Sociolinguistic variation

Author: David Britain


This article outlines the main methodological and theoretical issues within research on sociolinguistic variation. It covers the origins of the subject, data collection, quantification and the linguistic variable, correlations of social and linguistic variation and language change. It ends by considering recent social constructionist approaches to variation and change. A bibliography is included.

Table of contents


Sociolinguistic variation is the study of the way language varies (see also the article on Dialectology) and changes (see Historical linguistics) in communities of speakers and concentrates in particular on the interaction of social factors (such as a speaker's gender, ethnicity, age, degree of integration into their community, etc) and linguistic structures (such as sounds, grammatical forms, intonation features, words, etc).

The study of sociolinguistic variation has its roots in dialectology, emerging in the 1960s partly as a result of inadequate methods in earlier approaches to the study of dialect, and partly as a reaction to Chomsky's generative programme. Unlike earlier forms of dialectology, it uses recordings of informal conversations as its data (and occasionally reading exercises to examine the role of formality in dialect use); argues for the role of quantitative analysis in highlighting dialect differences; and is interested in how social groups variably select different dialect forms. This article outlines some of these important issues and suggests the salient topics that should be taught in a course on this subject.

Data collection

Like in dialectology, data collection and fieldwork play an important role in the study of sociolinguistic variation since its advocates argue both that it is the only way to accurately gain a picture of a person's language use (see Labov 1996 on the inadequacy of intuition as a source of information on language structure) and that the most systematic grammar of a dialect resides in the vernacular language of the speech community (Labov 1972). Great care is taken, therefore, to establish corpora of ethical recordings collected in relaxed circumstances from a wide range of speakers in the community (see also the article on Dialectology). Students of sociolinguistic variation can gain valuable insight into the subject by conducting their own research: through rapid anonymous surveys (short surveys investigating one linguistic feature from many people in a short space of time) (Labov 1972) and subsequently through tape-recorded data collection and analysis in a relevant community. Milroy (1987) and Milroy and Gordon (2003) provide useful introductions to fieldwork methodology for sociolinguistic variation.

Quantification: the linguistic variable

Data from recordings of informal speech enable researchers to collect many examples of the same feature from each speaker recorded. Within a single person's speech some linguistic features vary - i.e. they are pronounced in more than one way. Sometimes, for example, a speaker from London may drop the /h/ in the word 'house' and, later, even in the same stretch of talk, that same speaker may retain it. Linguists also soon recognised that social groups in the speech community may differ from each other not qualitatively, by using completely different dialect forms from each other, but quantitatively, by using different proportions of dialect variants in their speech. The American sociolinguist, William Labov (e.g. 1972) devised the notion of the linguistic variable to help capture this idea of quantitative difference. A linguistic variable is a set of related dialect forms all of which mean the same thing and which correlate with some social grouping in the speech community. One linguistic variable in many parts of England is (t) - note that variables are written in parentheses - which can be realised (among other ways) as an alveolar stop - the standard pronunciation - or a glottal stop - a non-standard pronunciation. Analysts can scour a recording of a particular dialect speaker, noting the number of times a relevant example of (t) is pronounced as an alveolar stop and the number of times as a glottal stop, and derive a 'score' for that speaker which reflects his or her use of the non-standard dialect form. This speaker's scores can then be compared with those of other speakers, and, similarly, scores for men can be aggregated and compared with scores for women, scores for, say, working class speakers compared with those for middle class speakers and so on. Figure 1 provides an example.

Figure 1: The linguistic variable, exemplified in an analysis of (t)

Figure 1: The linguistic variable, exemplified in an analysis of (t)

Furthermore, it has been recognised that these quantitative differences can be very salient indeed to speakers themselves - so much so that even a difference of a few percent in usage can lead to the association of a particular linguistic form with a particular social group. Figure 2 shows the results of an analysis of High Rising Tones (HRT) (using question intonation in statements) in New Zealand English (NZE) (Britain 1998). In NZE the use of HRT is very strongly associated with young women, yet they only use the HRT 3% percent more often than young men. Clearly small quantitative differences can signal quite important social information about a linguistic variable.

Figure 2: The use of High Rising Terminals in New Zealand English (based on Britain 1998)

Figure 2: The use of High Rising Terminals in New Zealand English (based on Britain 1998)

Social variation

The sociolinguistic variationist enterprise begins on the premise that dialect variation is far from free or haphazard, but is governed by what Weinreich, Labov and Herzog (1968) called 'orderly heterogeneity' - structured variation. This 'structure' is manifested in a number of ways, most notably in the regular patterns found when sociolinguists correlate social structure with linguistic structure. One typical pattern found for dialect features that are stable (i.e. not undergoing change) is exemplified in Figure 3. Figure 3 shows the correlation of the absence of third person present tense marking (e.g. 'she play', 'the boy sing') with social class membership in the city of Norwich in England (Trudgill 1974) - the 'higher' the social class of the speaker, the lower the absence of -s marking. Another very frequently noted pattern is the tendency for women to use standard forms of stable dialect features more than men. Figure 4, again from Trudgill's (1974) research in Norwich, looks at the results of the correlation of social class, speaker sex and the use of non-standard [n] variants of unstressed -ing suffixes. Within each social class group, women consistently use less of the non-standard pronunciation than men. It is the regularity of these (and other) patterns that lends weight to the argument that variability is 'structured' socially (and in other ways - see, for example, Chambers and Trudgill 1998, Chambers 2003)

