What is Sociolinguistics?

One of the goals of the MLC is to equip students with a solid knowledge – both theoretical and practical – of the tools we use to analyze social life from a linguistic perspective. The toolkit that students acquire during their time in the MLC is composed of the diverse analytical methods of three areas in linguistics: sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and discourse analysis.

Sociolinguistics is concerned with language in social and cultural context, especially how people with different social identities (e.g. gender, age, race, ethnicity, class) speak and how their speech changes in different situations. Some of the issues addressed are how features of dialects (ways of pronouncing words, choice of words, patterns of words) cluster together to form personal styles of speech; why people from different communities or cultures can misunderstand what is meant, said and done based on the different ways they use language. Sociolinguistics encompasses a range of methodologies, both quantitative and qualitative.

What is sociolinguistics? An MLC-er weighs in: “The study of how people use language in their everyday lives. Sociolinguistics looks at how identities are manifested through the words we use and how, through language, we (intentionally or unintentionally) create, maintain, and disrupt relationships with others.”

Pragmatics focuses on how speakers use language to present information and how hearers draw inferences from what is said about the speaker’s communicative intention. Some of the issues addressed are how particular ways of speaking (including the choice of words, sentence forms, and prosody (intonation, rhythm, pitch)) convey subtle features of messages; how language conveys ‘who did what, when, where, why, and how;’ how we use language to accomplish ‘speech acts’ (e.g. apologies, declarations, requests, threats) that bring us closer together or take us further apart.

What is sociolinguistics? An MLC-er weighs in: “Sociolinguistics is the study of language and society. It examines how language simultaneously arises out of and is used to construct social categories such as nationality, race, gender, age, etc. Cultural beliefs, values, and norms are encoded in language, and language reaffirms these aspects of culture.”

Discourse analysis focuses on language use ‘above’ the sentence (in text) and ‘beyond’ the sentence (in context). This perspective analyzes texts and contexts from a wide array of sites in everyday life, ranging, for example, from informal conversations among friends to doctor/patient interactions, office documents (memos, minutes), and televised political debates. Some of the issues addressed are the following: how texts build cohesion (the word and meaning relationships that ‘hold’ a text together) and coherence (the overall unity, topic, and message); how texts that tell a story (a narrative) differ from those that describe something, provide an explanation or list a set of instructions.

What is sociolinguistics? An MLC-er weighs in: “To a colleague or employer who asks ‘what is sociolinguistics?’ I might reply: sociolinguistics is the in-depth study of how language tells the story of us as a society over time, of how language resonates with us, and why.”

Explore academic and non-academic work relevant to the MLC’s mission of promoting sociolinguistics outside academia by looking at our list of cross-disciplinary articles.