Sociolinguistcs – Spoken Discourse Reveals Its Secrets

Do you speak the same when you’re talking to your mother in the kitchen or when you’re addressing the CEO of your company during a business meeting? Do you use the same words, sentence structures, or even the same language with your childhood pals as with your insurance consultant?

Of course you don’t. None of us do. Sociolinguistics studies the correlation between the language we use and the social and cultural context we speak in. Language – even the same language – varies across regions, social contexts, and over time. Your vocabulary, syntax, morphology and pronunciation can shift from standard to vernacular based on who you are talking to, where and what about, and why.  In our choice of language variety, even gender plays a huge role.

Different audiences elicit and/or require different codes and registers. It’s not just teenagers and their nearly incomprehensible slang. We all switch codes based on social distance (social solidarity, the wish to belong, to blend in and be liked), status, level of formality, topic, purpose and function of communication.

In other words, in order to use not just correct language, but appropriate language, we need to understand the social and cultural rules of a language. The “right talk at the right time” requires sociocultural knowledge. This is what anthropologist Dell Hymes, considered by many to be the founding father of sociolinguistics, dubbed in the 1970s “communicative competence”. Translators, teachers and linguists must have and build communicative competence.

Hymes also came up with a nice & handy mnemonic grid for analyzing speech events in a certain speech situation. It’s called – what else? – the SPEAKING grid, it includes all the key components and dimensions of a speech act, and it can be a useful tool for communicators, linguists, and anthropologists alike:



E(nd, purpose)

A(ct sequence)

K(ey = manner/spirit)

I(nstrumentalities = channel and language variety)

N(orms of producing and interpreting interaction)

G(enres, types of speech events).

To interpret utterances and to analyse discourse, we need to be aware of our own cultural baggage, the “contextualized presuppositions” we all bring to table in communication, as well as the “unnoticed rules” that operate in any spoken interaction.

J. Gumpertz, another key contributor to the field of sociolinguistics, analyzed conversations by focusing on the various cues participants use to interpret what is meant, and concluded that different cultural backgrounds can lead to very different interpretations, and thus to serious misunderstandings.

(One interesting case study for the potential of misunderstandings in inter-ethnic communication is the notorious “gravy incident” at Heathrow, where a trifle – inappropriate intonation – led to downright conflict in the airport cafeteria.)

Most good translators will go through some type of complex sociolinguistic analysis when they work on your texts. Whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, our goal is to decode, unscramble, and relay your exact meaning – fine-tuning it to match the sociocultural context of your target group and to generate the same preferred response.

That is hard, time-consuming work – and no, it cannot be done by machine translation. This is what lies behind every word choice, behind every decision which synonym to pick and to use. So next time the misconception that translation is easy comes knocking at your door, please kick it for me.

Using correct, vivid, culturally adapted, and compelling language in a pertinent manner is an art. It takes time, research and effort. Let’s all celebrate that effort!

Happy New Year!

(source: Holmes, J., Wilson, N., An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Routledge, 2017; Gumperz, J., ‘Interethnic Communication’, Hymes, D., ‘On Communicative Competence’)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.