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When Brown and Gilman published their classic work on pronouns of power and solidarity (1960; see also 1989), no one characterized that paper as a major contribution to "sociolinguistics." When Gumperz and Hymes published their updated Directions in Sociolinguistics in 1986 (the 1972 edition was based on a 1966 publication of the American Anthropological Association), they were providing a paradigmatic definition of recognizable enterprise; that book included contributions by many of the founders. A two-part survey of sociolinguistics written in 1973 (Grimshaw 1973b, 1974a) noted that more had been published on sociolinguistic topics in the early 1970s than in all previous years. That review commented on about fifty new titles; only a few sociologists (particularly Basil Bernstein and Joshua Fishman, each with several volumes) were represented. In the three decades since that time, interest in language in use (micro sociolinguistics) has continued to grow exponentially; while that interest still is not seen as part of mainstream sociology, it is moving in that direction (Lemert 1979). Interest in more macro dimensions of the sociology of language—for instance, language conflict, language maintenance, and language spread and decline—also has grown, though much more slowly.


At least a dozen specialties investigate some aspect of language: its origins, structure, invariant and variant features, acquisition, use in social contexts, change, spread, and death, and so on. Among those specialties, there are at least five whose practitioners do not consider themselves sociolinguists or sociologists of language and whose research seldom is incorporated directly into sociolinguistics/sociology of language (SL/SOL) investigations:

  1. Formal linguistics that focuses on languages as autonomous systems and investigates how those systems work independently of human and/or social agency. This activity often is referred to as "autonomous linguistics" and occasionally as "nonhyphenated linguistics."
  2. Anthropological linguistics devoted to a "description" (writing of grammars and dictionaries and audio and phonemic recording of phonological systems) of languages in specific, usually nonmodern societies.
  3. Psycholinguistics, which covers a wide range of topics, including the acoustics of perception, cognitive constraints on the complexity of clausal embedding, theories of innateness and learning in language acquisition, and the physical location of language functions in the brain.
  4. Social psychology of language (from psychological social psychology), wide-ranging specialty that includes research on message characteristics and influence, self-disclosure, relationships between personality and speech, and relationships among body movements, speech, and "meaning."
  5. Conversation analysis/ethnomethodology (CA), an approach that views talk in muchthe same way formal linguists view language: as a system that is syntactically organized and has structure that can be discerned independently of the social attributes of participants in particular talk.

CA has identified devices such as "preinvitations" and "preclosings" as well as ways of constructing accusations without accusing anyone explicitly (Atkinson and Drew 1979); workers in the field are interested in how these devices are used in the course of the immediate talk, not in how they might be directed to more complex goals of conversational participants. Whalen (1991) notes that CA "examines talk as an object in its own right, as a fundamental type of social action, rather than primarily as a resource for documenting other social processes." None of the five activities listed above deals with language primarily as social resource.

In contrast, another handful of specialties focuses on the social dimensions of language/talk as interactional resource, a component of individual and group identity, and a social object. The ethnography of speaking and ethnolinguistics, like the anthropological practices from which they take their names, focus on the diversity of available linguistic resources and the uses to which those resources are put in individual speech communities and in human society at large, respectively. There is a strong comparative dimension to these arenas of investigation.

Sociolinguistics manifests a different kind of comparative orientation. The micro variety usually focuses on interactional accomplishment through the medium of language in use in social contexts: (1) comparisons of means and ends, including attention both to how individual ends can be accomplished by different means (ways of talking) and to how different outcomes may simultaneously result (intentionally or otherwise) from the production of same or very similar bits of talk, and (2) comparisons of the different resources available to different participants in talk. The sociology of language, as the macro variety of sociolinguistics often is called (Grimshaw 1987a), tends to focus on distributional studies, such as the distribution of language varieties across individual repertoires and the distribution of repertoires across social aggregates, categories, and groups (nations or classes, genders or age groups, and families or friendship networks, respectively). At the most macro level, this implies studies of language maintenance, supersession and change, conflict, and so on.

The sociological social psychology of language is oriented to group effects on individual behaviors, including the acquisition of social-cultural competence through the medium of talk, the role of talk in the acquisition and organization of evaluative orientations, and uses of talk/written language in social control. At some point, the last activity shades off into symbolic interactionism; this boundary is not explored here. Finally, specialized studies of proxemics (social and interpersonal spacing) and kinesics (body movement, the organization of facial features, gesture, posture) have been done from both sociological and psychological perspectives (Hall 1966, 1974; Kendon, [1977] 1990).


Since later sections of this article illustrate how sociological theory can be enriched by empirical SL/SOL research in specific substantive areas, the comments here are limited to four questions of general orientation in theoretical work in SL/SOL: (1) What are causal and other relations between language/speech and other social behavior(s)? (2) Are grammars of social interaction possible, and is there a universal grammar? (3) What is the relevance of a micro–macro distinction for understanding the importance of language/speech in social life, and now are the two levels articulated in social behavior? (4) Is theoretical advance and/or understanding best sought by focusing on social processes or on specific substantive arenas of social behavior?

Causal Directionality/Covariation/Cotemporality/Mutuality. As in other varieties of social behavior, SL/SOL theory and research must deal with complex problems of cause and effect. There are four principal perspectives on the causal relationship between social structure and language (see Grimshaw 1974b; Hymes 1966):

  1. That which sees language as fundamental (or as source, cause, independent variable, or set of independent variables), a position consonant both with an extreme Whorfian position (language determines how people think) and the commonsense observation that people sometimes do not know what is going on until they hear other people talking
  2. That which sees social structure as a determinant or an independent variable or set of such variables, position consonant with people's awareness that they talk differently in different situations, with different interlocutors, and depending on the nature of their interactional goals
  3. That which sees neither as prior to the other, with both being seen as co-occurring and codetermining
  4. That which sees both as being determined by a third factor, whether innate features of the human mind—the view of Cartesian linguistics (Chomsky 1966, 1968)— Weltanschauung, or the intrinsic demands of an ordered universe

Most SL/SOL correlational studies focus on how the location of individuals or groups in the social structure is reflected in speech and/or other language behavior, as in the case of regional or class dialects, or determines it, as in the case of the section of a language variety in different situations and with different conversational partners (Blom and Gumperz 1972) or of pronominal forms or other names (for a review of some of this literature, see Grimshaw 1980a). A smaller but substantial number of correlational studies attempt to discover how language use (spoken and written) is associated with interactional outcomes as varied as providing or not providing a requested favor, succeeding or not succeeding in school, and deciding whether to go to war (for a review, see Grimshaw 1981; for illustrations of claims about language use and the risks of war, see Chilton 1985; Wertsch and Mehan 1988). Although closer scrutiny often reveals that ways of talking are themselves resources that are differentially available to interactants with different social origins, some language resources appear to be available throughout social structures. Ways of talking in turn have been shown to have effects independent of structural relations.

Figure 1 is a simplified schematic representation of a mutual-embeddedness perspective. It is also a schematic showing how the processes of cultural reproduction would operate in a world without change. Bernstein (1975), Bourdieu (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977), Cicourel (1980a, 1980b, 1981), Collins (1981a, 1981b), and Habermas (1984–1987) all address the question of cultural reproduction and questions of change. All take essentially mutuality perspectives. All accord central importance to language in the reproduction process. Collins explicates ways in which language is simultaneously a resource in interaction and a source of change. Only Bernstein and Cicourel actually collect data on language in use, and only Cicourel directly investigates talk. None of these scholars would strongly disagree with this characterization; each would wish to "complete" the chart by incorporating neglected features (see Bernstein's diagram of the process [1975, p. 24], with its foregrounding of different transmission agencies, such as family and education; modes of social control; specific speech varieties; and context-dependent and -independent meanings).

In the mid-1960s, Fischer (1965, 1966) published perhaps the strongest version of the mutual-embeddedness position and, from the disciplinary perspective of sociology, perhaps the most esoterically documented. (The papers are reviewed extensively in Grimshaw 1974b.) Fischer argued nothing loss that phonological and syntactic differences between two related but mutually unintelligible languages (Trukese and Ponapean, separated for
about eight centuries) are isomorphic to differences in the social structures of the two societies:

As societies become more complex and social roles become more differentiated, the realized meaning of words in particular contexts becomes less important than the common or basic meaning. Speakers are forced to assume a greater cognitive gap between themselves and their listeners. At the same time, the basic meaning of the items of the lexicon tends to become more abstract and attenuated, since speakers have less need for words which can express much meaning in compact form to listeners who are conceived as being much like the self; they have more need, instead, for words which can be used in many different contexts with many different listeners who are conceived of as being very different from the self and from each other. (Fischer 1966, p. 178)

The mutuality perspective is a richly suggestive one.

Grammars of Social Interaction/A Grammar of Social Interaction. Linguists write grammars; that is, they describe and write "rules" for phonological and syntactic systems for individual languages. They are also committed to the goal of writing a grammar of language, that is, identifying in grammars of individual languages features and/or rules that hold for all languages: a universal grammar. They distinguish between absolute and quantitative universals (i.e., between features of all languages that can be explained on theoretical grounds as required constituents and features that occur in all or most languages, such as terms for female derived from that for male [this kind of feature is known as marking], but for which no theoretically principled basis can be identified) and between weaker and stronger claims of universality (i.e., between a claim that all languages contain certain elements [nouns, verbs, prepositions] and a claim that those elements appear in the same order in utterances in every language).

An interest in the intrinsic ordering of the universe and a concern to avoid repeating old errors and rediscovering the already known are central in linguists' interest in both the regularities in individual languages and universal rules. Sociologists have similar concerns in seeking to discover the rules of interactional grammars for specific societies or groups and in seeking social interactional universals and the role of language in use in both grammars and the grammar. Although there are greetings in most, if not all, societies (this is more a quantitative than an absolute universal, and there are societies in which greeting is the marked case and nongreeting the unmarked), how they are done, to whom, and to what purpose may vary considerably (Firth 1972; Goffman 1971; Ibrahim et al. 1976; Kendon and Ferber 1973).

