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Friday, September 2, 2011

01. Language & Society

An Introduction to Sociolinguistics
by Janet Holmes

What do sociolinguists study?

Sociolinguistics is a term that refers to the study of the relationship between language and society. Sociolinguists also study how language is used in multilingual speech communities.

Dr. Clamons:

We look at English and other languages to explore how we talk both similarly and differently with and about one another, in order to investigate how language variation correlates with power and status, class, network, race and ethnic group affiliation, religion, personality, gender, sexuality, and disability. 

What aspects of language are Sociolinguists interested in?

Sociolinguists are interested in explaining why people speak differently in different social contexts. They are concerned with the way people signal aspects of their social identity through language. Sociolinguists study the effect of social factors -- such as social distance, social status, age, gender and class -- on language varieties (dialects, registers, genres, etc). Sociolinguists are also concerned with identifying the social functions of language and the ways it is used to convey social meaning.

Language can be viewed as a formal system that can be profitably studied independently from the people who use it. This type of approach is often referred to in the field as the study of "formal" linguistics. However . . .  if we can gain insight into how language works by studying its formal grammatical properties, we must also realize that language, as a "thing" to be studied, is necessarily a kind of simplification, because language isn't a "thing" external to human beings, but rather, something that makes up a part of who we are. Language must also be profitably studied in its social context. In so doing, we learn both about language and about ourselves, the people who use it, live with it, and live in it. (www.unc.edu)

 video explaining some subtleties of the 
New Zealand dialect and "NZ lingo and phrases"

video from the Regional Dialect Meme: New Zealand

Languages provide a variety of ways of saying the same thing. Linguistic variation can provide social information for analysis.

Areas of variation areas include vocabulary, sound, pronunciation,word-structure (morphology) and grammar (syntax). These provide linguistic styles for use in various social contexts. Choices may involve different dialects or quite different languages.

A variety or code is a set of linguistic forms used under specific social circumstances (domains).

A domain of language involves typical interactions between typical participants in typical settings about a typical topic. Examples of these domains are family, friendship, religion, education and employment. Using the language of one domain that is typically associated with another is sometimes known as "leakage."

The reasons for the choices involve social considerations: participants, social settings and topic (or purpose) of interaction. There are four dimensions for analysis which relate to these social factors:

  • Social Distance scale    [relates to participant]
  • Status scale                 [relates to participant]
  • Formality scale             [relates to setting]
  • Functional scale           [relates to purpose]

          There are two basic function scales: Referential (informational) and Affective (emotional)


Diglossia -- refers to communities in which two languages or language varieties are used, with one being a high variety for formal situations and prestige, and one a low variety for informal situations (everyday conversation). Diglossia is a characteristic of speech communities. Individuals may be bilingual -- societies or communities are diglossic.

In the narrow or 'classic' sense, diglossia is a stable situation that has three factors:

  1. Two distinct varieties of the same language are used in the community, with one regarded as high (H) variety and the other as low (L) variety.

  2. Each variety is used for quite distinct functions; H & L complement each other.
  3. No one uses the H variety in everyday conversation.

Diglossia, in a broader sense, gives most weight to criterion #2, the complementary functions of two codes in a community.

Polyglossia -- the use of many codes for many purposes

Displacement may happen between varieties.

Code Switching or Code Mixing

In the Given Names Study, University of Minnesota researchers used a simple, stressed and unstressed syllable categorization system for an analysis of names from 1987-1997 sociolinguistics class lists. Using this system, the stress pattern for my given name, Vance Cameron, is “s + sww.” This represents an unusual pattern, observed in about 1% of females and 3% of males. However, this pattern is in line with the study's finding that, among males -- very few were given names beginning with a weak syllable.

The name Vance is of English origin and the meaning of Vance is "marsh dweller."

The name Holmes is of English origin and the meaning of Holmes is "from the river island."

The name Cameron is of Scottish origin and the meaning of Cameron is "crooked nose."It is also of English origin, where it means "crooked nose."

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02. Multilingual Communities

characteristic of speech communities -- rather than individuals. Therefore, there is a range of potential relationships between disglossia and bilingualism.