Figure 3: Absence of third person present tense marking in Norwich (Trudgill 1974)

Figure 3: Absence of third person present tense marking in Norwich (Trudgill 1974)

Figure 4: The use of the non-standard [n] variant of the variable (ing) in Norwich (Trudgill 1974)

Figure 4: The use of the non-standard [n] variant of the variable (ing) in Norwich (Trudgill 1974)

Language change

Labov's intention when establishing sociolinguistic variation as an approach to investigating language was not simply to make what in many cases appear to be obvious correlations between social factors and language use, but to demonstrate how language changes spread through society. He showed (see Labov 1972, Chambers and Trudgill 1998, Chambers 2003 for examples), by carefully plotting a speaker's social position alongside their use of linguistic variables, that linguistic changes tended to be led by certain social groups - not by the lowest or highest social classes in society as we might expect, but by the central groups - the upper working and lower middle classes. Labov found that upper working class speakers tended to be the leaders of unconscious linguistic changes that were more common in casual speech, and that the lower middle class led changes towards overtly prestigious standard forms.

Language changes, of course, take time, and one question that vexed linguists was how to observe changes in progress given that they take so long. It was previously assumed that change could only be observed retrospectively, after different states of the dialect had been observed at different points in time and comparisons made subsequent to several observations. Labov simulated a broad time span by adopting a so-called apparent-time method. He compared speakers of different ages (who had acquired language at different points in time) instead of comparing people of a particular age now with those of that same age 20, 40 etc years ago. Naturally, this method shortens the length of time required to conduct the research, but questions have been raised about this method since it assumes that people's dialect remains fairly stable from adolescence onwards (see Chambers 2003 and Eckert 1997 for differing views on the apparent time model).

Teaching sociolinguistic variation

It is important that students of sociolinguistic variation gain experience of the discipline from the both methodological and theoretical perspectives. From the theoretical point of view, the central role of the linguistic variable in such research should be emphasised, along with a demonstration of the quantitative mechanics of the variable, and its importance in shedding light on relative differences in use of dialect variants by both individuals, groups and communities. The relationship between social factors and the use of dialect variants should be explored, to demonstrate that variability is not haphazard, but structured and motivated. The relationship between language variation and language change should be made clear, along with the pivotal role in sociolinguistic variation studies of the apparent time method for detecting ongoing change. Methodologically, it is important that students are required to engage in data collection and analysis both of which enhance understanding of the link between real people (from whom the data are collected) and the somewhat abstract notion of the variable. From recordings of self-collected data, students could be required to: extract adequate numbers of tokens of a relevant linguistic variable; engage in a simple quantitative analysis; discuss the relationship between the use of different variants and the social background of speakers, as well as contextualise the results of their analysis by assessing language variation and change within a broader local, regional or national context.

Looking forward in sociolinguistic variation

The model of analysing language variation and change that Labov developed has been extremely popular and has been applied to many speech communities around the world. Recent approaches, however, whilst accepting the basic framework (e.g. the linguistic variable), have suggested that sociolinguistic variation studies have been sociologically naïve by correlating isolated social facts about a speaker (e.g. their gender, their social class, their ethnicity) with language use, rather than observing how social groups form and evolve and analysing the dialect that emerges from that social practice. So rather than saying 'here are some broad social categories, let's look at the language use of each category' (a top-down approach) researchers are beginning to propose that we say 'let's examine self-forming social groups and see if these groupings are reflected in linguistic structure' (a bottom-up approach). One researcher who has taken this latter approach is Penny Eckert (2001). She engaged in extensive ethnographic fieldwork in a secondary school in Detroit in order to gradually piece together a picture of who hung out with who, who were the central members and the less central members of the emergent groups and so on. She was then able to plot group membership against a large number of linguistic variables. Her research is particularly important in making us realise just how gross categories such as 'female' or 'adolescent' or 'working class' are, lumping together very different people into the same group, and that a sensitivity to how real groups of people are formed and maintained provides a very rich seam for future sociolinguistic analysis.


Britain, D. (1998). Linguistic change in intonation: the use of High Rising Terminals in New Zealand English. In P. Trudgill & J. Cheshire (eds.), The Sociolinguistics Reader: Volume 1: Multilingualism and Variation. 213-239. London: Arnold.

Chambers, J. (2003). Sociolinguistic Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Chambers, J. & P. Trudgill (1998). Dialectology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eckert, P. (1997). Age as a sociolinguistic variable. In F. Coulmas (ed). The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. 151-167. Oxford: Blackwell.

Eckert, P. (2001). Linguistic variation as social practice. Oxford: Blackwell.

Labov, W. (1972). Sociolinguistic Patterns. Oxford: Blackwell.

Labov, W. (1996). When intuitions fail. Chicago Linguistic Society: Papers from the Parasession on Theory and Data in Linguistics 32:76-106.

Milroy, L. (1987). Observing and Analysing Natural Speech. Oxford: Blackwell.

Milroy, L. & M. Gordon (2003). Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation. Oxford: Blackwell.

Trudgill, P. (1974). The Social Differentiation of English in Norwich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weinreich, U., W. Labov & M. Herzog (1968). Empirical foundations for a theory of language change. In W. Lehmann & Y. Malkiel (eds.), Directions for historical linguistics. 97-195. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Related links

Telsur Project at the Linguistics Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania
Details of a large survey of language variation and change in North American English, directed by Professor William Labov, recognised as the founder of sociolinguistic variation studies.

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