Summary: “What do Sociolinguists Study?”

In our Language Series for Students this semester, we will focus on sociolinguistics and share brief summaries of exciting chapters from Janet Holmes’ “An Introduction to Sociolinguistics.”

Below is the 2nd part of a summary of Chapter 1 “What do Sociolinguists Study?”

Social factors account for the use of linguistic variation. This depends on:

  • Users: the participants                      
  • Use:  setting, topic, and function.
  • Participants: The speakers in a speech event
  • Setting: the social context of the interaction (speech event)
  • The topic: the topic of discussion
  • The function: the purpose of this topic (why)

Also, there are four dimensions which are related to social factors: 

1.    Social distance

2.    Status scale

3.    Formality scale

4.    functional scales

The Social Distance Scale is concerned with the relationship of participants. It emphasizes solidarity. How well we know someone influences our linguistic choice. The relationship, whether intimate or distant, affects the linguistic choice when speaking. We can therefore use nick names in calling our siblings or friends, but we cannot do so in addressing our teachers. The more formal the relation is, the more careful we are in choosing the appropriate linguistic form in addressing the speaker.

The Status Scale has two ends: superior (high status) and subordinate (low status).  The social status is relevant to the choice of linguistic forms. For example, dropping the (h) while speaking reflects a social group that is lower than that of someone who keeps the (h) in their pronunciation. Also, if a person is addressed by Mr. while he addresses others with their first names, it means that the person enjoys a higher or superior status.

The Formality Scale indicates high formality and low formality. We evaluate formality of topics, and we use linguistic forms accordingly. For example, in the village called “Sauris,” the use of Italian was used for formal purposes (reading, writing, or religious sermons), while German was used for communication with family members. Similarly, Bokmal was used for formal purposes like education, newspapers, radio, and TV, while Ranamal was used for casual purposes, such as communicating with the locals.   

Functional scales embrace two functions: referential and affective functions. Each speech event has its own function. The referential function provides information. For example, the weather bulletin provides information about what the expected temperatures will be like. However, if two people are talking to each other, and one of them is saying “it is too humid today,” this sentence here conveys feelings. The function here is affective. In Example 1, the boy speech serves referential and affective functions: he is giving information that he was late, and is expressing his frustration towards the teacher. In speech, sometimes one function dominates the other: The more referential is the topic, the less feelings it conveys, and vice versa.

So, these dimensions, along with the previously mentioned factors, provide a useful framework for discussing language in its social context.


The chapter defined the study of linguistics, which is done by two tasks performed by sociolinguists: 

1-   Identifying the linguistic variation involved (whether pronunciation, syntax, lexis, morphology, dialects, or languages).

2-   Identifying the non-linguistic (social) factors and dimensions that led to the linguistic variation.