The Definition of Sociolinguistics

The Relationship Between Language and Society

People talking in group
Tom Merton/Getty Images

Sociolinguistics takes language samples from sets of random population subjects and looks at variables that include such things as pronunciation, word choice, and colloquialisms. The is data is then measured against socio-economic indices such as education, income/wealth, occupation, ethnic heritage, age, and family dynamics to better understand the relationship between language and society.

Thanks to its dual focus, sociolinguistics is considered a branch of both linguistics and sociology. However, the broader study of the field may also encompass anthropological linguistics, dialectology, discourse analysis, ethnography of speaking, geolinguistics, language contact studies, secular linguistics, the social psychology of language, and the sociology of language.

The Right Words for the Given Situation

Sociolinguistic competence means knowing which words to choose for a given audience and situation to get the desired effect. For instance, say you wanted to get someone's attention. If you were a 17-year-old boy and you spotted your friend Larry walking out to his car, you'd probably utter something loud and informal along the lines of: "Hey, Larry!"

On the other hand, if you were that same 17-year-old boy and saw the school principal drop something in the parking lot as she was walking to her car, you'd more likely utter something along the lines of, "Excuse me, Mrs. Phelps! You dropped your scarf." This word choice has to do with societal expectations on the part of both the speaker and the person to whom he is speaking. If the 17-year-old hollered, "Hey! You dropped something!" in this instance, it could be considered rude. The principal has certain expectations with regard to her status and authority. If the speaker understands and respects those societal constructs, he will choose his language accordingly to make his point and express proper deference.

How Language Defines Who We Are

Perhaps the most famous example of the study of sociolinguistics comes to us in the form "Pygmalion," the play by Irish playwright and author George Bernard Shaw that went on to become the basis for the musical "My Fair Lady." The story opens outside London's Covent Garden market, where the upper crust post-theater crowd is attempting to stay out of the rain. Among the group are Mrs. Eynsford, her son, and daughter, Colonel Pickering (a well-bred gentleman), and a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (a.k.a Liza).

In the shadows, a mysterious man is taking notes. When Eliza catches him writing down everything she says, she thinks he’s a policeman and loudly protests that she hasn’t done anything. The mystery man isn’t a cop—he’s a professor of linguistics, Henry Higgins. Coincidentally, Pickering is also a linguist. Higgins boasts that he could turn Eliza into a duchess or the verbal equivalent in six months, with no idea that Eliza has overheard him and is actually going to take him up on it. When Pickering bets Higgins he can’t succeed, a wager is made and the bet is on.

Over the course of the play, Higgins does indeed transform Eliza from guttersnipe to grand dame, culminating with her presentation to the queen at a royal ball. Along the way, however, Eliza must modify not only her pronunciation but her choice of words and subject matter. In a wonderful third-act scene, Higgins brings his protégé out for a test run. She’s taken to tea at the home of Higgins' very proper mother with strict orders: “She’s to keep to two subjects: the weather and everybody’s health—Fine day and How do you do, you know—and not to let herself go on things in general. That will be safe.” Also in attendance are the Eynsford Hills. While Eliza valiantly attempts to stick to the limited subject matter, it’s clear from the following exchange that her metamorphosis is as yet incomplete:

MRS. EYNSFORD HILL: I’m sure I hope it won’t turn cold. There’s so much influenza about. It runs right through our whole family regularly every spring.
LIZA: [darkly] My aunt died of influenza—so they said.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL [clicks her tongue sympathetically]
LIZA: [in the same tragic tone] But it’s my belief they done the old woman in.
MRS. HIGGINS: [puzzled] Done her in?
LIZA: Y-e-e-e-es, Lord love you! Why should she die of influenza? She come through diphtheria right enough the year before. I saw her with my own eyes. Fairly blue with it, she was. They all thought she was dead; but my father he kept ladling gin down her throat til she came to so sudden that she bit the bowl off the spoon.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL: [startled] Dear me!
LIZA: [piling up the indictment] What call would a woman with that strength in her have to die of influenza? What become of her new straw hat that should have come to me? Somebody pinched it; and what I say is, them as pinched it done her in.

Written just after the close of the Edwardian Era, when class distinction in British society was steeped in centuries-old traditions strictly delineated by a set of codes that related to family status and wealth as well as occupation and personal behavior (or morality), at the heart of the play is the concept that how we speak and what we say directly defines not only who we are and where we stand in society but also what we can hope to achieve—and what we can never achieve. A lady speaks like a lady, and a flower girl speaks like a flower girl and never the twain shall meet.

At the time, this distinction of speech separated the classes and made it virtually impossible for someone from the lower ranks to rise above their station. While both a shrewd social commentary and an amusing comedy in its day, assumptions made on the basis of these linguistic precepts had a very real impact on every aspect daily life—economic and social—from what job you could take, to whom you could or could not marry. Such things matter much less today of course, however, it is still possible for some sociolinguistic experts to pinpoint who you are and where you come from by the way you speak.