Sociolinguistics studies the connections between language and society, and how we use language in different social situations. Sociolinguistic scholars do their work in a number of ways, and a favorite methodology for them is “ethnography” where they deliberately immerse themselves in their studies and act as ‘participant-observers’, rather than taking the removed, impartial position favoured by many researchers in other fields. They often produce “in-depth case studies” of particular speech communities which have, as an important part of the data, transcriptions of participants and their own field diaries. A popular activity for sociolinguists these days is to reseach specific varieties of language, and to look at how they started, how they developed, and how they are getting on today. Such an approach is called “variationism”. Equally popular today is an “interactional” approach which examines how people use language in specific situations – code-switching is an example.

I am not a great fan of sociolinguistics. That’s because I don’t like the way most academics in the field go about their work, rather than because I find the area boring. The question of standard English, for example, strikes me as enormously interesting, as does the question of how people use language in specific situations. The problem is that, in my opinion, these interesting areas of investigation have been largely hijacked by academics with a very non-academic agenda, either political, or gender, or both. Too often, these academics write what strike me as crude political pamphlets rather than learned papers. Furthermore, sociolinguistics is the favorite stomping ground of post-modernist, relativists who inhabit a humpty-dumpty world where words mean whatever they choose them to mean. The papers of post-modernists, constructivists, and the like are almost impossible to make sense of; they quite deliberately make their work obscure in a folorn attempt to make it sound more learned; they are masters of the French art of obscurification. As such, they challenge my own very firmly-held belief that rational enquiry, based on empirically-based research, is the best way to further our understading of the world we live in. But, anyway, there’s a lot of good stuff to be found in this huge area, and it’s very appealing.

Your MA will probably cover the following areas:

1. Language change, variation, and style
2. Standard English
3. World Englishes
4. Multilingualism, Bilingualism and language choice
5. Politeness
6. Class
7. Gender
8. Language policy and planning


Preliminary Reading

First, read the course notes. Then read Trudgill: he’s the “gold standard”. His book Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society by Peter Trudgill. London, Penguin, 2000 is now in its 4th edition. He first published this book in 1974, and it’s still a gem. Another excellent book is Introducing Sociolinguistics by Miriam Meyerhoff. Oxford, Routeledge, 2011. She’s a bit on the wild side for my conservative liking, but very readable and very reliable. If you can, get them both and whiz through them just to get the general scope.

Choose a Topic

Again, this is such a vast area that it becomes important to quickly focus on one well-defined area. Some popular choices are:

• Code-switching in the EFL classroom
• English as a Lingua Franca in Business
• Gender Issues in blogs
• The language of job interviews
• Bilingualism and EFL
• Can politeness be taught?
• Posh talk in Higher Education
• The language of Call Centres
• Roles: How many do we have?
• The value of a regional accent
• Should RP be taught?

Read in Depth

Language Variation. Labov (1966) The Social Stratification of English in New York City, is the place to start. A really interesting, ground-breaking work.
The Journal of Language Change and Variation is very accessable.

Spolsky (1998) Ch. 1, ‘The social study of language’ is excellent.

Standard English. Here, Carter’s your man: Carter (1999) ‘Standard grammars, spoken grammars: some educational implications’, in Bex and Watts, 149-166.
A good review is to be found in the ever-dependable Svartvik, J. and Leech, G. (2006) Ch. 10 , ‘The Standard Language Today’.

World Englishes
Crystal (2003) Ch. 5, ‘The future of global English’
Davies (2005) Ch. 4, ‘English from a global perspective’

Bilingualism and language choice
Holmes (2008) Ch. 2, ‘Language choice in multilingual communities’
Wardaugh (2002) Ch. 4, ‘Choosing a code’ [or earlier edition]
Spolsky (1998) Ch. 5 and 6

Language planning and policy
Holmes (2007) Ch. 5 ‘National languages and language planning’
Wardhaugh (2002) Ch.15 ‘Planning’

Language and gender
Davies (2005) Ch. 6 ‘Gender, Sexuality and English’
Coates, J. (2007) ‘Gender’, in Llamas, Mullany and Stockwell (Ch.2)

Field methods in sociolinguistic study
Llamas, C. (2007) ‘Field Methods’, in Llamas, Mullany and Stockwell (Ch. 2)

Write an Outline and submit it to your tutor.
Write the First Draft
Write the Final Version of the Paper

Model Paper on Sociolinguistics

Here’s an example written by an anonymous student of the MA TESL student at Leicester University. This is actually a 6,000 word paper.

