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. 

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.

Sociolinguistics examines the interplay of language and society, with language as the starting point. Variation is the key concept, applied to language itself and to its use. The basic premise of sociolinguistics is that language is variable and changing.  As a result, language is not homogeneous — not for the individual user and not within or among groups of speakers who use the same language.

By studying written records, sociolinguists also examine how language and society have interacted in the past. For example, they have tabulated the frequency of the singular pronoun thou and its replacement you in dated hand-written or printed documents and correlated changes in frequency with changes in class structure in 16th and 17th  century England. This is historical sociolinguistics: the study of relationship between changes in society and changes in language over a period of time.

 What is dialect?

Sociolinguists also study dialect — any regional, social or ethnic variety of a language. By that definition, the English taught in school as correct and used in non-personal writing is only one dialect of contemporary American English. Usually called Standard American English or Edited American English, it is the dialect used in this essay.

Scholars are currently using a sociolinguistic perspective to answer some intriguing questions about language in the United States, including these:

    • Which speakers in urban areas of the North are changing the pronunciation of vowels in a systematic way? For instance, some speakers in Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago pronounce bat so that it sounds like bet and betso that it sounds like but. Linguists call these patterned alterations the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.
    • Which features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) grammar are used by middle-class white teen-agers who admire contemporary African-American music, entertainment and clothing? For instance, white adolescents might speak approvingly of the style of a peer by saying she money or he be jammin’ — sentence structures associated with African Americans.
    • Which stereotypical local pronunciations are exaggerated to show local allegiance? Such language behavior has been pointed out recently for Pittsburgh, New Orleans and the barrier islands off North Carolina known as the Outer Banks. At the end of the 20th century, connections between the isolated Outer Banks and the greater world increased. This changed the local seafood industry and made the Outer Banks a destination for a growing number of tourists. Using the typical way that the natives pronounce the vowel in the words high and tide, these North Carolinians are called Hoi Toiders. They continue to use this distinctive vowel even though in other ways their dialect is becoming more like other American dialects.
  • What will be the linguistic impact of the impending loss of monolingual French speakers in the Acadian, or Cajun, region of southern Louisiana? What are the traces of French in Cajun Vernacular English, the dialect of monolingual speakers of English who consider themselves Cajun? Will these French features be sustained?
  • What slang terms do students use to show affiliation with subgroups of their peers and to distinguish themselves from their parents’ generation? In 2002, for example, university students in North Carolina described things that were great, pleasing or favorable as cool, hype, money, phat, tight or sweet — but definitely not swell.
  • Variation in language is not helter-skelter. It is systematic. For instance, a speaker may sometimes pronounce the word mind to sound just like minethrough a process called consonant cluster reduction. Pronunciation of the final–nd consonant cluster as –n tends to occur before consonants; i.e., the speaker’s choice of saying mine instead of mind is conditioned by a feature of the language itself (whether or not a consonant sound follows the word).For instance, a speaker is likely to say “I wouldn’t mind owning a BMW” (with both n and d pronounced before o), but “I wouldn’t mine borrowing your BMW” (with nd reduced to n before b).

    Variation also correlates with social factors outside of language. For example, Appalachian working-class speakers reduce consonant clusters more often than northern Anglo-American working class speakers and working-class African Americans, regardless of their region, reduce consonant clusters more frequently than do other working-class speakers. Thus, the occurrence of final consonant cluster reduction is conditioned internally by its position in the speech stream and externally by the social factors of socioeconomic class and ethnicity.

    Another example of an internal linguistic variable is the pronunciation of the words spelled pen, ten and Ben so that they sound as if they were spelled pin, tin and bin.  This variable correlates with being Southern, regardless of age, gender, socio-economic class or ethnicity. However, among Southerners, the pronunciation of ask as if it were spelled ax correlates with ethnicity, because the pronunciation is used most often (but not exclusively) by African Americans.

    Another pronunciation variant that correlates with a social category is heard in New Orleans. In working-class neighborhoods, words spelled with oi are often pronounced as if spelled er. For these speakers, then, the word point rhymes with weren’t. Age is another social variable. In North Carolina, elderly speakers often pronounce duke, stupid and newspaper with a y-sound before the vowel.Instead of the common pronunciations dook, stoopid, and nooz for these words, they say dyuke, styupid, and nyuz. (This is basically the difference all English speakers make between the words food and feud; feud has a y-sound before the vowel.) Speakers born after World War II seldom use this pronunciation.

The examples above have all concerned pronunciation, but language also varies in vocabulary, grammar and use.

