Thursday, November 30, 2023

What is Sociolinguistics? 20 Definitions of Sociolinguistics by Different Authors

Sociolinguistics, as defined by various authors, explores the relationship between language and society, investigating how language use is shaped by and shapes social structures, identities, and interactions.

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Sociolinguistics is a dynamic field that investigates the intricate relationship between language and society. It encompasses the study of how language varies and changes in different social contexts, exploring the impact of societal factors such as class, gender, ethnicity, and power dynamics on language use. In this article, we will delve into 20 notable definitions of sociolinguistics provided by various authors. By examining these perspectives, we aim to gain a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted nature of sociolinguistics and its significance in our diverse and interconnected world. The article can be considered an exploration of language and society through the selected definitions by different authors.

#1 William Labov: Language Variation as a Social Phenomenon

“Language variation is a social phenomenon, because it is conditioned by social structure and social interaction.” (Labov, 1972)

Explanation: William Labov emphasizes that language variation is not arbitrary but rather influenced by social factors. Language use varies depending on the speaker’s social background, such as their class, education, and community. Moreover, social interactions also shape language patterns and change over time.

Language use varies depending on the speaker's social background, such as their class, education, and community.
Language use varies depending on the speaker’s social background, such as their class, education, and community.

#2 Dell Hymes: The Ethnography of Speaking

“The ethnography of speaking is the study of the behavior of a social group, as language use.” (Hymes, 1972)

Explanation: Dell Hymes suggests that studying language use within a social group is essential for understanding sociolinguistic phenomena. The ethnography of speaking explores how language is used in real-life contexts, taking into account cultural norms, social roles, and communicative practices.

#3 Basil Bernstein: Social Class and Language Codes

“The structure of language is a reflection of the structure of society, and the forms of language mirror the forms of social organization.” (Bernstein, 1971)

Explanation: Basil Bernstein proposes that language is not only a means of communication but also a reflection of social structures. He argues that different social classes have distinct language codes, which can influence their access to power and opportunities in society.

#4 John Gumperz: Interactional Sociolinguistics

“Language and social structure are intimately related in the sense that social structure is both a determinant and a product of communication.” (Gumperz, 1982)

Explanation: John Gumperz highlights the reciprocal relationship between language and social structure. Language use not only reflects social norms and hierarchies but also shapes and reinforces them. Interactional sociolinguistics focuses on how communication patterns contribute to the construction of social reality.

#5 Joshua Fishman: Language and Ethnicity

“Language can be seen as a central and crucial aspect of ethnic identity.” (Fishman, 1972)

Explanation: Joshua Fishman argues that language plays a pivotal role in shaping ethnic identity. Language choice and use are often linked to ethnic communities, and the preservation or shift of language can impact ethnic cohesion and cultural practices.

#6 Deborah Tannen: Gender and Discourse

“Gender is a primary factor that shapes patterns of communication.” (Tannen, 1990)

Explanation: Deborah Tannen highlights the influence of gender on communication patterns. She suggests that men and women tend to have different conversational styles, influenced by social expectations and cultural norms, which can lead to miscommunication or misunderstandings.

#7 Penelope Eckert: Language and Identity

“Language plays a key role in the construction of social identities.” (Eckert, 2000)

Explanation: Penelope Eckert emphasizes that language use is closely intertwined with the construction of personal and social identities. The language choices individuals make can reflect their affiliations, aspirations, and self-perception.

#8 Erving Goffman: Stigma and Language

“Language is a key tool for managing the impressions we give and the impressions we give off.” (Goffman, 1959)

Explanation: Erving Goffman asserts that language is instrumental in managing the impressions we create and convey to others. Language can be used strategically to conceal or reveal social stigmas, manage social interactions, and shape one’s self-presentation.

#9 Lesley Milroy: Social Networks and Language Variation

“Language variation and change are fundamentally social phenomena that can be accounted for by reference to social network structure.” (Milroy, 1987)

Explanation: Lesley Milroy argues that language variation and change are deeply influenced by social networks. Language use within a community is shaped by social ties, network density, and patterns of interaction, contributing to the spread and acceptance of linguistic innovations.

#10 Howard Giles: Accommodation Theory

“People modify their speech style, accent, and even their language, to accommodate the person with whom they are interacting.” (Giles, 1973)

Explanation: Howard Giles proposes that individuals adjust their language and speech patterns to align with their interlocutors, a process known as accommodation. Accommodation theory explores how language convergence or divergence can occur as individuals seek social approval or express their group identity.

#11 Walt Wolfram: Sociolinguistic Variation in Dialects

“Sociolinguistic variation refers to systematic linguistic variation correlated with social factors.” (Wolfram, 2006)

Explanation: Walt Wolfram highlights that sociolinguistic variation refers to patterns of language use that are systematically linked to social factors such as age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. This variation is not random but follows discernible patterns across different dialects.

#12 John J. Gumperz and Dell Hymes: Communicative Competence

“Communicative competence refers to the ability to use language effectively and appropriately in social contexts.” (Gumperz & Hymes, 1972)

Explanation: Gumperz and Hymes propose that communicative competence involves not only linguistic proficiency but also the ability to understand and appropriately use language in different social situations. It includes knowledge of sociocultural norms, context-specific communication styles, and the ability to interpret social meanings conveyed through language.

