Sociolinguistics Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Sociolinguistics is the study of the relation between language and society—a branch of both linguistics and sociology. 

American linguist William Labov has called sociolinguistics secular linguistics, "in reaction to the contention among many linguists working in a broadly Chomskyan framework that language can be dissociated from its social functions" (Key Thinkers in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language, 2005).

"[T]he difference between sociolinguistics and the sociology of language is very much one of emphasis," says R.A. Hudson. "There is a very large area of overlap between the two"  (Sociolinguistics, 2001). In An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (2013), Rubén Chacón-Beltrán observes that in sociolinguistics "the stress is placed on language and its role within communication. Sociology of language, however, centers on the study of society and how we can understand it through the study of language."

Examples and Observations

"There are several possible relationships between language and society. One is that social structure may either influence or determine linguistic structure and/or behavior. . . .

"A second possible relationship is directly opposed to the first: linguistic structure and/or behavior may either influence or determine social structure. . . . A third possible relationship is that the influence is bi-directional: language and society may influence each other. . . .

"Whatever sociolinguistics is, . . . any conclusions we come to must be solidly based on evidence." (Ronald Wardhaugh, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 6th ed. Wiley, 2010)

Sociolinguistic Methods

"The standard way in which sociolinguists investigate [language] use is by random sampling of the population. In classic cases, like those undertaken in New York by [William] Labov, or in Norwich by [Peter] Trudgill, a number of linguistic variables are selected, such as 'r' (variably pronounced according to where it occurs in a word) or 'ng' (variably pronounced /n/ or /ŋ/). Sections of the population, known as informants, are then tested to see the frequency with which they produce particular variants. The results are then set against social indices which group informants into classes, based on factors such as education, money, occupation, and so forth. On the basis of such data it is possible to chart the spread of innovations in accent and dialect regionally." (Geoffrey Finch, Linguistic Terms and Concepts. Palgrave Macmillan, 2000)

Subfields and Branches of Sociolinguistics

"Sociolinguistics includes anthropological linguistics, dialectology, discourse analysis, ethnography of speaking, geolinguistics, language contact studies, secular linguistics, the social psychology of language and the sociology of language." (Peter Trudgill, A Glossary of Sociolinguistics. Oxford University Press, 2003)

Sociolinguistic Competence

"Sociolinguistic competence enables speakers to distinguish among possibilities such as the following. To get someone's attention in English, each of the utterances

  1. 'Hey!',
  2. 'Excuse me!', and
  3. 'Sir!' or 'Ma'am!'

is grammatical and a fully meaningful contribution to the discourse of the moment, but only one of them may satisfy societal expectations and the speaker's preferred presentation of self. 'Hey!' addressed to one's mother or father, for example, often expresses either a bad attitude or surprising misunderstanding of the usually recognized social proprieties, and saying 'Sir!' to a 12-year-old probably expresses inappropriate deference.

"Every language accommodates such differences as a non-discrete scale or continuum of recognizably different linguistic 'levels' or styles, termed registers, and every socially mature speaker, as part of learning the language, has learned to distinguish and choose among places on the scale of register." (G. Hudson, Essential Introductory Linguistics. Blackwell, 2000)