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Linguistics in the World

Linguistics in the World is a textbook series focusing on the study of language in the real world, enriching students’ understanding of how language works through a balance of theoretical insights and empirical findings. Presupposing no or only minimal background knowledge, each of these titles is intended to lay the foundation for students’ future work, whether in language science, applied linguistics, language teaching, or speech sciences.

What Is Sociolinguistics?, by Gerard Van Herk
The Sounds of Language, by Elizabeth Zsiga
Introducing Second Language Acquisition: Perspectives and Practices, by Kirsten M. Hummel
An Introduction to Language, by Kirk Hazen
What Is Sociolinguistics? (Second Edition), by Gerard Van Herk


Understanding English Sentences, by Christina Tortora
The Nature of Language, by Gary Libben
An Introduction to Bilingualism and Multilingualism: People and Language in Contact, by Martha Pennington


What Is Sociolinguistics?

Second Edition

Gerard Van Herk



Funnily enough, a personalized book like this actually depends more than most textbooks on the work and judgments of other people. Somebody has to make it accessible, tell me when I’ve gone too far, and catch all the errors that were staring me in the face.

I’d like to thank:

  • Silvy Achankunju, Mark Calley, Julia Kirk, Allison Kostka, Manish Luthra, Tanya McMullin, Annie Rose, and especially Danielle Descoteaux at Wiley‐Blackwell;
  • Jenn Thorburn, James Bulgin, Suzanne Power, Evan Hazenberg, Matt Hunt Gardner, and Rachel Deal at the Memorial University Sociolinguistics Laboratory;
  • researchers who have shared raw data and photographs;
  • profs around the world who have used the first edition and given me feedback; and
  • students in Sociolinguistics courses at Memorial and at the University of Victoria, who were guinea pigs for earlier drafts of the book.

And I’d like to thank and apologize to:

  • Everybody who’s ended up getting mentioned in this book just because they had the misfortune of knowing me;
  • everybody who put up with my drama and/or slackness during my writing, including my colleagues at MUN and especially Willem, Max, Lidia, Becky and Christine; and
  • everybody I forgot to thank by name!

About the Companion Website

Don’t forget to visit the companion website for this book: image

There you will find valuable material designed to enhance your learning divided into two sections:

For instructors

  • PowerPoint slides
  • Additional sources
  • Discussion suggestions
  • Issues and ideas

For students

  • Links
  • Author biography

Scan this QR code to visit the companion website.



I’m sitting here in Newfoundland, in Canada, writing a book about sociolinguistics, and you’re out there somewhere, starting to read it. If you were here and could hear me talk – especially if you were Canadian, especially if you had some training – you could tell a lot about me. For example, you’d know which speech community I originally came from. When I speak English, most people can tell I’m North American (I pronounce schedule with a [sk] sound), Canadian (I rhyme shone with gone, not bone), and probably from Québec (I drink soft drinks and keep my socks in a bureau). When I speak French, it’s clear that I’m from Québec (I pronounce tu like tsu), from the southwest (I pronounce garage like garawge), and definitely English (I say so a lot, and I have a particular pronunciation of the letter r that English Québeckers use to avoid sounding “too English”).

You could also tell where I fit into my speech community. I’m the child of immigrants – if you were really good, you’d know that one of them was from the north of England (I have an unusual r when I speak English, almost like a w). I’m probably under 80 (I pronounce whale and wail the same), but I’m definitely not young (I almost never end sentences with a question‐like rising intonation). Once you knew I was middle‐aged, you could tell I was male, and either straight or straight‐sounding (I don’t use a lot of so to mean very, I pitch my voice fairly deep and don’t often have “swoopy” pitch patterns). Those are just some of the obvious things – there are more specific but hard‐to‐hear distinctions, like the exact way I pronounce my vowels, that could tell you even more. And if I was wherever you are, I could probably tell a lot about your speech community and where you fit into it. The fact that we can do this is one of the things that interest sociolinguists.

But there’s more. I’m writing a textbook, and you’re probably reading it because you have to (for a university course, most likely). So you have certain expectations, given your past experiences with higher education and previous textbooks that you’ve read, and I have certain obligations to you (and to my publisher). If I want to appear competent, I should use academic language, but if I don’t want to discourage you, I shouldn’t go overboard with linguistic terminology. Maybe I should work hard to make this book more accessible than other textbooks. At the same time, I have to get all this past your prof, who knows your school and its students far better than I do, and who at some point had to read this book and decide if it was suitable for your course, and who might not have much patience for my attempts at accessibility. The fact that we’re aware of what’s expected (linguistically) from this particular interaction is also the kind of thing that interests sociolinguists.

