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date: 04 December 2020

The Study of Language and Society

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces this volume on sociolinguistics, noting how this study differs from existing work. It considers sociolinguistics as an interdisciplinary exercise, emphasizing new methodological developments, particularly the convergence of linguistic anthropology and variationist sociolinguistics. The volume cites sociolinguistic developments in areas of the world that have been relatively neglected in the major journals. While many authors include examples from English, contributors have worked in a range of languages and address sociolinguistic issues in bi- and multilingual contexts. Finally, the volume includes substantial material on the rapidly growing study of sign language sociolinguistics. The focus on bi- and multilingual contexts, and emphasis on developments in numerous areas around the world, give an appropriate place to sign languages.

Keywords: sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, sign language, multilingualism, variationist sociolinguistics

From its beginnings as a discipline in the 1960s, sociolinguistics developed several different subfields with distinct methods and interests: the variationist tradition established by Labov (1966, 1972a, 1972b), the anthropological tradition of Hymes (1974; Gumperz & Hymes 1972), interactional sociolinguistics as developed by Gumperz, and the sociology of language represented by the work of Fishman (1971–1972). All these areas have seen a great deal of growth in recent decades. Indeed, with respect to just the study of language variation and change, Chambers and his colleagues commented: “[U]ntil sometime in the 1980s, it was possible for an enterprising graduate student facing comprehensive examinations to read virtually everything in the field of sociolinguistics. That is no longer true, of course” (2002: 2). When we consider the field of sociolinguistics broadly defined, it is even less possible to read everything now than when Chambers and his colleagues wrote in 2002. Hence, there is a need for a handbook that will survey the main areas of the field, point out the lacunae in our existing knowledge base, and provide directions for future research.

Given the proliferation of handbooks focusing on different areas of linguistics, including sociolinguistics (e.g., Ammon et al. 2002–2009; Chambers et al. 2002; Coulmas 1997; Mesthrie 2011), it is reasonable to ask why we need another. How does this volume differ from the works that are already available? Although we have included contributions that cover the main topics or (p. 2) disciplines, this volume differs from existing work in four major respects. First, it emphasizes new methodological developments, particularly the convergence of linguistic anthropology and variationist sociolinguistics. Second, it includes chapters on sociolinguistic developments in areas of the world that have been relatively neglected in the major journals. Third, while many authors include examples from English, contributors have worked in a range of languages and address sociolinguistic issues in bi- and multilingual contexts, that is, the contexts in which a majority of the world’s population lives. Finally, the volume includes substantial material on the rapidly growing study of sign language sociolinguistics.

Recently, Nagy and Meyerhoff (2008: 7–10) surveyed two of the major journals in sociolinguistics, the Journal of Sociolinguistics (JoS) and Language Variation and Change (LVC), to determine the number of articles dealing with multilingual contexts and the distribution of studies by world region. Their survey included issue two of LVC from 1989 to 2007 and all the issues of JoS from its initial publication in 1997 to 2008. Their results were sobering. Only 11 percent of the articles surveyed in LVC, the leading journal in variationist sociolinguistics, dealt with more than one language. The JoS was somewhat better, with 28 percent of the articles published from its inception in 1997 to 2008 dealing with more than one language. Nagy and Meyerhoff’s findings for regional distribution also show that articles were heavily weighted toward North America or Europe. In LVC, 66 percent of the articles surveyed in a 19-year period dealt with European or North American contexts. Only 8 percent dealt with Asia. In the JoS, 76 percent of the articles published from 1997 to 2008 dealt with European or North American contexts. According to Meyerhoff and Nagy, the percentage for speakers residing in Asia or Africa was zero. While this state of affairs is in part a reflection of the concentration of sociolinguistics programs in North American and European universities, a great deal of work has been and continues to be accomplished in many countries. The current volume highlights that work.

For a long time, the study of sign languages and sociolinguistics existed in separate disciplinary realms. However, it is now clear that many sociolinguistic factors are independent of modality and that the study of the sociolinguistics of sign languages provides numerous opportunities to test sociolinguistic theories. Thanks to recent advances in sign language sociolinguistics, articles on sign languages are now included in major reference volumes (e.g., Bayley & Lucas 2011; Quinto-Pozos 2009). Finally, we address the issue of methodology and approaches. For a number of years, sociolinguists seemed divided into camps determined in part by the disciplinary perspectives of the founding figures. Thus, variationists, taking their inspiration from William Labov and focusing on linguistic structure, tended to publish in LVC. Anthropological linguists, drawing inspiration from Dell Hymes and John Gumperz, among others, sent their articles to Language in Society, while scholars whose interests were more sociological sent their articles to the International Journal of the Sociology of (p. 3) Language. Recent years, however, have seen a change. The JoS, which now publishes five issues a year, welcomes studies from all sociolinguistic subfields. Perhaps more importantly, a number of studies have appeared that combine variationist and ethnographic techniques to go beyond the prescribed social categories common in earlier studies of variation (e.g., Eckert 2000; Mendoza-Denton 2008; Zhang 2005). We suggest that such studies, combined with recent work in language and gender, have led to a more broadly inclusive view of sociolinguistics. The current volume reflects that broader view in the chapters on methodology and disciplinary perspectives, in the focus on bi- and multilingual contexts, in its emphasis on developments in numerous areas around the world, and in giving an appropriate place to sign languages.