Similarly, there must be a need for information everywhere, but questions are not the appropriate manner for obtaining information in every society (see Goody 1978; sources cited in Grimshaw 1969). Again, it seems likely that interpersonal relations of power and affect and considerations of valence and cost are everywhere involved in requesting behavior (Brown and Levinson 1987; Grimshaw 1989); their relative importance and the consequent variety of modes of requesting behaviors vary considerably.

Ways of talking are everywhere critical resources in interaction; very little is known, however, about what features of language in use in social contexts may be universal or, for that matter, about which rules within speech communities (or social groups) are variant and which are invariant (Labov 1968; Grimshaw 1973a). Indeed, some sociologists find the notion of rule misleading on grounds that expectations and behaviors are always under negotiation (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Notions of rules and exceptions vary across disciplines (Edgerton 1985; Labov 1968; Grimshaw 1973a, 1981).

Micro–Macro, Conversation, and Interaction/Official Languages and Language Policies, SL/SOL. These distinctions, along with the familiar polarities of social psychology and social organization—or qualitative and quantitative methods—often appear in discussions of sociological interest in language and language in use. Three sorts of questions can be asked in this arena:

  1. What are sociology's interests in what goes on in conversation/interaction, and what does a specific focus on talk teach sociologists that other modes of study do not?
  2. What are sociology's interests in looking at language as an individual social attribute that, aggregated, has supraindividual importance in ways similar to ethnic group, class, religion, and other categorical attributes? What are sociology's interests in questions about how language is linked to life chances, why and how it becomes a focus of positive and negative attitudes, and how languages spread, change, contract, and die?
  3. How do the things that go on in individual conversations on the micro level get articulated with, and aggregated into, processes of change in languages themselves, in their prestige, in policies regarding their use, and so on, on the macro level?

As was suggested above, the micro–macro question is closely related both to those about mutual embeddedness and to those about cultural reproduction. The dimension added by asking the articulation question is that of social change: If socializing/cultural transmission agencies operate to reproduce values, attitudes, behaviors, and so on, in new generations, how does change occur? A perspective offered by Collins (1981a, 1981b) is that participants bring to everyday conversations interactional resources that are enhanced or reduced in the course of interaction and that modest changes in interactional resources ultimately eventuate in changes in institutions and cultural systems—and languages. Related formulations are cited in Grimshaw (1987b). The macro–micro questions constrain one to think deeply both about processes of change and about how people try to get co-conversationalists to agree with them or to do what they want those them to do.

Substance or Process: "Top-Down" or "Bottom-Up." Two additional questions about the construction and use of theory have methodological as well as theory-building implications. The first question is whether when sociologists study the uses of language in specific contexts such as educational, military, or medical institutions, they are interested primarily in understanding (1) the institutions themselves, (2) social processes such as negotiation or socialization or, more broadly, conflict or cooperation, (3) a specific kind of situated interaction, such as an interview, as a representative of a species of situation, or (4) how talk works in interaction. There are, of course, no pure cases The second question has been put by Cicourel (1980a) as a distinction between "top-down" and "bottom-up" theorizing. By "top-down," Cicourel means approaching corpora of talk with sets of conceptual notions ranging from the generality of "cultural reproduction" or "role" and/or "conflict" to the specificity of "role conflict" or different "footings" in talk (Goffman 1981). By "bottom-up," he refers to researchers immersing themselves in their data and identifying regularities, then validating that identification, then discovering regularities in relations between previously observed regularities, and so on. All the investigators whose work is mentioned in this article—indeed, all sociologists—would like to believe that they let their data guide them to theory construction, and all are to some extent guided in their work by prior theoretical constructions.


While sociologists sometimes are intimidated by the complex structure of formal linguistic theory, they may be equally envious of the easy access of linguists to their data, either in their own intuitions about the languages they speak or in the bath of talk and writing in which all people live (compare the ways of studying phonology in, for example, Chomsky and Halle 1968; W. Labov 1980). Students of SL/SOL share the advantage that many of the data in which they are interested are fairly accessible and, with modern technology, fairly easy to collect (denial of access and questions of ethics aside). They share the disadvantage that many of the sociological questions they want to study—matters as varied as (1) attitudes about different speech varieties, (2) the impact of stratification on the acquisition of those attitudes, and (3) the ways in which phonological variation affects stratification—can be considerably more difficult to identify, conceptualize, and measure. Just as there are fundamental questions about theoretical orientation in SL/SOL, there are fundamental questions about methods.

This brief discussion can comment on only a few of these methodological questions: (1) What constitutes optimal data for SL and SOL, or micro and macro, research? (2) How can the optimal data best be collected? (3) What need is there for modes of work, such as comprehensive discourse analysis (CDA), that differ from more familiar modes of sociological investigation? (4) What are the roles of collaborative and comparative studies in SL/SOL research?

What Constitutes Optimal Types of Data for SL/SOL? Labov (1972a) remarked that linguists work variously in library, bush, closet, laboratory, and street, where they collect and/or produce data that can be labeled texts, elicitations, intuitions, experimental results, and observations, respectively. Among the many sorts of data that can be useful in the investigation of SL/SOL issues, those associated with the following four "how" questions are central:

  1. How do people actually talk/write? This has two dimensions: (a) What varieties of language (spoken and written are assumed in the following discussion) do individual members of speech communities control? (b) How do individuals employ their language resources in social interaction? The optimal data for such studies are extended texts.
  2. How are language varieties and patterns of use distributed across categories of age, class, gender, occupation, nationality, religious affiliation, and residence? The optimal data here are a combination of sampled texts and observations.
  3. How do members of social groups learn about language and its appropriate use, and how do they learn second (and higher-order) languages? The optimal data here are experimental results and observations and, to a lesser extent, texts.
  4. How do people feel about language; that is, what are the attitudes of individuals and groups toward language varieties, repertoires, language change, and literacy? Data that have been employed in addressing these questions have included all five of the varieties listed by Labov (1972a), and each has proved useful.

What Are the Criteria for Optimal Data? There is no such thing as a "verbatim" record without electronic recording, and optimal records of conversation include both high-fidelity audio recording and possibly multiple sound-image recordings (for discussions of sound-image recording, including some of the controversies about such data collection, see Feld and Williams 1975; Grimshaw 1982, 1989). When one is working with written texts, optimal data include photographic copies of handwritten originals as well as printed versions. Whatever texts and observations are collected and used as data, however, those materials are valuable only to the extent that contexts of both "situation" and "text" (i.e., embedding talk and written material) are provided (the distinction is Halliday's following Malinowski). Two excellent articulations of the importance of context that suggest different boundaries for what must be taken into account are those of Corsaro (1981, 1985) and Cicourel (esp. 1994).

People are often skeptical of claims about what talk is actually like until they see it transcribed; they then are skeptical that the transcription is accurate until they hear electronically recorded audio while reading a transcript. Investigators who work with texts, elicitations, and observations must always take into account the effects of monitoring in most varieties of SL/SOL data; Labov (1972a) has referred to the Observer's Paradox; that is, "we want to observe how people talk when they are not being observed." One also should keep in mind, however, Sol Worth's observation that all behavior, however carefully monitored, is "natural" (personal communication). Labov has developed elicitation techniques that have the advantage of generating different levels of self-consciousness of, and thus monitoring of, talk (see, e.g., 1972b).

Other concerns with data in SL/SOL research are, like those just reviewed, quite similar to those in sociological research in general. Self-report data on language varieties employed by oneself or one's family or of uses of literacy are notoriously unreliable, and definitions and measurements of individual attributes such as literacy and bilingual fluency are often inconsistent.

The Need for Methods Specific to SL/SOL. Many of the data employed in SL/SOL research are the same as or very similar to those employed in other arenas of sociology, as are the methods employed in analysis. This similarity may be least evident in the case of the activities labeled "conversation analysis" (see Whalen 1991) and "comprehensive discourse analysis" (Labov and Fanshel 1977). Labov and Fanshel realize that the goal of comprehensiveness is chimerical: their pioneering study demonstrated the importance of such aspects of talk as prosodic and paralinguistic features. Lexical, syntactic, and even phonological selection are deeply involved in what is "actually said" (i.e., interactionally intended) in talk (for a discussion of the process of "disambiguation" of text, see Grimshaw 1987c). Sociologists have employed CDA and adaptations of it to ask more specifically sociological questions. Other students have developed similarly fine-grained approaches to written texts (Silverman and Torode 1980). Perhaps sociologists are now aware that questions about language as language have sociological significance and that talk and writing are no longer just media that contain answers to other questions.

Collaborative, Comparative, and Corroborative Research on SL/SOL. While SL and SOL research and publications have increased tremendously in the last few decades, their literatures continue to be diffuse. There have been few replications. Most research has been on English, and much of the material on other languages is published in English. While much of the early activity in SL was interdisciplinary, there have been few truly interdisciplinary studies (for a discussion of problems with such projects, see Grimshaw, Feld et al. 1994) or parallel studies of shared data (see, however, Chafe 1980; Dorval 1990; Grimshaw, Burke, et al. 1994). There have been few explicitly comparative studies in which the same or collaborating investigators have simultaneously studied the "same" phenomenon in different speech communities (see, however, Watson-Gegeo and White 1990) or in different institutional contexts in same societies (see, however, Grimshaw 1990). There is reason to believe that all three of these important kinds of research are on the increase. Scholars all over the world are trying out SL formulations largely generated in the United States and Europe in their own societies, more and more work is being done on related SL phenomena in societies and speech communities where earlier work followed more traditional courses in linguistics and anthropological linguistics, and researchers from an increasingly wide range of disciplinary backgrounds are finding in SL/SOL data and theory materials to use in addressing their own questions.

An Additional, Residual, Neglected Question. Claims about the relative validity, reliability, and general worth of quantitative and qualitative research appear in SL/SOL, as they do in most areas of sociological work. While the modes of work are loosely associated with the micro–macro distinction, there are representations of both modes in both arenas.