And all of this – the way we talk or sign, the writing and reading of textbooks – happens in a broader social context, the result of decisions made by societies and those who govern them. I grew up going to an English‐language school because earlier Canadian governments decided to protect English language rights in Québec (sometimes to a greater degree than French language rights elsewhere in Canada). Maybe I use my “not too English” r when I speak French because my generation doesn’t want to be associated with the English speakers before us, the ones who didn’t try too hard to speak French‐sounding French. As for the textbook, somebody more powerful than either of us decided that you needed a particular kind of education for whatever it is you’re doing, and that it involved a course in sociolinguistics, and maybe that it would happen in English, whether that’s convenient for you or not. So here we are. And all that, too, is the kind of thing that interests sociolinguists.

types of sociolinguistics

So, what is sociolinguistics? The usual answer is something like “The scientific study of the relationship(s) between language and society.” Which is true enough. A more useful answer for someone new to the field, though, might be “It depends who you ask.” As in any hyphenated or blended field, the umbrella term sociolinguistics covers researchers working all across the spectrum, from very linguistic to very socio. Sociolinguists can study how the language practices of one community differ from those of the next, as described in Chapters 2 (communities), 3 (place), and 6 (ethnicity). We can study the relationship in a particular community between language use and social categories like class and status (Chapter 4), ethnicity (Chapter 6), and gender and sexuality (Chapter 7), whether we perceive those categories as relatively fixed or open to active performance and construction (Chapter 8, style). We can study the relationship between social and linguistic forces and language change (Chapter 5, time). We can also choose to study how language can reveal social relationships, such as how each of us, as social beings, adapts our language to suit the situation and the audience (Chapters 8, style, and 9, interaction). We can study the relationships between different languages within and across communities (Chapters 10, multilingualism, and 11, language contact). We can study how people feel about language and language diversity (Chapter 12, attitudes), and how their societies manifest those attitudes through language planning and policy (Chapter 13), especially in the domain of education (Chapter 14).

And, of course, we understand that all these forces interact, and that the distinct research traditions that we’ve developed to deal with them can all be brought to bear on a single sociolinguistic situation (see the interlude after Chapter 7 and the epilogue at the end of the book). You’ll see as we work our way through the book that those research traditions can be quite distinct. Sociolinguists looking at the status of different languages in a country might never mention the actual linguistic details of the languages in question. Sociolinguists working on change in the vowel system of a language might never mention the changing status of the language. Different sub‐disciplines have different ideas, not only about what’s worth studying, but also about what would count as valid evidence in that study. This, in turn, drives their choice of research methods. So in the chapters that follow, we’ll look at some of those research traditions and methods – where possible, under the chapter headings where they’re most relevant.

background: the history of sociolinguistics

Deciding exactly when sociolinguistics began is like arguing about when the first rock ’n’ roll record was made. It’s entertaining for the participants, but it gives you only a slight understanding of how things got to where they are today. For many people, the first systematic study of the relationship between language variation and social organization is described in a 1958 article by the sociologist John L. Fischer. Fischer was studying how New England schoolchildren used “g‐dropping,” alternating between running and runnin’. He found statistically significant correlations between each linguistic form and a student’s sex and social class. In other words, rather than free variation, in which the choice between forms is completely arbitrary and unpredictable, he found structured variation, in which the choice between forms is linked to other factors. In fact, it’s possible to push the birth of sociolinguistics back ever further – Louis Gauchat’s work on the French dialects of Charney, Switzerland (1905!) correlates language variation with the age and sex of the people he spoke to.

If you’re not committed to the idea that you need lots of numbers to do sociolinguistics, you can see that people have spent centuries observing the relationship between some linguistic forms and the kind of people who use them. For example, over 200 years ago, the grammarian James Beattie observed that extending where you could use an ‐s on the end of verbs (as in the birds pecks) was found “in the vernacular writings of Scotch men prior to the last century, and in the vulgar dialect of North Britain to this day: and, even in England, the common people frequently speak in this manner, without being misunderstood” (Beattie 1788/1968: 192–193). So here we see awareness of language variation (“people frequently speak in this manner”), as well as the regional and social correlates (the North, “common people”). Generally, though, earlier linguistic work assumes categoricity (that linguistic rules always apply), and assumes that all variation is free variation. Writing aimed at a broader public, like grammars and usage manuals, often just assumes that all variation is, well, wrong. Jackson (1830), for example, categorizes a variety of non‐standard language features as “low,” “very low,” “exceedingly low,” “vilely low,” or “low cockney,” as well as “ungentlemanly,” “filthy,” “ridiculous,” “disrespectful,” “blackguard‐like,” “very flippant,” or “abominable.” (More on this kind of thing in Chapter 12 on language attitudes.)

