by black Americans. The variety has its own unique linguistic structures, including grammar, syntax, and lexicon. In the case of AAVE, there are variations in the language due to ethnicity, geographical location, and social class. Because of the effect of these social factors on AAVE, it is considered an ethnolect, a dialect, and a sociolect (don’t worry, we’ll cover these terms shortly!).
Historically, AAVE has been deemed a ‘low-prestige dialect’ and therefore accused of being ‘bad English’. However, many linguists argue that this is not the case, and that AAVE should be considered a fully-fledged English variety in its own right. Others have taken this idea further and argue that AAVE should be considered its own language, which they have called Ebonics.
In more recent years, common words from AAVE have been making their way into the ‘mainstream’ thanks to social media, and you may even be using AAVE without realising it. For example, the word ‘woke’ has grown in popularity since 2015. However, the term is not new and was initially used by black Americans in the 1940s to mean ‘stay awake’ to racial injustices.
Sociolinguists may be interested in how the use of AAVE has recently started creeping into the lexicon of teenagers from all different geographical, racial, and class backgrounds. Have you heard the terms ‘she money’ ‘I’m finna…’ ‘slay’ or ‘on fleek’? They all originate from AAVE!
Sociolinguistics analysis: factors affecting sociolinguistics
As we have said, sociolinguistics studies the social factors that influence how people use language, including their grammar, accents, and lexical choices. The main social factors are:
- Geographical location
- Our parents/carers
- Socioeconomic status - class and education level
Let’s take a look at some of these factors in more detail.
Where you grew up can significantly impact how you speak. Linguists refer to these variations in language as dialects. In the UK, dialects vary from region to region and often have different pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary compared to Standard British English. Some common UK dialects include Geordie (found in Newcastle), Scouse (found in Liverpool), and Cockney (found in London).
Your occupation can impact how you use language. For example, a computer programmer would be far more likely to use tech jargon than a chef. Jargon is a kind of slang specific to a workplace or small group and is often difficult for people outside the group to understand. An example of tech jargon is the term ‘Unicorn’, which refers to a start-up company valued at over $1 billion.
What other occupations do you think have their own jargon?
This factor is a little more controversial than the others as there is a lot of conflicting research around the differences between men and women’s use of language. Some researchers suggest that differences in speech are due to genetics, whereas others think that women’s lower status in society has had an impacted on their use of language.
Some studies have found that women tend to be more polite and expressive, and men tend to be more direct. Other studies have shown that men swear more, and women are more likely to use ‘caretaker speech’ (speech modified to talk to young children) as they are often the primary caregivers.
New words are added to the dictionary every year, and many words that were once common fall out of use. This is because language is constantly changing. Think about your grandparents or someone significantly older than you. Do you think they would understand if you told them that the email they received looked suss (suspicious/suspect)? What do you think they would say if you said their outfit was cheugy?
Did you know the word cheugy was created by Gabby Rasson, an American software developer, to describe things that were no longer deemed cool or fashionable? Cheugy was Collins dictionary’s 2021 second word of the year.
Age is a social factor that will have an impact on language use.
This typically refers to a person’s class. According to a recent survey, there are now seven social classes in the UK: precariat (precarious proletariat), emergent service workers, traditional working-class, new affluent workers, technical middle class, established middle class, and elite. The language someone uses will likely differ significantly depending on their socioeconomic status. This can all be linked to the education they received, the people they choose to spend time with (or can afford to spend time with), the job that they do, or how much money they have.
Sociolinguists have long argued that there is a relationship between ethnicity and language uses. The previous example of AAVE shows how ethnicity can affect language.
Elements of sociolinguistics
In this section, we are not discussing the social factors that sociolinguists study, but the technical terms that feed into sociolinguistics.
Here are some key definitions of terms in sociolinguistics.
Language variation - An umbrella term for all variations in a language. Language varieties are often referred to as ‘lects’, which are laid out below.
Dialect - a language variety based on geographical location.
Sociolect - a language variety based on social factors, such as age, gender, or class.
Idiolect - a language variety that is specific and unique to an individual.
Ethnolect - a language variety specific to a particular ethnic group.
Further key terms include:
Accent - how our voices sound, usually due to where we live.
Register - how we change the language we use depending on our circumstances eg. formal vs. casual speech.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these terms.
Varieties of language can develop for various reasons, such as social background, geographical location, age, class, etc. The English language is an exciting example as there are so many different variations all around the world. Have you heard of the terms Singlish (Singaporean English) or Chinglish (Chinese English)? These are all different varieties of English that have arisen due to the global spread of English. In fact, there are so many different varieties of English that the term ‘standard English’ has become quite a controversial term among linguists.
People from different geographical regions may have different words for the same thing.
Language variation can also be broken down into ‘lects’. These include dialect, sociolect, idiolect, and ethnolect.
Dialect in sociolinguistics
Dialect refers to language varieties that are specific to particular geographical locations. Think about how someone from the North of England sounds different to someone from the South, or how someone from the West coast of the USA sounds different to someone from the East coast. Although these people all speak the same language (English), the accent, lexicon, and grammar they use can vary greatly. The variations help contribute to the formation of dialects.
Take a look at the following phrases. What do you think they mean, and which dialect do you think they belong to, Geordie, Scouse, or Cockney?
- New webs
- Giz a deek
- Rosie (Rosy) Lee
New webs = New trainers in Scouse
Giz a deek = Let’s have a look in Geordie
Rosie (Rosy) Lee = Cup of tea in Cockney rhyming slang
Sociolect in sociolinguistics
A sociolect is a language variety spoken by a particular social group or social class. The term sociolect is a combination of the words social and dialect.
Sociolects typically develop among groups of people who share the same social environments or backgrounds. Social factors that influence sociolects include socioeconomic status, age, occupation, race, and gender.
