Language and Society


I bet most of us know the hilarious Egyptian play or the American musical with the same title, My Fair Lady, both based on George Bernard Shaw’s masterpiece, Pygmalion. Shaw’s work displays the connection between language and society through the story of Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, who makes a bet to transform a unrefined flower-girl into a lady through teaching her to speak like a duchess. Indeed, the way people talk can give insight into who they are, and this issue falls under the scope of sociolinguistics.

As the name suggests, sociolinguistics is the study of the social role of language; in other words, the study of language in social contexts. At the very beginning of Shaw’s play, Higgins demonstrates his ability to “place any man within six miles” through listening to their speech. Putting fiction aside, this is actually quite similar to what sociolinguists can do in reality. Different language variations used by different people or groups across different societies encode much information about the speakers, including region, age, gender, education, social class, among others.

Language variations vary from pronunciation, word choice, to grammatical or syntactic structures. Studying regional dialects and sociolects mainly adopts a descriptive approach, that is, it describes how people use language. Sociolinguists basically depend on interviews to collect data. Then, they analyze the input to chart the frequency of producing particular recurrent variants. Finally, they become able to map these variations across different user groups.

Sociolinguists also study variant norms of politeness across different societies. In linguistic contexts, politeness is using speech acts that show consideration for the feelings of one’s interlocutors and highlighting friendliness. It is worth mentioning that what is considered a polite speech act in one society can be offensive in another. For example, the choice between saying “pass the salt” or “would you please pass the salt” depends on the cultural values and norms of politeness in a given society. Similarly, word choice is, in many cases, governed by social factors. For example, addressing a person as “Mr.” or by his first name will depend on the social status of both the speaker and the addressee.

Sometimes, certain social situations can greatly affect language structure, or even give birth to new languages. For example, trade activities between speakers of different languages can give rise to a new simplified common language—known as a pidgin. Pidgins can further develop into full linguistic systems if children of its speakers learn it and use it as a mother language—known as a creole.

Language and society are indissolubly linked. On the one hand, language is the medium through which the society members connect and it forms part of their identity. On the other hand, social factors are inevitably reflected in speech, and will be continuously involved in the evolution of language.

Wardhaugh, R., and Janet M. Fuller (2015). An introduction to Sociolinguistics.Bottom of Form

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