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Sociolect

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English

Do you believe that everyone who speaks English uses the language the same way? Or would you agree that we all speak a little differently?

You may already know that where we live can significantly impact how we speak, but did you know that social factors can also affect our language? The social groups we associate with can influence our pronunciation, word choices, syntax, and slang. The resulting language variety is known as a sociolect.

This article will define the term sociolect and outline the different social factors that influence sociolects. It will then introduce different types of sociolects and provide plenty of examples. Finally, it will explain the difference between the terms ‘dialect’ and ‘sociolect’.

What is a sociolect?

In linguistics, the term sociolect refers to a language variety used by particular social groups. The term is a combination of the words social and dialect because that’s precisely what a sociolect is - a social dialect!

What is meant by the term ‘social dialect’?

A social dialect is a variety of a specific language modified in terms of vocabulary, accent, and grammar by the social groups using it. For example, Gen Z’ers will likely use a slightly different vocabulary than the baby boomer generation (think of slang). Both age demographics speak English, but that version of English differs.

Sociolects typically develop over time amongst people who share the same social backgrounds or environments, such as a job or educational background. When we spend a lot of time with people or groups of people, we may find that our language begins to change and becomes more like the people around us; this is what we call accommodation.

Accommodation can happen for several reasons and usually takes place without the speaker even realising they're doing it! One of the most common reasons we change our language to match others around us is to build a sense of identity and belonging. Using the same word choices, slang, and pronunciation as the people we spend time with can show the world which social groups we belong to.

It’s important to note here that most people belong to multiple social groups at one time as no one can be defined by a single social factor. For example, the language of a young female nurse would likely be influenced by her age, gender, and occupation.

What social factors influence sociolects?

Now we know a sociolect is a language variety affected by different social factors, let’s take a look at those factors.

The main social factors influencing sociolects include socioeconomic status, age, occupation, gender, and ethnicity.

Socioeconomic status

An individual’s socioeconomic status typically refers to their class. The language someone uses will likely differ depending on their socioeconomic status. Why do you think that is? It could be because of the level of education, the books and movies they have read/seen, the type of job, and the places they live.

According to a recent survey conducted by the BBC, there are now seven social classes in the UK:

  • Precariat (precarious proletariat)
  • Emergent service workers
  • Traditional working-class
  • New affluent workers
  • Technical middle class
  • Established middle class
  • Elite

How do you think language use will differ across these seven classes? Do you think each class has its own sociolect?

Sociolect Image of upper-class man StudySmarter

Image of an upper-class man, Hannah Morris - StudySmarter Original

Age

It’s common for younger generations to use different words, especially slang, to their parents or grandparents. Doing so can create a sense of individuality and freedom from the older generations and a sense of belonging with other people their own age. As the younger generation grows older, the new younger generation shows up and develops their slang and sociolects.

Think about the language younger generations use today and someone significantly older. What do you think they would say if you said their outfit was cheugy?

Did you know the word cheugy was created by Gabby Rasson, an American software developer, to describe things that were no longer deemed cool or fashionable? Cheugy was Collins dictionary’s 2021 second word of the year.

Occupation

This factor refers to the jobs people do and the vocabulary, or jargon, they use because of that job.

Jargon = words or phrases used within certain professions, which may be difficult to understand by those outside that profession. For example, ‘garbage collection’ refers to an automated memory management system in the computer programming world.

As people learn and develop skills for specific jobs, they pick up lots of new vocabulary. This vocabulary might include technical terms, jargon, acronyms, or insider jokes.

For example, wedding photographers use the term ‘uncle Bob’ to describe the type of guest who brings their own camera and gets in the way all the time! For those people who aren’t wedding photographers, this term probably doesn’t mean much.

Gender

Many linguists have looked into how men and women use language differently. Some suggest that language use differs because of genetic differences between the two sexes, whereas others argue that societal expectations significantly impact language use. On the other hand, some linguists state there is no difference between how women and men use language.

Robin Lakoff, a linguist who focused on women’s language, found that women tended to be more polite, use more hedging tactics (e.g. 'would you mind if…’) and were ‘hypercorrect’ with their grammar. However, this is just one study, and other linguists have questioned Lakoff’s work.

Ethnicity

The term ethnicity is often confused with race, so let’s have a quick look at the definition of ethnicity first.

Ethnicity = a person’s ethnicity is linked to the ethnic group they associate with. An ethnic group is a group of people with a shared nationality, culture, race, or religion.

Ethnic groups may use similar language to create a sense of unity, to set themselves apart from others, or because other languages have influenced their language use. For example, Jamaican Patois, a vernacular form of English considered a sociolect, has been directly influenced by several West-African languages.

Sociolects influenced by ethnicity are often referred to as ethnolects.

Think about your own social background. Do you think it has influenced the way you speak? Do you recognise yourself as belonging to a particular social group? If so, do you think your speech helps you create a sense of unity and belonging within that group?

As previously mentioned, most people use several different sociolects throughout their lives. Several sociolects can exist inside a person’s brain, and it is up to them to decide which sociolect they wish to use depending on the social situation.

Examples of Sociolect

As you can probably imagine, sociolects are constantly changing and growing, so there is no definitive list of all the different types. But, we can look at various social factors and some examples of their effect on English language use.