A diminishing number of sociologists remain unfamiliar with SL/SOL and therefore unaware of both substantive findings and theoretical developments that could be helpful in their work. It is possible here to mention only a few contributions to the understanding of (1) substantive areas, (2) social processes, and (3) relations among language, literature, identity, and so on. Let us begin with two instances of sociologically relevant contributions by the linguist best known to sociologists (possibly excepting Chomsky), William Labov, and then turn to research by sociologists and other nonlinguists that focuses from the outset on identifiably sociological concerns.

Suggestive Empirical Findings. Studies of classrooms, courtrooms, and clinics have generated findings that sometimes have resulted in changes in pedagogic, legal, and medical practice as well as contributed to our theoretical understanding of SL/SOL. Studies of a multitude of other settings, ranging from street, to dinner table, to backyard party, to workplace, also have produced important theoretical insights. Two of these findings come from Labov's quantitative studies of language use in urban areas of the eastern United States (New York City and Philadelphia); the first has important implications for understanding social stratification, the second for understanding ethnic (and possibly class) relations, and both for understanding processes of social change.

In studies of dialects associated with class, Labov and others have shown that linguistically insecure informants, more often than not women with aspirations for upward social mobility (or concerns about slipping), often hypercorrect their phonological production in the direction of what they perceive as prestige variants, thus producing the prestige variant with higher frequencies than do those at social levels above them—and sometimes produce it inappropriately (Labov gives as an example, "Hi, say, that's hawfully good of you"). Awareness of this phenomenon should alert sociologists to look for analogues in other behavioral arenas (there is a family relationship to anticipatory socialization; the roots of the labeled behaviors may differ quite considerably); Labov (1972b, 1986) has pointed out important implications of this research for studies of linguistic (and, one may add, social) change.

Labov's second finding is that the speech of urban blacks who have contact with whites continues to be modified in the direction of the grammar of the dominant group, while blacks in the increasingly segregated inner cities speak ever more divergent language varieties. This divergence cooccurs with concommitant differentiation in incomes and educational achievement, heightening social distance and probably enhancing intergroup hostility (see Williams et al. 1964). Labov comments, "The linguistic situation correlates with the formation of what has been called a 'permanent underclass"' (1986, p. 278).

Some Little Concepts and Some Central Processes. Studies of actual talk that occurs in the course of everyday interaction have generated both (1) concepts that allow one to taxonomically identify previously unspecified regularities in that interaction (in a manner similar to Goffman's labeling of, among other things, front and back regions, side involvements, and the more specifically talk-related "footing") and (2) new understandings of the working of what might be called "master social processes," such as conflict and socialization. Instances of the former (all from Grimshaw 1989) are the identification of hyperinvolvement (a phenomenon in which interactants are so deeply involved in the ongoing that they miss the things they intend to monitor), defects of nerve (a situation in which interactants know how to do something but are reluctant to do it because they are concerned that it may generate injury to self or another party), and phenomena such as topic avoidance, topic exploitation, and topic truncation (the last occurring when it becomes obvious to an interactant that interactional goals are not going to be accomplished).

An instance of this is Corsaro's (1985) demonstration of the processes involved in children's learning how to recognize and construct the cultures and social structures in which they find themselves. Another is Grimshaw's (1990) distillation of the reported findings of a number of individual studies of conflict talk into propositions about the conflict process (see below).

Discourse in organizations: What can be learned from a language-oriented approach to social structure and social behavior depends on researchers' choices of an "entering wedge" (the term is John Useem's), that is, the selection of units of analysis, particulars of language in use to be attended, and questions to be asked. The paragraphs below will address things that have been learned from studies of language in use in (1) public bureaucracies in Sweden, focusing on narratives in the public domain, (2) organizations (primarily in the United States), employing a conversation analytic method, (3) a specific event within a university (a dissertation defense) examined by an interdisciplinary group employing a range of approaches and asking a number of different questions, and (4) a sampling of more narrowly focused studies of language in use.

Focus on narrative: Czarniawska is a student of management and organization who disclaims linguistic or sociolinguistic competences language in use is nonetheless central to her analyses of public administration in Sweden. In Narrating the Organization (1997), Czarniawska demonstrates for the study of organizations, a central descriptive and analytic role of stories/narratives and a dramaturgical perspective. Czarniawska asserts that stories rule people's lives and constitute the basis for the construction of society (p. 5); she seems to believe that the centrality of narrative as the main source of knowledge "in the practice of organizing . . . is not likely to generate much opposition" (pp. 5–6). I find this surprising if true. Her project is to apply the narrative perspective (for which she credits Jean-Francois Lyotard) to elucidate continuities and change in Swedish public institutions and/or organizations at various governmental levels. The argument is dense, and the examples unfamiliar; the demonstration is persuasive both for the organizations studied and for the application of this perspective to other arenas of social life.

Czarniawska conceptualizes organizational life as stories, and organizational theories as ways of reading stories (pp. 26–29). She invokes Burke and Goffman in identifying drama and autobiography as special kinds of narratives (p. 32), noting (following Merelman) how drama, for example, can simultaneously or alternatively generate catharsis, personification, identification, and suspense (p. 36). She observes that stories not only can be vehicles for identity claiming by their tellers but also can be contested by other stories, unsuccessfully performed, and turned into serials (and sagas); importantly, all descriptions favor the theories of their tellers (p. 71).

In her exposition of how she studied Swedish public organizations, Czarniawska reviews a number of methodological conundrums related to the logic of inquiry of interpretive studies, including (1) interruption of texts (p. 92, per Silverman and Torode 1980), (2) the advantages of "outsideness (p. 62), (3) issues of case studies versus "window" studies (pp. 64 ff), (4) the identification of action "nets" in organizational "fields" (p. 66), and (5) the place of notions of institutionalization and norms in studies focusing on narratives (pp. 68 ff.).

Focusing on two specialized fields—municipal administration and social insurance—she shows how stories, themes, and serials can be employed to elucidate the role of "good" and "bad" friction in social change, how new and old ways of acting have been integrated, and how new processes of "companyization" and "computerization" change the workplaces of individuals as well as the larger bureaucratic landscape. Narratives are central to people's lives, and Czarniawska has shown the necessity of attending to them.

Conversation(al) analysis as a sociological method: CA is treated elsewhere in this encyclopedia; conversational analysis (CAs) do not consider themselves sociolinguists or sociologists of language. For many years, the author has told CAs that their work is highly original, exciting, and of great potential value to sociology and that that potential will be achieved only when they integrate CA methods and concepts into more traditional sociology, simultaneously showing how traditional sociological concepts and perspectives ranging from status and role, to social structure, to socioeconomic status (SES), to self-esteem could help in interpreting CA findings.

Increasing numbers of researchers across the social sciences and humanities have come to value CA as an approach to everyday talk; until recently, CA-trained sociologists did not undertake to demonstrate the value of talk as data for studying fundamental sociological questions such as how social organization is constituted, reproduced, and modified—and how members contribute to that constitution, reproduction, and modification through talk—in what may appear to be mundane and unremarkable interactions. (CA methods are increasingly being employed in sociological analyses. Atkinson and Drew [1979] on Court proceedings, Maynard [1984] on plea bargaining, and Goodwin [1990] on black children's play groups are impressive examples. These studies do not as directly as the work discussed here foreground the epistemological issues implied by the CA posture described above [see, for example, Boden pp. 214–215].)

Boden (1994) provides a demonstration that many readers will find convincing. Using audio-recorded talk from telephone calls and meetings of varying levels of formality collected in organizations ranging from a travel agency and a local television station to hospitals and a university administrative department to the Oval Office, Boden shares her understanding of the sometimes extraordinarily delicate but analytically identifiable ways in which talk is employed to "inform, amuse, update, gossip, review, reassess, reason, instruct, revise, argue, debate, contest, and actually constitute the moments, myths and, through time, the very structuring of [the] organization" (p. 8). The argument is often dense, and for readers unfamiliar with CA, it may be difficult to follow. The way in which an accountant comes to see that physicians in different departments may differently view policy change that could improve a hospital's overall revenue position but reduce "their" money (p. 58 ff) is a case in point.

Boden's goal is to use her collected talk to undertake two quite different but complementary projects:

(1) to examine a range of more specific aspects of the organization of talk in the work settings that make up the business day; and (2) to discover through those materials how an apparently fragmentary process of information gathering, transmission, and very local assimilation is transformed into the goals, agendas, and decisions of organizations (p. 107).

In the course of pursuing her projects, Boden shows how members of organizations can at the same time account for their behaviors in terms of a "rational actor" model and be unaware of how actual decision making is accomplished incrementally in fragments of unremembered and individually unremarkable chat rather than through a focused weighing of "rational" considerations. Boden simultaneously shows how concurrent and articulated employ of the previously segregated conceptual apparatuses of general sociology and CA (e.g., adjacency organization, agenda, bracketing, placement, sequence [centrally and critically], turn and so on) is mutually enhancing.

Boden argues that stages of (1) collection of actual talk, (2) identification of sequentiality in that talk, and (3) discovery in the talk and its sequentiality of the fundamental stuff and fundamentals of organization, (4) allow and/or contribute to sociological theory at levels of considerable abstractness (p. 206 ff). One may find in Boden's study a convincing demonstration of Collins's "microfoundations of macrosociology" perspective.

Boden goes a step further and anticipates the result in offices of the future of today's incremental changes (p. 209 ff); they will be places with more talk (and reduced opportunities for reflection), sped-up expectations of productivity, increased scope of action for all personnel, a flattened hierarchy, and real downsizing. Careful study of Boden's book allows one to see how (1) she came to make such a projection and (2) one can evaluate a novel and productive application of CA to central sociological issues.

