Meaning and variation

Much of what we say, and a great deal of what we communicate, is determined by our social relationships. Thus, in order to make sense of what is said in an interaction, we have to look at various factors which relate to social distance and closeness. Some of these factors are established prior to an interaction and hence are largely external factors. They typically involve the relative status of the participants, based on social values tied to such things as age and power. We take part in a wide range of interactions (mostly with strangers) where the social distance determined by external factors is dominant.

However, there are other factors, such as the amount of imposition or degree of friendliness, which are often negotiated during an interaction. They are internal to the interaction and can result in the initial social distance changing and being marked as less, or more, during discourse. These internal factors are typically more relevant to participants whose social relationships are actually in the process of being worked out within the interaction.

Both types of factors, external and internal, have an influence not only on what we say, but also on how we are interpreted. They can be investigated in terms of linguistic politeness and dialects and sociolects.

Linguistic politeness
Dialects and sociolects