Title: A critical evaluation of language and gender with reference to discourse analysis of conversation

I. Introduction
There has been active research conducted by feminist linguists about language and gender and significant changes have been made since the new concepts of gender and sexuality were introduced (Cameron, 2005). In the early 1970s, most focus was on Lakoff’s dominance model while the cultural difference model was focused on in the 1980s by Gumperz. Cameron (2005) however claims that ‘the diversity of gender identities and gendered practice’ is gaining in popularity instead of the concept of binary gender difference. In this essay, the former two models, dominance and difference, will be evaluated since the diversity model seems to relate with sexuality more than gender itself.
To begin this essay, it seems necessary to define the term ‘gender’ and compare it to ‘sex’. Some linguists such as Wardhaugh mentioned that ‘gender’ is a technical term in linguistics and related to sexism (Wardhaugh, 2002). However, many linguists tend to use the term ‘gender’ which associates a social construct whereas ‘sex’ is a biological term. Wodak (1997, p. 13, cited in Wardhaugh, 2002) claims that ‘gender is not a pool of attributes possessed by person, but something a person does’ which can be interpreted as a reflection of social norm. ‘Gender’, therefore, can be realised in different ways depending on generation as well as culture.
Many feminist linguists and sociolinguists spent the last few decades searching for women’s language and there are some fascinating findings and associated theories in many literatures. Trudgill (1983a), for example,…………………..

II. Review of literature: Gender oriented language use

1. The dominance model
The French feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion of distinction ‘between the innate biological condition of being female and the achieved sociocultural status of being a woman’ (cited in Cameron, 2005) seemed to affect the work of Robin Lakoff in 1970s. Lakoff (1975) suggested that the gender-differentiated language is the product of men-oriented society. She argues that men have more power in society and so powerless women tend to be more careful when they speak and be more polite than men. This is called dominance approach which leads to subordination of female to the male dominance. This approach also has implications of inequality between male and female. Lakoff explains that ……

1) Hedges and fillers
Lakoff suggested that women’s speech can be characterised by hedges and fillers such as ‘you know’, ‘kind of’, ‘sort of’, ‘well’ and ‘you see’. However, this categorisation system was criticized by many linguists (Homes, 1992) even though there was a functional coherence. She identified all the expressions which carried uncertainty or tentativeness as hedging devices which could reduce the force of utterance. There are also boosting devices as well as hedging devices which could carry more stress on the utterance. These boosting devices therefore reassure the unconvinced addressee and so both hedges and boosters are a sign of women’s lack of confidence to Lakoff. However, Fishman (1998) ……………………………………

2) The tag questions
One of the main functions of the tag question is to express uncertainty as Lakoff pointed out. People tend to use the tag when they have doubt about what they are referring to. By doing so, this could be less assertive and possibly less offensive in case their information is wrong. Thus, the tag could be part of the hedging devices which can show the cautiousness of the speaker. However, the function of tag can vary depending on the contexts ……………

3) Hypercorrect grammar
Lakoff suggested that women use standard verb forms consistently and this is to show their politeness since they are subordinated to men and powerless. Brown (1980, cited in Graddol & Swann, 1989) said that ‘it seems reasonable to predict that women in general will speak more formally and more politely, since women are culturally relegated to a secondary status relative to men and since a higher level of politeness is expected from inferiors to superiors’ (p. 112)……….

4) Interaction
There is a widespread stereotype of women as talkative and never stop talking as shown in a recent advertisement (Wrigley’s Extra) that shows a young man trying to imitate a woman’s talking with the lid of the chewing gum tub to other man indicating that women never stop talking once they start. However, most research found that men usually dominate the talking time in the case of non-private conversations such as conferences, meetings and TV interviews (Homes, 1992). The most interesting thing is that …………………

5) Avoidance of strong swear words
In many cases women use substitutions of strong swear words such as fudge, sugar, and heck. Lakoff (1975) explained that this shows social inequity and this forces women to use proper language to become ladies and that the expectations of society treat men and women differently.

2. Criticisms of the dominance model
Lakoff’s concept of women’s language has been criticised by many linguists (Cameron, 1997) because her generalisations about women’s language was very anecdotal. She observed her own language and the language of her female acquaintances and it was recorded in laboratory conditions with assigned topics (Homes, 1992). The participants were also ‘white, relatively privileged anglophone US suburbanites’ (Cameron, 1997) which lead to most of the criticisms of her overgeneralisations. There have also been many studies which confirm Lakoff’s inaccuracy of the study. O’Barr and Atkins (1980), for instance, looked at courtroom testimony……………………

3. The difference model
It will probably be right to say that Tannen is best-known for the difference model with her best seller, ‘You Just Don’t Understand’ in 1990. In the difference model, gender differences are similar to cultural differences which can be miscommunicated among different cultures (men and women’s culture). Tannen argued that difference is created from early childhood when boys and girls are separated as different peer groups and so they have different values and activities which emerge the e women’s social status compared to men’s even though some of Lakoff’s assertions about women’s language can be true. The difference model, in other words, appears to be less offensive …………………

4. Criticisms of the difference model
Cameron (1996) pointed out that she cannot agree with the idea that men and women are symmetrical as Tannen claimed in the difference model; ‘men and women are positioned not equally, but symmetrically, as outsiders to each other’s verbal culture’. Cameron argued that since men and women cannot be symmetrical Tannnen’s book ‘You Just Don’t Understand’ undermines the aim of the book which is a mutual understanding and tolerance between men and women. She carried on and pointed out that ……………..

III. Application of the dominance model to an analysis of conversation
In this section, Lakoff’s linguistic features of women’s language will be applied to an actual conversation that occurred at a dinner party which has been scripted and analysed. Earlier reviews made in the literature review will be thoroughly reflected when women use those linguistic features during the conversation.


