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Review of  Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics

Reviewer: Lynn A Burley
Book Title: Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics
Book Author: Suzanne Romaine
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 12.1681

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Romaine, Suzanne (2000) Language in Society: An Introduction to
Sociolinguistics. Oxford University Press, Paperback ISBN: 0-19-873192-
2, xiii+268pp, $11.95. [Hardback ISBN 0-19-875133-8, 1994, $39.95]

Lynn A. Burley, University of Central Arkansas

As an introduction to sociolinguistics, this text can be used in an
advanced undergraduate or introductory graduate level course. As the
author acknowledges, in a field with so many subtopics, choosing which
ones to include in a text can be arbitrary, but Romaine has chosen to
include those that she found interesting and important, particularly
where research in the last decade has seen considerable growth. To
that end, her book has considerable depth rather than attempting
breadth. The eight chapters include: Language in Society/Society in
Language; Language Choice; Sociolinguistic Patterns; Language and
Gender; Language Change in Social Perspective; Pidgin and Creole
Languages; Linguistic Problems as Societal Problems, and the last
chapter discusses general conclusions concerning sociolinguistics.

Chapter One focuses on the distinction between language and dialect,
using the language situations in Papua New Guinea, Europe and America
to explain how complicated the issue can be. This chapter also covers
register, style, speech communities and the reality coded in languages.

Chapter Two examines how people choose the language or dialect to use
in a given situation as well as the problems associated with the
research methods to determine the factors affecting language choice.
Not only do speakers have trouble defining terms such as fluency,
native tongue, and bilingualism, researchers may use the terms
differently, making it difficult to make generalizations. Romaine also
examines diglossia, code-switching, and language shift. One extended
study she discusses, the shift from Hungarian monolinguals to German in
Oberwart, Austria over the course of several hundred years, comes up
again in her discussions of social networks, standardization and the
role of women in language change in subsequent chapters.

Chapter Three investigates the social network's effect on language,
including factors of class, age, gender and style. Most of the studies
in these areas involve western industrialized societies, and Romaine
shows how this type of stratification has invaded other parts of the
world and the results because of it. She focuses on Papua New Guinea
and how the declaration of a social order inherently creates a
linguistic order.

Romaine excels in Chapter Four, not surprisingly considering she has
written a book on the subject (Communicating Gender, 1999). She begins
by outlining how research on gendered language has been carried out and
the assumptions behind the research. Much of the chapter is dedicated
to discussing the man-made nature of language and how our culture has
encoded the power of men in our language. She also discusses how boys
and girls are socialized in language and the misconceptions we have
about the language of men and women such as who talks more and the type
of constructions we use. She finishes the chapter with a look at the
possibility of language reform.

Chapter Five examines how language changes due to social factors and
how we can use this knowledge to predict language change in a speech
community. Romaine looks at how variables such as gender, class, age
and social attitudes affect language change, particularly in address

Chapter Six takes an in-depth look at pidgin and Creole languages,
discussing the difficulty of defining these terms, the diffusion of
these languages throughout the world, their origins, their structure
and their lexicon. She also discusses their status and their
likelihood of survival.

Chapter Seven examines linguistic problems as social problems,
particularly in education. Using Hawai'i as a case in point, Romaine
discusses how society treats minority speakers in school. She looks at
how various attempts to deal with this situation have fared, including
maintenance, assimilation, submersion and immersion.

The last chapter states Romaine's conclusions. She points out the
difficulties of proposing a coherent sociolinguistic theory and some of
the caveats associated with doing sociolinguistic research. While
social factors help us in explaining linguistic patterns, they do not
explain the causes. For this, we need to look more closely at society,
particularly putting more focus on non-western societies.

This second edition includes over eighty citations from research
published in the last decade, particularly in pidgin and Creole
languages, gender, and socio-political issues. The book is packed with
examples taken from recent research, which will give students a more
accurate picture of the language situations to be found in other parts
of the world, including Papua New Guinea, South America, and the Middle
East as well as the more familiar European and American contexts.

Romaine contends that she is not attempting to produce a
sociolinguistics theory, but hopes her work may one day contribute to
one. One of the problems, she notes, is that while sociolinguists have
developed methods for more accurately examining language in society, we
have not yet really been able to explain the causes of language
behavior in a formal manner. As a result, as she presents each topic,
she is careful not to proclaim that some factor, say gender, causes one
to speak a certain way. Rather, there are correlations.

One feature of this text that I found particularly useful is the
background Romaine gives to explain how the discipline has come to ask
questions and to evaluate data. In chapter three, Sociolinguistic
Patterns, she shows how the once traditional approach of studying the
speech of a particular social class and then generalizing about that
speech assumes that everyone in that social class behaves uniformly
when in actuality, we get a better representation by examining social
networks. She mentions several studies where this method better
explained language use then offers a detailed example and elaborates
upon that. She also discusses in chapter four, Language and Gender,
how the study of gender has changed. Researchers first began with the
assumption that women's language was the language that needed to be
studied since men's language was considered the norm. More recent
research takes into account the language situation since many markers
that were thought to be characteristic of women's speech is also found
in men's speech but in different contexts, i.e. usually one concerning
power. Romaine makes the point that studying language and gender means
also studying power relationships.

Overall, this text is a very good introduction since it does examine
topics in depth with lots of well-explained and appropriate examples.
Students with little background in linguistics should do well with this
text since it does not presuppose linguistic knowledge and does explain
most of the terminology used. It is not, however, set up like a
traditional textbook with discussion questions or exercises if that is
what an instructor expects. Romaine mentions in the preface her choice
to not use in-text citations, but rather to include an annotated
bibliography at the end of each chapter as well as a complete list of
references at the end. I found this to be helpful since the
annotations give more helpful information than an in-text citation

Romaine, Suzanne (1999) Communicating Gender. Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates: Mahwah, NJ. 406 pp.

Lynn Burley is an assistant professor of linguistics in the Department
of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Arkansas in
Conway, AR. She is preparing to teach a new class in sociolinguistics
this fall. Her research interests include linguistics and education,
discourse structure in Siouan languages, and composition theory.


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