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LG474 Notes

Peter L Patrick

Language Rights

Univ of Essex

Core ideas of Sociolinguistics

[keyed to Ten (Socio-)linguistic Axioms]

Sociolinguistics is a branch of Linguistics, the scientific study of language, so
we must begin by accepting a few purely linguistic notions.
But Sociolinguistics moves forward to place language firmly in social
context not to study it, e.g., as a feature of the brain or body in isolation so
we will differ, improve on, criticise and/or reject some ideas and beliefs held by
other linguists.

All natural languages are systematic, and not random, in nature.

They are semiotic systems systems of signs i.e., of forms paired

with meanings.

Thus they have forms (sounds or gestures, which can be written, #1);

The forms are assembled in systematic fashion into structures;

o (Smaller meanings too can be assembled into constructed ones);

The way forms fit into structures gives rise to linguistic functions.

The highest level of systematic structures the systems to which all

the forms, meanings, and rules of assembly belong are languages.

Now the linguists begin to get into trouble with (some of) the sociolinguists...

Languages and their component structures also have social functions:

the way they fit into, articulate with, the social contexts they exist in.

Since all natural languages are complex systems unbelievably more

complex than laypeople think, evolved over centuries or millennia linguists maintain that there is no scientific basis for judging one to
be better, more efficient, expressive, or capable than another (#4).
They are all to be understood as of equal value.

So far we agree. But since language is a primary means for engaging

the world, developing & expressing (both individual & group) identity,
& since it exists to serve social functions (#5), we cannot ignore that

Languages and their components are constantly socially evaluated by

their own speakers, and by others who come in contact with them. In
the social world, it is a fact that all languages are not of equal value.

Bias towards/against a language or dialect stands in for bias towards/

against its speakers (#8). This is perhaps our greatest insight.

LG474 Notes

Peter L Patrick

Language Rights

Univ of Essex

o Ethnicity and language have complex & dynamic relations (#9).

Languages can be assigned social functions to create and maintain

social inequality, and
o The role of language in doing this can be made invisible.

Standard languages and writing-based norms have privileged elite

minorities, historically, and necessarily continue to do so (#7); yet
o Most people firmly believe standards and literacy are beneficent.

The fact that children are biologically designed to be multilingual (#2)

means that schools can selectively impose languages of education
that are not optimal for everyone, and still function acceptably; but

Acquiring literacy is best done in ones mother tongue (#3). Hence,

Educational institutions use arbitrary language standards as gatekeeping devices to reproduce the status quo (#6).
o Yet most people firmly believe education is the key to opportunity.

The most important arena of engagement for sociolinguists w/social

institutions is education the main focus of Applied Sociolinguistics.

We continue to believe languages could be assigned social functions

to achieve and protect social equality this is the goal, one way or
another, of a majority of efforts at Language Policy & Planning.

However, Language Planning (=language interference) and legislation,

even by expert practitioners, frequently fails or backfires (#10).

We now need to introduce some basic sociolinguistic terms and concepts.

Lets begin with the 4 Vs.
Variety: any linguistic system with cohesive distribution in social space.

Were going to stop referring uncritically to language or dialect as

if these terms were neutral in terms of social power they are not. We
use variety as a neutral technical term to cover all such cases.

Variation: When two or more different forms can occur in precisely the same
environment, with the same meaning. I.e., we mean variation in form, holding
the meaning (or function) constant: several ways to say (/do) the same thing.

Variation is what makes language tick, instead of being dead; it is the

engine that drives all change in language; it creates the possibility for
speakers to express identity with their language choices.

Choice in language is neither random, nor completely predictable;

and it always carries its own meaning (on top of linguistic meaning).

LG474 Notes

Peter L Patrick

Language Rights

Univ of Essex

Variability: Differences in language use that are defined over social groups (as
Variation was differences in language use defined over linguistic form). Thus,
Regular differences between men and women speaking the same

dialect in the same community constitute variability; but also

Regional groups speaking different dialects of English in the UK, or

between Australia & New Zealand, constitute variability; but also

Differences across all the Germanic or Indo-European languages as

spoken by geographically and socially diverse groups do, too.

Variability is the dimension in which the social meanings of collective
language choices become visible, as those choices are associated with the
orientation of speakers towards social groups.
Variation is the mechanism for making that happen on the level of the
individual speaker and individual bit of language.
Varieties are the product of those collective language choices: with the
regularity of evolved linguistic systems, and containing the set of possibilities
that sociolinguists call inherent variation, sort of the genetic code of grammar.
OH, yes: the Fourth V is Vernacular. A vernacular language is the native
variety of a particular speech community, learned orally in early childhood.

We rarely use vernacular to refer to written standardized languages

Vernaculars are believed to contain variation in its natural form,

least distorted by standardization or notions of correctness.

Vernaculars are the focus of language planning efforts to reform or

introduce education and literacy in the early years.

Vernaculars show both more variability and variation than standards,

which are defined as suppressing optional variation in language
forms and structures, and which people across different groups are
influenced to aspire to speak in the same way.

Ive just mentioned the speech community, a concept which is notoriously hard
to define and self-serving but essential to the field. For now lets define it as:
A social community which shares the same vernacular variety/ies, as well
as a set of norms for both using it and interpreting its use.
Now that we have the Four Vs, we can use them to define Linguistic Diversity,
which is perhaps the key concept of Language Rights.

LG474 Notes

Peter L Patrick

Language Rights

Univ of Essex

Linguistic Diversity = Variation plus Variability plus Language Change.

Variation: since it gives rise to different dialects and sociolects, and

resists the claims of standard languages, it amounts to diversity
within the bounds of a single language or language group.

Variability: since it represents the social range of types of people,

each marking their identity via differences in language use, it
amounts to diversity within the bounds of some larger social unit.

Natural Language Change: since it represents the possibility of

continued evolution and survival for any vernacular language, and
since we define it to exclude planned and standardized changes (i.e.
those that consciously introduce or eliminate forms and structures), it
creates new/further diversity through (re-)generation.

(Thanks to Dave Sayers for stimulating my discussion of this topic please see his 2009 Essex
PhD in the Sociology Dept. for an extended discussion of linguistic diversity.)

But WHY should there be linguistic diversity? What good is it?

A possible motivation for dialect/language diversity in evolution is so humans
can distinguish b/w established members of cooperative communities, and
outsiders - language is a more-or-less reliable way of marking membership in
a group or Speech Community.
Theres a great deal I havent said here about Sociolinguistics, including things
which are generally part of its definition things like:

Which fields it has (as recently as the end of the 1950s) evolved from,
e.g. social psychology, anthropology, human geography, sociology;

The fact that context (both linguistic and social) is central to it as a

mode of explanation for variation;

Which social/identity factors are commonly viewed as main influences

on language variation (social class/status, gender, age, ethnicity);

That it can be top-down, starting w/society and seeing language as a

key element in organizing community; or

Bottom-up, starting with the details of language and focusing on how

social factors influence its structure;

That it can be analogized to evolutionary biology, starting with the

facts of variation and asking, What is it good for?

That theory struggles over structure-vs-agency, i.e. to what degree

and in which ways language structure and use reflects society, or
constitutes it, and how important social groups are vs individuals;

LG474 Notes

Peter L Patrick

Language Rights

Univ of Essex

Here are some places for newcomers to find brief answers and definitions: