Sociolinguistics: Dialect Continuum and Language

Categories: LanguageLinguistics

1. Subject matter of sociolinguistics

SL concentrates on the diversity of language in society according to various factors such as geographical distribution, age group, ethnic group, socioeconomic class, gender, etc. A broad definition of SL is “the study of language in relation to society”. SL is relatively young discipline, which became recognized as a separate branch of language study in the late1960’s and early 1970’s. The traditional view in linguistics is that language should be studied as an abstract theoretical system with its vocabulary and grammar, after which SL could be added for more comprehensive account of the practical application of the language system.

According to this traditional view since speech is social behavior it should be studied more comprehensively by superimposing the SL theory separately onto “pure linguistics”. Briefly the traditional view is that “pure linguistics” should be kept apart from SL. Another more modern view states that SL is an indispensible part –n – parcel of linguistics in general and the study of language without SL is nonsensical.

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This view is supported by the fact that even the definition of a given language is a social notion and the “language X” can only be defined in relation to a group of people who speak “X”. Ex. Italian language is spoken by Italians. Another reason for accepting this view is that speech has a social function both as a means of communication but also as a way of identifying social groups. Ex. The Queen’s English. Therefore to study speech without reference to a society using that language means to exclude the possibility of finding social explanations for the vocabulary items and structures used.

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From this prospection the traditional strict divisions between “pure” and SL is justified only on theoretical grounds for making the description more structured and simple. Some major areas of study in SL are: slang, dialect and other varieties of language related to geography and different social strata (sloi) by age, economic state, gender, etc.; the correlation between language, culture and thought – linguistic relativity (Sapir-Wharf) hypothesis – language determines thinking.

One of the most significant discoveries of SL is that language variation, according to different factors – class, age, sex, etc. can be measured and analyzed and on that basis certain patterns can be outlined. Variation can be measured using certain sound and syntactic patterns called “linguistic variables”. Ex. There may be regions which differ in the pronunciation of plus and minus [r] as in [w└t│] / [w└t│r] or there may be a difference in syntactic pattern +/- object-indirect in expressions like “I am going to buy (me) a sandwich.” The dividing line between one region, (+me) and another region (-me) is called isogloss. The quantitative study of speech involves, recording interviews with groups of informants such as the inhabitants of a village or a region. When a linguistic variable is correlated to with sociological factors, such as economic class, profession, gender, etc. we say that stratification is observed.

Thus the two main factors for variation of language can be: -1- Geography (regions, villages, towns, etc.); -2- Social stratification. A scholar who contributed greatly to establishing these parameters for the analysis of language variation is the American William Labov who studied New York City dialect in the mid 1960’s. Major issues in SL: there are two pivotal points related to language variation – A. The relation between individuals on the one hand and communication as a whole on the other B. The SL development of children as a new addition to the community Concerning A above - individual vs. community - it should be born in mind that the individual is the basic unit constituting the speech community. Unlike biological cells, individual speakers are shaped by their unique experience based on interaction with other speakers and the speech community as a whole. In this process two major forces are at play – individualism and conformism (syobrazqvane) - two counteracting forces. Ex.

The existence of irregular verb forms in English is a manifestation of h due to conforming with established norms in society rather that any practical needs. In fact little children tend to use regular forms such as “go-goed” instead of “go-went” but abandon these forms later in life in order to conform to the rest of the speech community. Individualism, on the other hand, leads to differences rather than conformity; conformism, on the other hand, leads to similarities. The amount of variation in a given community will depend on the relative strengths of these two forces so that conformity will predominate in some communities and individualism – in others. The second major issue is the SL development of children as a factor for SL change. SL studies in this area mainly focused on linguistic role models that the child follows in its development.

A typical pattern has been established about the stages through which a child passes when growing up – first parents serve as a linguistic model, then peers and the adult world in general – the 3 stages of the language development of children. Labov has suggested that the parent-oriented stage is until the age of 3 or 4; then the peer-oriented stage – until 13 or 14, after which the child starts learning from the world of adults. (You form your native language until the age of 13-14). There is an interesting phenomenon with children known as age-grading which means that there is a certain language subculture passed from one generation of children onto the next, such as children’s songs, tales, etc. – these are used only by children and never pass into the adult world.

