Social Dialect or Sociolect Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In sociolinguistics, social dialect is a variety of speech associated with a particular social class or occupational group within a society. Also known as sociolect.

Douglas Biber distinguishes two main kinds of dialects in linguistics: "geographic dialects are varieties associated with speakers living in a particular location, while social dialects are varieties associated with speakers belonging to a given demographic group (e.g., women versus men, or different social classes)" (Dimensions of Register Variation, 1995).

Examples and Observations:

"Even though we use the term 'social dialect' or 'sociolect' as a label for the alignment of a set of language structures with the social position of a group in a status hierarchy, the social demarcation of language does not exist in a vacuum. Speakers are simultaneously affiliated with a number of different groups that include region, age, gender, and ethnicity, and some of these other factors may weigh heavily in the determination of the social stratification of language variation. For example, among older European-American speakers in Charleston, South Carolina, the absence of r in words such as bear and court is associated with aristocratic, high-status groups (McDavid 1948) whereas in New York City the same pattern of r-lessness is associated with working-class, low-status groups (Labov 1966). Such opposite social interpretations of the same linguistic trait over time and space point to the arbitrariness of the linguistic symbols that carry social meaning.

In other words, it is not really the meaning of what you say that counts socially, but who you are when you say it." (Walt Wolfram, "Social Varieties of American English." Language in the USA, ed. by E. Finegan. Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Language and Gender

"Across all social groups in Western societies, women generally use more standard grammatical forms than men and so, correspondingly, men use more vernacular forms than women.

. . .

"[I]t is worth noting that although gender generally interacts with other social factors, such as status, class, the role of the speaker in an interaction, and the (in)formality of the context, there are cases where the gender of the speaker seems to be the most influential factor accounting for speech patterns. In some communities, a woman's social status and her gender interact to reinforce differential speech patterns between women and men. In others, different factors modify one another to produce more complex patterns. But in a number of communities, for some linguistic forms, gender identity seems to be a primary factor accounting for speech variation. The gender of the speaker can override social class differences, for instance, in accounting for speech patterns. In these communities, expressing masculine or feminine identity seems to be very important." (Janet Holmes, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 4th ed. Routledge, 2013)

Standard British English as a Sociolect

"The standard variety of a given language, e.g. British English, tends to be the upper class sociolect of a given central area or regiolect. Thus Standard British English used to be the English of the upper classes (also called the Queen's English or Public School English) of the Southern, more particularly, London area." (René Dirven and Marjolyn Verspoor, Cognitive Exploration of Language and Linguistics.

John Benjamins, 2004)


"When two friends created the site I Can Has Cheezburger?, in 2007, to share cat photos with funny, misspelled captions, it was a way of cheering themselves up. They probably weren’t thinking about long-term sociolinguistic implications. But seven years later, the 'cheezpeep' community is still active online, chattering away in LOLspeak, its own distinctive variety of English. LOLspeak was meant to sound like the twisted language inside a cat’s brain, and has ended up resembling a down-South baby talk with some very strange characteristics, including deliberate misspellings (teh, ennyfing), unique verb forms (gotted, can haz), and word reduplication (fastfastfast). It can be difficult to master. One user writes that it used to take at least 10 minutes “to read adn unnerstand” a paragraph.

(“Nao, it’z almost like a sekund lanjuaje.”)

"To a linguist, all of this sounds a lot like a sociolect: a language variety that’s spoken within a social group, like Valley Girl–influenced ValTalk or African American Vernacular English. (The word dialect, by contrast, commonly refers to a variety spoken by a geographic group—think Appalachian or Lumbee.) Over the past 20 years, online sociolects have been springing up around the world, from Jejenese in the Philippines to Ali G Language, a British lingo inspired by the Sacha Baron Cohen character." (Britt Peterson, "The Linguistics of LOL." The Atlantic, October 2014)

Slang as a Social Dialect

"If your kids are unable to differentiate among a nerd ('social outcast'), a dork ('clumsy oaf') and a geek ('a real slimeball'), you might want to establish your expertise by trying these more recent (and in the process of being replaced) examples of kiduage: thicko (nice play on sicko), knob, spasmo (playground life is cruel), burgerbrain and dappo.

"Professor Danesi, who is author of Cool: The Signs and Meanings of Adolescence, treats kids' slang as a social dialect that he calls 'pubilect.' He reports that one 13-year-old informed him about 'a particular kind of geek known specifically as a leem in her school who was to be viewed as particularly odious. He was someone "who just wastes oxygen."'" (William Safire, "On Language: Kiduage." The New York Times Magazine, Oct. 8, 1995)

Also Known As: sociolect, group idiolect, class dialect