LINGUIST List 14.461

Sun Feb 16 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics: Chambers, et al. (2002)

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  1. Gerard Van Herk, Handbook of Language Variation and Change

Message 1: Handbook of Language Variation and Change

Date: Sun, 16 Feb 2003 20:17:26 +0000
From: Gerard Van Herk <gvanherksympatico.ca>
Subject: Handbook of Language Variation and Change

Chambers, J.K., Peter Trudgill, and Natalie Schilling-Estes,
eds. (2002) The Handbook of Language Variation and Change. Blackwell
Publishers, ISBN 0-631-21803-3, xii+807pp, USD 124.95/GBP 85.00.

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-437.html


Gerard Van Herk, University of Ottawa

The Handbook of Language Variation and Change joins Blackwell's
previous handbooks on child language, phonology, semantics,
sociolinguistics, phonetics, morphology, Japanese linguistics, syntax,
discourse, and general linguistics. The authors see the present volume
as ''a convenient, hand-held repository of the essential knowledge
about the study of language variation and change'' (introduction,
p. 2). The volume strains the boundaries of ''hand-held''. It treats
29 different subjects in 807 pages, and is considerably longer than
the earlier Blackwell Handbook of Sociolinguistics, which itself
houses a substantial variationist component.

Following a brief introduction and ''An Informal Epistemology'' (J.K.
Chambers), the book is divided into five parts: methodologies,
linguistic structure, social factors, contact, and language and
societies.

As the search for large amounts of vernacular data is both the goal
and, in some senses, the main distinguishing characteristic of
variationist work, it is appropriate that the handbook begin with
discussions of methodology. The ''Field Methods'' section includes
chapters on fieldwork, focussing on the sociolinguistic interview and
advance preparation (Crawford Feagin); language attitudes, dealing
more with the types of information obtained than with strictly
methodological issues (Dennis R. Preston); the advantages and pitfalls
of written materials (Edgar W. Schneider); and the use of large,
electronically searchable text databases (Laurie Bauer). The
''Evaluation'' section is made up of chapters on the quantitative
paradigm, particularly multivariate analysis with VARBRUL and related
computer programmes (Robert Bayley); implicational scales, whose use
in variationist work has declined in recent years (John R. Rickford);
and an overview of the use of instrumental phonetics in
sociolinguistics (Erik R. Thomas).

Part two of the handbook deals with linguistic structure, with
chapters on the links between variationist work and current
theoretical phonology, especially Optimality Theory (Arto Anttila);
the role of chain shifts and mergers in sound change (Matthew
J. Gordon); the relationship of variation to (Chomskyan) syntactic
theory (Alison Henry); and a critical analysis of the relatively young
field of variationist discourse analysis (Ronald Macaulay).

Part three, by far the longest section of the book, is concerned with
social factors, divided into subsections on time, social
differentiation, and domains. The ''Time'' section includes chapters
on the relative value of real- and apparent-time studies, with the
advantages of apparent-time work stressed (Guy Bailey); the fairly new
focus on speech produced by, or directed toward, children (Julie
Roberts); and the social situation of language change
(J.K. Chambers). The ''Social Differentiation'' section deals with the
social factors that ''have figured in our research from the very
beginning'' (373), with chapters on various approaches to the analysis
of stylistic variation (Natalie Schilling-Estes); the components and
treatments of social class (Sharon Ash); approaches to, and the role
of, sex and gender in variation and change (Jenny Cheshire); and the
definition and expression of ethnicity (Carmen Fought). A section on
''Domains'' links a disparate group of concepts as ''relational arenas
within which variable linguistic behavior takes place'' (473), with
chapters on a non-essentialist approach toward language and identity
(Norma Mendoza-Denton); the family as a locus of change (Kirk Hazen);
and the relative utility and applicability to variationist analysis of
the sometimes overlapping concepts of communities of practice (Miriam
Meyerhoff), social networks (Lesley Milroy), and the speech community
(Peter Patrick).

Part four of the handbook deals with the study of language varieties
in contact, with chapters on the potential contributions of human
geography research to the analysis of variation (David Britain); the
relative effect of language contact on different linguistic domains
(Gillian Sankoff); and how koineization affects language change (Paul
Kerswill).

