Many disciplines in the social sciences and humanities systematically study language, each having its own theoretical foundations, goals, and research traditions. The resulting landscape is a maze of paths that start and then split off either to reemerge as hybrids combined with other specialties or to reach a dead end. For instance, psychology and anthropology joined with structural functional analysis to take a linguistic turn during the 1970s in the form of structuralism that, some believe, reached a dead end with post-structuralism. On the other hand, a team of 10 scholars (half linguists and half sociologists) spent 8 weeks of joint study at the 1964 Summer Linguistic Institute to purposefully give shape to a new field that was to be called sociolinguistics. Since that meeting, the number of publications, courses, and conferences that combine linguistic and sociological goals exploded and currently operates under the bifurcated categories of “sociolinguistics” and “sociology of language use.”
Linguistic Universals Versus Variation
A major theoretical departure in the study of language pits linguistic universality against variation with its sociological counterpart found in theories of the relationship between influences of structure and agency. Within the former, the distinction can be traced to the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a Swiss linguist whose main contributions were made through the published interpretations of former students after his death. Saussure argued that languages are complete systems with two distinct layers: langue and parole. Langue is the consistent and complex template of a language that is possible due to the innate predisposition to knowledge of grammar that only humans possess. Langue is composed of systematic pairings of labels and their meanings called “signs.” A sign is the association between a signifier (label) and a signified (object or concept), and meaning is found in the relationship of signs to each other. Once acquired, the association between signified and signifier is taken for granted as being natural and irreversible.
Parole, on the other hand, is the historically and culturally variable manifestation of langue. At the level of parole, signs are relative and arbitrary. The association between signifier and signified is relative in the sense that tree and arbre are culturally distinct labels used to represent a similar concept. For Saussure, the substance and form of signs are also arbitrary. In other words, reality is divided and categorized differently in different cultures, resulting in variable linguistic forms. For instance, the language system of Inuits has far more signs for snow than do languages in climates where the distinctions are less critical. Representations that address such a fine array of differentiation allow people to reflect on and communicate important facets of their culture. Conversely, a lack of representation precludes reflection or communication of concepts that have not been linguistically noted in a culture. For Saussure, by the time individuals reach maturity, a complete langue has been acquired and it becomes nearly impossible to separate the signifier from the signified (i.e., the label from the concept). Consequently, words and thoughts become one. Although originally created at the level of parole, once language is established, it becomes autonomous and the autonomy of the subject is undermined or lost entirely.
Noam Chomsky, a student of Saussure, refrained the langue/parole duality into that of competence and performance, placing priority on the universality of competence. Chomsky asserted that the human brain allows language, and he described how the brain is organized through the study of language structure. According to Chomsky, children are born with an innate mental propensity to understand grammar. Competence, referring to the unfolding of the innate knowledge of language structure, is the only way to account for children’s ability to use the wide range of grammatical variables found in language without consciously being aware of the complicated rules and exceptions that govern its structure. Performance is learned through social action and is merely the surface structure of a particular linguistic code that is driven by the deeper structure that lies beneath all language systems. Although he later changed his focus, Chomsky believed that discoveries about linguistic universals, which he termed “generative” grammars, were more interesting and had more promising explanatory potential than did performance. The task of linguists was to reveal the underlying structures to be found in all languages by writing grammars that would develop an understanding of language as a system and, from that, provide insight into the human mind and social structure.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, a structural anthropologist who was influenced by Saussure and Sigmund Freud, stressed the invariance of human nature caused by a biochemistry of the brain linking the social activities of societies across cultures and history. He analyzed myths (i.e., the stories that people tell about themselves) in terms of the relationships between phrases to uncover the latent structure of society. This form of structuralism is based on the view that studying relationships among signs reveals more about the human condition than does analyzing the use of language. For structuralists, discoveries of universals can be drawn from observations of anyone and, therefore, no one in particular. They also must rely on observable, but superficial or secondary, occurrences to explain underlying and primary structures.
Poststructuralists reversed the structuralist pursuit of material structures through the study of language to an orientation toward the deconstruction of discourse to see how it operates below the level of intention and consciousness. There are several definitions associated with discourse analysis. For one, it refers to a type of analysis that highlights the rules and dynamics of speech and conversation in relation to the social situation. Discourse also refers to the production of ideology, in other words, the function of language to create a version of reality in favor of the ruling class. Finally, discourse also refers to a line of inquiry that assumes no objective reality outside that which is manipulated through language.
