Language is a topic that will never get boring because everyone single one of us speaks differently. We talk a lot about how where we live affects how we speak — those maps that show where people say “soda” and where people say “pop” are endlessly fascinating — but there’s more to your dialect than geography. Even within a specific area, people can talk in very different ways; you probably don’t even speak the same exact way as the people you live with. The study of how social factors influence the way you speak is called sociolinguistics, and one of these dialects, fittingly, is called a sociolect.
The Definition Of ‘Sociolect’
A sociolect is, to put it simply, a social dialect. Right away, this phrase can cause some confusion. Some people, including linguists, use “dialect” to refer only to ways of speaking that are geographically defined. We have a whole series looking at American dialects, for example, from sea (California English) to shining sea (New England English). And of course, there’s enough confusion about what separates a “language” from a “dialect,” but that’s a discussion for another article. To make it obvious what you’re referring to, it’s best to qualify “dialect” by specifically calling it either a “geographical dialect” or a “social dialect.”
Since their conception, though, sociolects have been put in opposition to (geographical) dialects. The original concise definition given by linguist Peter Trudgill in A Glossary of Sociolinguistics stated that it’s “‘a variety or lect which is thought of as being related to its speakers’ social background rather than geographical background.” If “social background” sounds a bit loose, that’s because it is. It needs to be flexible because sociolinguistics is a relatively new field — Trudgill’s Glossary came out in 2003 — and so our ideas of what factors can affect language are constantly changing.
What Factors Make Up A Sociolect?
Saying that a “sociolect” is determined by a social group is one thing, but what does that mean? Is your social group your friends, your generation, your gender, your class? Well, it turns out it can be any of those things. Here are some of the factors that can affect your language, along with examples that demonstrate each one.
The clearest example of how age affects the language you speak is slang. Young people are constantly inventing new terms and abandoning old ones, which is why nobody says “groovy” anymore. There is also the eternal cycle of adults blaming teenagers for “ruining” the language, even though those adults were once teenagers who were also blamed for “ruining” language.
Age differences are about more than the hip lingo, though. Pronunciation can differ depending on your age, too. One popular example of this is with the gerund ending -ing. If you listen when people say words like “working,” some people say “workin’” and some clearly pronounce it “working.” While there are many variables that go into whether someone says one or the other, age does have an impact. One study found younger people (teenagers and 20-somethings) were more likely to say “workin’” than people in their 30s and 40s. Interestingly, once you get to even older groups (60s and 70s), people start saying “workin’” again, meaning that this might have to do with social expectations of “professionalism.”
Speaking of professionalism, your profession is also a factor in your sociolect. There is a somewhat disheartening fact that based on the way adult life works, you might spend more time with your coworkers than you do with your friends and family. So it will come as no surprise that your job has a pretty strong impact on the way you speak. This can come through in a few different ways. Most obviously, your profession requires you to adopt a job-specific jargon, which can be anything from journalism slang to diner lingo. This is true for pretty much any job. If you work in an office, you’re probably well-acquainted with phrases like “key learnings” and “let’s circle back to this,” which might now be part of your sociolect.
Jobs also vary in their formality, which will affect your language quite a bit. There’s a difference between, say, how lawyers speak to each other and how truckers speak to each other. Using the same example as in the last section, lawyers are more likely to enunciate the full “working,” while truckers are more likely to say “workin’.” It all ties into social expectations for what people consider “correct” English.
The most popular story about the difference between men’s and women’s language is that women speak far more words per day than men do. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, that claim is misleading at best and a sexist stereotype at worst. Yet there are ways that gender may affect the way you speak. For example, one study found men are more likely to use vulgar language than women, and also found that men are more likely to interrupt women than vice versa.
To be clear, a study of men’s and women’s language does not define the difference between genders. It might be tempting to take the expletive example and make grand statements that “men are more brash” or “women are more polite.” But really, all it says is that our English-speaking society encourages men to swear more and women to swear less because of a number of gendered standards. The language we use is always going to be a reflection of the society around us.
This is probably a somewhat unexpected factor in language, but socioeconomic class can indeed have an effect on your speech. The first study to prove this was done by William Labov, one of the most famous sociolinguistics to have worked in the United States. To do this research, Labov went to department stores in New York City that served people of different social classes: Saks for upper class, Macy’s for middle class and S. Klein for lower class (his class terminology is a bit dated today). He was specifically looking at the use of the “r” at the end of syllables, like saying “car” instead of “cah.” At the time of his work in the 1980s, it was considered “prestigious” to pronounce the “r,” but omitting the “r” was a feature of the New York accent. His research showed that the employees of Saks were more likely to pronounce the “r,” while those at Macy’s and S. Klein were more likely to omit it, indicating that people did consider pronouncing the “r” to be prestigious.
The way Labov approached the study itself may sound weird. Why would the way employees talk in department stores show anything about social class? But the point of the study is that these employees are trying to serve the social class of their clientele. This all goes back to societal expectations. It’s not that your money makes you speak a different way, but people with more money tend to speak in a way that reflects what is considered “prestigious.”
Of the factors that determine sociolects on this list, race may be the most complicated. And because sociolinguistics itself is such a young field, there is still plenty to learn about the many ways race and language intersect. In the United States, one of the most prevalent examples of a racial sociolect is African American Vernacular English. While for many years, many (white) people treated AAVE as “broken English,” it has always been a fully formed sociolect with its own set of consistent rules.
It’s also important to note that race isn’t a factor that only affects some people. Too often, people treat “white” English as a neutral version of the language, but there’s no such thing as neutral. Each of the factors in this list so far affect every single one of us.
There are potentially endless social groups we could look at if we really wanted to examine all the factors that can affect your sociolect. The problem is, they start to get a bit granular. A famous study by sociolinguist Penelope Eckert, for example, looked at high schoolers at a school near Detroit, Michigan. In the study, she was able to identify two major social groups — jocks and burnouts — and she found that burnouts pronounce their vowels differently from the jocks. This may sound silly, but it drives home the point that any community you participate in will change the way you talk. Your friend group, your family members and your coworkers all form their own sociolects that both influence you and are influenced by you.
How Do I Know What Sociolect I Use?
As the last section made clear, you don’t speak a single “sociolect.” Any number of factors will determine the way you speak. And this isn’t even taking into account geographical dialects. If everything in your life was the same except that you were born somewhere else, you’d speak differently.
The most important thing to know about all of this, though, is that sociolects are probabilistic, not deterministic. That means you’re just more likely to speak a certain sociolect if you are part of a certain social group, but it doesn’t mean you have to. Men might be more likely to swear than women in certain parts of the world, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t men who never swear and women who curse like a sailor. Also, you speak differently depending on where you are and who you’re speaking to, which is a phenomenon called code-switching. With all of this complexity, there are no hard-and-fast rules to the way any specific person speaks. The best that sociolinguistic studies can do is find overall patterns in the way groups of people communicate.
Humans are trapped in a constant feedback loop with language. We use ways of talking to convey who we are, but we also are the ones who make up the rules for what it means to talk a certain way. We all use sociolects both consciously and unconsciously, and too often use them to shove other people into demographic boxes. Language is an important part of identity, but we could all do a better job of seeing the difference between how we speak and who we really are.