LINGUIST List 32.494

Tue Feb 09 2021

Review: Sociolinguistics: Rickford (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 19-Aug-2020
From: Marie-Eve Bouchard <>
Subject: Variation, Versatility and Change in Sociolinguistics and Creole Studies
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: John Russell Rickford
TITLE: Variation, Versatility and Change in Sociolinguistics and Creole Studies
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Marie-Eve Bouchard, University of British Columbia


This book is a collection of fifteen articles and conference papers written by John Rickford throughout his forty-year career. All articles have been modified or updated to some degree. They are presented in chronological order (from 1979 to 2018), which provides coherence to the collection as a whole. This book is representative of Rickford’s vast and substantial contribution to the fields of creole studies and sociolinguistics. Each chapter is summarized below.

The short introduction presents each chapter of the book; but most importantly, it links Rickford’s beginnings in linguistics to sociolinguistics and creole studies, as well as his effort to build a bridge between the two fields.

The first and the last chapters are about fieldwork. Bracketing the book with these two chapters is definitely representative of the author’s approach to research and data collection; to him, fieldwork is essential to the study of sociolinguistic variation and change. These chapters are particularly important now, “at a time when it is easy for young researchers to be seduced by the availability of online corpora that may replace human contact with actual speakers” (p. xv, Foreword, written by Gillian Sankoff). Chapter 1 is a revision of the fieldwork chapter in Rickford’s (1979) unpublished dissertation. The author presents his experience as a fieldworker in Cane Walk (Guyana), and in doing so, gives crucial information for sociolinguists doing fieldwork anywhere. He discusses issues related to selecting a research site, getting in (i.e., entering and accessing the community), and getting on (i.e., becoming more deeply involved in the research participants’ lives), along with four main data-collecting instruments and techniques (spontaneous interviews, participant observation, controlled interviews, and expatriate re-interviews). On the other hand, Chapter 15 is a hymn to fieldwork. In this chapter, Rickford emphasizes the value of fieldwork by celebrating how precious it is to enter people’s lives by listening to their stories – not only from a linguistic perspective, but also from a human one.

The second chapter is co-authored with Elizabeth Closs Traugott and was first published in 1985. The authors address the contrasting attitudes found in communities where pidgin and creole varieties of English are spoken. They focus on three points: mass media, literature, and the people who live in the places where pidgins and creoles are used. First, in the mass media, attitudes tend to be negative. Pidgins and creoles are often represented as non-legitimate languages, vulgar, or a symbol of degradation. Second, in literature, attitudes toward the use of pidgins and creoles seem to be more nuanced. On the one hand, pidgins and creoles may be used for comic effect or to ridicule a character (negative attitudes); but on the other hand, writers of the past few decades have been using pidgins and creoles in a way that is more representative of their multilingual communities (positive attitudes). In so doing, they are moving away from the European cultural tradition that has been imposed on many former colonized societies. Third, attitudes of the speakers themselves are also paradoxical. Such attitudes can be observed though the popular reaction to materials in pidgins and creoles, individual anecdotes in which attitudes are overtly expressed, and sociolinguistic group surveys. The authors conclude that the speakers’ attitudes toward their pidgin or creole continuously shifts according to the political and socioeconomic climate of the society in which they live.

The third chapter is about the adequacy of pidgins and creoles and a response to Whinnom (1971: 110), who wrote that “linguists do not have the evidence to assert with confidence that speakers of creole languages are not handicapped by their language, and should not, while any doubt remains, make unsupported assertion of the contrary.” In this chapter, Rickford aims to answer the following questions: “How can systematic empirical investigation of the ‘adequacy’ of pidgins and creoles be carried out?” (p. 50). The author reports on and applies two approaches that can be used to investigate the adequacy of these languages: macro-surveys of pidgin-creoles resources, which are based on knowledge from dictionaries, grammars, elicitation and native-speaker intuition, and micro-analyses of pidgin and creole samples in use, which include translations of literacy classics, original works by pidgin and creole writers and artists, and the everyday discourse of ordinary speakers. Macro-surveys offer an overview of a language’s resources, and Rickford considers that Slobin’s (1978) four “charges to Language” provide an appropriate (but not perfect) framework for evaluating these linguistic resources. Micro-analyses of individual texts do not provide the overview that the macro-surveys do, but they do offer a better picture of what is actually done with language. The author argues that samples of everyday language offer a better perspective for investigating adequacy than translations and original works do.

