Social and linguistic networks

Essay 2000 8 Pages

Communications - Language



Making reference to relevant literature, discuss the notions of “network” and “network relations” as used in sociolinguistic studies. Choosing one model of representing social and linguistic networks, construct a representation of different varieties of language you use (as a reference point, choose a typical Monday during semester time). Comment on your network, taking into consideration plexity, density and accommodation, and select two linguistic aspects of your varieties for discussion (e.g. lexical choice, or accent, or grammar).


Every human being participates in society and has relations to other human beings. What makes us human is the ability to speak. In order to communicate, people have to find a shared language. There is the fiction of Daniel Defoe's “Robinson Crusoe”, but this is an exception. For to survive and to earn our daily bread we have to express our will and organise ourselves. In modern linguistics the expression network is very common. Every human being participates in a more or less elaborated network. The expression network has got its origin in computer science. There we talk about computer networks. It is possible to combine computers with each other and they can exchange information. This essay is about linguistic networks, that are networks between human beings. In order to discuss the notions “network” and “network relations” I refer to my own experiences on a typical Monday during semester time at Cardiff University. I also want to mention code-switching and describe a classical model of a linguistic network: William Labov’s “Social Stratification of (r) in New York City Department Stores”. Last but not least I want to criticise the choice of parameters for quality of linguistic networks in linguistics. Why do linguists not discuss the emotional quality of networks?

Main Part:

Firstly, I want to make an excursion to computer science. Secondly, I have to say that I am an exchange student from Germany and I am living in the UK for nine months. This constellation indicates that my linguistic network here in the UK is not very dense.

There is a network theory in computer science: A network comes into being when at least three stations are linked together in order to exchange information. If only two stations are linked you have got the dual communication model of Shannon and Wiener (Flechtner, 1966). It consists of sender, channel, message and receiver. In cybernetics you find a network when at least two circuits are linked through a so-called knot. So a network has got at least three stations and can send and receive messages through a channel. In network theory the three stations are computers that are linked through wires, modems or through a field of radiomagnetic waves but not lightwaves. When you use the notion network in social science or in linguistics, it is a relation between more than two people. A network for unemployed people in Germany for example is a social centre where unemployed people meet with social workers and get information about how to manage their situation. You can define “network relations” as exchange or tie of any kind between three or more points. But the exchange is more than a simple physical impulse. There must be a feedback.

One of the most famous models for social and linguistic networks is Labov’s study “Social Stratification of (r) in New York City Department Stores”. The notion network is not used in this model because it was not common at that time. First in the eighties and nineties the notion network was used more and more. From today’s linguistic point of view it must be said that Labov described a social and linguistic network. He examined the use of special linguistic features in three New York City department stores and compared them to the class structure of the staff. He stratified the three stores according to variables as income of the staff, prices, class of customers and social prestige. His hypothesis was that “salespeople in the highest-ranked store will have the highest values of (r), those in the middle ranked store will have intermediate values of (r); and those in the lowest ranked store will show the lowest values” (Labov, 1966). Labov rectifies his hypothesis and writes as a conclusion: “As the hypothesis predicted, the groups are ranked by their differential use of (r-1) in the same order as their stratification by extralinguistic factors” (Labov, 1966). He prooves his model with a control group from his Lower East Side study and illustrates his results with explicit and exact tables. But he restricts his model with the statement that the number of informants in the three stores was too small for a wider generalisation.



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Cardiff University – Centre for Language and Communication




Title: Social and linguistic networks