How do social factors such as socioeconomic status and gender contribute in language variation?

Expert Answers
M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Language variation occurs for many reasons. The most commonly known include:

  • association- adopting a language style, dialect, jargon, or vocabulary to fit or be associated with a group that uses it the same way.
  • dissociation- to detach ourselves from a group that uses such language variation. 
  • personal identity- to define our social personas through the use of specific language 
  • registers- the levels of formality needed to modulate language according to the group with which we are trying to communicate. 

Essentially, and according to the "five C's" of language standards in the U.S. Department of Education, language usage is for:

  • communication
  • (making) connections
  • (strengthening) culture
  • (building a sense of) community
  • contrasting and comparing cultural traits 

(World Language Standards from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL))

This being established, factors such as socioeconomic status and gender can impact the way in which an individual chooses to use the language registers and choices because language is the strongest and most common unifier, mainly used to convey communication, connect  and interact with other members of that same social status, or gender.

SES

In the case of socioeconomic status (SES), for example, the American Association of Pediatrics released an article, as far back as the year 2000, which exposed a continuous argument on what exactly SES entails and what people expect from it. 

For now, it is universally understood that SES is a combination of financial acumen, education, occupation, and social ranking when compared to others. As such, SES can be high, medium, or low, depending on the situation. It is common for members of a similar social group to network and connect. In Albert Bandura's theory this is part of the human need for social learning (Bandura, 1960). 

Considering that the acts of learning behaviors and strengthening them are tantamount to creating personality and building relationships, we can conclude that language is the common binder that will solidify the bonds within a group. Using language is a way to create identity and establish uniqueness. When a group chooses to establish a tone and vocabulary to be known an identified separately from other groups, language is what will set them apart.

GENDER

Language usage according to gender identity serves the same purpose as language variation used for SES. 

The meaning of gender is divided into two categories:

Biological gender is the determination of the sex of an individual based on genitalia, chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive parts.

Gender identity is the external presentation that an individual chooses to use to portray his or her gender-according to their internal sense of “self”. Hence, someone can be born male or female and not feel identified with their original biological gender.

Since gender is both biological as well as psychological, language (which is also developed both biologically and psychologically) goes hand in hand with the dynamics that occur during gender-based social interaction.  

Male and females (whether biological or “self-identified”) have extremely different life experiences. Bonding with individuals who understand these differences makes life experiences less shocking and more tolerable. Language is a huge variable in gender because males and females view, perceive, analyze and judge things very differently. Therefore, the use of descriptors, identifiers, and even the way in which things are categorized will denote a vast language variation between the two genders.

Conclusively, language variation in SES and gender serves the same purpose: to strengthen the sense of uniqueness and individuality that the members of specific groups aim to attain to feel as a part of something bigger.

When people join groups, they often connect with people who share similar life experiences, values, likes, or needs. This is a natural part of human behavior. Whether it is socially, or to have the emotional support of another male or female, language will always be the biggest unifier of everything.