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7.1: What is variationist sociolinguistics?

  • Page ID
    • Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi
    • eCampusOntario

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    Why do some Canadian English speakers say eh at the end of their sentences while others opt for right? In what contexts is one person more likely to say eh or more likely to say right? What kinds of information about someone can we glean if we hear them say eh? Or right? Or even innit? Have these patterns changed over time? These are variationist sociolinguistic questions. Variationist sociolinguistics is a methodological and analytical approach to understanding the relationship between language and its context of use. We call it sociolinguistics because both social and linguistic (e.g., grammatical, structural, articulatory) factors, are equally important; sociolinguistics, unlike many formal approaches to language, does not focus on an idealized grammar (sometimes called ‘competence’) but rather analyzes language in use (sometimes called ‘performance’). We call it variationist sociolinguistics because it’s concerned with the variable nature of language in use. In this chapter we will see how variationist sociolinguistics has analyzed the interplay between language variation, the development of linguistic systems, and the social meaning of language. In Chapter 2, sociolinguistic issues are explored more broadly.

    To start things off, watch this video, a clip from Trevor Noah's "African American" comedy special. He is talking about his experiences in learning about life in America.

    Video Script

    You have learned about phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics; those are the core areas with respect to linguistics. From here on in the textbook and in the course, we will take those tools and apply them to a variety of situations. For the remainder of the course and the remainder of the book, we're going to look at how language varies across social dimensions, across historical dimensions, and across psychological dimensions. First up is sociolinguistics, and then we'll talk historical linguistics, and then we'll talk, psychological or cognitive linguistics or neuro-linguistics. Those will have three separate sections; actually, the psychological aspect is split into two because we have to talk about how we acquire language and how we process language, and those are separate issues. To start off, let's talk sociolinguistics and let's set the stage a bit.

    Up to now you've heard me use a couple of terms. Let's dig into that a little bit more. One has to do with a dialect, and the other way we think it as a speech community. When we talk about a speech community, it's exactly what you think it is: a community of people who speak the same way. They have the same dialect, if you will. It may be a mainstream dialect, or it could be something totally different; it depends. Later on, we're also going to talk about diglossia, which is what happens when you have two or more dialects that you use on a regular basis. That usually refers to somebody who is a part of more than one speech community, and that's what we're referring to here.

    If you recall from the first chapter, we said that the difference between a language and a dialect was that intelligibility was the key. Not intelligence, but intelligibility, meaning if two people from different speech communities are able to generally understand one another, they're considered to be mutually intelligent dialects. However, if you have two people from two different speech communities, and there is a real difficulty for one to understand the other linguistically—not culturally, not politically, nothing else, just linguistically—then that means that they speak two languages.

    In thinking about this, let's talk about some generalized and incorrect views about dialects. When I say incorrect or wrong, I mean from a linguistic standpoint.

    • Many people think that an accent is a dialect and that's actually incorrect. Even though the next subsection for this page is from Catherine Anderson and she talks about an accent; watch what she says, I'll let you read it later.
    • A lot of people think that some people speak a language and others speak a dialect of that language. That is quite incorrect.
    • The third generalization that we wish to debunk is that some people think that dialects are impoverished variants of a language, that they're just nonstandard and perhaps not correct.
    • The fourth big generalization that is incorrect is that people might think that languages are defined by political boundaries, as in geopolitical boundaries.

    Every single one of those statements and generalizations is 1,000% incorrect, at least from a linguistic standpoint. They are all prescriptive in nature and remember in linguistics we do not want to be prescriptive. We want to describe; we want to describe what people actually do when they communicate with one another, both within their group and with others.

    Let's take a modern linguistic twist on all of this:

    • An accent is not the same thing as a dialect because ‘accent’ is really not a term that we use in linguistics. Frequently, when people talk about accents, they're really saying something like the sounds maybe a couple of words are different, which is absolutely not the case. When we talk about different dialects, of course there may be some differences in pronunciation and phonemes or allophones, and there frequently are different terms used for the same thing. But there's also frequently morphological and syntactic differences, pragmatic differences, and so many other things. Later on in this chapter, we will see examples of different dialects so you can understand what we're talking about.
    • The fact that one person speaks a language but a different person might be a dialect is incorrect. Everyone speaks at least one dialect of a language and, in many cases, you might actually speak more than one dialect.
    • We cannot determine whether certain dialects are superior to others because that's not what a linguist does. A linguist describes what they see; we observe and we document, but we never give a value of higher or lower to anyone style of speech. Sometimes we know that a certain dialect might be more prestigious than others, but that is an objective point of view.
    • Languages are defined by cultural or linguistic boundaries, but not geopolitical boundaries. Sometimes they happen to coincide, but what we care about is what speech communities do and so those frequently line up with linguistic and frequently cultural boundaries. To give you an example, Norwegian and Swedish, and technically Danish, are three dialects of the same language. Even though those are three different nationalities, linguistically they're actually the same—although Swedish and Norwegian have a lot more in common and Danish is a little bit different, it's a definite distinct dialect. Another example is English; think about the number of countries where English is the primary and official language—it is not just England, and it's not even just the United Kingdom. It is a slew of countries. Spanish would be another example, and Mandarin would be another example.

