A Definition of Speech Community in Sociolinguistics

speech community
Les Parau Parau ("Conversation") by Paul Gauguin (1891). (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Speech community is a term in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology used to describe a group of people who share the same language, speech characteristics, and ways of interpreting communication. Speech communities may be large regions like an urban area with a common, distinct accent (think of Boston with its dropped r's) or small units like families and friends (think of a nickname for a sibling).

They help people define themselves as individuals and community members and identify (or misidentify) others.

Speech and Identity

The concept of speech as a means of identifying with a community first emerged in 1960s academia alongside other new fields of research like ethnic and gender studies. Linguists like John Gumperz pioneered research in how personal interaction can influence ways of speaking and interpreting, while Noam Chomsky studied how people interpret language and derive meaning from what they see and hear.

Types of Communities

Speech communities can be large or small, although linguists don't agree on how they're defined. Some, like linguist Muriel Saville-Troike, argue that it's logical to assume that a shared language like English, which is spoken throughout the world, is a speech community. But she differentiates between "hard-shelled" communities, which tend to be insular and intimate, like a family or religious sect, and "soft-shelled" communities where there is a lot of interaction.

But other linguists say a common language is too vague to be considered a true speech community. The linguistic anthropologist Zdenek Salzmann describes it this way:

"[P]eople who speak the same language are not always members of the same speech community. On the one hand, speakers of South Asian English in India and Pakistan share a language with citizens of the U.S., but the respective varieties of English and the rules for speaking them are sufficiently distinct to assign the two populations to different speech communities..."

Instead, Salzman and others say, speech communities should be more narrowly defined based on characteristics such as pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and manner of speaking.

Study and Research

The concept of speech community plays a role in a number of social science, namely sociology, anthropology, linguists, even psychology. People who study issues of migration and ethnic identity use social community theory to study things like how immigrants assimilate into larger societies, for instance. Academics who focus on racial, ethnic, sexual​ or gender issues apply social community theory when they study issues of personal identity and politics. It also plays a role in data collection. By being aware of how communities are defined, researchers can adjust their subject pools in order to obtain representative sample populations.  

Sources

  • Morgan, Marcyliena H. "What Are Speech Communities?" Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Salzmann, Zdenek. "Language, Culture, and Society: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology." Westview, 2004
  • Saville-Troike, Muriel. "The Ethnography of Communication: An Introduction, 3rd ed." Blackwell, 2003.