Collaborative work across disciplines: As early as the 1970s, concern was expressed about the increasingly disparate and noncumulative character of work on language in use in social contexts (Grimshaw 1973b, 1974a). In response to this concern, the Committee on Sociolinguistics of the Social Science Research Council initiated in the 1970s the Multiple Analysis Project (MAP), in which representatives of different disciplines and different theoretical and methodological approaches agreed to undertake analyses of a shared corpus of data, in this case a ten-minute fragment of a doctoral dissertation defense (Grimshaw 1989; Grimshaw, Burke, et al. 1994). The author has (Grimshaw 1994a) attempted to assess the success of this project in achieving its goals of theoretical cumulation, testing the comparative strengths and weaknesses of analytic approaches and methods, and an illumination of a shared corpus of data beyond that available from one or two studies by individual researchers. While it is not possible to conclude that one or another of the analytic modes employed is more comprehensive, a reading of the studies together conveys a sense of the complexity of language use in talk in its several contexts beyond the richness of most studies done from single analytic perspectives (but not all; see Labov and Fanshel [1977], who synthesized a variety of perspectives in their pioneering study of Rhoda and her therapist).

The anthropologists, linguists, and sociologists who investigated the dissertation segment variously focused on laminations of context (Cicourel 1994), formulaic talk (Wong Fillmore 1994), clause structure (Halliday 1994), humor (Fillmore 1994), [Who didn't find funny that which sociologists in the defense thought was.], speech acts, cohesive devices (Burke 1994; Hasan 1994), prosodic features and contextualization cues (Cook-Gumperz and Gumperz 1994), proforms (Grimshaw 1994b), and many other elements of the talk to study an equally wide range of behavioral outcomes. The outcomes included the reproduction and/or reshaping of social structure; control of the course of talk (and, by extension, interaction); creation of social relations; social and sociolinguistic constraints on discourse and interaction; negotiation of meaning; the notion of fluency, humor, laughter, and short-term social reorganization; membership-affiliation-identification processes and the structuring of group boundaries; and "face work" and political maneuvering. Each of these varieties of behavioral outcome is autonomously a sociological matter. In more macro directions, they are also deeply implicated in the search for answers to the following five interrelated questions; the answers to which require attending to particularities of language in use:

  1. How is social structure generated, sustained, reproduced, and changed?
  2. What is the role of social interaction/talk in the creation, realization, maintenance, and so on, of social structure?
  3. How does interaction work? What permits it to continue and even flourish in social environments of competitiveness and aggressiveness?
  4. What is the role of "meaning" in driving interaction and shaping social relations? How is "meaning" socially constrained and sociolinguistically/linguistically signaled?
  5. What resources—social, sociolinguistic, and linguistic—are available to interactants for signaling meaning, sustaining interaction, and creating social relations?

What is going on, in short, when someone orders another person rather than asking or cajoling, or when someone says, "Don't include me in that you!" or when an interactant says, "Along those lines . . . " and then challenges something said by an interlocutor/conversational partner?

Other convergences: Ochs, Schegloff, et al. (1996), another volume of studies of language in use, provides additional evidence of the convergence of CA (and linguistic) concerns with those of both sociolinguists and more traditional sociologists. The book is innovative in that the collaboration it reports is among pioneers in articulating work in formal syntax, CA, paralinguistics (e.g., voice quality, intonation, and tempo), kinesics (e.g., facial expression, gesture, and "body language"), and proxemics (interpersonal distancing and arrangements of "things" in space) in investigating interactional accomplishment. It illustrates some of the range of autonomously syntactic (e.g., clausal organization and reorganization, employ of inflection and particles, movement of nouns or verbs), prosodic and paralinguistic, pragmatic, and other devices available in different languages and cultures (English, Finnish, Japanese, Kaluli) for the management of turns (including shifts of rights to the floor, acceptance or rejection of interruptions, and simultaneous speech), making credible claims, and making cautious characterizations of those not present or accomplishing a joint response to disruption. Fox et al. (1996) claim that English clause beginnings are richer than Japanese with information about "how clause is likely to continue," thus providing potential interrupters with valuable information. They also observe that repair (by the speaker or another person) extends the possibilities for how an utterance can be completed in any language (p. 220). They are talking about syntactic resources for interaction. Some of these resources and/or devices are both familiar and fun in a Goffmanesque manner, as when the reader is introduced to and immediately resonates to notions such as "trailoffs" and "rush-throughs" (Schegloff) and "outlastings" (Lerner 1996).

The book is informative because in addition to demonstrating the interinfluence of syntax and interaction, it provides windows to sociological understandings revealed when seldom exploited perspectives are applied to concerns at the core of sociology, including issues of symbolic interaction, the socialization of neophytes, and social change. Beyond this, it allows similarly (and seminally) novel views of specialties such as the sociology of science and that of occupations. Particularly instructive, for example, are Ochs, et al. (1996), on how scientists construct indeterminate referential identities—sometimes in the process blurring the distinction between themselves and the physical world under their scrutiny—and how meaning is built through routine interpretive activity involving talk, gesture, and graphic representation. Also engrossing is Goodwin's (1996) rich integration of different channels of behavior (syntactic production, intonation, body movement, display of awareness of a world beyond the immediate and ongoing) in a dynamic reconceptualization of Goffman's notion of participation framework as it operates in situations of disruption (of initially unknown magnitude) of routines—in an airport control tower.

Sociologists can profit from this book because of sociologically relevant questions posed, answers given, and because of passing observations. Lerner's (1996) thoughtful and suggestive work on how and why interlocutors complete utterances of speakers without being asked initially suggests as functions of such completion (1) agreement, (2) preemption of disagreement, (3) collaboration, and (4) heckling (p. 244). Lerner later argues that an early opportunistic completion may be intended to initiate or sustain a special alignment with a speaker such as affiliation (pp. 263–264). Sorjonen (1996) suggests that repeats and the Finnish particles niin and joo variously function as (1) interrogatives, (2) exclamations, (3) requests for confirmation (p. 279 ff.), (4) challenges, and (5) expressions of ritualized disbelief. There are obvious parallels to English. She also has some observations on sweetening recommendations of others when the recommender suspects that an unwanted invitation or request may be forthcoming. Schieffelin (1996, p. 442 ff.) shows how the invention and introduction of an evidential construction to refer to printed religious material, translatable as "known from this source/not known before," not only has granted authority to written text when there is no basis in fact for doing so but also has been associated with the introduction of higher status for a new role of interpreter of Christianity in a society where prior stratification rested on different bases (and, not incidentally, also to a lowering of the status of women in a previously more egalitarian society).

Social conflict as process: conflict talk as language in use in social context: Early studies of intragroup conflict were largely experimental (often involving researcher-instigated disputes in dyads), usually nonattentive to particulars of subjects' talk, and, in part because of these two features, likely to overestimate the proportion of disputes that are in some way "resolved" (Corsaro and Rizzo 1990; Goodwin 1996). These writers and others have suggested that many pioneer students of conflict talk (and social conflict more generally; for an early modern commentary, see Bernard 1950) were concerned with the disruptive consequences of disputation and thus tended to underestimate more positively valued outcomes, such as the creation of social organization and socialization of conflict participants (long ago identified by Simmel and others). In recent years researchers have, with great profit, turned increasingly to texts of actual disputes.

Students of processes of social conflict have more frequently than most other social scientists sought to formalize the regularities they have discovered in this phenomenon in propositions (see Coser 1956; Mack and Snyder 1957; Williams 1947; Williams et al. 1964). Taking into account the interaction of the sociological variables (affect, power, valence) and considerations of continua such as intensity, hostility, and violence and matters of external threat and internal cohesion as manifested in a range of studies of conflict talk, the author has formulated preliminary propositions. Space limitations constrain discussion of various sorts of propositions or of how sets of propositions permit the forecasting of patterns of conflict talk. Consider, however, the following:

Many disputes include instances of assignment of blame or responsibility (see Fillmore 1971). A discourse rule for this behavior might look like the following:

1. Rule for assigning blame (responsibility). If A asserts that B should and could have performed a behavior X1 but willfully did not or that B should and could have avoided performing a behavior X2 but nonetheless wilfully performed it, A is heard as blaming B for the nonoccurrence or occurrence of X1 or X2, respectively (Grimshaw, 1992 p. 312).

The influence of power on the availability of aggressive, uncompromising, and sometimes hostile modes of talk in conflict is similar to its influence and constraint on other selection of ways of talking:

2. Ceteris paribus, selection of more "confrontational" modes of conflict talk (e.g., threats or insults and increased amplitude or physiological rage displays, threatening kinesic posture, or gestures) is directly related to increasing relative power (Grimshaw 1992, p. 315).

It is interesting to note that in talk where the parties are proxy military representatives of superpowers discussing matters of very high valence, confrontational modes generally are avoided (Grimshaw 1992). A growing literature on conflict talk demonstrates that the behavior of interest is simultaneously immensely complicated and has a rich potential for new understandings both of social conflict itself and of discourse more generally. This is true even though records of critically important conflict-talk events on the group and international levels have not been available for study (Grimshaw 1992).

Language, Writing, Literacy, and Literature. Recent events have demonstrated the continuing importance of what Geertz (1963) labeled "primordial sentiments" and shown that feelings about language are central among those sentiments. The range of sociological and sociologically relevant ways in which both language in general and writing and literacy in particular permeate and/or pervade human cultural and social structures and relations, as well as conceptions of identity and of self on the individual level, defies easy summary or description. People go to court in defense of their mother tongue; people have also fought in the streets and burned themselves alive over language issues. Becoming literate in any language can be primarily an instrumental acquisition; in some instances, it can have profound effects on both individual personalities and social organization (see, particularly, J. Goody 1987). The "invention" and development of national languages can have reverberating effects through previously atomized collectivities (Anderson 1990); when printed material becomes available, it can have critical impacts both on change in general (Eisenstein 1979) and on the development of national communities and identities (Anderson 1983).

Sociologists of literature have shown how national literatures can reveal cultural and social values (e.g., Moore 1971); sociologists who study both contemporary life and that in past times are becoming increasingly aware of the rich data in personal documents from journals to correspondence. It is even possible to hear the question, "Who wants citizens to be literate, and to what ends?" (the implication is that social control may be as much a goal as is the enrichment of individual lives [see Kress and Hodge 1979]). Related interests have drawn a number of investigators to study of how written materials affect their readers, a question that has been addressed both by methods that project the "interruption" or "interrogation" of written and/or spoken texts (Silverman and Torode 1980) and by those of psycholinguistics or cognitive science.

