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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: May 2018

11 - Sociolinguistics



This chapter looks at the relationship between language and society. This means that we will be examining language in its social contexts – how it is actually used by people (rather than how grammarians may prescribe language ‘should’ be spoken). Sociolinguistics investigates how the language practices of one individual differ from situation to situation or how they differ within one community. This involves looking at the social characteristics of language users or speakers – such as social class, gender and sexuality – as well as the social context in which language use changes. We will also discuss how we can adapt our language to fit a situation and the people we are speaking with. We all have a verbal repertoire of speech styles and ways to use language, which allow us to switch, depending on the person we are talking to and the situation we are in, and we frequently do so without being aware of it. Issues such as language policy, language planning and education can also be included within sociolinguistics, although we will not be looking at these in this chapter.


We may think of languages as single entities – English, French and Yoruba for example – but things are not as simple as this. If we think specifically about English, we may think of the English used in education, law courts, on the media or the English that is taught to foreign speakers as ‘being’ English. But this is just one variety – in this case, Standard English. It is the English used in dictionaries and grammar books. Most people who speak English can understand other English speakers, but that is not to say that we all speak the same; consider the differences in the English spoken in the UK, USA, Canada, South Africa and India to name just a few examples. We pronounce words differently and use different words or grammatical constructions, but we are all speaking ‘English’.

The unique characteristics of the spoken language of an individual person are called a speaker's idiolect. Although everybody has a range of styles, also known as their verbal repertoire, we see that individuals tend to share their linguistic practices with others. This means there are groups of speakers who use language in a similar way, but differently from the standard form.

Holmes, J. (2013). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Harlow: Pearson. This book will give you very accessible information about all aspects of sociolinguistics, with in-depth discussion of case studies and illustrations to support understanding.
Llamas, C., Mullany, L. and Stockwell, P. (2007). The Routledge Companion to Sociolinguistics. London: Routledge. This book contains chapters on all the topics covered in this chapter written by subject experts. It also contains chapters on analysing language and other topics which deal with issues related to sociolinguistics.
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