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Review of  Sociolinguistic Theory

Reviewer: Margaret J-M Sonmez
Book Title: Sociolinguistic Theory
Book Author: J. K. Chambers
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Language Family(ies): New English
Issue Number: 14.1242

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Date: Fri, 25 Apr 2003 13:37:46 +0300
From: "[iso-8859-1] Margaret Sönmez"
Subject: Chambers, J. K. (2002): Sociolinguistic Theory, 2nd ed.

Chambers, J. K. 2002 Sociolinguistic Theory, 2nd ed., Polity (imprint of Blackwell Publishers)
Language in Society series.
Announced at (1st ed.)

Reviewed by: Margaret J-M Sonmez, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey.

General Introduction

The book's stated aim is to provide a critical synthesis of studies in sociolinguistic covariation (xiv), suitable for any reader with basic linguistic knowledge. The author places it as a resource for first or second level courses (xx). It is an excellent introduction to the subject. Since the appearance of the first edition in 1995, however, it has also found a place as a standard source of comments encapsulating the state of our sociolinguistic understanding to date, and is referred to in this way in many scholarly works.

The author achieves a pleasant style and format that steer a middle course between easy-to-follow explanation and the presentation of methodological and theoretical issues.As a result it is both a very informative and a very enjoyable book to read, and one that should be on every linguistics student's reading list.

Critical Comments

(a) Presentation of the material

The 'theory' of the title refers to the general understanding of the term as expressed by, for instance Collins' definition: 'a system of rules, procedures and assumptions used to produce a result', rather than to the more abstract understanding of the term sometimes used by social scientists, in which it is understood to mean 'an examined conceptualization of some object' (Sayer, 51). As a result the book focusses on issues internal to the topic and its methodologies. This is reflected in the organisation of its contents, where issues such as categoricity (Chambers' term), the centrality of correlation to the discipline and other methodological assumptions, and the significance of (language) variation are discussed in the first ('Correlations') and last ('Adaptive Significance of Language Variation') chapters, with the core chapters being devoted to subjects of a more immediate application to the practice of sociolinguistics (Chapter 2: Class, Network and Mobility, Chapter 3: Expressing Sex and Gender, Chapter 4: Accents in Time). Concerning a shortage of other works dealing with sociolinguistic theory, Chambers writes that this may be due to the fact 'that the social science content of sociolinguistics had overshadowed its theoretical implications' (11). This book discusses the main parameters of sociolinguistic analysis *through* the social science content of the subject - certainly it still takes a case-studies approach, which is one of the reasons for its readability. Descriptions of the studies used are a pleasure to read, being very clearly presented and well illustrated.

The adoption of a chronological approach further identifies the book as a teaching aid or introduction, rather than purely as a reference work. The story of sociolinguistics unfolds as we learn about the Observer's Paradox, the extent to which we should or should not make fine sub-class distinctions in our research, ways of interpreting differences between men's and women's speech, how to calculate network densities - and much more. There is a drawback to this ordering, however, though it is one that affects only the more advanced reader who may wonder when the latest findings will be included in the discussion. In Chapter 2, for instance, when discussing cultural and biological foundations of differences between the speech of men and women, the reader who already knows a little cognitive linguistics may for many pages feel that an essential part of the subject has been ignored, because it is only 35 pages into the chapter that neurological issues are at last mentioned. Such a step-by-step building up towards our current state of knowledge is found in every section, leading to a perhaps unintentional emphasis on the questions and on the early attempts to answer them, rather than on the latest understanding of these issues. The approach is consonant, too, with the generally teleological position taken throughout the book, particularly noticeable in the discussion of the significance of language variation in the last chapter, where we come across such assumptions as 'the fact that linguistic variation is universal and ubiquitous suggests strongly that it is fulfilling some essential human need' (228).

