Tarjamati’s Language Series for Students

Summary of Chapter One: “What do Sociolinguists Study?”

This is a summary from “An Introduction to Sociolinguistics” by Janet Holmes. (2nd edition)

Part One

In this chapter, you will be able to:

  • define the concept of sociolinguistics as the study of the relationship between language and society
  •  examines the use of language in different contexts
  • defining the social functions of language and the ways it is used to convey social meaning. 

Linguistic variation can provide social information.  Examining the use of language in different social contexts is very important.

The choice of one linguistic form rather than another is important, because:

1-    It provides us with non-linguistic (social and regional) information. The two examples (example 1 and example 2) mentioned in the chapter clarify how the relationship between the two speakers governs the way of speaking, and how it specifies the choice of vocabulary items. In the first example, the speech serves many functions:

  • It gives information (why the boy was late)
  • It tells how the boy feels (angry and frustrated)
  • It tells about the relationship between the two participants (In the first example, the relationship is intimate and friendly. However, the second example shows a formal, distant, and respectful relationship). 

In example 3, we realize how social factors, such as relationship and feelings, are reflected in addressing people. A mother would address her daughter in a way that differs from addressing a stranger. Because the relationship between the mother and the daughter is affectionate and intimate, the mother would use “dear” when addressing her daughter. However, if the mother is angry or more serious, she would use her daughter’s first name to show seriousness. Therefore, the choice of vocabulary indicates social factors such as relationship and feelings.

2-   It reflects social identity. When we talk, we give clues to others about who we are and where we came from, which informs people more about our social and regional background. Another social factor is “ethnicity”. In example 3, the use of the greeting “sut wyt ti?” refers to Welsh ethnicity.

3-   Sociolinguistics is also interested in different types of linguistic variation used to express social factors.  

What is Linguistic Variation? How does it happen? How different types of linguistic variation are used to express social factors?

First, the linguistic variation occurs on the level of vocabulary, sounds, grammar (syntax), and word structure (morphology).

Linguistic variation leads to style, which is a group of different ways of expression.  Different styles are used in different social contexts. This may involve a use of different dialect or different language.

In example 4, each participant has their own way or method of speaking (their own style) which, in turn, gives information about the social background. The speaker who drops the “h” reflects his education and occupation, which is considered as lower than the other speaker. Although the two speakers share the same region, linguistic variation on the level of pronunciation reflected the two speakers’ social background.

In example 5, linguistic variation occurs on grammar and vocabulary levels.

In example 6, the linguistic variation occurs on the level of dialect. It involves the use of two different dialects. This means that they differ on the level pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and style.  In northern Norway, a village where people were studied by two sociolinguists, Blom and Gompers, used two different dialects: one was for formal use, and the other was for the casual use. The formal (Bokmal) was used for education, media and press, official business transactions, and in worship places.  The casual dialect (Ranamal) was the dialect used among family and friends. It was also used to communicate with shopkeepers. It signals one’s membership to the local community (the village), unlike the Bokmal that was used by strangers in the village. Therefore, if a local person used Bokmal while talking to a shopkeeper s/he will sound too funny or snobbish.

Another social factor is Topic. The topic of discussion influences the way we speak, making us show different choices of linguistic variation. In example 6, people in the Norwegian village select from two kinds of Norwegian dialects according to the topic of discussion. Talking about foreign politics or academic topics will force the speaker to select the formal dialect (Bokmal). Speakers will opt for Ranamal when they return home and talk about different topics related to their children or friends.


Any set of linguistic forms (a group of linguistic variations on the level of voc, grammar, pronunciation) that patterns according to, or that is influenced by social factors is called a code or variety. A variety is a set of linguistic forms used under specific social circumstances. It is a broad term that includes different accents, styles, dialects, and even languages which contrast with each other for social reasons (social factors).  The concept “variety” is a very useful sociolinguistic term because:

  •  It is neutral.
  • It covers all the different realizations of the abstract concept “language” in different social contexts.  

In example no. 7, the linguistic variation occurs on the level of languages. This means that each language has its own pronunciation, morphology, syntax, and lexis. A speaker of one language cannot understand the speaker of another.  (Remember: this is opposite to dialects, where speakers used to understand each other).

In the example, a village called “Sauris” experienced three stages:

1.    It was a part of the Austrian empire. The people spoke German.

2.    Later, they used German for casual use (with friends and relatives) and Friulian with people outside the village, which has become a language of solidarity used by young men to each other.

3.    Italian was used for reading and writing, church and school, as well as communicating with people from outside the region.  By 1971, adults were all trilingual (speaking three languages). In that village, the social distribution is also different.  Social distribution is accompanied by linguistic distribution as well. 

The Linguistic Repertoire is the distinguishable varieties or codes which are available for use in different social contexts.

In every community there is a range of varieties from which speakers select according to the context in which they are communicating.  People may use different pronunciations, styles, dialects or even languages for different purposes. In monolingual communities, people select different styles or dialects for different purposes. For example, in a small village like Lancashire, a woman’s repertoire would include the styles of English she needs in speaking to shopkeepers, bank employees, or her children and relatives.

In Malaysia, a woman’s repertoire would include two varieties of English with different styles, and two different varieties of Chinese with different styles. 

End of Part 1

Holmes, Janet. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Longman, 2001.