LINGUIST List 11.486

Tue Mar 7 2000

Review: Downes: Language and Society

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  1. Jim Walker, Downes review

Message 1: Downes review

Date: Mon, 6 Mar 2000 22:52:24 -0500 (EST)
From: Jim Walker <>
Subject: Downes review

Downes, William. (1998), Language and Society, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 502p.

Reviewed by: Jim Walker, Universite Lumiere Lyon 2, France


This book belongs to a series, Cambridge Approaches to Linguistics, 
whose avowed aim is to give "newcomers" to linguistics a 
"non-technical" introduction to the subject. Downes divides this 
study into 11 chapters, the first of which, entitled "Linguistics 
and sociolinguistics", introduces a number of key notions in general 
linguistics from a number of domains (phonetics, semantics, syntax?) 
and links them to more particularly sociolinguistic concepts. Chapter 2, 
"A tapestry in space and time" develops the question of variability in 
language, both diachronically and synchronically, and looks at issues 
such as language death, pidgins and language standardisation, among 
Once these introductory chapters have been completed, the reader is 
treated in Chapter 3 "Language varieties" to a more detailed analysis 
of just how languages can be said to vary, an analysis based on case 
studies of bilingualism in Canada for variability at a social level, 
and code-switching for variability at a more individual level. Chapter 
4 has a self-explanatory title, "Discovering the structure in variation", 
and introduces the notions of linguistic variable, style, social class 
and so on. The following chapter, "Rhoticity", offers a detailed case 
study of one particular linguistic variable, post-vocalic /r/, which 
has been used in numerous sociolinguistic studies.
Chapter 6 "At the intersection of social factors" shows that it is 
insufficient to think of language variation as being dependent on social 
class, and looks at variation as a factor of age, sex, ethnicity and 
other factors. Downes also explores other methodologies, such as networks. 
The following chapter explores reasons for linguistic variation, 
particularly the idea that language is an "act of identity".
Chapter 8 marks a definite change of direction. As the author says 
(p. 275), "in this chapter we switch gears." This and the following 
chapters are dedicated to discourse: conversation analysis and ethnography 
of communication in Ch.8, pragmatics and relevance theory in Ch.9, 
discourse and speech acts in Ch.10 while Ch.11 is entitled "Language 
and social explanation".


I mentioned above that this book is intended as an introduction to its field. 
It is with that in mind that much of what follows has been written. The 
author's intention is not to defend his own conception of the subject, his 
own theoretical leanings, as to present the "state of play" of the subject 
without too much reference to its history. In that he has undoubtedly been 
successful. Where the doubts lie, I feel, is in whether he has made it 
accessible to the "newcomer".

Let us begin with the gripes. The first chapter I feel is unsatisfactory. 
There is either too much here, or too little. The author's intent seems 
to be to arm the reader with all the terminological and theoretical 
ammunition s/he will need to face the whole field of linguistics. 
Unfortunately, the result is a battering. Within a few short pages, we 
learn about syntax, inferential relationships and truth conditions in 
semantics, voicing and the glottal stop in phonetics, the modularity 
of the mind theory and the concept of linguistic performance, to name 
but a few. I cannot help feeling that these notions might have been 
introduced either much more gradually, or even not at all, given, in 
some case, their lack of relevance for the forthcoming discussion. Key 
words and expressions are written in bold type, and on one occasion, 
there are 11 of these on a single page. It is not always clear, in 
this and other chapters, what justification there is for using bold 
type. It might seem that this is a minor consideration, and compared 
to the positive things I shall have to say below, indeed it is, but 
remember that this is a book for newcomers to the discipline.
The second chapter avoids the slightly unwieldy nature of the first, 
though the reader does still feel s/he is on a roller coaster of terminology.

Other complaints concern form rather than content. Downes does not always write 
as clearly as he might, and the effects are at times puzzling. Take for instance
the discussion of performance/competence (p. 11): "Chomsky calls such use of 
language, linguistic performance, in contrast to competence. These are the 
places where non-language modules interact with language itself." It's not 
clear what Downes means by 'places' here. The author also has a rather 
frustrating habit of leaving discussion in mid-flow and returning to it 
in a later section, or chapter, without providing any form of cross-referencing 
so we might link the parts into a coherent whole. The book also suffers from a 
lack of exemplification in some parts; For example, the distinction between 
dialect and accent (p. 17) might have benefited from an example, and on p.20,
we are asked to "consider the linguistic data. It appears very messy indeed." 
without it being clear to the reader WHICH data to consider, and without 
any examples.

