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date: 24 March 2017


Summary and Keywords

The study of sociolinguistics constitutes a vast and complex topic that has yielded an extensive and multifaceted body of scholarship. Language is fundamentally at work in how we operate as individuals, as members of various communities, and within cultures and societies. As speakers, we learn not only the structure of a given language; we also learn cultural and social norms about how to use language and what content to communicate. We use language to navigate expectations, to engage in interpersonal interaction, and to go along with or to speak out against social structures and systems.

Sociolinguistics aims to study the effects of language use within and upon societies and the reciprocal effects of social organization and social contexts on language use. In contemporary theoretical perspectives, sociolinguists view language and society as being mutually constitutive: each influences the other in ways that are inseparable and complex. Language is imbued with and carries social, cultural, and personal meaning. Through the use of linguistic markers, speakers symbolically define self and society. Simply put, language is not merely content; rather, it is something that we do, and it affects how we act and interact as social beings in the world.

Language is a social product with rich variation along individual, community, cultural, and societal lines. For this reason, context matters in sociolinguistic research. Social categories such as gender, race/ethnicity, social class, nationality, etc., are socially constructed, with considerable variation within and among categories. Attributes such as “female” or “upper class” do not have universal effects on linguistic behavior, and sociolinguists cannot assume that the most interesting linguistic differences will be between groups of speakers in any simple, binary fashion. Sociolinguistic research thus aims to explore social and linguistic diversity in order to better understand how we, as speakers, use language to inhabit and negotiate our many personal, cultural, and social identities and roles.

Keywords: linguistics, sociolinguistics, language, variation, dialect, accent

1. The Field of Sociolinguistics

Although language development and use is a topic of inquiry in many fields, modern sociolinguistics (henceforth referred to as sociolinguistics) developed in the 20th century. Koerner (1991) primarily situates sociolinguistics within the discipline of linguistics; he narrates sociolinguistics as a diverse field of study that emerged out of earlier traditions in historical linguistics, dialect geography, and the study of bilingualism and multilingualism. Ferdinand de Saussure (as seen in a 1923 edition of his lectures, published posthumously) developed a theory of semiotics and structuralism that influenced the course of modern linguistic theory and modern sociolinguistic thought. He asserts the arbitrary nature of the sign that is attached to the signified as well as the significance of considering how time and geographical diversity affect linguistic change.

Saussurean linguistics was influential in a number of directions. It influenced the principle of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, as formulated by linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf (see Whorf, 1956). This principle helped initiate a shift from the view of language as a mirror of mental processes to the suggestion that language influences thought by conditioning our observations and evaluations. Vygotsky (1987), in psychology, also was influenced by Saussure. Vygotsky’s theories suggests that cognition and consciousness are formed through social interactions in which children learn cultural and linguistic habits that influence their construction of social and symbolic knowledge.

Philosophers of language, such as John Austin, the originator of speech act theory (1975) and one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century, drew upon Saussure’s work to explore how utterances constitute social action. Erving Goffman (1986), a central figure in sociology and linguistics, studied language as central to social interaction. Goffman is widely known for his work on the concept of framing: how people define and give meaning to activities and adjust their behaviors, including their linguistic practices, accordingly. Also influenced by Saussure were Norman Fairclough (1989) and Pierre Bourdieu (1991), both eminently concerned with the relationship among language, capital, power, and society. Fairclough (1989), influential in furthering the area known as critical discourse analysis, argues that discourse produces, enacts, maintains, directs, and challenges power in society. From analyzing discourse, power dynamics and the ideologies that support them can be revealed. From sociology, Bourdieu (1991) also links language to power. Acts of language generate, legitimize, and reproduce social resources, distinctions, and structures, and power is enacted and contested in the “linguistic field.”

In the 21st century, due to disciplinary and methodological distinctions, sociolinguistics has crystallized into its own field (Shuy, 2003; Spolsky, 2010). Sociolinguistics is still allied with anthropology but has less in common with sociology now than it once did, and today most sociolinguists receive training primarily in linguistics (Shuy, 2003). Particularly influential is the linguist William Labov, who is widely regarded as the scholar who has had the greatest influence on sociolinguistics in the contemporary era (Hazen, 2007). Viewed as the founder of variationist sociolinguistics, Labov established modern methodologies for collecting and analyzing data from language in use and was a leader in applying sociolinguistic research to address educational challenges.

2. Language Variation and Change

A primary aim of sociolinguistics is to consider language variation and change in relation to social factors and effects. A foundational text is Weinreich, Labov, & Herzog (1968), which puts forward the concept of structured heterogeneity that motivates variationist sociolinguists. The authors challenge prior linguistic theories that had rested on assumptions of homogeneity. Instead, they propose that “a reasonable account of change will depend upon the possibility of describing orderly differentiation within language” (p. 151).

