AUTHOR: Meyerhoff, Miriam
TITLE: Introducing Sociolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Routledge: Taylor and Francis
Rania Habib, Program in Linguistics, The University of Florida
_Introducing Sociolinguistics_ is a textbook intended for teaching introductory
sociolinguistic courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels, giving
instructors directives on how to use the book and what to expect from readers.
However, the textbook can be used as a very good reference by sociolinguists
because it covers most of the major areas in sociolinguistics and most of the
important studies that have been done in this field and that set a starting
point for research in this area. The textbook introduces both quantitative and
qualitative methods of analyzing sociolinguistic data. It starts with language
variation and change studies in relation to style and attitudes. It also deals
with politeness theory and its interaction with style of speech and variation as
well as language attitude. It also delves into the language choices people make
in multilingual societies. In returning to the discussion of variation, the book
explores studies done in real time and apparent time and shows the advantages
and disadvantages of each method. Then, the textbook looks at the correlation of
various social factors with language variation and change, starting with social
class, social networks and communities of practice, and then moving to gender
and language contact. The textbook closes with comments on the direction of
sociolinguistics, the importance of spontaneous speech in sociolinguistic
studies, as well as a summary of the most important motivations of language
variation and change and the indication that variation occurs as a result of
Chapter 1 is an introduction to the textbook. It raises many questions such as
''What is sociolinguistics?'' and ''How do sociolinguists study sociolinguistics?''
(p.1). Answering the first question seems to be difficult because it is very
hard to give a thorough definition of sociolinguistics. The chapter settles on
defining sociolinguistics as the study of language in use. It further explains
the reason that people from various academic fields take a course in
sociolinguistics and also gives a short description of the book content and the
content of the various chapters. It concludes with a note to instructors on
quantitative and qualitative methods as complementing each other and assures the
reader that deep knowledge of quantification is not necessary to understand the
charts and the quantitative studies; it suffices to have knowledge of
percentages and weightings for the frequency of a linguistic form.
Chapter 2 represents a historical perspective of the methodological and
theoretical background of sociolinguistics. It emphasizes the fact that what was
called 'free variation' in the past no longer exists because variation is not
only conditioned or constrained with linguistic factors but it is also
constrained with social and attitudinal factors. These social factors are the
backbone that shapes and defines the various existent forms of variation:
interspeaker and intraspeaker. They also explain to a great degree why variation
occurs and make predictions about the direction of language change. Thus, social
constraints are presented as part of the bridge that connects language variation
with language change. By presenting one of the earliest studies in
sociolinguistics – the Martha's Vineyard Survey that was executed by William
Labov in 1961 – Meyerhoff sets the grounds for the earliest methods of data
collection and analyses, stressing the shift towards naturally occurring speech
in sociolinguistic studies. Opening the discussion of the book with a reflection
on the history of sociolinguistics opens the way for further discussion of and
elaboration on the topics mentioned in this chapter in the following chapters.
Chapter 3 runs through the various theories that account for intraspeaker style
shift. It starts by viewing Labov's (1972) attention to speech theory and the
different interview methods used to elicit different styles from the same
speaker. The chapter moves to present challenges of this approach to style
variation, particularly Bell's (1984) audience design theory with reference to
Giles' (1973) accommodation theory and Coupland's (2001) speaker design theory.
Labov believes that speakers shift their style of speaking because of the
attention they pay to their speech in certain contexts or situations, an
egocentric view of variation. Bell, on the other hand, views style shift of
speech as a social component; our social surroundings prompt us to attune our
speech to the situation, context, or interlocutor. Coupland's (2001) speaker
design theory is even more refined than the audience design theory, in that the
speaker shifts his/her style according to how s/he would like to present
him/herself to others. The chapter also acquaints the reader with the
differences between terms, such as overt prestige and covert prestige; accent,
dialect, and variety; and terms such as speech community, observer's paradox,
and participant observation.
Chapter 4 considers the relationship between language and attitudes expressed
towards other varieties and speakers of those varieties and how those attitudes
are reflected in language. Meyerhoff starts with how attitudes towards gender
are reflected in language through historical survey of semantic shifts of
certain terminology towards more derogatory meaning, particularly terms used to
describe women. Thus, the chapter shows that one can learn a great deal about
social attitudes from studying historical drifts and concurrent use of words. It
further shows that social factors can influence people's perception of language
and different dialects. The chapter elaborates on social identity theory (Tajfel
1978) and communication accommodation theory (Giles 1973), which indicate that
individual and social identities could influence our attitudes towards others
and language as well as our choice of language. Both theories imply that
speakers converge to or diverge form a certain dialect or group identity because
of certain perceptions and attitudes they have about that dialect or group.
Chapter 5 views politeness strategies as sociolinguistic variables. These
strategies differ from other sociolinguistic variables that are realized as
different variants that are ''semantically equivalent'' (p. 100). Politeness
strategies are not realized in the same way and they differ in meaning and
function according to the context. Different politeness strategies can be used
to attend to different social settings, needs, or situations. The degree of
politeness depends on the interlocutor: a friend or less familiar people. These
strategies also vary according to cultural and identity differences as well as
the type of society. The chapter touches on various theories of politeness and
their application ''to other fields, such as workplace interaction and
intercultural communication'' (p. 83). Meyerhoff elaborates on politeness theory
propounded by Brown and Levinson (1987) and presents a number of studies that
pose a challenge to the theory, particularly those that focus on collective
societies, such as Japan (Ide 1989) rather than individualistic societies, such
as Australia and the US.
Chapter 6 explores language choice in multilingual communities, indicating that
choice of language is influenced by the ''demographic, social and institutional
strength of a language and its speakers'' (p. 103), which is referred to as
'vitality'. The chapter also shows that multilingual speakers choose to speak in
one language and not the other based on the context, function, interlocutor, or
on whether the speaker is an in-group person or an out-group person. This is not
to mention ''issues of self-determination, identity and culture'' (p. 103), which
play a major role in defining and implementing language policies in multilingual
societies. Another interesting aspect that the chapter deals with is code
switching and code mixing, which are motivated by the situation, the
interlocutor, and the message one desires to convey.
Chapter 7 shifts to variationist studies by exploring the notions of 'apparent
time' and 'real time' and the advantages and disadvantages of each of these
methods of research in indicating sound change. In testing the constructs of
apparent time and real time, panel studies, such as Bloundeau et al (2003)
showed that ''the apparent time method is by and large a very good method for
inferring directions and speed of language change in a community'' (pp. 141-142).
This poses a challenge to the view that direction of change can only be inferred
from real time studies that compare apparent time forms with previous or
historical forms to see where change is going. On the other hand, a trend real
time study by Pope (2002) refutes apparent time predictions. However, the
chapter stresses that both kinds of studies are important and complement each
other in finding the direction of change. The chapter also highlights the
significance of investigating lifespan changes and generational changes, which
could be relevant to intraspeaker variation when acquiring a language: be it a
child or an adult. Simultaneously, intraspeaker variation within a community can
be investigated by comparing a group's speech in real time at different points
in time. Hence, these methods can help in both accounting for the ''developmental
(i.e. individual) and social (i.e. group) phenomenon that language variation is''
Chapter 8 introduces social class as a variable that interacts with stylistic
variation, the individual's linguistic behavior identifies with a group's
linguistic behavior. Variation occurs in the speech of such individuals for
reasons of maximizing their fit into a group or minimizing this fit and
associating with a different group. The problem with social class effects is
that social class is not stable; people move up or down the social scale based
on opportunities and aspirations. From here stems the difficulty of identifying
and assigning a social class. This difficulty in categorizing social class led
to its falling ''somewhat out of favor in sociolinguistics these days as a
non-linguistic variable for study'' (p. 182). For this reason, one finds shift
towards analyzing variation in terms of individual identities. However, one
cannot ignore the fact that class or group behavior as individual identities are
closely related and studies focusing on individual identities analyses should be
complemented by large group studies to examine how group behavior could
influence individual behavior and vice versa. Thus, social class should remain
an important variable that could be tackled by sociolinguists for ''practical and
theoretical'' (p. 183) reasons.
Chapter 9 shifts to address the impact of domain and addressee on people's way
of talk. It indicates that social class, social networks (Milroy and Milroy
1991) and communities of practice (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1992) are three
different categories in sociolinguistic research and should be used with
different kinds of data to analyze and understand linguistic variation in a
broader term. Social class studies and network studies should complement each
other. Some studies require different categorization from the larger group
categorization of social class. From here stems the importance of social
networks and communities of practice research, which focuses on smaller groups
of speakers among whom language variation and language use carry a significant
linguistic meaning. Exploring these smaller layers of social structure enables
us to discover the social meaning for linguistic variables in the same way that
larger layers do.
Chapter 10 starts with indicating the difference between the use of the terms
'sex' and 'gender' in sociolinguistic studies. It reflects on studies in gender
and language and the contribution of different identities and association with a
specific gender to language variation and use. The use of particular terminology
as well as morphology in some languages is closely connected to gender. In most
sociolinguistic studies, gender has played such a major role in language
variation and use that the findings of those studies were summarized in three
main generalizations in Labov (2001). The study of gender and language has
shifted recently from models correlating linguistic variants to models that view
social identities and gender as changing through an ''individual's experiences''
and ''personal histories'' (p. 225). The chapter shows that gendered behaviors
could be used by speakers strategically. This chapter raises the question of how
''social attributes such as class, attributes like formality of style, and gender
come to pattern in consistent ways with respect to each other'' (p. 231). The
study of gender and language is further concerned with ''the extent to which
gender identities and sexuality are linked'' (p. 231).
Chapter 11 discusses the influence of language contact on variation and change.
It introduces the terms 'dialect leveling', 'lingua franca', 'pidgin', 'creole'
and other terms that may result from language contact. By presenting case
studies from Tok Pisin and Bislama creoles, whose lexifier is English, Meyerhoff
shows that the variation in New York City English (regarding r-full and r-less)
is related to contact ''between closely related varieties of one language'',
whereas the variation in Bislama is due to contact ''between mutually
incomprehensible languages'' (p. 257). The chapter touches on various methods of
analyzing language contact, such as the wave model and the gravity model.
However, the general principles method of analyzing language contact provides
better understanding of the outcomes of language contact'' because it takes into
account the ''semantics of an innovative variant, the language-specific
constraints of the varieties in contact, and the communicative needs of the
speakers'' (p. 262).
Chapter 12 provides a summary that connects the beginning of the book with the
end. By returning to the most common motivations for language variation and
change from Chapter 2 (p. 24), Meyerhoff accentuates the fact that
sociolinguistic variation requires investigation on various levels and from
various angles to arrive at a more precise response to the direction of
variation. This chapter also comments on the direction of sociolinguistics and
the importance of spontaneous speech in sociolinguistic studies.
The book can serve as a good textbook for introductory courses to
sociolinguistics. It covers all the major areas in sociolinguistics, including
methods of data analyses. It is a comprehensive book for those who are
interested in learning about language and use and what sociolinguists study. At
the beginning of each chapter, there is a list of new terms that will be
introduced in it. The book gives marginal definitions of important terminology
as the reader reads on in addition to the well-defined glossary of terms at the
end of the book. This is not to mention the facts and explanations of
significant issues and connections of theories enveloped in boxes within the
main text. After the discussion of a certain method or the end of a particular
topic, a set of exercises are provided to the reader to stimulate thought and
discussion. These exercises are commented on later in the book. This makes the
book a very handy tool for teaching and learning sociolinguistics at the
undergraduate and the graduate levels. Meyerhoff's style of writing is very
clear, systematic, and well organized in that one point leads to another; it is
endowed with narrative like sensation, and fluent and elaborate explanation. The
book contains well-chosen examples, illustrations, tables and figures for
clarifying a point or a theory. The illustrations interweave with the text in a
flowing, successive manner. Meyerhoff chooses to go into small and hefty details
so as to make the text extra comprehensible and reader friendly to both the
general reader and the researcher. Most of the chapters start with an anecdote
or a narrative that stimulates interest in what is coming next. Actually, the
whole book somehow resembles a narrative of the sociolinguistic story, which I
find very appealing, enjoyable, and fun to read. The index (of topics) towards
the end of the book is very helpful to look up a particular topic that has been
covered in the main text.
Bell, Allan. (1984). 'Language style as audience design'. _Language in Society_
13: 145- 204.
Bloundeau, Hélène, Gillian Sankoff and Ann Charity. (2003). 'Parcours
individuels et changements linguistiques en cours dans la communaté francophone
montréalaise'. _Revue Québécoise de Linguistique_ 31: 13-38.
Brown, Penelope and Stephen Levinson. (1987). _Politeness: Some Universals in
Language Use_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Coupland, Nikolas. (2001). 'Language, situation and the relational self:
theorizing dialect-style in sociolinguistics'. In Penelope Eckert and John R.
Rickford (eds), _Style and Sociolinguistic Variation_. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 185-210.
Eckert, Penelope and Sally McConnell-Ginet. (1992). 'Think practically and look
locally: language and gender as community-based practice'. _Annual Review of
Anthropology_ 21: 461-490.
Giles, Howard. (1973). 'Accent mobility: a model and some data'.
_Anthropological Linguistics_ 15: 87-105.
Ide, Sachiko. (1989). 'Formal forms and discernment: two neglected aspects of
universals of linguistic politeness'. _Multilingua_ 8: 223-248.
Labov, William (1972) _Sociolinguistic Patterns_. Philadelphia: University of
Labov, William. (2001). _Principles of Linguistic Change: Social Factors_.
Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy. (1991). _Authority in Language: Investigating
Language Prescription and Standardisation_ (2nd ed). London: Routledge.
Pope, Jennifer. (2002). The social history of a sound change on the island of
Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts: forty years after Labov. Unpublished MA
dissertation, Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of
Tajfel, Henry. (1978). 'Interindividual behaviour and intergroup behaviour'. In
Henry Tajfel (ed.), _Differentiation between Social Groups: Studies in the
Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations_. London/New York: Academic Press, 27-60.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Rania Habib is a Ph.D. Candidate in Linguistics at the University of Florida. As
a Fulbright student, she completed her master's degree in linguistics at the
University of Florida in 2005. Rania is interested in sociolinguistic variation
and change and her current research involves the application of Optimality
Theory and the Gradual Learning Algorithm to sociolinguistic variation and
change. She is also interested in Pragmatics, Second Language Acquisition, and