Language and Social Networks

Sociolinguistic surveys have shown that language variation cannot only be found among groups with varying socio-economic status but also within one group. Following the regular class pattern, we could expect the members of one socio-economic status group to show uniform linguistic behaviour. Obviously this is not the case in reality. Even speakers with the same socio-economic status are characterized by their varying use of language. Consequently, there must be other significant factors than such static social variables as class or gender which can account for linguistic variation.

One such factor is the ‘social network’. The concept of the social network was introduced to the field of sociolinguistics by Lesley and James Milroy. In her study of three working-class communities in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Lesley Milroy (1980) found significant deviations from the classic class and gender pattern. Linguistic variation in these communities could be explained on the basis of differences in speakers’ social network structures. There was a correlation between linguistic variation and a speaker’s integration in a social network.

A social network is an abstract mechanism that denotes the social relationships an individual contracts with other individuals in a society. If society as a whole is viewed as the macro-level, then social networks can be described as ‘micro-level social clusters’ (cf. Chambers 1995: 67): families, friends, neighbourhoods, etc., i.e. particular patterns of social organization within society as a whole.

The character of a social network is defined by the contact patterns between its members (How many members know each other and how well do they know each other?). These patterns then construct different types of network structures which can reveal an individual’s integration into a network. The structure of a network can be determined by the factors of density and multiplexity. The former indicates the number or quantity of social ties within a network (= how many members know each other); the latter denotes the quality of social ties (= how well the members know each other). Multiplexity refers to any factor or link that can deepen a social relationship, e.g. if two girls are not only sisters but also close friends and if they also work together, their relationship can be said to be in three ways multiplex: by their kinship, their friendship and their workplace connection. Their social ties are multiplex in character.

Individual network structures:

Their degree of integration into a social network can give their members a status of ‘insider’ (core member) or ‘outsider’ (peripheral member). Language use depends on how deeply a member is integrated into a particular social network. Social networks are characterized by network-specific norms and values including norms of language use. The more an individual is integrated into a social network, the more (s)he will adhere linguistically to the existing norms and values of this network.

The concept of the social network illustrates the significance of the factor of social contact (to other speakers and their linguistic varieties) for the occurrence of linguistic variation.