Sociolinguistics as an Interdisciplinary Enterprise

The first part of the volume examines the approaches of the various disciplines that have contributed to the sociolinguistic enterprise. In chapter 1, Bayley reviews the variationist tradition, beginning with Labov’s (1963, 1966) seminal studies of Martha’s Vineyard and New York City, and explores new developments, with emphasis on the renewed ties between ethnographic work and rigorous quantitative analysis exemplified by studies such as Eckert’s (2000) work in the Detroit area, Zhang’s (2005) studies in China, and Mendoza-Denton’s (2008) work on Latina gangs in northern California.

In chapter 2, Shibamoto-Smith and Chand focus on twenty-first-century attempts at reengagement between linguistic anthropology and the quantitative strands of sociolinguistics, strands that grew more and more separate between the 1950s and the present. Christopher McAll then explores the relationship between sociology and sociolinguistics in chapter 3. Drawing examples from bi- and multilingual settings, he shows how the sociology of language is a key part of the sociological enterprise.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 focus on work in three fields allied to sociolinguistics: (1) critical discourse analysis (Martin Reisigl), conversation analysis (Paul Seedhouse), and language socialization (Karen Ann Watson-Gegeo and Matthew Bronson). Reisigl’s chapter 4 attends particularly to the theoretical and methodological role of sociolinguistic concepts, and especially to the different traditions that have developed over the past several decades. In chapter 5, Seedhouse illustrates how social action is accomplished by means of linguistic and other resources that coincide with many interests of the broad field of sociolinguistics. Like Shibamoto-Smith and Chand in chapter 6, Watson-Gegeo and Bronson also attend to recent attempts to bring together insights from (p. 4) linguistic anthropology, specifically language socialization, and sociolinguistics. They argue that researchers in language socialization can benefit from incorporating recent developments in sociolinguistics into their work, while at the same time, language socialization deserves the attention of sociolinguists as a source for a critical review of existing models, theories, and methods.

Chapter 7 represents a change in focus from the more qualitatively oriented work discussed in the previous three chapters. Brandon Loudermilk reviews the intersections between psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics. Part 1 concludes with Christine Mallinson and Tyler Kendall’s chapter (8) on interdisciplinary approaches. The authors note the benefits as well as the challenges of bringing together scholars from diverse traditions and show how new insights regarding theory, methods, and analysis/interpretation of language and its relationship to the natural and the social worlds emerge when interdisciplinary scholars’ perspectives and approaches intersect.

Part II deals with methods, a central concern of a discipline that bases its conclusions on evidence drawn from the real world of social interaction. Using examples from their recent work on the Caribbean island of Bequia, in chapter 9, James Walker and Miriam Meyerhoff examine the relationship between the community and the individual in studies of language variation and change. As Loudermilk’s chapter (7) on psycholinguistic approaches in Part I indicates, in recent years experimental approaches have become increasingly common in sociolinguistics. In chapter 10, Charlotte Gooskens provides an extensive discussion of experimental approaches for measuring the intelligibility of closely related languages.

The study of language variation, a central concern of sociolinguistics, is a quantitative discipline, and in recent years there has been considerable debate about methods for modeling the complex data drawn from the speech community. In chapter 11, Kyle Gorman and Daniel Ezra Johnson present the case for using the type of mixed models available in the open source statistical program R as well as other commercially available programs.

While studies of language variation necessarily rely on quantitative methods, in linguistic anthropology and language socialization, ethnographic methods are the norm. In chapter 12, Juliet Langman, using examples from her own work among the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, outlines current perspectives on conducting qualitative research in multilingual contexts.

In chapter 13, Gillian Sankoff addresses issues concerned with longitudinal research. She reviews studies that replicated earlier research by drawing a new population directly comparable to that of the initial study (trend studies) and studies that follow the same individual speakers across time as they age (panel studies). The section concludes with Ceil Lucas’s chapter (14) on the special issues that arise in researching signed languages.