But in the same way that there’s a difference between Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88 and an actual genre that people called rock ’n’ roll, there’s a difference between using sociolinguistic‐like methods and the organized research tradition called sociolinguistics. Many of us would trace the birth of modern sociolinguistics as a subdiscipline to the work of William Labov, starting in the early 1960s. In several ground‐breaking studies in Martha’s Vineyard (off the coast of Massachusetts) and in New York’s Lower East Side and Harlem, Labov (1963, 1966) used recordings of natural (or natural‐like) speech, correlated with sociologically‐derived speaker characteristics, to examine in detail the relationship between how people spoke and how they fit into their sociolinguistic community.

This work was interesting enough that 50 years later it’s still a model and an inspiration for variationist researchers like me, who look at the correlations between language variation and social and linguistic characteristics. But it also benefited from being the right stuff in the right place at the right time. Technological advances like portable recording equipment and computers made this type of research feasible. Social activism raised interest in the language and status of cultural and class minority groups. And a modernist approach to social problems encouraged the application of findings from the social sciences to improving the school performance of children from marginalized groups.

Since that time, sociolinguistics has widened its geographic, methodological, and theoretical scope, in dialogue with such fields as linguistic anthropology, applied linguistics, gender and ethnic studies, dialectology, phonetics, and the sociology of language. At the boundaries, the dividing lines between these fields and sociolinguistics can be blurry. This is especially true of the relationship between sociolinguistics and the sociology of language, most closely associated early on with the work of Joshua Fishman, which focuses on the role of language(s) in social organization. Rather than looking at how social forces can shape language, the sociology of language considers how society and language also interact at a strictly social level. In other words, society can treat language the same way it treats clothing, the arts, or business, as a thing to be debated and regulated. (Much more on this in Chapter 13 on language as a social entity and Chapter 14 on language and education.)

summing up

Sociolinguistics is the study of the relationship between language and society, but that study can take very different forms depending on who’s doing it and what they’re interested in finding. Modern sociolinguistics has been shaped by technological advances in recording and handling language data, theoretical interest in bridging disciplines, and researchers’ interest in using our findings to address issues of social concern.



other resources

There are many sociolinguistic textbooks out there, many of them very good. Almost all treat particular studies (e.g., Labov in Martha’s Vineyard) in greater detail than I do here. Most of them require some knowledge of linguistic terminology, but if you can get past your understandable anxiety over reading something where you don’t understand every word, you should be fine.

I’ve tried to list some from roughly the most linguistic to the most social:

  1. Chambers, J.K., and Natalie Schilling. The Handbook of Language Variation and Change (2013).
  2. Walker, James A. Variation in Linguistic Systems (2010).
  3. Milroy, Lesley, and Matthew Gordon. Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation (2003).
  4. Chambers, J.K. Sociolinguistic Theory: Linguistic Variation and its Social Significance (1995, 2009).
  5. Meyerhoff, Miriam. Introducing Sociolinguistics (2006, 2015).
  6. Holmes, Janet. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (1992).
  7. Mesthrie, Rajend, Joan Swann, Ana Deumert, and William L. Leap. Introducing Sociolinguistics (2009).
  8. Trudgill, Peter. Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society (1983).
  9. Coulmas, Florian. Sociolinguistics: The Study of Speakers’ Choices (2005).
  10. Romaine, Suzanne. Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (2000).
  11. Wardhaugh, Ronald. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (2010).
  12. Coulmas, Florian (ed.). The Handbook of Sociolinguistics (1997).

There are also some collections of major readings in sociolinguistics:

  1. Coupland, Nik, and Jaworski, Adam (eds.). The New Sociolinguistics Reader (2009).
  2. Meyerhoff, Miriam, and Schleef, Erik (eds.). The Routledge Sociolinguistics Reader (2010).
  3. Paulston, Christina Bratt, and Tucker, G. Richard (eds.). Sociolinguistics: The Essential Readings (2003).
  4. Trudgill, Peter, and Cheshire, Jenny (eds.). The Sociolinguistics Reader: Multilingualism and Variation (1998).

Scholarly journals include:

image Language Variation and Change, (accessed 25 April 2017).

image Journal of Sociolinguistics,–9841 (accessed 25 April 2017).

image Language in Society, (accessed 25 April 2017).

image For an accessible (autobiographical!) introduction to Bill Labov and his work, try “How I got into linguistics” (, accessed 25 April 2017).

Sali Tagliamonte’s Making Waves: The Story of Variationist Sociolinguistics (2015) is a recent oral history of the subfield.

Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ Rocket 88 (1951) is available in reissue.