Language and personal and social identity: This introduction to matters of language in use in social contexts should not be closed without mention of a dimension of social life increasingly recognized by sociological social psychologists as well as sociolinguists. This section includes brief reviews of two studies that focus on this use of language in identity matters and closes with a listing of suggestive but previously unexamined questions.

Constitution of morally relevant categories of people: T. Labov (1980) has been concerned with specifying how ascriptions of morality are made in conversational discourse and about whom (i.e., which persons and collections of persons) they are made. She has concluded that a task prior to the location of evaluation and obligation in talk is the specification of how people are located in talk and how morally relevant categories of people are constituted.

According to Labov (1980), all types of "collections of people" (a term "used to designate any plurality of people which can be referred to in talk or systematically inferred from the talk") are potentially relevant in moral matters; since there is a potentially infinite number of such collections, it is imperative to develop procedures for reducing the number to be examined in any given investigation, that is, to discover principled bases for classifying collections. She does this by first developing discovery procedures for locating collections and then gathering the collections into sets bounded by common identifying dimensions.

Labov (1980) observes that references in talk to collections of people often occur in the form of common nouns, proper names, and pronouns. What people are often unaware of, she argues, are collections of "hidden people," that is, "those collections of people not immediately evident in the surface talk, but systematically retrievable." Collections are hidden in five ways:

  1. In references to social organization(s), incidents, and specific categories (e.g., in the case of academic settings, belonging-to-department-people, participating-indefense-people, and faculty people).
  2. Social characterizations, that is, collections defined by verbs of activity or specific attributes (e.g., candidate-attacking-people or candidate-defending-people or identification by gender, academic rank, features of personal appearance, voice quality, etc.) She (p. 135) notes that some activities, such as guessing, telling, and thinking, since they are features of all people, are nondiscriminating and thus analytically without value.
  3. Ellipsed individuals or collections (i.e., where there is shared knowledge of past characterizations).
  4. Collections concealed in references to time or place.
  5. Plurals hidden in singulars.

Collections can conveniently be labeled as "feature plus people," for instance, "doing research on language and identity people" or "reading encyclopedia articles people," to make "explicit in a standardized way what features of the people are being considered" (emphasis added). It is precisely such explicitness that is needed forthe specification of identities and their boundaries.

Labov realizes that the identification of collections used by individual speakers is not sufficient to permit an understanding of how discussion of moral matters is accomplished in talk, and she continues by raising several critical questions. The general question is, "How do analysts (and interlocutors) know that coconversationalists are talking about a 'same' collection?" There is no easy answer to this question; collections to which reference is being made change in the course of a single speaker's utterance, overlap across utterances, shift across utterances because the original speaker's identification was unclear or because a hearer-become-speaker misheard or deliberately Misunderstood (Grimshaw 1980b) the original identification, are layered, subsumed, expanded (Labov's notion of layering is loosely akin to both the linguistic and Goffman's [1981] more specialized uses of the term "embedding"), and so on. Resolution of these complexities is a requirement for coherent and cohesive discourse. Labov proposes the "notion of 'category consensus' for a situation where the relevance of a given collection of people is shown interactional support" and "which occurs as co-interactants ratify the use of specific collections of people." Category consensus is not always achieved; like other varieties of consensus, it is often the subject of challenge, negotiation, and metadiscussion. This is, of course, what the study of identity(ies) is about.

Exploitation of referential ambiguity in pronominal usage: A complication is introduced by the use of definite or indefinite articles such as "reading-the-Borgatta-encyclopedia people" versus "reading-an-encyclopedia people." This introduces the possibility of the use of referential ambiguity in language as an interactional resource. The question of how collectivities (both categories and groups) are constituted and bounded and how that boundedness may be explicitly or implicitly signaled in spoken or written discourse provides a venue for additional demonstration of the value for sociology of examination of language in use. Personal and other pronouns are a useful resource in boundary work; their referential ambiguity also provides a resource exploitable for including and excluding both those present and those absent from relevant social collectivities (Grimshaw 1994a).

The fact that there are times when hearers or readers don't know to what person or set of persons reference is being made can be weighted with social implication when it is not clear, for example, who is being scolded or praised, positively or negatively or neutrally characterized, or invited or rejected. Uncertainty can persist even in the presence of apparently disambiguating specifications such as "you all," "all of you," "the n of us" (when the collection address includes n-plus persons), and "the four of them." Hearer-readers ordinarily are able to make inferences that are correct or close enough that they can sustain conversation (or reading) without continuously finding it necessary to stop to resolve ambiguities. It is also true, of course, that ambiguities may go unrecognized, be recognized but not resolved, or even be intentionally exploited. Unresolved ambiguities can be inconsequential, but they may occasionally have delayed consequences of considerable importance (e.g., when "uninvited" guests turn up or unintended "insults" are repaid with interest).

Most readers will be far more familiar with the language–identity connection in which people participate whenever they talk with others. Except under extreme circumstances (ongoing or pending disaster) or service situations in which interactants are treated more as part of the scene than as other humans, the first thing people do when a partner in interaction speaks (in person, on the telephone, or in writing) is to "place" that person in terms of background (in which one usually includes age, education, ethnicity and national origin, gender, occupation, regional provenance, social class, and, depending on situation, other achieved and ascribed attributes). This sensitivity to the link between how people speak and who they are is further demonstrated by the ways in which the speech of others is imitated in "poshing up" (Goffman 1979) and in the production, with varying degrees of friendliness, condescension, and hostility, of "mock" Spanish or black English or other real or imagined languages (Hill).

Note, for example, the insertion of foreign words and phrases (insertion of not-currently-inuse-code speech: (1) foreign words and phrases, e.g., āp kē bād, buenos dias, je ne sais pas, obrigado, paz, CΠACÍBO, was gibts (2) technical terms and phrases, such as "deep structure," "diglossia," "dope," "gigabyte," "identity," "S and M," "solenoid," and (3) phonological variants and regional dialect lexical items or, more comprehensively, code switches in which a different language, dialect, or register is employed for an extensive stretch of talk. How are such insertions and switches to be interpreted? Readers will be able to construct scenarios in which the following are or are intended to be conveyed: "I am one of you," "I am not one of you, but I am attuned and sympathetic to you," "I and those of my auditors who understand what I have just said are different (superior to?) from those who did not understand," "I and those who understand my metaphorical use of a variant are different from (superior to) those who processes it nonmetaphorically" (e.g., "humorous" employ of socially disvalued variants).

Questions of language in use and matters of identity (and thus of stratification, life chances, social conflict, and so on) are inextricably interrelated and intertwined; neither can be fully comprehended without attention to the other.


The increased interest in SL/SOL has been accompanied by and contributed to by growing public exposure to and interest in language as a social problem. Consider in the last decade of the twentieth century in the United States alone issues of free speech ("hate crime" versus political correctness, arrests for public "cursing") in both public discourse and on private computers, the "English as official language" movement and accompanying disputes about "rights" to non-English ballots or other government documents, and the public hue and cry about "Ebonics." Public concern about propriety in language use is not a new phenomenon (see Kamensky 1997).

Work on "real" problems in a variety of institutional areas has benefited from a growing body of theory, to which it has in turn contributed. Again a distinction can be made between micro and macro concerns. Micro sociolinguistic research has been done on how communication fails in classrooms, courtrooms, and clinics; macro studies have examined how the speaking of socially disvalued language varieties is associated with educational failure, differential treatment in the judicial system, and unsuccessful interaction with medical services delivery systems. Ameliorative programs have ranged from bilingualism in education to the English as official language movement, from the provision of interpreters in the courtroom to attempts to simplify legal language, and from attempts to teach prospective doctors to become better interviewers and listeners to trying to get doctors to use less technical language. Bitter controversies have raged over how the ways children talk are related to educational success and failure; the Ebonics dispute is one instance among many (see Labov 1982). Some investigators have argued that some language varieties are not suited for abstract, critical, logical, and propositional thought; others, that the success and failure of persons who speak in different ways are determined by the political preferences about language varieties of gatekeepers such as teachers and employers.

Recent years have seen the development of the role of the "language scientist" as an expert witness (e.g., Rieber and Stewart 1990); SL considerations are sometimes deeply involved in such testimony. Many of these programs and much of this work initially grew out of concerns with language varieties associated with ethnicity (in the United States, different varieties of Spanish and, particularly, Black Vernacular English (BVE]). There has also been more explicit attention paid to problems of communication across classes, age groups, and, particularly, gender; Tannen's (1990) book on gender differences in talk spent many months on best-seller lists.

On a more explicitly macro level, language planning and language policy have become more visible arenas of government activity in both rich countries, which must deal with visiting or immigrant workers who speak unfamiliar languages, and poor countries, which must make decisions about which competing languages are going to receive official status and support or about which orthography to employ for previously unwritten languages. (The latter is a decision that is likely to have political as well as economic implications.) They must in some cases decide whether high literacy (often seen as an index of modernism) will ultimately contribute to their economies (or other values) as much as or more than would other investments (on outcomes of increases in literacy in industrial [izing] and less developed countries, respectively, see Graff 1979; Goody 1987). Both rich and poor countries must deal with native multilingualism; they have done it with varying success in Belgium, Canada, Finland, India, Indonesia, the former Soviet Union, Spain, Switzerland, and a number of countries in Africa (see McRae 1983, 1986, 1997, for excellent studies on Switzerland, Belgium, and Finland, respectively).


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Allen D. Grimshaw


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Sociolinguistics is the study of the relationships between language use and social structure. It investigates the correlation between linguistic (i.e., phonological, lexical, and grammatical) variables and social (i.e., gender, age, status, and ethnicity) variables. Since sociolinguistics is concerned with both linguistic and social aspects of language, researchers identify two main distinctions in sociolinguistic inquiry. Micro-sociolinguistics focuses on the social aspects of language, while macro-sociolinguistics examines how linguistic features can provide explanations for certain social phenomena. In other words, micro-sociolinguistics investigates how society influences the way people communicate, while macro-sociolinguistics studies society in relation to language.

