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Review of  Sociolinguistics

Reviewer: Simo K. Määttä
Book Title: Sociolinguistics
Book Author: Florian Coulmas
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 17.206

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Date: Fri, 20 Jan 2006 17:05:13 +0200
From: Simo Maatta
Subject: Sociolinguistics: The Study of Speakers' Choices

AUTHOR: Coulmas, Florian
TITLE: Sociolinguistics
SUBTITLE: The Study of Speakers' Choices
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2005

Simo K. Määttä, School of Modern Languages and Translation
Studies, University of Tampere, Finland.

This textbook provides a comprehensive overview of the main issues
with which sociolinguistics is engaged. It is particularly suitable for
undergraduate education: while some of the concepts might be
difficult to grasp, they are presented in an easily accessible form and
combined with numerous concrete examples, which makes
understanding them easier. Besides, SOCIOLINGUISTICS is a
valuable reference book for anyone interested in the social life of

The introductory chapter examines theories of language and
language variation within different traditions of linguistic. Language
has a biological basis, on the one hand, it lives in society, on the
other. Both aspects need to be studied. However, (theoretical)
linguistics cannot explain linguistic diversity: only an exploration of the
social side of language can. Starting with Saussure's mention of
language being a social fact, i.e., a code shared within a language
community, the chapter discusses differences between sociolinguistics
('language as a social fact') and autonomous linguistics ('language as
a natural fact'). These two approaches should be regarded as
complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Indeed,
while 'biolinguistics' disregards the historical dimension of language,
this aspect is crucial in approaches stressing the social side of
language. As the subtitle of the textbook suggests, choice is a key
notion in sociolinguistics. Thus, its aim is to study individual choices
affecting speech behaviour insofar as these choices build up collective
choices. Since cooperative behaviour within a speech community
requires appropriate usage of unmarked choices, linguistic
socialization consists primarily of learning to master the difference
between marked and unmarked choices.

Chapter Two examines the social stratification of language and the
often uneasy distinction between standard and dialect. While
language variation is universal and has been the subject of inquiry in
several cultures, variationist sociolinguistics is essentially a Western
science. Thus, concepts developed within this paradigm should be
applied with caution to other societies and other times, for there are
diverging patterns of assigning prestige to particular speech
behaviour. Numerous examples are used to illustrate the culture-
specific nature of dialectal fragmentation based on geographical or
social stratification. Special emphasis is placed on the fact that not
only social class and geographical location but also factors such as
gender, ethnicity, race, occupation, etc. should be taken into account
within the variationist paradigm. On the other hand, while
sociolinguists need a model of social stratification for their studies,
such abstractions are always artificial and arbitrary. Indeed, rather
than concentrating on social indexing through isolated dialects,
today's sociolinguistics is more interested in dialects and populations
in contact, as well as the ways in which speakers accommodate their
speech in each particular situation.

While there is a difference between the ways in which men and
women speak in all language communities which have been studied,
these differences are not always consistent. Chapter Three, which
examines the relation between language and gender, provides
various intriguing examples of lexical, phonological, and discourse-
related studies about gender as a discrete sociolinguistic variable, yet
contingent upon other factors, such as age, culture, situation,
education, etc. A good part of the chapter is dedicated to the political
dimension of language and gender: no other area of (socio) linguistic
inquiry has been more politicized.

Chapter Four scrutinizes age as a factor of sociolinguistic variation.
Not only the particularities of 'deviant' age cohorts, such as infancy
and old age, but also those of adulthood, i.e., the norm, are examined.
The presentation of studies of Japanese 'high-school-girl' talk
provides a particularly interesting example for classroom discussion.
This chapter also considers the relation between old age and
language attrition, as well as beliefs and attitudes related to age.

The topic of Chapter Five is language change over time. Language,
within this chapter, is understood as an event rather than a thing;
indeed, language per se, for instance a sound segment, does not
change. Rather, people change the way they pronounce sounds, i.e.,
they CHOOSE differently. From this speaker-centred perspective,
language change is best understood in terms of apparent time (as
opposed to real time) -- since the age gap between different
generations corresponds to a certain amount of time, linguistic
variation between these generations indicates linguistic change in
time. Thus, the concept of apparent time allows combining synchronic
and diachronic linguistics. The chapter presents fascinating
longitudinal studies of linguistic change over generations. It also
discusses the increased prestige and dissemination of non-standard
varieties spoken in big cities and discusses different points of view
concerning the origins of linguistic change.

