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Variationist Sociolinguistic Study Explanation Coursework

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According to the Cambridge Dictionary (Explanation 2016, para. 1), explanation refers to “the details or reasons that someone gives to make something clear or easy to understand”. Description, in its turn, “tells you what something or someone is like” (Description 2016, para. 1). In this way, it can be claimed that there can be several explanations and only one description of some concept or event. Describing something, people focus on general things that are the same for everyone. They are static and common so that, being true to life, they would not differ regardless of the speaker. However, people implement personal considerations when trying to explain these things in different ways. Rather often, explanation also resorts to comparison because it provides an opportunity to use the knowledge that was already obtained by the audience or just to focus on the differences and similarities of two or more phenomena, which makes them clearer. Roughly, it can be concluded that description tells what has happened, while explanation points out why it took place and how it developed.

When being used as the main tool for a study, explanation and description identify the type of research design. The explanatory study provides scientists with an opportunity to deepen into the evidence. It allows to get some information about the connection between causes and results so that the nature of mechanisms of relations become clear. Thus, after identifying independent and dependent variables, researchers can identify all elements that connect causes and effects, which makes them understand various concepts and how they developed. Such kind of a study is needed to have a well-developed detailed structure so that the sequence of events can be understood easily. In the framework of the sociolinguistic study, professionals can discuss the way age causes speech changes at grammar levels, for example. Here, they would identify the influences of social awareness as the main factor that makes people’s speech alter (Wagner 2012).

Descriptive study, on the other hand, is focused on the necessity to provide the information that is relevant to the topic. It is structured, but this feature is not as critical as for an explanatory study. Rather often, it serves as a tool for the generation of the hypothesis that can be used in the next research. Such kind of a study looks for patterns and trends peculiar to some case. No casual linkages are discussed. In fact, the sociolinguistic study refers to this type. In the majority of situations, it describes how different elements of society affect the way a language is used in general and by various social groups. Thus, it can be stated that correlational patterns between linguistic and social factors are mainly indicative of description. For example, professionals can try to describe the way Detroit Negro use language, focusing of those speech peculiarities that can be observed only within this population (Ammon 2006).

All in all, it can be said that sociolinguistic studies are descriptive as a rule. However, it cannot be denied that sometimes professionals refer to explanation when discussing the same language alterations and concepts. But rarely they can be explanatory, which allows scientists to reveal the way language variants differ in the quantity of their vocabulary, for example, pointing out why such alterations occurred.

Correlation Patterns between Linguistic and Social Factors

A language is a tool with the help of which a social contact becomes possible that it why it is not surprising that the connection between linguistic and sociological elements is often discussed in the framework of sociolinguistics. Professionals tend to underline the existence of variations in languages, underlying that speaking a language means speaking its particular variety. Jalali (2013), for example, believed that Charles Darwin was the first to say that language differs in every tongue and develops just as human beings. Sociolinguistics underlines the fact that speech forms, such as accent, bear social meaning so that social changes can trigger language ones. This idea was discussed by Labov, Weireich, and Herzog, in the 20th century, for instance.

The connection between linguistic variables and social features also attracted the attention of Trudgill, who focused on the occurrence of (ng) = [ŋ] or [n] that was used as a linguistic factor. The scientist conducted a survey within five social groups “from middle middle class through lower middle class, upper working class, middle working class to lower working class” (p. 6). He focused on family’s income, residence, education, and working position, using them as social factors. Due to his research, Trudgill found out that the representatives of the lowest social groups used (ng) = [n] in the majority of cases, while the incidence of (ng) = [ŋ] increased within other populations. In addition to that, the researcher found out that all participants would start using (ng) = [ŋ] when the situation turned out to be formal. Still, some linguistic variables that correlate with social class do not follow this pattern. For instance, all variety of Irish English has the same fricative [t] and do not contribute to the description of some class. Speakers tend to be less aware of social implications of those variables that are not involved in style variation. They pay more attention to the way they speak in a formal style than in informal one. Thus, rather often professionals prefer to discuss linguistic correlates of the shift in the formal situation, as the increase of stylistic level becomes undeniable. Asking research participants to read a passage of some text, scientists tend to make them more formal so that they can describe those changes they observe in speech (usage of [n] while speaking and [ŋ] while reading). When having this information, they can continue analysing the situation and referring to explanation to share their consideration of why they think the described change was observed.

