Language and Social Groups

A social group is a group of people who share common characteristicsinteract with each other, and share a sense of community.

Language and Social Groups Language and Social Groups

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Table of contents

    Social groups can form according to:

    • Age

    • Class

    • Gender

    • Religion

    • Ethnicity

    • Family

    • Interest groups

    • Occupation

    Spoken Language and Social Groups Sociolinguistics

    Before diving into the main body of the article, let's get some definitions down, starting with the reason we're here: sociolinguistics!

    Sociolinguistics is the study of language in society. It looks at how people use the language according to the social groups they are part of.

    For example, we may speak to friends and contemporaries in one way and to older people or figures of authority (teachers, parents, the police) differently. We may also use different words or accents with people from our town or city, compared with people from a different place.

    Sociolinguistics also looks at how language conveys identity. Language often signals which social groups we belong to. Therefore, people may make linguistic choices to show that they belong to a certain group, or are different from other groups.

    For instance, people in certain occupations or interest groups may use jargon (basically fancy, subject-specific words) to show their expertise.

    For example, doctors may refer to a cut or a sore as a 'lesion', because the word comes from a shared medical vocabulary.

    It is important to remember that language changes all the time. The English of the 14th century was very different from today's English. If you are familiar with Chaucer's writing, you'll know how different English can be across the centuries.

    Language and Social Groups, man on a horse, StudySmarterChaucer wrote in Middle English, which is vastly different from modern English.

    Do you get the gist? Many of the words are similar to modern English words, but the spelling and pronunciation are very different, which is especially true when we compare Old English to modern slang.

    For example, if you had said to Shakespeare, 'Omg your plays are dope, no cap', he wouldn't have had a clue what you were on about.

    Over time, our role within each social group changes. We may even change social groups altogether. You will gradually get older (shocking, I know!) – you may even move to a new city, find a new job, or start new hobbies. In each case, you will acquire new language for each social group. Overall, our language becomes a mix of all social groups that we are a part of, both past and present.

    Key Terms in Sociolinguistics

    When studying sociolinguistics, some keywords will appear that you need to know. Don't worry; we've got you covered!

    Language style

    Language style is not just about how cool you sound when you talk...

    Language style is how we speak to our audience.

    We often choose certain words and ways of speaking to express ourselves and our identity, which defines our language style.

    Register

    This is probably one you've come across elsewhere in your language studies:

    Register is a variety of language associated with a particular situation or context of use.

    Register may be influenced by the field (what the topic/subject is), manner (how formal the situation is), or mode (whether the language is written or spoken).

    For example, we may use a different language when speaking to a headteacher about school work compared to when we are speaking with our friends or sending a text.

    Sociolect

    Sociolect is an important one to know:

    A sociolect is the language style we use to fit in with a particular social group.

    We often change our way of speaking to seem more similar to the social group we belong to by changing our language features, such as our accent or word choices. Sociolects can ensure effective communication (e.g. dentists using jargon to talk about teeth), show belonging to a group, and exclude other people from the group.

    language and social groups dialect accent variety StudySmarter

    Language is a key factor in creating a sense of identity and social belonging.

    Dialect

    Not to be confused with sociolect!

    A dialect is the variety of language that people speak in a particular geographical region. You may also hear the term 'regional dialect'.

    For example, people from Liverpool speak a dialect called 'Scouse', which contains unique words, grammatical structures, and phrases from other dialects across the UK.

    Idiolect

    Yet another -lect to learn!

    An idiolect is a form of language that is specific to an individual.

    Our idiolect is affected by where we live or have lived in the past, our class, age, education, and the other social groups that we are part of. These can affect the words we use, our accent, and the overall creation of an idiolect that is specific to you as an individual.

    Can you think of ways your school friends, your friends outside of school, and where you live affect your language? What other social groups are you a part of that might influence your language use?

    Standard English

    Standard English is the most widely accepted form of the English Language. It follows standardised grammar rules and may often conform to Received Pronunciation (Received Pronunciation, or RP, is the accent used by the Queen). Standard English is the language we are taught in school, and expected to use in exams.

    Variety

    This is a pretty standard one:

    A variety in the English language is a specific form of language. Each variety of English will include specific registers, styles, and sociolects.

    For example, the standard variety (Standard English) will consist of standard grammatical features and a fairly formal register. Varieties of the English language include 'Scouse' (from Liverpool, UK), Aboriginal English in Australia, and so-called 'Singlish' (a form of English spoken in Singapore).

    Language and Social Groups Theorists

    Language can create a sense of belonging or divisions in society. In the past, the RP accent (sometimes called the 'Queen's English') has often been associated with the upper class. In contrast, more regional accents (such as Cockney) have been associated with the working class. With these biases in mind, people can exaggerate or play down their accents according to how they want to be perceived by others.

    Plenty of theorists have conducted research in language and social groups. Here are some that you may come across in A Level English Language:

    Giles' communication accommodation theory

    Howard Giles' Communication Accommodation Theory1 is a key study in sociolinguistics. Giles showed how people can change their behaviour either through:

    Convergence

    Adopting someone else's language and communication features to reduce the social distance between themselves and the other person

    Divergence

    Emphasising differences in language and communication to diverge away from a social group

    Labov's sociolinguistic studies

    William Labov was also a key theorist in sociolinguistics, researching multiple areas of language in society. Some of his most notable studies include the study of non-standard English, the study of African American Vernacular English, and the study of Martha's Vineyard (see below). In each of these studies, Labov focused on language and its development in specific social groups.