Chapter Six is dedicated to politeness studies, a major sub-field of
sociolinguistics today. The chapter includes the discussion of the
concepts of face, markedness, and cooperation, which form the
general framework from which politeness arises, and presents a
comprehensive overview of research on linguistic politeness in
different languages, in particular Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, and

While the first part of the book deals with micro-level choices, Part
Two presents sociolinguistic phenomena related to macro-level
choices. Code-switching, the topic of Chapter Seven, is examined
from the viewpoint of speakers engaging in this practice ('Who
switches'?), the ways in which this is done ('How'?), and the reasons
why code-switching occurs ('Why'?). The term 'code' is preferred
instead of 'language' because switching can happen both between
varieties of one language and different languages. The chapter also
discusses the relation between code-switching and bilingualism.
Examples of different types of bilingual behaviour, most of which
cannot be classified as code-switching, provide particularly useful
material for classroom discussion.

Diglossia and bilingualism, in Chapter Eight, are defined by using
several examples from throughout the world. The chapter discusses
issues such as writing and standardization, linguistic ideology, genetic
relation between language varieties as an alleged prerequisite for
diglossia, status and function, domains, accommodation, and the
measurement of bilingualism.

The ways in which languages spread, disappear, and resist attrition is
the topic of Chapter Nine. While the spread of today's major
languages and their symbolic strength compared to their speaker
populations is explained in detail in this chapter, the discussion of the
languages of the Internet is particularly thought-provoking. The
chapter also examines language loyalty and ethnolinguistic vitality and
concludes with a discussion of the overwhelming presence of English.

Chapter Ten deals with individual, social, and national identity as
related to language. The notion of a stable, uncontested identity is
challenged: linguistic identities can be multiple and they can be

Chapter Eleven concentrates on language planning: it explains the
reasons why language planning exists and the many measures it
involves, again with numerous examples from different language
communities. The chapter also includes a short discussion of the
Western bias of language planning.

Writing, writing systems, and the passage from oral to written usage
are themes of Chapter Twelve, comprising a discussion of the political
implications of choosing a language, a variety, a writing system and a
script, and spelling conventions.

Chapter Thirteen, 'The language of choice,' discusses the role of
English as a linguistic super-power.

There is a concise glossary of key terms at the end of the book. Each
chapter concludes with study questions and selected references for
further reading, which can be quite useful in the sociolinguistics
classroom. In addition, students will find summaries of main points at
the end of each chapter particularly helpful. Due to abundant
examples of sociolinguistic phenomena in different language
communities, the text is accessible even to a newcomer in the field;
references to both classic and contemporary sociolinguistic research
make this textbook a useful resource for anyone. The division
between micro-choices (Part One), related to variationist
sociolinguistics, and macro-choices (Part Two), dealing with sociology
of language, works relatively well even though the distinction is not
always easy to make and can be quite arbitrary. In fact, this distinction
could have been made explicit in the introduction rather than in
Chapter Seven.

While a textbook is not the default forum for the discussion of
epistemological or theoretical problems of a discipline, the criticism of
the notion of language in theoretical linguistics and the Western bias
of certain sub-fields of sociolinguistics, language planning in
particular, can be used to stimulate a lively discussion in class. On the
other hand, the book does not tackle the essentialist vein of the entire
sociolinguistic enterprise. For example, while the constructed, free-
floating nature of identities is elaborated to some extent, this is not
taken into account when discussing, for instance, language and
gender. To characterize 'sex' as 'a compulsory exercise, reproduction'
and 'gender' as 'the fun of it, an art, a cultural achievement' is
somewhat surprising indeed.

There is little discussion in this textbook and in sociolinguistics in
general about the ways in which others interpret, acknowledge, and
accept the choices people make when using language in order to be
indexed in a particular way. While this reflects the fact that there are
few studies of the topic, it also generates a few questions. Thus, if all
language USE cannot be but a choice, the interpretation of linguistic,
social, and political meanings is a choice, too. Indeed, if
sociolinguistics studies social identities constructed in and through
language, would it be possible to study the linguistic construction of
sociolinguistic categories as well' After all, these categories appear to
be based on the assumption that it is possible to interpret why and
how people make choices governing their language use. Finally, could
there be a place for a sociolinguistics of LANGUAGE which does not
take for granted the unity of the sociolinguistic ideal speaker with
monolithic intentions, for a sociolinguistics concentrating on the ways
in which language in use, once it is brought into being by the socially
contingent speaking subject, does things?

Simo K. Määttä received his Ph.D. from the Department of French,
University of California at Berkeley in May 2004. He teaches French
Linguistics at the University of Tampere, Finland. Research interests:
sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, translation studies, language

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