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Sociolinguistic Concepts: Speech Community

The existing different categories used by sociologists to study society include; economic characteristics, class, regional characteristics, and ethnicity. Sociology defines a community as a dimension of shared possessions, knowledge, and behaviors. Linguists however use another dimension of social organization by using speech community to refer to the community. Sociolinguists, therefore, combine the two (Mesthrie, 2000). Lyons cited in Wardhaugh (2006) has a different view of a speech community and refers to them as ‘real’. The real speech community in this case is “all the people who use a given language (or dialect)” (Wardhaugh, 2006 p. 120; Hudson, 1996 p. 24). This concept perceives speech communities as those that can overlap in cases where bilingual individuals exist and therefore eliminate the need for cultural or social unity. It is noted that c and post-modern cultures and languages. The characteristics of societies, therefore, change with time, and studying such communities requires a definition that includes all aspects.

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There are so many categories used by sociologists to study society. These categories include; economic characteristics, class, regional characteristics, and ethnicity. Sociology defines a community as a dimension of shared possessions, knowledge, and behaviors. Linguists however use another dimension of social organization by using speech community to refer to the community. Sociolinguists, therefore, combine the two (Mesthrie, 2000).

Sociolinguistics studies consider the community as a speech community. They examine the relationship between language and the social world considering how language creates structures in society (Nunan & Carter, 2001). Wardhaugh notes that sociolinguistics is the study of the use of language among or within groups of speakers (2006). The community of sociolinguists however has had so many definitions. So many authors have defined speech community using different concepts.

All these concepts have led to a finer definition that can be used by sociolinguists for studies and even teaching different communities. Below is a brief literature review about the definitions, concepts, and theorists of a speech community. Its use in the current sociolinguistic research is also outlined.

Wardhaugh (2006) and other authors have explained so many definitions of speech community according to different theorists who believe differently about what a speech community is. The following definitions are according to different authors who had different opinions about the speech community.

A speech community is a social group with members having similar/coherent speech characteristics (Wardhaugh, 2006). Lyons cited in Wardhaugh (2006) has a different view of a speech community and refers to them as ‘real’. The real speech community in this case is “all the people who use a given language (or dialect)” (Wardhaugh, 2006 p. 120; Hudson, 1996 p. 24). This concept perceives speech communities as those that can overlap in cases where bilingual individuals exist and therefore eliminate the need for cultural or social unity. Hudson (1996) however notes that it is only possible to consider speech community as people who use a given language or dialect only if it is possible to consider the languages without referring to the community speakers.

Wardhaugh further recognizes that a speech community is not coterminous with a language (2006). According to Wardhaugh, so many people in many places across the world speak English. The language is also spoken differently among different communities that are completely separated from one another. Examples of such communities are in South Africa, among expatriates in China and New Zealand. Wardhaugh also notes that one speech community can speak more than one language for example in African states, Canada, Papua New Guinea, Switzerland, and New York (2006).

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If speech community is to be defined by linguistic characteristics, then language has to be recognized as a communal possession. Using linguistic characteristics to define speech community however has not been possible due to the difference in these characteristics. People do not feel directly related to different linguistic characteristics when in one speech community as it is referred to.

If there is a speech community ‘T’ with linguistic characteristics X, Y, and Z for example, people in the ‘T’ speech community with X linguistic characteristics will not feel directly related to community ‘T’. The same applies to people of linguistic characteristics Y and Z (Wardhaugh, 2006).

The only sure thing in society is that people who speak a certain language use characteristics of the language to obtain group identity with each other and to achieve group differentiation from other speakers. Speakers however use other characteristics such as culture, political, social, and ethnic to also identify each other and to differentiate themselves from other speakers.

Wardhaugh argues that speech community has to be defined using an appropriate criterion and that which does not only consider linguistic characteristics giving the complete definition of a speech community (2006). This author notes that the definition of a speech community is dependent on the sociolinguistic purpose and can be narrowed down to be defined by linguistic characteristics. In this case, a single language can be chosen to define the speech community and the language is also defined for sociolinguistic purposes. Speakers that show certain linguistic norms or share a common feeling about a linguistic behavior belong to the same speech community.

This according to Wardhaugh, describes Labov’s definition of what a speech community is which states that “the speech community is not defined by any marked agreement in the use of language elements, so much as by participation in a set of shared norms” (Wardhaugh, 2006 p.121).

According to this definition, individuals feel they belong to a community because of various characteristics other than linguistics. This makes the speech community very abstract since specific norms used in those communities may not be related to language and even if they were they vary among small groups. Hindus for example may belong to the same speech community as Urdu considering the above definition, but they entirely separate themselves from this group of speakers (Wardhaugh, 2006). The same applies to Chinese who consider themselves one community but different speakers do not consider themselves belonging to that community. Hokkien for example might not express the sense of belonging to a community of Mandarin speakers.

The concept considers shared knowledge, attitudes, and shared language. Michael Halliday and Dell Hymes also had similar definitions that referred to abstract patterns of variation and shared norms and not shared speech behavior. This kind of definition emphasizes speech community as a group of people who feel they belong together as a community and those who are not identified by external characteristics as seen by linguists and outsiders (Hudson, 1996).

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Bloomfield also defined speech community as cited in Hudson and Wardhaugh’s as, “a group of people who interact using speech” (1996 p. 25; 2006, p.122). This concept gives the idea that people can communicate using different languages but still belong to the same community of speech (Hudson, 1996). Bloomfield’s definition recognizes the idea that speech communities are not only identified by what they do but by what they do not do as well (Wardhaugh, 2006).