2. Language and dialect; Standard Language

The distinction between language and dialect in modern England is not very clear. In Ancient Greece the term dialect was used to refer to a regional variety which had a written form and literature. Nowadays we resort to 2 ways to distinguish between language and dialect: a) size – a language is much larger than a dialect;

b) prestige – language is more prestigious and established with formal system of writing as opposed to dialect which is not universally recognized; we might say that “language” is what we usually call standard language (книжовен) Size is a problematic parameter because it is relative. Ex. The variety containing all items of English used in Britain may appear large when compared to regional varieties like Cockney (London area) but it is only too small when compared to World English encompassing all items spoken in all English speaking countries in the world. Obviously, there’s need for extra criteria and one of them is mutual intelligibility (that is whether 2 people understand each other). This is a parameter which unfortunately raises some further problems: a) varieties, called different languages may be mutually intelligible Ex. The Scandinavian language has a high degree of mutual intelligibility but is nevertheless treated as separate languages.

On the other hand there are so called dialects of Chinese, i.e. instances of supposedly the same language which are not mutually intelligible (Mandarin and Cantonese). Thus a person from Beijing (Mandarin) would not be able to understand a person from Canton when they use their respective dialects, but they would be able to communicate when they use standard Chinese. In such instances socio-political factors and prestige considerations take precedent over mutual intelligibility. b) m.i. is a matter of degree (relative), ranging from total intelligibility down to total unintelligibility and it is by far or not at all easy to determine the cut-off point where one variety turns into another on a scale of intelligibility. For ex., the mutual intelligibility between Slavonic languages (Polish, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Czech, Macedonian) – they do not rank that high on the scale of m.i. c) varieties may be arranged on a dialect continuum (scale). This is a chain of adjacent varieties standing next to each other, where each pair is mutually intelligible but pairs, taken from the opposite ends are not:

Dutch North GermanBavarian German Austrian German
Dutch≠ Bavarian German

Another notable continuum is the Romance, stretching from Paris to the South Italy, Romania, Portugal, and Spain…

d) m.i. is not a relation between varieties, but a relation between people – influence of the human factor. There is a heavy influence of the subjective attitude. This means that m.i. depends on the will and interest of the people involved in the act of communication. This is manifested through motivation and experience. Motivation is very important because every act of comprehension always requires certain effort. And when the motivation is low, one may “switch off”. The greater motivation between varieties, the more effort is needed.

Experience is another relevant quality which may help m.i. The more experience the listener has, the more likely he/she are to understand certain variety. Both motivation and experience need not be reciprocal for both participants - it is sufficient for at least one of them to be more motivated and experienced. In conclusion: m.i. is not a reliable criterion for determining languages in the size sense. The criterion has not been established yet, so we must conclude that there is no real distinction between language and dialect, except for prestige, i.e. only a language, not a dialect, may serve as a national standard language. Characteristic features of dialect:

Typically, the distinction between varieties, based on geography, is the most popular definition of dialect and such dialects are more precisely called regional dialects. Regional dialects are delimited based on line on the map, called isogloss. Dialects are defined not only geographically, although the latter is the most popular parameter. There may be dialects, based on other parameters, such as social class, sex, age, etc. Such non-regional varieties are called social dialects, or sociolects.

Ex. In a country like Britain, the level of education may determine a certain sociolect – the language of the educated people, which takes precedence (to have advantage over) over regional factors, i.e. people with the same high level of education would speak the same variety, regardless of geographical region. In Germany, however, regional factors still influence the variety, spoken even with people with high level of education. Ex. A Bavarian Professor may speak in a different way than a Professor from Hamburger. Standard Language:

While normal language develops in a chaotic non-regulated way, without any conscious effort by the speakers, standard language, on the other hand, is the result of a direct intentional intervention by a society. This intervention is called standardization and as a result there of is that a standard language is established where before there were just non-standard varieties/dialects. The process of standardization has the following stages: (handout1).

