By Kamil Wiśniewski Aug 2nd, 2007

Sociolinguistics is a quickly developing branch of linguistics which investigates the individual and social variation of language. Just as regional variation of language can give a lot of information about the place the speaker is from, social variation tells about the roles fulfilled by a given speaker within one community, or country. Sociolinguistics is a practical scientific discipline researching the language that is actually used either by native speakers, or foreigners, in order to formulate theories about language change.

There are numerous factors influencing the way people speak which are investigated by sociolinguistics:

  • Social class: the position of the speaker in the society, measured by the level of education, parental background, profession and their effect on syntax and lexis used by the speaker;
  • Social context: the register of the language used depending on changing situations, formal language in formal meetings and informal during meetings with friends for example;
  • Geographical origins: slight differences in pronunciation between speakers that point at the geographical region which the speaker come from;
  • Ethnicity: differences between the use of a given language by its native speakers and other ethnic groups;
  • Nationality: clearly visible in the case of the English language: British English differs from American English, or Canadian English;
  • Gender: differences in patterns of language use between men and women, such as quantity of speech, intonation patterns.
  • Age: the influence of age of the speaker on the use of vocabulary and grammar complexity

An important factor influencing the way of formulating sentences is according to sociolinguists the social class of the speakers. Thus, there has been a division of social classes proposed in order to make the description accurate. Two main groups of language users, mainly those performing non-manual work and those with more years of education are the ‘middle class’, while those who perform some kind of manual work are ‘working class’. Additional terms ‘lower’ and ‘upper’ are frequently used in order to subdivide the social classes. Therefore, differences between upper middle class can be compared with lower working class.

It is notable that people are acutely aware of the differences in speech patterns that mark their social class and are often able to adjust their style to the interlocutor. It is especially true for the members of the middle class who seem eager to use forms associated with upper class, however, in such efforts the forms characteristic of upper class are often overused by the middle class members. The above mentioned process of adopting own speech to reduce social distance is called convergence. Sometimes, however, when people want to emphasize the social distance they make use of the process called divergence purposefully using idiosyncratic forms.

Sociolinguistics investigates the way in which language changes depending on the region of country it is used in. To describe a variety of language that differs in grammar, lexis and pronunciation from others a term dialect is used. Moreover, each member of community has a unique way of speaking due to the life experience, education, age and aspiration. An individual personal variation of language use is called an idiolect.

There are numerous factors influencing idiolect some of which have been presented above, yet two more need to be elucidated, namely jargon and slang. Jargon is specific technical vocabulary associated with a particular field of interest, or topic. For example words such as convergence, dialect and social class are sociolinguistic jargon. Whereas slang is

a type of language used most frequently by people from outside of high-status groups characterized by the use of unusual words and phrases instead of conventional forms.

Finch G. 1998. How to study linguistics. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Yule G. 1996. The study of language. Cambridge: CUP.

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