(b) Selection of Materials

The Big Four - Labov, Trudgill, J and L Milroy - are included at (almost) every step of the way, and quite rightly too. But so very much is not mentioned. This is a conscious decision of the writer, whose topic here is 'the social significance of language variation [which] is only one aspect of the discipline of sociolinguistics, broadly conceived' (1), and who says that the book deals 'only with . . . accent or dialect as an emblem of an individual's class, sex, age, ethnicity, ambition, or some other social attribute' (ibid). Nevertheless, many readers may be disappointed by the exclusion of - not only individual works that they particularly like but also - entire areas of related scholarship. Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis get very short shrift (a reference to Brown and Levinson 1978 and a fleeting mention of 'face', all on p. 146, nothing else), studies involving corpora even less (a reference on page 199 only), and historical studies are scarcely discussed at all (sociohistorical studies are mentioned, and only indirectly, through references to Weinrich, Wang, Trudgill, Milroy and Labov, whose work on language change has concentrated on change currently in progress rather than on historical sociolinguistics).

While understanding that a major difficulty facing the author of a work such as this lies in where to set the limits of scholarship reviewed, I feel that this is regrettable, because, for instance, the insights of pragmatics and discourse analysis are essential to an understanding of how the (linguistic and social) contexts of sociolinguistic data affect the contents, and could especially have been included in a discussion of how men and women's speech may be effected in interview with members of the same/other sex. In addition, corpus linguistics is making significant inroads into the very generalisability and universalising of results that Chambers discusses in his concluding chapter, and historical studies of language variation and change have been presenting the world with important sociolinguistic evidence that should be incorporated into mainstream sociolinguistic discussion. Any discussion of the difficulties of longitudinal studies, as on page 212, for instance, would be enriched by reference to the quantities of real-time data available, and by comparisons of real- and apparent- time studies that are found in historical sociolinguistic studies. In addition, reference to a few historical studies could increase our familiarity with changes from below, which remain somewhat under-represented in the literature (as noted also by Labov, 3). Chambers himself admits that 'no other aspect of the discipline has proven as fruitful' as the study of 'the linguistic effects of time' (225). The fact is that historical linguistics and most corpus linguistics deal with written data, and the tendency of mainstream sociolinguistics (reflected in this book) has been to concentrate on phonetic variables and what is called naturally occurring data (which, to take the issue to its absurd extreme, seems to mean the language of people who are not aware that they are using language). This has led to a certain marginalising of these other areas of study. It is nevertheless disappointing to see that they are marginalised out of this book.

(c) The Standard

The wording of issues connected with the standard variety could possibly be open to misinterpretation, especially in the last chapter. It seems to me important to separate the process of standardisation as one crucially involving attitudes towards language, which are never finalized (Milroy and Milroy, 22), and the standard variety, which may be seen as one dialect selected among others, with its own internal variations and changes. A number of comments in the last chapter of the book under review seem to conflate the two, with the unfortunate effect of making the standard variety seem anthropomorphically antagonistic to other varieties. 'So compelling is the attraction of standardized speech that speakers of non-standard varieties often denigrate their own speech out of deference to the standard variety' (228) is a case in point: The compulsion towards a selected variety is, or course, an essential part of the process of standardization, not a characteristic inherent in the variety itself, and although the statement does not 'blame' standardized speech for this compulsion, later comments that 'There is no evidence to suggest that standardisation is natural behavior' (232) and that 'One of the tacit strategies of the elite is to install their own dialect as the 'correct' one' (233) very clearly place the onus of resonsibility on (speakers of) the standard variety.

