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Sociolinguistics is the study of the effect of any and all aspects of society, including cultural norms, expectations, and context, on the way language is used.

It also studies how lects differ between groups separated by certain social variables, e.g., ethnicity, religion, economic status, gender, level of education, etc., and how creation and adherence to these rules is used to categorize individuals in social class or socio-economic classes. As the usage of a language varies from place to place (dialect), language usage varies among social classes, and it is these sociolects that sociolinguistics studies.

For example, a sociolinguist might determine through study of social attitudes that Black English Vernacular would not be considered appropriate language use in a business or professional setting; he or she might also study the grammar, phonetics, vocabulary, and other aspects of this sociolect much as a dialectologist would study the same for a regional dialect.

The study of language variation is concerned with social constraints determining language in its contextual environment. Code-switching is the term given to the use of different varieties of language in different social situations.

William Labov is often regarded as the founder of the study of sociolinguistics.

Sociolinguistics differs from sociology of language in that the focus of sociolinguistics is the effect of the society on the language, while the latter's focus is on the language's effect on the society.


Sociolinguistic variable

Studies in the field of sociolinguistics typically take a sample population and interview them, assessing the realisation of certain sociolinguistic variables. Labov specifies the ideal sociolinguistic variable to

  • be high in frequency,
  • have a certain immunity from conscious suppression,
  • be an integral part of larger structures, and
  • be easily quantified on a linear scale.

Phonetic variables tend to meet these criteria and are often used, as are grammatical variables and, more rarely, lexical variables. Examples for phonetic variables are: the frequency of the Glottal stop, the height or backness of a Vowel or the realisation of word-endings. An example for grammatical variables is the frequency of Double negative.

Sociolinguistic differences according to gender

Minimal responses

One of the ways in which the communicative competence of men and women differ is in their use of minimal responses, i.e., paralinguistic features such as mhm and yeah, which is behaviour associated with collaborative language use. Men, on the other hand, generally use them less frequently and where they do, it is usually to show agreement, as Zimmerman and Wests (1977) study of turn-taking in conversation indicates.


Men and women differ in their use of questions in conversations. For men, a question is usually a genuine request for information whereas with women it can often be a rhetorical means of engaging the others conversational contribution or of acquiring attention from others conversationally involved, techniques associated with a collaborative approach to language use (Barnes, 1971). Therefore women use questions more frequently (Todd,1983).


As the work of DeFrancisco (1991) shows, female linguistic behaviour characteristically encompasses a desire to take turns in conversation with others, which is opposed to mens tendency towards centring on their own point or remaining silent when presented with such implicit offers of conversational turn-taking as are provided by hedges such as y know and isnt it. This desire for turn-taking gives rise to complex forms of interaction in relation to the more regimented form of turn-taking commonly exhibited by men (Sacks et al., 1974).

Changing the topic of conversation

According to Dorval (1990), in his study of same-sex friend interaction, males tend to change subject more frequently than females. This difference may well be at the root of the archaic conception that women chatter and talk too much, and may still trigger the same thinking in some males. In this way lowered estimation of women may arise. Incidentally, this androcentric attitude of women as chatterers arguably arose from the idea that any female conversation was too much talking according to the patriarchal, Judeo-Christian consideration of silence as a womanly virtue.


Female tendencies toward self-disclosure, i.e., sharing their problems and experiences with others, often to offer sympathy (Tannen, 1991:49), contrasts with male tendencies to non-self disclosure and professing advice when confronted with anothers problems.

Verbal aggression

Men tend to be more verbally aggressive in conversing (Labov, 1972), frequently using threats, profanities, yelling and name-calling. Women, on the whole, deem this to disrupt the flow of conversation and not (Eders 1990) as a means of upholding ones hierarchical status in the conversation. Incidentally, where women swear, it is usually to demonstrate to others what is normal behaviour for them (Eder, 1990).

Listening and attentiveness

It appears that women attach more weight than men to the importance of listening in conversation, with its connotations of power to the listener as confidant(e) of the speaker . This attachment of import by women to listening is inferred by womens normally lower rate of interruption i.e., disrupting the flow of conversation with a topic unrelated to the previous one (Fishman, 1980) and by their largely increased use of minimal responses in relation to men (Zimmerman and West, 1975). Men, however, interrupt far more frequently with non-related topics, especially in the mixed sex setting (Zimmerman and West,1975) and, far from rendering a female speaker's responses minimal, are apt to greet her conversational spotlights with silence, as the work of DeFrancisco (1991) demonstrates. All of this suggests that men see conversation as a means by which to draw attention to themselves, either by interruption or by questionably undermining what the woman has to say by non-paralinguistic response.

Dominance versus subjection

This in turn suggests a dichotomy between a male desire for conversational dominance - noted by Leet-Pellegrini (1980) with reference to male experts speaking more verbosely than their female counterparts and a female aspiration to group conversational participation. One corollary of this is, according to Coates (1993: 202), that males are afforded more attention in the context of the classroom and that this can lead to their gaining more attention in scientific and technical subjects, which in turn can lead to their achieving better success in those areas, ultimately leading to their having more power in a technocratic society. However, women have, on average, higher verbal intelligence than men (Eysenck, 1966:4).


Politeness in speech is described (Brown and Levinson, 1978) in terms of positive and negative face: respectively, the idea of pandering to the others desire to be liked and admired and not to suffer imposition. Both forms, according to Browns study of the Tzeltal language (1980), are used more frequently by women whether in mixed or single-sex pairs, suggesting for Brown a greater sensitivity in women than have men to the face needs of others. In short, women are to all intents and purposes largely politer than men. However, negative face politeness can be potentially viewed as weak language because of its associated hedges and tag questions, a view propounded by OBarr and Atkins (1980) in their work on courtroom interaction.

