Western Washington University

Department of Modern and Classical Languages

Linguistics 204 - "Sociolinguistics"

Shaw N. Gynan - Instructor

Study Guide - Chapter 1, Introduction

Linguistics and Sociology

Sociolinguists study the relationship between language and society. Sociolinguistics is a loose grouping of several related disciplines. It has been in existence for around forty years. As such, the field combines knowledge principally from two fields of study: linguistics and sociology.

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Language is a rule-govered system of signs that is used by all human communities for communication. Most languages of the world are based on spoken segments known as phones, but languages are also based on manual gestures known as signs. Spoken language and sign language are qualitatively the same with respect to complexity of structure.

Linguists restrict their focus to linguistic communication. Humans use non-linguistic signs for communication as well. For example, the long dark robe worn by a religious person communicates such values as modesty, chastity, and humility. Clothes, however, are not usually studied by linguists. Other animal species have systems of communication, such as those employed by bees or wolves, but these are not typically studied by linguists either, since they are qualitatively different from linguistic communication.

The most significant linguist of the twentieth century is Noam Chomsky, whose area of interest has been the study of properties of language that are universal to all human speech communities. Chomsky’s approach to the study of language has been characterized as asocial, since he excludes social variation as irrelevant to his quest to identify features that all languages share.

Wardhaugh implies that perhaps this approach is too narrow. It is important to keep in mind that there are ways in which linguistic competence is invariant from individual to individual in a given speech community. Take the following examples:

1. That’s the politician who I caught a glimpse of at last night’s dinner.

2. That’s the politician that I caught a glimpse of at last night’s dinner.

3. That’s the politician I caught a glimpse of at last night’s dinner.

4. I caught a glimpse of the politician who spoke at last night’s dinner.

5. I caught a glimpse of the politician that spoke at last night’s dinner.

6. *I caught a glimpse of the politician spoke at last night’s dinner.

The above examples illustrate the following point. Although native speakers of English may disagree about which of the first three sentences sounds the most elegant, they will agree that all three can be used; however, 6 is universally rejected by English speakers. The rule that we all seem to know implicitly could be described in grammatical terms as follows: the relative pronoun is obligatory for subject relativization, whereas the relative pronoun is optional for object relativization. This is obviously a pretty complicated rule to describe, and yet English speakers do not vary as to its use. These are the kinds of rules that are of interest to theoretical linguists.

Chomsky’s approach to the study of language, as developed in the 80s, involves the study of principles and parameters, which are aspects of our unconscious knowledge of language, referred to as linguistic competence.

Principles are those features common to all languages, part of Universal Grammar (UG). A series of theories have been developed to describe those features. The field is constantly under revision, but the following areas are summarized in Haegeman are being candidates for UG:

Theta-theory - All languages appear to have semantic or thematic roles (agent, experiencer, benefactor, theme, instrument, origin, and so forth). These do not correspond very well with the traditional grammatical terms. For example, what we call the subject can fill just about any thematic role. The sentences below all refer to the same event, with the same thematic roles involved. Note that the agent, the instrument, the experiencer (the involved entity), or the theme (the object itself) can be the grammatical subject of the sentence.


kid broke Mr. Kendall’s window with a baseball.




baseball broke the window.



Mr. Kendall got his window broken by a baseball.

(Experiencer, involved entity, victim)

Mr. Kendall’s

window broke.



Case Theory - Case is either an overt or abstract marking of a noun phrases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive); it has been hypothesized that all languages have case, although this has been modified in Chomsky’s latest theoretical venture, the Minimalist Program.

He seems to have hurt

him and his





Jim seems to have hurt John and Bob’s friend.

Jim seems to have hurt

John and Bob’s





X’-theory - Phrase structure has been hypothesized to have certain unversal properties. Specifically, phrases are said to have endocentric structure, that is, a noun phrase (NP) has as its internal center the noun, the verb phrase is centered on or headed by the verb. This simple principle has been extended to declare that any phrase X has a head X. Two types of heads have been identified: lexical heads, e.g., Noun, Verb, Preposition, Adjective, Adverb, and functional heads, e.g., Inflection, Complementizer, Agreement, Tense, Mood, Negation, Aspect.

Binding Theory - All languages have rules for NP interpretation; anaphors (reflexives and reciprocals), pronouns, and Referential-expressions can be distinguished by rules that specify the referent to which a given type of NP may refer.

