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This lesson will seek to explain the study of sociolinguistics and the concept of ethnography. It will highlight the variations that region, class, relationship, and gender cause in language.


In today’s lesson, we’re going to cover the topic of sociolinguistics, which is the study of language and how it is affected by region, social class, relationship, and even gender – in other words, how language varies from person to person and culture to culture. For this reason, this lesson will be much more anecdotal than some, focusing more on examples than concrete anthropological terms.However, before we get started, there is one thing we need to note.

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Sociolinguists do not pass judgments on how language should or shouldn’t be spoken. They are not like high school grammar teachers, deciding on acceptable and unacceptable forms of speech. They simply take a look at languages within their differing social contexts, seeing one as being just as valid as the other.

Variance Due to Region

To begin, let’s take a look at how language varies across regions.

According to sociolinguistics, the way people speak has very much to do with where they were raised. For example, I have a friend who is from a different region of the country than I am. Unlike me, who says ‘How are you all doing?’, she simply says, ‘How are yins?’ To be honest, the first time she said it, I had no clue what she was trying to ask me. However, I soon learned that ‘yins’ was just the way she grew up saying the word ‘you’ in its plural form. To me, it was a bit odd. However, to a sociolinguist, this stuff is golden, as they seek to understand the ethnography of her area.

Using more common words, ‘ethnography‘ means the cultural and social patterns of speech variation within a culture.Jumping across the Atlantic, sociolinguists also study why Americans and English people, who share a common language, still vary greatly in the way they speak. For instance, when deciding to converse with someone over the phone, why do Americans say, ‘I’m going to call her,’ while the English tend to say, ‘I’m going to ring her up’? Yes, they both carry the same meaning, but they vary in the actual language used.

Variance Due to Social Class

With differences in region, sociolinguists also cite differences in social class as contributing to language variation.

For this one, we’ll use the work of anthropologists Carol and Melvin Ember to explain. In their book, Cultural Anthropology, the Embers cite a study in which children from what are deemed higher classes tend to enunciate their words, specifically the ends of words, more than children from what are deemed lower classes. For instance, a child from an upper-class family will tend to say ‘We are talking’ instead of ‘We are talkin’.’Again jumping across the globe, this is noted in England, as people of lower socioeconomic status tend to drop certain letters from the beginning of sounds.

For instance, they may say ‘I’m going to my ‘ouse’ instead of ‘I’m going to my house.’ This is another example of how social class affects language variation.

Variance Due to Relationships

Next, we come to how relationships affect language variation. For this one, we’ll use a study conducted by sociolinguists, Roger Brown and Marguerite Ford, which explored the use of surnames within relationships. In their work, they assert that the use of terms of address vary depending on the relationship between the speakers. For example, when people know each other very well and feel equal to one another, they use each other’s first names.

I never call up my friend and say ‘Hello, Mrs. Miller.’ I simply say ‘Hi, Lisa!’However, when I visit my doctor, who’s actually pretty close to my own age and who I’ve also seen in social settings, I still greet her with a ‘Hello, Dr. Myers,’ while she in turn says, ‘Hello, Jessica.’ Although I’ve never thought of it this way, a sociolinguist would have a field day with this, as they’d explain it by saying that when one person feels the other has more power or status in a situation, they will tend to use surnames or titles when addressing them.

Variance Due to Gender

Moving away from relationships, sociolinguists also cite gender as a contribution to the variations in language use. For instance, again using the word ‘talking,’ many of sociolinguists’ studies have found that American women tend to pronounce the full end of the word, whereas American men are much more likely to simply say ‘talkin’.’ However slight this difference is, it’s still a variation somewhat linked to gender.For more profound examples of language variation due to gender, we can take a look at traditional Japanese culture. Again using the work of the Embers, they assert that women in Japan actually add an ‘o’ to the beginning of their words, which in Japan signifies politeness.

Although not empirically proven, many sociolinguists believe this stems from the ancient Japanese cultural paradigm that women should be submissive, speaking with humility at all times. Whether or not this is true, it still holds as an example of how gender affects language variation.

Lesson Summary

Sociolinguistics is the study of language and how it is affected by region, social class, relationship, and even gender. In the study of sociolinguistics, ethnography, or the cultural and social patterns of speech variation within a culture, makes up a good deal of its content.When studying the effects of region on language, sociolinguists feel that where a person was raised causes much variation in language. Adding to this, a person’s socioeconomic status also tends to determine how people actually pronounce words, as well as the actual words they choose to use.

Adding to this, language also tends to vary depending on the relationship between the two speakers. For instance, sociolinguists assert that when one person feels the other has more power or status in a situation, they will tend to use surnames or titles when addressing them.Lastly, language variation can also be explained by gender. For example, women in Japan tend to speak in a way that still reflects the traditional Japanese paradigm of women being submissive within society.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson covers sociolinguistics and should help you to:

  • Define sociolinguistics
  • Analyze how different regions can change how someone speaks
  • Describe the variation in language between social classes
  • Consider how relationships may impact how someone speaks
  • List some of the differences between genders when it comes to language use

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