LINGUIST List 18.2419|
Thu Aug 16 2007
Review: Sociolinguistics: Meyerhoff (2006)
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Message 1: Introducing Sociolinguistics
From: Randall Eggert <randylinguistlist.org>
Subject: Introducing Sociolinguistics
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Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/17/17-3010.html
AUTHOR: Meyerhoff, Miriam.
TITLE: Introducing Sociolinguistics.
PUBLISHER: Routledge: Taylor & Francis
Dinha T. Gorgis, Jadara University for Graduate Studies, Irbid, Jordan.
This book comprises twelve chapters. The first of which, like most introductory
textbooks, introduces the field, its concerns and practitioners, and the last of
which rounds off the sociolinguistic enterprise, as presented by the author.
These are the shortest chapters and, unlike the other ten chapters, do not
include a summary, exercises, and further reading. Notes on the exercises (pp.
271-285) are added to ''help readers ask their own sociolinguistically informed
research questions'' (p. 271). These notes are followed by a glossary which
contains 168 terms already highlighted in the text. The book closes with a rich
bibliography and an index.
Central to chapter 2 are the traditional terms 'variable' and 'variant', which
are analogously compared to the phoneme and its members (p. 9). Meyerhoff
discusses here some major common motivations for sociolinguitic variability and
takes ''the use of naturally occurring speech as the basis for the description of
variation'' (p. 25). The topics covered in this chapter are examined in detail,
both qualitatively and quantitatively, in the following chapters.
Chapter 3 accounts for variation in speech and style-shifting. While the author
allows for the distinction between 'accent' and 'dialect', she chooses to use
the neutral term 'variety' for languages and dialects to avoid ''negative
connotations'' (p. 28). The chapter introduces stylistic variation within the
speech of a single speaker by appealing to previous studies. It also devotes
considerable space to explaining the methods used to analyze style-shifting by
focusing on speakers' attention to their speech and thus treating ''variation as
constitutive of non-linguistic factors'' (p. 52).
In chapter 4, Meyerhoff introduces attitudes to different varieties of a
language, that is, ''the way we perceive the individuals that use those
varieties'' (p. 54). The key topic in this chapter is 'accommodation theory'
which involves both 'convergence' and 'divergence', i.e. accommodation 'towards'
vs. 'away from' the speech of one's interlocutors. So this theory ''is a theory
about interaction, and as such it is concerned with the negotiation of
perceptions and identities between interlocutors in conversations'' (p. 75).
Chapter 5 considers 'politeness' as a variable in speech. The author explores
the phenomenon across varieties and cultures within Brown & Levinson's theory.
Choices of politeness strategies are seen to be determined by power, distance,
and cost of the imposition, being a ''scalar measure of how serious a
face-threatening act is in a particular society'' (p. 87). It follows that this
should have practical implications for teaching languages cross-culturally
because ''one language tends to conventionally use negative politeness strategies
while the other uses positive or negative politeness strategies'' (p. 97).
Chapter 6 introduces the reader to multilingualism and language choice. Two key
terms are highlighted here, viz. 'vitality' and 'diglossia'. For a
language/variety to remain vital, i.e. be in use for a range of social
functions, a number of factors must be at play. These are the ''institutional,
social and demographic factors'' (p. 103). Additional factors, e.g. educational,
religious, national, etc. play a significant role in choosing a high or a low
variety as is the case in the Arab world. The use of more than one
language/variety involves code-switching which emerges, among other things, from
the speakers' conceptualization of ''the relationship between location, addressee
and ingroup identity in different ways'' (p. 117). Meyerhoff, however, sees that
''it is difficult to talk about a single motivation or function for a switch
between codes'' (p. 126).
Having looked so far at the factors that constrain variation, the author
examines in chapter 7 ''the factors that are strongly associated with what is
called variationist sociolinguistics'' (p. 127), which studies language change
over time. Thus she introduces us to 'real time' studies of change vs. 'apparent
time' studies. The former are called 'trend studies' which use ''data from
corpora that include comparable speakers who have been recorded at different
points in time. They provide one kind of diachronic perspective on how language
varies and changes'' (p. 131). If this method is constrained by examining data
''from exactly the same speakers over a period of years'' (p. 132), the pertinent
studies which require 'painstaking work' are called 'panel studies'. Apparent
studies, on the other hand, involve ''comparing the speech of speakers of
different ages within a community at a single point in time'' (p. 132). The
chapter sketches four types of change connected with variation across time, viz.
age-grading, lifespan, generational, and community change. It also shows the
relationships that hold between one type of change and another (cf. pp.
150-151). The chapter concludes with the challenges associated with both real
and apparent time studies.
Social class is the topic of chapter 8. Meyerhoff introduces several definitions
for this concept from different perspectives, links it with 'mobility', and
contrasts it with the more fixed notion of 'caste'. She is for the view that
language users can be upwardly mobile due to several factors, but ''may also move
down the class and status ladder because of change to their life chances'' (p.
157). So what distinguishes groups of speakers is the relative frequency with
which they use individual variants. Whether newcomers to sociolinguistics are
good at performing statistical tests or not, they can easily see for themselves
if the ''frequency of a variant in different contexts and among different
speakers'' (p. 168) is really a function of social class and/or some other more
important factors such as personal identity.
