Introduction to sociolinguistics: An Overview

Have you ever wondered if a language was something greater than just a means of communication? Language, indeed, isn’t just a means of communication but a whole subject in itself. It delves around issues one wouldn’t have thought that language could address. Before we dive into sociolinguistics, let us understand the etymology of it. Socio, like in society comes from the Latin word socius meaning companion and linguistics come from Latin term lingua meaning tongue. Putting socio and linguistics together it means the study of language in relation to social factors, including differences of regional, class, occupational dialect, gender differences, and bilingualism.


Read: What is Linguistics?

Language is the emblem of social behaviour and sociolinguistics, in simple terms, means the study of sociological aspects of language. The notion of this subject is that the use of language symbolically represents fundamental dimensions of social behaviour and human interaction.  The choice of words, vocabulary, dialect, and grammatical elements is influenced by age, sex, region one comes from, social status, education, occupation, and many more. This subject also deals with the social and linguistic details that help understand how bilingual and multilingual speakers use each language and switch between them. Let us now look into how languages are formed and how they have come into existence.

How are languages developed – Pidgins, Creole and Dialect

Languages are formed when two or more unintelligible languages need a common ground. When people of two different languages need to conduct trade and commerce, they try to find ways of communicating with each other and in the process; many new languages can be formed. In the course of history, the most prominent time when the genesis of new languages was during the colonisation. When slaves from various regions were brought together to work on farmlands and various other places, new languages or more aptly called Pidgins and Creoles were born.

A Pidgin is a language of few lexical terms and less complex grammar usually picked from the source language. Pidgins are usually used solely for business purposes. A pidgin has three futures – it can wither off with time, becomes a creole or the most dramatic, can become a mother tongue. Examples of Pidgins are – West African Pidgin English, Chinese Pidgin English, Hawai’i Pidgin English, and etcetera.

A Creole is formed when children are born in a Pidgin speaking environment and acquire the Pidgin as a first language. Creole is developed enough to have its own grammar rules and has a good amount of vocabulary. Creoles are most stable than Pidgins and often continue to exist for various generations or even centuries.  Examples of Creoles are – Mauritian Creole, Gullah of Sea Islands, Haitian Creole, and etcetera.

A dialect is a variety of language that is systematically different from other varieties of the same language. When dialects turn unintelligible also considering the geographical regions, they turn into languages. Examples of such kinds are – Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish, the languages have separated because of the differences in grammar and geographical locations but these languages are intelligible. Hindi and Urdu are also mildly intelligible but their script and grammar are different. On the other hand, Mandarin and Cantonese and unintelligible but their scripts are the same.

When a dialect is used by the upper class, political leaders, in literature and is taught in schools, then it is called the Standard dialect or Overt Prestige or Dominant dialect. When a dialect is considered inferior to others due to social or racist judgments, then it is called Non-Standard dialect or Covert Prestige or Ethnic or Regional dialect. This can be very commonly observed in the United States of America, where the African Americans have their ethnic dialect while the whites use the standard dialect.

Coming to lingua franca, it is a language that is majorly used in an area where speakers of more than one language reside and it helps in communication and commerce among them. For instance, English is a lingua franca that is used the world over.

There are yet some other words and phrases that are forbidden to use. These words are to be avoided. The reason for this lies in the history. It is better not to use these words and offend fellow beings in society. Saying this, let us now look at how languages and sociolinguistics have influenced.

Influences of Sociolinguistics

Developed in the 20th century, this field has many influences given by various scholars during the course of time. The following are a few –

  • The very first influence was to look at language as not just a mental process to a suggestion but as a means that influenced thought by conditioning one’s observations and evaluations.
  • The cognition and consciousness are formed through social interactions, a medium through which children learn cultural and linguistic habits. These habits, in turn, influence their construction of social and symbolic knowledge.
  • It has influenced on how utterances constitute social action. For example, there are times when a simple rumour led to a bank run. Here we can see that a single utterance has caused a social action.
  • Language is central to social interaction. It tells about how people define and give meaning to activities and adjust their behaviours and linguistic practices.
  • The field has influenced the relationship between language, capital, power, and society. For instance, the candidates who contest in elections use a dominant dialect which is majorly used by the upper social strata and not a regional dialect. This is not just about the choice of language but also tells who gets to power and who does not.
  • Acts of language generate, legitimize, and reproduce social resources, distinctions, and structures, and power is enacted and tested in the ‘linguistic field’. Here we can take the example of how language has influenced the gender distinctions in society. Language has dichotomised gender disparaging the existence and efforts of the LGBT+ community.
  • Sociolinguistics research has influenced and addressed the educational challenges. Education is generally provided in the dominant dialect or language of the place which has selectively discriminated against many communities. The provision of English only in the schools might hinder the intellectual development of many. This also, over time, might lead to an extension of the ethnic languages.


Languages tend to give away the speaker’s background, character, and intentions. Language, though, usually seen as just a means of communication, has various sociological and psychological impacts on the population. As already mentioned, the use of words indicates one’s take on religion, region, gender, racism, and many more factors of society. This can be seen through-out history. Nonetheless, language can be revised and remodelled to be more accepting of the differences in society. Accepting and recognizing various languages also helps is relishing the diversity the world holds.


  • Sociolinguistics, by Walt Wolfram.

  • Sociolinguistics, by editors of Britannica

  • Sociolinguistics, by Oxford Research Encyclopaedias

  • Sociolinguistics, by J.Holmes

  • What’s the difference between Pidgin and Creole?

  • What is Sociolinguistics?

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Sunaina is an undergraduate student pursuing Political Science and Economics from the University of Delhi. She finds herself in a never-ending quest!