four women chatting while sitting on bench. Sociolinguistics

The basic notion underlying sociolinguistics is quite simple: Language use symbolically represents fundamental dimensions of social behavior and human interaction. The notion is simple, but the ways in which language reflects behavior can often be complex and subtle.

Sociolinguists study 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. For instance, what people say, how, why, where, and to whom. People’s communication differs based on whom they are talking to. For example, communication between individuals and their employers differs from communication with their colleagues.

There are seven criteria that are useful in discussing different kinds of languages. According to Bell, these criteria (standardization, vitality, historicity, autonomy, reduction, mixture, and de facto norms) distinguish certain languages from others.

While sociolinguists primarily investigate the relationship between social parameters and language-internal variation. Anthropological-linguistic studies focus on the relationship between cultural aspects and cross-linguistic variation. Examples of sociolinguistic study include gendered language differences, regional differences, and how social class impacts language use.

Origin of the term

William Labov (born December 4, 1927) is an American linguist. Most linguists regard him as the founder of the discipline of variationist sociolinguistics. Critics described as “an enormously original and influential figure who has created much of the methodology” of sociolinguistics.

The three fundamental concepts of sociolinguistics

Dialects, Register, & Style. Sociolinguists place their attention on three key areas when trying to understand how languages vary: dialects, register, and style. Dialects are the variations in how various regional groups or social groups speak a language.

Related: Syntax

What is the difference between psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics?

Psycholinguistics focuses on the cognitive process involved in the process of language acquisition. While sociolinguistics focuses on the study of languages in social context, establishing a correlation between linguistic behavior and socio-situational context.

What is pragmatic vs sociolinguistic?

Sociolinguistics focuses on how certain native speakers of a language talk differently from other users of the langauge because of the spcial groups they belong to. Pragmatics focuses on how all native speakers of a language make sense out of the language by using connections to the context around them.


Contact is an important concept in sociolinguistics — social contact and language contact. Language change spreads through networks of people who talk with one another.  Tight-knit groupsthat keep to themselves tend not to promote change.  Networks whose members also belong to other networks tend to promote change. People can live next door to one another and not participate in the same network. In the segregated South, blacks and whites often lived on the same piece of land; blacks worked in the homes of whites. The physical distance was minimal, but the great social distance led to different varieties of American English.

Bilingualism is another response to language contact. In the United States, large numbers of non-English speaking immigrants arrived in the late 19th century. Typically, their children were bilingual and their grandchildren were monolingual speakers of English. When the two languages are not kept separate in function, speakers can intersperse phrases from one into the other, which we call code switching. Speakers may also develop a dialect of one language that is heavily influenced by features of the other language, such as the contemporary American dialect Chicano English.

Related: Can children forget their native language?

What is dialect?

Sociolinguists also study dialect — any regional, social or ethnic variety of a language. By that definition, the English taught in school as correct and used in non-personal writing is only one dialect of contemporary American English.

Standard American English or Edited American English, is the dialect I used in this article.

Sociolinguistic Questions

The examples below have all concerned pronunciation, but language also varies in vocabulary, grammar and use. Scholars are currently using a sociolinguistic perspective to answer some intriguing questions about language in the United States, including these:

A) Which speakers in urban areas of the North are changing the pronunciation of vowels in a systematic way? Some speakers in Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago pronounce bat so that it sounds like bet and bet so that it sounds like but. Linguists call these patterned alterations the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.

B) Which features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) grammar are middle-class white teenagers who admire contemporary African-American music, entertainment and clothing using? White adolescents might speak approvingly of the style of a peer by saying she money or he be jammin’ — sentence structures we associate with African Americans.

