Social Dialects

Sometimes, two people who speak the same language can almost be unintelligible to one another. This is because they are speaking in different dialects. A dialect is a form of language unique to a particular group. Dialects can vary based on several factors, such as where the person is from or their social background. When a dialect is associated with particular social groups like social classes or occupations, it is called a social dialect. 

Social Dialects Social Dialects

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Table of contents

    What is Social Dialect?: Definition

    Social dialect refers to the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax used by a particular social group. It is a reflection of how a person's social background impacts the way they use language. Many overlapping social factors like socioeconomic class, education level, and age shape social dialects. Thus, it is not always easy to distinguish between social influences on language use, and people who live within the same community might have different social dialects.

    Social dialect is a variation of a language associated with a particular social group or community.

    Social dialect is also called sociolect.

    Social Dialects, Dialogue Bubbles, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Social dialect is the variation in vocabulary, grammar, and syntax by a particular social group.

    Social Dialect in Sociolinguistics

    The term social dialect comes from a field of study called sociolinguistics, the study of how society impacts language use. Sociolinguists called dialectologists have long studied the impact of regional differences on language variation. In the mid-1900s, several sociolinguists became interested in how linguistic variation can also be a result of social and cultural context. Thus developed the distinction between two main types of dialect: regional dialect and social dialect.

    Dialect is not the same thing as an accent! A person's accent is the way that they pronounce words. A person's dialect can include how they pronounce words but also their vocabulary, grammar, and syntax (how they arrange words in phrases and sentences).

    Examples of Social Dialects

    African American Vernacular English, also known as Ebonics, is an example of a social dialect. In particular, it is an example of how ethnic identity can impact variation in language use. Ebonics is a non-standard dialect that has unique language features. For instance, it includes the following characteristics:

    • Contractions like "ain't,"

    • Omission the final constants of words like "han" vs. "hand."

    • Use of double negatives/inversion of negatives like "Ain't nobody…"

    While Ebonics is not an incorrect form of English, it has often been looked down on by upper-class, white Americans. Those in positions of authority have historically worked to keep it separate from their communities.

    For example, teachers in elementary schools might tell students who use the words "ain't" to fix their grammar. Over time, the student might not speak the same way as other people in their community. The problematization of Ebonics demonstrates how racial tensions and forms of social discrimination can also impact social dialect.

    Other examples of social dialects include:

    • Cockney English which is characterized by features such as the use of rhyming slang, dropping the letter "h" in certain words, and using the glottal stop instead of the "t" sound in certain words.
    • Southern American English which is characterized by features such as the use of the monophthongal vowel sound in words like "ride" and "time," the use of the word "y'all" as a second-person plural pronoun, and the use of the word "fixin'" as a colloquialism for "getting ready to."
    • Yorkshire English which is characterized by features such as the use of the word "nowt" instead of "nothing," the use of the word "summat" instead of "something," and the use of the word "ey up" as a greeting.

    Regional and Social Dialects

    Social dialect is one of two main types of dialects. The other type of dialect is regional dialect. A person's regional dialect is how geographical locations, barriers, and discrepancies have shaped their language use.

    Examples of Differences in Dialects
    Social Dialect Regional Dialect

    Differences are a result of multiple, overlapping social factors

    Differences are a result of distinct geographical differences

    Different social dialects in the same physical communities

    Same regional dialects in the same physical communities

    A mark of socioeconomic class and social position

    A mark of geographical region

    Although there is a lot of variation in language use, the official form of a language is called standard language. When a social dialect is used in written form and in formal settings, it becomes standard language.

    Social Dialects, Map, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Regional dialect differs from social dialect because it is based on geographic location, not social factors.

    A person from Texas might say, "Are y'all wearing tennis shoes?" The drawl in the word "y'all" and the phrase "tennis shoes" are characteristics of the Southern regional dialect. This use of language is not a reflection of purely social factors like age or gender.

    A fifteen-year-old starts a job at a store and says to a customer, "Sup? You good?" This use of casual slang in a professional setting reflects the teen's lack of experience with formal customs. This is an example of social dialect because language use was shaped by age. As people age, they learn more about what type of language is appropriate in what type of setting.

    Factors Affecting Social Dialect

    Multiple social factors impact people's dialects, and they tend to overlap. The following factors can all be considered when analyzing social dialect.

    Age

    Age influences social dialect because popular expressions change over time. Young people also tend to make up new slang (informal, shortened language) that older generations do not learn. For example, students in school might communicate with phrases like "no cap" that adults do not use.

    Language use also tends to mature with age. Adults who exist in more professional environments than young people also cannot use informal language as frequently. Older people also have an advanced understanding of how to use language to achieve different goals and adapt to different social contexts.

    Young people might greet one another by saying "Wassup?" while older people grow accustomed to using more formal greetings such as "Hello! How are you?"

    Education

    Education level, often connected with socioeconomic status, has one of the most significant impacts on social dialect. Children with lower education levels, especially in early childhood, tend to be slower in acquiring language than other children. It takes them longer to develop an advanced vocabulary and understand complex syntactical structures. Higher education levels also lead to the development of more formal vocabulary and the use of more advanced vocabulary. For example, people who attend college and post-graduate institutions will use more technical language than those who only study through high school.