Moving from the rather unfavorable notion of social class nowadays to social
networks and communities of practice in chapter 9, the author overviews a number
of case studies carried out by some prominent researchers who differentiate
between 'dense' and 'loose' networks. The distinction between these two terms
involves scalar familiarity: the more able a speaker is to identify group
members, the more dense the network (cf. p. 187). On the other hand, a community
of practice, which is a specific kind of social network, is identifiable against
workplace, e.g. tailors (experienced vs. novices), compared with other
communities of practice. Both of these key notions in the chapter are said to
nest with social class ''in terms of how locally they are defined and how much
emphasis they place on speakers' attitudes and actions'' (p. 199-200).
Gender, as kept distinct from both grammatical gender and sex, has been the
subject matter of heated arguments among sociolinguists for decades now. Chapter
10 sees gender as a social and cultural category; ''something acquired or
constructed through your relationship with others and through an individual's
adherence to certain cultural norms and proscriptions'' (p. 202). The chapter
draws a distinction between gender exclusive and gender preferential features in
language. The former are linguistic features that directly index gender because
they are pertinent to a particular sex, e.g. pronouns, whereas the latter
indirectly index gender because they are distributed across speakers or groups
with a frequency difference such that vernacular variants are constitutive of
masculinity as a social identity rather than being merely a reflection of the
male sex. The author reviews three principles that account for gender and
variation (cf. Labov 1990, 2001). These principles, which are criticized for the
gender paradox they display (cf. pp. 220-222), identify the circumstances in
which women are likely to lead men in the use of standard vs. vernacular
variants above and below the level of awareness.
Chapter 11 examines how contact between varieties affects variation and change.
At the outset, Meyerhoff acknowledges the fact that ''[a]ll variation and change
can be viewed as the outcome of some form of contact between different
individuals or members of different groups'' (p. 238). Contact can be the result
of an ''increased mobility of speakers'' (p. 239), globalization, e.g. English as
a lingua franca, borrowing between varieties of the same language (socially
and/or regionally) as well as between world languages, and the creation of
pidgins and creoles. In a word, transmission is, irrespective of 'space', a
Although the audience of this textbook, which is exceptionally error-free and
wonderfully typeset, are primarily meant to be undergraduates, the exercises are
so rich with stimulating ideas that graduates can develop them into theses.
Unlike other introductory textbooks, an exercise is immediately included next to
the relevant point(s) of discussion. Above all, further aid to working out the
exercises is given in ''Notes on the exercises'' at the close of the book. The
other merit of the book is its coverage of most recent advances in the field and
their connections with theory. However, although there is a rich and up-dated
bibliography, it is a pity not to find anywhere in the book references to other
excellent introductions such as Hudson's (1996) and Wardhaugh's (2002). This is
unfortunate, for example, because Hudson's (1980) first edition had already
established 'variety' as a cover term supported by more solid reasons (see
chapter 2) than Meyerhoff's avoidance of ''negative connotations'' associated with
dialects and languages. At the same time, Meyerhoff does acknowledge Holmes's
(2001) equally excellent introduction, and best-seller.
I do not wish to push my opinions too far and make preferences among the
available textbooks, yet Meyerhoff could have included a section on update
methodology (cf., e.g. chapter 5 in Hudson) and another on advances in data
collection and problems associated with it (cf., e.g. chapter 6 in Wardhaugh). I
imagine that the author would agree with me that these two issues are quite
helpful for the researcher-to-be in sociolinguistics. Newcomers to
sociolinguistics badly need not only acquaintance with research problems, for
which the book receives high credit, but how to work on them, i.e. procedures,
the difficulties they might encounter in particularly conservative societies,
e.g. the Arab world, and how to circumvent at least some of them. They also need
to know the difference and/or similarity between the sociology of language and
sociolinguistics and the points at which they converge and/or diverge.
Nonetheless, Meyerhoff is obviously quite aware of the interdisciplinary nature
of the field. These comments should in no way reduce the strengths of the book;
for I must admit that I have enjoyed reading it.
Holmes, Janet. 2001. _An Introduction to Sociolinguistics_. London: Longman.
Hudson, R.A. 1996. _Sociolinguistics_. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Labov, William. 1990. The intersection of sex and social class in the course of
linguistics change. _Language Variation and Change_ 2:205-154.
Labov, William. 2001. _Principles of Linguistic Change: Social Factors_. Oxford:
Wardhaugh, Ronald. 2002. _An Introduction to Sociolinguistics_. 4th ed. Oxford:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Dinha T. Gorgis is currently professor of linguistics at Jadara University for
Graduate Studies, Jordan. He has been mainly involved in teaching graduate
courses, e.g. phonology, syntax, semantics, sociolinguistics, pragmatics,
discourse analysis, contemporary English grammar, and translation. He is
co-editor of _The International Journal Linguistik_ online, co-editor of WATA
magazine, and is member of IPrA. His most recent publications include ''Binomials
in Iraqi and Jordanian Arabic'' (2005) in _The International Journal of Language
and Linguistics_, Vol. 4, No. 2, 135-151, and ''Romanised Jordanian Arabic
E-Messages'' (2007), in _The International Journal of Language, Society, and
Culture_, Issue 21, 1-12. He reviewed Yavas (2006), LINGUIST List: Vol-16-3630,
and Evens & Green (2006), LINGUIST List, Vol-18-1165, and has recently written
three book notices for eLanguage, which will appear soon.
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