    When we talk about languages, we're talking about speech communities who use the language; that is what we're talking about.

    One more really important thing to bring up about dialects versus languages. Prestige is an issue; it is going to be a factor and we'll talk more about this in its own chapter in this in this larger topic. There are always going to be certain dialects that will carry more prestige. Think about if you're in England or the United Kingdom, it's Queen's English that is going to be going to be the most prestigious; Received Pronunciation is often what it's called or RP. Frequently, and certainly since the 20th century, we can talk about the media, and especially national media and international media when we talk about the style of speech. Then it would be considered a mainstream dialect. In the past that was often called the standard dialect; we have switched topics nomenclature, and we now call those mainstream dialects to reflect the fact that they are mainstream and used by a wide variety of speech groups, at least as a more prestigious dialect. It is also important to understand that prestige on a dialect is usually something that has carried over a number of generations, it can be modified.

    It should be noted that just because you speak that mainstream or prestige dialect, it does not mean you necessarily hold more power than anyone else; it just means that you speak that dialect. It also means that if you speak a mainstream dialect, you are often perceived as having ‘no accent’ and that your manner of speech is the one that most everybody understands.

    To repeat a point made earlier, dialects are mutually intelligent variance of a language. They can and do differentiate a person who's born and raised in California from somebody who's born and raised in Toronto, Canada; New York; London; Edinburgh, Scotland; Dublin, Ireland; Johannesburg, South Africa; Sydney Australia; Auckland New Zealand; you get the point. For each of these are all different dialects, there are systematic ways that they are similar, and yet systematic ways that they are also different. To repeat what we said in the first chapter, it is really crucial to understand that when we talk about these dialects, we take the geopolitical out of it. That means that there is no one ‘Chinese language’; there are about 210-ish Chinese languages, and not all of them are part of the Sino-Tibetan family; most of them, but not all of them. The fact that Serbian and Croatian are technically to dialects of the same language, Serbo-Croatian, but that their closeness or distinctness can vary between generations and that entirely depends on the relations between those two cultures. As we said, Norwegian and Swedish and, technically, Danish are all dialects of the same language; it is now considered Northern Germanic or Scandinavian. There are different dialects of it.

    When you can't understand when somebody is talking to you—not because you choose not to, but because you actually cannot understand the words coming out of their mouths—that's when you have a different language scenario. If it's close, it's probably a dialect.

    How exactly do dialects arise? The simple answer is there's some kind of isolation to speech communities. There was originally one, and there somehow became a break or situation that created isolation; that is how you get to dialects. It doesn’t happen instantaneously, rather it usually takes several generations. We can have a variety of ways to separate or isolate as a given speech community.

    Certainly, geographical dialects are the first thing that most people think about with respect to dialectology. We're going to take a look at Appalachian English (AE) in a different section of this chapter, because I want to give proper respect to it. It's not just ‘hillbilly English’; it's not just some 'poor English', ‘mountain English’, whatever you want to call it. In linguistic terms, it's a very rich dialect and actually gives us a lot of insight as to how English came to be the way it is now.

    We also have social dialects, gender dialects, and class-based dialects. We'll look at a few will look at African American English Vernacular (AAE). Certainly, the isolation there has to do with the institution of slavery and the segregation of anybody who was in part or in whole of African descent. We also will briefly look at a couple of different social dialects that have to do with gender and sexuality. We'll look a little bit into class-based dialects, and then finally we'll talk about scientific or jargon isolation. If you think about it, that makes sense. If you work in a particular industry, you tend to have a certain manner of speaking with your colleagues and with others in your industry—that's also a type of isolation and that can create a dialect.

    As we go through this concept of sociolinguistics, remember what is a society is—what we're at the heart of and how they use language to differentiate themselves.

    This page titled 7.1: What is variationist sociolinguistics? is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi (eCampusOntario) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.