We can define sociolinguistics as the study of language in relation to society. Sociolinguistics has become a recognized part of most courses at university level on ‘linguistics’ or ‘language’, and is indeed one of the main growth points in the study of language, from the point of view of both teaching and research.
Most of the growth in sociolinguistics has taken place since the late 1960s. This is not meant to imply that the study of language in relation to society is an invention of the 1960s – on the contrary, there is a long tradition in the study of dialects and in the general study of the relations between word-meaning and culture, both of which count as sociolinguistics by our definition. What is new is the widespread interest in sociolinguistics and the realization that it can throw much light both on the nature of language and on the nature of society.
Like other subjects, sociolinguistics is partly empirical and partly theoretical – partly a matter of going out and amassing bodies of fact and partly of sitting back and thinking. The ‘armchair’ approach to sociolinguistics can be fairly productive, whether it is based on facts collected in a systematic way as part of research or simply on one’s own experience. In particular, it allows the beginnings of an analytical framework to be worked out, containing terms such as LANGUAGE (a body of knowledge or rules), SPEECH (actual utterances), SPEAKER, ADDRESSEE, TOPIC and so on. And of course, personal experience is a rich source of information on language in relation to society. However, it will soon become clear that the armchair approach is dangerous for two reasons if it is applied to personal experience alone. First, we may be seriously wrong in the way in which we interpret our own experience, since most of us are not consciously aware of the vast range of variations in speech which we hear, and react to, in our everyday lives. And secondly, personal experience is a very limited base from which to generalize about language in society, since it does not take account of all the other societies where things are arranged very differently.
However, the reason why interest in sociolinguistics has grown so rapidly over the last decades is not because of the achievements in armchair theorizing but because of the empirical discoveries made in the course of systematic research projects. Some of this research has taken place in ‘exotic’ communities. For instance, British people are generally surprised and interested to hear that there are societies where one’s parents must not have the same mother-tongue. (As in a community in north-west Amazon where a man’s wife must speak a different language from him.) Other research projects, however, have been in the kind of complex, urban industrial society to which most readers will be accustomed, and this research too has provided some surprises, such as the discovery that differences between social classes are as clearly reflected in speech in America as they are in Britain, although the United States has an image of being much less class-conscious.
It is important to recognize that much of the interest in sociolinguistics has come from people such as educationalists who have a practical concern for language, rather than a desire simply to understand better how this small area of the universe works. In particular, it became possible in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s to fund relatively large-scale research projects connected with the speech of underprivileged groups, on the grounds that the findings would make possible a more satisfactory educational policy.
Sociolinguistics R.A. Hudson