An accumulation of statements such as these may lead readers to see inclusions in speaker's non-standard dialects of features characteristic of the standard variety as the active imposition by 'elite' people of their variety as the standard of both social and linguistic correctness. This is misleading on at least three points. First of all, it is unlikely that on its own any group of people would be able to compell speakers of other dialects to alter their own speech in the ways that we see reported here. The literature is full of failed attempts by various individuals and organisations to change the language; political enforcement of a separate language has occasionally had strong effects on the devalued vernaculars, but even state-backed language planning is not invariably successful. Secondly, we are not necessarily dealing with one monolithic standard dialect tyrannising discrete other non-standard varieties. Sociolinguistics shows that there is variation within as well as between all dialects (standard or not) and, in the case of English at least, a tendency for local standards to be set up within non-standard dialects (for an example see Kerswill) More than this, though, sociolinguistic studies of change in progress have shown repeatedly, as reported in this book, that 'in industrialized Western societies it is the middle middle-class speech that sets the standard' (251), not the 'elite'. Members of this class typically use prestige features of the language even more than the prestigious speakers from whose language the features were selected (as mentioned on page 64), in a sort of sociolinguistic leapfrogging that, Chambers hints, may have interesting implications for longer-term language change (he notes cautiously, on the same page, that successive generations of hypercorrectors may result in a change of the norms they are striving to attain). Finally, one should not forget that it is to this middle-middle class that the codifiers of the standard variety belong, being, for instance, the school teachers, lexicographers and media employees of the society (see page 43 for a table broadly allocating class lables to various occupations). They may possibly also act as the agents of actuation, being more socially and geographically mobile (90) and having less dense networks (89) than the upper class speakers of the prestigious variety.

(d) Miscellaneous other comments.

The rest of these comments concern minor points. They are again the reactions of an enthusiastic reader who didn't find absolutely everything she wanted in the book. Markedness, for instance: in a book which uses the concept of judgement so frequently, I would have liked to have seen some discussion of markedness. And who said that grammatical variation is more socially significant than phonetic variation? This is a very important finding, first mentioned on page 57 but only assigned to Wolfram (1969) on p.130. Mention of how the Ancient Greeks viewed (or did not view) variability may be considered a little cavalier, given the difficulties of interpreting exactly what it is that Plato/Socrates meant in the *Cratylus* (W.K.C. Guthrie's version is quite different from the interpretation we are given here), and given that only a few generations later the Greeks had quite vituperative discussions about how to deal with dialect differences within their new empire (see Robins). The section 'Traditional Theories of the Sources of Diversity' (247ff) could perhaps mention, at least as a reference, the excellent and well known work of R H Robins, and (for a future edition, perhaps) the recently published and equally excellent Law. Given the teaching approach evident in much of this book it might be helpful if future editions could provide a table of phonetic notation, especially for the less mainstream symbols like [open tick/check symbol] that is used in many parts of the book. The provision of a list of references for further reading at the end of each section or sub-section would also be very useful, I feel, and a way of dealing with materials that had to be excluded for reasons of focus and space. Lastly, a plea for more personal favourites: even though they may not find their way into the body of the text, I hope that the next edition will include at least references to Doublas Biber's important corpus work on language variation, to Jean AItchison's *Language Change. Progress of Decay?* and to publications of the Helsinki historical sociolinguistics team.

To end this review on any sort of a negative note would be misleading, because this really is a super book, and much needed. I would not have had so much to say if I had not found it so stimulating. It is not possible in a book this size to cover all issues related to sociolinguistics, and, as noted above, Chambers focusses on the core issues. I recommend it to all who are interested in the subject and I will be using it in my classes.

Works Cited

Aitchison, Jean *Language Change Progress or Decay?* 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 2001

Biber, Douglas. *Variation across Speech and Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

*Collins English Dictionary*. 3rd edition. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1991.

Guthrie, W. K. C. *A History of Greek Philosophy. Volume V: The Later Plato and The Academy*. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Kerswill, Paul E. 'Levels of Linguistic Variation in Durham'. Journal of Linguistics 23, 1987; 25-49.

Labov, WIlliam. *Principles of Linguistic Change. Volume 2: Social Factors*. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2001.

Law, Vivien. *The History of Linguistics in Europe from Plato to 1600*. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy. *Authority in Language. Investigating Language Prescription and Standardisation*. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

Robins, R. H. *A Short History of Linguistics*. London: Longman, 1990.

Sayer, Andrew. *Method in Social Science. A Realist Approach*. 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 1992.

About the reviewer Margaret J-M Sonmez is an Assistant Professor teaching linguistics and literature. Her research interests centre on historical sociolinguistics, specifically on variation and change in 17th century English. For more details see

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