Since that time, language variation and change has emerged as a major area of sociolinguistic study, particularly due to the pioneering research of William Labov. The trilogy of Labov (1992), Labov (2001), and Labov (2010) is a go-to source on language variation and change. The first volume (Labov, 1992) explores internal factors: “the study of apparent time and real time; principles governing chain shifts; mergers, splits, and near-mergers; the regularity of sound change; functional effects on linguistic change” (p. 1). The second volume (Labov, 2001) investigates social factors: “the social location of the innovators of change; the role of socioeconomic class, neighborhood, ethnicity, and gender; the leaders of linguistic change; transmission, incrementation, and continuation of change” (p. xiv). The third volume (Labov, 2010) centers on cultural and cognitive factors, examining the origins and consequences of the “steadily increasing regional divergence in North American English” (p. 1) and the forces driving this change. (See also Labov, 2013.)

2.1 Dialectology and Perceptual Dialectology

The sociolinguistics subfield known as dialectology primarily investigates the intersection of linguistic and geographic variation—that is, how elements of language vary by place, over time, and by social group, with specific attention given to boundaries, transitions, and processes of diffusion (Chambers & Trudgill, 1998; see also Trudgill, 2011). In addition, the area of data-driven dialectology, or dialectometry, seeks to aggregate linguistic features drawn from large data collections to better characterize and describe languages and language varieties in relation to geographic variation (Nerbonne, 2009). One example of data-driven dialectology is The Atlas of North American English (Labov, Ash, & Boberg, 2006), which provides an overview of the dialects of the United States and Canada, based on telephone surveys, including detailed maps and charts, sound samples, and teaching materials.

Perceptual dialectology, a branch of dialectology, examines how speakers perceive differences in linguistic usage by community or region, including linguistic stereotyping and language prejudice (see also Preston, 2005). Iannàccaro and Dell’Aquila (2001) detail step by step how perceptual dialectology studies are carried out, from defining the language border to analyzing the perceptual data to drawing and analyzing the language map, as illustrated by their research study in Italy. Bucholtz et al. (2007) conduct a perceptual dialectology study in California. Participants associated different regions of the state not only with different language use (English vs. Spanish), but also with differences in dialects, slang, and social groups. Preston (1999) examines how speakers from diverse cultures and communities perceive and view language varieties, whether in their own or in other speech communities. Articles appear in three sections, “The Dutch contribution,” “The Japanese controversy,” and “Images, perceptions, and attitudes.” Long and Preston (2002) review scholarship on nonlinguists’ perceptions of language variation and the distribution of varieties, with chapters that cover research from a greater variety of global contexts, including Canada, Hungary, France, Italy, Korea, Mali, Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey.

2.2 African American English Varieties

A great deal of contemporary sociolinguistic research has investigated the development, structure, and use of varieties of English in places where African Americans live or historically have lived. In the film The language you cry in: Story of a Mende song, Toepke and Serrano (1998) document the migration of the lyrics and music of a Mende funeral song from Sierra Leone to the Sea Islands of South Carolina in the United States, where the Gullah language is spoken, revealing connections among West African languages, the Gullah language, and African American English (AAE). Kautzsch (2002) provides a historical description by analyzing a 500,000-word corpus drawn from multiple spoken and written sources to describe AAE spoken ca. 1830–1920. Quantitative analyses of the use of negation, copula, and relative markers provide evidence for regional and gender variation as well as change over time. Wolfram and Thomas (2002) review and add further evidence to sociolinguistic debates over the origins and development of AAE, and Green (2002) details its lexicon, morphosyntax, and phonology. In an early study of variation along the lines of gender and social capital in AAE, Nichols (1998) examines language variation among African Americans of lower socioeconomic status in rural South Carolina. She found that older women used more than double the nonstandard Gullah features than did the younger women or the men. Explanations center on the role of educational attainment, job opportunities, and social networks.

3. Language Variation and Cognition

Sociolinguists are increasingly becoming interested in the relationship between language and cognition, as represented in the growth of two areas of research: the study of language ideologies and the study of the relationship between speech production and speech perception. These areas overlap, in that language ideologies often influence speakers’ perceptions of language variation, and they also contribute to the (re)production of stereotypes and discriminatory discourses that sustain power dynamics in societies.