In this way, quantitative correlations between linguistic factors (pronunciation) and social factors (social class) can be discussed. With the help of description, professionals receive an opportunity to speak about the phenomenon of using (ng) as [n] and [ŋ] in general, pointing out the situation when particular pronunciation is observed and identifying the population that speaks in this way. With the help of explanation and quantitative research (in the majority of cases), scientists receive an opportunity to reveal more detailed information about the nature of this correlation. It can also be claimed that description mainly speaks about the realisation of linguistic variables pointing out whether they exist or not, while explanation discusses focuses on a question of more or less.

Development of Sociolinguistics as a Discipline

All correlations, including those discussed before, are considered in the framework of sociolinguistics because it deals with the area, in which language and society are connected. Professionals started wondering how language development has been affected by culture since the 20th century but even before that some scientists have already claimed that language is under the influence of socially relevant factors. For example, Ferdinand de Saussure believed that language could be perceived as a type of social behaviour (Hickey n.d). With this idea, he influenced a lot of different professionals so that it is accepted worldwide even now. Still, a methodology that could be used to reveal all those correlations appeared only in several decades after that. In the middle of the 19th century, American linguists started investigating the peculiarities of language usage from a social perspective. In this way, they connected sociolinguistics with dialectology. Both disciplines focus on language variation. Still, the first one focuses more on social variables, while the second one on geographical variables. As a rule, dialectologists were historical linguists, which meant that they discussed language changes on the basis of historical texts. As a result, they had an opportunity to speak about the past only, which did not appeal to sociolinguists. What is more, those texts were usually written by individuals whose style was rather conservative, which prevented professionals from observing current situations and focusing on different social variables. Taking into consideration this issue, professionals emphasised the necessity to develop objective methods of language investigation. In this way, random sampling started to be used so that the possibility of biases could be reduced and up-to-date information can be obtained. In addition to that, the usage of the interview as the main tool for information gathering was discussed. Still, professionals stated that it would be better to make the sample unaware of the fact that they are research participants so that the results will not be affected.

Sociolinguistics developed its own methodology and turned into a separate discipline. The process of its development was perceived in three waves of variation studies. The first wave began with Labov’s work that dealt with the way language was used in New York and provided the researcher with the opportunity to define the existence of correlations between linguistic features and macrosociological categories. It focused on “socioeconomic class, sex, ethnicity, and age” (Eckert 2012, p. 87). The next wave focused on ethnographic characteristics of society and started with the Milroy’s Belfast studies. Here, local categories that influence language were discussed. In both cases, social categories correlated with language variations. On the basis of this information, Eckert (2012) developed the third wave. She claimed that variation could reveal social concerns experienced by the particular population. In addition to that, she pointed out that the meanings of variables required specification because they were not clear at that time. She believed that the attention should be paid to the context of styles in this framework. Finally, she stated that variations were a force in social change. They both reflected and constructed social meaning, which increased their effects. Such approach reveals current orthodoxy that focuses on styles (Bell 2013).

Unlike sociolinguistics, theoretical linguistics has a tendency to eradicate social variation systematically. Professionals, including Chomskyan, for instance, would consider those language changes that are observed in the correlation between linguistic and social factors to be just “noise” that can be equated to the acceptable language (Jalali 2013). Still, this approach of homogeneous competence is rejected by many professionals who emphasise the fact that linguistic variables exist even in the framework of one community. Those who support sociolinguistics emphasise the fact that even those speakers who represent one community belong to the diverse population, as they are of different age groups, genders, ethnicities, etc. (Hilpert, Östman & Mertzlufft 2015).

