Sociology of language

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Sociology of language is the study of the relations between language and society.[1] It is closely related to the field of sociolinguistics,[2] which focuses on the effect of society on language. One of its longest and most prolific proponents was Joshua Fishman, who was founding editor of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language, in addition to other major contributions. The sociology of language studies society in relation to language, whereas Sociolinguistics studies language in relation to society. For the former, society is the object of study, whereas, for the latter, language is the object of study. In other words, sociolinguistics studies language and how it varies based on the user's sociological background, such as gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class.[3] On the other hand, sociology of language (also known as macrosociolinguistics) studies society and how it is impacted by language[4]. As Trent University professor of global politics Andreas Pickel states, "religion and other symbolic systems strongly shaping social practices and shaping political orientations are examples of the social significance such languages can have."[5] The basic idea is that language reflects, among several other things, attitudes that speakers want to exchange or that just get reflected through language use. These attitudes of the speakers are the sociologist's information.

Sociology of language seeks to understand the way that social dynamics are affected by individual and group language use. According to National Taiwan University of Science and Technology Chair of Language Center[6] Su-Chiao Chen, language is considered to be a social value within this field, which researches social groups for phenomena like multilingualism and lingual conflict.[7] It has to do with who is 'authorized' to use what language, with whom and under what conditions. It has to do with how an individual or group identity is established by the language that they have available for them to use. It seeks to understand individual expression, which the investment in the linguistic tools that one has access to in order to bring oneself to other people.

History and origins[edit]

Sociology of language, particularly American sociolinguistics, was regarded to have been founded in the early 1960s, mainly by William Labov, who developed much of the methodology.[8]

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis[edit]

Linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is named after Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf, although neither scholar used the term.[9] Strong versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggest that an individual's language has a profound impact on the way the individual thinks and acts, while the weaker version proposes that language has merely a small influence on an individual's behavior.[10]


Some linguists argue that if individuals were truly so profoundly different as a result of their languages, then it would be immensely difficult to translate works between cultures and languages. However, there are Linguistic universals that occur in most, if not all, natural languages.[10] Cross-linguistic and cross-cultural translations happen everyday, some even in a fraction of a second thanks to Artificial intelligence linguistic models such as Google Translate.

Further criticism was met from fellow linguist Steven Pinker, who was skeptical of Whorf's evidence based on the Hopi language. According to Pinker, Whorf is "an amateur scholar of Native American languages" whose claims are not credible and do not make sense. [11]

Examples by sociolinguistic category[edit]


It has widely been asserted that there are "many hundreds" of words for snow in the Inuit language, allegedly due to an improper paraphrase of Franz Boas on Benjamin Whorf's part that changed the meaning of the original text. Although there may not be hundreds of distinct Inuit words for snow, snow expert Matthew Sturm[12] agrees that the English snow lexicon is overall "clearly inferior" to the Inuit snow lexicon.[13]

Despite also having several words for snow, such as 'snowdrift', 'snowflake', and 'flurries', the vast majority of English snow-related words all have the same root: 'snow'. Meanwhile, in Inuit, there are multiple independent terms for snow. For example, aput means 'snow on the ground', qana means 'falling snow', piqsirpoq means 'drifting snow', and qimuqsuq means 'a snowdrift'. All four of these terms for snow have independent roots of each other. This is similar to how there are several independent terms use to describe water in English, such as 'water', 'river', 'ocean', and 'dew'. Since snow is such a vital part of Inuit society, it is natural that their language has more nuance for snow than does the English language.[13]

Chinese-English bilinguals[edit]

Mandarin Chinese is a language that lacks absolute tense. In other words, it is not necessary to specify the temporal location of an event in Mandarin. Instead, one or two words can be added to the beginning or end of a sentence to denote tense. It is usually assumed that the speaker is using present tense, but the listener may also have to depend on context clues to determine the tense.

Researchers Yang Li, Manon Jones, and Guillaume Thierry from Bangor University have conducted a study that suggests that fluent Chinese-English speakers did not explicitly recognize time misalignments in complex English sentences, as opposed to native English speakers. The study involved analyzing N400 (neuroscience) modulations to determine when the participants took additional semantic processing effort to recognize tense misalignments. [14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fishman, Joshua A. (1972). The sociology of language: An interdisciplinary social science approach to language in society. Newbury House. ISBN 978-0-912066-16-5.
  2. ^ Mesthrie, Rajend (2007). "Sociolinguistics and sociology of language". In Bernard Spolsky; Francis M. Hult (eds.). The Handbook of Educational Linguistics. pp. 66–82. doi:10.1111/b.9781405154109.2007.00007.x. ISBN 9781405154109.
  3. ^ "About this website – All About Linguistics". Retrieved 2018-12-10.
  4. ^ Fisherman, Joshua (1985). "Macrosociolinguistics and the Sociology of Language in the Early Eighties". Annual Review of Sociology. 11: 113–127. doi:10.1146/ JSTOR 2083288.
  5. ^ Pickel, Andreas (December 2013). "Nations, National Cultures, and Natural Languages: A Contribution to the Sociology of Nations". Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 43 (4): 425–445. doi:10.1111/jtsb.12018.
  6. ^ "Full-Time Staff". National Taiwan University of Science and Technology.
  7. ^ Chen, Su-Chiao (2012). "Sociology of Language". In Nancy Hornberger and David Corson (ed.). Encyclopedia of Language and Education: Research Methods in Language and Education. Springer. pp. 1–14. ISBN 978-94-011-4535-0.
  8. ^ Shuy, Roger W. (1990). "A Brief History of American Sociolinguistics 1949-1989". Historiographia Linguistica. 17 (1–2): 183–209. doi:10.1075/hl.17.1-2.14shu.
  9. ^ Hill, Jane; Mannheim, Bruce (1992). "Language and World view". Annual Review of Anthropology. 21: 381–406. doi:10.1146/
  10. ^ a b "Ask A Linguist FAQ: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis". Retrieved 2018-12-10.
  11. ^ "LINGUIST List 5.768: Pinker's book and linguist bashing". The LINGUIST List. 1994-06-30. Retrieved 2018-12-10.
  12. ^ "Profile: Matthew Sturm | Naturally Inspiring | Naturally Inspiring". Retrieved 2018-12-10.
  13. ^ a b Cichocki, Piotr; Kilarski, Marcin (2010-11-01). "On "Eskimo Words for Snow" The life cycle of a linguistic misconception". Historiographia Linguistica. 37 (3): 341–377. doi:10.1075/hl.37.3.03cic.
  14. ^ Li, Yang; Jones, Manon; Thierry, Guillaume (2018-07-19). "Timeline blurring in fluent Chinese-English bilinguals". Brain Research. 1701: 93–102. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2018.07.008. ISSN 1872-6240. PMID 30031826.

Further reading[edit]