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Review of  Metrolingualism

Reviewer: Uri Horesh
Book Title: Metrolingualism
Book Author: Alastair Pennycook Emi Otsuji
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 27.1072

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In the abstract on the first page of Alastair Pennycook and Emi Otsuji’s “Metrolingualism: Language in the city”, we are informed that “[t]his book is about language and the city.” The authors intertwine a study of speakers and their speech communities with a very vivid portrayal of two “metrolingual” cities: Sydney and Tokyo. On many occasions throughout the book, the authors stress that their concern is not in “counting languages,” but rather in establishing a more intricate framework through which they propose to analyze urban settings where a multitude of languages are used in concert with one another. They do so through the introduction of many vignettes of speech, collected and recorded in a series of ethnographic fieldwork in these two cities. These vignettes are transcribed and—when needed—translated into English, usually followed by metalinguistic commentary, as well as information about the specific speech community (city, neighborhood, market, etc.) and the ethnicities of the speakers cited.

Much of the first half of the book is devoted to illustrating how different languages interact in situations where a speech community is multi ethnic and/or when certain members of a speech community cater to others who do not share (or are perceived not to share) their native language(s). One of the main premises of this work is that monolingualism is an anomaly. The authors have augmented one of the section headings in Chapter 1 beginning with “Beyond multilingualism” with a German subtitle, „Niemand ist einsprachig” (p. 16), ‘Nobody is monolingual,’ indicating both verbally and metalinguistically their conviction that a diverse combination of languages is the norm in most parts of the world. Furthermore, they advocate for an analytic approach that shifts away from concepts that indicate the specific relations between languages (e.g., bilingualism, multilingualism, and even code-switching). Rather, they employ the term that serves as the main title of the book, “metrolingualism,” to denote what they insist is the natural situation in large urban centers, namely a network of languages, the number of which is unimportant, that speakers in cities comprising long-lived ethnolinguistic groups living alongside and interacting with immigrants of various “layers,” use skillfully to communicate with one another. This skillful linguistic dance is often characterized by a trial-and-error type of endeavor to make oneself understood, but is nonetheless a linguistic survival mechanism mastered by most members of the community.

Following the first, introductory chapter, each subsequent chapter focuses on a particular aspect of metrolingualism, such as constructing affiliations, mobility and rhythm, spatial repertoires, overcoming conflicts through convivial communication, and layers and networks. Occasionally, a specific topic of conversation, often closely associated with a particular environment (e.g., vegetables and other foods in settings involving markets and restaurants – Chapter 6, for instance, is devoted to “Talking food”) is addressed in much detail with many real-life examples. The chapter on layers and networks is concerned with signs and other elements that are typically associated with the emerging field of Linguistic Landscape (LL), attempting to contextualize such phenomena as multilingual public signs and offer a theoretical framework with which to understand their complexities. The final chapter is entitled “Metrolingua francas” and attempts to summarize the main gist of the book, as well as offer ideas for a sort of “applied metrolingualism” (my term, not the authors’).

This final chapter, in fact, is one of the cases in which the authors deviate from their own fieldwork in Australia and Japan and introduce examples from Luxembourg, the United States, Malaysia and England, to name a few. Another chapter that transcends the two main case studies is Chapter 5, “Convivial and contested cities.” Cities such as Samarkand, London, Chicago and Paris are offered as additional examples of settings where language use is negotiated in different ways. Perhaps one of the most important analogies made in this chapter, and indeed in the book, involves linguistic attestations of racism, particularly the discrimination against non-White populations, in both the United States and Australia (p. 97). More on this in the evaluation section below.


The book makes for a very interesting read. It is markedly different from the kind of research typical of variationist sociolinguistics. As the authors explicitly say a number of times (e.g., pp. 31-32), their endeavor is distinct from that of William Labov (and his followers). In their words, Labov’s “classic work” on African American Vernacular English (Labov 1966, 1972a), has a particular shortcoming in that “the city itself plays a very minor role” in it. But Labov (of whom I am a former student), has done work that is much more intricate than that alluded to by Pennycook and Otsuji. In both his previous work on language variation and change in Martha’s Vineyard (Labov 1972b) and in his subsequent work within the Language Change and Variation (LCV) project in Philadelphia (see, e.g., Labov 1994), a great deal of attention is paid to the environments in which the speech communities are situated. I understand that the authors of this book are concerned primarily with other things than Labov is—for instance, they do not do the kind of microvariation research that variationists do—but I would have welcomed a more pluralistic approach to sociolinguistics, in which the field need not be redefined but rather refined and augmented. The book makes a considerable contribution to the field by posing the questions that it does, rendering the dismissal of other approaches somewhat superfluous.

