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What do sociolinguists study ?

What is a sociolinguists ?

Sociolinguisits study the relationship between language and society. They are interested in
explaining why we speak differently in different social contexts, and they are concerned with
identifying the social functions of language and the ways it is used to convey social meaning.

Example 1

Ray : Hi mum.
Mum : Hi. You ‘re late
Ray : Yeah,that bastartd Sootbucket kept us in again
Mum : Nana’s here.
Ray : Oh sorry. Where is he?

Ray’s description of his teacher would have been expressed differently if he had realised his
grandmother could hear him. They way people talk is influenzed by the social context in which
they are talking. It metters who can hear us and where we are talking, as well as how we are

The conversation between Ray and his mother also illustrates the fact that language serves a
range of fuctions. We use language to ask for and give people information. We use it to express
indignation and annoyance, as well as admiration and respect. Often one utterance will
simultaneously convey both information and express feelings. Ray’s utterance

Yeah, that bastard Sootbucket kept us in again

not onlys a tells his mother why he is late, his choice of words also her how he feels about the
teacher concerned, and tells us something about his relationship with his mother ( he can use
words like bastard talking to her ).
Why do we say the same thing in different ways?

Example 2

Every afternoon my friends packs her bag and leave her Cardiff office at about 5 o’clock.
As she leaves, her business patner says goodbye Margaret, (she replies goodbye Mike) her
secretary says goodbye Ms Walker, (she replies goodbye Jill)and the caretaker says Bye Mrs
Walker (to which she respond goodbye Andy). As she arrives home she is greeted by Hi mum
her daughter, Jenny ,hello dear, have a good day?,from her mother ,and simply you’re late
again! From her husband. Later in the evening the president of the local flower club calls to
ask if she would like to join. Good evening, is that Mrs Billington?, she asks. No, it’s Ms
Walker,but my husband’s name is David Billington, she answers. What can I do for you?
Finally a friend calls Hello Meg, sut why ti?

In most languages, there are many different ways of addressing people. Language provide a
variety of ways of saying the same thing – addressing and greeting others, describing things,
paying compliments. As in examples 1, the final choice reflects factors such as the relationship
between the people in the particular situation, and how the speaker feels about the person
addressed. In example 2, her mother’s choice of dear reflects her affectionate feelings towards
Margaret. If she had been annoyed with her daughter, she would have used her full name
Margaret. Her friend’s use of sut why it? (how are you?) as a greeting reflects her Welsh
ethnicity. The choice of one linguistic form rather than another is a useful clue to non linguistic
information. Linguistic can provide social information.

What are the different ways we say things?

Example 3

Sam : You seen our ‘enry’s new ‘ouse yet? It’s in ‘alton you know.
Jim : I have indeed. I could hardly miss it Sam. Your Henry now owns the biggest ho
house in Halton.

The examples discussed so far have illustrated a range of social influences on language choice.
Sociolinguistics are also interested in the different types of linguistic variation used to express
and reflect social factors. Vocabulary or word choice is one area of linguistic variation. ( e.g.
that bastard Sootbucket vs my teacher Mr Sutton, Margaret vs dear ). But linguistic variation
occurs at other levels of linguistic analysis too: sounds, word-structure ( or morphology ), and
grammar ( syntax ) as well as vocabulary. Within each of these linguistic level there is
variation which offers the speaker a choice of ways of expression. They provide us with
different linguistic styles for use in different social contexts. Choice may even involved
different dialects of a language , or quite different languages, as well shall see.

In example 3, the most obvious linguistic variation involves pronunciation. Sam ‘drops his
aitches’ while Jim doesn’t. Just as vocabulary choiches convey social information, so using
different pronunciation conveys social information too. Sam is a coal-miner and Jim is an old
friend of Sam’s son,Henry.Jim is also the local MP and he has dropped in to see Sam on one of
his reguler visits from London where he now spends most of his time. The difference in Sam’s
and Jim’s [h]-dropping behaviour reflects their diffrent educations and occupations. In other
words, despite their common regional origins they have different social backgrounds and that
is reflected in their speech.

The linguistic has variaton which distinguished Sam and Jim’s accent in example 3,or the
choice of vocabulary and grammar . It is simply a matter of scale. And the reasons for the
choice of one dialect rather than another involved the same kind of social consideration-the
participants, the social setting,and the topic or purpose of the interaction.

Because of these similarities sociolingists use the term variety (or sometimes code) to refer
to any set of linguistic forms which patterns according to social factors. A variety is a set of
linguistic forms use under specific social circumstances,with a distinctive social
distribution. Variety is therefore a broad term which includes different accents, different
linguistic styles, different dialects and even diffrent languages which contrast with each
other for social reasons, It has proved a very useful sociolinguistic term because it is
linguistically neutral and covers all the different realisations of the abstract concept
‘language’ in different social contexts.

Social factors, dimension and explanations

Social factors

In each of the examples discussed, certain social factors have been relavant in acconting for the
particular variety used,. Some relate to the users of language – the participants: others relate to
its uses – the social setting and fuction of the interaction.Who is talking to whom (e,g wife –
husband,customer – shop – keeper, -- boss – worker ) is an important factor. The setting or
social context (e,g . home, work, schooi ) is generally a relavant factor too. The aim or purpose
of the interaction ( informative, social ) may be important. And in some cas es the topic has
proved an influence on language choice. University students in countries which use English
for tertiary education, such as Tanzania, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, often find it easier to
discuss their university subjects using English, for example, just as the students from
Hemnesberget used standard Norwegian rather than the local dialect to discuss national

Not all factors are relavant in any particular context but they can be grouped in ways which
are helpful. In any situation linguistic choices will generally reflect the influence of one or
more of the following compenents:

1. The participants : who is speaking and who are they speaking to ?

2. The setting or social context of the interaction : where are they speaking ?
3 The topic : what is being talked about ?
4. The function : why are they speaking ?

Social dimensions

In addition to these components it is useful to take account of four different dimensions for
analysis which relate to the factors above and which have been only implicit in the discussion
so far. They are :

1. A social distance scale concerned with participant relationships

2. A status scale concerned with participant relationships
3. A formality scale relating to the setting or type of purposes
4. Two functional scales relating to the purposes or topic of interaction