Sociolinguistics is a relatively new branch of linguistics. Despite a long tradition of dialect research dating back to the nineteenth century, it was not until the 1960s that sociolinguistics became a recognized area of language research. This came about as a result of the projects that were carried out by William Labov (1966, 1972) in the United States and Peter Trudgill (1983) in the United Kingdom. Labov, in his studies in New York and Martha's Vineyard, investigated linguistic change and variation as social phenomena. For example, he found that in New York, people who were less secure about their social status were more likely to pronounce the "r" in words such as "car" and "fourth." He found that such pronunciation was treated as newer and more prestigious. Trudgill, in his study of Norwich, England, found that women used more "correct" and prestigious forms of language than did men. He attributed this difference to the differences in the roles and expectations that society placed on men and women. In society, it is "normal" for women to speak "better" than men. Both Labov and Trudgill found evidence of the interconnectedness of language and society and demonstrated that it is possible to find social explanations for linguistic structure and change.

Sociolinguists do not seek to find and prescribe the "correct" or "standard" variant of a language. Rather, they aim to describe the variety in language against a systematic correlation between linguistic and social variables. Labov, for example, in his influential study of black English, argued that African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is not a poor or illogical way of talking but a rich variant of English that is governed by specific rules.

Unlike theoretical linguists (e.g., Noam Chomsky), who disregard "real-life" conversations and instead study language in terms of ideal speakers who are situated in a homogeneous community, sociolinguists find it difficult and artificial to separate language from the rest of society. Thus, sociolinguistics, without necessarily rejecting the main premises of theoretical linguistics, looks beyond prescribed phonological and grammatical rules at language that is produced by real speakers in a real world.

Regional Dialects

A native speaker of a language in many instances can identify where his or her conversational partner grew up or is currently living. Such identification is based on pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. A variation of language spoken in a specific geographical area is a dialect; more specifically, it is a regional dialect. A dialect should not be confused with an accent, which is usually associated with the speech of a nonnative speaker whose native language phonetics penetrates into the target language.

Mutual intelligibility is often used as a criterion to distinguish between a language and a dialect. For example, if a person who is speaking Spanish cannot understand a person who is speaking French, they are said to speak different languages. However, if a person from the southern part of the United States can understand a person from the northern part of the United States, they are said to speak different dialects of the same language. The distinction between language and dialect is not always so clear-cut. For example, Danes and Norwegians understand each other well, but Danish and Norwegian are considered to be two different languages. At the same time, a speaker of Cantonese would not understand a speaker of Mandarin, but Cantonese and Mandarin are both recognized as being dialects of Chinese. Thus, the distinction between a language and a dialect does not lie in mere intelligibility. The distinction is also related to political, historical, social, and cultural factors. Furthermore, Richard Hudson (1998) argues that mutual intelligibility is not between linguistic varieties but between people who are either motivated or not motivated to understand each other. Motivation can be said to be the speakers' attempt to minimize cultural differences and stress similarities.

Social Dialects, Style, and Register

Dialect varieties are not limited to geography; they are also related to the age, social class, and gender of the speakers. All play a significant role in the way people speak. The term "social dialect" is used to describe a speech variety that is associated with a certain social group. For example, Standard American English is a social dialect that is associated with the educated middle-and upper-class population, so it is, therefore, considered to be more prestigious. A nonstandard or vernacular language is usually ascribed less societal prestige. For example, the form "getting" (which is associated with the standard variant) is generally considered to be more prestigious than "gettin'" (which is associated with the nonstandard variant). However, "lower-class" speech, especially that of men, has what Labov called "covert prestige," which is different from the standard or "overt prestige" and is associated with group solidarity. Trudgill (1983), in his study of Norwich, found that women are more status conscious and concerned with overt prestige, while men are more concerned with acquiring covert prestige.

Language variety plays an important role in conveying information about a speaker. A person's identity is created, to a large extent, in and by conversation. Identity, however, is not fixed and static; it is fluid and dynamic. Its fluidity depends on the context in which communication is taking place and the social relations between the communicants. For example, the same person can demonstrate different linguistic styles as well as extralinguistic behavior when speaking to a subordinate, a boss, a relative, or a neighbor. Thus, a person can express approximately the same meaning using different language styles that depend on the relationship between the communicants and the level of formality of the situation. Consider the phrases "I have purchased some refreshments" and "I got something to drink." In both cases, the meaning is more or less the same, while the level of formality is different. Where the first is formal and appropriate for official conversation, the second is informal and appropriate for a conversation among friends.

Charles Ferguson (1994, p. 20) states that groups of people who share common interests or jobs develop "similar vocabularies, similar features of intonation, and characteristic bits of syntax and phonology that they use in these situations." This shared language variant is a register. While some researchers do not distinguish between register and style, others see the difference as being essential when examining the language of a particular group of people who are united by interest or occupation. Style, register, and dialect are not mutually exclusive. For example, a person can speak as a doctor to another doctor in informal style and with pronunciation characteristic of her or his dialect. Moreover, a given person can use a variety of registers, such as being a carpenter and a musician. With all of the complexity that is created by dialect, style, and register, it is amazing that people are still so skillful at using speech to identify other people's status, profession, class, and so on.

Multilingualism, Bilingualism, and Diglossia

A person who has the ability to use more than two languages is a multilingual; a person who can use two languages is a bilingual; and a person who uses only one language is a monolingual. The number of bilinguals and multilinguals in a given country depends on many factors, such as proximity to other countries, the language policy in the country, and patterns of immigration. However, it has been estimated that half of the population in the world is bilingual.

People who are bilingual or multilingual do not necessarily have equal linguistic ability in all of the languages that they use; however, people whose competence in two or more languages is approximately equal are balanced bilinguals or multilinguals. As the result of the limited use of a language or languages for an extended period of time, some people may become dormant bilinguals or multilinguals; that is their linguistic competence in that language or languages "gets rusty." (Dormant bilinguals or multilinguals usually can restore their linguistic competence by placing themselves in an environment where their subordinate language or languages are used constantly.)

Another interesting aspect of bilingualism and multilingualism is code-switching. A language or its variant is often called a "code"; thus, code-switching refers to the situation when a person switches from one language or dialect to another in the same utterance or conversation. For example, a professor from France delivers a lecture in English at one of the universities in the United States; however, during the informal meeting after the lecture this professor may switch back and forth from English to French in conversations with French-speaking colleagues and students. Bilinguals or monolinguals turn to code-switching to establish solidarity and rapport with their conversational partners; moreover, code-switching helps them to maximize their linguistic expressiveness. In code-switching, bilinguals and multilinguals preserve the rules of all of the languages that are being used. In code-mixing, a person uses elements of one language in a conversation that is being carried on for the most part in another language. Nancy Bonvil-lain (1993) has identified examples of code-mixing in Kannada, a Dravidian language in South India. For example, some speakers incorporate English words in conversations in Kannada by adding the Kannada suffixes to English words, such as "educated-u," "control-ma," and "sacred occasion-nalli." Bonvillain states that such code-mixing has a social function. People who make use of English words in Kannada try to associate themselves with a more prestigious group of the population because, in India, English is perceived as being the language of those who are more educated and refined than the general population.

Another situation where people use different linguistic codes in different social contexts is diglossia. The term "diglossia" was introduced in 1959 by Charles Ferguson to indicate situations where two varieties of the same language exist in the society and are employed in different sets of social circumstances. Moreover, one of the two varieties is a more prestigious "high" variety (H), while the other is a less prestigious "low" variety (L). For example, Classical Arabic (H) is used in delivering official speeches, while colloquial Arabic (L) is used in everyday communication. Joshua Fishman (1970) extended the concept of diglossia to include not only two varieties of the same language but bilingual and multilingual situations as well. The linguistic situation in Paraguay, where diglossia exists between Spanish (H) and Guaraní (L), can serve as an illustration. In most of the situations, high form (H) is appropriated through formal education and in public domains, while low form (L) is acquired before formal education and is practiced in private domains. Ronald Wardhaugh (1998) suggests that in contrast to code-switching, which reduces differences, diglossia reinforces them. He explains that code-switching often happens on the subconscious level (when a person is unaware of a switch), while diglossia involves speakers who are aware of the switches that are being made from one variant to the other. Overall, choosing a code is not a matter of linguistic preference per se; rather, it is a social act because the code that is chosen creates and re-creates one's social identity.

Lingua Franca, Pidgins, and Creoles

When people who speak different languages have to communicate with each other, they must find a language that they all know, a lingua franca. Any language can become a lingua franca. For example, in the former Soviet Union, Russian was used as a lingua franca in the interactions between non-Russian speakers of the country. In East Africa, Swahili helps people from different tribes to trade with each other; thus, it is "a trade language" between people who do not otherwise share a common language. Due to globalization, and to globalization of the media in particular, English has become an international language—a lingua franca for much of the world.

People from different cultures and with different native languages, when they are in contact with each other over an extended period of time, often develop some common, often simplified code that they use as a medium of communication. This code is a pidgin, or a "reduced" language. Therefore, a pidgin is a contact language. Trade and colonization are considered main reasons for the development of pidgin languages. Thus, many pidgins are based on the languages of people who were involved in travel and trade (e.g., English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese) and are influenced by the languages of people with whom they came into contact. For example, there are more than sixty varieties of English-based pidgin languages; Tok Pisin, a pidgin English spoken in Papua New Guinea, is among them. It should be noted that pidgins are not "bad" or "inferior" languages. Though simplified or "reduced," they are not languages without structure; they are rule governed.

When a pidgin is widely used by the community and serves as a native language for second and future generations, it becomes a creole. Thus, while a pidgin has no native speakers, a creole is the mother tongue—the first language that is acquired by the community of speakers. For example, French creoles are spoken by people in the Caribbean and in some parts of Louisiana. It is estimated that from seven million to seventeen million people in the world speak creole languages. Pidgins and creoles have certain typical characteristics, such as multifunctionality of words, semantic broadening, little or no inflectional morphology, and polysemy.

