LINGUIST List 25.2913

Mon Jul 14 2014

Review: Sociolinguistics: Bell (2013)

Editor for this issue: Mateja Schuck <>

Date: 04-Mar-2014
From: Elizabeth Pyatt <>
Subject: The Guidebook to Sociolinguistics
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

AUTHOR: Allan Bell
TITLE: The Guidebook to Sociolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Elizabeth J. Pyatt, Pennsylvania State University


Allan Bell's “The Guidebook to Sociolinguistics” is a textbook for an undergraduate level of sociolinguistics. According to Bell's preface, the book assumes little or no background in formal linguistics. Bell also states a goal of providing instruction in ''how sociolinguistics is done: ''that is, providing both research-based project assignments and examples of how to interpret sociolinguistics. This facet turns out to be one of the great strengths of the book.

The topics covered in the textbook are typical for those of an introductory undergraduate sociolinguistics course and include multilingualism, pidgins and creoles, attitudes towards language, interaction between language and social class, the concept of codes within different communities (or ''communities of practice''), register and style, traditional dialectology, the social reality of ''language'' vs. ''dialect,” documenting variation and usage patterns and tracking language change, including language death.

The book is organized into the following chapters and includes an extensive bibliography and topical index. Each chapter includes a set of references and further reading relevant to the chapter topics at the end and typically includes a number of possible research projects and exercises in the chapter. These could be used as the basis of a homework assignment or as discussion points for students.

1. What Are Sociolinguistics?
2. A Profusion of Languages
3. Language Shift and Maintenance
4. Language Birth and Death
5. Codes and Choices
6. Situated Language
7. Variation in Language
8. Language in Time
9. Language in Space
10. Valuing Language
11. Styling Language and Identities
12. Theory and Engagement

Chapter One is “What are Sociolinguistics?” and the use of the plural is a reference to the multiple approaches taken in the study of language usage and variation. The chapter introduces basic concepts of sociolinguistics, including language as a social construct, and how it relates to other fields such as sociology, anthropology, applied linguistics, historical and theoretical linguistics, discourse/pragmatics and language planning policy. Unusual for a sociolinguistics textbook, Bell discusses links between sociolinguistics and constructivist analysis. The chapter concludes with an overview of the textbook's philosophy and organization.

The focus of Chapter Two, “A Profusion of Languages,” is multilingualism and the chapter discusses different parameters of analyzing multilingualism (individual vs. community, immigrant vs. indigenous, levels of proficiency, vitality and others). The chapter features a case study of multilingualism in Canada, particularly the status of French vs. English, and discusses the use of census and survey data in analyzing a multilingual population. The final research project is creating a survey.

Chapter Three, “Language Shift and Maintenance,” continues with the theme of multilingualism and maintenance of a non-dominant language. Topics include usage patterns of different languages in a multilingual context and how usage may change across time and generations. The case study is changes in usage of Maori over time and the “research project” is actually a discussion of how to find a research project and plan the collection of the data.

The title of Chapter Four is “Language Birth and Death” and covers the formation and social position of pidgins and creoles (birth) as well as the conditions of language death, including the deterioration of grammatical features as a language loses speakers who actively use it. Focus languages are Gaelic (endangered) and Melanesian Pidgin (a Pacific Creole).

Chapter Five, “Codes and Choices,” introduces the concept of variation in smaller language communities. It begins with definitions of different types of variations and communities, including overlapping communities. There is also an extensive discussion of diglossia and code switching with a look at the German-Hungarian bilingual community of Oberwart on the border of Austria and Hungary. The research activity asks students to document variation in different scenarios.

The theme of individual usage variation continues in Chapter Six, “Situated Language”. This chapter focuses on linguistic ethnography, politeness and the concept of changing a language to suit a different audience. The connection between language and gender is briefly discussed in this chapter. The research activity is to describe an linguistic ethnographic scenario, and there is an extensive case study of slang use in Rio de Janeiro.

Variation between social classes is the focus of Chapter Seven “Variation in Language”. Much of the data comes from William Labov's studies of language variation in New York City, but also includes data from studies in Detroit, Guyana, Norwich, New England and other locations. The concepts of covert prestige are discussed here as is the distinction of ethnicity versus class and gender as a social variable.

Chapter Eight, “Language and Time,” discusses how language changes across generations and as people themselves age. The focus then shifts to the processes of change in language such as sound change and morphosyntactic change. The role of class, particularly working class speakers as innovators, is also discussed. This chapter also introduces the concepts of social networks and the linguistic “marketplace”. The case study focuses on documenting language in different cliques in Belten High school (a pseudonym for a real high school in the Detroit area). The research study is an activity in which students trace change in online document archives.

The topic of Chapter Nine is “Language in Space” or roughly regional dialectology. Traditional dialect maps are introduced, including the Rhenish fan, but the chapter also focuses on contemporary understanding of regional differences, including urban vs. rural. The final part of the chapter discusses dialect birth and death, the relationship between regional and standard dialects and dialect contact. The case study is the development of New Zealand English.

Chapter Ten, “Valuing Language” covers issues of language and identity or ideology. Attitudes towards language are discussed as are linguistic stereotypes and discrimination. This chapter introduces centripetal linguistic forces (towards standardization) vs. centrifugal ones (towards more regional diversity).

Chapter Eleven “Styling Language and Identities,” puts the focus on how individuals may vary style depending on audience. In many cases, variation may include accommodation in order to show closeness to a speaker or community. Specific cases include adjusting newscast styles for different radio stations and even “performing gender.”

