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Sociolinguistics is the systematic study of the social uses of language. It proceeds by observing the way people use language in different social settings. People adjust their vocabulary, sounds, and syntax depending upon who they are speaking to and the circumstances of the conversation. Such adjustments are often linguistically subtle and socially meticulous and largely subconscious. They are not taught or consciously learned, but are part of the innate linguistic competence of all normal people.
Philosophers have always recognized that socialization is the primary function of language. Yet linguistic research into its social significance is relatively recent, having emerged as an international movement only in the second half of the twentieth century. Sociolinguistics extends social science methods to the venerable study of language, which since Plato has been conceived as the abstract study of the combinatorial possibilities of parts of speech (syntax) and speech sounds (phonology).
Around 1960, linguists began tracking social variables in speech acts, such as the age, sex, and social class of the participants, and correlating them with dependent linguistic variables.
Variation in language is socially motivated and linguistically insignificant. To take a simple example, it is possible in English to say either John doesn’t need any help or John doesn’t need no help. Those two sentences convey the same linguistic meaning and both are readily understood by anyone who speaks the language. Linguistically, they are perfect paraphrases. Socially, however, they are not equivalent at all, with the former deemed to be correct, educated, standard usage, and the latter, though it differs by only one small word, deemed to be incorrect, uneducated, or rustic.
Social factors largely determine the linguistic realization of speech acts. Janitors speak differently to lawyers in the office block than they do among themselves, and vice versa. Young mothers meeting by chance at the local doctor’s office chat to one another more familiarly than they do to elderly neighbors in the same situation. Men and women in sex-exclusive domains such as locker rooms tend to slant both the topics of their conversation and their speech styles in different ways.
In modern industrial societies the speech of the educated middle class in capital cities tends to gain acceptance as the national norm and get codified (in somewhat idealized form) in dictionaries, grammar books, and usage guides. Working-class varieties typically differ from the standard dialect both grammatically and phonologically, and the differences are socially stratified, so that they become greater down the social hierarchy, with lower working class more different from the standard than middle working class, and so on. Within social classes, women tend to use fewer stigmatized and nonstandard features than men, a robust difference that apparently holds in all complex societies. The age groups at the social extremes also tend to differ most from the standard, with the oldest groups preserving some features that have become archaic or old-fashioned in the dialect, and adolescents accelerating changes and adopting innovations at a greater rate than their elders.
Adjustments in style are usually explicable in terms of self-monitoring. As social settings become more casual, participants become less self-conscious about their behavior. Linguistically, they use more vernacular variants. This explanation presupposes that the vernacular is more natural than standard speech, more relaxed, and presumably more deeply embedded in the language faculty. Under special circumstances, stylistic adjustments are highly self-conscious, as when a white adolescent adopts African American features with his peers (called ”crossing,” Rampton 1995), or an adult with social airs adopts features of the higher social class (called “aspirers,” Chambers 2003: 1015). Self-conscious adjustments like these attract attention and are sometimes subject to criticism, whereas style-shifting toward the vernacular in casual settings generally goes unnoticed.
Sociolinguistics has discovered nuances such as social subcategories and age-graded changes in coming to grips with the manifold ways in which interacting variables of class, sex, age, ethnicity, and style affect the way people speak. For the first time, a branch of linguistics studies grammar and phonology as they are enacted in the service of communication. Sociolinguistics is necessarily variant, continuous, and quantitative, and in all those respects it differs from older branches of linguistics. For centuries, thinking people have recognized, at least tacitly, that our speech expresses who we are and how we relate to the social setting, as well as what is on our minds. The social uses of language are so deeply engrained in our human nature that they were thought to be beyond human comprehension, as were consciousness and genetic coding. Like them, when sociolinguistics came into being in the second half of the twentieth century, its very existence represented an assault on the presumed limits of knowledge. Also like them it made rapid progress, a consequence undoubtedly of the fact that there was everything to learn. It is now firmly established as a core area in the study of language.
- Chambers, J. K. (2003) Sociolinguistic Theory: Linguistic Variation and Its Social Significance, 2nd edn. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Rampton, B. (1995) Crossing: Language and Ethnicity among Adolescents. Longman, New York.