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Sociolinguistics  Index

What is Sociolinguistics?

Sociolinguistics Basics

Language is basic to social interactions, affecting them and being affected by them. Connie Eble of the University of North Carolina explains how the field of sociolinguistics analyzes the many ways in which language and society intersect.
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Homo sapiens is a social creature. Language is what allows us to be social creatures; to form personal relationships; to have successful interactions; to create, develop and change our societies and institutions. Language is so basic to our social interactions that it both affects them and is affected by them.

Sociolinguistics is the study of how language serves and is shaped by the social nature of human beings. In its broadest conception, sociolinguistics analyzes the many and diverse ways in which language and society entwine. This vast field of inquiry requires and combines insights from a number of disciplines, including linguistics, sociology, psychology and anthropology.

To understand what sociolinguistics is all about, it may help simply to review a list of some of the many questions that sociolinguists try to answer by means of observation and experimentation. These 20 questions are designed to illustrate the scope of the field.

  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 from others?
  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?

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Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Chaika, Elaine. Language: The Social Mirror. 3rd ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1994. 
  • Coulmas, Florian, ed. The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
  • Macaulay, Ronald K. S. The Social Art: Language and Its Uses. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Trudgill, Peter. Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
  • Wardhaugh, Ronald. An introduction to sociolinguistics. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992.
  • Wolfram, Walt. Dialects and American English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991. (reissued by Basil Blackwell in 1998 as American English: Dialects and variation).
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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