Language in Social Context

By Fatchul Mu’in


A discussion of language in social context is focussed on a language acquisition and language learning, significance of language in a community, and relation of language and society. The language acquisition is differentiated from the language learning. The former is unconsciously conducted by a language user, whereas the latter is consciously conducted by a language user. The significance of language in a community is viewed from the viewpoint of its importance in a community; and it is discussed in relation to the three inseparable elements in a community: human being, community, and language.

Language Acquisition and Language Learning

For a new-child a language (first language) is acquired; after acquiring his mother tongue or first language, he may learn a second language. Some experts differ language acquisition and language learning. In this relation, let us try to discuss two branches of philosophy: nativism (Schopenhauer) or rationalism (Descartes) and empiricism (John Locke). The former is used by nativist / rationalist and the latter is used by empiricist. The nativist claims that individual development is much influenced or determined by innate factors; the rationalist claims that all knowledge derive from the human mind; he believes that the mind is the only source of knowledge. Thus, ability to speak a language is genetically transmitted. For rationalists, Descartes, for instance, the mind is more active in gaining knowledge; human’s perception of the external world rests upon a number of ideas. These ideas are innate and not derived from experience and are sometimes said to be inherent in human’s mind. In human mind, there is ‘a little black box’ which is then called ‘Language Acquisition Device’ (LAD). LAD refers to inborn or innate ability. Noam Chomsky is one of the supporters of rationalism in studying a language, in which he develops what is TG Grammar, among other things, he differs competence and performance (langue and parole in Ferdinand de Saussure’s term). Also, he differs two kinds of language structures: deep and surface structures.

Whereas, the empiricist believes that all knowledge derive from experiences or socio-cultural environment. John Lock believes that a new-born child is like tabula rasa; it is something like a piece of white paper a drawing or picture or something in a written form. He learns everything from his environment. He learns a certain language from his parents, family and environment. This philosophical thought influences much on behaviourists’ thought (Brown, 1982)

The empiricist admits the existence of LAD in human’s mind, but it is then considered as ‘a potential seed’ which has to be developed and nurtured in an appropriate place: a social community. So, the ability to speak a language in man is not genetically transmitted, but it is culturally acquired and or learned from their elders or social environment. This means that a child will not automatically speak a language just because he is a human being, but because he has to acquire or learn it from his parents or people around him, though the process is not always consciously carried out. This also explains why there is no universal language spoken by all human beings in the world, since the language spoken by man is culturally determined. This is to say that it depends on the community in which the child is grown up.

Empiricism is developed by Behavioural Psychologists such as B.F. Skinner, Pavlov and Watson. It is then adopted by Structural or Descriptive Linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure in the study of language. His monumental work is Course de Linguistigue Generale.

Human Beings and Language

Man is a social being who always needs another’s help. It is hardly imagined that he is able to live alone in a forest without being accompanied by another. In reality, he lives together and cooperates between one and another. Thus, we may agree that human being is a social creature because he has to live a community.

In the effort to fulfill his daily need, he has to work together between one and another. This cooperation can only be conducted in a community. When he needs rice, for instance, he is not necessary to plant in a field by himself. Rice planting is the farmers’ business. Someone who needs rice, he can buy it.

Based on the example above, we have a clear picture that all the members of a community need help from one to another. They cannot live alone and try to fulfill their daily need such as food and clothes by themselves. This is to say that they need working together.

The cooperation among the members of a social group will run well, they need a means of communication known as language. By using a language man can express his ideas and wishes to other people such as when he needs their help. There will be a close cooperation among members of the group.

The three element mentioned above: human beings, community, and language are closely related to each other. When there are human beings in any part of the world, there will be a social community in which a given language is used as a means of communication by the same members of the group. The existence of a language for the community is very important. This is because, in reality, men as social beings always live in a community and need a language as a means of interaction among them.

In the social context, language is not only a means of communication but also it is a means of creating and maintaining social relationship among speakers of the language. As an illustration, take an example, there are two persons in the waiting room of railway station. At first, they do not know one and another. They, then, begin to make a talk to avoid their boredom. They talk many things. They give information to one and another. This is the function of the language as a means of communication and at the same time as a means of creating social relationship.

