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Many factors in our lives influence our speech, and these factors usually extend far beyond geographical location and native tongue.
Different situations, times, environments, and social backgrounds all help to create varieties in language. Because of this, no two people talk in the same way.
So, why exactly do we all speak differently? What factors contribute to these distinctions? And how do we categorize the different varieties?
To answer these questions, we need to look closer at sociolects and idiolects. Sociolects and idiolects are influenced by social and environmental factors and are formed through the passive acquisition and active learning of certain vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. In short:
Sociolect is the dialect of a particular social group.
Idiolect is an individual's use of language.
This article will discuss sociolects and idiolects and highlight the key differences between the two varieties.
In linguistics, a sociolect is a language variety spoken by a particular social group or social class. The term sociolect is a combination of the words 'social' and 'dialect'.
Sociolects typically develop among groups of people who share the same social environments or backgrounds.
Social factors that influence sociolects include socioeconomic status, age, occupation, and gender.
Let's take a close look at each one of these factors:
This typically refers to a person's class. According to a recent survey, there are now seven social classes in the UK:
The language someone uses will likely differ greatly depending on their socioeconomic status. This can all be linked to the education they received, the people they choose to spend time with (or can afford to spend time with), the job they do, and the income they make.
New words are added to the dictionary every year, and many words that were once common fall out of use. This is because language is constantly changing. These changes are often apparent when we examine the different sociolects across ages. Think about your grandparents or someone significantly older than you. Do you think they would understand if you told them that the email they received looked suss (suspect/suspicious)? What do you think they would say if you said their outfit was cheugy?
Did you know the word 'cheugy' was created by Gabby Rasson, an American software developer, to describe things that were no longer deemed cool or fashionable? 'Cheugy' was the Collins dictionary's 2021 second word of the year.
This factor is about the jobs we do. As we learn and develop skills for specific jobs, we also pick up lots of new vocabulary along the way. Take a computer programmer, for example. They probably know and use a lot of technical 'jargon' that a neurosurgeon wouldn't understand, and vice-versa. Consider the term 'garbage collection': for most people, this makes us think of the day our rubbish is collected. However, for a computer programmer, this refers to a form of online automatic memory management.
Jargon - Specialised terminology that is unique to a specific field or activity, usually used in a professional context.
This factor is a little more controversial than the others as there is a lot of conflicting research around the differences in men and women's speech. Some researchers suggest that it is due to genetics, whereas others state that women's lower status in society has impacted their speech. However, some studies have found that women tend to be more polite and expressive, and men tend to be more direct. Further studies have shown that men use more swear words, and women are more likely to use 'caretaker speech' as they are often the primary caregivers.
Think about your own social background. Do you think it has influenced the way you speak? Do you recognize yourself as belonging to a particular social group? If so, do you think your speech helps you create a sense of unity and belonging within that group?
To summarize: a sociolect is a variety of language unique to a social group.
It is important to remember that most people will use several different sociolects throughout their lives. Our speech will likely change depending on who we talk to and where we are. Think about how your vocabulary differs from when you're at work compared to hanging out with your friends.
As you're reading this, you might be wondering where the term dialect fits in. Let's go ahead and clear up any confusion you may have.
Whereas sociolect refers to a variation in language between different social groups, dialect is a language variation based upon a geographical location.
In the UK, dialects typically vary from region to region and often have different pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary than standard English. Common UK dialects include Geordie (found in Newcastle), Scouse (found in Liverpool), and Cockney (found in London).
Activity: Take a look at the following phrases. Which dialect do you think they belong to, Geordie, Scouse, or Cockney?
'New webs' = 'New trainers' in Scouse
'Giz a deek' = 'Let's have a look' in Geordie
'Rosie Lee' = 'Cup of tea' in Cockney rhyming slang
Bob Marley's hit song 'No woman, no cry' ( 1974) is a good example of sociolect in action.
Although Marley was an English speaker, linguists state that he sang in Jamaican Patois. This is a sociolect that borrows from English and West African tongues and is often associated with the lower rural classes.
In Patois, Marley's song title roughly translates to 'Woman, don't cry'. However, it has long been misunderstood by those unaware of the sociolect to mean something like 'if there's no woman, there's no reason to cry'.
Whereas sociolect is the dialect of a particular social group, idiolect refers to an individual's unique dialect. The term idiolect is a combination of the Greek idio (personal) and lect (from dialect) and was coined by the linguist Bernard Bloch.
Idiolects are uniquely personal and constantly change and develop as individuals move through life. Idiolects are dependent on social factors (just like sociolects), current environments, education, friendship groups, hobbies and interests, and so much more. In fact, your idiolect is directly influenced by almost every aspect of your life.
Much like sociolects, each individual utilizes different idiolects in accordance with their environment, choosing which version of their language they deem most appropriate.
As idiolects are so personal, it's pretty tricky to give any examples. So, let's try a short exercise instead.
Imagine the following scenarios and consider how each situation could affect your idiolect:
You spend a year working abroad in Germany.
You binge-watch an entire American Netflix series in a short time.
You begin an internship at a law firm.
You become best friends with someone whose native language is Mandarin.
Imagine all of the above scenarios are true. You may find yourself saying 'thank you' instead of 'thanks', using more upspeak (rising inflection), dropping some legal jargon, and cursing in Mandarin.
To summarize, your idiolect is your individual use of language.
Here is a handy table highlighting the differences and similarities of sociolects and idiolects:
A sociolect is a variety of language spoken by a particular social group or social class, and idiolect refers to an individual's unique use of language. A sociolect Is influenced by social factors, such as socioeconomic status, age, occupation, gender, and race, whereas idiolects are influenced by all aspects of an individual's environments.
Idiolects are the speech habits completely unique to an individual. Idiolects can be influenced by all aspects of a person's life, including social background, education, friend group, and hobbies.
Sociolects are influenced by social factors, such as socioeconomic status, age, occupation, and gender. An example of different sociolects is how a younger person might say lit, whereas an older person would probably say cool.
Sociolects typically develop amongst groups of people who share the same social environments or backgrounds. Social factors that influence sociolects include Socioeconomic status, age, occupation, and gender.
Which dialect is solely dependent on social factors?
Which dialect is unique to each individual?
True or false: most people only use one sociolect?
False. Most people will have a variety of sociolects and will choose how to speak in accordance with their environment.
True or false, your job can affect your sociolect?
True. Your job can affect your sociolect in many ways.
What is the name of a language variation based upon geographical location?
What social factors can influence a person’s sociolect?
Socioeconomic status, age, occupation, ethnicity, and gender.
True or false, your social background can affect your idiolect?
Which linguist coined the term 'idiolect'?
Why was Bob Marley’s song 'No woman, no cry' often misinterpreted?
Because listeners were unaware of the grammar norms in the sociolect (Jamaican Patois) he was singing in.
Which one is a shared variety, sociolect or idiolect?
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