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Ounas, R. (2009). Principles of Sociolinguistics. PHILICA.COM Article number 173.

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Principles of Sociolinguistics

Ramzi Ounasunconfirmed user (Department of English Language, Bejaia University)

Published in linguo.philica.com

This introduction to some exciting aspects in the field of social linguistics is designed to encourage you to read further. There are many fascinating and odd phenomena that occur in the social aspects of language.
Sociolinguistics is a term including the aspects of linguistics applied toward the connections between language and society, and the way we use it in different social situations. It ranges from the study of the wide variety of dialects across a given region down to the analysis between the way men and women speak to one another. Sociolinguistics often shows us the humorous realities of human speech and how a dialect of a given language can often describe the age, sex, and social class of the speaker; it codes the social function of a language.

Article body

Social Factors



       When two people speak with one another, there is always more going on than just conveying a message. The language used by the participants is always influenced by a number of social factors which define the relationship between the participants. Consider, for example, a professor making a simple request of a student to close a classroom door to shut off the noise from the corridor. There are a number of ways this request can be made:


  1. Politely, in a moderate tone "Could you please close the door?"
  2. In a confused manner while shaking his/her head "Why aren't you shutting the door?"
  3. Shouting and pointing, "SHUT THE DOOR!"

       The most appropriate utterance for the situation would be a. The most inappropriate would be c. This statement humiliates the student, and provides no effort by the professor to respect him/her. Utterance b is awkward because it implies that the teacher automatically assumes that the student should know better than to leave the door open when there is noise in the hallway. The inappropriateness is a social decision tied to the social factors which shape the relationship between speaker ( the professor), and the listener (the student).

       When choosing an appropriate utterance for the situation, there are factors that you must consider in order to effectively convey the message to the other participant.


  1. Participants- how well do they know each other?
  2. Social setting- formal or informal
  3. Who is talking- status relationship/social roles ( student vs. professor)
  4. Aim or purpose of conversation
  5. Topic

       Do you notice that there is a difference in the way you speak to your friends and the way you speak to your relatives, teachers, or others of professional status?

When telling your friend that you like his/her shirt, you say:
"Hey, cool shirt, I like that!"
When telling the President of the company your parents work for that you like his/her shirt, you say:
"You look very nice today, I really like that shirt."
       This is called choosing your variety or code. This can also be seen on a larger scale, diglossia, where multilingual nations include a variety of accents, language styles, dialects and languages. Each of these factors is a reflection of the region and socio-economics background from which you come from. In monolingual societies, the region and socio-economic factors are determined by dialect and language style.

       It is not uncommon in our nation to see that languages other than English are spoken inside the home with friends and family. However when these bilingual or even trilingual families interact socially outside of their home, they will communicate in English. Even church services may use a variation of the language, one that you would only hear in side the church or in school. An example of the difference in the use of a language can be seen in the following example from Janet Holmes, "An Introduction to Sociolinguistics," of the two main languages used in Paraguay; Spanish and Guarani:

FamilyParentHomePlanning a partyGuarani
FriendshipFriendCafeHumorous ancedoteGuarani
ReligionPriestChurchChoosing the Sunday liturgySpanish
EducationTeacherPrimaryTelling a storyGuarani
EducationLecturerUniversitySolving math problemSpanish
AdministrationOfficialOfficeGetting an important licenseSpanish



Diglossia: In a bilingual community, in which two languages or dialects are used differently according to different social situations.

Janet Holmes defines diglossia as having three crucial features:

  1. In the same language, used in the same community, there are two distinct varieties. One is regarded as high (H) and the other low (L).
  2. Each is used for distinct functions.
  3. No one uses the high (H) in everyday conversation.

In the following example it is easy to tell which variety you will use given the social situations:


  • Telling a joke
  • Interviewing for a job
  • Giving a speech for a charity event
  • Giving a speech for a friend for his/her birthday
  • Church
  • Cafeteria





Can you guess what language this is?

These lines are taken from a famous comic strip in Papua New Guinea:


"Sapos yu kaikai planti pinat, bai yu kamap strong olsem phantom."
"Fantom, yu pren tru bilong mi. Inap yu ken helpim mi nau?"
"Fantom, em i go we?"



'If you eat plenty of peanuts, you will come up strong like the phantom.'
'Phantom, you are a true friend of mine. Are you able to help me now?'
1Where did he go?'

       A simplified language derived from two or more languages is called a pidgin. It is a contact language developed and used by people who do not share a common language in a given geographical area. It is used in a limited way and the structure is very simplistic. Since they serve a single simplistic purpose, they usually die out. However, if the pidgin is used long enough, it begins to evolve into a more rich language with a more complex structure and richer vocabulary. Once the pidgin has evolved and has acquired native speakers ( the children learn the pidgin as their first language), it is then called a Creole. An example of this is the Creole above from Papua New Guinea, Tok Pisin, which has become a National language.


Reasons for the development of Pidgins

       In the nineteenth century, when slaves from Africa were brought over to North America to work on the plantations, they were separated from the people of their community and mixed with people of various other communities, therefore they were unable to communicate with each other. The strategy behind this was so they couldn't come up with a plot to escape back to their land. Therefore, in order to finally communicate with their peers on the plantations, and with their bosses, they needed to form a language in which they could communicate. Pidgins also arose because of colonization. Prominent languages such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Dutch were the languages of the coloni zers. They traveled, and set up ports in coastal towns where shipping and trading routes were accessible.

       There is always a dominant language which contributes most of the vocabulary of the pidgin, this is called the superstrate language. The superstrate language from the Papua New Guinea Creole example above is English. The other minority languages that contribute to the pidgin are called the substrate languages.

       In the United States, there is a very well known Creole, Louisiana Creole, which is derived from French and African Languages. You most likely have heard of "Cajun" which is a developed dialect of this Creole.

       Can you guess what major language (the superstrate) contributed to the vocabulary in each of these Creoles? This table is taken from Janet Holmes, " An Introduction to Sociolinguistics":


a.  mo pe aste sa banan
b.  de bin alde luk dat big tri
c.  a waka go a wosu
d.  olmaan i kas-im chek
e.  li pote sa bay mo
f.  ja fruher wir bleiben
g.  dis smol swain i bin go fo maket
I am buying the banana
they always looked for a big tree
he walked home
the old man is cashing a check
he brought that for me
Yes at first we remained
this little pig went to market



  1. French based Seychelles Creole
  2. English based Roper River Creole
  3. English based Saran
  4. English based Cape York Creole
  5. French based Guyanais
  6. German based Papua New Guinea Pidgin German
  7. English based Cameroon Pidgin

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This Article was published on 3rd November, 2009 at 20:09:36 and has been viewed 5953 times.

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The full citation for this Article is:
Ounas, R. (2009). Principles of Sociolinguistics. PHILICA.COM Article number 173.

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