From an extreme development of logic found in poststructuralist discourse analysis, there is no external reality outside that created by language. Because language structures are universal rather than personal, human presence is uncovered only through an examination of a subjectless text. Michel Foucault (1926-1984), perhaps the most notable poststructuralist, aimed at establishing the origins and changes in meaning structures over time. From both structuralist and poststructuralist points of view, social actors are “decentered” to a position of being mere products of discourse whether originating from innate structures or from historical developments in language. Critics such as Anthony Giddens have noted that the death of the subject and of objective reality brought about the death of this line of reasoning. However, other less extreme forms of discourse analysis remain legitimate lines of inquiry into language use.
Sociolinguistics and Structural Functional Variation
Both the linguists and the sociologists who met to combine their disciplines to shape sociolinguistics during the 1960s rejected approaches that lacked concern for correlations between social structures and the variability in the individual use of language. Although they share an interest in linguistic variation and its association with social reality, sociolinguistics from a linguistic approach attempts to discover linguistic structures within a social context, whereas sociolinguistics from a sociological approach attempts to discover social structures by studying actors using language. At its onset, however, sociolinguistics took on a predominantly structural functionalist point of view. This was the case for sociologists because Parsonian theory was at its pinnacle during this time, and it was the case for linguists because it was their tradition.
The structural functionalist approach to social structure is quite different from that of the structuralists. For the structuralists, structures are the underlying principles on which social patterns are built. On the other hand, structural functionalism refers to structure as the observable patterns of social practices such as roles, norms, and language that have been intentionally or unintentionally created or reproduced by social actors. Following this definition, sociolinguists view language as, first and foremost, a social and cultural product, and linguistic variation must be studied in social context. It emphasizes a social order that derives from normative consensus, with the individual operating in line with specific social constraints that derive from this social agreement.
A central premise of sociolinguistics is that language is social in the sense that it is a mirror of society. Speakers use language varieties that reflect their differences in terms of regional, social, and ethnic statuses. Social variables such as style (degree of formality within a social context), social characteristics (class, race/ethnicity, gender, and age), social structure (norms and roles), and social status (ranking) are independent variables to the dependent linguistic variables. Therefore, sociolinguistics relies heavily on hypotheses that correlate social characteristics as independent variables with dependent linguistic variables.
Linguistic units that vary within differing social circumstances form a continuum composed of deviations from a standard or proper form and can be observed occurring more or less frequently. Inquiry focuses on the social determinants of the selection of linguistic variants in accent and dialect emphasizing phonemes, morphemes, phrases, and clauses that are considered to be variant, continuous, and quantitative. Much of this research prioritizes empirical matters over theoretical ones.
In 1958, a sociologist, John L. Fisher, was one of the first to conduct research that correlated social characteristics with linguistic variables. He found variations in the use of the suffixing (pronounced either [ing] or [in] such as in running or runnin’) among the speech patterns of children in New England. He found that the less standard form [in] was used more frequently by boys than by girls, by working-class children than by middle-class children, and in a casual context than in a formal social context.
Studies by sociolinguists such as William Labov and Peter Trudgill provided seminal insight into how language represents social organization. The later work of the linguist Labov is usually regarded as the model for quantitative studies of variation. In early studies, he observed the social context in which the postvocalic r (i.e., r pronunciations after vowels) occurred in New York speech patterns. His independent variables were social class and style. He found that the postvocalic r was pronounced most often by upper middle-class speakers and was dropped most often by New Yorkers observed in casual social settings rather than formal ones. He also found that women of lower middle-class status used a greater range of variability than did working-class or upper middle-class women. In other words, lower middle-class women dropped the r much more often (in fact, they practically never pronounced the postvocalic r) in casual conversation but did pronounce it significantly more often than upper middle-class and working-class women when speaking in more formal social circumstances. Labov hypothesized that lower middle-class women were more conscious of social mobility and, therefore, were more willing and able to change their language to adapt to social circumstances that required a more standard or prestigious variation. He called this process “hypercorrection.”
In 1974, Trudgill explored sex and social class as determinants for using 16 phonological variables in a study conducted in Norwich, England. Extending Fisher’s work with children, Trudgill found that working-class males used the less standard form of -ing (for example, singin’) much more frequently than did working-class females. He concluded, and others since have consistently concluded, that women are more likely than men to use standard forms of language and also to have access to a greater repertoire of linguistic variations. A common explanation is that women are more status conscious and less secure than men and, therefore, use a more prestigious form of language. Another explanation is that women are more likely than men to use an interpersonal strategy called “face” to maintain self-esteem in social exchanges. A feminist critique is that these explanations conceptualize female linguistic strategies as deviant from the standardized or more normal male strategy.
