Speech Community in Sociolinguistics

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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 for a group of people who use the same variety of a language and who share specific rules for speaking and for interpreting speech.

"[I]n many ways," says George Yule, "speech is a form of social identity and is used, consciously or unconsciously, to indicate membership of different social groups or different speech communities" (The Study of Language, 2014).

Varieties of English:
Australian, Babu, Canadian, Caribbean, Chicano, Chinese, Euro-English, Hinglish, Irish, Japanese, New Zealand, Nonstandard English, Philippine, Scottish, Singapore, South African, Spanglish, Standard American, Standard British, Standard English, Welsh, Zimbabwean

Examples and Observations

  • "[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. . . . Most members of a society, even if they happen to live in the same town, belong to several speech communities. For example, an elderly person may have considerable difficulty following the monotonous chant of an auctioneer or comprehending what students talk about among themselves. But both the auctioneer and a college student can easily make the adjustment necessary to engage in a conversation with the elderly person and be fully understood; all they have to do is share enough characteristics of pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and manner of speaking to belong to the same speech community." (Zdenek Salzmann, Language, Culture, and Society: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Westview, 2004)
  • "[M]embership in a speech community includes local knowledge of the way language choice, variation, and discourse represents generation, occupation, politics, social relationships, identity, etc." (Marcyliena Morgan, "Speech Community." A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, ed. by A. Duranti. Wiley, 2006)

    Soft-Shelled vs. Hard-Shelled Speech Communities

    "An informal typology of speech communities as 'soft-shelled' versus 'hard-shelled' may be distinguished on the basis of the strength of the boundary that is maintained by language: the 'hard-shelled' community has of course the stronger boundary, allowing minimal interaction between members and those outside, and providing maximum maintenance of language and culture.

    "Speech communities which primarily use one of the world languages [such as English] are more likely to be 'soft-shelled,' because it will be known as a second language by many others, and interaction across the boundary will be relatively easy in both directions. A speech community speaking a language with more limited distribution would more likely be 'hard shelled,' because relatively few outside the community learn to use it." (Muriel Saville-Troike, The Ethnography of Communication: An Introduction, 3rd ed. Blackwell, 2003)

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    Nordquist, Richard. "Speech Community in Sociolinguistics." ThoughtCo, Apr. 26, 2017, thoughtco.com/speech-community-sociolinguistics-1692120. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 26). Speech Community in Sociolinguistics. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/speech-community-sociolinguistics-1692120 Nordquist, Richard. "Speech Community in Sociolinguistics." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/speech-community-sociolinguistics-1692120 (accessed February 25, 2018).