LINGUIST List 28.77

Wed Jan 04 2017

Review: Discipline of Ling; Socioling: Dollinger (2015)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 26-Jul-2016
From: Benjamin Jones <>
Subject: The Written Questionnaire in Social Dialectology
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Stefan Dollinger
TITLE: The Written Questionnaire in Social Dialectology
SUBTITLE: History, theory, practice
SERIES TITLE: IMPACT: Studies in Language and Society 40
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Benjamin G Jones, University of Kentucky

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Stefan Dollinger’s textbook, “The Written Questionnaire in Social Dialectology: History, theory, practice,” is intended for a general audience that is interested in employing written questionnaires for the collection of linguistic data, specifically for the purposes of dialectal research. While presented in such a manner as to be accessible for individuals just beginning to undertake such projects (particularly students), researchers who have a history of conducting written questionnaires will be able to appreciate much of the content. Of interest to the established researcher will be the topics of data collection and management (discussed below). That being said, this volume is intended for students or those who are preparing their first foray into questionnaire-style fieldwork.

The first chapter serves as an introduction that frames the rest of the text, beginning with a brief overview of the origins of variationist sociolinguistics. This discussion then transitions to a short outlining of the types of fieldwork data, followed by the introduction of two approaches to how this data can be collected: the fieldworker interview and the written questionnaire. Finally, an outline of the textbook is provided, demonstrating how these points are covered in later chapters. The book is broadly grouped into two sections: “History & theory” and “Practice.”

The “History & theory” unit begins in the second chapter with a detailed account of the history of written questionnaires used in linguistic atlas projects. Starting with the first projects to utilize questionnaires to catalog variation in German-speaking regions, Dollinger provides an account of how dialectologists (or specifically, dialect geographers) have employed this method through to the modern day. Advancements in the deployment of the questionnaires, as well as methodological concerns, are also presented in this chapter. A discussion is presented as to how this method fell out of favor over time to eventually be replaced by the fieldworker interview, especially in the United States.

The third chapter continues this discussion, comparing the questionnaire method with other techniques for collecting data. Results obtained from the methods of data collection in corpus linguistics and fieldworker/sociolinguistic interviews are contrasted with results obtained from written questionnaires. The strengths and weaknesses of all methods are outlined (including several charts and summary tables) to highlight how each method can be applied. This topic naturally transitions to the next chapter, where the types of linguistic variables that are most appropriately captured by questionnaires are enumerated. Real-world examples are provided (mostly from a Canadian English context) which highlight how questionnaires have traditionally given insight into dialects, with opportunities for the reader to consider future applications.

The fifth chapter moves beyond the native speaker or Inner Circle English paradigm (Kachru 1985) , examining how written questionnaires can be applied to World Englishes and to contexts where English serves as the lingua franca. Particular attention is given to identifying regional innovations in the varieties as opposed to contact-induced changes. Additionally, potential problems that may be encountered in the design of the questions are treated.

Chapter Six looks to situate written questionnaire data into broader linguistic theory. The ways in which social questionnaires can address issues of apparent- and real-time data, how various social factors can contribute to changes from above and below, and border effects are all given consideration. A good portion of the chapter is devoted to how written questionnaires can contribute to the understanding of sociohistorical effects on language varieties. The models of Trudgill’s (1986) New Dialect Formation and Schneider’s (2003) Dynamic Model are contrasted, compared, and discussed in terms of how written questionnaires can serve to bridge between two models that Dollinger contends are not as immiscible as might be thought.

The seventh chapter begins the “Practice” section of the book, where the more nuts-and-bolts approach to questionnaire formation is adopted. This chapter covers rudimentary elements of question design, including how long a questionnaire can reasonably be expected to be, how to craft questions so as to elicit the data with which the linguist is concerned, and different types of response inputs (e.g., Likert scales, open response) that can be implemented for different purposes. Issues of online and in-person administration (including topics of available resources for online distribution) as well as participant and community reporting are also discussed.

Chapters Eight and Nine are concerned with using specific technologies in managing and processing written questionnaire data. Chapter Eight provides step-by-step instructions for using Microsoft Excel to manage data in tabular format, while Chapter Nine introduces the statistics software package R alongside a (rudimentary) overview of statistical tests for making meaning of the raw data. Usage of these tools is facilitated through a hands-on manipulation of data taken from the Dialect Topography of Canada, with specific data sets available on the book’s companion website with which the reader is encouraged to work. In presenting these tools, Dollinger offers suggestions on how best to manage the data within these programs. Also included are instructions on how to manipulate the data in Excel to quickly summarize and visualize the data.