The book concludes with Chapter Twelve, “Theory and Engagement,” in which Bell argues that sociolinguistics may be evolving in a direction away from important sociological factors. That is, Bell argues that sociolinguistic analysis may not be taking individual choice enough into account. Bell also postulates that academics with linguistic expertise have a responsibility towards helping disadvantaged communities who may be suffering the effects of discrimination or linguistic stereotyping.


As indicated earlier, the topics are what most instructors would expect for an undergraduate linguistics course, and the examples of different phenomena are plentiful and well chosen. They include ''classic'' examples from the discipline of sociolinguistics and newer data sources as well. For classic sociolinguistics this includes Labov's (1966, 2006) studies of New York dialects, Rubin's (1968) comparison of Spanish vs. Guaraní usage in Paraguay (1968) and Brown and Gilman's (1960) description of T/V pronoun usage across languages as examples.

In terms of newer examples (at least new to this reviewer) Bell works in New Zealand, so not surprisingly, many of these unique data sources relate to New Zealand and Australia, but examples are pulled from elsewhere such as Africa, South Asia, Denmark and London. Two notable topics include discussions of the Maori community in New Zealand and ethnographies of modern Western cultures such as Bucholtz's (1999) discussion of Cross Racial AAVE (CRAAVE) in the U.S. These are all valuable additions for any instructor looking to update course material.

A major strength of this book is indeed the focus on research. Bell not only provides different types of data from the field, but also detailed explanations on how data has been collected and interpreted. The textbook also provides a number of potential research activities, including designing an interview or searching a newspaper archive for patterns of usage across time. Each chapter also ends with a list of recommended reading sources which would be valuable for student researchers.

Although the content of this textbook is very rich, I did have some concerns about the organization of the book, especially in terms of using it in a U.S. higher education environment. First, the concept of linguistic discrimination/stereotypes is not fully discussed until Chapter 10. This is surprising to me since this is a major facet of sociolinguistics that relates to almost all other topics such as language policy, attitudes towards creoles and rationales for individual language choices.

Another choice Bell makes is to focus on macro level issues (multilingualism in nations, minority language maintenance) first. I am not sure how well this topic ordering would work in an American context, which is monolingual English in many regions. Unless a course is being taught in an urban environment or one in which other languages are present, these issues are difficult for American students to understand until they are acquainted with more non-Anglo history than is usually taught. Thus, some textbooks (e.g. Wardhaugh's “An Introduction to Sociolinguistics” (1992, 2010)) are organized to first discuss microlevel descriptions (e.g. jargons, register, regional dialects) more familiar to this audience. Fortunately, an instructor can choose to reorder the topics to his or her preference.

A third issue particular to this book is the labeling and organization of some chapters. I was able to guess the topics of many chapters based on their names, but a few did leave me a little puzzled. These included titles such as ''Language in Space'' (regional dialectal variation), ''Language in Time'' (overview of language change) and ''Language Birth and Death'' (pidgins, creoles plus language death). The last was particularly confusing because each end of a language's life cycle involves different issues, and I thought it didn't give enough focus to creole sociolinguistics or the differences between Atlantic vs. Pacific creoles. The creole issue is especially important because many immigrants to the U.S. and elsewhere may be creole speakers and the concept of creole is poorly understood by the general public. I would not rule out using this book because of this issue, but I would want to clarify topics more for the students.

A final comment I have is a lack shared by several sociolinguistics textbooks I have examined. When concepts such as dialect vs. language, code switching, creoles vs. a standard language or related languages are being discussed, I feel it is important to provide some sample linguistic data. For instance seeing samples of Standard French vs. Haitian Creole or Tok Pisin vs. Standard English really helps students understand the nature of these creoles. Unfortunately, I did not see as many of these examples in this textbook as I would have liked. As a corollary, this textbook also lacks exercises that include data for analysis (language samples, data sets, charts). If an instructor wishes to include such an exercise, he or she would be forced to develop some, which can be more time consuming.

This textbook is also lacking in photographic realia, that is photographic examples of different types of sociolinguistic phenomena (e.g. a multilingual sign). This may have been done to keep the price of the book down, but I find that they do help students understand the context of some situations. Again, it is possible for an instructor to find appropriate examples online, but it would be beneficial to have more included within a textbook so students can see the images as they are reviewing the content.

Having set out these critiques, though, I would still say this book is a fine candidate for an undergraduate sociolinguistics course. It introduces the key topics, provides lots of excellent and modern examples and is written in an accessible style suitable for introducing material to students not yet familiar with linguistic theory or social science research methodology. Its focus on research issues is one that I also agree is important for helping students understand the different ways language can and should be analyzed.


Brown, Roger and Albert Gilman. 1960. “The pronouns of power and solidarity.” In Thomas A. Sebeok, ed., Style in Language, 253-76. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bucholtz, Mary. 1999. “You da man: Narrating the racial other in the production of white masculinity.” Journal of Sociolinguistics 3(4). 443-460.

Labov, William. 1966, 2006. The Social Stratification of English in New York City, Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rubin, Joan. 1968. “Bilingual usage in Paraguay.” In Joshua A. Friedman (ed.), Readings in the Sociology of Language, 512-30. The Hague: Mouton

Wardhaugh, Ronald. 1992, 2010. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Sixth Edition. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.


Elizabeth Pyatt is a Lecturer in the Program of Linguistics at Penn State. She has researched Celtic languages, particularly Welsh, with a focus on documenting the morphosyntactic properties of Celtic mutations, including dialectal variation and diachronic development. Dr. Pyatt has also taught introductory undergraduate sociolinguistics at Penn State.

Page Updated: 14-Jul-2014