Bob Marley’s hit song 'No woman, no cry ' is a good example of sociolect in action. Although Marley was an English speaker, he often sang in Jamaican patois, a sociolect that borrows from English and West African languages and is often associated with the rural working class.
In patois, Marley’s song title roughly translates to ‘Woman, don’t cry’. However, it has long been misunderstood by those unaware of the sociolect, to mean something like ‘if there’s no woman, there’s no reason to cry’.
Individuals don’t just have one sociolect, and most people will use several different sociolects throughout their lives. Our speech will likely change depending on who we talk to and where we are.
Idiolect in sociolinguistics
Idiolect refers to an individual’s personal use of language. The term is a combination of the Greek idio (personal) and lect (as in dialect) and was coined by the linguist Bernard Bloch.
Idiolects are unique to the individual, and constantly change as individuals move through life. Idiolects are dependent on social factors (just like sociolects), current environments, education, friendship groups, hobbies and interests, and so much more. In fact, your idiolect is directly influenced by almost every aspect of your life.
Imagine the following scenarios and consider how each situation might affect your idiolect.
You spend a year abroad working in Germany.
You binge-watch an entire American Netflix series.
You begin an internship at a law firm.
You become best friends with someone whose native language is Mandarin.
In these scenarios you may find yourself saying Danke instead of thanks, using more up-speak (rising inflection), using some legal jargon, and cursing in Mandarin.
Much like sociolects, each individual uses different idiolects depending on their environment, choosing which version of their language they deem most appropriate.
Ethnolect in sociolinguistics
An ethnolect is a variety of a language used by a specific ethnic group. The term ethnolect comes from a combination of ethnic group and dialect. It is commonly used to describe the variation of English that non-native English speaking immigrants use in the USA.
African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a good example of an ethnolect.
Accent refers to an individual’s pronunciation, which is usually associated with their geographical location, ethnicity, or social class. Accents typically differ in pronunciation, vowel and consonant sounds, word stress, and prosody (the stress and intonation patterns in a language).
Our accents can tell people a lot about who we are and often play a significant role in our identity formation. Many sociolinguists are interested in studying accent discrimination and have found that non-native English speakers are often discriminated against for their ‘non-standard’ accents (Beinhoff, 2013)¹. Similar discrimination can also be found in the UK, with Northern accents receiving less airtime on British TV than Southern accents.
Remember we said that most people use multiple sociolects and idiolects depending on where they are and who they are talking to? Well, that is an individual's register.
Register is the way people adapt their language in accordance with what they deem most appropriate for the situation they are in. Think about the way you speak when you are with your friends compared to when you are at work. Register doesn’t just apply to the spoken word but often changes when we write. The most common differences in written register are formal versus informal writing. Think about how you would write an instant message compared to an academic essay.
The work of sociolinguists
Sociolinguists study the relationship between language and society. They are interested in finding patterns in speech, understanding why our speech differs, and identifying the social functions of language.
Sociolinguists focus on the quantitative and qualitative analysis of language variations, making it a scientific discipline.
An important research method in sociolinguistics is discourse analysis. Discourse analysis is the analysis of both written and spoken language (discourse) in its social context. Sociolinguists use discourse analysis as a tool to understand language patterns.
Types of sociolinguistics
There are two main types of sociolinguistics: interactional and variationist sociolinguistics.
Interactional sociolinguistics studies how people use language in face-to-face interactions. It has a specific focus on how people manage social identities and social activities as they interact.
Variationist sociolinguistics is interested in how and why variations arise.
Language and identity in sociolinguistics
Studying sociolinguistics can reveal how our identity is bound to our use of language because of gender, race, class, occupation, age, and where we live.
Sociolinguistics can help us understand ourselves as individuals or as members of larger social groups. It can also highlight how language can be used as an identity marker and help us feel a part of a larger community. Many theorists view our language, including our word choice, accents, syntax, and even intonation, as inexorably linked to our sense of identity.
Suggested further reading on language and identity: Omoniyi & White, The Sociolinguistics of Identity, 2009.
Sociolinguistics - Key takeaways
- Sociolinguistics is the study of the sociological aspects of language and is interested in society’s effect on language.
- William Labov (1927-present day), an American psychologist, is widely considered the founder of sociolinguistics.
- Social factors that can influence our language include: geographical location, gender, our parents/carers, race, age, and socioeconomic status.
- Sociolinguistics is interested in understanding language variation. Varieties within language include dialects, sociolects, idiolects, ethnolects, accents, and registers.
- Sociolinguistics is widely considered a scientific discipline and sociolinguists utilise quantitative and qualitative research methods to study language use.
- B. Beinhoff, Perceiving Identity through Accent: Attitudes towards Non-Native Speakers and their Accents in English. 2013
What is the definition and example of sociolinguistics? ›
Sociolinguistics is the study of language and how it is affected by a variety of factors like region, social class, and gender. When conducting their studies, sociolinguists often participate in ethnography research, which is the study of culture and social patterns, including speech patterns.What are the types of sociolinguistics? ›
There are two branches of sociolinguistics which approach this issue in different ways. These two branches are interactionist and variationist sociolinguistics.What is sociolinguistics best definition? ›
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.What are the 4 types of language? ›
These include morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics and phonology.What are examples of social language? ›
- Posture and body language.
- Facial expressions.
- Maintaining appropriate proximity to a speaker.
- Maintaining eye contact and attention.
- Staying on topic.
- Taking turns appropriately in a conversation.
- Appropriate listening behaviors.
Sociolinguistics is the descriptive study of the effect of any or all aspects of society, including cultural norms, expectations, and context, on the way language is used, and society's effect on language. It can overlap with the sociology of language, which focuses on the effect of language on society.