#13 Peter Trudgill: Sociolinguistic Stratification

“Sociolinguistic stratification refers to the systematic variation in language use that is associated with social groups and their relative power and prestige.” (Trudgill, 1974)

Explanation: Peter Trudgill suggests that language use is stratified based on social groups and their hierarchical positions within a society. Different social groups may exhibit distinct language varieties or styles, reflecting differences in power, prestige, and social status.

#14 Nancy Niedzielski and Dennis Preston: Indexicality and Social Meaning

“Indexicality refers to the ways in which language use carries social meaning and signals social identities.” (Niedzielski & Preston, 2003)

Explanation: Niedzielski and Preston emphasize that language is not only a means of conveying information but also carries social meaning. Language choices and patterns can index or signal aspects of a speaker’s social identity, including their regional affiliation, social class, and cultural background.

#15 William Labov: The Study of African American Vernacular English

“The study of African American Vernacular English aims to understand the linguistic patterns and social significance of this distinct language variety.” (Labov, 1972)

Explanation: William Labov highlights the significance of studying African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a distinct language variety with its own linguistic patterns and social significance. The study of AAVE seeks to examine its grammatical structures, language use in different contexts, and its role in African American communities.

#16 Nikolas Coupland: Language and Globalization

“Language and globalization are intimately connected, as language is both shaped by and shapes global processes and interactions.” (Coupland, 2003)

Explanation: Nikolas Coupland argues that language and globalization are mutually influential. Language is impacted by global processes such as migration, technology, and media, while it also plays a crucial role in facilitating global communication, cultural exchange, and the spread of ideas.

#17 Allan Bell: Language and Sexual Orientation

“Language use is an important aspect of LGBTQ+ identities, with distinctive language features and practices associated with different sexual orientations.” (Bell, 2003)

Explanation: Allan Bell emphasizes that language is integral to LGBTQ+ identities, and individuals within this community may employ distinct language features and practices to express their sexual orientation, create solidarity, and navigate their social environments.

#18 Deborah Cameron: Language and Power

“Language is a central tool for the exercise of power, as it can shape and reflect social hierarchies, dominance, and control.” (Cameron, 1995)

Explanation: Deborah Cameron highlights the power dynamics inherent in language use. Language can reinforce social hierarchies, perpetuate inequalities, and serve as a means of exercising control and influence within social interactions and institutions.

#19 Janet Holmes: Politeness Theory

“Politeness theory explores the ways in which language is used to manage interpersonal relationships and preserve social harmony.” (Holmes, 1995)

Explanation: Janet Holmes proposes that politeness theory investigates how language choices and strategies are employed to maintain positive social interactions, manage face-saving behaviors, and uphold social norms of politeness and respect.

#20 Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet: Language and Gender

“Language and gender are closely intertwined, as language use reflects and constructs social expectations, roles, and identities related to gender.” (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 2013)

Explanation: Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet assert that language and gender are deeply connected. Language use can reinforce gender stereotypes, reflect social expectations, and play a role in the construction and negotiation of gender identities.

In conclusion, sociolinguistics is a rich and diverse field that investigates the intricate relationship between language and society. These 20 definitions provided by notable authors highlight various aspects of sociolinguistics, including language variation, social stratification, ethnic identity, gender, power dynamics, and the influence of globalization. By exploring these perspectives, we gain a deeper understanding of how language reflects and shapes our social interactions, identities, and the broader societal structures in which we live.


Sociolinguistics, as defined by various authors, explores the relationship between language and society, investigating how language use is shaped by and shapes social structures, identities, and interactions. It encompasses the study of language variation, social stratification, ethnicity, gender, power dynamics, and the influence of globalization, offering valuable insights into the complex interplay between language and the social world.


  1. Bell, A. (2003). Language and sexual orientation. In D. M. Biber & E. Finegan (Eds.), Sociolinguistic perspectives on register (pp. 273-301). Oxford University Press.
  2. Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal hygiene. Routledge.
  3. Coupland, N. (2003). Sociolinguistic aspects of globalization. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 7(4), 465-472.
  4. Eckert, P. (2000). Linguistic variation as social practice: The linguistic construction of identity in Belten High. Wiley-Blackwell.
  5. Eckert, P., & McConnell-Ginet, S. (2013). Language and gender (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  6. Fishman, J. A. (1972). The sociology of language: An interdisciplinary social science approach to language in society. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  7. Giles, H. (1973). Accent mobility: A model and some data. Anthropological Linguistics, 15(2), 87-105.
  8. Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Doubleday Anchor Books.
  9. Gumperz, J. J. (1982). Discourse strategies. Cambridge University Press.
  10. Gumperz, J. J., & Hymes, D. (1972). Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  11. Holmes, J. (1995). Women, men, and politeness. Longman.
  12. Hymes, D. H. (1972). Models of the interaction of language and social life. In J. J. Gumperz & D. H. Hymes (Eds.), Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication (pp. 35-71). Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  13. Labov, W. (1972). Sociolinguistic patterns. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  14. Milroy, L. (1987). Language and social networks. Wiley-Blackwell.
  15. Niedzielski, N., & Preston, D. R. (2003). Folk linguistics. Mouton de Gruyter.
  16. Tannen, D. (1990). You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation. Ballantine Books.
  17. Trudgill, P. (1974). Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society. Penguin Books.
  18. Wolfram, W. (2006). Sociolinguistic variation and dialects. In K. Brown (Ed.), Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (2nd ed., Vol. 11, pp. 196-202). Elsevier.


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