Parameters are dimensions along which languages vary systematically, e.g., word order, subject dropping, and overt morphology. In English, for example, a preposition precedes the NP it governs. In Guaraní, a South American indigenous language, the NP precedes what is called the postposition:

"Che ahata Colandive Kaakupepe."

















"I’m going with Nick to Caacupé."

Whether the equivalent of a word like "with" precedes or follows the noun phrase it governs is a question of parametric variation, not taste or style, and all members of a given speech community learn these rules. So, there is a way in which all human beings are invariant as to linguistic competence, and even within a speech community, there are certain characteristics of a language which all members of the community share.

It is critically important that the student of language and society not lose sight of the fact that social language variation is trivial in the sense of deep linguistic structure. Linguists theorize that our ability to acquire language is a direct consequence of our biological nature. The structure of the brain is determined by genetic information, and although as of yet we are unable to identify the genetic coding that allows us to learn language, the proof of our uniqueness is evident in language itself, the structure of which is not found in any other known system of communication.

Wardhaugh mentions Basil Bernstein’s theories of language. Bernstein is often credited (or blamed) for what is commonly referred to as the language deficit hypothesis, which holds that some people, because they are raised in environments where contact with language is limited, acquire an inferior variety of language, which Bernstein labelled restricted code. Other, more fortunate individuals acquire language in a richer environment, an elaborated code that enables them to communicate more effectively. Those who only acquire the restricted code suffer from a linguistic deficit. Bernstein defines an elaborated code as language that is universalistic and non-specific and restricted code as particularistic and specific. Note that this definition is reminiscent of those who would argue that certain modes of speech are lacking in basic human qualities, namely those that enable us to refer to objects displaced in time and space. Labov, a famous sociolinguist, qualifies this distinction by noting that elaborated speech is often redundant and less logical, more style than substance, and gives an example of so-called restricted code which is replete with logic.

Here are some basic concepts which are important for the field of sociolinguists.

Sociology - the study of social structure and forces

Social Psychology - the study of the relationship between individual behavior and individual perceptions of, beliefs about, and attitudes towards society

Linguistics - the science of language

Applied Linguistics - the study of second language acquisition

Sociology (based on Jonathan H. Turner, 1996, A Macro-Level Functional Theory of Social Disintegration, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 16:4, pp. 5-36)

Turner identified integrative and disintegrative forces that are either structural or cultural in nature. The different kinds of social forces are listed below, along with examples of how language variation is related to them. Functionalism (Spencer [1874-96] 1898; Durkheim [1893] 1947; Smith [1776] 1805; reviewed by Turner 1996; Luhmann 1982) (Collins 1975) is a theoretical orientation that views society as a system of interdependent parts whose functions contribute to the stability and survival of the system (Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd Edition). Turner integrates conflict theory with functionalism. Conflict theory is concerned with seeking to account for disintegrative and integrative forces in society. Below, this framework is used to describe how it is that language variation can be both a reflection and cause of social and cultural forces.

Structural forces

Segmentation (the replication of structural units in response to population growth, e.g., governments, economic systems, religious organizations, educational institutions; segmentation may alleviate disintegrative pressures); segmentation may occur across linguistic lines—state borders may coincide roughly with dialect boundaries

Differentiation (educational, aesthetic, religious, legal, economic, productive, regulatory, distributive; differentiation may lead to conflicts of interest, hardening of boundaries); differentiation occurs along linguistic lines—engineers find that they must learn the language of the construction workers who are carrying out projects under their supervision; in the US, highly educated engineers may find themselves learning the language variety of the working class in order to communicate effectively with their employees; in Paraguay, an architect reported that he was obliged to rekindle his proficiency in Guaraní, an indigenous language used frequently by bricklayers under his direction

Interdependence (balancing operations, agreeing on rates of exchange, contains an enormous disintegrative potential; affected by length of transaction chains, speed, volume, and diversity of transactions); interdependence brings languages into contact—NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, has increased the speed, volume, and diversity of transactions, despite often enormous distances between trading partners in Mexico and the US

Inclusion (the units produced by differentiation are arranged hierarchically); in Texas, many Rio Grande counties that are under direct control of a predominantly English-language state government are nearly 100% Spanish-speaking

