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