If they are from the different social and geographical backgrounds, they will use different dialects. Here, we have what we call social dialect and geographical dialect (Trudgill, 1983:14). For instance, if one of them is someone speaking Indonesian language, who is from North Sumatra, will probably use Indonesian language with a certain accent spoken by people from that part of the country; and the other will probably use the other dialect (Betawi dialect) if he is from Betawi.

Other than the regional dialect, there is a social dialect. This kind of dialect refers to a veriety of language spoken by a group of people belonging to a certain social class (Trudgill, 1983:14). For instance, if someone is a middle-class businessman, he will use the variety of language associated with men of this type.

Based on an illustration, a language may have some varieties. In fact, a language itself can be categorized as one of varieties of whatever human languages. So, it can be said that language varieties may refer to: (a) two or more distinct languages used in a community, (b) distinct varieties of one language, and (c) distinct speech levels of one language

The facts shows that there are more than one language existing and being used in a given speech community. A situation in which there are, at least, two languages are used is known as a diglossic situation; a person having mastery of two languages and using them alternately is known as a bilingual speaker; and the mastery of two (or more) languages by the individual speaker is known as bilingualism.

People may use different pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, or styles of a language for different purposes. They may use different dialects of a language in different contexts. In some communities they will select different languages according to the situation in which and according to the persons to whom they speak; they may use distinct speech levels.

Troike and Blackwell (1986) state that the means of communication used in a community may include different languages, different regional and social dialects of one or more languages, different register, and different channels of communication (oral or written).

Furthermore, Troike and Blackwell explain it in a more detailed description and state that the language use is related to the social organization of the group, which is likely to include differences in age, sex, and social status, as well as differences in the relationship between speakers, their goal of interaction, and the setting in communication takes place. The communicative repertoire (linguistic repertoire) may also include different occupational code, specialized religious language, secret codes or various kinds, imitative speech, whistle or drum of language, and varieties used for talking to foreigners, young children, and pets (Trioke & Blackwell, 1986 : 51).

Language and Society

A society can be seen from its physical environment. Our view of physical environment may be conditioned by our language. In this relation, it can be explained that the physical environment in which a society lives can be reflected in its language, normally in the structure of its lexicon (the way in which distinctions are made by means of single words). For instance, English has only one word for snow but Eskimo has several. For English people, it is not necessary to make distinction of snow because their physical environment of society does not enable it; there is only kind of snow in the society. For Eskimos, it is essential to distinguish one kind of snow from another in individual words. Their physical environment ‘force’ them to make some names of snow (Trudgill, 1983:26)

If English people have only one word for rice to refer what the Javenese people call as pari, gabah, beras dan sega. This is because both speaking communities have different interests. It is obvious that the Javanese poeople are necessary to cretae different vocabularies mentioned above.

Other than the physical environment, the social environment can also be reflected in language, and can often have an effect on the structure of the vocabulary (Trudgill, 1983:27). For example, a society’s kinship system is generally reflected in its kinship vocabulary. We can say that kin relationship in Banjare society is important so that there are many kinship vocabulary such as muyang, muning, waring, anggah, datu, kai, abah, anak, cucu, buyut, intah, cicit, muning dan muyang. Besides, there are some words such as: uma, julak, gulu, paman, and acil. Also, the are some words such as:: ading, laki, bini, ipar, marui dan warang (Suryadikara, 1989).

A language is used by a man as a means of communication in his effort to interact one with another. In reality, he is not free from rules of using language agreed by speech communities in which he lives and interact with the other members of the community in accordance with the values and the other cultural aspects. The values of a society, for instance, can be have an effect on its language. The most interesting way in which this happens is through the phenomenon known as taboo. Taboo can be characterized as being concerned with behaviour which is believed to be supernaturally forbidden, or regarded as immoral or improper; it deals with behaviour which is prohibited in an apparently with behaviour.

