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What Is Sociology of Language?

By Megan Shoop
Updated May 23, 2024
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The sociology of language studies how the use of certain types of language affects society. Many sociologists who study the sociology of language also study sociolinguistics, which is the study of how society impacts language. The theory in both schools of thought is that certain groups of people will use certain kinds of language to communicate with one another. Often, these types of communication serve as either bridges or barriers to connect or separate different sociological groups. If sociologists can understand the different styles of language in a culture, they often have a better chance of understanding how it functions.

Many times, sociology of language looks at different classes in societies to discover what kinds of language they use. For instance, after the Normans invaded England, Saxon language fell out of vogue. The Saxons used a rough-sounding style of language from which a lot of modern profanity was derived. These words were not profane to the Saxons, they were simply words. The Normans, who had supremacy over the Saxons for hundreds of years, brought French and a more streamlined version of English with them. When placed side by side, the Normans naturally sounded more cultured because their language was more lyrical.

In the above example, sociology of language states that the language affected society by causing those with nicer-sounding language to look down on those with rougher speech. The same principles still hold true today. English newscasters are encouraged to shed their colloquial accents for a more standard way of speaking. In the United States, those who use poor grammar are often perceived as unintelligent, rude, or uncultured by those who use proper grammar. In other words, the use of different styles of language has a very large impact on the way people in various sociological groups perceive one another.

Sociology of language can also be seen within sociological groups that share the same societal class, but may be in different age groups, or cliques. For instance, teenagers in an upper middle class neighborhood may have their own language — full of nicknames, colloquialisms, and terms — that the older members of the neighborhood don’t understand. This naturally causes a separation between these two groups. The older generation may be confused and frustrated at the slang the younger generation is using, while the younger generation may become angry when its language is belittled.

In all of the above examples, one can see where sociology of language and sociolinguistics collide. Even as language has an impact on perception, so society has an impact on language. The Normans’ supremacy over the Saxons, for instance, eventually caused the Saxon language to fall out of vogue entirely. Some words and terms from Saxon England still exist, but Norman terms and grammar definitely took precedence when the two languages collided.

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Discussion Comments

By discographer — On Jul 03, 2014

Since birth, we have a native language that we have been hearing since we were infants. We are so accustomed to that language that sometimes we judge other societies or cultures with other languages. But if we are more open-minded and study different types of languages, I think we will realize that all languages are beautiful.

I think that the sociology of language is very interesting. We can learn so much about societies and their roots by looking at their languages.

By turquoise — On Jul 03, 2014

I think the reason that different cultures have differing attitudes towards other languages is because they are not familiar with them. I also think that the popularity of languages or the fact that they are still used today do not have much to do with how rough or lyrical the language sounds.

For example, when I first started hearing Hindi, I felt that it was a rough language in comparison to English. It sounded very strange to me. But after years of listening to it, it does not sound that way to me anymore. It actually sounds very nice. It flows well and the language has a large word pool which makes it very rich. I quite enjoy listening to and practicing Hindi now.

By candyquilt — On Jul 02, 2014

There is a story that the country Turkey was named as such by British soldiers who thought that the Turkish language sounded like the sounds that turkeys make. It's not true but it's a common joke and a good example of how people with smoother sounding languages tend to look down on others.

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