Research in Sociolinguistics


As sociolinguistics is such a vast, broad topic, it attracts a myriad of interest from researchers of all disciplines. As we mentioned in the What does Sociolinguistics study? section, different researchers often take on opposing views – for example, variationists and interactionalists

Variationist Sociolinguistics – Strand of Sociolinguistics which is interested in looking at social variation within dialects and examine how variation is rule-governed.
Interactional Sociolinguistics – Strand of Sociolinguistics which looks at different styles of interaction by speech communities.

Below is an example diagram featuring some well-known researchers in the field of sociolinguistics:


Develop your understanding of the researchers cited above via their profiles below:

Jenny Cheshire – Linguistic Variation and Social Function

“Adherence to vernacular culture and frequency and concurrence of non-standard forms.”


Jenny Cheshire is a British Sociolinguist and Professor at Queen Mary University, London. Her research interests include variation and English syntax.

What was she researching?

Cheshire was interested in finding out how frequent nine non-standard features were in adolescents in the Reading variety of English. She focused on the features in the table below.

   Non-standard feature  Example  Class
 1 Present tense suffix with non-standard 3rd person singular subjects “we goes shopping on Saturdays”  A
 2 Has with non-standard 3rd person singular subjects “we has a little fire, keeps us warm”  A
 3 Was with plural subjects “they was outside”  A
 4 Multiple negation “I’m not going nowhere”  A
 5 Negative past tense never, used for standard English didn’t “I never done it, it was him”  B
 6 What used for standard English who, whom, which and that “There’s a knob what you turn”  B
 7 Auxiliary do with 3rd person singular subjects “How much do he want for it”  C
 8 Past tense come “I come down here yesterday”  C
 9 ain’t used for negative present tense with all subjects “I ain’t going”  C



1982, for a period of 8 months.


Reading, in the county of Berkshire.

Her Method:

  • Recorded natural speech in Reading over a period of 8 months.
  • Conducted participant observation to collect the data.
  • There were thirteen adolescent boys and thirteen adolescent girls.
  • The participants that were chosen were notorious for truancy and missing school therefore representing a “delinquent subculture”.[1]

Cheshire’s research rested on the idea of a “vernacular subculture”, whereby those who use non-standard forms have different social “norms”.

These norms include:

a) Trouble
b) Excitement
c) Skill at fighting
d) The carrying of a weapon
e) Participation in minor criminal activities

Cheshire also took into account the kind of jobs that were acceptable and unacceptable to have after the group had finished school, style as marking of status or value in subcultures, and lastly swearing as a measure of vernacular identity.[1]

The boys were divided into four groups 1, 2, 3 and 4 on the basis of which boys adhered to the vernacular culture on the grounds of the indicators mentioned above. Group 1 had the most adherence whilst group 4 had the least.

What did she find out?

The group with the most adherence to the vernacular subculture were the group who most frequently used the non-standard features, whereas the group who least adhered to the vernacular culture less frequently used the non-standard features.

This ultimately shows that language performance is highly structured, the boys that were involved in criminal activities, carrying of a weapon, who chose acceptable jobs such as slaughtering or lorry driving and so on were the boys that used the non-standard features most frequently (group 1).


[1] Cheshire, J., (1982). ‘Linguistic Variation and Social Function’. In: Romaine, S. (ed) Sociolinguistic Variation in Speech Communities. London: Edward Arnold Ltd. pp. 153-166.

William Labov – New York City


William Labov, is an American linguist, widely regarded as the founder of the discipline of variationist sociolinguistics. His research issues include: sociolinguistics, language change, and dialectology.

What was he researching?

He looked at the pronunciation of /r/ in the middle, and at the end of words, for example car and heart.

The phonemic representation for a rhotic pronunciation of car is [car]:


Whereas the phonemic representation for a non-rhotic pronunciation of car is [ca:]:





New York City

His method:

Labov believed that the higher the social class of a speaker, the more frequent the occurrence of rhotic /r/ in speech.

Labov’s sample of participants included a variety of social classes. He conducted the study in three department stores: Saks Fifth Ave (the highest social ranking), Macy’s (middle social ranking), and S. Klein (lowest social ranking) to collect his ranging sample.

