Of the many fields of language study, sociolinguistics is one that provides understanding regarding the choices that people make to communicate with one another, to form communities, and to establish their personal identities in society. Sociolinguistics is a field in which communication, especially oral communication, is observed and documented in order to discover not only the nature and kinds of information that humans attempt to share but the manner in which they share it. Unlike the work of formal linguistics that strives to classify and describe the component forms of language, sociolinguistics attempts to characterize the ways that people use language in specific situations in a social context.
The Science of Linguistics and the Birth of Sociolinguistics
In the 19th century, the study of human language was an area of interest for philosophers and classical philologists. Much of the theorizing about language was done by researchers from Western Europe, and they took interest in comparative studies of language history relying upon the writings of the ancient philosophers, especially Socrates and Plato. As societies developed, and more and more nations enabled the education of their peoples in literacy, there was a renewed respect for the classical languages and the works of the philosophers who addressed language issues. Thus, the philologists continued to be driven to compare and contrast language as history, using their gleanings from ancient philosophy and literature. Their study was one in which the lives of the people who used language were considered secondary to understanding the actual language characteristics themselves. However, studies in anthropology, particularly those of Charles Darwin, sparked curiosity for finding different approaches to understanding the role that language plays in the development of peoples.
Ferdinand de Saussure
Language researchers acknowledge the theories of a Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), as having provided a revolution in thought regarding the study of languages that led to the growth of linguistics as a science and the development of the field of sociolinguistics in the 20th century. Although he did not write down his ideas in any lengthy pieces of text, the dissemination of his class lectures by his students after he died enabled linguists to take a look at the manner in which they had been approaching language study up to the end of the 19th century and to consider what Saussure thought was most important: language is a means for the communication of thoughts and ideas by individuals who belong to communities in which they developed their language; individuals gain an understanding of reality through social use of the language they know.
The Course in General Linguistics of Saussure continues to be read and cited to this day, and some linguists state that because of Saussure a tremendous shift, a Copernican revolution, occurred in the study of language and society. Saussure’s theories caused the end of what was termed a Socratic tradition of linguistic thought. Instead of framing the study of language as governed by a set of rules that are applied to some word or statement all by itself, Saussure emphasized that language was a structured system that could be understood scientifically by watching how individuals in a community used it at given points in time, synchronically. Linguists have classified the Saussurean approach to language as holistic and one of structuralism.
Language Evolution and Change
Saussure was only two years old when Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, and linguists in the early 20th century commented that Saussure’s position about language change and evolution showed that he was aware of Darwin’s theories. Saussure observed that it was important to understand the history of how some human languages evolve while others decay, given the nature of language for communication within societies and communities. He called it a natural sequence, referring to his view of looking at language change historically, diachronically. Therefore, Saussure’s theory included a dimension of studying the language use of individuals in society (synchronic) and a dimension of studying language change in history (diachronic).
The Growth of Sociolinguistics
Although the seeds of sociolinguistics were planted at the turn of the 20th century, the term was not used until the early 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a considerable body of work undertaken by individuals that might be considered the godparents of the field. Although many of the researchers were from cultures in the West, individuals from developing nations throughout the world began studying sociolinguistics for the sake of understanding their peoples and the ways that language use influenced the growth of their nations.
Sociolinguistic research has covered a broad range of topics including: the study of politeness forms (e.g., God bless you; hello; bye-bye), high and low languages (e.g., speech used in the courtroom and speech used at home), the cultural interpretation of silence in Native American tribes, nonstandard English, language use and social status, turn-taking in conversation, pidgins and creoles, gender differences in speech, and language dialects. In the latter decades of the 20th century, social uses of language became a major curiosity in popular American culture as Deborah Tannen published her research about communication between the genders and communication in the workplace.
Sociolinguistics as a Process
Those who call themselves sociolinguists are researchers who want to know how individuals communicate in particular contexts such as the political arena, in sports, in Web logs, or in courts of law. A second important role, shared by another group of linguists in the field of anthropological linguistics, is to characterize how languages develop and change, and how and why some languages become extinct. This role is one that depends upon learning about the structure of societies and the changes that take place as societies interact with each other.
Scientists who are involved in sociolinguistic studies typically employ ethnographic research designs. Their research incorporates much fieldwork and the documentation of language behavior that helps to answer particular research questions. What characterizes an ethnography of communication is that the use of language in general is related to specific social and cultural values. Anthropologist Dell Hymes is considered the father of this approach to sociolinguistic research.
Studying Language Use
In the 1960s, Hymes was concerned that as linguists and anthropologists studied human characteristics, each of the groups was missing important areas that might explain aspects of culture and society. He thought that linguists were becoming too focused on describing language forms and structures, and he thought that anthropologists considered language as a secondary entity to getting answers about other things of cultural interest (e.g., about medicine and curing).