Socioeconomic status and sociolects

Basil Bernstein (1934 - 2000) was a sociolinguist who examined the relationship between social classes and language use in an educational setting. He found that working-class students spoke using restricted code, whereas middle-class students used elaborated code.

Typically, restricted code:

  • has a smaller range of vocabulary,

  • has more words linked to regional dialect,

  • is more informal,

  • is dependent on social context,

  • has linguistic predictability (speech will follow similar patterns).

On the other hand, elaborated code:

  • is more formal,

  • is explicit in its meaning (more likely to be understood by all),

  • is less dependent on context,

  • has syntactic complexity,

  • has a wider range of vocabulary.

It might be easy to assume that elaborated is ‘better’ than restricted code, but that would be a mistake. Restricted code carries culture and can be an essential part of how people express themselves and their identities.

Age and sociolects

A good example of how age can affect language is the use of slang. Penelope Eckert, an American linguist, carried out research on the features of teenage speak, including slang, in her 2003 study Language And Adolescent Peer Groups. She suggested that teenagers use more slang words to help distinguish themselves from older generations.

What slang words are common amongst your generation today? Do you think older generations know what they mean? Do you consider these slang words to be part of your sociolect?

Eckert concluded that linguistic change (variation from the standard form) is most common amongst teenagers - this means we have teenagers to thank for many new words that appear in the dictionary each year. She also stated that it is important to remember that not all teenagers speak the same and noted that variation is most prominent amongst the young. This is probably because our speech tends to become more standardised as we get older.

Sociolect Image of girl listening to music StudySmarter

Image of girl and teenage slang, Hannah Morris - StudySmarter Original

What’s the difference between a sociolect and a dialect?

Now we have a good understanding of what a sociolect is, let’s take a closer look at the term dialect.

The most common definition of a dialect is a language variety used in a specific geographical location. This means that the spoken language (e.g. English) has been changed in terms of lexicon, grammar, and pronunciation by the people living in an area.

An example of an English dialect is Scouse - the regional dialect spoken in Liverpool.

Despite the fact regional dialects differ from the standard form of the language, they are usually intelligible to all those who speak the original language. Although, saying that, a non-native English speaker might struggle if a Liverpudlian asked them if they liked their ‘new webs’ (webs = trainers).

We’ve established that the most common definition of a dialect is related to regional differences, but it isn’t just geography that can influence dialects. Social factors, such as class, ethnicity, and age, can also affect dialects. Sound familiar? That’s right; sociolects are a type of dialect.

So, in summary, dialect is an umbrella term for all language varieties that have been influenced by location, social factors, ethnicity, etc.

Sociolect - Key takeaways

  • A sociolect is a language variety influenced by certain social factors and groups.
  • Social factors that can influence sociolects include Socioeconomic status, age, occupation, gender, and ethnicity.
  • Sociolects can differ from standard forms of a language in terms of lexicon, grammar, pronunciation, and slang.
  • Most people know and use multiple sociolects, as they likely belong to multiple social groups.
  • A sociolect is a type of dialect.

Sociolect

A sociolect is a non-standard dialect associated with a particular social group.

An example of a sociolect is Jamaican patois - an English vernacular influenced by the ethnic groups who speak it in Jamaica.

The term dialect is most commonly used to refer to a language variety used in a specific geographical location. On the other hand, a sociolect is a language variety used by specific social groups. It's important to remember that a sociolect is a type of dialect.

Sociolects are important because they can help people build a sense of unity and belonging with the social groups they associate with.

Social factors that can influence sociolects include socioeconomic status, age, occupation, gender, and ethnicity.

Final Sociolect Quiz

Question

The term 'sociolect' is a combination of what two words?

Show answer

Answer

Social and dialect.

Show question

Question

What social factors can influence sociolects?

Show answer

Answer

location, age, gender, ethnicity, occupation etc.

Show question

Question

True or false?


Sociolects are a type of dialect.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

How can sociolects differ from the standard form of a language?

Show answer

Answer

They can have different pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. 

Show question

Question

In linguistics, what is accommodation?

Show answer

Answer

When we change and adapt our language and speech patterns to sound more like the people around us.

Show question

Question

According to Basil Bernstein, what is restricted code and elaborated code?

Show answer

Answer

Restricted code = smaller range of vocabulary, more words linked to regional dialect, is more informal, is dependent on social context, and has linguistic predictability.


Elaborated code = more formal, is explicit in its meaning, is less dependent on context. has syntactic complexity, and has a wider range of vocabulary.

Show question

Question

According to Basil Bernstein, who is more likely to use restricted code?

Show answer

Answer

The working classes.

Show question

Question

Who uses the most slang?

Show answer

Answer

Teenagers.

Show question

Question

What is another name for an ethnic dialect?

Show answer

Answer

An ethnolect.

Show question

Question

True or false?


Sociolects are constantly changing.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

The term sociolect refers to a language variety used by particular ______ groups. 

Show answer

Answer

social

Show question

Question

True or false?


Most people belong to multiple social groups at one time.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Sometimes, words or phrases are used within certain professions, which may be difficult to understand by those outside that profession.


This is known as what?

Show answer

Answer

Jargon

Show question

Question

Sociolects influenced by ethnicity are often referred to as what?


Show answer

Answer

Ethnolects

Show question

Question

According to Penelope Eckert, linguistic change is most common amongst _________.

Show answer

Answer

teenagers

Show question

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