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Linguistic Variation And Social Categories Notes

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Olivia Alter


"Class and occupation are among the most important linguistic markers found in society. One of the fundamental findings of sociolinguistics, which has been hard to disprove, is that class and language variety are related." (Wikipedia). Is this an accurate summary of the relationship between linguistic variation and social categories?
The aim of sociolinguistics is to discover whether linguistic variation is due to specific factors in society, as opposed to something like geographical factors, which is more the role of dialectologists. These factors may include features such as ethnicity or religion, though most studies, and this essay, concentrate on class, network, gender, and age as the main constraints. There is evidence that all of these factors are important linguistic markers in society; however, they clearly differ in their relative objectivity. Even in the title, mentioning occupation alongside class suggests that 'class' is a broad concept. Furthermore, the title quotes from Wikipedia, a website which includes entries on numerous topics that people can edit as they choose. Both of these ideas highlight the subjectivity or personal view of class. It must therefore be questioned whether an accurate summary of the relationship between linguistic variation and social categories can still be made despite class being less objective than, say, gender and age, or if other social factors could be better employed. First, however, one must expand upon what exactly class entails, and how it is said to relate to language variety. Class is a measure of someone's status, based upon their income, occupation, educational level, family background, and life-style. As Milroy (1987) says, class does reflect social reality to some extent, but the groupings one ends up with, such as 'lower class', do not have an objective reality. Class must be recognised as a complex variable, since it has to be calculated with reference to the above indicators (as will be shown later), and so it is a highly abstract notion. The quantitative methodology used for the analysis of sociolinguistic studies enables investigators to explain aspects of linguistic variation based on social factors, but in all studies there is generally a random variation which may not be accounted for in the same way; this emphasises that sociolinguists are still just exploring the idea of relating linguistic variation and social variation. The concept of exploration is upheld by the use of judgement samples in studies, as opposed to random samples. Chambers (1995) notes that subjects are chosen on the

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