3. Register

The term register is widely used in SL to refer to variety according to use, as opposed to dialect which is “variety according to user” (Halliday). This distinction is needed because the same person may use different language to express meaning on different occasions. Ex. More formal vs. less formal expressions like “I am writing to inform you that…” vs. “I just wanted to let you know that …”. The notion dialect does not over such differences. We might say that one’s dialect shows who or what you are, while one’s register shows what you’re up to. The notion of register has at least 3 dimensions, according to Halliday: a) It reflects the purpose of communication (Halliday – “purpose”) b) the means (“mode” – Halliday) by which communication takes place. Ex. By speech or by writing c) the relation between the participants Ex. Superior, inferior, peer, etc. Briefly, these 3 correspond to why, how, whom

According to this ordering of parameters the examples given above would differ only in the third parameter. The first phase “I am writing...” being impersonal and formal and the second one more personal and less formal; purpose (field) and means (mode) remain the same. There are other theoretical models of register which include up to 13 different parameters. Ex. Within relation (tenor) one may distinguish the dimensions power and solidarity.

Within “power” the addressee may be subordinate, equal or superior to the speaker, along solidarity the speaker and the addressee may be on more intimate or more distant terms and in English it shows in the form of address. In a linguistic expression the selection of different items reflects different factors. One item /word may bear the formality of the expression ex. Obtain vs. get; another item may code the expression of addressor and addressee ex. Salt vs. NaCl. The intersection of these two oppositions would yield the following 4 possibilities: - we obtained some NaCl – formal and expert

- we obtained some salt – formal and non-expert
- we got some NaCl – informal and expert
- we got some salt – informal and non-expert;

Some choices of linguistic items are caused by convention and others are determined by necessity. Ex. The choice between get and obtain is a matter of convention and frequency of use – the more frequent the use, the less formal is the word. In contrast the choice between salt and NaCl is a matter of necessity because NaCl is a technical term. NaCl is more specific unlike the non-specialized salt. Thus convention and necessity seem to be major factors, determining the choice of linguistic items for different registers. “Register”vs. “style”

“Register”is a multidimensional notion. “Style” is sometimes used in a lay sense to mean roughly the same. But in general “register” is accepted in SL as a broader term than “style”. “Register”vs. “dialect”

There is some overlap between these two terms. What is a register for someone may be someone else’s dialect. Ex. The language items that one person uses all the time under all circumstances may be used by somebody else on the most formal occasions where he/she feels the need to sound as much like the first person as possible. This is the relation between speakers of standard (educated people) and nonstandard (less educated people) dialects. Forms, which are part of the standard speaker’s dialect, are just a special register for the non-standard speaker. The close relation between dialects and registers can be seen in the so called diglossic societies in places like the Arab-speaking worlds and the German-speaking Switzerland. In these societies there are 2 distinct varieties, so different that a laic person (non-professional) would call them different languages.

One of the varieties is used only on formal public occasions, while the other one is used by everybody under normal everyday circumstances. Thus the definition for “diglossia”(двуезичие) is as follows : “Diglossia is a relatively stable language situation in which , in addition to the primary dialects of the language (which may include standard or regional standards) there is a very different, highly codified (to use a certain written code, often grammatically more complex), superposed variety, the vehicle of a large and respected body of written literature, either of an earlier period or in another speech community, which is learned largely by formal education in schools and is used for more written and formal spoken purposes but is not used by any sector of the community for ordinary conversation.”

Obviously in a diglossic society no one has the advantage of “high variety” at home as their first language. Consequently the way to acquire the high variety is not by being born into the right kind of family but by going to school. For ex. in an Arab-speaking diglossic community the language used at home is a local version of Arabic with little variation between the most educated and the least educated speakers. If, however, someone needs to give a lecture at the university or a sermon in a mosque, they are expected to use Standard Arabic, a variety, different at all levels from the local vernacular (local dialect). This standard variety is taught at schools just like a foreign language.

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Sociolinguistics: Dialect Continuum and Language. (2016, Oct 24). Retrieved from

Sociolinguistics: Dialect Continuum and Language
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