Table 3. The average numbers between women and men
Gender Women Men
Average no. of words 1053.5 282.3
Average no. of hedgers and fillers 23.5 4.3

As we can see in the table 3 women tend to use much more hedgers and fillers and it may point towards hedgers and fillers being a significant linguistic feature of women’s speech. However, this should not be interpreted as showing that women use hedgers and fillers more because they lack confidence, since both of the female participants are very confident individuals and have achieved certain social status. ……………………….

2) The tag question

As mentioned above, the tag can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the context. However, Lakoff suggested that the tag used by women shows the uncertainty therefore it shows their lack of confidence and their feeling of insecurity. This analysis does not seem to support either of Lakoff’s claims. Women participants did not use the tag question excessively as they did for hedgers and fillers. They also did not use tag questions to only express their uncertainty.

Table 4. The tag question
Name Sarah Nicky Nigel Rob Jim
Total no. of tag 3 4 1 0 4

Women’s average use of tag questions was 3.5 and was higher than men with an average of 1.7. However, when the total number of words is considered (women 2,107; men 847) the frequency that women used a tag question is not significantly higher than men. Sarah used 2 tag questions to encourage other people to join her conversation and tried to use as an indicator that other people could have their turn if they want to. ………………………

3) Hypercorrect grammar

To check grammatical correctness in the analysis, it seemed to be easier to find the ungrammatical utterances and vernacular forms of English. When Lakoff’s women’s language is considered women are supposed to use more grammatical verb forms in their utterances. However, this analysis shows that one of the female participants uses vernacular English and ungrammatical English more than anybody else.

Table 5. Vernacular English
Name Sarah Nicky Rob Nigel Jim
Total No. of VE 3 9 0 2 5

Nicky missed out verbs or did not satisfy number agreement often during the conversation. The examples are illustrated below.

1. and he goes you gonna put any down? (see appendix, topic 1, line 52)
2. he said to me what were it? (see appendix, topic1, line 52)
3. ah that’s Jamie’s that (see appendix, topic 2, line 143)
4. for Christmas? that what she’d keep them for (see appendix, topic 3, line 139)

Number 1 and 2 seems to be direct quotations but it is difficult to say whether she is actually quoting somebody else exactly. It is more likely that she quotes someone else semantically the same but use her own syntax and grammaticality. She also ………………

4) Interaction
Interruption, overlap and co-operative overlap will be discussed in this section. As discussed earlier in section 2.4, many researchers generally agree with the fact that men dominate women’s talking time in a case of non-private conversation. Men also interrupt women more when there is a cross-sex conversation than a same sex conversation. Since my data is a private conversation it seems wrong to analyse whether men dominate women’s talking time but it seems possible to analyse the interruption and whether men interrupt women more when they have a cross-sex conversation.


IV. Conclusion
Overall, many of Lakoff’s assertions about linguistic features about women’s language do not seem to be supported by this analysis. A possible reason for this is that my data is small compared to many other linguists’ and the sample I had does not follow the norm. When analysing data it seems very important that many different things should be considered. Gender as well as social class, age, social status, ethnicity, education and even the intimacy between the conversational partners can affect somebody’s linguistic features and habits. The context can also be a major contributor of many variables since people change their behaviour and attitude when they are in more formal, legitimate situations than comfortable and relaxed ones.
However, the main reason why my data did not fit into Lakoff’s claims may be the social changes that have occurred during the past 30 years changing people’s thought and behaviour……………….


Suggested Reading

***** Excellent **** Very Good *** OK ** Not Good * Don’t go near it! ??? Beats me

Top Suggestions for the Module

***** Trudgill, P. 2000 Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. London, Penguin.

***** Crystal, D. 2003. English as a global language.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

***** Labov, W. 1966. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

***** Davies, D. 2005. Varieties of modern English: An introduction. London: Pearson Longman.

***** Llamas, C. and Mullany,L. & Stockwell, P. ( eds.) 2007. The Routledge Companion to Sociolinguistics London: Routledge.

**** Burns, A. and Coffin, C. (eds) (2001) Analysing English in a Global Context: A Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

***** Holmes, J. 2008. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Harlow: Pearson.

**** Meyerhoff, M. 2011. Introducing Sociolinguistics. Oxford, Routeledge.

**** Wardhaugh, R. 2002. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.

*** Spolsky, B. 1998. Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

*** Carter (1999) ‘Standard grammars, spoken grammars: some educational implications’, in Bex, T. and Watts, R. (eds.) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London:Routledge, 149-166.

C. Articles
**** Tannenbaum, M. (2003) The multifaceted aspects of language maintenance: A new measure for its assessment in immigrant families. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 6(5), 374-393.

*** Ofelia, G., & Bartlett, L. (2007) A speech community model of bilingual education: Educating Latino newcomers in the USA. The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 10(1), 1-25.

*** Pauwels, A. (2005) Maintaining the community language in Australia: Challenges and roles for families. The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 8(2-3), 124-131.

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