Overlap (created by weak ties between a group and an external category; these ties are integrative, as far as they go); when the US won the Mexican-American war in 1848, a situation of overlap was created—the Spanish-speaking people still maintain ties with Mexico, although these have weakened over the decades since the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo; to a certain extent, these weak ties between the Mexican-Americans and Mexico, which in this case is the external category, are integrative—an immigrant to the area will feel somewhat more welcome because of the Hispanic presence there; nevertheless, there is much competition between those of Hispanic descent who are US citizens, largely assimilated linguistically and culturally to the US society, and recent Spanish-speaking arrivals

Mobility (high rates of movement through geographical and social space promotes integration; insularity promotes disintegration); ties between the US and Mexico, and indeed the entire Spanish-speaking world, have become stronger over the years as a result of immigration; economic factors are primary in explaining the movement of Spanish-speaking peoples to the US, but politics and war have been important causes of immigration to the US from such countries as Spain, Cuba, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua

Segregation (separation of individuals involved in incompatible activities associated with, for example, work, religion, or family; temporary segregation can alleviate disintegrative forces); legal and de facto segregation of African-Americans may in part be responsible for the continued use of African-American Vernacular English—had the African-American community been integrated economically and cultural with the rest of the US population, then the number of speakers of the language would probably have declined more rapidly than otherwise has been the case

Domination (power - the capacity to control, regulate, and coordinate the actions of other; depending on the profile of domination, power can be integrative over the long term, or disintegrative, especially if one of the bases of control is dominant); the dictatorship of Franco has been cited as a factor in the resurgence of Catalán, a Romance language more closely related to Provençal in France than Spanish in Spain; it has been argued that Franco’s repression of that language caused a backlash that explains the considerable popularity that the language now enjoy

Control - four bases (Mann 1986)

coercive (use of physical force; high cost and resentment are disintegrative); the Inca Empire and the Soviet union both transported people out of colonized areas in order to hasten linguistic assimilation; now, in countries like Estonia, resentment of the Russian-speaking population is high, as part of the backlash against the use of coercive control in the past in an effort to destroy the Estonian language and culture

material (manipulation of material incentives; inequalities can erode faith in symbols); material control of the population, which is a rather spontaneous phenomenon in the US, has resulted in the rapid linguistic assimilation of countless immigrant populations, including Hispanic immigrant groups

symbolic (use of ideology and other symbolic systems; gap between symbol and reality can lead to disintegration); Russian came to be identified with the Soviet state, yet the language never became as widely sought-after a language as English, perhaps because of the gap between the symbol and the reality of living under the Soviet system

administrative (use of organizational units; a highly centralized administrative and coercive system is disintegrative); the US, so far, has been quite pragmatic about providing language services to Spanish-speaking and other language groups, the result of which has been, arguably, increased assimilation—moves afoot to eliminate bilingual education, voting in languages other than English, government in other languages, and other public language services may actually promote language separatism

Cultural forces - sets of symbols identified by Turner

Evaluational - cultural standards for assessing morality (right vs. wrong); absence of generalized evaluational symbols leads to disintegration; related to the concepts of evaluative and empirical beliefs, dealt with in social psychology; many promoters of official English argue that English serves as a cultural standard, and that other languages do not contain, implicitly, the same moral and ideological force; language variation in a complex society is assessed as right or wrong—weaker, powerless dialects are "wrong," and the language of social institutions is "right"

Regulatory - rules for promoting conformity of organizational units and transactions among units; according to Luhmann, an autonomous legal system mitigates disintegration; rules for the use of language, while not having the force of law, serve to diminish disintegrative forces by giving society a common way of communicating in formal situations

Legitimating - symbols that at a diffuse level bestow rights to resources and actions (English bestows the right to a citizen to work and govern), and that at a specific level regulate the exercise of those rights (English is required in order to gain citizenship in the US); knowing Spanish is needed now for teaching in certain districts or to work for companies that deal with large Spanish-speaking populations; this requirement has engendered a great deal of resentment among those who felt that English already bestowed upon them rights at a diffuse and specific level

Media - symbols (such as money, power, language, commitments, love, truth) that allow for engaging in discourse, interpreting non-verbal cues, defining units of value and terms of exchange, developing beliefs about symbols, and legitimating activities; language is a medium of exchange of ideas and comes to symbolize the ideas exchanged in that language—a good example is the medium of religious rites; Latin, Sanskrit, Biblical Hebrew, and Classical Arabic are used in important religious texts, and as such have become symbols of the religions that are expressed in them; consequently, in Israel, there was significant opposition from conservative religious forces to expansion of Hebrew from a purely sacred language to one of public commerce—use of a holy symbol in such a was argued to be as sacrilegious