3.1 Language Ideologies

This broader discussion of language variation and cognition begins with a discussion of language ideologies because they arise out of, as well as help enact, dynamics of prestige, status, power, and inequality. Language ideologies are judgments about language and language varieties and are often expressed in moral or aesthetic terms. Silverstein (1979) defines language ideologies as “sets of beliefs about language articulated by users as a rationalization or justification of perceived language structure and use” (p. 193).

The concept of language ideology is an interdisciplinary one, relevant to linguistics and anthropology. Bonfiglio (2002, 2012) reveals how standard language ideologies can result from and contribute to ideologies about race, ethnicity, and nationalism. In the context of the United States, he traces how contemporaneous historical and social events in the early 20th century led to the emergence of ideologies of prescriptivism, tinged with racism and xenophobia. Jaffe (1999) and Stocker (2003) examine language ideologies in different national contexts, revealing how they may be sites of conflict that emerge from and reflect social differences among the elite and the nonelite. Jaffe (1999) investigates language ideologies in Corsica: one ideology holds French to be the language of logic and high culture, another views Corsican as a marker of national pride, and yet another maintains the value of multilingualism. These ideologies particularly come into conflict in school settings. Stocker (2003) investigates the intersection of ideologies about language and ethnicity in Costa Rica, where speakers of one community, who speak with no linguistically perceptible differences from members of a neighboring community, are nevertheless stigmatized by their neighbors because they are viewed as being an indigenous group. Similarly, Cameron (1995) finds a strong relationship between linguistic prescriptivism and gender inequality in her analysis of ideologies about the “proper” use of English, including style and etiquette guides, English grammar teaching, and “political correctness.”

3.2 Stereotyping, Categorization, and Perception

Van Dijk (1998) provides a conceptual model and research-based evidence for understanding the relationship between ideology and discourse—in particular, how ideologies about race emerge from and reproduce cognitions, social interactions, and discourse. This multidisciplinary view of ideology draws upon cognitive and social psychology, sociology, and discourse analysis. Social cognitions are shared when members of groups, in interactions with others, develop and reproduce ideologies through text and talk (i.e., discourse). Close attention is paid to racist ideology and discourse structures. An illustrative example is found in Ronkin and Karn (1999), who analyze how (often inaccurate) linguistic representations of the language patterns of African Americans in data collected from the Internet reflect racist attitudes and racialized language ideologies. Linguistic representations in the news media are also intertwined with social hierarchies and power dynamics. For instance, Santa Ana (2009) examines political and linguistic commentary embedded in jokes about Latinos/Latinas as delivered by late-night television host Jay Leno. Hakam (2009) conducts a critical discourse analysis of what came to be known as the “Prophet Muhammad cartoons controversy.” Examining a corpus of 422 articles from English-language Arab newspapers, the analysis reveal how the news articles reproduce, maintain, and also contest Eurocentric cultural discourses about the controversy.

Considerable recent research in psycholinguistics, social psychology, and sociolinguistics has also investigated the relationship between speech production and perception. Evidence suggests that varying factors, including listeners’ linguistic expectations and linguistic biases, as well as their prior knowledge about and prior exposure to various dialects and varieties, affect their speech perceptions. For instance, Clopper and Pisoni (2004) conduct two sets of experiments, finding that listeners can reliably categorize talkers according to large U.S. dialect regions, although they cannot reliably make finer distinctions or pinpoint a speaker’s actual regional origin. Liao (2008) examines how native Taiwanese listeners perceive speakers of two varieties of Taiwan Mandarin. Social and linguistic ideologies are revealed in the ways that listeners rate the speakers on various social characteristics, including political affiliation, based largely on the relationship between accent and perceived regional background. Díaz-Campos and Navarro-Galisteo (2009) find that untrained Spanish-speaking listeners have at least a moderate ability to recognize and categorize different varieties of Spanish, and that Spain is the dialectal region that is accurately recognized most often. Sumner and Samuel (2009) examine how listeners’ degrees of exposure to other dialects affect their perception of sounds and recognition of spoken words; they found that previous dialect experience has consequences for language processes, form processing, and the underlying representation of linguistic forms. Finally, Lev-Ari and Keysar (2010) find that native English-speaking listeners often face “processing difficulty” when they encounter the speech of nonnative English speakers; in addition, in experimental conditions, listeners judged speech samples from non-native speakers as sounding less credible than those by native English speakers. As the authors note, “Such reduction of credibility may have an insidious impact on millions of people, who routinely communicate in a language which is not their native tongue” (p. 1093).