In the fourth chapter, Rickford addresses the assessment of speaker competence. Recorded interviews have traditionally been the main means by which sociolinguists have gathered spontaneous speech data and assessed a speaker’s competence. However, the author argues that single interviews are not sufficient to adequately represent what speakers can actually do. Repeated recordings, ideally with different interlocutors in different places and discussing different topics, are necessary. Repeated elicited intuitions should also be included because they exhibit fewer discontinuities than data from “one-shot” elicited intuitions. This, of course, requires more time and more work, but it is likely to result in a better assessment of competence and a better understanding of social meaning.

The fifth chapter links sociolinguistics and creole studies by highlighting some of their contributions in terms of social history, models and methods of analysis, and applied linguistics. The author argues that the two fields have the potential to contribute to each other and that they would benefit from such a mutual exchange.

In the sixth chapter, Rickford urges sociolinguists and creolists to continue using implicational scales, which variationists may employ to demonstrate that variability is constrained. The author reviews the history and development of implicational scales, and he explains how to use them. He also discusses three caveats regarding the traditional use of implicational scales, which may be helpful to linguists interested in applying this method in their future works.

In the seventh chapter, Rickford and his co-author Angela Rickford advocate for both the versatility approach and the importance of giving back to the communities we study. Versality refers to the ability to switch from one language to another, and more specifically in this chapter, to switch from vernacular to mainstream English (and vice versa). The authors propose that teachers use literature and music rather than Contrastive Analysis drills in order to develop linguistic versatility in their students. They discuss several examples using the work of African American and Caribbean writers and singers that can be used in classrooms. One way sociolinguists can give back to the communities they investigate is by developing classroom lessons based on their understanding of the community’s variations in speech.

The eight chapter is an overview of Le Page’s theoretical and applied legacy in sociolinguistics and creolistics, focusing on his detailed sociohistorical approach to research and the Acts of Identity model, which he developed in a book with Tabouret-Keller (1985). Rickford discussed the plusses and minuses of this model, followed by a review of Le Page’s works (1964, 1968) that are not as well known as his model. Rickford concludes that although Le Page’s Act of Identity has been somehow neglected outside the Caribbean and in the recent years, this framework is still valuable, its plusses are significant, and the challenges it presents can be developed and overcome.

In the ninth chapter, Rickford argues that there are both social and linguistic constraints on language variability. He uses the Guyanese personal pronouns as an example for his argument. For instance, the first-person subject pronoun can occur as “ai” or “mi(i)”. Previous research has shown that the use of “mii” is more characteristic of rural speakers. However, this variability is also governed by linguistic constraints, because “mi(i)” is more likely to occur before pre-negative “en”, and more likely to occur as a possessive rather than a subject pronoun. In order words, Rickford considers that internal constraints on variation cannot be neglected when we investigate the social meanings of the said variation.

The tenth chapter was written together with Robin Melnick. It is a quantitative study of subject-auxiliary (non-)inversion in question formation (e.g. “You are at home?” versus “Are you at home?”) in Bajan (creole of Barbados). The results are compared with other Caribbean creoles (Jamaican and Guyanese) and North American vernacular varieties. The language varieties show differences in their overall rates of non-inversion, but similarities in their constraints. For instance, two important similarities are the favoring of non-inversions in yes/no question type and when the auxiliary “do” is used.

In the eleventh chapter, Rickford addresses the question of how to code for stylistic variation in sociolinguistic corpora. The first point he makes is that there is actually little stylistic variation in sociolinguists’ recorded corpora (because most are comprised of conversations between an interviewer and interviewees). A conscious effort needs to be made to record speakers in different situations in order to build corpora that are rich enough to use for stylistic variation analysis. Rickford summarizes the work of Devyani Sharma and Ben Rampton as an example for investigating style. These two linguists gave tape recorders to their participants and invited them to record themselves in different environments with different interlocutors, which resulted in a rich set of data on style-shifting. Rickford concludes by discussing what sociolinguists should code for in order to study the speakers’ repertoire.

The twelfth chapter, co-authored with Sharese King, focuses on Rachel Jeantel’s speech in the 2013 trial for the prosecution of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Jeantel was a close friend of Martin, and the two were on the phone moments before his death, which made her the “star witness” (p. 245) of the trial. Jeantel is a speaker of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). A great deal of attention on social media and on television focused on her speech. One jury said that they found Jeantel “hard to understand” and “not credible” (p. 247). In a sense, Jeantel’s speech may have contributed to Zimmerman’s acquittal – not directly because of her speech, but because of the beliefs and attitudes regarding her speech. Rickford and King discuss examples of intelligibility issues involving English vernaculars in other court cases and show how mistranscription and misunderstanding can lead to serious problems for the defendants. They also analyse Jeantel’s speech and conclude that the linguistic features she uses are those of AAVE. However, as all jurors were white and speakers of white colloquial English, this dialectal difference may have negatively affected their perception of Jeantel’s intelligibility and credibility – and consequently, the final decision of the jurors regarding the case. Rickford and King conclude with a call for action: “more of us need to get out of our offices, labs and libraries and make a difference in the world” (p. 284). Linguists need to make sure that speakers of vernaculars are heard and understood in courtrooms and beyond.