Linguistics - Here is an overview of some of the basic divisions in linguistics that are relevant to the study of sociolinguistics
Traditional Divisions - behavioral and structural linguistics (Bloomfield)

Phonology - the study of linguistic sound systems

Phonetics - the study of linguistic sounds

Articulatory - the study of physiological aspects of linguistic sound production

Acoustic - the study of physical properties of sound

frequency (tone or pitch)
intensity (stress)
duration (syllable length)

Auditory - the study of the perception of sound

Morphology - the study of minimal units of meaning

Syntax - the study of word order Lexicon - the study of word categories

Semantics - the study of meaning Discourse - the study of conversation


Principles and Parameters - generative grammar (Chomsky)
Parameters - dimensions along which languages vary systematically, e.g., word order, Pro-drop (in languages such as Spanish, the subject can be omitted, which is not the case with many structures in English), overt morphology (some languages have very complicated and rich systems of endings or prefixes for verbs and/or nouns; English has some endings, but many have been lost over the centuries)
Other Linguistic Disciplines - These areas are related to sociolinguistics as well:

Historical Linguistics (the study of language change over time)

Psycholinguistics (the study of language and cognition)

Developmental Psycholinguistics (the study of first language acquisition, child language)

Dialectology (the study of the geographical distribution of language varieties)

Applied Linguistics (the application of lingusitics to teaching; second language acquisition)

Computational Linguistics (the comparative study and modelling of computer and human languages)

Paleography (the study of ancient and medieval writing systems)


Following are some key concepts about the relationship between language and society.

grammar - there are many definitions to this word, but linguists use grammar to refer to our mental representation of the structure of our native language (or languages)

ungrammatical - used by linguists to label a structure not possible in the language; in the following examples, the asterisks indicate ungrammaticality; the subscripts identify the roles in the sentences; the ungrammaticality of these sentences is not a matter of taste or style—English speakers simply do not produce them

*Susani asked Stevenj to help herselfi.

*Susani told Stevenj to help himj.

unacceptable - used by linguists to label a structure that violates conventions of style, but that is possible in the language; sociolinguists are more interested in these kind of structures

I want you to truthfully answer the question. ("split infinitive")

She’s the person I was speaking with. ("dangling preposition")

I ain’t got hardly no homework. (use of "no" instead of "any," and a few other problems)

language universals - essential properties of all languages; principles and parameters (see first handout on "Theoretical Background")

competence - what linguists use to refer to our "mental grammar;" very similar to Saussure’s concept of "langue"

performance - what linguists use to refer to the way we use language; often, our performance, imperfect as it is, is an incomplete reflection of all that we actually know about a language; performance can be affected by physical state (inebriation, fatigue), psychological state (nervousness, excitement, distractedness), very similar to Saussure’s concept of "parole"

categorical rules - descriptions of language structure found in the competence of all members of a speech community; from the above example on reflexives we could conclude that the reflexive pronoun must be bound locally; this is a categorical rule which does not vary in communities where English is spoken

asocial linguistics - an approach to the study of language that excludes the study of variation

irregular morphology - word formation which does not follow the general pattern; for example, whereas the plural of "kid" is "kids," the plural of "child" is not "childs," but instead "children"

contrastive distribution - this refers to a class of linguistic features the members of which are significantly different; these features can be phonetic, morphological, syntactic, lexical, or discursive

etic features - features of a language that are perceptibly different, but that do not have a contrastive function; these are the features studied by sociolinguists; the examples of negation below show two different rules, but produce no change in meaning; note that the connotative meaning for these two structures may indeed change; connotation refers to the emotional associations that a particular structure represents or conveys

I don’t got no money.

I ain’t got no money.

Another example of etic features, at the phonetic level, is shown below. The first word denotes a hole in the ground out of which sand is quarried, for example. The second word denotes precisely the same object, but note the superscripted "h," indicating an emphatic, aspirated pronunciation of the final "t." The word has been pronounced more emphatically, but the basic meaning is identical. Thus, although there is a difference, it is not contrastive in the linguistic sense, that is, it is not emic. There is definitely a change in connotation, the second word being emotionally stronger than the first.