Relationship between Language and Society
An important concept in the discussion of communication is the speech community. It refers to a group of people who use the same system of speech signals. Another definition of the speech community is any human aggregate characterized by means of a shared body of verbal signs and set off from similar aggregates by significant differences in language use (John T. Plat and H.K. Plat, 1975: 33).

The relatioship between language and the context in which it is used (Janet Holmes,2001:1). In other words, it studies the relationship between language and society. It explains why people speak differently in diffirent social contexts. It discusses the social functions of language and the ways it is used to convey social meaning. All of the topics provides a lot of information about the language works, as well as about the social relatiosnships in a community, and the way people signal aspects of their social identity through their language.

Ronald Wardhaugh (1986 : 10-11) summaries the relationship bwteen and society. According to him, there are some possible relationships between language and society . A first one is that, viewed from the participants, social structure may either influence or determine linguistic structure and/or behavior. For instance, in relation to the age-grading phenomenon, whereby young children speak differently from older children and, in turn, children speak differently from mature adults. Socially, the participants may have differents origins, either regional, social, or ethnic origins; and, they must met with the particular ways of speaking, choices of words, and even rules for conversing. This relationship will be discussed more detailed in the next chapter.

A second possible relationsiph between language and scoiety is is directly opposed to the first: linguistic structure and/or behavior may either influence or determine social structure. This is supported by the Basil Bernstein’s finding on the use of eleborated and restricted codes. This finding will be discussed more detailed in the next chapter.

A third possible relationsiph between language and scoiety is that language and society may influence each other; this influence is dialectical in nature. This is to say that speech behavior and social behavior are in a state of constant interaction and that material living conditions are an important factor in the relationship.


A language is an important thing in a given community, a speech community. It is not a means for communication and interaction but also for establishing and maintaining human relationships.

One characteristic of a language is that is social. That is to say that all speech events must be in relation to the social aspects. A new-born child acquires a language in the social environment (family as a part of the speech community). A language use also occurs in the speech community.

Based the geographical area, one community may be different from one to another. This results in the different varieties of language: dialects. These kinds of dialects are known as geographical or regional dialects. The fact also shows us that the members of a community or speech community are in the same social hierarchy. Consequently, there are also varieties of the same language used by the different types of the language users. These kinds of language varieties are known as social dialects.


  1. Explain why English-Speaking people only have one word (rice) to refer what Javanese people call pari, gabah, beras, sego, etc.
  2. Explain why Banjare-Speaking people only have some words to refer what Javanese people call as perahu.
  3. Mention vocabularies of English-speaking communities showing their kinship system!
  4. Find out some tabooed words both in English and in your own language


  • agus Wj

    Your statement: ” Our view of physical environment may be conditioned by our language” seems to suggest linguistic relativity proposed by Sapir–Whorf hyphoteses. In my opinion, referring to cognitive linguistics, it works in the other way around. what I mean is that ” our environment determines our perception, in turns we cristalize the perception into our language. For examples:
    1) The car is near the building
    2) The car is close the building
    3) The car is next to the building
    4) The car is behind the building ETC….

    I think what makes their meaning different is not because the language has those prepositions, but the language speakers are determined by perception of environment to build these sentences. your example of Javanese vocabulary pari, gabah, beras, sego, etc are the real examples of how Javanese percieve different forms of rice (not because Javanese have those vocabularies).
    My second argument is when we are determined by our language, how could we percieve new things in this world? For example, Indonesian language doesn’t have a word for “internet”, but it doesn’t mean that Indonesians can’t understand it. Through borrowing, they can percieve it. My last argument is: if physical environment is informed by our language, it won’t be possible for “language development or language change”. Language is changing, much of the changes are influenced by our perception to our environment (to emphasize physically and socially). What do you think?

    javanese people need to differentiate vocabularies of what English people refer to as “rice”. This is caused by the different physical environment for one and another. Javanese plant “pari”, the production of it is “gabah”; gabah is then changed into “beras” etc.

    • agus

      I know what you mean. So you agree with my opinion in that environment “forms” our language rather than the other way around.

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