Language and Society: What Your Speech Says about You
By Valerie Fridland
What Is Sociolinguistics?
Speech is not new to you; you know how to talk and spend little effort
constructing sentences. But as we’ve already seen, language itself is
far from simple; you have to know how sounds are produced, how
they can combine into syllables, how to form new words, and how to make
grammatically complex and semantically congruent sentences. Finally,
you have to learn all the social rules for using the sentences you construct.
How is it that such a complex, interactive system can become so implicit
and simple? To help answer this question, in this lecture, we will look more
closely at language as an academic object of study-as both a mental and a
I. Theoretical Linguistics and Sociolinguistics
A. Linguistics proper has long been concerned with defining the
language system in the abstract, assuming that this system is
the same for all speakers of a language. Such linguists as Noam
Chomsky, for example, study the cognitive capacity for language
without regard for the actual act of communication itself It is
the goal of these linguists to understand the basic blueprint for
language-the underlying mental system that gives humans the
potential for speech. This theoretical approach to linguistics helps
us understand how the construction of the brain limits the potential
for the shape of language in specific ways.
B. Theoretical linguistics is a static model. It is concerned with the
world of language potential-what our cognitive system can
produce, not what it actually produces. Thus, actual speakers in real
speaking contexts are never studied in traditional linguistics. But to
address the fact that language is not a purely cognitive entity, the
subfield of sociolinguistics seeks to explain how and why speakers
use language the way they do.
C. Sociolinguistics marries the fields of linguistics (exploring the
linguistic system) and sociology (exploring the social system) to
understand the primacy of language in the construction of social
D. The major question at the root of much sociolinguistic inquiry is: How
and why do languages change? But this question still ties the field
to traditional linguistics. To understand how language affects and is
affected by society, we must first understand the basic nature of
language as a conceptual system.
A. The language system in the abstract is referred to by linguists as
our grammar, which is equally accessible to every speaker. In other
words, grammar is what every speaker of a language knows: the
rules and principles for constructing sounds, words, and sentences.
Note that this mental grammar represents your linguistic
competence--your language potential in the abstract. It is not
concerned with social expectations and norms for how you speak;
rather, it refers to the cognitive programming you are born with.
B. To understand this idea, consider these two sentences: I want to
visit John and I want John to visit.
1. Both of these sentences can answer the question: Who do you
want to visit? However, only the first sentence can answer the
question when the verb is in a contracted form: Who do you
wanna visit? No one ever taught you this distinction, but it is
something that even young children seem to understand
2. This constraint, it appears, is part of our mental grammar,
something we all have access to without consciously
C. Another example of mental grammar at work is the way in which
we construct yes/no questions, such as: Ls the boy running?
1. We could come up with a simple rule to explain how we form
such questions from sentences: Move the verb to the beginning
of the sentence. But note that it is a verbal element that moves,
not the main verb itself. Otherwise, the question would be:
Running, the boy is?
2. We might say that moving the auxiliary verb to the front of
the sentence would get us Ls the boy running? But what about
another question: Ls the boy who is wheezing running? If we
applied the new rule to this question, we would get: Ls the boy
wheezing is running?
3. Clearly, we have to note the fact that it is the auxiliary verb
that is moving. More importantly, it is the auxiliary verb in the
main clause, a position that can’t be linearly defined but only
4. As this example shows, we have an underlying grammar, but
we aren’t really able to articulate its rules, even though we still
seem to follow them.
III. Language as a Social Entity
A. Although knowing the system is helpful in producing valid
sentences, this mental grammar is useful as a social tool only when
it is put to work to produce an act of communication This brings us
back to the necessity of looking at language through a social lens.
B. Language is communication only once it becomes a social entity-
an actual code (created by the grammar) agreed upon and used by a
community of speakers. In this sense, language is a social resource
developed and maintained by those who use it.
C. This is where language variation comes into play; what each
speaker uses out of his or her mental grammar varies depending
on the speech community. This is the point of intersection between
language as a conceptual system and language as a social system.