As a reader who has no first-hand familiarity with either Sydney or Tokyo, I have learned a great deal from the examples and analyses in this book. As a scholar of language in the Middle East, I was keen to learn about the presence that Arabic (especially Lebanese and North African varieties) has in these two cities. It is also fascinating that the relation between Arabic and French, which is ubiquitous both in parts of the Levant and in the Maghreb, also manifests itself when speakers from these regions migrate halfway around the world to countries where neither language is spoken natively. On this note, I found it disappointing that the transcriptions of Arabic utterances in the book are quite sloppy and often far from accurate. This is unfortunate, because it seems as if the authors and editors were quite meticulous in transcribing other languages, e.g., Japanese and Cantonese (for which the book uses combinations of traditional orthographies and a Latin-based transcription), French, Hindi and Polish. It is clear that the Arabic transcriptions were done by someone who is proficient in Arabic, but it is also apparent that whoever transcribed the Arabic is not a trained linguist.

Much of the book is devoted to food and the linguistic practices surrounding this element, which “is central to human life, both the private (…) and institutional (…) domains” (p. 116). One reason that food is often at the forefront of the speech presented to us here is that the researchers “have perhaps inevitably ended up in restaurants, markets and shops where food is a focus of doing and talking” (p. 116). One may question the inevitability of this choice of venues, but it has nevertheless proved to be fertile ground for a large quantity of utterances that illustrate the “metrolinguality” of the urban space. Another theme which is omnipresent, at least in the first half of the book, is the authors’ firm belief that enumerating languages is a futile task, which offers no substantial theoretical innovation. This point is hammered into the reader’s mind multiple times, in a manner that becomes a bit tedious and at times feels apologetic and counterproductive to the authors’ goals. There is an interesting discussion of “multilingualism from below” in the very beginning of the book (pp. 9-13). Later in the book (p. 47) the authors assert that “numerical representations [of languages] (…) are premised very obviously on the assumption that languages can be counted, that people’s multilingualism can be numerically accounted for, and that proficiency and frequency of use can also be reliably and accurately measured.” As with the critique the authors offer for Labov’s work, here, too, it appears as if they discount any and all quantitative approaches to language acquisition. I would argue that this is not only a contestable disregard of a huge body of work in psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, as well as variationist sociolinguistics, but also an unnecessary addition to the authors’ main argument. It is quite possible to give credence to statistical evaluations of language variation and acquisition and at the same time acknowledge that languages are fluid and mobile, as is argued in Chapter 3 (p. 47). It is this claim of mutual exclusivity that I find troubling.

The heart of the book, its most interesting part, and the site of its greatest contribution, in my view, is Chapter 5: “Convivial and contested cities.” This chapter’s premise extends the Tokyo- and Sydney-based discussion to one of cities in general. And while some scholars in sociolinguistics have argued that the city is not the be-all and end-all of the field (see, e.g., Britain 2009), it is refreshing to read a solid theorization of urban sociolinguistics from a qualitative angle. In this chapter, the authors grapple with the White Australia Policies (p. 97), which had affected many groups of non-Anglo Australians until the third quarter of the 20th century. While these policies are no longer in place, racial tensions still exist in Australia, as they do in the United States, the United Kingdom and many other countries ( the American case is referred to specifically in the chapter). This chapter engages in dialogue with such scholars as Foucault and Watson, and stresses that linguistic—and other—discrimination is not limited to race and ethnicity, but also extends to sexuality, drug use, and poverty, and is amplified in the urban phenomenon of the ghetto. Again, examples are given not only from Tokyo and Sydney, but also Chicago, Paris and Papua New Guinea. It also includes an interesting discussion of the sociopolitical meanings of the term “Aussie,” both for people and for objects.

Metrolingualism—the concept and the book—is a welcome addition to the somewhat tense domain that straddles the fields of sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology and sociology of language. Theoretically, and in terms of its argumentation strategy, it may not be the cup of tea chosen by everyone in these fields of inquiry. However, it is a fascinating read, written in a very accessible fashion, nicely interspersing details about the fieldwork methodology used by the authors and their associates. With the exception of the flawed Arabic transcriptions it is virtually free of typos and infelicities, and is full of data, which is useful for any reader who may be inclined to offer their own analysis or interpretation. Because it rarely uses highly technical language (and when it does, it is always clearly defined and discussed), it can serve as a text for students and scholars at various levels and in different fields, as indicated above. Some of its chapters may be assigned to students in isolation, both because there is some repetition in the book and because certain chapters are almost self-contained thematically.


Britain, David. 2009. “Big bright lights” versus “green and pleasant land”?: The unhelpful dichotomy of ‘urban’ versus ‘rural’ in dialectology. In: Enam Al-Wer and Rudolf de Jong (eds.). Arabic dialectology: In honour of Clive Holes on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. Leiden: Brill. 223-247.

Labov, William. 1966. The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Labov, William. 1972a. Language in the inner city: Studies in the Black English vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Labov, William. 1972b. Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Uri Horesh holds a PhD in Sociolinguistics from the University of Essex. He has also studied Semitic and Arabic Linguistics at Tel Aviv University and Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. His interests are in language variation and change in the Middle East, particularly with respect to language contact between Semitic languages. He had served as the founding Director of the Arabic Language Program at Franklin & Marshall College and most recently as Assistant Professor of Instruction and Language Coordinator in the Middle East and North African Studies Program at Northwestern University.

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