Linguistic and social variables

Types of linguistic observation

  • prescriptive
  • descriptive
  • empirical

Correlation between linguistic and social variables

Linguistic variable:

  • water versus wa?er
  • often versus of(t)en
  • fishing versus fishin’
  • right rait versus reit
  • fourth floor versus fouth floo
  • thing versus ting
  • etc.

Social variable:

  • class
  • gender
  • ethnicity
  • age grouping
  • group identity

Free variation versus structured heterogeneity.

  • Free variation:
  • The random use of alternate forms within a particular dialect.
  • Often versus of(t)en
  • Structured heterogeneity:
  • Language variation is patterned according to social class.


  • If you had to do a sociolinguistic study, what would be some hypotheses
  • Does our society have social classes?
  • How would you operationalize “social class” as a variable?
  • Do we speak the “same” all the time?
  • Will men/women and people of different ethnic groups all be the same?
  • Does everyone want to speak as standard as possible?

Early variations theory

  • Society is stratified in terms of class.
  • Social class = education, income, and so on.
  • Linguistic variation correlates with social class.
  • Speech style goes from less formal to more formal.
  • Speech style variables correlate with social variables.

Sociolinguist John Fischer conducted the first case study, Children in New England, in 1958. Fisher attempted to find a correlation between the use of the two present participles -in and -ing which were used by twenty-one of the twenty-four children he observed. Fisher interviewed the children in settings ranging from informal to moderately formal and concluded that the decision to say -in rather than -ing appeared to be related to sex, class, personality and mood. According to Fisher, girls are more likely to use -ing than boys are and boys can be categorised into two groups, the “‘[m]odel’ boys” used -ing and the “‘typical’ boys” were more prone to use -in. The second case study is set on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, a research by linguist William Labov in 1963, where he studied “the significance of social patterns in understanding language variation and change”. The study focuses on the linguistic variable (a) in the lexical sets: white, right and kind, which is pronounced [a] coinciding with the surrounding mainland and as the centralizing diphthong. Labov made a centralisation index based on sixty-nine tape-recorded interviews, which he divided into age groups. The index scores illustrate an increase of the pronunciation of diphthong, which can be explained by defensive attitude towards the visiting tourists and the desire to belong to the community.

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The third case study, Sociolinguistic Variation in New York City, another research by Labov, consist of two studies. The first is a pilot survey done in three department stores of different social status where Labov believed that the employees would imitate the speech of their customers focusing on the use of postvocalic [r];the analysis of data confirmed that the most prestige department store employees used the postvocalic [r] the most frequently. Secondly, the larger New York City study, to establish a “more representative sample” of the city than retailers, is divided into the two variables (th) and (r). Labov interviewed 158 people, who also had participated in a former sociological survey, and concluded that the people who pronounced [θ] were of higher social status than who pronounced (th) as [tθ] or [t]. Furthermore, the higher classes also used the postvocalic [r] more often than the lower classes.

       When comparing and contrasting, differences are found in the manner of conducting the interviews and assessing the results and similarities in results, which coincides with structured heterogeneity. The method of conducting the research is diverse in all studies; Fischer interviewed the children briefly in various settings varying from informal to formal, where the most formal entails “classroom story recitation”. Labov made use of three different approaches in gathering data. Firstly, he tape-recorded sixty-nine interviews and the interviewees had variation in “ethnicity, occupation and geographical location” on Martha’s Vineyard. Secondly, Labov pretended to be a customer and asked the salespeople something where the answer certainly would be ‘fourth floor’, in order to note the use of ‘r’, moreover, he asked the salesperson to repeat it so that he could obtain “the tokens in a careful, stressed style”. Finally, Labov conducted interviews with four categories: continuous speech, reading a short passage, reading a word list “containing instances of pertinent variables”, and reading word-pairs concerning “key variables”. Additionally, there is a difference in assessing the results, John Fischer counted the use of the two present participles and divided them into three categories: girls, ‘model’ boys, ‘typical boys’, whereas Labov uses in the Martha’s Vineyard case study a scoring system ranging from zero to three; he separated the groups according to age and calculated the average per age group. In his New York case study, Labov also uses a scoring system and is the group divided into socioeconomic groups such as lower class, working class, lower middle class, and upper middle class. Nevertheless, the results of all studies are similar since it coincides with the structured heterogeneity, which means that language variation is patterned according to social class and speech style variables correlate with social variables.

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       The disadvantages are mostly in the manner of conducting the research and advantages of the three researches are that they broke new ground in further researches. The disadvantage of the first research is that the presence of the interviewer could influence the outcome of the case, perhaps the children adopt his manner of speaking in some way. Another problem is that, Fischer did not look at the influence of parents or the influence of peers. However, he observed that “people adopt a variant not because it is easier to pronounce (which is most frequently is, but not always), but because it expresses how they feel about their relative status versus other conversant”. An advantage is that Fischer established the basic methods in variationist studies, which was an essential tool in helping linguist Labov in breaking new ground in understanding language in its social context. The disadvantage of the Martha’s Vineyard study is also the influence of the interviewer and moreover, since the interviewer is not a speaker of the variety on Martha’s Vineyard, the interviewees could be more probable to speak as if they are not tourist but habitants of the island, and emphasis their variety opposite the one on the mainland. The advantage of Labov’s study in Martha’s Vineyard is the he achieved to develop an empirical approach to the study of language and illustrated “the interplay between linguistic and social factors in a relatively simple setting”, which is quite an accomplishment. The disadvantage of the third study is that the pilot survey in the department store is not recorded, but later transcribed which could make the evidence of postvocalic [r] tainted and slightly unreliable. Furthermore, in the larger New York City study the participants know that they are being interviewed, which could influence the manner of speaking since it does not have to be the way the normally speak. The advantage is that this study showed that “socioeconomic differentiation cannot be ignored in studies of language structure”.

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       To conclude, John Fischer and William Labov managed to establish social stratification empirically with the use of these three case studies. The results demonstrate that ‘free variation’, “the random use of alternate forms within a particular dialect”, is not highly apparent, however, language variation is patterned according to social class, which is the ‘structured heterogeneity’ theory. The researches illustrate, despite the problems caused by manner of conducting, that linguistic variables correlate with social variables, which is a breakthrough for future linguist and other case studies.

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