Sociolinguistic Issues

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Language and society interact in strange and fascinating ways. Sociolinguistics, the study of language as social behavior, is primarily concerned with the issues arising from language in society. Some of the issues that arise in the study of sociolinguistics include political, historical, cultural and bureaucratic.

Political

  • The phenomenon of dominant and minority languages in linguistic regions can result in political issues. As University of Chicago linguist Clara Chu argues, the dominant language in a region tends to dictate the terms of the culture to linguistic minorities, a phenomenon that can lead to social segregation and, potentially, even political disenfranchisement. Sociolinguistics study the political issues associated with interaction between linguistic groups, which can include interpretation issues, social exclusion issues and even oppression.

Historical

  • Language and society are rooted in history. The sociolinguistic issues stemming from historical developments are twofold: First, linguistic differences typically originate from historical developments -- such as the splitting apart of countries; second, linguists must rely on historical documents to trace the development of languages over time. Thus, historical issues are part of the subject matter and methodology of sociolinguistics.

Cultural Issues

  • In many ways, language dictates culture. The defining literature and philosophy of a given country is often composed in that country's native language. However, in countries that have multi-ethnic origins or roots as part of a historical empire, much of the country's literature and philosophy may be imported. For example, much of European and American religious thinking has its roots in texts that were written in Greek and Hebrew. In regions where several countries share intellectual roots inherited from foreign linguistic sources, cultural differences may emerge.The Catholic and Protestant fault lines in the 30 Years War corresponded very well with fault lines between Latin- and German-speaking European countries.

Bureaucratic

  • Language is often entrenched in law, particularly immigration law. Because many countries have immigration quota systems that allocate a certain number of spots to people from different countries, languages are often used to verify a person's origins. However, this process can be difficult, because many countries have linguistic minorities -- so a person's accent and mother tongue may not be sufficient grounds for determining whether a person is from the country she claims. Sociolinguistics are often called upon to evaluate factors such as ethnicity and cultural knowledge against language to evaluate whether a person's claims of national origin are valid.

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