Sociolinguistic Issues Identified by Labov and His Colleagues

The correlation between language and society has been discussed by many professionals occupied in the sphere of sociolinguistics, including Labov, Weireich, and Herzog. In their work, these scientists identified five main issues that had to be investigated in order to improve understanding of language changes in the framework of sociolinguistics but could not be investigated using the comparative reconstruction approach that was previously utilised by their colleagues. Thus, a new empirical method was required to resolve those main issues these authors identified when discussing language changes and their connection with society.

First of all, it was required to find out in general what linguistic changes can really take place and which cannot happen. Professionals emphasised the fact that it was possible to speak only about those alterations that have already happen so that they could be proved with some historical evidence, while there was no opportunity to state that some changes were not possible at all. The next problem dealt with the expansion of these alterations. Labov and his colleagues wondered how diverse populations of a given community acknowledged particular language changes so that all their representatives (or at least the majority of them) were aware of them and utilised them in their communication. Thus, the attention was paid not only to linguistic but also to social environments and their connection. With the help of the reconstruction approach, scientists were able to focus only on tiny groups of people through historical texts, which prevented them from understanding the spread of language alterations and emphasised the necessity of research changes. The next issue dealt with evaluation of the way the representatives of a particular community reacted to language changes. In addition to that, professionals wanted to find out how the peculiarities of the nature and development of these changes affected the way the human beings who utilised them evaluated them. Previously used research approaches also provided an opportunity to gather such information but it was rather limited due to the fact that working with historical texts, professionals were able to consider only rare commentaries written by those individuals who represented a restricted social stratum. The researchers wondered how a language change could transfer from one state to another with the course of time. Finally, they wanted to find out why these alterations happen in a particular location at a particular period of time and not at other ones.

Labov and his colleagues emphasised the fact that such critical issues could be discussed only when observed as they happened and “from multiple social vantage points, including a wide range of ages, social classes and localities” (Wagner 2012, p. 372). Focusing on different language changes, they explained how some alterations in society triggered language changes and described chains of the most influential historical events and speakers. This correlation between social and linguistic factors was mainly explanatory because professionals wanted to reveal the connection between causes and results so that they can answer “why” and “how” questions. Still, it cannot be denied that they had to be aware of the description of language changes beforehand so that they had enough evidence to base their research on and know what to search for.


Thus, it can be concluded that sociolinguistic study describes correlations between linguistic and social factors so that the further research that explains why those correlations took place and how they developed can be maintained. In this way, it can be seen that both description and explanation are needed in the sphere of sociolinguistics in order to obtain up-to-date knowledge regarding particular variation. Description and explanation can be used in research so that they indicate the main goal of the study and allow to find out whether it will address “what” or “why” and “how” questions. In addition to that, it is critical to remember that while description just indicates the existence of some correlation between social and linguistic factors, explanation points out whether it is used more or less by some populations.

The fact that language and society are connected and affect each other started to be actively discussed in the middle of the 20th century, but some professionals identified it even earlier. Still, at that time sociolinguistics did not exist in the way it can be found today. Several decades were required to separate it from dialectology and develop a specific methodology. However, linguistic theory tends to ignore the existence of social variables within one community. Fortunately, the questions raised by Labov and his colleagues made the rest of the scientist who operates in this area realise the necessity to develop new research method and focus on those aspects of language changes that were not previously discussed.

Reference List

Ammon, U 2006, Sociolinguistics, Walter de Gruyter, New York.

Bell, A 2013, The guidebook to sociolinguistics, John Wiley & Sons, West Sussex. Description 2016, Web.

Eckert, P 2012, Three waves of variation study: the emergence of meaning in the study of sociolinguistic variation, Web.

Hickey, R. n.d., Language and society, Web.

Hilpert, ‎M, Östman, ‎J & Mertzlufft, C 2015, New trends in nordic and general linguistics, Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, Berlin.

Jalali, M 2013, ‘A critical look at the variationist approach to studying language’, IJLLALW, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 30-44.

Wagner, S 2013 ‘Age Grading in Sociolinguistic Theory’, Language and Linguistics Compass, vol. 6, no. 6, pp. 371–382.

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