                                  +                                                   -

                       +         1. both disglossia and bilingualism  2. bilingualism without disglossia
                       -           3. disglossia without bilingualism    4. neither disglossia nor bilingualism

metaphorical switching (also known as 'code-switching') rapid switching between two linguistic systems, including sounds, grammar and vocabulary

lexical borrowing -- single word switches triggered mainly by lack of vocabulary

Some sociolinguists believe there are universal rules . . .
  • linguistic constraints -- very general rules for code-switching which apply to all switching behavior regardless of the codes or varieties involved
  • equivalence constraint -- a switching rule where the grammars of both languages match each other
  • matrix language frame (MLF) -- the first language that imposes structural constraints on code-switched utterances
  • embedded language -- the second language which supplies some content words

intra-sentential switching (within sentences) and inter-sentential switching (at sentence boundaries)

a grouping together of recurring situation types in such a way that one of the languages or varieties in a repertoire, as opposed to others, normally occurs in that class of situations. And members of the speech community judge that the use of that variety and not the others is appropriate to that domain

Different types of domains can be identified:

  • family/home
  • education
  • official
  • religion
  • intimate 
  • Employment 
  • Friendship, Etc.

Functional domains

Different languages in a multilingual community will typically be used in different domains. For instance, in the Mambila region of Cameroon, French is used in the domain of education and official business, and the local variety of Mambila is the language of the home and of intimacy.

Interview of Marie, a 16 year old young lady in Bafoussam, Cameroon.


Cameroon is a country divided by its colonial past. Once ruled by the United Kingdom, people in the north speak English. In the south, previously administered by France, most speak French. The country is striving towards bilingualism in a bid to promote national unity but the road is hard. The young people however have found a way -- speaking, and singing, both at the same time in a chaotic mix known as CamFranglais or francanglais.

Words of Life Mambila People
Language Movie Trailer

Other names for this language are:
Bang; Bea; Ble; Juli; Lagubi; Mambere; Mambila, 
Cameroon; Mambilla; Nor; Tagbo; Tongbo; Torbi

Instability of language use in different domains reflects the general instability of the  linguistic situation

Language as a property of the individual:
Every individual has his or her network of relationships which may involve different linguistic relationships.

Language contact and multilingualism
  • situations of language endangerment involve two (and often more) languages in contact (a multilingual situation)
  • this multilingual situation may ultimately lead to endangerment, language shift and the extinction of one or more of the languages

Multilingualism also varies across social groups
  • different groups show different patterns of language choice and use in different circumstances and for different occasions
  • groups may be relatively more or less homogeneous in their linguistic repertoires and patterns of linguistic behavior
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03. Language Maintenance and Shift

     The Obama fist-bump heard 'round the world.

When a language dies, the cultural knowledge embodied within it also dies. In this sense, a language death represents the death of a world view.

Colorful idioms and idiomatic associations -- with their attendant cultural context and historic association -- die when a language becomes extinct. Idioms provide linguistic connections to many important social elements, including:
  • Historic people, places and events
  • Community values and tradition
  • Cultural artifacts (stories, poems, oaths, jokes)
  • Gesture (fist-bump, high-five)
  • Rhythmic and melodic representations

The various social pressures that affect language use can produce three very different results: language death, language shift and language maintenance.

The most prestigious status for any language is that of official language, because states or countries that grant it automatically commit to using that language in all of their operations. Of the world's 6,000 to 7,000 languages, only about 100 stand as the official languages of one or more countries.

Language shift is largely an issue related to urbanization. Languages associated with the urban milieu become more prestigious and more attractive, than "village" varieties.

 There are many different social reasons for choosing a particular code or variety in a multilingual community. But what choice is there for those who speak lesser-used languages in a community where the people in power use a world language or an official language of that area? How do economic and political factors influence language choices?
-- John Darngawn

 Language Shift in Different Communities

Migrant minorities

The order of domains in which language shift occurs may differ for different individuals and different groups, but gradually over time the language of the wider society displaces the minority language mother tongue. There are many different social factors which can lead a community to shift from using one language for most purposes to using a different language, or from using two distinct codes in different domains, to using different varieties of just one language for their communicative needs. Migrant families provide an obvious example of this process of language shift.

Non-Migrant Communities

Language shift is not always the result of migration. Political, economic and social changes can occur within a community, and this may result in linguistic changes too. In Oberwart, an Austrian town on the border of Hungary, the community has been gradually shifting from Hungarian to German for some time.


Obtaining work is the most obvious economic reason for learning another language. In English dominated countries, for instance, people learn English in order to get good jobs. This results in bilingualism. Bilingualism is always a necessary precursor of language shift, although, as stable diglossic communities demonstrate, it does not always result in shift.

The second important factor, then, seems to be that the community sees no reason to take active steps to maintain their ethnic language.

Dimensions for analyzing language maintenance and shift

This video is meant to provide a sample of the Navajo language. The weather report was given on February 17, 2009 at 7:30 AM in the morning. The english translation provided is a broad translation, since Navajo is such a detailed language that more is said than is translated into English.

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04. Varieties - Pidgins and Creoles

Pidgins and Creoles

Notes from Educational Cyber Playground

A pidgin is a new language which develops in situations where speakers of different languages need to communicate but don't share a common language.

The vocabulary of a pidgin comes mainly from one particular language -- called the "lexifier". The early "pre-pidgin" is very restricted in use and variable in structure. But the later "stable pidgin" develops its own grammatical rules which are quite different from those of the lexifier. Once a stable pidgin has emerged, it is generally learned as a second language and used for communication among people who speak different languages.

When children start learning a pidgin as their first language and it becomes the mother tongue of a community, it is called a creole

Like a pidgin, a creole is a distinct language which has taken most of its vocabulary from another language, the lexifier, but has its own unique grammatical rules. Unlike a pidgin, however, a creole is not restricted in use, and is like any other language in its full range of functions. Examples are Gullah, Jamaican Creole and Hawaii Creole English.

A pidgin is a version of a language which is stripped of virtually everything except what is necessary to basic communication.

Creole is a latter-day descendant of something that began as a pidgin.

Hawaii Pidgin: The Voice of Hawaii

For example. . . 

In a collaborative project between a Russian ballet company and a U.S. ballet Theatre, the two companies would begin to combine languages and form a pidgin to speak of artistic items and concepts.

Linguistics of Color

What is Black English? What is Black?

Janet Holmes:

A vernacular language "is an uncodified or unstandardized variety" and is acquired "in the home as a first variety." The word, vernacular, "generally refers to the most colloquial variety in a person’s linguistic repertoire." This implies that what some may call ungrammatical, slovenly slang – others may identify as an example of very active linguistic maintenance!

 "It is a basic axiom of sociolinguistics that bias against a language or dialect stands in for bias against its speakers.
-- Dr. Peter L Patrick

"The speakers of African American English have often been assumed to be black Americans, or African Americans, and indeed most of them are. But there are obvious problems with defining a language (or anything else) racially . . ."
-- Dr. Peter L Patrick

Role of Public Schools

Often due merely to linguistic differences and communication difficulties, Black students are harshly disciplined, unfairly suspended from classes, and wrongly classified as "learning disabled" by their teachers.

In Minnesota, Black students are admitted to Gifted - Talented programs at less than half the rate of Whites, and nearly three times as many are labeled "cognitively impaired." Once given this label -- or a similar exceptionality classification -- the Black student is far less likely to receive the same quality of general classroom instruction other children receive. They are tracked for failure. According to the Minnesota Department of Education -- in 2009, Minnesota's graduation rate for White students was 82%. For Blacks, the rate was 44%.

Relationship of Dialect to Spelling Instruction

There is some research on the spelling performance of children who speak so-called, "Black English" and other "minority dialects" which suggests dialect should be considered when teaching spelling. But what we know for certain is that cultural competence is required in the multicultural classroom. Sometimes the problem is hearing . . . sometimes the problem is listening!

This scene from the movie, Akeelah and the Bee -- about children of color in a spelling bee -- is a particularly effective dramatization of these issues.


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05. Nation and Language Status

What are implications of language policies in the lives of real people? What is the relationship between political and economic power and language status?

National language defined: It is the main language of political, social and cultural practices, where people use it as a symbol of their national unity. Official language is the language used by governments for formal functions. In a monolingual community, a national language is usually also the official language, but in bilingual or multilingual communities, it may or may not be the official language. For example: English and French are both official languages in Canada.

Planning for a national official language:
  • Selection: selecting the variety or code to by developed.
  • Codification: standardizing its structural or linguistic features.
  • Elaboration: extending its functions for use in new domains.
  • Securing its acceptance: acceptance by people in terms of attitude & prestige.

Nuestro Himno ("Our Anthem")
"Star Spangled Banner" performed in Spanish by 
Olga Tanon, Wyclef Jean and Carlos Ponce

Although English is the de facto language of government in the United States, we have no de jure official language. In the past three decades, however, 28 states have passed legislation making English their official state language.  The history of language and nation in the United States has fluctuated over the course of time.

The Linguistic Society of America's statement on language rights holds that, at a minimum, all residents of the United States should be guaranteed seven basic linguistic rights: the right to express themselves in the language of their choice; the right to maintain their native language and pass it on to their children; the right to a qualified interpreter in government proceedings; the right to have their children educated in a manner that affirms their native language abilities while ensuring their acquisition of English; the right to conduct business in the language of their choice; the right to use their preferred language for private conversations in the workplace; and finally, the right of an opportunity to learn English.

