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Sociolect vs Idiolect

Sociolect vs Idiolect

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?

Sociolects and Idiolects

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.

Importance of sociolects in linguistics

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:

Socioeconomic status

This typically refers to a person's class. According to a recent survey, there are now seven social classes in the UK:

  • Precariat (precarious proletariat)
  • Emergency service workers
  • Traditional working class
  • New affluent workers
  • Technical middle class
  • Established middle class
  • Elite

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.

Age

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.

Occupation

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.

Gender

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 summarise: 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.

Sociolect vs Idiolect Grandma on the computer StudySmarterAge is one of many social factors that will influence a person's language use.

Sociolect vs dialect

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 web'
  • 'Giz a deek?'
  • 'Rosie Lee'

Answers:

'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

Example of sociolect

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'.

Importance of idiolects in linguistics

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 utilises different idiolects in accordance with their environment, choosing which version of their language they deem most appropriate.

Idiolect examples

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:

  1. You spend a year working abroad in Germany.

  2. You binge-watch an entire American Netflix series in a short time.

  3. You begin an internship at a law firm.

  4. 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.

Sociolect vs Idiolect

Here is a handy table highlighting the differences and similarities between sociolects and idiolects:

idiolect
  • Is influenced by social groups
  • Is a shared variety
  • Is influenced by social factors such as socioeconomic status, age, occupation, and gender
  • Most people make use of several sociolects.
  • Is based on the individual
  • Is unique
  • Is influenced by all aspects of an individual's environment
  • Most people make use of several idiolects.

Sociolect vs Idiolect - Key takeaways

  • A sociolect is a variety of language spoken by a particular social group or social class.
  • Social factors that influence sociolects include socioeconomic status, age, occupation, and gender.
  • Idiolect refers to an individual's unique dialect. Idiolects are uniquely personal and constantly change and develop as individuals move through life.
  • Your idiolect is directly influenced by almost every aspect of your life.
  • Whereas sociolect refers to the dialect of a particular social group, idiolect is an individual's unique use of language.

Frequently Asked Questions about Sociolect vs Idiolect

 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.

Examples of idiolect involve your individual use of language. If you did an internship at a German legal firm you may find you have changed your daily vocabulary to include German legal phrases. 

Final Sociolect vs Idiolect Quiz

Question

Which dialect is solely dependent on social factors?

Show answer

Answer

Sociolect. 

Show question

Question

Which dialect is unique to each individual?

Show answer

Answer

Idiolect.

Show question

Question

True or false: most people only use one sociolect?

Show answer

Answer

False. Most people will have a variety of sociolects and will choose how to speak in accordance with their environment.

Show question

Question

True or false, your job can affect your sociolect?

Show answer

Answer

True. Your job can affect your sociolect in many ways.

Show question

Question

What is the name of a language variation based upon geographical location?


Show answer

Answer

Dialect.

Show question

Question

What social factors can influence a person’s sociolect?


Show answer

Answer

Socioeconomic status, age, occupation, ethnicity, and gender.

Show question

Question

True or false, your social background can affect your idiolect?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Which linguist coined the term 'idiolect'?

Show answer

Answer

Bernard Bloch.

Show question

Question

Why was Bob Marley’s song 'No woman, no cry' often misinterpreted?

Show answer

Answer

Because listeners were unaware of the grammar norms in the sociolect (Jamaican Patois) he was singing in.

Show question

Question

Which one is a shared variety, sociolect or idiolect?

Show answer

Answer

Sociolect.

Show question

Question

What is a sociolect?

Show answer

Answer

A sociolect is the dialect of a particular social group.

Show question

Question

What is an idiolect?

Show answer

Answer

An idiolect is an individual's use of language.

Show question

Question

What are the seven social classes in the UK according to a recent survey?

Show answer

Answer

  • Precariat (precarious proletariat)
  • Emergency service workers 
  • Traditional working class
  • New affluent workers
  • Technical middle class
  • Established middle class
  • Elite

Show question

Question

Define 'jargon'.

Show answer

Answer

Jargon is specialised terminology that is unique to a specific field or activity, usually used in a professional context. Jargon might be difficult for people outside of a particular profession to understand. 

Show question

Question

Which gender is more likely to use 'caretaker speech'?

Show answer

Answer

Women

Show question

Question

What is Jamaican Patois?

Show answer

Answer

Jamaican Patois is a sociolect that borrows from English and West African tongues and is often associated with the lower rural classes.

Show question

Question

True or false: idiolects and sociolects are formed from passive acquisition and active learning of certain vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What two words is the term 'sociolect' a combination of?

Show answer

Answer

Social and dialect

Show question

Question

What factors influence how socioeconomic status impacts language use? Name three factors. 

Show answer

Answer

Any of these:

  • education level
  • occupation
  • income
  • who a person spends time with

Show question

Question

Why are words constantly being added and removed from the dictionary?

Show answer

Answer

Language is always changing and evolving, which means some words lose their meaning or relevance, whilst others are thought up or coined. 

Show question

Question

According to some linguistic studies, women tend to be more polite and expressive whereas men are more fact-based and direct. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What two factors will often influence the kind of language we use?

Show answer

Answer

  • where we are
  • who we are talking to

Show question

Question

People generally use the same kind of language at work as they do when they're chatting with friends. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False, the language we use in these two different situations is often very different. 

Show question

Question

Name three common dialects found in the UK.

Show answer

Answer

  • Scouse
  • Geordie
  • Cockney

Show question

Question

What does the prefix 'idio' mean?

Show answer

Answer

'Idio' originates from Greek and means 'personal'.

Show question

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