Researchers of pidgins and creoles do not have a unified theory of the origin of pidgins and creoles. The fact that pidgins and creoles demonstrate certain similarities among them is explained differently by two main theories. Monogenesis (one origin) theory argues that the source of the similarities lies in the development of pidgins and creoles from a single source. Polygenesis theory, or relexification, views these similarities as the result of similar circumstances of their origin. There are, however, theories that explain the development of pidgins and creoles by the inability of non-Europeans to acquire European languages. Extensive studies of pidgins and creoles indicate that they are not deviations from other languages caused by inferiority of their speakers; they are languages with their own rules and systems. According to Suzanne Romaine (1988), many countries experience the phenomenon of recreolization, which is the conscious effort of teenagers who spoke standard English in childhood to speak creole and to listen to songs in creole.

Language and Culture

One of the areas of sociolinguistic research is concerned with the relationship between language and culture. The word "culture" in this context does not mean art, music, or literature of a particular time or society; rather, it is used to describe "any of the customs, world views, language, kinship system, social organization, and other taken-for-granted day-to-day practices of a people which set that group apart as a distinctive group" (Scollon and Scollon, 1996, p. 126). There is no agreement, however, among researchers about whether language determines or at least influences the way in which people experience the surrounding world, or if language merely reflects people's experiences.

The claim that language and its structure influence the way in which people who use it view the world goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century, to the work that Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf did in relation to Native American languages. This influence of language on perceptions of the world is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It should be noted that similar ideas were expressed by William Humbolt, a prominent linguist of the nineteenth century. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is also called the principle of cultural relativity. That is to say, people are influenced by their native languages in the process of perception of the surrounding world. Sapir (1949a, p. 162) states, "human beings do not live in the objective world alone, not alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society."

Sapir, in his study of the language of Paiute (in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah), noticed that for some geographical terms the English language does not have comparable words, so a descriptive translation is required. For example, English does not have words that directly correspond to "canyon without water, plain valley surrounded by mountains, rolling country intersected by several small hillridges" (Sapir, 1949b). Whorf's studies of Hopi, the language of Native American people in Arizona, demonstrate that the notion of time in Hopi does not correspond to the notion of time in English and any other Standard Average European (SAE) language. Thus, while in English, time is a three-tiered division of past, present, and future, in Hopi, time is more indicative of the manner in which the events occur. The focus is on the events in the world as a continuous process where fixed distinctions between tenses are minimized (Whorf, 1956). Though the ideas put forward by Sapir and Whorf have been criticized for their deterministic view on language, their studies have inspired extensive research on the interrelationship between language and culture.

Different kinship systems and color terminology are just a few fascinating areas of research on language and culture. Every language has ways of expressing kinship relationships; however, some kinship systems are more detailed than others. For example, in English, the word "mother-in-law" is used by both wife and husband to identify the mother of the spouse, while in Russian, the husband calls his wife's mother tjoshcha and the wife calls her husband's mother svekrov'. Some languages have separate linguistic terms for older and younger siblings, for maternal and paternal relatives, and so on. Kinship systems reflect social relations within the family. In general, the more extensive the social contact is between the family members, the more detailed is the related kinship terminology.

According to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (1969), who put forward a universal principle of color classification, most but not all languages have a term for each of the following colors: white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, and gray. Berlin and Kay noted that there are no languages with only one color term. However, they also pointed out that the more cultural and technological changes that a society undergoes, the more detailed the color terminology tends to become. For example, Jale (New Guinea) has two terms (black and white); Tarascan (Mexico) has five (white, black, red, yellow, green); and Javanese has seven (white, black, red, yellow, green, blue, brown). Thus, if a language uses only two terms to identify colors, they are white and black; other colors are added systematically. This finding supports the view of many sociolinguists that color naming in all languages and cultures is a systematic, rule-governed process.

Power and Solidarity

Every language has a system of expressing power and solidarity relations between people. When people speak, they make choices among different linguistic markers to signal their social distance or closeness with their communicants. Social distance may indicate a difference is status, rank, education, or age. While distance often establishes power relations between the speakers, closeness tends to establish solidarity. Address forms are among the most distinct linguistic choices that reflect power or solidarity relations. When someone is addressed by his or her first name, the addresser usually signals solidarity. The use of titles such as "Mr.," "Ms.," and "Dr." demonstrates that the addresser recognizes the addressee as deserving more respect. An important element in the choice of an address form is the level of formality of a given situation. For example, students in many U.S. colleges can often call their professor by his or her first name during class discussion, but most of those same students would likely address the professor with a formal title during an official ceremony.

Languages differ in their familiar versus polite distinctions. Many languages differentiate between "familiar you" (T) and "polite you" (V). In English, for example, a person who wants to get somebody's attention can say, "Excuse me, you forgot your book," while many languages with familiar versus polite (T/V) distinction are less flexible. Unlike English, which has no T/V distinction, Tu/Vous in French, Ty/Vy in Russian, and Du/Ni in Swedish make a speaker choose the form that is appropriate for the addressee and the situation. The T form is usually reserved for symmetrical relations and indicates solidarity, while the V form usually signals asymmetry and power. However, the relationship between symmetrical/asym-metrical and power/solidarity cannot be reduced to a simple formula where asymmetry indicates power and symmetry indicates solidarity. Power and solidarity are often expressed by the same form; that is, people who are close can address each other using the V form, including their titles, as an indication of solidarity. For example, two professors who happen to be friends might address each other using "professor" and the V form during a conference. However, when an employer addresses an employee by first name and the T form while the employee uses "Mr." or "Ms." and the V form in return, it is a signal of power imbalance and asymmetry. Therefore, the reciprocity is one of the most important markers of solidarity.

The choice of an address form and/or T/V form is influenced by sociocultural norms. For example, after the October Revolution in Russia, people addressed each other as "comrade" to indicate solidarity. However, even before the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the address form "comrade" ceased to exist, which was as an indication of changes in society. Thus, different address forms and the T/V form are not a static category; rather, they change in accordance with social changes.


While social closeness and distance are factors in people's choices of formal or informal forms of address, politeness is the decisive factor in degree of friendliness and amount of imposition in communication. Social psychologist Erving Goffman (1956, 1967) and linguists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson (1987) worked extensively on the phenomena of politeness. Goffman introduced the notion of "face," an image that is produced by a person in social contacts with other people. Goff-man differentiated between a "positive face" (i.e., the need to be appreciated) and a "negative face" (i.e., the need to be not disturbed). Brown and Levinson identified positive and negative politeness, where "positive politeness" is a warm friendly behavior toward others and "negative politeness" is the avoidance of imposition. Both negative and positive politeness, thus, can be understood as consideration for another person's face.

Any demand, request, and even advice can be seen as a face-threatening act (FTA), which threatens a person's public image, or face. For example, if a speaker issues a direct command to the listener, "Send this letter immediately," this directive might threaten the listener's face. Politeness repairs the damage that is inflicted by FTAs. Polite people try to avoid FTAs or minimize their effect. For example, they soften commands by making them less direct, "Could you send this letter immediately"; they use compliments and stress solidarity between them and their listeners, "I really appreciate your work." Thus, politeness explains the indirectness of human communication as people's desire to save their communicants' and their own face in interactions; moreover, politeness helps to understand presequencing, or the preparation to a request, question, and so on. For example, some speakers, instead of directly requesting something from a listener, start with a prerequest:

Prerequest by A: Do you have a minute?

"Go ahead" signal by B: Sure.

Request by A: Could you send this itinerary to Green?

Accept by B: Okay.

In the interchange above, the prerequest by A is a face-saving maneuver for both A and B. If B indicates that she or he is busy, it eliminates the request and accept stages, and A does not receive a refusal to the main request, which would have caused A to lose face. Speakers use similar strategies in preannouncing ("You will never guess what happened today") or preinvitations ("Are you busy this weekend?"). Politeness is analyzed in a greater detail in pragmatics, the study of the relationship between language and its users. Pragmatics is concerned with how meaning is communicated by the speaker and is interpreted by the listener.

Language and Gender

While the term "sex" refers to the biological differences of women and men, the term "gender" indicates the psychological and sociocultural significance that is attached to those differences. Since ancient times, scientists from different fields of human research have been interested in determining if men and women think, act, and speak differently or alike. It has been reported that only male and female Carib Indians from the West Indies speak different languages, whereas in other parts of the world, women and men are reported to speak the same languages with some differences, mainly in vocabulary. It should be noted that research on gender and language is not limited to male-female interactions; it also studies gay, lesbian, and other gender communication.

Robin Lakoff (1973) noted that it is more typical of women to use such color words as mauve, beige, and lavender and more emphatic expressions such as adorable, lovely, and divine. Lakoff also claimed that in word pairs (gentleman-lady, bachelor-spinster, master-mistress), female parts acquire a more negative meaning. Research on language and gender has contributed to uncovering sexism in language. For example, as recently as the early 1970s, it was normal in English to use the pronoun "he" and words such as "chairman," "policeman," and "mankind" in a generic manner or to address women as "Miss" or "Mrs.," but these have all subsequently come to be known as elements of sexist language. Researchers have also found differences in covert and overt prestige in language use between women and men. Gerhard Leitner (1997) has discussed the dynamic role of media in creating awareness of gender-specific language. According to Leitner, the ABC network's pioneering ruling in 1984 on the avoidance of gender-specific (sexist) language was unfavorably met by both the audience and the media, but ABC adhered to its new policy.

The main division of the study of gender can be classified as either culture/difference or power/dominance theories. According to the first approach, the clear-cut division of labor and, consequently, same-sex socializing promoted the development of different communicative strategies and, more broadly, different cultures. To achieve understanding, women and men have to learn and respect the cultures of each other. The second, focuses more on the power imbalance in society. According to this critical feminist approach, the language in a male-dominated society is created by and for men. In general, these researchers view power imbalance as the key impediment that prevents women and men from successful communication both at work and in private relationships.

