A glance at Sociolinguistics


Language is a set of linguistic items combined altogether to produce sounds, words, and grammatical structures; hence, language, then, serves a certain purpose—connect those who speak it. Communication, therefore, becomes possible due to the shared language of a society. Thus, language and society are entangled within each other, i.e. they shape our understanding. In fact, the relationship that gathers language and society is rather intriguing, thus summoning an emerging field of studies: sociolinguistics.


In this respect, the scope of sociolinguistics combines two disciplines: sociology and linguistics. Sociology, on the one hand, is a discipline committed to understanding how societies are structured and how people live together, using certain concepts such as identity, power, class, gender, status, solidarity, etc. Linguistics, on the other hand, is the scientific study of language and its structure, including elements as syntax, morphology, semantics, phonetics, etc. As previously mentioned, when the two disciplines are combined together, the result is an offspring—sociolinguistics. The term ‘Sociolinguistics’ is defined as the study of language in relation to society, considering differences of regional, class, bilingualism, etc. “Sociolinguistics, whatever it is, is about asking important questions concerning the relationship of language to society.” (Wardhaugh, Ronald 2010. p. 12)


The asocial linguistic theory, suggested by Noam Chomsky, however, opposes the regard to language in relation to society. The theory—as its name suggests—claims that linguistic structure and social structure are independent of each other, implying that one cannot impact the other. Chomsky, though not directly opposing sociolinguists in their aim, argues that a language should be studied after acquiring an adequate knowledge of what language is. More important, Chomsky puts a dichotomy between competence and performance, claiming that competence can be studied without the need to resort to performance, i.e. language use. The theory was critiqued by many disciplines—sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, cognitive linguistics; the theory neglects empirical work and considers it irrelevant, leaving out important aspects of language use, which falls under ‘performance’. Dell Hymes coined the term ‘Communicative competence’ as a reaction to the split put by Chomsky. The theory refers to the user’s grammatical knowledge of syntax, morphology, and social knowledge of appropriate utterances, i.e. when, why, and how to use formed sentences.


Sociolinguistics shares a large common area of interest with the sociology of language. The latter is the study of the relations between language and society—the focus is the effect of society on language. In this light, some investigators introduced a distinction between micro-linguistics or sociolinguistics and macro-linguistics or sociology of language. Micro-linguistics’ aim is to study how social structure influences the way people talk and how language variables correlate with social attributes (Sex, class, gender, age, etc.) Macro-linguistics scrutinises thoroughly what people do with the language per se, i.e. attitudes and attachments that account for speech forms and language shift. This falls under the sociology of language. Trudgill, however, draws a fine line between sociolinguistics and sociology of language. Little do they know, he claims, that certain types of language studies are almost entirely sociological in their objectives. As a result, they fall outside the sociology of language because of their non-linguistic objectives. Yet, he agrees that works done under the sphere of sociolinguistics are to improve the linguistic theory and develop a better understanding of the nature of language. That’s, for Trudgill, bona fide sociolinguistics.


Consequently, the distinction serves both sociolinguistics and sociology of language. A systematic study, however, is required from both disciplines if they are to be successful and not wind up facing a cul-de-sac. And here, to conclude, I quote Downes on sociolinguistics, “A work which is intended to achieve a better understanding of the nature of human language by studying language in its social context and/or to achieve a better understanding of the nature of the relationship and interaction between language and society.”