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Review of  Style and Sociolinguistic Variation


Reviewer: Mary B. Shapiro
Book Title: Style and Sociolinguistic Variation
Book Author: Penelope Eckert John R. Rickford
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Book Announcement: 13.973

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Review:
Eckert, Penelope, and John R. Rickford, ed. (2001) Style and
Sociolinguistic Variation. Cambridge University Press, xvi+341pp,
hardback ISBN 0-521-59191-0.
Announced in http://linguistlist.org/issues/12/12-1984.html

Mary B. Shapiro, Truman State University

This volume is not an introduction to the topic of stylistic variation
for lay people; on the contrary, it makes it clear how far we are from
the possibility of such a unified account. Nor is it an introduction to
the topic for general linguists, as familiarity with earlier seminal
work is assumed throughout, particularly with Labov's (e.g., 1972)
continuum of ''attention paid to speech,'' Bell's (1984) ''audience
design,'' Speech Accommodation Theory (e.g., Giles, Coupland, and
Coupland (1991)), and the multidimensional ''register'' analyses of
Finegan & Biber (e.g.,1994) . For those who are already familiar with
these different analytical frameworks, however, this volume is a
long-awaited and very welcome contribution, allowing prominent scholars
to confront one another's ideas more directly than previously, to offer
more evidence for earlier hypotheses, and on occasion, to update their
theories. This volume presents clear, cogent, and stimulating discussion
of the ideas, making it clear where the major disagreements are, and I
hope, prompting these researchers and others to continue with this very
important area of study. One might be occasionally frustrated by
continuing confusion on certain points, but overall, one comes away
fascinated and heartened that so many talented researchers are pursuing
these questions. Any minor quibbles that may be found in the following
discussion should not be seen as serious challenges: these papers are
very exciting and very welcome.

After a brief and useful introduction, showing many of the connections
between the different approaches, the editors divide the book into four
sections, each featuring a ''major paper'' or two, followed by responses
and critiques. These divisions sometimes feel a bit artificial (with
some ''responses'' barely touching upon the major paper to which they are
ostensibly responding) but with everyone constantly referring to
everyone else's work, it would be impossible to come up with any simple,
linear arrangement that would make better sense. Section One,
Anthropological Approaches, includes papers by Judith Irvine, Susan
Ervin-Tripp, Richard Bauman, and Ronald Macaulay. These papers (aside
from Macaulay, which is a theoretical response to Bauman) contain great
data, featuring long texts from different speech communities around the
world, where one intuitively feels that the given author's analysis make
sense for this individual in this circumstance, but it is unclear what
generalizations may be made on this basis. Section Two, Attention Paid
to Speech, features William Labov, John Baugh, Penelope Eckert, and
Elizabeth Closs Traugott; the papers here show clear continuity with
earlier Labovian work. Section Three, Audience Design and
Self-Identification, follows with Allan Bell, Malcah Yaeger-Dror,
Nikolas Coupland, Howard Giles, and John Rickford. Bell comments on and
expands his 1984 paper, Coupland presents an analysis focusing on
individual style and identity, and the response papers raise issues
about which variables should be pursued. Section Four, Functionally
Motivated Situational Variation, ends the volume with papers by Edward
Finegan & Douglas Biber, Lesley Milroy, and Dennis Preston. Although
Finegan & Biber (hereafter F&B) easily generalize from analyses of
massive corpora, one never gets the sense of real attention to
individual choices made by individuals in real-life situations, and the
response papers (as the papers earlier in the volume) argue against
their approach.

There are no big surprises from the major players here, no reversals of
earlier positions, but a number of the response/critique papers may make
us think about the study of stylistic variation in new ways. At least
half a dozen different definitions of ''style'' (or ''register'', or
whatever you wish to call it) are advanced here, with extended competing
discussions of what the ''primitives'' and variables should be in such an
analysis. No one at the two-day 1996 workshop at which these papers were
initially presented seems to have been much convinced by anyone else's
data or arguments, although several researchers found common ground that
was previously obscured by differing terminology.

In the anthropological section, Irvine discusses style as
''distinctiveness,'' focusing on the semiotic processes of iconization,
recursivity, and erasure. Ervin-Tripp underlines the importance of these
processes in her analysis of African-American rhetorical shifts. Bauman
argues that genres should play a role in the discussion of style
(distinct from the ''register'' distinction that F&B have relegated it
to), but fails to show how this could fit into the different frameworks
presented by the other researchers, and Macaulay continues this argument
by problematizing the definition of genre.

