Social Dimensions of Language

In sociolinguistics, social dimensions are the characteristics of the context that affect how language is used. Generally, there are four dimensions to the social context that are measured are analyzed through the use of five scales. The four dimension and five scales are as follows.

  • Social distance
  • Status
  • Formality
  • Functional (which includes a referential and affective function)

This post will explore each of these four social dimensions of language.

Social Distance

Social distance is an indicator of how well we know someone that we are talking to.  Many languages have different pronouns and even declensions in their verbs based on how well they know someone.

For example, in English, a person might say “what’s up?” to a friend. However, when speaking to a stranger, regardless of the strangers status, a person may say something such as “How are you?”. The only reason for the change in language use is the lack of intimacy with the stranger as compared to the friend.

Status

Status is related to social ranking. The way we speak to peers is different than how we speak to superiors. Friends are called by their first name while a boss, in some cultures, is always referred to by Mr/Mrs or sir/madam.

The rules for status can be confusing. Frequently we will refer to our parents as mom or dad but never Mr/Mrs. Even though Mr/Mrs is a sign of respect it violates the intimacy of the relationship between a parent and child. As such, often parents would be upset if their children called them Mr/Mrs.

Formality

Formality can be seen as the presence or absences of colloquial/slang in a person’s communication. In a highly formal setting, such as a speech, the language will often lack the more earthy style of speaking. Contractions may disappear, idioms may be reduced, etc. However, when spending time with friends at home a more laid-back manner of speaking will emerge

However, when spending time with friends at home a more laid-back manner of speaking will emerge. One’s accent becomes more promeneint, slang terms are permissiable, etc.

Function (Referential & Affective)

Referential is a measure of the amount of information being shared in a discourse. The use of facts, statistics, directions, etc. Affective relates to the emotional content of communication and indicates how someone feels about the topic.

Often referential and affective functions interrelated such as in the following example.

James is a 45 year-old professor of research who has written several books but is still a complete idiot!

This example above shares a lot of information as it shares the person’s name, job, and accomplishments. However, the emotions of the speaker are highly negative towards James as they call James a “complete idiot.”

Conclusion 

The social dimensions of language are useful to know in order to understand what is affecting how people communicate. The concepts behind the four dimensions impact how we talk without most us knowing why or how. This can be frustrating but also empowering as people will understand why they adjust to various contexts of language use.

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