Charles Hockett also had a different concept of what speech community is. This author defined speech community as characterized by each language. It is quoted in Hudson that, “each language defines a speech community: the whole set of people who communicate with each other either directly or via the common language” (1996 p. 24). According to this concept, communication within the community is used as a criterion to define speech community. This means that if two communities speak the same language, yet they have no contact with each other, they would belong to different speech communities (Hudson, 1996).

Gumperz’s concept of speech community according to Wardhaugh and Hudson, (2006:1996) gives two definitions of what a speech community is. The first prefers referring to speech community as a linguistic community which defines a community by its relationship with other communities. It considers that community members differ in certain ways from other communities externally and have a social cohesiveness internally; a concept that recognizes Bloomfield’s definition. It defines the linguistic community as, “a social group which may be either monolingual or multilingual”. The community is considered one due to communication lines’ weaknesses from surrounding areas and the frequency of social interaction patterns (Hudson, 1996).

The second definition includes another characteristic of speech communities which indicates that speech communities should have specific linguistic differences that separate them among themselves and from the external communities. This disqualifies an earlier definition that stated that speech communities are defined by the languages so that one speech community is defined by one language. The two definitions also put much emphasis on interaction and communication contrasting the idea that speech communities overlap due to bilingualism as earlier stated (Hudson, 1996).

Another approach of what speech community is was advocated by Robert Le Page. In this definition, speech community is referred to as societal groups with distinctive social and speech characteristics. These groups according to Hudson cannot be identified by objective methods used by sociologists, but are those just perceived by the speakers to existing (1996). This definition also indicates that a group may represent certain social types and does not necessarily need to consider the whole population.

The groups in this case overlap but due to multilingualism and not bilingualism as previous definitions stated. The individuals group themselves in various multi-dimensions defined by groups found in the society. Each group has linguistic items that make up their language so that other groups can contribute to the linguistic items in their language. These personal groupings are considered speech communities by Bolinger Dwight. Based on the overlap existing between different groups and how the groups’ items are classified to form items of another group’s language, complexity is created in Bolinger’s speech community (Hudson, 1996).

Speech community definition has emerged from simple definitions such as, “all the people who use a given language (or dialect)” and “a group of people who interact utilizing speech”, to speech community definition that does not even consider the term ‘speech community’ but only refers to groups as with similar speech and social characteristics. The definition of these groups has led to a more complex definition that considers personal groups in society as speech communities. The groups have specific ways of classifying items of other groups into the linguistic system forming their language.

Use of Speech Community in Current Sociolinguistic Research

The speech community forms the locus of most sociolinguistic research especially those accountable to a group of naturally occurring speech. It defines the boundaries most sociolinguistic research look for when identifying and analyzing language variation, ways of speaking, change, and choice patterns within linguistic repertoire elements (Mendes, p. 1; Maros, 2007). The definition of speech community currently constitutes the concept of so many groups that overlap as indicated earlier and with a lot of interactions between these groups. This definition is used to study and to find out variations in speech communities (Quist, p.1; Trousdale, 2005).

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Sociolinguistic research as noted above is the study of the use of language within and among groups of speakers. It gives how language structures society. Speech community definition plays a very important role in such research as it specifies what a community is for the researchers (Maros, 2007). The definition of the community also expands on findings giving sociolinguists more information about the relationship between the historical, economic, sociological, and cultural factors and community languages.

As described by what definition speech community refers to by Bolinger, the concept gives knowledge on how the extralinguistic factors contribute to a specific community and their languages (Diller, 2008). An example is the case of Trio Amerindians. Carlin notes that Trio Amerindians’ community formation is brought about by extralinguistic factors that contribute to the community’s present status and the factors that influence what the community chooses to speak, to whom they speak and when they speak (Carlin, p.1).

The world of today is characterized by globalization which is characterized by post-modern cultures and languages. The characteristics of societies, therefore, change with time, and studying such communities requires a definition that includes all aspects. Language characteristics also form part of speech community definition.

TESOL teachers need to know the language characteristics of a community for effective delivery of teaching services. Knowledge on how the languages arise in a speech community (Nunan & Carter, 2001) as defined by Bolinger is therefore very important. This definition allows the TESOL teacher to identify the linguistic changes in English as well as other languages which is important information in teaching. There are three areas of research that are very important to the TESOL teacher. These are language variation, languages in contact, and linguistic relativity all of which are studied in sociolinguistic research (Nunan & Carter, 2001).

The above paper has described the definition of speech community according to several theorists giving concepts under each definition. These definitions assist sociolinguistics in studying language characteristics about social characteristics of different communities.

Reference List

  1. Carlin, E. B. Speech community formation: a Sociolinguistic Profile of the Trio of Suriname: Overview of the Trio language. New Indian Guide. Vol. 72 (1&2) pp 4-42.
  2. Diller, A. (2008). Tai-Kadai Languages. London, UK: Routledge.
  3. Hudson, R. A. (1996). Sociolinguistics. Ed2. England, UK: Cambridge University Press
  4. Maros, M. (2007). The Social Functions of Complaints in Malay Speech Community. Abstract for SEALS17.
  5. Mendes, B. R. Speech Communities, Communities of Practice and Sociolinguistic Research in “Quilombola” Communities.
  6. Mesthrie, R. (2000). Introducing sociolinguistics. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
  7. Nunan, D. and Carter, R. (2001). The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.Ed. 4. England, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Quist, P. Multilingual Practices in the late Modern Speech Community. University of Copenhagen.
  9. Trousdale, G. (2005). The Social Context of Kentish Raising: Issues in Old English Social Linguistics. International Journal of English Studies. Vol 5 (1) pp 59-76.
  10. Wardhaugh, R. (2006). An introduction to sociolinguistics. Ed. 5. Ontario, Canada: Wiley-Blackwell

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