Great Ideas in Linguistics: Sociolinguistic Variables

I’ve already covered what Sociolinguistics is in a earlier GIiL post. But what I didn’t really talk about are sociolinguistic variables, the specific things in that language that co-vary with some sociological factor.

Komaravolu Chandrasekharan MFO 1987

Man, these sociolinguistic variables are really hard to isolate. Maybe combinatorics isn’t the right approach here…  Photo:  Konrad Jacobs

So that’s the dictionary definition, but what makes something a sociolinguistic variable? Let’s start off with some examples. Sociolinguistic variables exist at all levels of the grammar. Here are some examples from African American English, the systematic, rule-governed variety of English used predominantly by African Americans:

Ok, so that means that pretty much anything can be a sociolinguistic variable, right? Not exactly. So these are all variables that are associated African American English (AAE), but there are some things that almost all speakers of African American English do that aren’t dialect markers. For example, almost all speakers of AAE will flap. But the same thing is true of pretty much every other speaker of English in America. So if you were looking at speakers of AAE you wouldn’t find that their use of flapping was different from the surrounding linguistic communities.

To be a sociolinguistic variable, something has to vary along with social categories. So something linguistic that men do more than women–such as interrupting–would be a gendered sociolinguistic variable, but something that men and women do equally wouldn’t be.

How do you find a sociolinguistic variable? Well, like most science, it starts with a general observation. After that, you need to carefully collect linguistic samples containing places where you think the variable should show up from people who are part of the group you’re interested in. If it’s well-studied, you can then use other people’s data for comparison with different populations. If it’s something new, though, you’ll need to collect your own comparison data. Then, a careful analysis will show you whether or not the thing you noticed is something that varies systematically along with your social variable of interest. If it does, congratulations: you’ve found a sociolinguistic variable!

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