Related: Semantics

C) Which stereotypical local pronunciations are exaggerated to show local allegiance? Such language behavior has been pointed out recently for Pittsburgh, New Orleans and the barrier islands off North Carolina known as the Outer Banks. At the end of the 20th century, connections between the isolated Outer Banks and the greater world increased. This changed the local seafood industry and made the Outer Banks a destination for a growing number of tourists. Using the typical way that the natives pronounce the vowel in the words high and tide, these North Carolinians are called Hoi Toiders. They continue to use this distinctive vowel even though in other ways their dialect is becoming more like other American dialects.

D) What will be the linguistic impact of the impending loss of monolingual French speakers in the Acadian, or Cajun, region of southern Louisiana? What are the traces of French in Cajun Vernacular English, the dialect of monolingual speakers of English who consider themselves Cajun? Will these French features be sustained?

E) What slang terms do students use to show affiliation with subgroups of their peers and to distinguish themselves from their parents’ generation? In 2002, for example, university students in North Carolina described things that were great, pleasing or favorable as cool, hype, money, phat, tight or sweet — but definitely not swell.

Related: Proto-Languages

F) Variation in language is not helter-skelter. It is systematic. For instance, a speaker may sometimes pronounce the word mind to sound just like mine through a process called consonant cluster reduction. Pronunciation of the final –nd consonant cluster as –n tends to occur before consonants; i.e., the speaker’s choice of saying mine instead of mind is conditioned by a feature of the language itself (whether or not a consonant sound follows the word).

For instance, a speaker is likely to say “I wouldn’t mind owning a BMW” (with both n and d pronounced before o), but “I wouldn’t mine borrowing your BMW” (with nd reduced to n before b). Variation also correlates with social factors outside of language. For example, Appalachian working-class speakers reduce consonant clusters more often than northern Anglo-American working class speakers and working-class African Americans, regardless of their region, reduce consonant clusters more frequently than do other working-class speakers.

Thus, the occurrence of final consonant cluster reduction is conditioned internally by its position in the speech stream and externally by the social factors of socioeconomic class and ethnicity. Another example of an internal linguistic variable is the pronunciation of the words spelled pen, ten and Ben so that they sound as if they were spelled pin, tin and bin. This variable correlates with being Southern, regardless of age, gender, socio-economic class or ethnicity. However, among Southerners, the pronunciation of ask as if it were spelled ax correlates with ethnicity, because the pronunciation is used most often (but not exclusively) by African Americans. Another pronunciation variant that correlates with a social category is heard in New Orleans.

Related: Applied linguistics

In working-class neighborhoods, words spelled with oi are often pronounced as if spelled er. For these speakers, then, the word point rhymes with weren’t. Age is another social variable. In North Carolina, elderly speakers often pronounce duke, stupid and newspaper with a y-sound before the vowel. Instead of the common pronunciations dook, stoopid, and nooz for these words, they say dyuke, styupid, and nyuz. (This is basically the difference all English speakers make between the words food and feud; feud has a y-sound before the vowel.) Speakers born after World War II seldom use this pronunciation.

Vocabulary and Colloquialism

Vocabulary sometimes varies by region Vocabulary sometimes varies by region. The expression lost bread to refer to French toast is a translation of French pain perdu, part of the vocabulary of southern Louisiana. Other vocabulary is not regional but rather is old-fashioned, such as frock for ‘a woman’s dress’ or tarry for ‘wait.’ Some vocabulary may vary by degree of formality, as in the choice among the words barf, upchuck, vomit and regurgitate.

Colloquialism is informal, everyday language that is used by a specific geographical region. For example, “soccer” is a colloquial term in America for “football,” a colloquial term in the UK. See other idioms here!

Grammatical constructions also vary. In the Midland region of the United States, speakers use a construction called positive anymore, as in “Anymore you see round bales of hay in the fields.” In other regions, speakers would say, “Nowadays you see round bales of hay in the field.” A grammatical variation associated with AAVE omits the verb be, as in “The teacher in the classroom.” Another variation that is widespread in spoken American English is the double negative, as in “We don’t want no more construction on this road.” Such sentences are not Standard American English.  

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