Element Eight: Sociolinguistics

BirminghamSlangA Canadian couple wants a baby, but they cannot have children. So they decide to adopt a Chinese baby. After the baby arrives, the couple signs up for a Chinese class. Then a friend asks, “Why are you taking Chinese?” And the husband answers, “When the baby starts talking, we want to understand him.”

This little story reminds us of the social nature of language. We may be born knowing how to innately acquire languages. But we are not born knowing the language of our biological parents. We must be socialized into learning a language.

This simple fact reminds us that language is social, and when we focus on the social aspects of language, we do sociolinguistics: the study of the relation between language and society.

Dialect and Language

We can see the relation between language and society when we think about dialect and language. A dialect is a form of a language that is unique to a location or a social group. For example, Hughes, Trudgill, and Watt (2012) list 24 different regional dialects of English in Britain. And Wikipedia lists over 30 dialects of American English.

When I studied in Scotland, one day at lunch I sat across from a man from Birmingham, a city in England that has a unique dialect. I was amazed at his vocabulary and pronunciation. And I said to him, “You speak in a very interesting way!” And he joked back to me, “So do you!”

But I think the Birmingham way of speaking is much more interesting than my way of speaking. People from Birmingham could say things like this:

Birmingham Dialect
A: Stop clarting about!
B: Leave me alone. You are driving me barmy.
A: This ain’t gettin the babby a frock and pinny.
B: You’ve got a right cob on this morning.

Translation in Standard English
A: Stop behaving in a silly and irritating way.
B: Leave me alone. You are driving me crazy.
A: This is getting us nowhere; we’re wasting time.
B: You are in a bad mood this morning.

Most native English speakers outside of England will not understand this example of the Birmingham dialect. Of course, Birmingham speakers don’t use this kind of slang all the time. And most native speakers of English will probably understand the Birmingham dialect fairly well.

What Defines a Language

When we think about dialect differences, we start to see what defines a particular language. Imagine two British men. A Scotsman from Glasgow finds it hard to understand the Cockney dialect from London. Both are English speakers! But ironically, a Dutchman, speaking Dutch, and a German, speaking German can understand each other. In fact, they may understand each other better than the two English speakers, and they are using “different languages.” The point is: mutual understanding doesn’t define a language.

Moreover, people from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and many other places all speak English. In these places, we can meet many Chinese people who are also native speakers of English. Therefore, location and ethnicity also do not define a language.

In the end, we can define a language by the speech community that uses it. In simple terms, a speech community is a group of people who share (a) community membership and (b) a common language. Though this definition is vague. It does help in one sense. Imagine an Italian foreign student studying at a Japanese university. She does not speak Japanese very well, and her roommate is a Japanese girl who doesn’t speak English very well.

The Italian girl wants to become friends with her roommate; that is, she wants community membership. Though the two may be able to enjoy some activities together, basically they need a common language to make their friendship work. In time, the Italian girl learns Japanese. Now she is developing a common language with her roommate, and this is the key for community membership.

Language and Gender

In a short essay like this, we can only look at a few aspects of the field of sociolinguistics; therefore, to finish up, let’s look briefly at one area that many people will find interesting. That is the relationship between language and gender. In one sense, this is sexual linguistics where we ask questions like: Do men and women use language differently? If so, how?

Tannen (2007, p. 188) gives a famous example related to language and gender. “A woman sues her husband for divorce. When the judge asks her why she wants a divorce, she explains that her husband hasn’t talked to her in two years. The judge asks her husband: ‘Why haven’t you spoken to your wife in two years?’ He replies: ‘I didn’t want to interrupt her.’”

Here the woman says the man doesn’t talk. And the man says the woman talks too much. Ironically, Tannen claims that men actually interrupt more than women, that women use language for connection and closeness, and men use it to create status and independence.

These may be tendencies, but we can always find exceptions where men use language for connection and closeness and women use it to create status and independence. In short, we will often see patterns of communication that differ between men and women, and we can look at these different communication styles as a kind of cross-cultural communication.

Sociolinguists looks at more than just gender issues, dialects, and speech communities. But these three topics give us an elemental introduction to the amazing social factors that influence the ways we use language everyday.

Hughes, A., Trudgill, P., & Watt, D. (2012). English Accents and Dialects: An Introduction to Social and Regional Varieties of English in the British Isles, Fifth Edition (5 edition). London: Routledge.

Tannen, D. (2007). You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1 edition). New York: William Morrow Paperbacks.