Date: Thu, 06 Feb 2003 10:06:24 -0500 From: Gerard Van Herk Subject: Review: Handbook of Language Variation and Change
Chambers, J.K., Peter Trudgill, and Natalie Schilling-Estes, eds. (2002) The Handbook of Language Variation and Change. Blackwell Publishers, ISBN 0-631-21803-3, xii+807pp, USD 124.95/GBP 85.00.
Reviewer: Gerard Van Herk, University of Ottawa
The Handbook of Language Variation and Change joins Blackwell’s previous handbooks on child language, phonology, semantics, sociolinguistics, phonetics, morphology, Japanese linguistics, syntax, discourse, and general linguistics. The authors see the present volume as "a convenient, hand-held repository of the essential knowledge about the study of language variation and change" (introduction, p. 2). The volume strains the boundaries of "hand-held" – it treats 29 different subjects in 807 pages, and is considerably longer than the earlier Blackwell Handbook of Sociolinguistics, which itself houses a substantial variationist component.
Following a brief introduction and "An Informal Epistemology" (J.K. Chambers), the book is divided into five parts: methodologies, linguistic structure, social factors, contact, and language and societies.
As the search for large amounts of vernacular data is both the goal and, in some senses, the main distinguishing characteristic of variationist work, it is appropriate that the handbook begin with discussions of methodology. The "Field Methods" section includes chapters on fieldwork, focussing on the sociolinguistic interview and advance preparation (Crawford Feagin); language attitudes, dealing more with the types of information obtained than with strictly methodological issues (Dennis R. Preston); the advantages and pitfalls of written materials (Edgar W. Schneider); and the use of large, electronically searchable text databases (Laurie Bauer). The "Evaluation" section is made up of chapters on the quantitative paradigm, particularly multivariate analysis with VARBRUL and related computer programmes (Robert Bayley); implicational scales, whose use in variationist work has declined in recent years (John R. Rickford); and an overview of the use of instrumental phonetics in sociolinguistics (Erik R. Thomas).
Part two of the handbook deals with linguistic structure, with chapters on the links between variationist work and current theoretical phonology, especially Optimality Theory (Arto Anttila); the role of chain shifts and mergers in sound change (Matthew J. Gordon); the relationship of variation to (Chomskyan) syntactic theory (Alison Henry); and a critical analysis of the relatively young field of variationist discourse analysis (Ronald Macaulay).
Part three, by far the longest section of the book, is concerned with social factors, divided into subsections on time, social differentiation, and domains. The "Time" section includes chapters on the relative value of real- and apparent-time studies, with the advantages of apparent-time work stressed (Guy Bailey); the fairly new focus on speech produced by, or directed toward, children (Julie Roberts); and the social situation of language change (J.K. Chambers). The "Social Differentiation" section deals with the social factors that "have figured in our research from the very beginning" (373), with chapters on various approaches to the analysis of stylistic variation (Natalie Schilling-Estes); the components and treatments of social class (Sharon Ash); approaches to, and the role of, sex and gender in variation and change (Jenny Cheshire); and the definition and expression of ethnicity (Carmen Fought). A section on "Domains" links a disparate group of concepts as "relational arenas within which variable linguistic behavior takes place" (473), with chapters on a non-essentialist approach toward language and identity (Norma Mendoza-Denton); the family as a locus of change (Kirk Hazen); and the relative utility and applicability to variationist analysis of the sometimes overlapping concepts of communities of practice (Miriam Meyerhoff), social networks (Lesley Milroy), and the speech community (Peter Patrick).
Part four of the handbook deals with the study of language varieties in contact, with chapters on the potential contributions of human geography research to the analysis of variation (David Britain); the relative effect of language contact on different linguistic domains (Gillian Sankoff); and how koineization affects language change (Paul Kerswill).
Part five, "Linguistic and Social Typology," includes chapters on (speculated) possible links between societal types and degree and type of linguistic change (Peter Trudgill); the value of a variationist reworking of the comparative method of historical linguistics (Sali Tagliamonte); and a typology and comparison of models of language death (Walt Wolfram).