Some research also investigates individuals’ abilities to categorize others based on social attributes, such as race. Such categorizations can also lead to stereotypes, which are often perpetuated through everyday discourse, and to discrimination. For instance, Baugh (2003) finds that a speaker’s racial identity may readily be perceived in telephone conversations. Prospective landlords in California discriminated against a tridialectal caller when Chicano English and Black English Vernacular were used, but not White English. Perrachione, Chiao, and Wong (2010) examine listeners’ abilities to recognize voices of African Americans and European Americans. The authors found an own-race bias in the identification of voices that appears to result from “asymmetric exposure to culturally-acquired features of spoken dialect” (p. 52).

4. Languages and Language Varieties in Contact

An expansive amount of scholarship explores how languages and dialects originate and change in relation to internal (linguistic) as well as external (social) dynamics. Sections on Language Contact cover how factors such as geography, mobility, and age intersect and affect language variation, diachronically and synchronically. Studies of Multiculturalism, Multilingualism, and Globalization and of Endangered Languages and Language Varieties, including efforts in preservation and revitalization, are also leading themes in contemporary sociolinguistic research.

4.1 Language and Dialect Contact, Choice, and Shift

Thomason (2001) and Winford (2003) introduce the field of language contact (see also Nelde, “Language Contact”), which generally explores the factors that contribute to, as well as the consequences that arise from, relationships between and across speakers of different languages and language varieties. Research in this area investigates how languages come into contact in stable and unstable situations; multilingualism among speakers and societies; contact-induced language change; second language acquisition, borrowing, and maintenance; the social and linguistic aspects of code-switching; the formation and use of pidgins, creoles, and other mixed languages; and language shift, attrition, and death/dying. Aikhenvald (2003) gives a case study of language contact and language change between the North Arawak and Tucanoan languages in northwestern Amazonia. Analyses of diffusion, borrowing, code-mixing, code-switching, and language attitudes reveal how speakers view language as intertwined with regional and cultural identity, though recent increased contact with European languages and cultures has affected these dynamics.

Mufwene (2001) (see also Mufwene, “Approaches to Linguistic Ecology: Coincidences and Divergences”) provides a model for language evolution that parallels models from evolutionary biology. He argues that processes of creolization are fundamentally part of processes of language change in general, and he questions the value judgments that often underlie the view that creoles are intrinsically different from other languages and language varieties. The volume by Kouwenberg and Singler (2008) contains 26 chapters on the study of pidgins and creoles. Part 1 reviews the linguistic properties of pidgins and creoles, part 2 presents perspectives on their genesis, part 3 relates pidgin and creole studies to general linguistics, part 4 touches on “kindred languages,” and part 5 reviews the place of pidgins and creoles in society. Mühleisen (2005) is a special journal issue with six articles that explore various social and linguistic aspects of the use of creole languages, including Afrikaans, Antillean Kréyol, Capeverdian Crioulo, Hawaiian Pidgin, Jamaican Creole English literary discourse, and Sranan, in creole literatures.

Questions of language contact are also pertinent to the study of bilingualism. Wei (2007) is a collection of classic articles on bilingualism, including Fishman’s (1965) article, “Who speaks what language to whom and when”: the title prefigures basic questions that studies in the area of language choice in bilingual and multilingual settings have since pursued in depth (see also Fishman, 2009). Fishman (1965) investigates within-group multilingualism, “in which a single population makes use of two (or more) separate codes for internal communicative purposes” (p. 67), and focuses on “domains of language choice” within multilingual settings. Jourdan (2008) provides a contemporary case study, examining generational language shift and the effects of urbanization in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Her work explores the influence of factors such as urbanization on language contact and shift; in Honiara, middle-class speakers (particularly younger speakers) increasingly used Pijin exclusively as their primary language, rather than English or other vernacular varieties, to index an urban affiliation.

Similar linguistic and social processes are investigated in studies of dialect contact, choice, and shift. Siegel (2010) reviews the less commonly studied topic of second dialect acquisition, thoroughly describing the social and linguistic processes involved when acquiring a new dialect, with evidence from studies of Chinese, Dutch, English, German, Greek, Norwegian, and more. The final three chapters focus on applied issues surrounding second dialect acquisition, particularly in educational contexts. Kerswill and Williams (2000) provide a model for dialect contact, via a study of language dynamics in the New Town of Milton Keynes, in the United Kingdom, which was designated in 1967. They find that second-generation children play a significant role in koineization, a process of dialect leveling. Further, research has found that it is possible for individual speakers to adapt or change features of their dialect. Sankoff and Blondeau (2007) conduct a real-time study of changes in the pronunciation of /r/ in Montreal French. Although most speakers showed stable linguistic patterns, others were able to adopt the innovative uvular /r/ variant well into late adolescence to early adulthood—a finding that challenges the “critical period” hypothesis of language change.