Part five, ''Linguistic and Social Typology,'' includes chapters on
(speculated) possible links between societal types and degree and type
of linguistic change (Peter Trudgill); the value of a variationist
reworking of the comparative method of historical linguistics (Sali
Tagliamonte); and a typology and comparison of models of language
death (Walt Wolfram).

The handbook can be seen as a stock-taking of variationist
sociolinguistics as it enters a period of self-examination typical of
any thirty-something. In fact, chapter titles mirror major discussion
topics at NWAVE, the flagship conference for variationists. The
editors describe their desire to strike a balance between generations
of sociolinguists (''the founders'' and ''their intellectual
offspring'') and topics (''the relatively mature and the relatively
recent'') (introduction, p. 1). In this, they clearly succeed.

This balance, however, raises problems of its own. Assigning equal
weight to each topic considered chapter-worthy leads to short-changing
of some areas critical to an understanding of variationist work, and
over-coverage of some areas of specialist interest. This is
particularly clear in part I, methodologies (which as a whole could be
proportionally longer, especially in a discipline so driven by the
search for empirical evidence). The sociolinguistic interview is
central to variationist methodology; to treat it as part of a single
20-page chapter seems short shrift. This short-changing is even more
evident when a full 30 pages of the section are devoted to written
documents; although I use such documents and I am convinced of their
value in historical work, I acknowledge that their analysis remains
peripheral to the variationist mainstream. The same imbalance is found
between variable rule analysis, given only part of a chapter, and
implicational scales, marginal to the field, which are assigned a full
chapter of their own. Elsewhere in the book, the distribution of
chapter topics results in far more weight being assigned to social
than to linguistic factors. Although this may address previous
criticisms of variationist sociolinguistics as too much linguistics
and not enough socio, it probably does not reflect the majority
tendency of the discipline. In each of these cases, the problem is not
with the treatment of each topic; rather, it is that the ''third
generation'' of sociolinguists at whom the book is aimed deserve a
(proportionally) more detailed treatment of the topics central to
variationist work.

As is expected in a work of this type, authors choose a range of
strategies in approaching their assigned topic. Among the most
successful chapters are those whose authors are the obvious (first or
second) choices for the topic. In these cases, the engagement of the
authors is evident, and illustrations and examples are drawn from
their own research, resulting in chapters that are highly readable and
that function as effective teaching tools. Particularly notable in
this respect are the chapters on language attitude, ethnicity, social
networks, space, koineization, and comparative sociolinguistics. The
cases of topic-author mismatch rarely result from inappropriate author
choice; rather, they seem to fall out from the nature of the topics
involved. Many topics are by their nature not the kind of thing that
any one author is closely associated with, or would work on throughout
a career. This results in some very careful chapters, consisting
largely of literature reviews of other people's work, the kind of
chapters that could have been safely assigned to less experienced (or
even less skilled) authors. The chapters in question are all more than
competent, but prevent the reader from fully benefiting from their
authors' talent and experience.

And although academic book reviews that smugly list typographical and
proofreading errors may make readers cringe, I must point out that
some errors here interfere with understanding, or actually create
misunderstanding. For example, the material at the top of p. 235, an
apparent continuation of a table from the previous page, seems to
require a separate table, titled ''6-syllable stems.'' Likewise, it is
clear from the table on p. 751 that the sentence at the bottom of the
previous page, ''In this table non-significant factors are in bold,''
should read ''In this table SIGNIFICANT factors are in bold.''
Presumably such errors result from copy conversion associated with the
publisher's standardization of tables, and can easily be
corrected in future editions.

One hopes for frequent future editions, especially given the editors'
bold decision to assign equal weight to ''the tried-and-probably-true
and the potentially productive'' (p. 1). In a field as (relatively)
young as variationist sociolinguistics, ideas develop quickly, and can
in many cases be empirically tested just as quickly. It is natural
that the concerns of the field should change over time, and the
discipline is well-served by a handbook that is willing to stay at the
leading edge of such change. It is equally true, though, that over
time certain methods and approaches will be more frequently tested
than others, and will become yet more central to work on variation and
change. It is hoped that future editions will reflect these core
concerns by devoting proportionally more space to them.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Gerard Van Herk is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa
and visiting scholar at York University. His research interests
include linguistic prescriptivism and the sociolinguistics and history
of African American, Barbadian, and Canadian varieties of English
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