Sociolinguistics, or the study of language in relation to society, is a relative newcomer to the linguistic fold. It wasn’t until the early 1960s, largely as a result of William Labov’s work in America, and Peter Trudgill’s in Britain, that it developed into a recognised branch of linguistics. Before then there had been a long tradition of studying dialects, usually in remote rural areas, as part of language surveys, but with an agenda largely dictated by concerns to record and preserve historical features of the language. This kind of dialectology was inherently conservative and was part of larger, comparative language studies pursued under the discipline of philology. Labov was one of the first linguists to turn his attention away from rural, to urban, subjects, in an attempt to analyse the contemporary features of American speech.
Sociolinguistics is in many ways a blend of sociology and linguistics. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘sociology of language’, although that label suggests a greater concern with sociological rather than linguistic explanations, whereas sociolinguists are principally concerned with language, or, to be more precise, with what Dell Hymes crucially calls ‘socially constituted’ language: with the way language is constructed by, and in turn helps to construct, society. Its popularity has grown very much as a reaction to the more ‘armchair’ methods of generative linguists of the Chomskyan school. Generative linguists examine ‘idealised’ samples of speech in which utterances are complete, in a standard form of the language, and free from performance errors. Sociolinguists, on the other hand, are more interested in ‘real’ speech, within and among communities. Their overriding concern is with the way in which language varies according to the social context in which it is used and the social group to which it belongs: Labov terms this ‘secular linguistics’. The social variables which influence speech include personal factors such as age, and education, as well as more general ones like nationality, race, and sex. All of these have a bearing on language use.
The standard way in which sociolinguists investigate such use is by random sampling of the population. In classic cases, like those undertaken in New York by Labov, or in Norwich by 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 /ŋ̍/). 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. One complicating factor, however, is that people do not consistently produce a particular accent or dialect feature. They vary their speech according to the formality or informality of the occasion. So tests have to take into account stylistic factors as well as social ones. Interestingly, the findings which have emerged from such studies show that some variables are more subject to stylistic variation than others. What appears to happen is that people monitor their production of a variable they are particularly conscious of, whilst those they are less conscious of, they ignore. The first kind of variable is termed a marker and the second an indicator. Most innovations start as indicators, with certain social groups unconsciously producing them; a good example is ‘h’ dropping. If successful, they become adopted more widely by other groups, for whom they become markers. At a final stage a feature may become so distinctive of a certain section of the public that it becomes a stereotype. Such changes are examples of change from below, that is, from below conscious awareness. Once a feature has emerged into consciousness, however, and particularly if it becomes a stereotype, there may be attempts to check its progress by reintroducing some supposedly ‘correct’, and there-fore more prestigious, form. This has happened in the case of ‘r’ dropping in parts of America, and ‘h’ dropping in New Zealand and Australia, where vigorous attempts have been made to reintroduce these vulnerable sounds in the environments in which they are most likely to disappear. Both of these cases are examples of change from above, rather than below.
A major object of Labovian-type sociolinguistics is to under-stand how and why languages change. At its core is a very precise, empirical methodology, and its procedures are based on established ways of working in the social sciences. Since these classic studies, however, changes in methods of enquiry have altered the way in which sociolinguists gather their material. In particular, procedures using participant observation, in which observers immerse themselves in communities, rather than relying on random sampling for the collection of data, have yielded more refined accounts of linguistic behaviour. The work of James and Leslie Milroy on working-class speech in Belfast, for example, has demonstrated the importance of social networks in mediating speech habits. Networks operate their own group dynamics and influence speech in a subtler way than the simple class categories, used by more conventional methods of sociological enquiry, would suggest.
Although the ‘hard edge’ of sociolinguistics is concerned with accent and dialect, there is much else in the subject besides. Since the growth of so-called ‘political correctness’ the relation-ships between language on the one hand, and sex, race and ideology, on the other, have been extensively explored, and we have, as a result, learnt much about the way in which language not only mirrors social reality, but, more controversially, constructs it. The degree to which it does this is still debated and to a certain extent depends on insights from social anthropology and philosophy, but it gives to sociolinguistics a distinctive modernity and relevance.
At its outer edges sociolinguistics merges into the related area of stylistics, and in particular, discourse analysis. Two sub-branches, ethnomethodology, and the ethnography of communication, are concerned with style in its contextual and communicative dimension. The first is devoted to analysing conversation and the rules, or principles, which govern turn-taking. Knowing when to speak and what counts as a reply, as opposed to an interruption, are important socialising factors in language use. The second is concerned, on a much broader scale, with the effect of social and cultural variables on what is loosely termed, ‘linguistic behaviour’. Knowing whether to call someone ‘Mr Jones’, ‘Jimmy’, or ‘Jones’, for example, depends on a number of factors to do with the situational context, the nature of our relationship and the cultural assumptions within which we are speaking. ‘Terms of address’, as they are known, are a complex area of study, not least because customs differ between countries and nationalities.