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  Sociolinguistics is an area of study informed by both sociology and psychology, and concerned with the social and cultural aspects and functions of language, with the enormous diversity of issues arising from the interaction between language and society. Topics like dialectology, pidgins and creoles, language planning, bilingualism and accommodation theory all demonstrate how groups of people influence the forms of language spoken, and vice versa. Important contributions have been made in this field in relation to language and social class in particular.

As an academic discipline, sociolinguistics often appears highly heterogeneous and dissipated, owing to the many kinds of data gathered, the variety of analyses performed, and the broad spectrum of theories developed. However, one factor which unites almost all sociolinguists is their rejection of linguistic studies which entirely divorce language from the social influences which shape it. The latter approach, most closely associated with Noam Chomsky, argues that linguistics should be concerned solely with revealing the system of grammar, or competence, known by every native speaker.

In contrast, the bulk of sociolinguistic enquiry falls under the heading of performance, since it deliberately highlights the great heterogeneity within people\'s speech. For example, it is pointed out that even speakers who nominally speak the same language do so in a wide variety of ways. For example, the differences between speakers caused by dialectal variation are compounded by variation within the speech of a single person, as with the switch from formal to informal styles, according to the social context. In fact, there are many sources of linguistic variation which depend on numerous social factors, including social class, geographical region, sex, age, social and physical setting, and level of formality.

The English sociologists B. Bernstein suggested that the speech patterns of the working classes and the middle classes were different, and that this in part accounted for the different educational achievements of middle- and working-class children. Bernstein believed that working-class speech was characterized by a ‘restricted language code’ and middle-class speech by an ‘elaborated language code’. He argued that formal education was carried out by use of the elaborated code, and that working-class children were consequently placed at a disadvantage. Bernstein has, however, been criticized for implying that middle-class speech patterns were in some way superior. The American linguist W. Labov conducted a study of speech patterns of lower-class black children in Harlem. He argued that these speech patterns were not inferior to standard English: they were simply different.

For Chomsky, working from a purely linguistic perspective, all sources of variation constitute unhelpful distractions from the task of describing the homogeneous system of grammatical competence. However, a leading opponent of this view, Dell Hymes, has argued that knowledge of grammar is useless without a knowledge of how to use language. Hymes\'s notion of communicative competence describes language as a rule-governed phenomenon, integral to the language system. This stance is partly motivated by the belief that studies of how language is used can provide relevant insights for the purely linguistic theories of syntax, morphology and phonology.

If linguistic variation is systematic, then it follows that there must be natural limits to the observable variation. That is, although there may be a range of linguistic alternatives within a given domain, it is not the case that ‘anything goes’, since the result would be gibberish on many occasions. Defining the limits of variation provides an idea of the prevailing linguistic norms in force and provides a basis for discovering how these norms are acquired and maintained. A prevalent view is that social factors somehow shape, or at least interact with, language and the way it is used. The contrary view, linguistic relativity, whereby language influences, or determines, social behaviour and thought, has also been given serious consideration, though it is no longer widely accepted. DA MS

See also class; culture; dominant ideology; socialization; social mobility; social stratification; subculture.Further reading B. Bernstein, ‘A Socio-Linguistic Approach to Social Learning’, in , P. Worsley (ed.), Modern Sociology: Introductory Readings; , W. Labov, ‘The Logic of Non-standard English’, in , N. Keddie, Tinker Taylor … The Myth of Cultural Deprivation; , P. Trudgill, Sociolinguistics; , R. Wardhaugh, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics.



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