Hymes proposed that a paradigm such as one on the ethnography of speaking would help both groups of scientists to get a fuller picture of their areas of study. For example, Basso studied the use of speech and the refraining from speaking in Western Apache tribes of east-central Arizona. In his time with these Native Americans, he was able to document and interpret the decision-making processes that individuals used in their conversations by applying an ethnography of communication. He added to the growing body of sociolinguistic knowledge, calling attention to the differences in interactions where individuals judiciously decide when it is appropriate to speak and when silence is important. From Basso’s engagements with members of the Apache tribes, he documented conversations for several social contexts including courtship and being with people who are sad. Basso saw that silence is an acceptable behavior in Apache culture and one that is never curtailed by any participating individual in particular collaborative settings. In this culture, a person is silent because he perceives his relationship to be ambiguous or unpredictable in that setting. Basso explains that knowledge of the positioning of silence can help inform research regarding conversational behaviors and tempos in other societies, and comparative studies would provide additional information to the field of sociolinguistics.
Speech Communities and Language Varieties
Sociolinguistics involves the study of individuals in settings of language exchange, and the environments in which individuals develop their communication abilities usually includes members of a society or group beyond that of the family. This social group is sometimes characterized as a speech community.
Crystal defines a speech community as a cluster of speakers that can be quite tiny or involve whole nations, or cross several nations in a common geographic area where there is a shared spoken language or language variety. In the latter case (i.e., the language variety), the group of individuals may use a particular system of communication within their native language that might be derived from common factors such as an occupation, a regional situation, or a social class. A variety might also be a distinctive language that has developed within a religious group, a formal or conversational group, or a scientific group, to name just a few examples.
Sociolinguistics is especially interested in the study of the social dynamics that are involved when there are language varieties in speech communities that might appear to cause the stratification of society, or might indicate a division between and among groups of individuals within the society. Other considerations include concern for conversational variation and linkage of language varieties among individuals due to differences in occupations, professions, or social context. The term register is used to describe the ways that individuals use language depending upon who is in the conversation group. For example, a store clerk performs her job by using a particular speech register to guide a customer to a clothing rack, but at the bus stop after work she converses with that customer quite differently. A CEO uses one register to speak to his managers at work and another register while attending a sporting event with them.
MacNeil and Cran provide an elaborate ethnographical mosaic that answers many questions regarding the dynamics of American English across the United States in a wide variety of speech communities. Popular comments and informal theories about the influences of media culture upon the American public seemed to predict that language was becoming homogeneous, that there is one, singular, American English, but these researchers discovered significant diversity, individual choice, and creativity.
For example, they comment on the role that the Valspeak of California has played in the common speech of teenagers and young adults across America; the possibilities for transmitting real speech patterns, dialects, and accents in new technology and the implications to human interactions with computer generated speech and synthetic faces; the dominance of English and the loss of Spanish in the Mexican American community.
Beyond the study of language in a defined speech community, there are situations in which individuals might use more than one language variety in the same language across speech communities. This is an especially well-studied area of sociolinguistics. Ferguson is credited for calling attention to this dynamic, which he termed diglossia. In his classic article, he gives an example of the Christian Arabs in Baghdad who speak a variety of Christian Arabic when they are together and speak a more general form of Muslim Arabic when they are in a mixed group. What is interesting about diglossic situations is that the language varieties exist side by side, and may have been maintained over long periods of history, over several centuries. These language varieties are not merely stages on the way toward a more common form of language. They are distinct, persisting variations that are accepted forms within their speech communities.
Historically, some diglossic situations are characterized as high and low usages of speech and language. Although these variations are sometimes referred to as dialects, they differ from standard dialects because there may be grammatically complex differences between two diglossic varieties and not just differences in speech characteristics. This can be somewhat understood as a distinction between formal speech and a vernacular. In the case of China, for example, there are a great number of language varieties in existence with so many low varieties that they are sometimes characterized as separate languages.
As societies advance economically, enhance education, and promote literacy, and as communication increases among members of speech communities in the society, diglossic language varieties tend to disappear. In some societies, when the community becomes aware of the multiplicity of language varieties, there are political discussions and movements to unify the language of the community and accept only one of the forms as the main language.
Pidgins and Creoles
A category of languages that is a source of considerable research by linguists, and especially by sociolinguists, includes pidgins and creoles. These are derivatives from interactions between groups of people with two very different languages, as in the case of French explorers trying to communicate with individuals in the Ivory Coast. Fasold explains that the role that pidgins play in revealing how human languages are created and evolve is particularly important for sociolinguistics but also requires characterization by formal linguists. As sociolinguists have characterized these two language varieties, other linguists have become curious in their own fields of study. These include studies of child language development, studies of nonstandard English, and studies of the innateness of language in human beings.
Advances in media communication have helped to make people aware of societies other than their own that at one time received little recognition except from researchers. In the United States, from the date September 11, 2001, citizens have become accustomed to hearing and pronouncing the names of individuals from predominantly Muslim nations and learning about cultures in the Middle and Near East. There is a growing awareness around the world of how men and women live in countries in these regions and concern about political and economic change in countries that were seldom studied in detail in schools in the West. The tsunami disaster in Indonesia in December 2004 enabled societies around the world to connect and to try to understand the struggles of the affected nations in that part of the world. The field of sociolinguistics will continue to provide interpretations of the language interactions across the wide variety of existing social contexts, those that evolve in the 21st century.
- Fasold, R. (1990). Sociolinguistics of language. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Ferguson, C. A. (1996). Socio-linguistic perspectives (T. Huebner, Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- MacNeil, R., & Cran, W. (2005). Do you speak American? New York: Doubleday.
- Tannen, D. (1991). You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation. New York: Ballantine