Some factors distinguish one societal language from another. These factors are what are called sociolinguistic variables. Some of the said factors are culture, social class, gender/sex, age, education, region, religion, etc.
Culture determines language use. Culture, in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, has been defined as “The customs, arts, social, institutions, etc of a particular group or nation”. This simply implies that culture has to do with the totality of a society or a people’s way of life.
It is important to note that language is the vehicle that conveys such cultural values; linguistic behavior is thus determined by sociocultural factors. In light of this, it would not be too much to say culture is like a capsule containing every other sociolinguistic variable.
This is to say that the use of variables such as age, gender, education, etc. depends on the cultural context of such a linguistic usage.
For instance, a young person in the Yoruba culture of Nigeria does not initiate the choice of the handshake as a paralinguistic code, whereas anybody – old or young can initiate a handshake in the British culture. This is an example of how age as a sociolinguistic variable is located within a cultural background.
The type of class you belong to may determine the language used. According to Trudgill (1971), social classes are generally taken to be aggregates of individuals with similar social and/or economic characteristics.
The class system determines how groups are hierarchically ordered within a society, though the stratification takes different from one society to another.
In Great Britain, for instance, we have the upper, the middle, and the lower class, whereas, in Nigeria, it is based on the level of education of the people, hence we have elite/non-elite classes.
Research findings in the field of sociolinguistics have indisputably provided that class and language variety are related. In this regard, the class people belong to dictates the standard of the language spoken.
For example, Trudgill (1971) opines that people in the upper class tend to speak Standard English.
The same can be said of the Nigerian situation where the people who have access to better education as a result of their economic advantage speak Standard Nigerian English while the less Standard Nigerian English is found among the non-elite class.
It is important to note that the English language has just been used as an example to represent other languages. It has been observed that given the same condition, a language user (of any language at all) from a better social class will perform better in linguistic usage than a speaker from a lower class.
This is also important to note that social class has a way of marking the linguistic choice of a language user. For instance, the people of the lower class make lexical/linguistic choice that reflects that they are subservient to their upper/middle-class counterpart.
Research has shown that men and women, on average, differ in linguistic usage. It is important to note the phrase: on the average” as there is always an exception to every rule.
In light of these research findings, it was established that language use varies according to gender. To buttress this point, we shall discuss several findings on the subject.
It is generally believed that women talk more than men. This has however been proved wrong by some research. Marjone Swacker (1975), for instance, comes up with research findings that men spend more time talking than men.
In her experiment, she presented three pictures to men and women (separately) and then asked them to spend as much time as they wanted to describe the pictures.
It was discovered that men spent an average time of 13.17 minutes as against 13.0 minutes spent by women.
It will not be difficult for us to agree with this if we bear in mind the fact that in most cultures (especially African), women are not culturally permitted to talk as much as men do.
It is more culturally acceptable for men to lend a voice to every issue and to pass judgment on every phenomenon, whereas women are expected to be subjected, especially to their husbands.
This view was stressed by Cluster (1971). She analyzed the conversation of a husband and wife and discovered that women were not permitted (by culture) to talk when men were present.
This is also reported by Akindele (1988) as a phenomenon in the African Traditional setting. In this study of the Yoruba family conversation, he observed that men talked more than women and it was very rare for women to initiate and control discourse.
It is important to mention that even with the advent of civilization. That is not eroded in the African cultures.
In most societies in Africa, and especially in Nigeria, a high premium is placed on age. Differences in age systems across cultures have important sociolinguistic implications. Fishman (1971) says “Who speaks what and how, when and where”.
Looking critically at Fishmam’s statement the speaker and what is spoken is very important. Certain words or utterances are reserved for certain age groups. For instance in Africa, the use of proverbs and proverbial statements is reserved for the elders.
If young people must use them, they have to acknowledge the elders as a way of seeking their permission to use those language items. Furthermore, some paralinguistic codes are not expected from the younger language users when an elder is taking them.
Examples of such include: looking straight into the eyes of the elder, dragging feet on the floor, hissing, etc. Not only this but in some cultures, for instance, the Yoruba of Nigeria, young persons are not expected to initiate a handshake when in contact with the elders.
It has also been observed that elders are more calm, controlled, conservative, emotionally stable, and calculated when talking than their young counterparts, who are more prone to opposites because of the disparity in their age and life experiences.
The education of people may determine the level of language use. Akindele and Adegbite’s (1992) classification of the Nigerian social class has been based on the level of education of the people such that we have elite and non-elite classes.
It is, however, important to consider education as a variable in its own right. It has been observed that education can enhance an individual social status, but it is not the only factor determining social classification.
In Nigeria for instance, it has been observed that some individuals are averagely educated yet belong to the class of low-income earners (as Bernstein would describe the lower class).
This takes its turn on their linguistic usage. Imagine a graduate teaching in a typical Yoruba village and another graduate working with a multinational company.
There is a high tendency that their linguistic choices will differ irrespective of their level of education because their linguistic choices will be dependent, to a large extent, on the daily experiences of their society.
This is a case of social class (disrespecting education) making language variations. On the other hand, it will be observed that should an educated individual find him/herself in a lower class, his/her linguistic usage will differ from the other members, of such a class, who don’t have access to education.
If an educated person works as a public bus driver when in a contest with members of the police force, (a typical sight in Nigeria) the choice of language will be standard Nigerian English.
An illiterate driver, on the other hand, will result in the use of pidgin or indigenous language. The variation in language usage is large as a matter of exposure to education. Such a learned driver also tends to be more decent and polite in speech than the uneducated fellow.
This is the variable that gives birth to a variety of English such as British, American, Nigerian, etc. Though the language spoken is still English, the varieties differ as a result of regional differences.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, members of a language community often react to the sub-phonemic and phonemic differences in pronunciation, in the same way, this reaction indicates that the speakers’ regional or social background reflects in their speech.
So, the region and location of people determine their pronunciation and spoken language (dialects or accents)