The National Foreign Language Center (NFLC) was founded in the mid-1980s as a direct result of an unprecedented national interest in improving foreign language and international studies education by President Carter's Commission on Language and International Studies in 1979. It was also, and more immediately, the brainchild of its founding director, Dr. Richard Lambert, a sociologist as well as foreign language and area studies expert at the University of Pennsylvania.

This site is dedicated to keeping alive the culture, traditions, and beliefs of the Diné (Navajo People) also referred to as Navajo Indians, a name the site advises is not used or liked by the Diné People. There is also information on language, history, culture and many specific cultural subjects.

The History and the Future of Language Policy in India

This website is a linguistic overview of India. With over 900 million people and more than one thousand languages, India is certainly one of the most linguistically diverse multilingual nations in the world today. Indian leaders chose Hindi as the official language of India in the hope that it would facilitate regional communication and encourage national unity. Aware of the many of difficulties inherent in trying to promote a single language in a multilingual environment, much planning was done. The situation offers an interesting case for the analysis of political and social aspects of language planning and promotion.

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06. Regional Dialects

Dialectology: Linguists studying language variation across regional areas identify life-long inhabitants and collect samples of language from them. They then plot the variant pronunciations, words, and phrases on a map, identifying where each token of a language form was spoken.

Can we tell if someone is from Iowa or Wisconsin, the south, the east coast?

Every aspect of language varies across geographical regions. 

(1) People in a certain area have a particular accent; the way that they pronounce words and phrases is peculiar to the speakers in that area.

(2) The lexical items that speakers choose also differ from place to place. In western Pennsylvania, people who are always into other people's business are nebby, in Minnesota, they're nosy.

(3) The syntax, the way that words are combined into phrases and sentences, also differs in different regions.  In Minnesota, if the floor is dirty 'the floor needs to be washed'.  In western Pennsylvania, 'the floor needs washed'.

So how do linguists determine what a dialect area is?

According to Encyclopædia Britannica:

Dialectology is the study of dialects. Variation most commonly occurs as a result of relative geographic or social isolation and may affect vocabulary, grammar, or pronunciation (accent). Dialectology as a discipline began in the 19th century with the development in western Europe of dictionaries and grammars of regional dialects. Much of the work of dialectology has consisted of gathering information about the types of variation that occur in different dialects and the construction of linguistic atlases showing patterns of distribution for a series of varying features within a language. Such work on the geographic patterns of linguistic variation is also known as linguistic geography.

The further away from your area the more pronounced you find an accent. The closer you are to an area the more you can differentiate an accent locally.

When I first came to Minneapolis, I was startled to hear people say "da rainch" -- "da iron rainch" -- and "Dulut." I noticed the Northern Minnesota dialect as sharply distinct from the local Twin Cities sound. I was amazed because the Northern Minnesota dialect is oddly similar to the dialect used in my home area near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Now I am seeing that this may have to do with similarities in the speech of certain types of working class people, because, like "da iron rainch," Pittsburgh also has a long history of iron mining, iron works and steel mills.

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07. Social Dialect

Social Dialect is examining the relationship between social class, prestige factors, and language choices.

How do speakers talk differently in different social groups?

How do speakers use language to identify themselves with a particular social group?

Social dialects defined:

 a variety of language that reflects social variation in language use, according to certain factors related to the social group of the speaker such as education, occupation, income level (upper-class English, middle-class English and lower-class English. For example: Standard English can be classified as a type of social English spoken by the well-educated English speakers throughout the world.

A linguistic variable is a single feature of speech (pronunciation, lexical, or syntactic) "which is found in the speech of some, but not all, members of a speech community; and/or is found sometimes, but not always in the speech of an individual."

William Labov
To account for stylistic variation, which based on speech context, i.e., variation in the speech of an individual, William Labov began by distinguishing two varieties of the speech of an individual:

William Labov
Vernacular speech is the variety of speech used by individuals in casual social interactions with peers.  It is always the variety one learns first, many speakers stay monodialectal in it all their lives, it is typically of low prestige, and there is social pressure on upwardly mobile speakers to modify their vernacular speech in favor of superposed speech.

Superposed speech is a prestigious variety of speech used in more formal situations and when speakers are paying closer attention to their speech.  It is the native variety of higher prestige groups, learned later than vernacular by lower prestige groups and therefore not learned as well so speakers will have a tendency to slip back into the vernacular when they aren't paying close attention.

"Social Dialect"

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