 Vocabulary sometimes varies by region
Vocabulary sometimes varies by region. The expression lost bread to refer to French toast is a translation of French pain perdu, part of the vocabulary of southern Louisiana. Other vocabulary is not regional but rather is old-fashioned, such asfrock for ‘a woman’s dress’ or tarry for ‘wait.’ Some vocabulary may vary by degree of formality, as in the choice among the words barf, upchuck, vomit and regurgitate.Grammatical constructions also vary. In the Midland region of the United States, speakers use a construction called positive anymore, as in “Anymore you see round bales of hay in the fields.” In other regions, speakers would say, “Nowadays you see round bales of hay in the field.” A grammatical variation associated with AAVE omits the verb be, as in “The teacher in the classroom.” Another variation that is widespread in spoken American English is the double negative, as in “We don’t want no more construction on this road.” Such sentences are not Standard American English.

Putting It in Context

Considerations other than grammatical correctness often govern speaker choices. For example, Sign this paper is a grammatically correct imperative sentence. However, a student approaching a teacher to obtain permission to drop a course, for reasons having nothing to do with grammar,will probably avoid the imperative — expressing the request instead as a statement or a question, such as I need to get your signature on this paper or Will you please sign this drop form?

Some social factors are attributes of the speaker — for example, age, gender, socio-economic class, ethnicity and educational level. Many studies have shown that these factors commonly correlate both with variation within the language itself (such as the pronunciation of final consonant clusters) and with variation in the use of language (such as the use of more or less formal vocabulary, depending on the audience). These findings match our everyday experience; most people are well aware that men and women use the language differently, that poor people often speak differently from rich people, and that educated people use language differently from uneducated people.

People adjust the way they talk to their social situation

 It is common knowledge that people also adjust the way they talk to their social situation. Socio-situational variation, sometimes called register, depends on the subject matter, the occasion and the relationship between participants — in addition to the previously mentioned attributes of region, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age and gender. Here are some examples.Constraints on subject matter vary from culture to culture. In American English, it is fine to ask a child or a medical patient, “Have you had a bowel movement today?”  However, the same question to an acquaintance might be coarse. Even a good friend would find it at the least peculiar. American English speakers must approach other subjects with care. They wouldn’t dare ask, for example, “Are you too fat for one plane seat?” “What’s your take-home pay?” “Are you sure you’re only 50?” “Do you have a personal relationship with Christ?”

Any of these questions posed at a cocktail party might draw a prompt “None of your business” — or something less polite. However, in other situations, between other participants, those same questions might be appropriate. A public-health official encouraging Americans to lose weight might well ask a general audience, “Are you too fat to fit in one plane seat?” A financial planner speaking to a client certainly should ask, “What is your take-home pay?”


Contact is an important concept in sociolinguistics — social contact and language contact. Language change spreads through networks of people who talk with one another.  Tight-knit groupsthat keep to themselves tend not to promote change.  Networks whose members also belong to other networks tend to promote change. People can live next door to one another and not participate in the same network. In the segregated South, blacks and whites often lived on the same piece of land; blacks worked in the homes of whites. The physical distance was minimal, but the great social distance led to different varieties of American English.

Contact between languages brings about variation and change. Situations of language contact are usually socially complex, making them of interest to sociolinguists. When speakers of different languages come together, the results are determined in large part by the economic and political power of the speakers of each language. In the United States, English became the popular language from coast to coast, largely replacing colonial French and Spanish and the languages of Native Americans. In the Caribbean and perhaps in British North America where slavery was practiced, Africans learned the English of their masters as best they could, creating a language for immediate and limited communication called a pidgin.When Africans forgot or were forbidden to use their African languages to communicate with one another, they developed their English pidgin into their native tongue. A language that develops from a pidgin into a native language is called a creole. African American Vernacular English may have developed this way.

Bilingualism is another response to language contact. In the United States, large numbers of non-English speaking immigrants arrived in the late 19th  and early 20th century. Typically, their children were bilingual and their grandchildren were monolingual speakers of English. When the two languages are not kept separate in function, speakers can intersperse phrases from one into the other, which is called code switching. Speakers may also develop a dialect of one language that is heavily influenced by features of the other language, such as the contemporary American dialect Chicano English.

Sociolinguists: Subjects and Leaders

Sociolinguists study many other issues, among them the values that hearers place on variations in language, the regulation of linguistic behavior, language standardization, and educational and governmental policies concerning language.

The term sociolinguistics is associated with William Labov and his quantitative methodology. Around the world, many linguists study the intersection of language and social factors from other perspectives. The most prominent is M. A. K. Halliday, whose approach is called systemic-functionalist linguistics. Some other prominent sociolinguists are Guy Bailey, John Baugh, Jack Chambers, Penelope Eckert, Lesley Milroy, John Rickford, Suzanne Romaine, Roger Shuy, Deborah Tannen, Peter Trudgill, and Walt Wolfram.

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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