LINGUIST List 14.1242

Fri May 2 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics: Chambers (2003)

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Simin Karimi at


  1. Margaret Sonmez, Sociolinguistic Theory, 2nd ed.

Message 1: Sociolinguistic Theory, 2nd ed.

Date: Fri, 25 Apr 2003 13:37:46 +0300
From: Margaret Sonmez <>
Subject: Sociolinguistic Theory, 2nd ed.

Chambers, J. K. 2003 Sociolinguistic Theory, 2nd ed., Polity (imprint
of Blackwell Publishers) Language in Society series. 

Announced at (1st ed.)
Announced at (2nd ed.)

Margaret J-M Sonmez, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey.

General Introduction

The book's stated aim is to provide a critical synthesis of studies in
sociolinguistic covariation (xiv), suitable for any reader with basic
linguistic knowledge. The author places it as a resource for first or
second level courses (xx). It is an excellent introduction to the
subject. Since the appearance of the first edition in 1995, however,
it has also found a place as a standard source of comments
encapsulating the state of our sociolinguistic understanding to date,
and is referred to in this way in many scholarly works.

The author achieves a pleasant style and format that steer a middle
course between easy-to-follow explanation and the presentation of
methodological and theoretical issues.As a result it is both a very
informative and a very enjoyable book to read, and one that should be
on every linguistics student's reading list.

Critical Comments

(a) Presentation of the material

The 'theory' of the title refers to the general understanding of the
term as expressed by, for instance Collins' definition: 'a system of
rules, procedures and assumptions used to produce a result', rather
than to the more abstract understanding of the term sometimes used by
social scientists, in which it is understood to mean 'an examined
conceptualization of some object' (Sayer, 51). As a result the book
focusses on issues internal to the topic and its methodologies. This
is reflected in the organisation of its contents, where issues such as
categoricity (Chambers' term), the centrality of correlation to the
discipline and other methodological assumptions, and the significance
of (language) variation are discussed in the first ('Correlations')
and last ('Adaptive Significance of Language Variation') chapters,
with the core chapters being devoted to subjects of a more immediate
application to the practice of sociolinguistics (Chapter 2: Class,
Network and Mobility, Chapter 3: Expressing Sex and Gender, Chapter 4:
Accents in Time). Concerning a shortage of other works dealing with
sociolinguistic theory, Chambers writes that this may be due to the
fact 'that the social science content of sociolinguistics had
overshadowed its theoretical implications' (11). This book discusses
the main parameters of sociolinguistic analysis *through* the social
science content of the subject - certainly it still takes a
case-studies approach, which is one of the reasons for its
readability. Descriptions of the studies used are a pleasure to read,
being very clearly presented and well illustrated.

The adoption of a chronological approach further identifies the book
as a teaching aid or introduction, rather than purely as a reference
work. The story of sociolinguistics unfolds as we learn about the
Observer's Paradox, the extent to which we should or should not make
fine sub-class distinctions in our research, ways of interpreting
differences between men's and women's speech, how to calculate network
densities - and much more. There is a drawback to this ordering,
however, though it is one that affects only the more advanced reader
who may wonder when the latest findings will be included in the
discussion. In Chapter 2, for instance, when discussing cultural and
biological foundations of differences between the speech of men and
women, the reader who already knows a little cognitive linguistics may
for many pages feel that an essential part of the subject has been
ignored, because it is only 35 pages into the chapter that
neurological issues are at last mentioned. Such a step-by-step
building up towards our current state of knowledge is found in every
section, leading to a perhaps unintentional emphasis on the questions
and on the early attempts to answer them, rather than on the latest
understanding of these issues. The approach is consonant, too, with
the generally teleological position taken throughout the book,
particularly noticeable in the discussion of the significance of
language variation in the last chapter, where we come across such
assumptions as 'the fact that linguistic variation is universal and
ubiquitous suggests strongly that it is fulfilling some essential
human need' (228).