1. For example, the merger of vowels in such word pairs as
cot/caught or pin/pen identities speakers regionally. Westerners
have merged cot/caught, but Northerners still say the
2. All babies born with functional language capacity have
linguistic resources to have separate or merged vowel
categories in those contexts. But it is only when they are born
into a specific dialect community that these resources are set
in one direction or another. That is, they will either acquire
merged cot/caught, or they will maintain the separation into
two vowel classes.
3. We are born with the same cognitive abilities, but we realize
different aspects of this potential. The resulting system is what
is referred to as linguistic performance-what speakers actually
use out of their competence (the mental grammar in full).
4. Sociolinguists are concerned with linguistic performance,
whereas theoretical linguists are interested in describing and
understanding linguistic competence.
IV. Social Convention and Boundedness
A. Part of what is important to tease out between language conceptually
and language socially is the idea that underlying cognitive rules
drive the creation of words and sentences, but social convention
drives our interpretation of them. The relationship between a word
and the thing represented by it is purely arbitrary and gets meaning
only as part of collective agreement among speakers.
1. For example, dog means ‘hairy, barking, four-legged creature’
only because the community of English speakers agrees on this
sound representation for the concept. The fact that chien refers
to this same concept in French shows that this relationship
2. Groups of speakers that share some sense of membership in a
community have come to agree on the meaning associated with
B. Building on this idea of social consensus, another concept that
is important in sociolinguistics is that of the boundedness of our
social awareness. The idea here is that there are many things that
surround us in our daily world, but we select only a portion of them
as important in giving coherence to our experience. In other words,
in making sense of our world, some facts are prioritized and others
1. As we saw in our last lecture, some of this may be an inherent
part of the language system we use-for example, whether or
not we grammatically indicate what type of tit an object has, as
Korean speakers do.
2. The facts selected as most vital to our sense of reality are
also greatly determined by our cultural and institutional
perspective. Again, like the arbitrary relation between a word
and its concept, much of the determination of which facts are
important is based on what our society directs us to look at.
V. Speech Communities
A. Linguists use the term speech community to refer to a group of
people who interact linguistically and show agreement on social
conventions. Such groups set themselves off uniquely from other
groups in terms of both social and linguistic behavior.
B. The term speech community has fuzzy boundaries. For example,
we might say that we are members of an English-speaking speech
community, but that would mean that we share norms with speakers
of other varieties of English, such as Australian or British English.
That’s certainly true in some cases, but not all.
C. Despite the fact that we can cast a wider net with the term, in this
course, we will often use speech community to refer to a more
local agreement on shared norms, such as those found in American
English, that provide speakers with some sense of linguistic unity.
The sense that linguists intend to convey by the term speech
community is that certain collections of linguistic features often
characterize the speech of people who interact frequently and have
a sense of symbolic unity. Also important is the idea that these
groups use sociolinguistic norms to contrast with others outside
D. The notion of a speech community combines both social and
linguistic aspects. This concept centers on the idea of a social unit
with members that interact and, through prolonged interaction,
construct a shared system of meaning socially and culturally.
Crucially, speech communities often are made relevant mainly by
their distinction from other communities. In addition, the notion
of linguistic norms, or shared ideas about the typical forms and
meanings of speech, are a key part of what binds and defines
members of a speech community.
E. In addition to this larger unit of social and linguistic organization, a
related idea that is even more locally derived is that of a community
of practice. We become involved in establishing practice by being
involved in mutual enterprises and activities that reoccur and
establish bonds between us, such as family traditions. Language is
often a major part of such traditions, and we end up using this local
experience to judge the ways others talk and interact and to identify
others with similar practices as members of our communities.
F. Thus, we see how the daily engagement of speakers actually
helps construct the larger social and cultural values in which
these interactions are embedded. In other words, our speech,
encompassing differences in what we note as salient, the linguistic
forms we choose to use, and the audience we identify, itself
contributes to maintaining the larger social order.