The handbook can be seen as a stock-taking of variationist sociolinguistics as it enters a period of self-examination typical of any thirty-something. In fact, chapter titles mirror major discussion topics at NWAVE, the flagship conference for variationists. The editors describe their desire to strike a balance between generations of sociolinguists ("the founders" and "their intellectual offspring") and topics ("the relatively mature and the relatively recent") (introduction, p. 1). In this, they clearly succeed.
This balance, however, raises problems of its own. Assigning equal weight to each topic considered chapter-worthy leads to short-changing of some areas critical to an understanding of variationist work, and over-coverage of some areas of specialist interest. This is particularly clear in part I, methodologies (which as a whole could be proportionally longer, especially in a discipline so driven by the search for empirical evidence). The sociolinguistic interview is central to variationist methodology; to treat it as part of a single 20-page chapter seems short shrift. This short-changing is even more evident when a full 30 pages of the section are devoted to written documents; although I use such documents and I am convinced of their value in historical work, I acknowledge that their analysis remains peripheral to the variationist mainstream. The same imbalance is found between variable rule analysis, given only part of a chapter, and implicational scales, marginal to the field, which are assigned a full chapter of their own. Elsewhere in the book, the distribution of chapter topics results in far more weight being assigned to social than to linguistic factors. Although this may address previous criticisms of variationist sociolinguistics as too much linguistics and not enough socio, it probably does not reflect the majority tendency of the discipline. In each of these cases, the problem is not with the treatment of each topic; rather, it is that the "third generation" of sociolinguists at whom the book is aimed deserve a (proportionally) more detailed treatment of the topics central to variationist work.
As is expected in a work of this type, authors choose a range of strategies in approaching their assigned topic. Among the most successful chapters are those whose authors are the obvious (first or second) choices for the topic. In these cases, the engagement of the authors is evident, and illustrations and examples are drawn from their own research, resulting in chapters that are highly readable and that function as effective teaching tools. Particularly notable in this respect are the chapters on language attitude, ethnicity, social networks, space, koineization, and comparative sociolinguistics. The cases of topic-author mismatch rarely result from inappropriate author choice; rather, they seem to fall out from the nature of the topics involved. Many topics are by their nature not the kind of thing that any one author is closely associated with, or would work on throughout a career. This results in some very careful chapters, consisting largely of literature reviews of other people’s work, the kind of chapters that could have been safely assigned to less experienced (or even less skilled) authors. The chapters in question are all more than competent, but prevent the reader from fully benefiting from their authors’ talent and experience.
And although academic book reviews that smugly list typographical and proofreading errors may make readers cringe, I must point out that some errors here interfere with understanding, or actually create misunderstanding. For example, the material at the top of p. 235, an apparent continuation of a table from the previous page, seems to require a separate table, titled "6-syllable stems." Likewise, it is clear from the table on p. 751 that the sentence at the bottom of the previous page, "In this table non-significant factors are in bold," should read "In this table SIGNIFICANT factors are in bold." Presumably such errors result from copy conversion associated with the publisher’s standardization of tables, and can easily be corrected in future editions.
One hopes for frequent future editions, especially given the editors’ bold decision to assign equal weight to "the tried-and-probably-true and the potentially productive" (p. 1). In a field as (relatively) young as variationist sociolinguistics, ideas develop quickly, and can in many cases be empirically tested just as quickly. It is natural that the concerns of the field should change over time, and the discipline is well-served by a handbook that is willing to stay at the leading edge of such change. It is equally true, though, that over time certain methods and approaches will be more frequently tested than others, and will become yet more central to work on variation and change. It is hoped that future editions will reflect these core concerns by devoting proportionally more space to them.u
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Gerard Van Herk is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa and visiting scholar at York University. His research interests include linguistic prescriptivism and the sociolinguistics and history of African American, Barbadian, and Canadian varieties of English.