According to, Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics 9th Edition, “No two speakers of a language speak exactly the same way; nor does any individual speaker speak the same way all the time. Variation is a natural part of human language, and it is influenced by such factors as socioeconomic status, region and ethnicity.” The above definition does not include all the factors that influence language variation such as age, religion, education, occupation etc. However the main focus of this essay will be gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic class.
These three contribute differently to language variation and as observed in Sociolinguistics: A Reader and Coursebook, “The fact that linguistic variation is correlated with a wide range of sociological characteristics of speakers has been extensively documented over the last 15 years by the many studies that have been inspired by the work of William Labov. It is well established, for example, that the frequency with which speakers use non-standard linguistic features is correlated with their socioeconomic class.” This excerpt leans towards socioeconomic class being of great importance when examining language variation.
The excerpt also mentions William Labov who conducted various studies on language variation, Labov focused on the language of ordinary people and he produced variable rules and diverse possibilities of employing them in relation to different environments relating to the linguistic field as well as non-linguistic factors. From these studies emerged the idea of language variation.
Notions on gender differ in relation to the speech of men versus the speech of women. There is a tendency for the average individual to posit that women speak Standard English and men speak more of the Non-Standard variety. This misconception can be easily rectified with careful thought by the individual making the allegation. According to Sociolinguistics: A Reader and Coursebook, “Female speech, in general, has been found to be more disposed towards standard, middle-class styles…Allowing for social class and age, women tend to produce ‘politer’ and more ‘correct’ speech than their male counterparts. p.285.” There is an apparent link with class and gender as it relates to female speech variation. William Labov “noted that ‘masculinity is unconsciously attributed to the unmodified native speech pattern of the city.’ The attribution of masculinity to working-class speech has been termed ‘covert prestige’ Non- Standard speech is thus linked to the environment one is exposed to according to the excerpt.
In a study “Trudgill (1974) pointed out that some males may associate standard speech with feminity, and has also suggested (1972) that middle-class speech may carry feminine connotations because schools, which generally support middle-class speech, are staffed largely by women.” It is thus believed that the majority of schools are filled with female teachers who would use Standard English more in the classroom environment and the male population in the school would link the use of Standard English to feminine speech. According to Sociolinguistics: A Reader and Coursebook, “Women’s role in language change has rarely been linked to the social position of women in the communities studied and to the related questions of what women want to express about themselves in speech. p.377” Self-expression is the key term and if women use their language to express their own ideologies then in a classroom setting the male population would feel that they are being strongly influenced by their female overseers.
“Work on gender and the English language shows that the male-female hierarchy is inherent in the words we use to perceive and name our world: the use of the male generic ‘man’ to refer to the human species (Miller and Swift, 1976); the addition of suffixes (‘authoress’, ‘actress’, ‘stewardess’) when referring to female practitioners. p.417” It is apparent that the words used in common or ordinary speech bears gender distinctions. Therefore language variation among males and females is influenced by society’s hierarchal order of language.
Language and ethnicity is a common issue in the United States. Emphasis is placed on the language used by the African-American community. Studies have been conducted and results vary according to the investigator and investigative method. According to, Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics 9th Edition, “The Afro-American experience in the USA has been different from that of any other group, and the language situation of Black Americans is correspondingly different…During the period of slavery, as well as in the modern period, the patterns of communication between Blacks and other Americans reflected the social distance between them. (Whatley 1981:92)” Language reflects social difference and through language one can determine the race that is furthest away. Therefore it is not uncommon to find that Black Americans speak differently from White Americans. Black Americans would have thus attempted to construct their language so that it would be different from that of their white oppressors. Their identity would thus be linked to their language. Vivian Edwards conducted a study investigating the use of patois by Afro-Caribbean school children in Britain.
According to Sociolinguistics: A Reader and Coursebook, Edwards discovered that, “One of the main social psychological concepts underlying the folk notions of Patois is the negative stereotype of Patois speakers being predominantly young, disaffected, academically underachieving males.” This view would have been held by individuals who perceive Patois as a negative language that ceases to promote social mobility. Britain’s main language is English and since Patois is not English it would not be used in a classroom setting by a teacher. “Edwards’s interact-ional model of Patois use departs from the speaker-centered, stereotyping approach. She argues that Black pupils’ shifting between Patois and the local dialect of English depends on the context of interaction and other local concerns. In Black-White interactions, Patois can be used symbolically to exclude White pupils from the Black community. In Black-White interactions, Patois can be used symbolically to exclude White pupils from the Black community. p.392”
Context determines the use of Patois by Black pupils and it would also be used to bar White pupils from conversations that would be considered as private. This does not refute entirely all stereotypes but it does make the reason for Patois use among Black pupils more understandable.
An Introduction to Language and Society, highlights the differences in class in relation to language variation, “It has been claimed, for instance, that members of the middle class have access to ways of organizing their speech that are fundamentally different from the ways habitually adopted by the working class, and that these two modes of utterance organization involve contrasting orientations to the production of meaning in language. p.122” Individuals who maintain different positions on the social ladder have different views on language learning and language use.
According to Sociolinguistics: A Reader and Coursebook, “One important dimension along which linguistic perceptions may vary is that of social class. In both America and Britain, for example, an association between working-class speech and masculinity and ‘toughness’ has been noted. Labov (1966) pointed to the positive masculine values associated with working-class speech patterns in New York City.”
Labov’s premise was that there is an assured social significance in the manner of producing a distinct sound. The sound he was referring to was that created by the letter /r/. His study revealed that there is a noticeable difference in the social environment of the people with or without deletion of postvocalic /r/. It is therefore evident that the socioeconomic situation of an individual would determine the amount of variation in that individuals’ language.
It has been observed that language variation is diverse and recognized worldwide. There have been different studies on language variation and different distinctions have been identified by several theorists in relation to gender whether masculine or feminine, ethnicity and socioeconomic class.
Coupland, Nikolas. Sociolinguistics: A Reader and Coursebook
Palgrave Macmillan (1997).
Montgomery, Martin. An Introduction to Language and Society
Methuen London and New York (1986).
Meyerhoff, Miriam. Introduction to Sociolinguistics
Routledge United Kingdom (2006).
Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics 9th Edition
The Ohio State University Press Columbus (2004).