Saks Fifth Ave

Saks Fifth Ave

Labov looked for positions where /r/ could occur in speech and noted each instance of the occurrence of when it was pronounced; as in [car].
He collected data through a variety of methods including, asking participants to read a word list and a passage, and an informal interview; this was to try and collect natural speech in the interview and the carefully considered speech in the reading of lists and passages.

What did he find out?

Labov found a higher use of rhoticity in all social classes when reading the word list as opposed to in an interview. Labov concluded from these findings that rhoticity appears to be related to social status. From a sociolinguistic point of view, this tells us that rhoticity in New York is an important, useful indicator of social status.


Thomas, L. et al., (2004). Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. London: Routledge.
Labov, W., (1966). The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Picture Credits

Saks Fifith Ave. New York. Dave (2012) Used with permission.

William Labov – Martha’s Vineyard


American Sociolinguist William Labov, whose interests include variational sociolinguistics and dialectology.

What was he researching?

Labov was interested in phonological variation. He investigated the /au/ and /ai/ vowel sounds, in words such as mouse and mice, which in linguistic terms is called a diphthong.




Martha’s Vineyard, a small island off the Northeast coast of America. At the time, the island had a population of approximately 5,800, however it is important to note that during the summer months this figure would swell as it was a popular holiday resort for up to 60,000 Americans.

His Research Method:

Labov interviewed 69 people, each from different age, ethnic and social groups as to get a representative sample. Rather than getting his informants to read simple word lists, Labov used an interview technique to subtly encourage the participants to say the words containing the vowels which he wished to study. By using this research method Labov tried to avoid demand characteristics and make the conversation as natural as possible so that the participants didn’t necessarily know what Labov was looking for…

Example questions from Labov’s interviews:

“When we speak of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, what does right mean? … Is it in writing?”

“If a man is successful at a job he doesn’t like, would you still say he was a successful man?”

These kinds of questions subconsciously urge the participants to use words which contained the desired vowels, such as life, might, right, etc.


What did he find out?

Labov found that the pronunciation of certain vowel sounds was subtly changing from the standard American pronunciations and noted that locals had a tendency to pronounce these diphthongs with a more central point, more like [əu, əi].

Fishermen centralise /au/ and /ai/ more than any other occupational group

This was done subconsciously, in order to establish and identify themselves as Vineyarders, an independent social group rejecting the norms of mainland America which was bought over by the summer holiday makers.

People of the age group 30- 60 tend to centralise diphthongs more than younger or older people

This was a move from the standard American norms emerged, particularly in the younger speakers of this bracket between the ages of 31-45, towards a pronunciation associated with the fishermen.

Up-Islanders used the centralised diphthongs more than people living in the area of Down-Island

Down island (East) was much more densely populated and favoured by summer visitors, whilst Up island (West) had many more original inhabitants and was much more rural.

A big factor to consider when discussing the cause of these differences in pronunciations in Martha’s Vineyard is largely down to the attitude of its inhabitants.

  • The heaviest users of this type of centralised pronunciation of diphthongs were young men who sought to identify themselves as native Vineyarders, rejecting the values and speech style of the mainland.
  • The fishermen in particular also resented the influx of wealthy summer visitors and were antipathetic to their presence as they believed it infringed on their traditional way of island life. This, in turn, encouraged the Vineyarders to establish a somewhat non-standard dialect and retain their social identity.
  • The tight knit community subconsciously ensured that they created a linguistic divide between them and us. The fishermen were seen to epitomise desirable values, which in turn caused other Vineyarders to adhere to a similar style of pronunciation.
  • For these Vineyarders, the new pronunciation was an innovation. As more and more people came to speak in the same way, the innovation gradually became the norm for those living on the island and was established as a dialect.

Therefore, there seems to be enough evidence to state that generations, occupations, or social groups might be a big factor in language use as a sociolinguistic consideration.