4.2 Multiculturalism, Multilingualism, and Globalization

A growing area of sociolinguistic research investigates local manifestations of language, culture, and identity in relation to forces of globalization, economics, and politics. Heller (2003) examines language and identity practices and tourism in Francophone Canada. Ethnographic research revealed the competing values that often surround bilingualism and multilingualism in relation to local communities, tourism, and the corporate world. Heller raises questions of globalization, commodification, and authenticity and asserts the importance of studying the language and identity practices of ethnolinguistic minorities. The collection McKee & Davis (2010) explores the ramifications of globalization and technology on variation and change in sign languages around the world. Complementary strands of research deal with the presence of global varieties of English. Topics relate to interactions between Deaf and hearing people within contexts of linguistic and cultural diversity, including the rise of American Sign Language, indigenous sign varieties, and changes in technology, globalization, and access to higher education.

Kachru, Kachru, & Nelson (2006), a nearly 800-page volume, spans the range of issues related to the study of world Englishes. Forty-two chapters cover topics including the four diasporas; varieties, genres, and styles of world Englishes; culture wars and grammar wars; language ideologies and critiques (see also Bhatt, 2014); world Englishes in the media, global advertising, and global commerce; educational and policy applications; and resource materials. Schneider (2007) provides a focused account of how English has spread and diversified as a result of both colonization and the prominence of the United States and the United Kingdom in contemporary global society. Of particular note are 16 case studies from countries including Australia, Barbados, Cameroon, Singapore, and South Africa. These studies reveal how, as a byproduct of colonization and globalization, English has been adapted to reflect local cultures and communities around the world. Similarly, Alim, Ibrahim, and Pennycook (2008) analyze language and international hip-hop culture (see also Ibrahim, 2013). In the 12 chapters of this edited collection, linguistic choices, semantics, and poetics are discussed in relation to transnationalism, postcolonial identity construction, immigration and migration, culture flow, and diaspora. Another collection edited by Terkourafi (2010) explores international manifestations of hip-hop culture and youth identity. Chapters examine hip-hop through linguistic, cultural, and economic analytical lenses in a variety of international contexts, including Cyprus, Egypt, France, Germany, Hungary, Norway, South Korea, and the United States.

4.3 Endangered Languages and Language Varieties

Language endangerment, death, and revitalization have long been of interest to linguists. Many of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages now face extinction. Crystal (2000) focuses on language death and dying and on arguments for why societies should care about it. He argues for promoting language preservation and revitalization, though not at the expense of endangered language communities and cultures themselves. An edited collection by Hinton and Hale (2001) centers on language revitalization practices, with 23 well-contextualized case studies on various languages (see also Navajo Linguistics Archive Project, 2005). Methods for preserving and revitalizing languages across the globe include the use of media and technology, linguistic archives, and immersion programs. The Linguists, a documentary (Kramer, Miller, & Newberger, 2008) and a standout at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, gives a glimpse into communities where languages are endangered. Viewers travel with linguists to remote locations to collect recordings from speakers of Chulym (Siberia), Kallawaya (Bolivia), and Sora (India). Finally, Schilling-Estes and Wolfram (1999) analyze dialect death, in which the status of one variety of a language is threatened by the encroachment of other varieties. The authors compare the process of dialect recession across two remote U.S. communities, Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, and Smith Island, Maryland, and they argue for investigating moribund dialects as part of the study of language endangerment and death.

5. Language Variation and Social Identities

The relationship between social and stylistic factors and language variation has been a long-standing focus of sociolinguistic research. In one strand of research, scholars represent race, ethnicity, social class, gender, and age as social variables in statistical models that investigate correlations with linguistic variables. Another strand seeks to investigate, often by incorporating qualitative methods, how gender, race/ethnicity, social class, and similar factors are locally co-constructed in interaction. Many such studies also overlap in their topics, modes of analysis and interpretation, and findings.

5.1 Style, Accommodation, and Identity

Sociolinguists have taken different approaches to the study of style. Models grounded in social psychology tend to emphasize social goals and relationships as motivating factors in speech accommodation. For instance, early social psychological work by Giles and Powesland (1975) investigates how speakers adapt their speech toward or away from their interlocutors, depending on social status and interactional goals. Originally called the “speech accommodation model,” it was later revised to be called “communication accommodation theory.” This theory is similar to a model by Bell (1997), who suggests that speakers alter how they speak vis-à-vis interlocutors in a framework called “style as audience design.” In his research, quantitative comparisons reveal variation in the speech of New Zealand radio newscasters reading the news for National Radio versus for a community station.

