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“During the time when the field of linguistics was thriving, linguists started recognizing its branches and acknowledging them. However, sociolinguistics was almost the latest of these branches to be recognized. This goes back to the complex nature of this field, as it overlaps with different linguistic studies such as pragmatics, and aims to answer various questions on a variety of topics that we will address in this report. Miriam Meyerhoff, a sociolinguist, states jokingly in one of her books that, if she had a penny for every time she was asked to define sociolinguistics, she would have been writing the book in “the comfort of early retirement and adds that if it were that simple, we wouldn’t have needed textbooks of enormous attempting to conclude a definition. Nevertheless, if we wish to give a definition as brief yet clear as possible, it would go as follows: Sociolinguistics is a field that tackles issues such as the linguistic differences among societies, nations, classes, or other groups and explores the reasons behind them. In that sense, sociolinguists could be scholars interested in the relationship between language and divergent topics such as gender, age, social class and region.
It is also worth noting that the initial appearance of sociolinguistic studies took place in India and the Middle East before the western world took interest in it starting with Swiss linguists. In which the first appearance of the term “sociolinguistics” was in an article by Thomas Hodson titled “sociolinguistics in India”. Later during the 20th century, William Labov became a pioneering Sociolinguist whose studies were the basis of many sociolinguistic studies in the west.
Sociolinguistic patterns are the elements that trigger linguistic differences among individuals and groups. They are labeled into two parts: Regional and Personal patterns that extend to multiple areas such as social class, gender, age, style and ethnicity. These patterns were determined by sociolinguists to attain clearer basis of study.
Since the rise of sociolinguistics in the west during the 19th century, regional variation and dialectology have been the center of attention in the field/ particularly, “urbanization and migration”. Sociolinguists observed how the urbanization of a particular area had complex linguistic outcomes, promoting diversity and uniformity simultaneously. As migrants from divergent backgrounds brought along a variety of accents, dialects, expressions and styles to the urban city. The field is also concerned with what one’s adherence to his native region’s standard linguistic forms meant in relevance to his feelings towards it. In an experiment on Martha ’s Vineyard (1963), William Labov noticed that certain linguistic aspects could differ noticeably among various groups based on age, occupation, and residency status. His findings indicated that those working in traditional island professions such as fishermen, along with older age groups, and generally up-islanders (where natives usually stay) were more likely to centralize diphthongs and vowels than others. He proposed that this was a way for speakers to subtly, yet clearly, emphasize their difference from the mainlanders who only visit during summer. Labov’s experiment pioneered for the study of language in respect to patriotism.
After the 1950s, sociolinguist’s attention shifted towards social class. Initially classifying certain lexical and phonological terms as U (upper class) ex: Pudding or Non-U (lower class) ex: sweet. However, it was not until later that linguists started digging deeper into this pattern. Sociolinguists resorted to different metrics while measuring social class. Yet, the most common attributes taken into consideration were usually income, education, and occupation. Following the class grouping process, they would compare the linguistic forms between groups. The clearest observation made, was that social class and the use of proper grammar had a proportional relationship. Such that, the higher the social class, the more likely an individual is to adhere to correct grammatical structures. Presumably, due to the better education they had received. In more detailed studies, such as the New York one conducted by Labov. Some phonological variables were found to be more commonly present among higher class groups, such as the postvocalic /r/. In which lower class individuals were likely to be non-rhotic (not r-producing). Lower classes were also more likely to replace nasals /ŋ/ with alveolars /n/ (in which Reading becomes Readin) as well as drop the /h/ ( such that heart becomes eart) Such variables are often considered markers of prestigious classes and are a part of their stereotypes.
Through studies, a relationship between linguistic forms and social mobility also unraveled. Sociolinguists found that in societies with higher social mobility, linguistic differences between social classes were less apparent and existed in lower rates. A study conducted on Detroit (USA) and Norwich (UK), showed that there were less linguistic differences among classes in Detroit where the gap between them was smaller. While in Norwich, where the gap was bigger, the linguistic differences rate was higher, reflecting the greater social mobility within the American system.
Sociolinguistic research is not restricted to interspeaker variation, being the differences measured among multiple speakers. As it is equally concerned with intraspeaker variations, being the differences in the ways a single individual might speak. The latter, is what sociolinguists study as “style”. An individual may resort to style-shifting for multiple reasons. Linguists emphasize on the huge role an individual’s amount of attention plays in regards to his choice of words style. The more attentions paid, the more likely an individual is to follow standard forms that he drops in casual conversations. As noted before, such a phenomena is what urged linguists to come up with creative methods in studies to shift the subject’s attention towards other matters to ensure a style as close as possible to the one used in daily life. Social context such as formality might also interfere with one’s style. In more formal situations, individuals shifter their styles towards more appropriate approaches regarding proper grammar and pronounciation. One study found that the variables linked with higher classes, became more commonly used by lower ones in formal situations, such as the postvicalic /r/. Another attribute playing a role in style-shifting could be one’s desire to attune their speech to the addressee’s background. Addressing a coworker would require a different style that addressing an intimate friend, just as addressing someone you wish to impress differs from addressing a regular acquaintance.