(b) Selection of Materials

The Big Four - Labov, Trudgill, J and L Milroy - are included at
(almost) every step of the way, and quite rightly too. But so very
much is not mentioned. This is a conscious decision of the writer,
whose topic here is 'the social significance of language variation
[which] is only one aspect of the discipline of sociolinguistics,
broadly conceived' (1), and who says that the book deals 'only with
. . . accent or dialect as an emblem of an individual's class, sex,
age, ethnicity, ambition, or some other social attribute' (ibid).
Nevertheless, many readers may be disappointed by the exclusion of -
not only individual works that they particularly like but also -
entire areas of related scholarship. Pragmatics and Discourse
Analysis get very short shrift (a reference to Brown and Levinson 1978
and a fleeting mention of 'face', all on p. 146, nothing else),
studies involving corpora even less (a reference on page 199 only),
and historical studies are scarcely discussed at all (sociohistorical
studies are mentioned, and only indirectly, through references to
Weinrich, Wang, Trudgill, Milroy and Labov, whose work on language
change has concentrated on change currently in progress rather than on
historical sociolinguistics).

While understanding that a major difficulty facing the author of a
work such as this lies in where to set the limits of scholarship
reviewed, I feel that this is regrettable, because, for instance, the
insights of pragmatics and discourse analysis are essential to an
understanding of how the (linguistic and social) contexts of
sociolinguistic data affect the contents, and could especially have
been included in a discussion of how men and women's speech may be
effected in interview with members of the same/other sex. In addition,
corpus linguistics is making significant inroads into the very
generalisability and universalising of results that Chambers discusses
in his concluding chapter, and historical studies of language
variation and change have been presenting the world with important
sociolinguistic evidence that should be incorporated into mainstream
sociolinguistic discussion. Any discussion of the difficulties of
longitudinal studies, as on page 212, for instance, would be enriched
by reference to the quantities of real-time data available, and by
comparisons of real- and apparent- time studies that are found in
historical sociolinguistic studies. In addition, reference to a few
historical studies could increase our familiarity with changes from
below, which remain somewhat under-represented in the literature (as
noted also by Labov, 3). Chambers himself admits that 'no other
aspect of the discipline has proven as fruitful' as the study of 'the
linguistic effects of time' (225). The fact is that historical
linguistics and most corpus linguistics deal with written data, and
the tendency of mainstream sociolinguistics (reflected in this book)
has been to concentrate on phonetic variables and what is called
naturally occurring data (which, to take the issue to its absurd
extreme, seems to mean the language of people who are not aware that
they are using language). This has led to a certain marginalising of
these other areas of study. It is nevertheless disappointing to see
that they are marginalised out of this book.

(c) The Standard

The wording of issues connected with the standard variety could
possibly be open to misinterpretation, especially in the last chapter.
It seems to me important to separate the process of standardisation as
one crucially involving attitudes towards language, which are never
finalized (Milroy and Milroy, 22), and the standard variety, which may
be seen as one dialect selected among others, with its own internal
variations and changes. A number of comments in the last chapter of
the book under review seem to conflate the two, with the unfortunate
effect of making the standard variety seem anthropomorphically
antagonistic to other varieties. 'So compelling is the attraction of
standardized speech that speakers of non-standard varieties often
denigrate their own speech out of deference to the standard variety'
(228) is a case in point: The compulsion towards a selected variety
is, or course, an essential part of the process of standardization,
not a characteristic inherent in the variety itself, and although the
statement does not 'blame' standardized speech for this compulsion,
later comments that 'There is no evidence to suggest that
standardisation is natural behavior' (232) and that 'One of the tacit
strategies of the elite is to install their own dialect as the
'correct' one' (233) very clearly place the onus of resonsibility on
(speakers of) the standard variety.

