What is Sociolinguistics? - Introduction to Linguistics - The Scientific Study of Language

What is Sociolinguistics?

Sociolinguistics refers to the way language is used in society. A dialect is a variety of language that is systematically different from other varieties of the same language. The dialects of a single language are mutually intelligible, but when the speakers can no longer understand each other, the dialects become languages. Geographical regions are also considered when dialects become languages. Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish are all considered separate languages because of regular differences in grammar and the countries in which they are spoken, yet Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes can all understand one another to a large extent. Hindi and Urdu are considered mutually intelligible languages when spoken, yet the writing systems are different. On the other hand, Mandarin and Cantonese are mutually unintelligible languages when spoken, yet the writing systems are the same.

A dialect is considered standard if it is used by the upper class, political leaders, in literature and is taught in schools as the correct form of the language. Overt prestige refers to this dominant dialect. A non-standard dialect is associated with covert prestige and is an ethnic or regional dialect of a language. These non-standard dialects are just as linguistically sophisticated as the standard dialect, and judgments to the inferiority of them are based on social or racist judgments.

African-American English contains many regular differences of the standard dialect. These differences are the same as the differences among many of the world’s dialects. Phonological differences include r and l deletion of words like poor (pa) and all (awe.) Consonant cluster simplification also occurs (passed pronounced like pass), as well as a loss of interdental fricatives. Syntactic differences include the double negative and the loss of and habitual use of the verb “be.” He late means he is late now, but he be late means he is always late.

A lingua franca is a major language used in an area where speakers of more than one language live that permits communication and commerce among them. English is called the lingua franca of the whole world, while French used to be the lingua franca of diplomacy.

A pidgin is a language of few lexical items and less complex grammatical rules based on another language. No one learns a pidgin as a native language, but children do learn creoles as a first language. Creoles are defined as pidgins that are adopted by a community as its native tongue.

Besides dialects, speakers may use different styles or registers (such as contractions) depending on the context. Slang may also be used in speech, but is not often used in formal situations or writing. Jargon refers to the unique vocabulary pertaining to a certain area, such as computers or medicine. Words or expressions referring to certain acts that are forbidden or frowned upon are considered taboo. These taboo words produce euphemisms, words or phrases that replace the expressions that are being avoided.

The use of words may indicate a society’s attitude toward sex, bodily functions or religious beliefs, and they may also reflect racism or sexism in a society. Language itself is not racist or sexist, but the society may be. Such insulting words may reinforce biased views, and changes in society may be reflected in the changes in language.

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Dr. Jennifer Wagner

PhD in Applied Linguistics, ESL/French teacher, author of two French books, and helping others to learn languages online at ielanguages.com.