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. Read Summary.
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 andbet so 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...