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What is Sociolinguistics?

The study of the many ways language and society intersect is known as sociolinguistics. The field combines sociology, psychology, anthropology and more.

Social Identity
Language is a social behavior that speaks volumes about who we are.

Managing Language
The need to  manage multilingual resources is more pronounced than ever.

What is Sociolinguistics?
A field that observes rather than prescribes language use.

william labov

William Labov, the founder of modern sociolinguistics, shares his personal reflections.

To help us understand what sociolinguistics is all about, Connie Eble suggests we begin by reviewing some of the many questions sociolinguists try to answer through observation and experimentation. These questions include:

  1. Which features of language behavior are people conscious of using? Which are below the level of their conscious awareness?
  2. To what extent do individuals and groups use language to define themselves or to set themselves apart?
  3. What factors cause individuals or groups to change their language in order to sound either similar to or different from others?
  4. In what observable ways do individuals and groups change the features of their language and the ways in which they use language?
  5. What factors inhibit or promote the extinction, rise or maintenance of local varieties of languages?
  6. What factors cause listeners to perceive one type of language as higher in status than another?
  7. Do men and women, boys and girls use language differently?
  8. Do adults change their language and the way they use it as they grow older?
  9. How does education affect the features of language that people use?
  10. How do social networks affect language?
  11. What type of speaker and what type of group initiate linguistic change?
  12. What social mechanisms help a new feature of language take hold and spread?
  13. What features of language do people vary according to their social situation?
  14. What attitudes do people have towards regional dialects and foreign accents?
  15. What happens when people wish or need to interact with people who speak another language?
  16. What factors support or inhibit bilingualism?
  17. In what ways is linguistic behavior subject to control? By whom?
  18. How do social conflicts and tensions, such as racism, affect language?
  19. How do radio, television, films and popular entertainment affect language?
  20. How does discourse (connected stretches of speech or writing) differ from one group to another?

An important feature of sociolinguistics is its commitment to observing and reporting on language, rather than prescribing how to use it. This style of language study is known as descriptivism. Read Dr. Eble's Essay

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Chaika, Elaine. (1994). Language: The Social Mirror. 3rd ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
  • Coulmas, Florian, ed. (1997). The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Macaulay, Ronald K. S. (1994). The Social Art: Language and Its Uses. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Trudgill, Peter. (1995). Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. London: Penguin Books.
  • Wardhaugh, Ronald. (2002). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. 4th ed. Cambridge: Blackwell.
  • Wolfram, Walt and Natalie Schilling-Estes. (1998). American English. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • An Intro to Sociolinguistics, a primer from the University of Oregon.
Connie Eble is Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she has taught for more than thirty years. She is also Editor of American Speech, the quarterly journal of the American Dialect Society. Her book Slang and Sociability (University of North Carolina Press, 1996) reports her study of the slang of American college students. She has recently completed terms as president of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association and the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States. Her current research project is a study of the loss of French in Louisiana in the first part of the nineteenth century.

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National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York