Imagine that you tell your child to stop doing something (tugging at your sleeve, for example) by calmly saying "Stop." Your child continues to persist, and you raise your voice and shout "Stop!" The pronunciation of the word is also different in that you have added a puff of air to the final "p". The word has not changed denotatively, but the connotation is stronger, more emphatic. This is variation in an etic feature.

emic features - features of a language that are in contrastive distribution, that have a contrastive function; such contrasts result in a change in denotative meaning, that is, in the dictionary definition of the word. These contrasts are purely linguistic in nature, and not subject to social variation. At the level of sound, we have many contrastive features, which are revealed by minimal pairs, words that differ by only one sound:

"stop" versus "stock" The difference between "p" and "ck" changes the meaning of the word totally. This is an emic contrast.

"par" versus "pat" versus "pad" The change in the last letter (which represents a sound change) causes the meaning of the word to change. This is another example of an emic feature.

language and society - possible relationships between language and society

social structure influences language - age grading

language influences society - Whorfian linguistic relativity hypothesis; Bernstein’s language deficit hypothesis

language and society influence each other mutually

language and society do not influence each other - in a deep sense, it is indeed Chomsky’s contention that language is not affected by social variation; language is universally present in all communities of humans, and shows certain immutable characteristics, language universals; these deep characteristics are studied by theoretical linguists

macro-sociolinguistics - this is also sometimes referred to as the sociology of language; macro-sociolinguistics studies large-scale relationships between language and society; the data from a language census are useful in such studies; in a census, we generally learn where a person is from, whether they are in a rural or urban area, their age and sex, the number of people in their family, the type of house in which they live, the level of education they have attained, the type of work they do, whether they have migrated recently and from where, and finally, the language they use at home; although we cannot learn details of language use at the individual level, we can certainly discern large-scale patterns of distribution of speakers of different languages in a multilingual society; such information has enabled researchers to determine that in states such as Texas and California, the Spanish-speaking population is around a fifth of the total; in New Mexico, over 35% of the population self-identifies as Spanish-speaking

micro-sociolinguistics - this is called, simply, sociolinguistics; micro-sociolinguists take more detailed measures of a person’s linguistic performance and correlate small variations in language with extra-linguistic phenomena

correlational sociolinguistics - described as the heart of sociolinguistics, this is the study of the relationship between language behavior and social categories; language is viewed as the dependent variable and social categories as the independent variables; that is, the first of the relationships shown above is the one hypothesized to operate in explaining etic variation of language; some examples are given below

Independent Variable (sociocultural)

Dependent Variable (Linguistic)

Relationship Reported

social class

stigmatized variants

higher classes avoid stigmatized variants


stigmatized variants

sociolinguistic gender pattern, in which women reportedly use more prestigious forms than men

distance from mother country

use of mother tongue

immigrants who are further away from the country of origin use the mother tongue

immigrant generation in the host country

language competence

competence in the ancestral language decreases with each succeeding generation; this is known as "intergenerational language shift"


address forms

people adjust their language systematically to reflect the relationship of power or solidarity that exists between them and their interlocutors

perceived competence of interlocutor and desire to cooperate


people adjust their language to be more like that of the person with whom they are speaking; for example, people slow down their speech and use simpler words in conversing with non-natives


linguistic competence

the older an individual, the more complete the language s/he speaks; this is one of the few instances where the independent variable actually is responsible for the variation seen in the dependent variable; young children have not fully developed neurologically, and therefore cannot speak fully developed language

principles of sociolinguistics (from Wardaugh and Bell)

the cumulative principle - as much data as possible about languages in use must be collected

the uniformation principle - the basic causes of language change, internal structural influences and external shifts in style, have not changed in recorded history

diachronic linguistics - the study of the history of language

synchronic linguistics - the study of the current state of language

the principle of convergence - a variety of methods should be used to gather data; if these methods yield similar results, then the convergence provides stronger evidence to support a given hypothesis

the principle of subordinate shift - speakers of subordinate varieties shift their language when questioned directly

the principle of style-shifting - there are no single-style speakers

the principle of attention - the more aware a person is her or his language, the more formal it will be

the vernacular principle - the vernacular (non-standard, spoken norm) is the most regular

the principle of formality - the "observer’s paradox" is that formal interview situations cause the speaker to modify his or her language