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  What social factors cause language to vary?


Even within the one genre, language choices vary from one social context to another. These choices are related to the nature of the people involved in the communication and to the nature of the communication itself.

In countless social contexts, we regularly interact with others to make meaning and so achieve common social purposes. In doing so we choose to use, either consciously or unconsciously, a particular pattern of language in a communication. These patterns, often referred to as language registers, signal the interrelationships between three major factors operating simultaneously in the social context. These factors are subject matter,roles and relationships and mode and medium. Language choices may be implicit, they may be patterned on observed language use, or they may be selected carefully according to an analysis of the factors in the social context.

As social factors combine in particular contexts, patterns of meanings are constructed. These patterns enable us to predict meaning with some confidence when we are in familiar social contexts. In unfamiliar contexts, we need to identify the patterns created by social factors and so construct meaning.

As a powerful social instrument, language helps people to:

  • negotiate their places in social groups
  • understand, participate in, and reform aspects of society.
In any text, or instance of language use, the meaning is not necessarily carried by any one type of mode or feature. While a photograph carries meaning through the visual mode only, a photograph with a caption carries meaning through both visual and written modes. The addition of the caption may significantly alter the interpretation of the photograph.

Communication media have enabled many multimodal texts to be developed. Through television, for example, spoken, written, nonverbal, visual and auditory modes generally work togehter. An interesting instance is radio news: while it appears to be a spoken text, radio news is actually written text read aloud, but the written text is constructed to sound like spoken language. Meaning, therefore, may be carried by combinations of a number of modes or by all types in various combination.

[Source: Queensland English Syllabus for Years 1 to 10   Dept of Education, Queensland, 1994]

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