Part III deals directly with a number of issues in multilingualism and language contact. In chapter 15, Eric Russell Webb outlines the mutual contributions of the related fields of sociolinguistics and pidgin and creole studies. Kim (p. 5) Potowski’s chapter (16) then takes up the issues of language maintenance and shift, issues that are increasingly important in an era of widespread immigration. Chapter 17, a joint contribution by Martin Howard, Raymond Mougeon, and Jean-Marc Dewaele, focuses on variationist approaches to second language acquisition, with particular emphasis on the acquisition of French as a second language. In the final two chapters in the section, Li Wei (18) examines codeswitching in a number of different languages, and David Quinto-Pozos and Robert Adam (19) outline important work on language contact and signed languages.

Part IV focuses on a core area of sociolinguistics—the study of language variation and change. Maciej Baranowski, in chapter 20, begins with a careful review of advances in sociophonetics. Recent years, particularly with the rise of optimality theory, have witnessed a greater attention by variationists to linguistic theory and by theoretical linguists to studies of language variation and change. Chapter 21, by Naomi Nagy, and chapter 22, by Ruth King, examine these developments in phonology and morphosyntax respectively. Richard Cameron and Scott Schwenter, in chapter 23, examine the intersection between variationist analysis and pragmatics and illustrate how variationist research may draw on pragmatics when identifying variables and constraints and may also provide quantitative tests of predictions derived from the fundamentally qualitative agenda of pragmatics.

The study of language change has long been central to the sociolinguistic enterprise, In chapter 24, Alexandra D’Arcy uses the example of the rise of innovative English quotatives to illustrate how variationists study language change across time and geographical space. The final chapter of this section, by Adam Schembri and Trevor Johnston, deals with variation in sign languages. Using examples from American Sign Language, Australian Sign Language, New Zealand Sign Language, and British Sign Language, they illustrate how many of the factors, both linguistic and social, that constrain variation in spoken languages also constrain variation in sign languages. Schembri and Johnston also illustrate the factors that are unique to sign languages, resulting in large measure from differences between spoken and sign languages in patterns of acquisition and generational transmission..

Part V focuses on macrosociolinguistics and explores language policy, ideology, and attitudes in a wide range of contexts. It opens with Thomas Ricento’s detailed examination of language policy and planning in the English-dominant countries of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Next, in chapter 27, Nkonko Kamwangamalu focuses on language policies and ideologies in Africa, with a particular focus on issues involved in vernacularization. Qing Zhang, in chapter 28, deals with the development of language policy in modern China. Zhang not only examines developments on the Chinese mainland but also explores recent changes in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The exploration of language policies and ideologies in Asia continues with Vineeta Chand’s comprehensive discussion in chapter 29 of the language policies of seven nations in South Asia.

(p. 6) The focus of Part V then shifts to Latin America. In chapter 30, Rainer Enrique Hamel examines policies on both indigenous bilingual education and elite bilingual education. He concludes with a section on plurilingual policies in the era of globalization. In chapter 31, François Grin then explores language policy, ideology, and attitudes in Western Europe, and Aneta Pavlenko in chapter 32 examines the complex language policies in the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and in the successor states. Part V concludes with Joseph Hill’s chapter (33) on language ideologies, policies, and attitudes toward signed languages, with particular emphasis on ASL.

Lastly, Part VI concerns sociolinguistics in a number of different domains, including law, medicine, and sign language interpreting, among others. In chapter 34, Gregory Matoesian examines the role of power in legal discourse. In chapter 35, Richard Frankel follows with an examination of the culture of a large medical school, while Metzger and Roy’s chapter (36) focuses on the relationship between sign language interpreting and sociolinguistics, with emphasis on how “interpretation itself constitutes a sociolinguistic activity.”

No one has done more to promote language awareness among the public at large than Walt Wolfram. In chapter 37, Wolfram discusses programs designed to promote language and dialect awareness, with particular emphasis on his work in North Carolina.

Chapters 38, by Suzanne Romaine, and 39, by Lenore Grenoble, deal with the related topics of language and ecological diversity and language revitalization. Romaine shows how the decline in the number of the world’s languages closely parallels the loss of biodiversity. Grenoble examines what steps can be taken to reverse some of the loss that Romaine documents. Finally, the last chapter in the book, chapter 40, by Anne Charity Hudley, explores the relationship between sociolinguistics and social activism, with particular emphasis on the role sociolinguistics has had in promoting minority rights in the United States.

Although The Oxford Handbook of Sociolinguistics contains 40 chapters dealing with a great variety of topics, we make no claim to completeness. Nevertheless, the major theoretical approaches are represented in particular bilingual and multilingual contexts, and both spoken and signed languages are well represented. The volume offers both an up-to-date guide to the diverse areas of the study of language in society and numerous guideposts to where the field is headed.


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