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.

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.


Language contact in Palestine: Changes from above or from below?

Labov (1994) Any general consideration of linguistic change mustÞrst distinguish between change from above andchange from below. Above and below refer here simultaneously to levels of social awareness and positions in the socioeconomic hierarchy

Sociolinguistics of Palestinian Arabic

1. Introduction1. Introduction1. Introduction1. Introduction
The aim of this lemma is partly to highlight various studies done over the years analyzingthe high degree of linguistic variability in Palestinian Arabic. More than that, though, thereis a sense that the linguistic situation, and indeed sociolinguistic complexity in Palestinemore generally, are emblematic of the history of region and the speech communitydescribed in these studies. This is a community that has known, in the few decades since thecommencement of scholarly sociolinguistic investigation, significant turmoil anddevastation. It has been divided, partially exiled, and many of its members colonized andforced to learn other languages, further complicating their linguistic, political, andsociological statuses, to name but a few. Palestine is perhaps one of the prime examples of asite for which the study of the speech community and other types of social scientificresearch must continue hand in hand.

Algerian Teachers’ Self-Evaluation Checklist

The designer of the following questionnaire asks prospective Algerian teachers from all streams, i.e., middle school, secondary and university teachers, to answer the following questions so that he can undertake a Master research on English as a foreign language at the department of English at the University of Larbi Ben Mhidi, Oum El Bouaghi.


Berber Cultural and Educational Reforms

Dear informant, the following questionnaire seeks to understand the position of Berber in the Algerian schools and cultural sphere. Would you like to answer the questions that follow. Your contribution is so important in understanding and solving the problems that this language face. Thank you.


Arabic needs protection, but who should protect it?

Arabizi- اللغة العربية

ArabicThe short answer is nobody. Except of course the speakers of Arabic language themselves. They can do this through various avenues such as: schooling and education, books and publishing (not just translations), the culture at large, and as any scholar of language maintenance or Ecolinguist will tell you- their ideology. What do they think about (and of) their language? How do they measure their language to other languages? and many other questions, and once those can be answered (and importantly implemented) then the status and importantly the future of a language can be determined. Arabic language is not dead but socially something is happening, something that is making some Arabic speakers nervous and many sociolinguists like myself are trying to understand what that is. I am basing this post on an article I read back in May and I have been meaning to write something on it ever since, so…

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Mapping variation in English


The UK dialect maps created by Laurel MacKenzie and her legion of undergraduate field researchers now have a new home!

At http://projects.alc.manchester.ac.uk/ukdialectmaps/ you can view all the maps. The site comes with instructions on how to use them as well as credits for Laurel’s helpers and the many students of Language Variation & Change who participated in the data collection. The site also has information about outreach and the many media appearances that this research has made.

To make it even better, the maps have now been updated with another year’s worth of data. So go ahead – have a play around!

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“With my parents I speak integrated Arabic” – Integration, linguistic contrasts and social status relations

Channel View Publications and Multilingual Matters

Lian Malai Madsen has recently been announced as the winner of the 2014 Ton Vallen award.  This is an annual award for papers written by new researchers  on sociolinguistic and educational issues in multicultural societies which we at Multilingual Matters are proud to support. In this article Lian discusses the background to her paper which examines integration and linguistic styles in Denmark.

My husband moved to Denmark 12 years ago from the UK. When we met he used to live off microwave meals and industrial white sandwich bread, but now he bakes his own rye bread. Rye bread can be considered a key sign of Danish national belonging (as Martha Karrebæk has shown in her research, e.g. in What’s in your lunch box? 2012), and not only does he consume it, he creates it himself – from basic organic ingredients. I like to joke about this change by calling him well ‘integrated’…

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Danielle, Dorothea, Laurel and Maciej at NWAV


PhD alumnae Danielle Turton and Dorothea Hoffmann, and staff members Laurel MacKenzie and Maciej Baranowski, have this week been in Chicago for NWAV 43. Manchet’s correspondent on the ground reports that it was a great conference, the weather in Chicago was terrific, the Manchester crowd’s talks had an excellent turnout, and there was a charming musical tribute (that had the whole conference crowd singing) to Bill Labov in honour of his retirement on Saturday night!

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The Miscellaneous Folk Life

Love and Other Foreign Words, by Erin McCahan

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This book made me wish I’d taken sociolinguistics in university. Trust me, this is a good thing.

Josie is 15, gifted, the youngest of three sisters, and obsessed with languages and translation. Not just English vs. French or Spanish, but the variations of the English language that make up the different parts of her life. She is most comfortable speaking Josie, but also understands the languages of High School and College (called, respectively, Ohmig*d and Ohmig*d 2.0), Boyfriends and Beautiful Girls. About Josie’s sister and friend, she says: “Sophie and Maggie, to varying degrees of formality, speak the language of beautiful women. I can translate it because I grew up hearing it, but it is not my mother tongue.”

The lens of different languages (or maybe different dialects?) works well to show Josie’s perspective of the people around her. Genius-level smarts run in her…

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