    Martha's Vineyard

    Labov studied a sociolect spoken by a group of fishermen on an island called Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, USA. He found that other islanders subconsciously imitated the local fishermen's 'traditional sounding' language (their sociolect) as it had positive connotations of strength and courage.2 This study showed how people could alter their language to be more like the social groups they admire and want to be part of. For the islanders on Martha's Vineyard, altering their language would make them appear traditional, strong, and courageous, like the fishermen!

    Language and Social Groups, Martha's Vineyard, StudySmarterLabov found that the people of Martha's Vineyard mimicked the language used by fishermen.

    Difference vs Dominance approach

    The difference and dominance approaches are often discussed on the topic of language and gender. These are approaches theorists use to try and describe how men and women speak and why they might speak differently from each other.

    The 'difference' approach is the idea that men and women communicate in fundamentally different ways. Theorist Deborah Tannen has suggested that men and women belong to different sub-cultures. Lakoff (1975)3 developed this idea, stating that men and women use different linguistic features. For example, women overlap in conversation, use tag questions, and talk too much (how rude!).

    The 'dominance' approach argues that men dominate in society, which is why men and women communicate so differently. Fishman (1978)4 found that men often dominated in conversations, while Zimmerman and West (1975)5 suggested men asserted dominance by interrupting more often.

    Politeness theory

    Our final theory is called 'politeness theory'. Brown and Levinson (1978)6 suggested speakers use politeness strategies to achieve successful communication.

    The notion of face, first established by Goffman, is an integral part of politeness theory. It is the idea that people need approval from the person they are speaking to (positive face) while maintaining boundaries, independence, and freedom of opinion (negative face). People use politeness strategies to find a balance between 'looking good' and maintaining personal space.

    Positive politeness strategies include showing interest and sympathy (we all enjoy someone who actually listens to us, don't we?).

    Negative politeness strategies that appeal to a person's negative face include apologising and not interrupting to avoid imposing on the speaker. By using both strategies, we can appear friendly while not imposing on the other person.

    Language Groups

    As you might have gathered by now, language can vary between different social groups in quite a few ways. We've looked at how different social groups can impact language use, but what happens when this occurs on a wider, more geographical scale?

    Definition of language group

    What do we mean when we talk about a 'language group'?

    A language group is a group of languages that have evolved from a common language ancestor or 'parent language'.

    Language groups typically consist of several languages with similar linguistic features, vocabulary, and grammatical rules. In essence, they're languages that sound pretty similar and where there might be a lot of shared language components.

    Language Group Examples

    Many different language groups exist across the globe – here are just a few key examples:

    • The Nordic Languages: Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic

    • The Germanic Languages: German, Dutch, Flemish, Afrikaans, etc.

    • The Indian Languages: Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali, etc.

    • The Latin Languages: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.

    This is nowhere near all the language groups that exist but should give you an idea of what is meant by 'language group'.

    Language and Social Groups - Key Takeaways

    • A social group is a group of people who share common characteristics, interact with each other, and share a sense of community. Groups can be based on age, class, gender, hobbies and interests, ethnicity, and occupation.
    • Sociolinguistics is the study of language in society and how language is related to identity and social groups.
    • Giles' Communication Accommodation Theory suggests that people change their language behaviour by either converging towards or diverging away from the person or group they are speaking to.
    • Many theorists have studied how language varies according to social groups: e.g. Tannen developed the 'difference' approach in gender studies, while Zimmerman and West looked at the 'dominance' approach.
    • Language groups are groups of languages that share a parent language and have a similar vocabulary, linguistic features, and grammatical rules.

    References

    1. G. Howard and P. Powesland. Accommodation Theory, Sociolinguistics, 1997
    2. W. Labov. The social motivation of a sound change. Word, 1963
    3. R. Lakoff. Language and woman's place. Language in Society, 1975
    4. P. Fishman, Interaction: The work women do, Social Problems, 1978
    5. D. Zimmerman and C. West. Sex roles, interruptions, and silences in conversation, 1975
    6. P. Brown and S.C. Levinson. Politeness: Some universals in language usage, 1978
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Language and Social Groups

    What are social groups in English Language?

    A social group is a group of people who share common characteristics, interact with each other, and share a sense of community. Groupings can be based on age, ethnicity, class, gender, interests and hobbies, and occupation.

    What is language and society in sociolinguistics?

    Sociolinguistics looks at how language varies according to social groups, including language used by groups formed according to age, class, ethnicity, gender, etc. This helps to give us a wider view of language in society.

    What is the relationship between language and social grouping?

    Language can often signal which social groups a person belongs to because certain language features are often typical of certain social groups. Shared language can show belonging, togetherness, or even exclude others from the group.

    Is language determined by social groups?

    Language use will be influenced by the social groups that a person belongs to, as each social group will expose the person to specific language forms or varieties. Geography, education, and interests will also affect the language used by an individual.

    What is the language of a social group?

    Every social group will have certain linguistic structures, accents, dialects, sociolects, and language features that might be unique to it. Language use within a social group can become quite distinct, as being a participant in a social group leads to a sense of belonging and unity.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

     Which of Tannen’s six categories does the following describe:Typically, men communicate to give information, whereas women communicate to build up relationships or to network.

    Choose the right answer(s) (more than one may be correct) In her experiment, Fishman discovered that :

    Choose the right answer (there may be more than one):Jane Pilkington found that men in same-sex conversation were:

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