Saturday, December 1, 2012

Sociolinguistics and the Sociology of Language

Master’s Program- Applied Linguistics
Academic Year: 2012- 2013
Course Title: Sociolinguitics
Instructor: Dr. Mohamed Jabeur
Student: Nada Mrabet 

1.       What is the distinction between sociolinguistics and the sociology of language? 
2.       What is meant by sociolinguistics or communicative competence? 
3.       To what extent is sociolinguistics a dissatisfaction with structural linguistics? 

1) Sociolinguistics- also called Micro- Sociolinguistics- is, as Hudson (1996, p.4) states, « the study of language in relation to society ». Therefore, the focus here is emphasized on the structure of language and the way society with its different aspects from social classes and culture, to gender and ethnicity, influences the kind of linguistic structures we use and the way we talk. This leads us to conclude that Sociolinguistics studies, for example, how social situations require a change in the way we talk as there is a difference between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ speeches, ‘discussions’ and ‘arguments’, and ‘requests’ and ‘demands’.
The Sociology of language- also called Macro- Sociolinguistics- is, as Hudson (1996, p.4) affirms, « the study of society in relation to language ». Accordingly, we study the language of a particular community with the aim of discovering and understanding the use of the social structures and the way the people of this community use them to communicate properly. This leads us to the idea that the Sociology of language studies, for example, the way linguistic structures are formed when different members of a tribe, including the Chieftain, address each other to identify the different social classes of that tribe.

2) Sociolinguistics is considered to be a young discipline as its actual growth started to take place with William Labov who is often regarded as « the founder of the discipline of variationist sociolinguistics ».
Another name for sociolinguistics is micro-sociolinguistics. This should be borne in mind when examining the statement of Coulmas (1997, p.2) which states that « micro- sociolinguistics investigates how social structure influences the way people talk and how language varieties and patterns of use correlate with social attributes such as class, sex and age ». This means it is society that determines how to use language in an appropriate way; how to address certain people with different social variables (gender, ethnicity, social status, etc.), and what words and types of intonation and attitudes must be used to express ‘request’, ‘order’ and ‘certainty’.
Let us take an example that investigates the appropriate usage of the words ‘black’ and ‘nigger’. We all know that the latter is racist; but, only when it is used by nonblack people.  In fact, it is allowed to be used exclusively by black men. In this case, it is the social variable of ethnicity that determines which word to be used by which people.

 3) Structuralism appeared in the early 20th century with the Structural linguistics developed first by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure, and afterward by the American linguists Leonard Bloomfield and Noam Chomsky.
De Saussure’s main interest in language is deviated to the study of grammatical rules rather than the act of speech itself. In fact, his focus is on the common feature of a language, which is structure, in place of the variable feature which is speech. To make such thought more explicit, he uses the terms ‘langue’ and ‘parole’, about which it was said that “La langue denotes the abstract systematic principles of a language, without which no meaningful utterance (parole) would be possible”. This means that ‘langue’ makes the ‘infrastructure’ of language especially with the fact that De Saussure makes a distinction between language and speech, as if to say that speech is not really part of language or even speech is an incorrect and distorted version of language. Likewise, Chomsky’s competence holds that the most important aspect in the linguistic theory is the abstract knowledge of grammar rules; a competence that, later on, comes to be contrasted by Hymes (1972) with his communicative competence.
After modern linguistics became the focus of attention of many linguists, the latter became more and more involved as far as to consider De Saussure’s theory of structural linguistics out-of-date, as it is stated by Jan Koster (1996, p.115-120) that “Saussure, considered the most important linguist of the century in Europe until the 1950s, hardly plays a role in current theoretical thinking about language.” Similarly, Chomsky’s theory of competence was refuted by Hymes (1972). The latter held that Chomsky’s theory is ‘sterile’, and led to the final conclusion that the communicative language is much more developed and effective for language learners than that of Chomsky’s as it includes both knowledge of grammar rules (Chomsky’s competence) and the ability to apply those rules in real life usage, i.e in society.
In a nutshell, sociolinguistics comes with a revolutionary ‘triangular relation’ between communication, society and language. Each of the previous elements complete each other as language is studied in context of communication as well as of society. This makes us look at language not from a mere mental point of view, but also a social one. Here we refer to an argument developed especially by William Labov (1972a: 8) who states that we cannot study a “language X” without both referring and studying “the group who speak X”. Another view supports this argument is the one of J. R. Firth which affirms that as speech is part of language, the former is so important in communication that it enables us to identify and classify different speech communities. And the fact of excluding society in the study of speech will definitely lead us to finding less developed explanations to the linguistic structures of language than the ones we would find when studying speech in the context of society.

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Koster, J. (1996) "Saussure meets the brain”, in R. Jonkers, E. Kaan, J. K. Wiegel, eds., Language and Cognition 5. Yearbook 1992 of the Research Group for Linguistic Theory and Knowledge Representation of the University of Groningen, Groningen, pp. 115-120.
Philips, J. Langue and Parole. <> [accessed 26/10/2012]
Trudgil, P. 1983. On Dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wardhaugh, R. 2006. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Blackwell.