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Sociolinguistics

December 20, 2008

Sociolinguistics

Until this point, we have essentially been considering language as a formal system that can be profitably studied independently from the people who use it. This type of approach is often referred to in the field as the are of “formal” linguistics. People use the term “formal” because such investigation revolves around constructing formal models that allow us to understand how various subparts or modules of the linguistic grammar function. These subparts or modules consist of the areas that we have been studying all semester, such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics.

There is, however, a lot more to understanding language than focusing on these core theoretical areas. If we can gain insight into how language works by studying its formal grammatical properties, we must also realize that language as a “thing” to be studied is necessarily a kind of simplification, because language isn’t a “thing” external to human beings, but rather, something that makes up a part of who we are.

What I want to stress here is that language must also be profitably studied in its social context. In so doing, we learn both about language and about ourselves, the people who use it, live with it, and live in it. Sociolinguistics, then, as the name implies, is the study of language in human society. We’ll focus here on a major aspect of sociolinguistic research in the past decades, an area generally referred to as language variation. As its own name implies, language variation focuses on how language varies in different contexts, where context refers to things like ethnicity, social class, sex, geography, age, and a number of other factors.

Language Variation

Before we review various aspects of language variation in more detail, I want to make sure we’ve got some basic terms and concepts down. So, here goes…

SOME IMPORTANT TERMINOLOGY

Internal Variation: the property of languages having different ways of expressing the same meaning. Importantly, this refers to within language, not across language, differences. An example of internal variation in English is “ask” vs. “aks”.

Language variety: This is a general term that may be used at a number of levels. So, we can use the term to distinguish between English and French, but we can also use the term to distinguish between two varieties of English, such as New York City English vs. Appalachian English.

Dialect: This is a complex and often misunderstood concept. For linguists, a dialect is the collection of attributes (phonetic, phonological, syntactic, morphological, semantic) that make one group of speakers noticeably different from another group of speakers of the same language.

COMMON SOURCES OF MISUNDERSTANDING

1) DIALECT is NOT a negative term for linguists. . Often times, for example, we hear people refer to non-standard varieties of English as “dialects”, usually to say something bad about the non-standard variety (and thus about the people who speak it). This happened quite a bit during last year’s ebonics controversy. But, the term dialect refers to ANY variety of a language. Thus, by definition, we all speak a dialect of our native language.

2) DIALECT is NOT synonymous with accent. Accent is only a part of dialectal variation. Non-linguists often think accents define a dialect (or that accents alone identify people as non-native or foreign language speakers). Also, non-linguists tend to think that it’s always the “other” people that have “an accent”. So, what is “accent”?

3) ACCENT: This term refers to phonological variation, i.e. variation in pronunciation Thus, if we talk about a Southern Accent, we’re talking about a generalized property of English pronunciation in the Southern part of the US. But, Southern dialects have more than particular phonological properties. Accent is thus about pronunciation, while dialect is a broader term encompassing syntactic, morphological, and semantic properties as well.

A final note on accent. WE ALL HAVE ONE! There is no such thing as a person who speaks without an accent. This is not an exercise in political correctness, by the way. It is a fact.

In sum, a dialect is a particular variety of a language, and we all have a dialect. Accent refers to the phonology of a given dialect. Since we all have a dialect, we all have an accent.

Idiolect: Another term that we must be familiar with is idiolect. “What’s an idiolect?” you ask, on the edge of your seat. An idiolect is simply the technical term we use to refer to the variety of language spoken by each individual speaker of the language. Just as there is variation among groups of speakers of a language, there is variation from speaker to speaker. No two speakers of a language speak identically. Each speaks her or his own particular variety of that language. Each thus speaks her or his own idiolect.   READ MORE >>>

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