One or two mistakes have slipped through: 'butter' transcribed as /bVt/ rather
than /bVd/ despite explaining how /t/ devoices in this position (p.7), and 
Speaker D, who should be Speaker F, on page 21. There is also an extremely 
curious opening to the section "How rhoticity is entering New York City", 
which starts: "Yes! The norm but not the practice." This, I stress, would 
not be mentioned if it were not for the fact that they are illustrative of 
a general problem with presentation, which is most serious, in my view, 
in the use of diagrams. Some of the diagrams used, and there are many, 
are extremely useful and serve their purpose, which is to illustrate and 
clarify the text. Some, however, do quite the opposite. In at least two 
cases, diagrams which go unnumbered appear in the text, but are not referred 
to (examples page 150,167), and many other diagrams are either extremely 
unclear and therefore unhelpful (examples pp. 18, 119)

Let us finish the gripes section with a mention of the fact that twice Downes 
uses technical terms in the course of his discussion, before he has defined 
them for the reader. On p. 247, there is a mention of implicature before it 
is discussed more fully on p. 386, and the same happens with covert norm 
(first mentioned on p. 149, defined p; 186)

These flaws are a shame, because the book on the whole is extremely useful. 
Downes' use of detailed case studies is enlightening, and makes a change 
from a more frequent textbook treatment of phenomena such as societal 
bilingualism, which has a tendency towards listing, in a rather superficial 
manner, the different examples. Here, Downes takes a long, in-depth look 
at the language situation in Canada, reflecting on demography, educational 
policy and politics, giving his reader a huge amount of relevant detail. 
The same can be said of the chapter on rhoticity, which is excellent. 
Downes takes us through the phonetic and phonological technicalities 
before explaining how and why rhoticity has so important to sociolinguistic 
studies. How refreshing also to see an introductory textbook take us beyond 
the classic Labovian supermarket study and show us a number of less 
well-known and recounted studies.

On the subject of Labov, Downes provides what I think is one of the clearest 
accounts (beginning chapter 4) I have read of what Labov was setting out to 
do with his linguistic variable. His study of language standardisation in a 
previous chapter is also of the finest quality. On the whole, the chapters 
devoted to what might be called, by this author at any rate, as 
'sociolinguistics proper' (a term to be taken fairly lightly) are solid and 
clear, and useful, I believe, to the curious newcomer.

Downes' previous publication,as shown in the bibliography (which is
extremely rich and helpful, incidentally)has been in discourse
 and pragmatics. The result is that the four chapters 
devoted to the use of language in society and between individuals are 
extremely well written, scholarly, and bursting with information. The reader 
is treated to a veritable minefield of information on all the aspects of 
conversation and discourse analysis, pragmatics and so on, all extremely 
well covered. It is in the course of these chapters that Downes seems to 
take an active theoretical role in the discussion - previously he 
presented the theories, here he analyses them more critically. Witness, 
for example, his rejection of Searle's Speech Act Theory in favour of 
Sperber and Wilson's Relevance Theory, and the absence of space given 
to Politeness Theory (some readers may be irritated at the example of 
discourse which runs through these chapters, based on a conversation 
regarding a potential pregnancy - it is rather repetitive). My reservation 
is this: the very wealth of detail here is likely to be a handicap, 
once again, to our famous newcomer, who may feel a little bombarded. 
Downes, throughout the book, is somewhere between a textbook for the 
layperson, and the detailed historiography which would appeal to a 
specialist. A book to be highly recommended for its chapters on 
sociolinguistics, to be handled with a little more care for its 
chapters on language in social interaction.
The reviewer is Jim Walker, Lecturer at the Universit� Lumi�re Lyon 2 
in France. Recently awarded a PhD for a study of language attitudes, 
with particular regard to the resentment felt against foreign vocabulary 
in French. Research interests: language attitudes, French-speaking Africa, 
French & English sociolinguistics, traductology.
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