A Sociological Approach
In 1992, Glyn Williams contended that sociolinguistics was far more influenced by linguistic goals than by sociological goals at its inception during the 1960s and remained that way. As evidence of this, many more linguistics departments include courses in sociolinguistics than do sociology departments. A main sociological critique of sociolinguistics is that its purpose is not to learn more about a particular society, or even to examine correlations between linguistic and social phenomena, but rather to learn more about language and to investigate linguistic change, variability, and the structure of languages. Also, its heavy reliance on consensus theory limits alternative theoretical perspectives and methods. Although sociolinguistics emphasizes empirical positivism and theory building, it is void in theoretical critique.
A subdiscipline within sociology that focuses on language must use an approach that relies on its disciplinary foundations. Critics deny the legitimacy of a specialty called the sociology of language use, suggesting that it still lacks a dominant or integrated theoretical basis that could progress to specific hypotheses and the collection of data that could be analyzed to test the originating theory. Nonetheless, the sociological interest in language expands the gamut of sociological thought. It includes analysis of the negotiation of meaning in conversation, of questions about the construction of reality, of its importance in the process of socialization and identity formation, and of the role of language in social inequality and oppression.
Although sociology at the macro level is often concerned with social systems that, as a whole, are greater than the sums of their parts, it is also the study of social life and behavior at the micro level along with the connection between the two. Like all fields in sociology, the sociology of language use must combine interest in social systems (how they work, evolve, and affect individual lives) and individual behavior (how individuals participate in creating, reproducing, and changing social systems).
An introduction of agency into explanations of society is found in the theory of Georg Simmel (1858-1918), a German sociologist who opposed a structuralist view of social behavior. He viewed society as “a collection of people connected by their interaction with one another.” For Simmel, structure exists only through the constant achievement of individuals involved in interaction. Interactionist theories derived from Simmel view social systems largely as abstractions that have no existence independent of what individuals actually do in relation to one another.
Ethnomethodology is an approach within the framework of interaction theory that examines how human agency and the use of language affect perceptions of social reality. It emerged simultaneously with structuralism, but in direct opposition to it. Ethnomethodologists locate structure not in language systems but rather in the ways in which actors use language to create and maintain an ongoing sense of reality. As originated by Harold Garfinkel, it is the study of the methods that people use in everyday interactions, emphasizing the ability of individuals to create social situations. To gather data, ethnomethodologists use conversation analysis, where interactions in everyday natural settings are audio- or videotaped to systematically capture, code, and analyze the methods used by individuals to create social reality.
Critics point to the way in which ethnomethodology reduces social behavior to the rational behavior of social agents and how it cannot account for regularities other than those that arise unintentionally from purely individualized behavior.
Symbolic interactionism provides a theoretical foundation that brings more balance to the micro-macro paradox of causality. Individuals are seen as the core of social life, providing social systems with their fundamental form and creating reality through negotiated interaction. Symbolic interactionists study how symbols such as language are adopted and exchanged through mutual interpretation not merely to communicate but also to create and maintain a self-identity (internal) and impressions of ourselves (external) and to create and sustain our experience of particular social situations. Although shared meanings create a type of structure, structures are always emergent, fluid, and ambiguous. Language becomes the link between individual agency and social structure.
The anthropologist Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), developed a theory that has become known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and serves as the linguistic equivalent to this connection between structure and agency. It considers the bidirectional connection between linguistic variation and universality. The main tenet is that language not only expresses our ideas about social reality but also shapes these ideas. The theory has two parts: linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism. Linguistic relativity corresponds to Saussure’s theory of the arbitrary nature of signs and infers no absolute or natural way to label objects, ideas, or experiences. Each culture divides up the world differently, and a particular perception of the world influences the language that is created; therefore, language represents perception. Linguistic determinism states that language is also the framework for our thoughts and perceptions. The most useful implication from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that the reciprocal or nonrecursive relationship between social structure and agency avoids the extremes of both determinism and relativism. Language enables us to create reality by substituting words for direct experience. It is central to culture because it is through language that we are able to create and transmit culturally shared meanings of human experience, thought, feeling, and behavior. Sociologists, in particular, believe that variation in the ways in which language is created and used and the impact that variation has on differential perceptions of reality is at least as interesting as, and perhaps a more fruitful endeavor than, models limited by structural functional theory.