Other sociolinguists conceive of style as attention paid to speech. Rickford and McNair-Knox (1999) “treat linguistic differences in the speech of a single speaker (intraspeaker variation) as stylistic” (p. 119) in a quantitative study that reveals how a young African American woman style-shifts across two interviews. They summarize approaches to studying style and provides evidence from a case study that generally lends support to Bell’s (1997) model. Eckert & Rickford (2001) is a collection of chapters by leading sociolinguists, some of whom take competing views on the study of style. Irvine argues that stylistic differences are part of social distinctions. Labov investigates style as attention paid to speech. Eckert examines how individual speakers use stylistic variation to construct identity. Bell revisits the audience design principle. Coupland recommends incorporating social theory into research on style. In later work conceptualizing style as language variation and social identity, Coupland (2007) presents an integrative theoretical approach that centers on the importance of studying stylistic variation as an interactional, contextually situated process. In this view, sociolinguists are compelled not to abstract their study of linguistic features but rather to analyze how stylistic resources, in the context of broader discourse practices, are used to make meaning.

5.2 Gender and Sexuality

Extensive research on language, culture, and identity has sought to uncover how gender differences are encoded in language, how gender interacts with other social identities, and how everyday discourse enacts and challenges gender dynamics and gender ideologies. Lakoff and Bucholtz (2004) is an edited volume that contains a reprinting of Lakoff’s (1975) groundbreaking work, Language and woman’s place, which argues that language is central to gender inequality. Lakoff’s added commentary as well as 25 short articles by well-known scholars of language and gender supplement the original text.

Evidence from myriad studies reveals how factors such as norms and cultural expectations relating to gender and sexuality, education, social class, job segregation, politics, and the like affect the gendered distribution of linguistic forms in communities and cultures around the world. An early exemplar is Gal (1978), a study of language use in relation to social networks among Hungarian speakers in Austria. As the town faced increased urbanization, the choice to use either Hungarian or German or to code-switch signaled speakers’ affiliations with either a peasant status or a worker/urbanite status. Haeri (1996) finds that sound changes in Cairene Arabic are being led by upwardly mobile young women, in large part because men are overrepresented in jobs that require the use of Classical Arabic. Other avenues of research investigate gendered power displays through the use of features such as interruption, joking, turn-taking, and tag questions (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 2003; Kotthoff, 2006). With evidence from residents of a Tzeltal (Mayan) community in Mexico, Brown (1998) investigates whether women are “more polite” than men. Pointing to how gendered social structures constrain language behavior, she suggests that positive politeness is a feature of women’s speech in societies in which men dominate the public sphere.

Recent research further explores language use along the “borderlands” of gender and sexual identities, such as by transgender, intersex, and genderqueer individuals, in various cultures around the world. The edited collection Zimman, Davis, & Raclaw (2014) provides 10 chapters that represent some of the most up-to-date theoretical and empirical research on language and sexuality in global perspective. For instance, within that collection, Davis (2014) analyzes linguistic features and strategies used to index gender, sexuality, and indigenousness among Two Spirit Native Americans. Other studies in this burgeoning research area include Kulick’s (1998) study of language, gender, and sexuality among travesti in Brazil and his (1993) work among the Gapun in Papua New Guinea. Similarly, Besnier’s (2003) ethnography-based investigation of transgendered men in the Polynesian island nation of Tonga explores the “role of language use in constructing gender in the context of an investigation of how other social and cultural categories define gender” (p. 280). Wong (2005) analyzes how lexical items may be appropriated and reappropriated by stigmatized as well as mainstream social groups. He investigates how the Chinese term tongzhi “comrade” has shifted in meaning to refer to sexual minorities, allowing for its use both as a term of resistance within the gay rights community and as a stigmatized and parodied term in the mainstream Chinese media. Levon (2010) examines how the linguistic practices of lesbian and gay Israelis index their relationship to ideologies of Zionism and Israeli nationalism.

5.3 Race, Ethnicity, and Culture

Language in relation to race, ethnicity, and culture is a complex topic, as exemplified in Fishman (2010), an edited volume that covers research from interdisciplinary perspectives and geographically diverse areas. Part 1 explains approaches to the topic stemming from economics, linguistics, education, history, sociology, and more, while part 2 centers on regional groups in relation to language and ethnic identity. Fought (2006) and Charity Hudley (2015) both review interdisciplinary theories and approaches to conceptualizing the relationships among language, race, ethnicity, and racialization, focusing on how language is often used in defining race/ethnicity and the role of language in the construction of identity for various racial and ethnic groups. Charity Hudley also notes the need for future research to turn attention to people who have been under-studied in traditional sociolinguistic work, including immigrant and migrant populations, speakers of mixed racial heritage, and speakers of middle to higher socioeconomic statuses. Hill (2008) provides a conceptual and empirical look at how everyday language reproduces racism within White cultural contexts. The book focuses on the role of everyday discourse in directly and indirectly producing and reproducing stereotypes and prejudices that contribute to discrimination and racism. Four chapters specifically examine racial slurs, gaffes, covert racist discourse, and linguistic appropriation.

