Hudson’s Description of Sociolinguistic: a summary

Description of Sociolinguistic

Hudson defines Sociolinguistics as “the study of language in relation to society.” He says that Sociolinguistics is a recognised part of most language or linguistic courses at university level. It has existed many years before 1960s and is recently noticed to shed more light on the nature of language and society. This is because of the empirical discoveries made through the past decades. Researches were conducted in ‘exotic’ communities where it was revealed that there are societies where one’s parents must not have the same mother tongue. In urban researches, it was noticed that the difference between social classes are as clearly reflected in speech in America as they are in Britain.

Sociolinguistics is partly empirical and partly theoretical. The ‘arm chair’ approach is not quite dependable particularly if it is applied to personal experience alone. Experiences may be wrongly interpreted and personal experiences about language cannot be generalized.

The interest in sociolinguistics has increased due to empirical researches, some of which have taken place in exotic communities to reveal situations that may not occur in other communities.

Sociolinguistics and linguistics

Hudson differentiates between sociolinguistics and linguistics; that linguistics defers from sociolinguistics in taking account only of the structure and rules of language, while sociolinguistics studies the point at which the rules of language make contact with society. He points out that not all students of language may accept this view. However, the view can be accepted on the ground that

  1. One cannot take the notion “language X” for granted since this in itself is a social notion in so far as it is defined in terms of a group of people who speak language X.
  2. Speech has a social function and it will not be okay to study speech without referring to the society which uses it. This view by J. R. Firth is not widely accepted by linguists.

The argument in this book is that the findings of sociolinguistics are relevant to the theory of language structure. Hudson refers to sociolinguists and linguists as separate individuals but without taking the distinction seriously. Some areas of language covered in the book relate more to social factors than others do.

Sociolinguistics and the sociology of language

Hudson differentiates ‘Sociolinguistics’ from ‘sociology of language’ saying that while sociolinguistics studies language in relation to society, sociology of language is the study of society in relation to language. He observes that the overlapping between the two makes it almost pointless to try to separate them further than this. However, ‘macro’ sociology of language would only be examined by sociology of language which includes studying society and language as wholes (this is from the point of view of sociology and politics), since it deals with issues like the effect of multilingualism on economic development and language policies adoptable by government.

For more information on the relationship between sociolinguistics and sociology of language, he refers us to Trudgill (1978) and on sociology of language; he refers to Giblons (1981) and Fosold (1984).

Sociolinguistics phenomena

An imaginary world

Hudson talks about an imaginary world where everyone speaks the same language and that is kept away from external influences in that no speaker of other languages is allowed to come in, and no indigene is allowed to go out. In such confined society, he said that differences may exist yet between the language of children and adult. He adds that child language is the domain of a branch of psychology rather than sociology.

In such community, language change is ruled out. But as change must affect every community, the change experience in this community is such that when it occurs, it involves every individual simultaneously, probably a generation of young people may have a variety different from that of the old people. About the same imaginary community, he says that circumstances have no influences on what people say, either with respect to its content or its form. No formal or informal use of vocabulary.

On this, he concludes that it must be assumed that there is no connection between the culture of the postulated community and the meanings which its language allows it to express. He says that the language must therefore not have words such as cricket and priest, whose meaning could be stated only with reference to a partial description of the culture. This society is one that is meant to show that there is no relationship between language and society. The purpose of this section is to show that only a fictitious community can exist in this sense

A real but exotic world

Here is the exotic world of the north-west Amazon described by A. P. Sorensen (1971) and J. Jackson (1974) this community has over 10,000 people with 20 tribes. It is half in Brazil and half in Colombia. The deferent tribes can further be grouped into five groups of related tribes, each of them speaking a completely different language. And then the five groups are exogamous. A man’s wife must speak different language from him.

Another fact is that the community is patrilocal and the wife must bring up the children speaking the language of their father (patrilingual marriage). It is assumed that in this community, language is sustained and transmitted through the influence of the father and his relatives without any disruption.

With this, what can be said about language and society?

First is the question of relating language as wholes to speakers assuming that language can be studied as wholes. One also need to ask who speaks language X and assume that they include the native speakers; including those dispersed to other communities, and non-native speakers married into this community or they should be limited to a particular geographical are. It will be necessary to define who its native speakers are.

The community will be composed of about a quarter of non-native speakers of the language X been wives from other tribes, every long house is expected to contain native speakers of deferent languages. Thus anyone wishing to write grammar for language X will need to say if the readers would be for native speakers at home or including those that have left home or both native and non-native speakers at home.

Another question is that of discourse. How is speech used in social interaction? When a visitor comes into the environment, which language does he speak? What if he is not familiar with the long house language? Will he speak with a woman who understands his language? The people are advised to learn many languages to be able to travel conveniently. However, in this American society, there are other things to be said about the relationship between speech and the social circumstances in the society. For instance, there is a rule that if one is listening to someone whom he respects, at least for the first few minutes, one should repeat the other person, word for word, everything he says.

Thirdly, the relation of language to culture is not certain and any of the languages in the North-west Amazon may not have a word for ‘long house’ or ‘tribe’ but there may be one for ‘phratry’ (groups of related tribes). It is possible that each language would have words relevant to the culture which are also definable only in terms of the culture concerned.

In North-West Amazon linguists may not refer to language separate from the society. They also cannot describe any language in relation to any particular community. This is a result of ‘linguistic exogamy’ or multilingualism.

A real and familiar world

He examines the world common to everyone but it may not be as interesting as the North-west Amazon discoursed above. The people can imagine themselves fluent in Tukano and sitting in a long house in North-west Amazon answering questions that touch on their society which at the end will provide complete description of the stranger’s language. What are the meals eaten at different times of the day called, what do one say when he first meets a stranger, and other such questions.

This exercise is intended to make readers think about the relationship between their own language and society.

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