The final chapter, titled “Epilogue,” ties together all of the elements of the preceding chapters. Dollinger condenses his arguments for why the written questionnaire should be implemented more often in the practice of social dialectology and invites the reader to look further into how the method can be strengthened. Questions of replicability and the robustness of methods are raised, with potential answers to these queries left as an avenue for future researchers to undertake.

The book’s companion website is a straightforward interface that allows the user to download examples presented in Chapters Eight and Nine, consisting of Excel files and R code. Also of interest is the repository of the book’s references in one of the sidebar links; here, the reader can access links to the many journal articles that are cited in the text (although it should be noted that most still exist within the publisher’s websites; thus many of the links will lead to paywalls).


Dollinger’s investment (and perhaps passion) in the method of the written questionnaire comes across clearly in this textbook. The early chapters constitute a very clear, yet detailed, account of how this method was developed, has been utilized, and has fallen into a more general disuse within social dialectology. Both established researchers and students will benefit from this carefully laid out history as they consider using questionnaires in their own studies. Dollinger provides arguments both for and against using questionnaires alongside a thorough examination of the critiques the method has faced (particularly within American dialectology) to aid the researcher/student in determining whether the method is suitable for their own purposes. Later chapters strengthen his argument that the method should be brought back into more widespread use through comparing the results of written questionnaires to other empirical methods, namely corpus linguistics. Dollinger does not dismiss earlier critiques of the method, but rather illustrates how questionnaires can be (and have been) refined to meet current research questions in social dialectology. This is a topic that is revisited in nearly every chapter, with examples taken from more modern questionnaire-based studies (almost entirely from dialectology projects concerned with Canadian English) to help emphasize the contributions that questionnaires have made to the understanding of dialectal variation.

The discussion of the Dynamic Model and New Dialect Formation models in Chapter Six is certainly thought provoking (and will lend itself well to more detailed conversations in a class utilizing this text as a source). His arguments for finding a way of bringing the two models closer together, rather than seeing them as being in direct competition, is well articulated and, through his examples, supported. His suggestions for how carefully designed written questionnaires can help examine the two models further are also well presented. These suggestions are clear enough that a beginning researcher can outline their own research agenda based upon Dollinger’s comments, should they wish to pursue these theories.

The presentation of the tools Excel and R in Chapters Eight and Nine should be commended on two counts. First, Dollinger does an excellent job of walking the reader through using the tools step-by-step. Especially for a student unfamiliar with these tools (namely pivot tables in Excel), these guides will provide an excellent starting point for working with their own data. The second point on which Dollinger should be commended is the intentional inclusion of problems within the data. While the examples are crafted in a manner that is easily manageable for the reader working alone, problems help to develop a sense of awareness of the challenges one might face in working with their own or other’s data. Furthermore, they aid in establishing problem-solving skills in the more novice reader, especially in the event that R returns an error due to either data format or command line errors. Dollinger also alerts the reader that many other types of problems are possible and provides a list of resources (for R) to which the reader can refer or turn to for more advanced help.

One point on which the reader may become frustrated with the text is the repetition across the chapters of the same few examples. While using the same examples across the text helps to illustrate the applicability of the method and create a sense of familiarity, some readers may find the regular discussions of the same sample lexical items somewhat tiresome. Another challenge of the text is the regular use of abbreviations; while the first few pages include a glossary, not all items are included. While Dollinger’s writing style does not inspire the desire to set the book down mid-chapter, should the reader have to come back to a chapter for a specific page they may have to do some backtracking in order to ascertain to what an abbreviation is specifically referring.

All told, “The Written Questionnaire in Social Dialectology: History, theory, practice” is a valuable resource for any dialectologist looking to adopt this method into their own research.


Kachru, Braj.1985. Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: The English Language in
the Outer Circle. In English in the World: Teaching and Learning of Language and Literature. Randolph Quirk and Henry G. Widdowson (eds.), 11-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schneider, Edgar W. 2003. The dynamics of New Englishes: From identity construction to
dialect birth. Language 79: 233-288.

Trudgill, Peter. 1986. Dialects in Contact. Oxford: Blackwell.


Ben Jones is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky's MA in Linguistic Theory and Typology program who received his BA in Linguistics from the University of Southern Maine. His research interests include (perceptual) dialectology, linguistic geography, change and variation, and linguistic revitalization.

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