A suitable hypothesis for further investigation is:

“People with a more positive attitude towards Martha’s Vineyard would show more centralisation than people who had a negative attitude towards it”


Diphthong: Two vowel sounds occurring in the same syllable e.g., cow, eye

Centralised diphthong: Diphthongs articulated with the tongue body in the centre of the mouth

Demand Characteristics: A demand characteristic is a subtle cue that makes participants aware of what the experimenter expects to find or how participants are expected to behave. Demand characteristics can change the outcome of an experiment because participants will often alter their behaviour to conform to the experimenters' expectations

Dialect: A variety of language distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar and vocabulary. A dialect is distinguished by its speakers, and their geographic and social whereabouts

Phonological Change: Any sound change which alters the number or distribution of phonemes in a language over time


Gardiner, A., (2008). Revision Express, English Language. New edition. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Penelope Eckert – High School Ethnography


Penelope Eckert is a professor of Linguistics at Stanford University.

What was she researching?

Penelope Eckert’s input into sociolinguistic research emerged in response to criticisms of William Labov’s studies. People questioned whether Labov’s focus on people in terms of their demographic categories (age, gender, ethnicity, social class) was really the biggest influence on language use.

So along came Eckert with the idea of the role of social practice.
A ‘social practice’ is what we share when we, as speakers, engage in an activity together. So, if you and someone else you know play football together, you are sharing a social practice.




Detroit, in the U.S state of Michigan.

Her research method:

What Eckert did in her research was define groups in terms of the social practices the speakers engaged in. She did this by observing friendship groups in a school in Detroit; this method of detailed observation of a community is known as ethnography.

What she established were two very different groups in the school, the jocks and the burnouts, each containing individuals with a mix of social class (parental occupation, housing etc.)

The jocks were a group in the school who actively engaged in and enjoyed school life. The diagram below shows their key characteristics.
The burnouts were quite the opposite of the jocks, choosing not to become involved and interactive with the goings-on of the school and engaging in rebellious behaviour.


What did she find out?

Eckert found that people tend to speak more like their friends – those who shared social practices together – than others belonging in the same demographic category as them, ie. social class.

If you had to observe the language of these two people from two very different social groups (so don’t share social practices), but from the same social demographic (age, ethnicity, class), what would you expect the result to be?

Would you expect the speech of the girl in the top picture to be greatly different from the speech of the boy in the bottom picture? Would you expect the topic of conversation to be about school in a negative or positive way? Who do you think would be more polite and respectful towards others?



Social Practice: the shared activity speakers engage in together

Ethnography: a study method involving detailed observation


Eckert, P., (1989). Jocks and Burnouts: Social Categories and Identity in the High School. New York: Teachers College Press.
Eckert, P., (2000). Linguistic Variation as Social Practice: The Linguistic Construction of Identity in Belten High. Malden. MA: Blackwell.

Zimmerman & West – Sex Roles

Zimmerman and West’s paper “Sex Roles, Interruptions and Silences in Conversation” looks at sex/gender differences within language and conversation. They were investigating the presence of uncooperative interactive features, such as interruptions, in conversation. They wanted to find out whether the sex of conversation participants affected the use of these features.

Conclusions made from the study supported the dominance model, a perspective proposed by linguists who believe men and women speak differently. However, there has been further research into language and gender which challenges both Zimmerman and West’s research and the dominance model.

The video below describes the methodology and results of this key sociolinguistic study and explains more about how their conclusions contributed to the debate surrounding language and sex/gender. 

Key Terms

Overlap: When a new speaker starts to speak at the point the current speaker is about to finish speaking. Seen as an accidental error.
Interruption: When a new speaker starts to speak over the current speaker when there is no indication that they were going to stop speaking. Seen as a purposeful violation.
Minimal Response: A timely interruption by a speaking partner that aims to show you are listening e.g., ‘Uh huh’ ‘Yeah’ ‘Mm’
Delayed Minimal Response: A minimal response used out of sync with the current speaker. May indicate to the current speaker that you are disinterested in the topic


Zimmerman, D. H., and West, C., (1975) Sex roles, interruptions and silences in conversation Language and sex: Difference and dominance. pp: 105- 129. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cameron, D., (2007). The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak different languages?. New York Oxford University Press Inc.

Hyde, J., (2005). The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist, pp: 581-592.

Picture credit Ed Yourdon, 2008.

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