An accumulation of statements such as these may lead readers to see
inclusions in speaker's non-standard dialects of features
characteristic of the standard variety as the active imposition by
'elite' people of their variety as the standard of both social and
linguistic correctness. This is misleading on at least three
points. First of all, it is unlikely that on its own any group of
people would be able to compell speakers of other dialects to alter
their own speech in the ways that we see reported here. The
literature is full of failed attempts by various individuals and
organisations to change the language; political enforcement of a
separate language has occasionally had strong effects on the devalued
vernaculars, but even state-backed language planning is not invariably
successful. Secondly, we are not necessarily dealing with one
monolithic standard dialect tyrannising discrete other non-standard
varieties. Sociolinguistics shows that there is variation within as
well as between all dialects (standard or not) and, in the case of
English at least, a tendency for local standards to be set up within
non-standard dialects (for an example see Kerswill) More than this,
though, sociolinguistic studies of change in progress have shown
repeatedly, as reported in this book, that 'in industrialized Western
societies it is the middle middle-class speech that sets the standard'
(251), not the 'elite'. Members of this class typically use prestige
features of the language even more than the prestigious speakers from
whose language the features were selected (as mentioned on page 64),
in a sort of sociolinguistic leapfrogging that, Chambers hints, may
have interesting implications for longer-term language change (he
notes cautiously, on the same page, that successive generations of
hypercorrectors may result in a change of the norms they are striving
to attain). Finally, one should not forget that it is to this
middle-middle class that the codifiers of the standard variety belong,
being, for instance, the scho ol teachers, lexicographers and media
employees of the society (see page 43 for a table broadly allocating
class lables to various occupations). They may possibly also act as
the agents of actuation, being more socially and geographically mobile
(90) and having less dense networks (89) than the upper class speakers
of the prestigious variety.

(d) Miscellaneous other comments.

The rest of these comments concern minor points. They are again the
reactions of an enthusiastic reader who didn't find absolutely
everything she wanted in the book. Markedness, for instance: in a
book which uses the concept of judgement so frequently, I would have
liked to have seen some discussion of markedness. And who said that
grammatical variation is more socially significant than phonetic
variation? This is a very important finding, first mentioned on page
57 but only assigned to Wolfram (1969) on p.130. Mention of how the
Ancient Greeks viewed (or did not view) variability may be considered
a little cavalier, given the difficulties of interpreting exactly what
it is that Plato/Socrates meant in the *Cratylus* (W.K.C. Guthrie's
version is quite different from the interpretation we are given here),
and given that only a few generations later the Greeks had quite
vituperative discussions about how to deal with dialect differences
within their new empire (see Robins). The section 'Traditional
Theories of the Sources of Diversity' (247ff) could perhaps mention,
at least as a reference, the excellent and well known work of R H
Robins, and (for a future edition, perhaps) the recently published and
equally excellent Law. Given the teaching approach evident in much of
this book it might be helpful if future editions could provide a table
of phonetic notation, especially for the less mainstream symbols like
[open tick/check symbol] that is used in many parts of the book. The
provision of a list of references for further reading at the end of
each section or sub-section would also be very useful, I feel, and a
way of dealing with materials that had to be excluded for reasons of
focus and space. Lastly, a plea for more personal favourites: even
though they may not find their way into the body of the text, I hope
that the next edition will include at least references to Doublas
Biber's important corpus work on language variation, to Jean
AItchison's *Language Change. Progress of Decay?* and to publication s
of the Helsinki historical sociolinguistics team.

To end this review on any sort of a negative note would be misleading,
because this really is a super book, and much needed. I would not
have had so much to say if I had not found it so stimulating. It is
not possible in a book this size to cover all issues related to
sociolinguistics, and, as noted above, Chambers focusses on the core
issues. I recommend it to all who are interested in the subject and I
will be using it in my classes.

Works Cited

Aitchison, Jean *Language Change Progress or Decay?* 3rd edition.
Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 2001

Biber, Douglas. *Variation across Speech and Writing. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1988.

*Collins English Dictionary*. 3rd edition. Glasgow: HarperCollins,

Guthrie, W. K. C. *A History of Greek Philosophy. Volume V: The Later
Plato and The Academy*. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Kerswill, Paul E. 'Levels of Linguistic Variation in Durham'. Journal
of Linguistics 23, 1987; 25-49.

Labov, WIlliam. *Principles of Linguistic Change. Volume 2: Social
Factors*. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2001.

Law, Vivien. *The History of Linguistics in Europe from Plato to
1600*. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy. *Authority in Language.
Investigating Language Prescription and Standardisation*. London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

Robins, R. H. *A Short History of Linguistics*. London: Longman,

Sayer, Andrew. *Method in Social Science. A Realist Approach*. 2nd
edition. London: Routledge, 1992.

About the reviewer

Margaret J-M Sonmez is an Assistant Professor teaching linguistics and
literature. Her research interests centre on historical
sociolinguistics, specifically on variation and change in 17th century
English. For more details see
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue