AUTHOR: Montgomery, Martin
TITLE: An Introduction to Language and Society, Third Edition
Tracy Rundstrom Williams, Center for International Studies, Texas Christian
This is a thorough, well-organized book examining the relationship between
language and society. Its four sections, The Development of Language, Linguistic
Diversity and the Speech Community, Language and Social Interaction, and
Language and Representation, provide a clear and thoughtful organization and an
insightful, well-written overview of the field.
The first section, The Development of Language, examines child language
acquisition from a social perspective. In chapter 1, Montgomery, explains the
social influences on and implications for a child acquiring and using
vocalization, protolanguage, and first words, from the first recognitions from a
child that cries and vocalizations get him food or attention, to the many
functions of a child's single words. In chapter 2, Montgomery continues to
examine language development from a social perspective, emphasizing that
children learn language to fulfill the needs and purposes of dialogue. He
examines both purposes and goals of the child and the influence of the parent on
learning, with excellent dialogue examples. Montgomery examines two hypotheses
of language development (imitation and nativism) and concerns with each.
The second section, Linguistic Diversity and the Speech Community, examines the
relationship between linguistic differences and various regional, ethnic,
subcultural, situational, and social speech communities. In chapter 3,
Montgomery gives a general overview of the relationship between dialect and
speech community. He examines the types of features which vary across speech
communities and gives specific explanations, such as social stratification of
pronunciation, pronunciation shifts due to situation, attitudes towards
pronunciation differences, prestige versus non-prestige forms, and hypercorrection.
Chapter 4 examines language differences across ethnicity, noting the cyclical
nature of the relationship: language may vary across ethnicity, but at the same
time individuals may actively use language to mark their ethnicity. Montgomery
demonstrates this through the specific example of African-Caribbean, examining
how Creole developed, the differences between Jamaican Creole and Standard
English, the social situations which give rise to use of Creole, and other ways
in which speakers emphasize their ethnicity through speech.
Chapter 5 considers a specific type of subculture, those using 'Anti-language'.
Anti-languages are social dialects of subcultures or groups in marginal or
precarious positions in society. These groups have an antagonistic relationship
with society at large and their languages have been difficult to study. One of
the features Montgomery examines is the process of relexicalization,
substituting new words for old. He uses rapping and hip-hop music as an example,
identifying the use of slang, use of the speech style of 'signifying' or
'sounding,' and the over-lexicalization (the development of many words for key
topics, such as drugs, money, cars, police).
In chapter 6, Montgomery explores the ways language is sensitive to its context
or situation. Focusing specifically on register, he examines field, tenor, and
mode in a nice discussion. This chapter uses many examples and has an excellent
deconstruction of those examples.
Chapter 7 examines Bernstein's work on restricted and elaborated speech
variants. Montgomery examines first the differences between these two variants,
using specific examples, then explains how the two variants developed through
different social forces, and finally explains how this relates to social class.
He also examines some of the reactions to Bernstein's research and proposes
In chapter 8, Montgomery examines research on the relationships between language
and gender. He emphasizes the socially-constructed 'gender' versus the
biologically-based 'sex', explaining how even physiological factors, such as
pitch, cannot be considered absolutes. The chapter considers and dispels several
stereotypes of gender differences, including that women are more tentative, more
polite, and more correct. The author concludes that gender differences should be
considered as a dimension of difference which interacts with other dimensions
such as age, class, ethnic group, etc.
Chapter 9 is a conclusion to this section. The chapter summarizes the
complexity, and contriteness, of identifying a speech community, recognizing
that individuals are members of overlapping and sometimes contradictory speech
communities, which can be political, social, and economic in nature.
Nonetheless, the author reiterates the value of speech communities for drawing
attention to the fact that language does not exist as an abstract system but
rather in relation to the people using it.
The third section, Language and Social Interaction, contains just one chapter.
This chapter examines how speakers recognize what an utterance is doing. The
author delves into such topics as how utterances perform actions (commands,
questions, requests) and how utterances typically cohere with one another,
noting not only formal properties of the utterance itself but also situational
factors, such as trying to discover information, trying to ascertain what the
other person knows, and showing power relations. The author also examines how
utterances are used to manage discourse, such as shifting stages or phases in
the conversation. Finally, the author examines cultural differences in using
language, such as silence and ritual put-downs and build-ups.
The fourth section, Language and Representation, also contains just one chapter.
Chapter 11 considers the weighty topic of how language represents thought,
specifically detailing the universalist and relativist positions. Montgomery
considers, for example, lexical and syntactic distinctions which exist in some
languages but not others, to demonstrate the arguments for and against both
positions. He provides a clear explanation, using examples, of strengths and
weaknesses of each of the extreme positions.
This is an excellent, comprehensive examination of the field of language and
society. It offers a well-organized look at many issues in sociolinguistics and
offers suggestions for additional readings follow-up activities at the end of
each chapter. The book also contains a number of specific examples and in some
cases extracts of transcripts to demonstrate concepts.
I found the organization to be a unique and valuable approach for studying the
field. By beginning with child acquisition of language, the reader learns
immediately the importance of the social function of language. The second and
longest section, Linguistic Diversity and the Speech Community, does an
excellent job of reviewing the many social influences on and of language:
region, ethnicity, social class, gender, and situation. The third section on
language and social interaction provides a good, although short, overview of
interactional sociolinguistics. I would have liked to have seen a longer
chapter, including research on interactional shifts and Speech Act Theory. The
fourth section on language and representation, also with just one chapter, could
be expanded as well, although this chapter is fairly lengthy and includes some
very descriptive examples.
The writing is clear and concise; understandable for a novice student and
without unnecessary technical words. In addition, with the recently updated
information and examples in this edition (specifically hip-hop and rap language,
and material on the language of the 'war on terror') this could very well
provide new information to more advanced students. The author provides a fair
and balanced examination of many issues in the field of sociolinguistics.
Non-British speakers may not be readily familiar with some references and
therefore may not easily recognize or grasp some of the issues. Also an
explanation of different approaches to sociolinguistics (i.e. variation
analysis, conversation analysis) might have added to the discussion.
This would make an excellent book for an introductory student to gain a breadth
of the field of sociolinguistics and a comparison of various perspectives and
approaches. Although this is not a textbook, it is a nice introductory book with
clear prose and insightful examples.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Tracy Rundstrom Williams is the Associate Director of the Center for
International Studies at Texas Christian University. She teaches intercultural
communication and language and gender courses at TCU. Her research interests
include discourse analysis, intercultural communication, interactional
sociolinguistics, and second language acquisition.