Basil Bernstein studied language as a bidirectional relationship between structure and agency through the process of socialization. Openly influenced by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Bernstein regarded language as something that both influences culture and is in turn influenced by it. He noted the distinctions in language use associated with socioeconomic standing, particularly the link between language acquisition and social reproduction. His interest in language extended to a general interest in how class systems are maintained by having control over knowledge and the language needed to access and use it in complex and creative ways. His basic premise was that social location has a linguistic environment that is learned through socialization from generation to generation and that, reciprocally, one’s acquired language influences social standing. In his theory of speech codes, Bernstein argued that social class affects how students learn language in their family and school environments and that this, in turn, affects their achievement potential and social class possibilities.
Specifically, Bernstein found that people in the working class use a “restricted code,” whereas those in the middle class have additional access to a more formal or “elaborated code.” The elaborated code makes use of standard grammatical order and syntax and uses complex sentence structures that employ devices for conjunction and subordination clauses and prepositions to show relationships of both a temporal and logical nature. This variation also exhibits the frequent use of “I,” a wide range of adjectives and adverbs, and qualifiers that he believed are conducive to expressing complex conceptions of experience. On the other hand, the restricted code employs short, grammatically simple, and often fragmented sentences of nonstandard form; uses few conjunctions or subordinate clauses; uses a limited variety of adjectives and adverbs; makes infrequent use of the pronoun “I”; and makes frequent use of idioms. According to Bernstein, everyone has access to this variety, which is used on occasions of familiarity. However, working-class families do not have access to the more formal and complex elaborated code due to their lack of experience in using it.
A controversial interpretation of Bernstein’s theory is that socioeconomic groups that are limited to using a restricted code are at an essential disadvantage, rather than a social disadvantage, when communicating in establishments such as educational systems and occupational organizations that favor an elaborated code. Although the codes have different characteristics and social consequences, Bernstein refuted that his theory implies differences in practical utility.
Pierre Bourdieu, on the other hand, made a utilitarian distinction in the acquisition of language. Bourdieu was a French sociologist whose general theory bridged the gap between individuals and social structures by examining the link between education and culture. He discussed language use in terms of the variation learned during an individual’s early years as a form of cultural capital that acts as a condition for the reproduction of social order. For Bourdieu, language is part of a person’s habitus, which is the totality of cultural aspects acquired during early stages of socialization. Cultural disadvantage is proportional to the distance between one’s habitus and that of mainstream or dominant culture. A child who has acquired a vernacular that deviates far from the standard, such as in minority student populations, has less cultural capital to spend than does a child who has learned a more standard variety. The minority child will experience symbolic violence in social situations where standard language is used. For the minority child, academic goals are harder to reach because the ideas and concepts to be learned are delivered in an unfamiliar and, therefore, hard to understand linguistic variation.
Another major thread in sociology, originating with the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels and informing the study of language, exalts social theory critical of oppression and domination. An understanding of ideology as the meanings created by the dominant class to self-preserve their social status has been the center of most studies of language among contemporary Marxists, leading to what is referred to as critical sociolinguistics. French sociologists have been particularly prominent in the theoretical reevaluation of the role of language in ideology. Foremost among such critics is Foucault, whose basic argument is that language and knowledge form a basis for power in their roles in the social construction of reality. Content analysis of political and media rhetoric in the construction of ideology falls under this category of analysis. Language as a link between individuals and their social and cultural locations makes it a legitimate field that can address a wide range of sociological theory.
Sociolinguists often criticize the sociological study of language use, even including the work Bernstein to whom the origination of the sociology of language use is usually attributed, on the grounds that it has “no linguistic objective.” Sociologists have a greater concern for the empirically rigorous but limited usefulness of sociolinguistics that emphasizes formal linguistic theory rather than social theory. More important, adherents to the sociology of language use wishing to advance the field must systematically address the difficulties inherent in applying empirical research designs to its rich theoretical heritage.
- Bernstein, B. (1971). Class, codes, and control: Theoretical studies towards a sociology of language. New York: Schocken Books.
- Bourdieu, P. (1977). Reproduction in education, society, and culture. London: Sage.
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- Kollock, P., Blumstein, P., & Schwartz, P. (1994). Sex and power in interaction: Conversational privileges and duties. In J. O’Brien & P. Kollock (Eds.), The production of reality: Essays and readings on social interaction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.
- Lakoff, R. (1975). Language and women’s place. New York: Harper & Row.
- Wardhaugh, R. (2002). An introduction to sociolinguistics. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Williams, G. (1992). Sociolinguistics: A sociological critique. New York: Routledge.