Complimentary language

Compliments are closely linked to politeness in that, as Coates believes (1983), they cater for positive face needs. Yet, because they do not account for negative face needs, they can be consternating for those not wishing to be imposed upon, especially where this is in a mixed-sex setting. Nevertheless, an increased use of compliments by a women in relation to men (Holmes, 1982) could be held by some men to be indicative of her supposed need for assurance, which may be interpreted as a sign of weakness, resulting in a poorer opinion of her.

Collaborative versus competitive

Women tend towards collaborative language, a fact manifest in their relatively high use of minimal responses, questions, hedges, listening and turn-taking to encourage the other to talk; whereas men generally employ competitive styles as suggested by their silent responses and tendency to interrupt, both of which can be considered ways of competing with the other participants for attention and dominance in the conversation.

Private versus public language

Women tend to conversation orientated towards the private life, as their listening and politeness propensities imply by their very nature as tools with which to be sensitive to private feelings and likeability; whereas men can be held to have a more public-oriented conversational technique - as is implied by their advice-giving response tendencies to questions, giving an outward and so more public impression of the man as knowledgeable - and by their verbal aggression propensities to outwardly and so publicly establish an hierarchy within the conversational setting.

Agreement versus dissent

Women tend generally to have an agreement motivation in conversation, suggested by their usual half-implicit agreement to maintain topic continuity in a conversation at a rate higher to that of men. Men, on the other hand, tend more towards challenge in conversational motivations, a fact hinted at by their tendency to challenge the others conversation topic with a higher rate of topic change.

Intimate versus detached

Women can be said to tend towards intimacy in conversing, as suggestive in their use of such politeness techniques as hedges, minimal responses and tag questions to cater for such intimate considerations as positive and negative face; whereas men may be held to exhibit independence and, indeed, distance in conversing, a fact implied by their reduced incidence of resorting to self-disclosure.


  • Barnes, Douglas (1971), Language and Learning in the Classroom, Journal of Curriculum Studies. 3:1
  • Brown, Penelope (1980), How and why are women more polite: some evidence from a Mayan community, pp. 111-36 in McConnell-Ginet, S. et al. [eds] Women and Language in Literature and Society. Praeger, New York.
  • Brown, Penelope and Levinson, Stephen (1978), Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena, pp 56-289 in Goody, Esther [ed] Questions and Politeness. Cambridge University Press.
  • Coates, Jennifer (1983), Language and Sexism, LAUD Paper No. 173, University of Duisburg.
  • Coates, Jennifer (1987), Epistemic modality and spoken discourse, Transactions of the Philological Society, 110-31.
  • Coates, Jennifer (1993), Women,Men and language. London: Longman
  • DeFrancisco, Victoria (1991), The sound of silence: how men silence women in marital relationships, Discourse and Society 2 (4):413-24.
  • Dorval, Bruce (1990), Conversational Organization and its Development, Ablex, Norwood, NJ.
  • Eder, Donna (1990), Serious and Playful Disputes: variation in conflict talk among female adolescents, pp. 67-84 in Grimshaw, Allan [ed]Conflict Talk, Cambridge University Press.
  • Eysenck, H.J (1966), Check Your Own I.Q. St Ives: Penguin
  • Fishman, Pamela(1980), Interactional Shiftwork, Heresies 2:99-101.
  • Holmes, Janet (1988), Paying Compliments: a sex-preferential politeness strategy, Journal of Pragmatics 12:445-65
  • Labov, William (1972), Language in the Inner City. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.
  • Leet-Pellegrini, Helena M. (1980) Conversational dominance as a function of gender and expertise, pp. 97-104 in Giles, Howard, Robinson, W. Peters, and Smith, Philip M [eds] Language: Social Psychological Perspectives. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
  • OBarr and Atkins (1980) Womens Language or powerless language?, pp. 93-110 in McConnell-Ginet et al. [eds] Women and languages in Literature and Society. New York: Praeger.
  • Sacks et al (1974) A simple systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation, Language 50:696-735.
  • Tannen, Deborah (1991), You Just Dont Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, London: Virago.
  • Todd, Alexandra Dundas (1983), A diagnosis of doctor-patient discourse in the prescription of contraception, pp. 159-87 in Fisher, Sue and Todd, Alexandra D. [eds] The Social Organization of Doctor-Patient Communication, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington D.C.
  • Zimmerman, Don and West, Candace (19750 Sex roles, interruptions and silences in conversation, pp 105-29 in Thorne, Barrie and Henly, Nancy [eds] Language and sex: Difference and Dominance. Rowley, Massachusetts: Newbury House
  • Zimmerman, Don and West, Candace (1977), Sex roles, interruptions and silences in conversation, pp. 105-29 in thorne, Barrie and Henley, Nancy [eds] Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance. Rowly, Massachusetts: Newbury House.

Further reading

  • The Language War, Robin Tolmach Lakoff, University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 2000, hardcover, 322 pages, ISBN 0-520-21666-0

See also

bg:Социолингвистика br:Sossiolinguistik da:Sociolingvistik de:Soziolinguistik es:Sociolingstica fr:Sociolinguistique ja:社会言語学 nl:Sociolingustiek pt:Sociolingstica wa:sociolinwince zh:社会语言学


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