Other strands of research examine the interactions of language and race/ethnicity within and among various cultural groups. Zentella (1997) is an ethnographic study of two generations of Puerto Rican speakers in New York (see also Zentella, “Transfronterizo Talk”). Providing rich description and drawing on quotes from interviews with speakers, she analyzes the political, social, and linguistic factors that influence code choice within bilingual populations, particularly among children. Philips (2003) finds key cultural differences in how North American Indian children are culturally oriented toward classroom learning compared to mainstream cultural expectations. These differences affect the speech acts that occur in the classroom and impact the students’ educational experiences and success. Rampton’s (2005) study of students of Indian, Pakistani, Afro-Caribbean, and Anglo descent in the United Kingdom focuses on instances of “language crossing,” in which speakers deliberately use words or linguistic features that are characteristic of an ethnic group to which they do not normally claim membership. Mendoza-Denton (2008) focuses the linguistic and cultural practices of cholas, the female members of the Norteña and Sureña gangs, at a northern California high school. Quantitative linguistic analysis supplements qualitative ethnographic data to reveal nuances of the cholas’ linguistic production.

6. Applied Sociolinguistics

Applied sociolinguistics is a broad concept that has typically been used to describe ways in which sociolinguists have interacted with various publics on issues of language-related concern. Some of these areas include education, the law, health, and the media, where language is often a key mechanism that works, in interaction with other social factors, to help or hinder culturally and linguistically diverse speakers’ access to the rights and privileges afforded by these social institutions. The engagement that many sociolinguists have fostered has led to some theorizing about models and best practices, particularly with respect to ethical considerations, for future scholars to follow when seeking to interact with those outside of academia.

6.1 Perspectives on Sociolinguistic Engagement

Sociolinguists are increasingly concerned with how models for engagement should guide research with research communities and research participants, and what kind of models to use. Bolinger (1979) provides an early call to action for linguists, including sociolinguists, to consider their motivations and goals for their scientific pursuits, enjoining scholars not to “stay aloof” from concentrations of power and inequality that are often also “questions of language” (p. 404). Cameron et al. (1992) outline approaches to conceptualizing relationships between researchers and the researched, advocating that linguists scrutinize their commitments to speakers and communities. The authors distinguish different models for working with communities and speakers, including ethical, advocacy, and empowering research, and are often quoted for their statement, “if knowledge is worth having, it is worth sharing” (p. 24). Charity Hudley (2008) centers on how linguists, including sociolinguists, have positioned themselves and undertaken community-based research oriented toward social justice and social change. The work of individual scholars from various linguistic subfields as well as the goals of institutions and organizations that support linguistic work are discussed in relation to goals of service and social justice.

6.2 Language, Opportunity, and Educational Attainment

Language might seem like “just talk,” but there are real-world consequences, particularly with respect to educational attainment. In rural and/or developing areas of the world, education remains limited for many women and girls (Kristof & WuDunn, 2009). Rates of female illiteracy are nearly double those of men in African and Latin American countries; minority women often face discrimination in educational and job opportunities, especially for those in rural areas who speak an indigenous language (Tiano, 1987). Indeed, around the world, dominant cultural values and language ideologies routinely subordinate speakers of minority languages and nonstandard language varieties. Hornberger (2008) highlights research on language in educational processes and contexts from more than 40 countries. This 10-volume reference text covers language policy and planning, literacy, discourse, second- and foreign-language education, bilingual education, knowledge about language, language testing and assessment, language socialization, ecology of languages, and research methods in language and education. Another review is provided by Wortham (2008), who examines the contributions of linguistic anthropologists to the study of language and education. He reviews research that has recognized the role of language in educational settings, contexts, and practices and explains the significance of these studies in relation to wide-ranging anthropological questions and concerns.

