How to capture variety in language as a
multifaceted social phenomenon
Approaches of Theoretical Linguistics:
 idiolect studied under carefully controlled
 idealised competence rather than
observable performance (Chomsky)
 biased data (educated speakers on
formal occasions)
Problems with the Chomskyan approach
 Language is represented in the variable
performances of individuals
 Individual variation in adjusting speech to
 “Variable probabilistic knowledge” (Hymes,
- systemic potential
- appropriateness
- occurrence
- feasibility
Approaches to sociolinguistics
 Social as well as linguistics
 Socially realistic linguistics
 Socially constituted linguistics
Biber, Conrad & Leech, 2002: A corpusbased approach to linguistic description
The scope of sociolinguistics
 Relation between
language and society,
uses of language and social structures.
 Synchronic and diachronic variation
 Dialectal variation
 Social variation
 Age-related variation
 Gender-based variation
Language and speech community
Speech community:
shared language
verbal repertoire
“third floor” (UK) = “fourth floor” (US)
„God bless you” vs. „See you later”
„Pá” vs. „szevasz”
How to measure variety
Central questions:
Who make up a representative sample of
a region?
What linguistic items are to be studied?
How to analyse this data?
Requires methods different from those
of TL
 sampling by questionnaires – demographic data
 involving historians, anthropologists, etc. to
identify target region
 field research, ethnographic observation
 sociolinguistic interview
 non-intrusive responses (Labov)
 participant research – the observer’s paradox
 results on maps - isogloss
The line on the map of southern England separates
the area where the vowel in a word such as cut is
[A] (black circles) from the area where the vowel is
[U] (crosses).
Dialectal variation
Language = nation?
- different nations, similar language
(Norway, Denmark, Sweden)
- blends (Spanish-Portugese in Galicia)
- Chinese
- Pidgin phenomenon
- Creole (Indian English)
Australian Pidgin „Harim”
Indon: Gavman welkam long askim blong
Australia October 2009
Indonesia i welkam long askim blong
Australia Praim Minista Kevin Rudd
long sapos oli ken halvim Australia
long lukluk long wanpla bot i pulap
long 260 pipal blong Sri Lanka husat i
laik kam long Australia, em oli painim ol
insait long Indonesia solwara.
Social variation
 Example 1:
“Learned” verbs (criticise, propose)
Place names: –ing
(Cushing, Flushing)
Informal verbs (take, chew)
Typical of men
Example 2:
Labov’s study of New York City department stores
 Problems:
Identifying categories such as social class or levels of formality
Data collection procedures quality of linguistic material
Age-dependent variation
Language development is age-graded,
violations cause embarrassment or
laughter („Pá”)
Child language and motherese (potty,
nappy, kitty, sweetpea)
Pig Latin, Playing dozens
Early adolescence: peer group influence,
slang (rap, house, hip-hop)
Gender differences
 Women
Higher-pitched voice
- careful speech (-ing)
- conscious of socially
- preferred forms
- appeal tags (is it? will you?)
- tentative (Would you mind..)
- colour names
(beige, levander, lilac)
- intensifiers
(She’s so quite.)
Avoid emotional
words, etc. adorable,
heavenly, divine
Gender bias in languages
English – a male language
 Mankind and fatherland
 “He” as general reference
 He is a professional. vs She is a professional.
 Master vs. mistress
 Diminishing value of female words
(She is out with the girls.)
 Smith, Jones vs. Miss Smith, Mrs Jones or Mary
 Policeman, doctor, poet
Ethnic groups in the mainstream society may
introduce a special ethnic dialect
 Pennsylvanian Dutch
 Jewish American
I need it like a hole
in my head.
He asked me for it yet,
Jerk schmerk!
 Hungarian Romas (csávó, lácsó)
Black English
 According to US experiments, people are able to
distinguish between black and white speakers
on the phone in over 80% of cases.
 reduced final consonant groups (test-tess, maskmass)
 interchangeable then-den, three-tree
 forward shifted stress (Détroit, pólice, hótel)
 syntax: I done told him about it. He (be) waitin’
for me every night. She don’t/ain’t say nothing.
 rhetoric:
- exaggeration,
- wide intonation range, falsetto voice,
- listener and participant encouragement
(Amen, Right on),
- verbal displays (rapping, playing dozens).
Playing the dozens „Yo mama”
Yo mama’s so fat, her school picture was an
aerial photograph.
Yo mama's so fat, she doesn't have a doctor, she
has a grounds keeper.
Yo mama's so ugly, her birth certificate was an
apology letter from the condom factory.
Yo mama's so old, she DJ'd at the Boston Tea
Yo mama's so old, when God said "Let there be
light" she was there to flick the switch.
Yo mama's so skinny, she swallowed a meatball
and thought she was pregnant.
Register variety
Different languages offer different sets of
register choice (formality-informality)
Javanese- rich system of register
according to gender, kinship, occupation
wealth, education, religion or family
Indonesian - more democratic, offering
fewer distinctions
Cross-cultural communication problems
Martin Jooz
Five styles based
 on interactivity
 amount of
 formality of
 clarity of articulation
 complexity of syntax
 Frozen
 Formal
 Consultative
 Casual
 Intimate
Areas of sociolinguistic study
 Focus on function: the organisation of speech
and speech acts
 Competence as personal ability (idiolect)
 Performance as variable, individual- and
context-dependent acomplishment
 Language as a social tool
 Speech communities as organisations of ways
of speaking
 Variation according to regional origin, social
class, age and gender