On an intraspeaker level, sociolinguists also noticed a phenomenon known as “hyper-correction” or the “crossover pattern”, referring to the tendency of lower class individuals to “over-correct” their speech in formal occasions than the upper class members. Indicating the formers’ insecurity regarding their speech. As various studies have shown, individuals aware of their low social status used sophisticated terms and forms in order to present themselves in a more prestigious frame. Expressing their desire to achieve, through speech, what they had been deprived from in other dynamics.
As the field progressed, sociolinguists started working on the relationship between gender and language, in which they landed on various correlations between those two. An interesting finding was the likelihood of females to use higher-status variants more than men, such as the postvocalic /r/. In addition to a larger presence of “hyper-correction” especially within lower class females. An explanation for this phenomenon could be the accumulated pressure put on females throughout history to be “lady-like”, a figure that was often linked to proper speech. It is important to emphasize on the role the Victorian age has played in strengthening this link, in which accurate pronunciation, grammar and voice training were always present in female education regardless of education. A sociolinguist has gone far enough to claim that in order to distinguish prestigious forms, one would make use of observing females’ speech, and observing that of men’s in order to spot socially stigmatized forms.
Among personal patterns, Age was found to have a strong relationship with linguistic characteristics as well. Generally, younger speakers u until the age of 16, tend to use more standard forms. Indicating their nonchalant approach towards prestige and social elements. However, as age progresses from adolescence onwards, the individual’s speech starts acquiring more non-standard forms of speech. Which happens as they start developing awareness on their surrounding social elements and start opting for prestige. This pattern shows regularity, as it is repeated along with each generation. Age also connects with language on a deeper level; with the latter having age-graded features such as pitch and vocabulary. Age plays a major role in determining one’s pitch along with gender. Before puberty, children’s pitches are hard to identify as they come off as extremely similar. Nevertheless, as these children grow, they start acquiring pitches relevant to their gender. As for vocabulary, sociolinguists have noticed that specific vocabulary features are often related to a certain age. Teenagers are more likely to use slangs and swear words than other age groups; such an observation could be, at heart, due to their agitated and rebelling nature. Using specific slang expressions signifies membership and belonging to teenage groups. In another correlation with gender, adult men in most societies tend to restrict their use of swear words to all-male settings. Generally, guessing someone’s age by observing their use of grammar, their pronunciation and vocabulary is made easier when taking sociolinguistic factors into consideration.
One sociolinguistic trait that almost all speakers are aware of, whether consciously or subconsciously, is Politeness. All speakers adhere their speech to specific standards in respect to the social situation and the amount of politeness in which they wish to present themselves. The simplest example would be how one would alternate his request from the form of a blunt interrogative form of “pass me the salt” while addressing a peer to “could you please pass me the salt?” a gentler approach while addressing an elderly family member per say. Politeness is not restricted with the addressee’s identity but the overall social situation as well. In different social situations, we are obligated to adjust our use of words to fit the occasion. According to Brown and Levinson, politeness strategies are developed in order to save the hearers’ face. Face refers to the respect that an individual has for him or herself, and maintaining that self-esteem in public or private situations. These two linguists describes 4 different politeness strategies:
A – Bald On-Record: provides no effort to minimize threats to the addressee’s face. Such as saying: “I want to use one of those!” referring to a cup of pens on a teacher’s desk.
B – Positive Politeness: in which the addressee’s desire to be respected is noted and an air of friendliness and group reciprocity is present. Reflected by saying: “So, is it O.K. if I use one of those pens?”
C – Negative Politeness: in which the desire to be respected is also notes in addition to an assumption that you are in some way imposing on them. Which shows when saying: “I’m sorry to bother you but I just wanted to ask you if I could use one of these pens?”
D – Off-Record indirect strategies: trying not to directly impose by asking for a pen but rather have it offered to you once the other person notices your need of it, such as uttering: “hmm, I could sure use a pen right now”
Among the tasks linguists need to go through to conduct studies, perhaps that of sociolinguists is the hardest. Considering that sociolinguistics is mostly based on observing linguistic variations among groups and individuals in various situations, for most accurate observations, sociolinguists would need to find study subjects in their “natural habitats” in order to avoid any interference of other elements such as attention, hypercorrection and style shifting which can highly alter the results of the study. To do so, a number of techniques have been developed. A commonly used strategy is that developed by William Labov during his studies on Martha ’s Vineyard Island. Labov would proceed to initiate conversations with his subjects on specific topics that are likely to trigger the production of certain words or terms that include the linguistic variables being searched. Example on questions Labov used to establish conversations were; “upon speaking about the right of life, liberty and happiness, what does right mean? “If a person is successful at a profession that he has no passion for, would he still qualify as successful?” Such questions would trigger the production of words such as (right, life, might) which contain vowels under inspection. Such questions require a certain amount of attention to think of. In which as the conversation progresses, any attention set towards speech correction or style maintenance would be shifted towards thinking, increasing the accuracy of the results. More orthodox methods used by sociolinguists were common with other linguistic researchers. Such as asking subjects to read certain words including desired vowels off cards or recording casual conversations between multiple people among the same group.
Despite the numerous attempts by sociolinguists to come up with methods that encourage research subjects to drop the changes they make to their speech when knowing they are being observed, this goal is still not completely attainable. This struggle is known as “the observer’s paradox” in which what sociolinguists wish to know, is, in a sense, “unknowable” Sociolinguists like Labov dedicated their research to come up with more lively and personal experiments to overcome this issue.
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