An Introduction to Sociolinguistics
An Introduction to Sociolinguistics
How to define and delineate the study of sociolinguistics
What it means to 'know' a language
How language varies across speakers and within the speech of one person
The social construction of identities
The relationship between language and culture
Research design and methodologies for sociolinguistics research
Sociolinguistics is the study of our everyday lives - how language works in our casual conversations and the media we are exposed to, and the presence of societal norms, policies, and laws which address language. Since you are reading this book, you may already have some idea what the study of sociolinguistics entails; you may already have an interest in, and knowledge about, regional dialects, multilingualism, language policy, or non-sexist language. And we will cover all of these topics, along with many others - what social class and ethnicity might have to do with language use, why we do not always 'say what we mean,' the role of language in education.
But we would like to encourage readers to approach the study of sociolinguistics not as a collection of facts, but as a way of viewing the world around you. In sociolinguistics, we seek to analyze data so that we can make generalizations about language in society, but also to question both our findings and the very process of doing research. Take, for instance, the topic of nicknames. There is a stereotype that men use nicknames and women do not, exemplified in the following joke:
If Diana, Natalie, Naomi, and Maria meet for lunch, they will call each other Diana, Natalie, Naomi, and Maria. But if Matt, Peter, Kirk, and Scott go out for a brewsky, they will call each other Dutch, Dude, Doofus, and Pencil.
We could investigate this sociolinguistic phenomenon by surveying people about their nicknames and also observing or recording interactions in which they are addressed by close friends and family members. We might find, indeed, that the men in our study are often called nicknames, while the women rarely are. But we would like to go deeper than this generalization; why do we ask this question in the first place? Why do we assume that the categories of 'men' and 'women' are socially relevant? What is it about nicknames that makes using them, or not using them, significant social behavior? And even if most men are called by a nickname and most women are not, how do we explain the existence of individual men who do not have nicknames, and the individual women who do?
Thus, while in sociolinguistics we do analyze speech with the goal of making generalizations, we also question these generalizations and examine how they, in turn, influence how we use language. In short, sociolinguistics is not a study of facts (e.g., men call each other nicknames) but the study of ideas about how societal norms are intertwined with our language use (e.g., what it means to be a male or female member of a particular society may influence the terms we use to address each other).
We will come back to these points repeatedly: language, society, and sociolinguistic research findings must all be viewed in their social contexts, interpreted, and redefined. To begin, however, we will offer a starting point for discussing language in society. By society , we mean a group of people who are drawn together for a certain purpose or purposes; this is a rather vague and broad term, and throughout this book we will be engaged in discussing how to draw meaningful boundaries around a group of speakers for the purposes of studying their language. We use the term language to mean a system of linguistic communication particular to a group; this includes spoken, written, and signed modes of communication.
These terms are, as you will undoubtedly have noted, inextricably intertwined. A society must have a