In the thirteenth chapter, Rickford addresses a complex issue in sociolinguistics: the understanding of social classes. After reviewing the main approaches to addressing social classes in the field (i.e., ignoring them, taking them into account simplistically, or using multi-index scales), the author offers an overview of how he dealt with social class in his main field site (Cane Walk, Guyana). He presents the history of Cane Walk, the social classes in this community as perceived by his research participants, the nature of the two main social classes of the community (i.e., Estate Class and Non-Estate Class), the theoretical models that are best-suited for this community, and the differences in language use between the two social classes. Interestingly, Rickford concludes by inviting sociolinguistics to draw and build on existing theories and methodologies from other social sciences.

Finally, the fourteenth chapter addresses the concept of speech community and its application to the population of Cane Walk. The author argues that a viable model of speech community must theoretically account for two social forces that co-exist in all communities: concord (or cooperation) and conflict (or competition).

After Chapter 15 (discussed above together with Chapter 1), the book ends with a poem written by Rachel Jeantel.


The breadth of John R. Rickford’s work is immense. He has advanced the field of sociolinguistics not only by challenging different methodological and theoretical models used in the field, but also by challenging sociolinguists and creolists to give back to the communities they investigate and to contest social issues that are (consciously or not) related to language. Rickford’s work lies at the intersection of sociolinguistics and creole studies, and this book offers a comprehensive overview of his forty-year career. In addition, given the great range of Rickford’s work, this book also provides an excellent overview of the research that has been done in the past decades to bridge the gaps between the two fields. In this collection of articles, Rickford meticulously studies the speech of individuals from minority communities (from Cane Walk, Guyana, for instance, one of his main field sites) and effectively connects it to broader questions in sociolinguistics.

This book has a broad scope, addressing methodological and theoretical issues in sociolinguistics and creole studies, but also in applied and forensic linguistics. The chapters related to language, education, and law are great examples of how the work of linguists can have a meaningful impact on people’s lives and the communities they investigate. In this sense, this book is very inspiring; it is a call for action. Action is needed because, as Rickford writes (p. 49), although “all languages are POTENTIALLY equal, […] ACTUAL equality of languages is a myth.” Linguists, as the specialists in language, can act on this. Also, throughout the book Rickford points toward areas of research where more work is needed. This, in my opinion, can be especially useful to students and young scholars.

This book is particularly relevant for sociolinguists and creolists interested in vernacular Englishes of the Americas. It is not necessarily a book that one reads from start to finish, so it might be more interesting to pick individual chapters and work with those. Prospective readers should be aware that the book is (mainly) written by a single author.


Whinnom, Keith. 1971. Linguistic hybridization and the ‘special case’ of pidgins and creoles. In Dell Hymes (Ed.), Pidginization and Creolization of Languages, 91-116. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Slobin, Dan. 1978. Language change in childhood and history. In John Macnamara (Ed.), Language Learning and Thought, 185-214. New York: Academy Press.

Le Page, Robert. 1964. The National Language Question: Linguistic Problems of Newly Independent States. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Le Page, Robert. 1968. Problems to be faced in the use of English as the medium of education in four West Indian territories. In Joshua Fishman, Charles Ferguson, and Jyotirindra Das Gupta (Eds.), Language Problems of Developing Nations, 431-442. New York: Wiley.

Lepage, Robert, and Andrée Tabouret-Keller. 1985. Acts of Identity: Creole-Based Approaches to Language and Ethnicity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


I completed my PhD in Linguistics at New York University in September 2017 with a research project that investigated the emerging variety of Portuguese spoken in São Tomé and Príncipe. I am an anthropologically oriented sociolinguist, and I tend to enjoy the blurred space between these two fields. My main research interests are language ideologies, language contact, variation and change, language and national identity, and ethnicity. I am currently creating new projects to include the Santomean diaspora to my studies. I am currently an assistant professor in the Department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies at the University of British Columbia.

Page Updated: 09-Feb-2021