Farr, Seloni, & Song (2009) outline the scope of linguistic diversity and education in the United States. Chapters in this collection highlight the linguistic and cultural diversity among student populations in the United States, identify linguistically rooted challenges that may hinder students’ educational achievement, and present sociolinguistically informed research models and strategies for change. Charity Hudley & Mallinson (2011) delve into language-related educational challenges faced by historically underserved U.S. student populations. Written for teachers as well as scholars, the text covers language and multicultural education, Standard and School English, Southern U.S. English, African American English, and language and student assessment. Discussions of language, power, privilege, identity, and culture in educational contexts are accompanied by practical classroom strategies for teachers. Paris (2011) blends critical ethnography with sociolinguistics to analyze how African-American language, Spanish, and Samoan are used by students in a U.S. community he calls South Vista. He argues that scholars should advocate for educational equity, beginning by focusing more on the strengths of culturally and linguistically diverse students rather than simply on the educational challenges they may face in school settings. Spanning three decades, Brice-Heath’s (2012) linguistic anthropological study of 300 Black and White working-class families in the U.S. South examines how their interpersonal interactions, residential locations, and educational and occupational choices are intertwined with their language use.

In a non-U.S. context, Early (1999) provides a case study of language policy and educational implications in the Republic of Vanuatu. The highly multilingual Republic of Vanuatu, with its three official languages Bislama, English, and French, offers dual-language educational systems and protects vernacular languages in its national constitution. The author argues, however, that this linguistic situation places a strain on Vanuatu’s infrastructure. Finally, Skutnabb-Kangas (2000) issues a powerful call to arms against linguistic genocide and linguistic imperialism around the globe (see also Skutnabb-Kangas, 2006). In this expansive work, the author critically examines indigenous and minority education initiatives, national and global policies, and struggles for linguistic human rights.

6.3 Language, Inequality, Bias, and Discrimination

Language can be a mechanism through which bias and discrimination are transmitted, and inequalities can surface along linguistic lines. For one, language can affect access to health care, as well as the quality of doctor-patient interactions. Ohtaki, Ohtaki, & Fetters (2003) use quantitative discourse analytic techniques to compare the linguistic structures present in 40 outpatient doctor-patient consultations in Japan and the United States. The health profession is not “culturally neutral” (p. 281); doctor–patient communication differences between the United States and Japan may reflect cultural differences. In addition, they may reflect gender differences. In medical encounters, women ask fewer questions when their physician is a man versus a woman (Ainsworth-Vaughn, 1992), and female physicians tend to engage in more patient-centered communication (Roter, Hall, & Aoki, 2002). Similarly, the justice system is not culturally or linguistically neutral. Eades (2000) shows how, in Australian courtrooms, intercultural miscommunication can lead to the marginalization of Aboriginal witnesses. Cultural differences between the dominant mode of discourse and that of Aboriginal speakers, particularly with respect to yes/no questions and the length and meaning of pauses, can lead to the silencing of Aboriginal witnesses. A substantial body of literature has also investigated linguistic bias in the workplace. Before job applicants are even hired, gender bias can skew evaluations of their resumes, even when the resumes are identical except for the name at the top—as in Mike vs. Mary (Cole, Feild, & Giles, 2004). Further, women may avoid responding to job ads containing so-called generic he because they feel they do not meet the qualifications outlined in the ads. Once they are in the workplace, Holmes (2006) finds bias against the ways that women workers communicate. Finally, focusing on the U.S. context, Baugh (2007) reveals how workplace and housing discrimination may result from reactions to speakers of nonstandard varieties of English. Sociolinguistic research reveals that African Americans as well as Hispanics may be “linguistically profiled” when seeking housing or employment (see also clip from the film Do You Speak American on “Linguistic Profiling”).

7. Critical Analysis of Scholarship

Abundant scholarship in sociolinguistics reveals how linguistic, cognitive, ideological, stylistic, cultural, and social dimensions are inextricably intertwined. Historically, sociolinguistic scholarship reflects the influence of and contributions from a host of related disciplines from the humanities and social sciences, including anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, communications, and literary analysis. In turn, sociolinguistic scholarship has traveled beyond the boundaries of linguistics proper to influence these related fields.

Sociolinguistics holds broad applicability for scholars across diverse fields who are interested in exploring relationships between language, individuals, culture, and society. Studies of the power and prestige of languages and language varieties and of the linguistic, educational, occupational, legal, and health-related effects of social hierarchies represent one highly applicable area of inquiry. With continuing advancements in technology and mathematical and computational methods, as well as increasing knowledge of cognition, sociolinguistic studies will also come into closer alignment with research efforts involving language, cognition, and computation from other fields. Through more sustained interdisciplinary collaborations, sociolinguists can continue to advance inquiry into how language plays a central, critical role in the myriad cognitive, psychological, cultural, and social processes in which speakers and groups engage.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

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