Example research essay topic: Examination Of Language Within Social Context – 1,359 words

What is sociolinguistics? – It is the study of
language in its social context. It is a field of
investigation which describes all areas of the
study of the relationship between language and
society. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, a
widespread interest in sociolinguistics developed.
The study of language in relation to society has a
long tradition, but a recognizable growth in
sociolinguistics took place in the 60s and 70s. As
most other fields of investigation as well,
sociolinguistics is partly theoretical and partly
empirical. The development of quantitative studies
of speech has coincided with that of
sociolinguistics and, for many linguists whose
main interest is the structure of language, this
part of sociolinguistics apparently makes the most
relevant contribution, providing new data which
need to be reconciled with current linguistic
theories. The work which is done quantitative
studies is all based on the study of spoken rather
than written language (though in some cases the
speaker is reading from a written text, such as a
list of words), and its aim has been to find out
about everyday speech of ordinary people, in
reaction to the high degree of idealisation that
is typical of transformational-generative grammar.
The aim of this branch of sociolinguistics, like
that of the ‘dialect geography’ branch of
dialectology, is explicitly comparative – to
compare texts with one another, rather than to
make some kind of ‘total’ analysis of each text
without reference to others.

It is the purpose of
studying texts – to test hypotheses about
relations among linguistic and social variables.
The fact that the investigator starts with a
predetermined list of linguistic variables and
their variants shows that he expects the variants
in his list actually to occur in the sort of texts
he has collected, and he also generally starts
with a range of hypotheses about the social
variables to which those in his list are related,
such as region, social class, or sex. If each text
contained instances of only one variant for each
variable, then it could be located in the relevant
multi-dimensional linguistic space without using
quantitative methods. Different variants of the
same variable occur together in the same text, and
texts can be arranged on a continuous scale
according to how often the variants occur. The
relations between different linguistic variables
are also a matter of degree, some being more
closely related than others; and the same is true
of relations between linguistic and social
variables. It is rare indeed to find any
linguistic variable whose variations exactly match
those of any other linguistic or social variable,
though it is common to find variables which match
each other sufficiently closely to convince one
that there is some kind of causal connection
between them. A11 these facts call for a
quantitative treatment of the “data, using
appropriate statistical techniques.

The person
mainly responsible for the use of quantitative
methods in the study of texts is the linguist,
William Labov. In his studies of linguistic
variation, William Labov paid a good deal of
attention to methodology. The questions he was
concerned with were how to collect data, how to
analyse it well, and how to interpret the results
successfully. Following the classical Labovian
approach to quantitative studies, we differentiate
five different stages. In a sociolinguistic text
study, we differentiate five different stages.
Those are: A -selecting speakers, circumstances
and linguistic variables; B – collecting the
texts; C – identifying the linguistic variables
and their variants in the texts; D – processing
the figures E – interpreting the results. A –
selecting speakers, circumstances and linguistic
variables – The selection of speakers,
circumstances and linguistic variables involves
some extremely important decisions, which are to a
certain extent dictated by hypotheses about the
expected results.

It is similarly important that
all the speech should be collected under the same
circumstances, so far as this is possible. There
is a major problem of definition here, both for
social variables relating to speaker and
circumstances, and for the linguistic variables
themselves. How can we define ‘manual worker’? How
can we distinguish old from young? Even worse is
the problem of defining the community to be
studied, since ‘speech communities’ are not
self-defining. The researcher has to provide
solutions which are at least reasonably
satisfactory, to avoid the real danger that his
results will be valueless because of ambiguities
in defining the variables. B – collecting the
texts – The collection of texts necessitates
finding appropriate speakers who are willing to
participate. This means finding people willing to
be interviewed and recorded for about an hour in
their homes, but many alternatives are described
in the literature.

C – identifying the linguistic
variables and their variants in the texts – At
this stage, one might expect the least difficulty,
since we already know what the variants to be
distinguished are, and all we need do is listen
for them. However, there is a considerable degree
of subjectivity in recognizing phonetic variants,
and different researchers can produce different
analyses of the same text, even when they are
highly trained phoneticians. One may also need to
record information about the linguistic
environment in which each instance of a variable
is used since this often influences the choice of
one variant rather than another, but this is only
possible if there is already a clear hypothesis as
to which aspects of that environment are relevant.
D – processing the figures – The processing of the
figures involves counting the number of identified
occurences of each variant in each text, and
comparing the figures for different texts. The
obvious step is to reduce all the figures to
percentages, since this makes comparison much
easier. The next step is to discover which
differences between texts are significant, i.e.
which would form a reasonable basis for
generalising to other texts of the same types. The
investigator has to use statistical tests in order
to decide how significant the figures are.

It is
also important to understand that statistical
techniques allow one to calculate the likelihood
of some pattern of results occurring without any
causal connection between the figures concerned,
but never provide proof either for or against the
existence of causal connection. Even where a
causal connection between two factors is reflected
by the statistics, it does not follow that one
factor is the cause of the other. It is possible
that they are both results of some other factor. E
– interpreting the results – The interpretation of
the results is in some ways the most difficult
stage, since this is where the findings have to be
fitted into a general theoretical framework
dealing with the structure of language and its
relations to society and individuals. Success at
this stage depends not only on correct methodology
at all the previous stages, but also on having an
adequate general theoretical framework. These
methods were first developed by William Labov in
his innovatory urban study The social
stratification of English in New York City (1966).
Labov attempted to attain representativeness in
the Lower East Side of New York City by taking his
informants from a previously constructed random
sample of the population.

A sample frame is any
list which enumerates the relevant population,
simple examples being electoral registers and
telephone directories; the main principle of
random sampling is that anyone within the sample
frame has an equal chance of being selected.
Although Labov was by no means the first urban
dialectologist to be sensitive to the need to give
a representative account of urban speech, his
sampling methods are, however, important and
distinctive in that they were part of a larger,
,principled programme for the quantitative study
of language variation, which itself was designed
to address important theoretical problems in
linguistics. Labov’s ultimate description of
results was based mainly on 88 speakers – just
over one quarter of the original random sample.
The data was collected in just a few hours and
which is a classic example of the method of rapid
anonymous observation. The chosen variable
represents the presence or absence ((r) : [r]
versus (r) : ?) of a consonantal
constriction corresponding to the letter r in
words like fa ….

Research essay sample on Examination Of Language Within Social Context