    Young adults with higher education levels are more likely to be able to write a convincing persuasive speech than young adults who have not learned rhetorical appeals.

    Ethnic Background

    The ethnic group or groups a person belongs to also shapes language use. Not to be confused with the physical socially-constructed label of race, a person's ethnicity is their social identity and accounts for factors like nationality, religion, and culture. A language variety that's specific to an ethnogroup is called an ethnolect.

    It is common among Jewish people to exclaim "oy vey" when frustrated.

    Gender

    Gender identity can profoundly impact other social factors in a person's life, like their social status and their level of education. As a result, gender identity can affect language patterns.

    For example, in communities where women are seen as inferior to men, they may use more formal vocabulary and sentence structure when talking to a man they do not know than when talking to other women.

    In many cultures, there is social pressure on men to appear strong and not express emotions. As a result, men tend to suppress emotional ideas more than women when talking. When asked how they are, a woman is likelier to be honest and say, "I cried last night," than a man, even if it is true for him.

    Socioeconomic Class

    Socioeconomic class is one of the most important social factors in social dialect. A person's social class is their standing in society based on their socioeconomic status, which is a combination of their income, wealth, education level, and occupation. The financial gap between social classes in the United States is quite large today, which impacts what members of each class have in common, including language use. People in the United States typically fall into one of the following six classes:

    1. Upper class - People who have inherited wealth through many generations.

    2. New money - People with inherited wealth for just one or two generations and a high income.

    3. Middle class - People with professional, "white collar" jobs like teachers, doctors, and lawyers, and typically have a college education.

    4. Working class - People who work in "blue collar" jobs like truck drivers and factory workers, and typically have more technical training than college educations.

    5. Working poor - People with a low educational level who work low-level jobs.

    6. Poverty - People with a low educational level who work part-time, have low-income jobs, or are unemployed.

    These are the general characteristics of people in each social class. People might belong to one of these social groups and not possess all of these characteristics or might move throughout social groups in their lifetime.

    Social Dialects, Money, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Socioeconomic class is social status based on wealth and income.

    Depending on a person's class, they will use different vocabulary, slang, sentence structure, and grammar. For example, people from a higher social class tend to have more access to education and thus learn the evolving, more formal features of a language. Meanwhile, people who belong to lower social classes typically have less access to education; as a result, they retain older features of a language.

    Those in lower social classes also tend to work jobs that accept the use of informal communication and slang. People who work in white-collar jobs or exist in the elite circles of the upper and new money classes typically don't find settings that accept such a combination. As a result, those in the upper class will use different vocabulary and syntax than those in the lower classes.

    The sociolinguist Basil Bernstein researched the impact of socioeconomic class on social status in schools. He found that students from working-class households had a smaller vocabulary, used more informal language, and followed predictable linguistic patterns. On the other hand, he found that students from middle-class households had a larger, more formal vocabulary and used more complex syntax that was less predictable. Both codes of language are a rich reflection of socio-cultural context and the way social forces come together in a complex web to shape language use.1

    Occupation

    A person's profession profoundly impacts one's language use, particularly because of the unique vocabulary associated with one's job. Jargon (words and phrases used in certain occupations) differs among the type of job and level of job a person has. For instance, doctors use a lot of medical jargon that people from other professions would not use. They shorten complex medical terminology to streamline communication between one another. Someone from another profession, like a lawyer, would not use such phrases and find it challenging to communicate with those who do.

    It should be noted that there are almost endless factors that impact social dialect, and a person's dialect can be impacted by more than one of the above in addition to other factors.

    Social Dialects, Doctors, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Different occupations use different jargon.

    Social Dialects - Key Takeaways

    • A dialect is a form of language unique to a particular group.
    • Dialect differs from accent because a person's accent is how they pronounce words, while dialect includes pronunciation, syntax, vocabulary, and grammar.
    • A person's social dialect is a result of how social factors in their lives, like their socioeconomic status, impact how they use language.
    • Social dialect is different from regional dialect, which is the impact of geographical boundaries on dialect.
    • Factors affecting social dialect include age, ethnic background, education level, gender, and socioeconomic class.

    1 Basil Bernstein. Class Codes, and Control. 1971.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Dialects

    What is meant by social dialect?

    Social dialect is a variety of language associated with a particular social group. 

    What is the difference between social dialect and regional dialect?

    Social dialect is a variety of language associated with a particular social group. Regional dialect is a variety of language associated with geographic location.

    Why standard language is described as social dialect?

    When a social dialect is used in written form and in formal settings, it becomes standard language. 

    What are the factors affecting social dialect?

    Many factors affect social dialect including socioeconomic class, education level, age, and occupation. 

    What is example of social dialect?

    African American Vernacular English, also known as Ebonics, is an example of how ethnic background impacts social dialect.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which dialect is more consistently similar throughout the same physical communities? 

    True or False. Each person has one social factor that impacts their dialect. 

    Which of the following is not an example of a social factor impacting dialect?

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