Sociolinguistics as a ﬁeld is extremely wide-ranging and includes a multitude of models, methods and theoretical frameworks. Dealing, as it does, with language use in social contexts, research in the area of sociolinguistics concerns itself primarily with how language is actually used by speakers: how it varies, how it changes, how meaning is signalled and interpreted in social interaction. As such, aswell as allowing a better understanding of the structure of language and of the structure of society, sociolinguistic ﬁndings also have immediate and signiﬁcant applied value. Surveys which document the facts of linguistic variation over geographical space, and stu-
dies which describe structured variation in the speech of a socially stratiﬁed sample of speakers provide much-needed knowledge and points of reference for all manner of people who are responsible for taking language-related decisions in the real world. For the forensic phonetician in a court of law assessing a case involving disputed utterances or speaker identiﬁcation, being in possession of detailed knowledge of regional and social varieties of a language will clearly be necessary. For the speech and language therapist responsible for assessing the needs and problems of the late developing child, understanding the nature of and processes involved in the emergence of structured variation will undoubtedly be advantageous. And for the language planner developing the policies involved in maintaining a minority language and raising its status in the community, knowledge of the relevant language attitudes and the functions of code-switching in the multilingual community will have obvious beneﬁts. Countless other contexts involving real-life language-related issues and problems are aided by knowledge and insights gained through research that is undertaken within the sociolinguistic ﬁeld of enquiry. By providing a level of understanding of how language is used to signal who we are and how we ﬁt into the world, sociolinguistic research is immediately relevant to questions involving language users in real world contexts. Indeed, it could be argued that sociolinguists have a particular responsibility to take an ethically involved position and to use the knowledge they gain to inﬂuence the direction of government language policies, educational practices and so on (see, for example, Wolfram 1998). Within the ﬁeld, it is naturally occurring speech data, rather than intuitions about how
language is structured, which constitute the basis for much of what can be described as
sociolinguistic research. Variation in language use, which is inherent and ubiquitous, is centrally important in sociolinguistics. The structured variability in language, which is systematic and socially conditioned, is not dismissed as free or random, nor (being diﬃcult to model elegantly) of little consequence to mainstream linguistic theory. Analysis of this structured variation, and of the linguistic and social constraints on it, allow us to better understand how and why language changes. And knowledge of how and why language varies across time, space, place, topic, audience, style and so on is of direct beneﬁt to those who make language-related decisions. For some, variationist sociolinguistics/sociophonetics – associated with the work of William
Labov – lies at the heart of sociolinguistics as a discipline, and the statistical correlation of structured variation in production patterns with global social variables such as socio-economic class and gender is considered the core area of research in the ﬁeld. Indeed, Cameron (1990: 82) argues that ‘the rise and rise of the quantitative paradigm’ has led to the marginalisation of other methods and models which can sit comfortably underneath the umbrella term of sociolinguistics to the extent that:
for most people in the ﬁeld (and especially most linguists in the ﬁeld) ‘sociolinguistics’ does indeed mean primarily if not exclusively ‘Labovian quantitative sociolinguistics’.