In the second section, Labov makes explicit (p.87) that ''the
organization of contextual styles along the axis of attention paid to
speech was not intended as a general description of how style-shifting
is produced and organized in every-day speech, but rather as a way of
organizing and using the intra-speaker variation that occurs in the
[sociolinguistic] interview.'' Then he cheerfully goes on to refine the
''decision tree'' that he and his students developed for that same end.
One might wonder why he was even included in this volume, since he has
never shown any interest in what seems to many here to be the more
interesting issue of how style-shifting IS produced and organized in
every-day speech. He still limits himself to a handful of diagnostic
(mostly phonological) features (here, the alternation of stops,
fricatives, and affricates in initial position; alternation of apical
and velar nasal consonants in unstressed '-ing'; and percent of negative
concord), with no expressed interest in what other features may co-occur
with these or why. Eckert acknowledges, in her response paper (p.119),
that ''the main connection between Labov's paper and the other papers in
this volume is in the comparison between the constructed stylistic world
of the interview and the larger stylistic world within which it is
embedded and on which it draws,'' but as no one manages to exploit that
comparison, the usefulness of it is unclear. Baugh problematizes Labov's
methodology in interesting ways, recognizing that the central role
played by literacy will backfire in some communities, and that the
effect of the interviewer's own accommodations must be recognized and
accounted for. (Labov has always seemed to assume that the interviewer's
behavior is transparent and irrelevant.) Traugott's historical work
seems an unlikely bedmate for the other papers in this volume. Although
it may be true that the processes of grammaticalization are sensitive to
stylistic variation, we know so little about this that the necessary
connections cannot at this point be made.

In the third section, Bell concludes that he still agrees with most of
his 1984 paper, except for the secondary role it assigned ''referee
design,'' which he would now acknowledge (p. 165) as ''an ever-present
part of individuals' use of language.'' After a discussion by Yaeger-Dror
of what the ''primitives'' of the study of style ought to be, Bell is
followed by Coupland and Giles, who seem a bit peeved that Bell gets all
the attention for the theory of audience design, when it is clear that
the earlier Speech Accommodation theory is essentially the same.
Coupland's new focus here on style as a marker of identity (independent
of the actual addressees) echoes Bell's insistence that speakers are
addressing unseen referees who are members of their various identity
groups. Giles brings in some much appreciated connections to social
psychology and Rickford offers the vision of the study of style leading
beyond autonomous sociolinguistics.

The most interesting theoretical debate, what Bell calls the
''fundamental divergence on the origin and basis of style'' (p.143), is in
the final section. Bell and his followers (seconded by Labov and those
working in the Labovian tradition, and presumably also by the Speech
Accommodation theorists) believe that stylistic variation derives from
and reflects more primary social variation. F&B believe that stylistic
variation is primary. It is a pity that most of this discussion is
relegated to the final section, both because it is by far the most
interesting part of the volume, and because this order of presentation
may tend to prejudice readers. Having read so many critiques of F&B
before one gets to their own paper, one may not give them the fair
hearing they deserve. Indeed, one must forgive them for sounding a bit
defensive here (listing in bulleted points all the ways that they have
been misinterpreted by their critics).

Simply put, the challenge launched by F&B is this: If stylistic
variation derives from more primary social variation, what explains the
association of particular linguistic variables with particular social
groups in the first place? Not one of the researchers in the other
sections ever takes up this challenge, or even acknowledges it as an
issue. F&B dare to challenge orthodoxy (if such a thing can be said to
exist in such a new and still fragmented field of study) by turning the
assumed relationship between social and stylistic variation on its head:
According to their theory, functional motivations explain the
association of particular linguistic features with particular registers
(both spoken and written); then differential access to registers causes
different social groups to use those linguistic features to different
degrees (such differences then, of course, getting exaggerated purely
for identity purposes).