Ethnography of Communication

Because of their common interest in human communication, the ethnography of communication unites linguistic and anthropological studies. This framework stresses the mutual responsibility of the speaker and the listener for successful communication. Dell Hymes (1974), the founder of this approach, proposed the acronym SPEAKING, where each letter stands for an important component of communication:

S = Setting or Scene

P = Participants

E = Ends

A = Act Sequence

K = Key

I = Instrumentalities

N = Norms of Interaction and Interpretation

G = Genre.

"Setting" refers to the physical circumstances (time and place of the event), while "scene" refers to the subjective definition of the event (psycho-logical or cultural). "Participants" refers to the speaker-sender-addresser and hearer-receiver- audience-addressee. "Ends" refers to the outcome (both conventional and personal). "Act sequence" refers to the form and content of the message (i.e., what is said and how in relationship to the actual topic). "Key" refers to the tone and manner (e.g., serious, light-hearted) of the delivery. "Instrumentalities" refers to the channel (e.g., oral, written, telegraphic, and so on). "Norms of interaction and interpretation" refers to the specific behavior and properties that are attached to speaking (e.g., formal, casual). "Genre" refers to the types of texts (e.g., poems, prayers, lectures, editorials, and so on).

Each component of SPEAKING is important in communication. To be a competent communicant, a person must know when and in what setting it is appropriate to speak and when to be silent, how to issue a request and accept an apology, and how to address a person of the same or different status and age. The ethnography of communication is closely connected with social and cultural norms and rules, which are different in different societies. Thus, to prevent the failure of cross-cultural communication, a person should not limit himself or herself to the rules of his or her society but instead should take into consideration the rules of the society of his or her communicant.

Language and Media

According to Allan Bell (1991), media are dominating presenters of language in society. Advertisers use language to persuade people, and news organizations attempt to influence the attitudes of people. Thus, the media use language as a tool in shaping and reflecting people's values and people's perceptions of themselves and others. In presenting information, the media target the audience, their tastes, and beliefs. Bell argued that instead of targeting the individual, media cater to a social group—specifically, to a stereotypical social group. This means that the language of presentation reflects linguistic features that are stereotypically associated with a certain social group. For example, a program that targets women would use a "typical" female linguistic variant to establish rapport with its audience. Traditionally, the relationship between media and audience is presented as unidirectional, where media send messages to the target audience. Joshua Fishman (1974, p. 1644) stated that the standard language is the most appropriate variant for the media, government, legal, and educational networks because this variety is "the 'safest' for those communications in which the speaker cannot know his diversified and numerous listeners." However, with the development of new interactive media such as the Internet, the diversity of the target audience cannot be disregarded.

Bell (1991) indicated that research on the linguistic styles of several British newspapers showed that upmarket papers (e.g., The Times, Financial Times, Guardian) operate on distance and negative politeness, while the downmarket papers (e.g., Daily Mirror, Star, Sun) dwell on solidarity and positive politeness. In other words, linguistic choices reflect social stratification of society, as well as its values and beliefs.

Advertisers use a multilingual approach to present the quality of their products. For example, stereotypically, French has been associated with elegance and refinement. Therefore, numerous cosmetics and fashion-goods commercials employ French and/or French-accented messages. Torben Vestergaard and Kim Schroder (1985) found that in many commercials, the advertisers avoid using the word "buy" in the imperative clause to avoid direct imposition; instead, they call on the audience to act with the words "try," "ask," "get," "take," "use," "call," "make," and so on. Advertisers rely on more indirect ways of attracting the attention of prospective buyers because telling the audience what to do is considered to be a face-threatening strategy.

In media, every linguistic element, from the headline and structure of the lead paragraph to the choice of words in indirect speech, is important in creating information that is aimed at the target audience. Thus, research on media language uncovers the techniques of creating the information for the target audience. It provides insights on language, media, and society in general.


From a new subdiscipline within linguistics, sociolinguistics has developed into an elaborated area of interdisciplinary research on the dynamic relationship that exists between language and society. As the study of language in relation to society, sociolinguistics is closely connected with other areas of human research, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, education, and media studies. Sociolinguistics not only incorporates the insights from these disciplines into its research but also feeds back to these other disciplines, thereby promoting knowledge and awareness of certain linguistic varieties that are spoken by different groups in relation to the value systems and social structures of society.

See also:Culture and Communication; Culture Industries, Media As; Gender and the Media; Globalization of Culture Through the Media; Intercultural Communication, Adaptation and; Interpersonal Communication; Language Acquisition; Language and Communication; Language Structure; Society and the Media.


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Alla V. Yelyseieva


views updated May 18 2018

SOCIOLINGUISTICS The branch of knowledge which studies the social aspects of LANGUAGE, including how the use and norms of language vary from one society to another (in relation, for example, to ACCENT, DIALECT, and GRAMMAR), and the way in which attitudes influence perceptions of the characteristics and abilities of speakers. These attitudes are clearly social in origin: for example, speakers of the prestigious BrE accent known as RECEIVED PRONUNCIATION (RP) are often perceived to be more competent and intelligent than speakers with regional accents, this view arising from the high social status of RP. Similarly, some accents of English are regarded as being more or less aesthetically pleasing than others. This, too, can be shown to be the result of the social connotations that different accents have for listeners. Americans, for example, do not find the accent of the West Midlands of England ugly, as many British people do, which has much to do with the fact that they do not recognize these accents as being from the West Midlands.

Accent, dialect, region, and class

The relationship between accent and dialect, on the one hand, and social class background on the other, is an issue of considerable sociolinguistic importance. For example, dialects and accents of BrE vary both geographically and socially. The high status of RP is traditionally associated with the British upper class and the public schools (a group of private boarding-schools), and, although often associated with southern England, it shows no regional variation. The further one goes down the social scale, however, the more regional differences come into play, with lower-class or ‘broad’ accents having many regional features. One of the major advances of modern sociolinguistics has been the introduction of quantitative techniques, following the lead of the American sociolinguist William Labov, which enables investigators to measure exactly and gain detailed insight into the nature of the relationship between language and social class.

In a sociolinguistic study in Bradford, Yorkshire, Malcolm Petyt showed that the percentage of hs ‘dropped’ by speakers correlated closely with social class as measured by factors such as occupation and income. While lower working-class speakers on average dropped 93% of all hs in words like house, upper working-class speakers dropped 67%, lower middle-class speakers 28%, and upper middle-class speakers only 12%. This study provides information about the source of some of the language attitudes mentioned above. H-dropping is widely regarded in Britain as ‘wrong’. Teachers and parents have often tried to remove this feature from children's speech, sometimes claiming that since the h appears in the spelling it must be wrong to omit it in speech. This is obviously a rationalization: no one makes this claim about the h of hour, or the k of knee. The real reason for this condemnation of h-dropping is its correlation with social class and its low social status.

Language change

Such quantitative techniques enable linguists to investigate some of the processes involved in LANGUAGE CHANGE. Large amounts of tape-recorded data (obtained in such a way as to ensure as far as possible that speakers are speaking naturally) can be used to plot the spread of changes through the community and through the language. For example, Labov was able in the 1960s to show that in NEW YORK City the consonant r was being reintroduced in the pronunciation of words like form and farm by comparing the number of rs used by older speakers to the number used by younger speakers. He was also able to show that this change was being spear-headed by speakers from the lower middle class, probably because saying ‘forrm’ rather than ‘fawm’ is considered prestigious (and therefore ‘correct’) in US society, and because speakers from this class are more likely to be both socially ambitious and insecure about the worth of their dialects.

Language planning

Sociolinguistics can be concerned with observing the details of individual behaviour in, for example, face-to-face conversation. It can also be involved in the larger-scale investigation of linguistic behaviour in communities the size of New York City. It can furthermore be concerned with the relationship between language and society in even larger-scale units such as entire nations. Sociolinguists working in areas such as the sociology of language and LANGUAGE PLANNING are concerned with issues like the treatment of language minorities, and the selection and codification of languages in countries which have hitherto had no standard language. In nations such as Britain, Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, English is the majority language, in a relationship of dominance with numerically much smaller and officially much less well-supported languages, such as GAELIC and WELSH in Britain and Maori in New Zealand. Sociolinguists study such relationships and their implications for education. In the case of Britain, they also attempt to obtain information on more recently arrived languages such as Gujarati, Punjabi, Maltese, and Turkish. Elsewhere, they note that there are countries in which native speakers of English are in a minority, as in Nicaragua, Honduras, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

Switching languages and styles

In multilingual situations, developments occur which are important for linguists, including the growth of pidgin and CREOLE languages. Sociolinguists study the behaviour of bilinguals, investigating the way in which they switch from one language to another depending on social context. Speakers in all human societies possess large verbal repertoires, which may include different languages, different dialects, and different (less or more formal) styles. Varieties of language will be selected from this repertoire depending on features of the social context, such as the formality of the situation and the topic of conversation. Stylistic variation occurs in all English-speaking communities, signalled for the most part by vocabulary: for example, one might say somewhat foolish or rather silly or a bit daft depending on who one is talking to, what one is talking about, the situation one is in, and the impression one wants to create. Some English-speaking communities, like many Scots and members of overseas Caribbean communities, are bidialectal, having access to more than one dialect as well as different styles.


Sociolinguistics of all types is concerned with language as a social phenomenon. Some aspects of this subject may be more sociological in emphasis, others may be more linguistic. It is characteristic of all work in sociolinguistics, however, that it focuses on English and other languages as they are used by ordinary people to communicate with one another and to develop and maintain social relationships. See CODE-MIXING AND CODESWITCHING, DIALECTOLOGY, LINGUISTICS.


views updated Jun 11 2018

so·ci·o·lin·guis·tics / ˌsōsēōlingˈgwistiks/ • pl. n. [treated as sing.] the study of language in relation to social factors, including differences of regional, class, and occupational dialect, gender differences, and bilingualism.DERIVATIVES: so·ci·o·lin·guist / -ˈlinggwist/·ci·o·lin·guis·tic·ci·o·lin·guis·ti·cal·ly / -ik(ə)lē/ adv.


views updated Jun 27 2018

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