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Sociolinguistics

This page explains what the subject of sociolinguistics covers, gives an overview of the material the British Library holds for this subject, and advice on how you can find and use it. It also gives details of current activities for developing the collections for this subject.

Sociolinguistics is concerned with establishing how and why language changes over time and how social factors, such as a speaker's age, gender, ethnicity, social status, geographical location or educational background, affect his/her linguistic behaviour. It is also concerned with how individuals adapt their speech (and writing) habits according to contextual factors such as the setting, purpose or audience and how historical, cultural, political, religious, ethnic and social factors influence the linguistic choices of whole speech communities.

Collection overview

Overall we have:

  • a comprehensive collection of UK English-language books and monographs, most of which are stored at Boston Spa and have to be ordered in advance
  • an extensive journals collection for sociolinguistics, and many electronic publications
  • significant amounts of grey literature
  • important special collections include newspapers and the Sound Archive, which has extremely relevant holdings, particularly within the Oral History section
  • extensive material in local, indigenous languages as a primary linguistic resource, with particularly strong native American collections pre-1900. These, with strengths in European and in Asian, Pacific and African languages mean that the Library offers a world-wide primary resource for comparative, historic, socio-linguistic and dialect research, with depth demonstrated in its historic collections of maps, newspapers, and manuscripts

Online access to sociolinguistics holdings

The British Library has two dedicated websites that give free access to sociolinguistic material – an online dialects of England archive, Sounds, and an interactive UK-wide accents and dialects resource, Sounds Familiar?. In addition, British Newspapers 1600-1900 is available to researchers based at UK Higher Education establishments. We also archive important websites as part of the UK Web Archiving Consortium.

Finding aids

  • Explore the British Library to find details of books, reports, journal titles, newspapers, maps and many more parts of the Library’s collections
  • topical bibliographies on subjects such as the Enron scandal

Social Sciences Enquiry team

For more help on using the Social Sciences collections, contact the Enquiry team at Social-sciences@bl.uk or telephone +44 (0)20 7412 7894 from 10.00 - 20.00 Mon- Thurs or 10.00 - 17.00 Friday.

Current activities

Workshops and visits – book a free educational workshop for schools and teachers in partnership with BL Learning. Jonnie Robinson, the British Library's Content Specialist for Sociolinguistics, explores ways of analysing spoken English, focusing on the dual aspects of language variation and language change and using audio extracts from BL collections.

Send us your voices – for teachers and students, this is your chance to contribute to the BL’s ongoing research into contemporary spoken English across the UK and to have your voices archived here at the British Library and published as part of the Sounds Familiar? online resource.

Voices of the UK – a three-year project funded from February 2009 by The Leverhulme Trust. The key outcomes of this project will be an online catalogue of the contents of the BBC Voices sound recordings, a searchable database of linguistic features in the recordings and a detailed linguistic description of approximately 200 Voices recordings.

Children’s Playground Games and Songs in the New Media Age – a collaborative project with researchers at the Institute of Education and the Universities of Sheffield and East London, funded for 2 years from April 2009 by the AHRC Beyond Text scheme. The project investigates the relationship between the tradition of oral folk and popular cultures, established media cultures (comic-strip, television, advertising, film, computer games) and new entertainment media (YouTube, Wii, Singstar, Dancemat). A key output will be an interactive website featuring recordings from the Opie Collection of Children’s Games and Songs and contemporary ethnographic studies conducted in schools in Sheffield and London.

Regional Speech in Yorkshire – Sarah Haigh, a BL/University of Sheffield PhD student, is investigating evidence of Yorkshire dialect in the BL Sound Archive’s Millennium Memory Bank, a collection created by BBC Local Radio in 1999 with over 500 recordings from BBC Radio Cleveland, York, Leeds, Humberside and Sheffield. This project will create a template for work with other HEIs interested in examining regional speech using BL archival material.

British Library Content Strategy

We have refined our Content Strategy (i.e what we collect now and in future). Please see the content strategy pages on our website. These pages are organised by subject. Please remember that different aspects of a research theme may be described under more than one subject. A subject will also cover a variety of research themes, so even though your topic may not be specifically listed, it will likely be found under one of our headings.

If you have comments on the Library's content strategy, we would be pleased to hear from you.