The greatest gap in this volume is that neither Bell nor Labov chose to
address F&B's central concern. As it is, we can only assume that in
their views the association of linguistic variables with social groups
may in fact be happenstance, historical accident, nothing more than the
perception that ''they'' say it that way so we should not. Preston comes
closest to accepting F&B's challenge, arguing that internal linguistic
variation is primary, social variation secondary, and stylistic
tertiary. Presumably the existence of variants is ''explained'' by
internal linguistic constraints, although those variants may then be
arbitrarily attached to a given social group. The evidence he gives for
this, however, is scant. Milroy queries ''whether a single model which is
as wide as [F&B's] attempts to be is desirable or feasible'' (p. 268),
and Preston says F&B's work (although ''not uninteresting'') is irrelevant
to the discussion of style: ''it answers questions about the selection of
linguistic resources in the realization of different linguistic tasks''
(p. 291) rather than describing stylistic choices an individual may
makes within a given ''register.''

There are frequent challenges raised throughout the volume about the
variables F&B work with, both theoretically (with Preston pointing out
that F&B's variables are not ''classic'' sociolinguistic ones, as they do
not imply a choice among semantically equivalent elements which could
all occur in the given environment) and operationally (with Milroy
wondering whether their analysis of relative clauses would recognize
non-standard formulations). The fact that F&B compare written and spoken
registers likewise causes both theoretical concerns and methodological
problems, as F&B cannot, then, consider the phonological variation that
is the backbone of the Labovian work. There is also a lot of
counterevidence offered to their claims about economy and elaboration
being reflected in social variation (with ease associated with those of
lower status and clarity associated with those of higher status),
although this seems to mostly stem from one of the misinterpretations
F&B clarify here. (''Nothing in our model entails that each function
motivating the distribution of a given feature in one speech community
must also motivate its distribution in another.'' (p. 254)). Similarly,
much of the knee-jerk reaction against F&B seems to be motivated by the
impression that their theory implies linguistic deficits in some
speakers due to restricted access to various registers, as in Bernstein
(1971). F&B respond (p. 254): ''Nothing in our model should suggest that
'working class speakers are more 'limited' in their expressive resources
that middle class speakers.'' Our model expressly assumes equivalent
grammatical competencies among all social groups.''

One might be disheartened by the confusion still evident in this area of
study, despite the optimistic assurances of the editors (p. 5) that
''[t]he models of style discussed above ... are not contradictory or
mutually exclusive...''. A resolution between the views, however, may well
lie in an examination of differences among variables, and also of the
interaction among variants of a single variable, and of the situated use
of variation.'' The nearest anyone comes to bringing together the
different strands of research, however, is Bell's somewhat vague
proposal (p. 168) of a ''three-layered approach'' to the study of style:
featuring ''quantification of particular stylistic features'' [i.e. the
''classic'' Labovian approach], ''qualitative analysis of individual
tokens'' [i.e. the anthropological approach], and ''analysis of
co-occurrence of different features'' [i.e. incorporating some of F&B's
methods]. Clearly, much more work needs to be done to bring together the
different strands.

Although the breadth of the treatments of style in this volume is
praise-worthy, some useful perspectives are missing: Ochs' distinction
between planned and unplanned discourse receives only passing mention in
Milroy (p. 271), and Le Page and Tabouret-Keller's influential 1985 work
is mentioned only briefly by Rickford (p. 266).

One final quibble: the index is not very helpful, as it is inconsistent
and misses quite a few references (including the two mentioned in the
last paragraph). Despite this, and other quibbles raised above, this is
a very important collection of papers and should be required reading for
all those with any background in sociolinguistics.

REFERENCES
Bell, Allan (1984) Style as Audience Design. Language
in Society 13(2):145-204.
Bernstein, Basil (1971) Class, Codes, and Control.
London: Routledge.
Finegan, Edward and Biber, Douglas (1994) Register and
Social Dialect Variation: an Integrated Approach.
In Douglas Biber and Edward Finegan(eds.),
Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Register, pp. 315-
47. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Giles, Howard, Coupland, Justine, and Coupland,
Nikolas (1991) Contexts of Accommodation:
Developments in Applied Sociolinguistics.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Labov, William (1972) Sociolinguistic Patterns.
Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania
Press.
Le Page, Robert B. and Tabouret-Keller, Andree (1985)
Acts of Identity: Creole-Based Approaches to
Language and Ethnicity. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Mary Shapiro is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Truman State
University in Kirksville, Missouri. She received her Ph.D. in
sociolinguistics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1997. These
days, she spends much time observing the language acquisition process in
action in daughter Clara (14 months old and still won't say "Mama").

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