What is Sociolinguistics?
What Factors Enter into Language Variation?
• Language does not exist in a vacuum.
• Since language is a social phenomenon it is natural
to assume that the structure of a society has some
impact on the language of the speakers of that
• The study of this relationship and of other
extralinguistic factors is the subﬁeld of
• We will look in this section at the ways in which
languages vary internally, and at the factors which
create/sustain such variation.
• It’s clear that there are many systematic diﬀerences between diﬀerent languages. (English and Japanese,
• By “systematic” we mean describable by rules. But
what is not as obvious is that languages also contain
many levels of internal variation, related to such
variables as age, region, socioeconomic status,
group identiﬁcation, and others.
• These various dimensions of variation are systematic
in the same way as the variation between diﬀerent
• This will give us a greater understanding of and
tolerance for the diﬀerences between the speech of
individuals and groups.
Linguistics 201, May 28, 2001
Kordula De Kuthy
Any variety of a language characterized by systematic
diﬀerences in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary
from other varieties of the same language is called a
Everyone speaks a dialect – in fact, many dialects at
diﬀerent levels. The people who speak a certain dialect
are called a speech community.
Some of the larger dialectal divisions in the English
British English vs. American English vs. Australian
English (along with others).
English, Southern American English, etc.
(1) Brit/American : lay by/rest area, petrol/gasoline,
lorry/truck, minerals/soft drinks
• An accent is a certain form of a language spoken
by a subgroup of speakers of that language which is
deﬁned by phonological features.
• Everyone has an accent, just as everyone speaks
a dialect. It’s not a question of “having” or “not
having” an accent or dialect, it’s a question of which
accent or dialect you speak with.
• Note that you can speak the same dialect as
someone else while using a diﬀerent accent (though
frequently the two vary together). Thus people from
Boston and Brooklyn use about the same dialect,
but their accents are radically diﬀerent.
A dialect spoken by one individual is called an idiolect.
Everyone has small diﬀerences between the way they
talk and the way even their family and best friends
talk, creating a “minimal dialect”.
How Do We Tell a Language From a
A Speech community is a group of people speaking
a common dialect. The group may be deﬁned in
terms of extralinguistic factors, such as age, region,
socioeconomic status, group identiﬁcation.
It is very rare, however, that a speech community
deﬁnes a “pure” dialect. There is always some overlap
between members of that group and other dialects.
Thus, there is no dialect of English identiﬁed with all
and only Clevelanders, for example. For this to be so,
we would have to assume communicative isolation,
i.e., that Clevelanders have little to no contact with
people from any other city, since this would lead to
outside inﬂuences on the dialect.
This is not always easy. The clearest deﬁnition would
seem to be that speakers of the same language can
understand each other
→ The Principle of mutually intelligibility: If two
speakers can understand each other, then they speak
two dialects of the same language; if they cannot
understand each other, then they speak two diﬀerent
But this doesn’t capture everything. There is a
continuum between the two in many cases.
diﬀerent parts of country mutually
unintelligible, but very cohesive cultural history →
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