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Review of  The Oxford Handbook of Language and Society

Reviewer: Troy E Spier
Book Title: The Oxford Handbook of Language and Society
Book Author: Ofelia Garcia Nelson Flores Massimiliano Spotti
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 32.2793

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M.A.K. Halliday once remarked that ''linguistics is everywhere because language is everywhere.'' This is made all the more evident with the publication of this monumental volume, which invites readers on a journey through issues related broadly to agency, discrimination, ideology, and literacy, and more generally to the role of language in navigating the complex worlds of politics, sexuality, race, multilingualism, technology, employment, and education. To this end, “The Oxford Handbook of Language and Society” contains, in addition to an introduction and conclusion by the editors, twenty-six chapters of approximately fifteen to twenty pages. Nonetheless, as these chapters are not divided into thematically organized sections, each chapter is treated very briefly below for readers' consideration.

The introduction begins by invoking the names of scholars from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who contributed to the later rise of sociolinguistics as a field of study in the 1960s. Subsequent criticism of the early developments is offered, as the field had been dominated by white men who privileged the linguistic at the expense of the sociological. Next, the immediate goals for this volume are outlined according to a “critical poststructuralist” perspective, which understands and recognizes the sociohistorical, political, and economic conditions surrounding language usage. This means, for instance, that scholars must consider the genuine relationship between language and space or between language and culture, in order for otherwise symbolic actions not to overshadow lived experiences. Thus, “languages” must be viewed as more than simple enumerations and, instead, as unique tools in one's toolbox to be used for different purposes in different contexts and to different degrees. As such, legislation concerning the protections for indigenous languages could be overly symbolic or even harmful by being reductionist, resulting in their being viewed simply as endangered without understanding ''their complex diversity'' and the situations governing their use, such as forced relocation, the drawing of arbitrary borders, and constantly changing socioeconomic circumstances. Thus, the introduction makes clear the authors' shared goal of action-based linguistics applied to social contexts.

Chapter 1 offers a broad overview of the development of the field, mentioning names like Darwin, Spencer, Grimm, Engels, Marx, Comte, Durkheim, and de Saussure, before turning to Voloshinov's dictum that linguists should not study language structures disconnected from their social reality. The remainder of the chapter positions early sociolinguistics as a reaction or response to structuralism and then engages the question of terminology, ultimately concluding that “sociolinguistics” might be the more adequate term (cf. “sociology of language”), as contemporary sociologists rarely engage with language to the same extent that linguists do.

Chapter 2 opens with a quote from Tacitus concerning the relationship between the dominant language and those in power before shifting to the historical existence of monolingualism among the Persians, Ptolemies, and Carthaginians. Next, an in-depth examination of France, as the “archetypical nation state,” is undertaken as a direct comparison to the aforementioned, particularly by referencing the work of Henri Gregoire on French dialects in 1790. Finally, a discussion concerning the connection between legislation and the rights of minority speakers is presented, differentiating promotion- and tolerance-oriented language rights from one another.

Chapter 3 begins by defining language ''as a resource exchanged for other symbolic or material resources'' (55). After this point, the authors consider extant scholarship on the linguistic marketplace as illustrative of the way in which language ''grant[s] access to material capital'' (58). Finally, the bulk of this discussion focuses on six years of ethnographic fieldwork in Switzerland to uncover precisely how this unfolds in, for example, the educational world and the soccer industry, ultimately concluding that language, despite being a possible tool for integration, can still be exclusionary.

Chapter 4 starts with a discussion, couched within the work of Foucault, of five manifestations of power, including a tacit reference to Althusser. Most notably, the central argument presented is that power is not simply concentrated within single institutions, but rather in a ''complex and crystallized network of power relations'' (81). This discussion is enhanced through Conversation Analysis of students in educational settings in Madrid, beginning with Moroccan immigrants and concluding with a Romanian student. It is ultimately concluded that many differences are not simply rooted in linguistic and/or cultural differences, but rather unequal social relations realized in daily interaction.

Chapter 5 focuses broadly on language ideologies and their attestations through the relationship between, inter alia, form and function, linguistic and societal structures, diachronic change, and language and power. An important qualifier is issued during this discussion that no linguistic treatment is free of ideological underpinnings. Additionally, ethnographic perspectives on language usage allow practitioners to uncover the complexity of these ideologies. Finally, otherwise “normative” understandings of these ideologies call into question issues related to language shift, such as decline, revitalization, and the unequal relationship between, for example, the use of “Mock Spanish” and heavily accented English.

Chapter 6 extends the discussion from the previous chapter by expanding it to include language policies and local practices, in addition to any tensions that arise when they are incongruent with one another. The author opens with a brief overview of the ways in which language policies have been paradigmatically defined before reaching the (implied) primary goal, i.e., an investigation of “translanguaging” and how it serves as evidence for a “post-Fishmanian” era before shifting to a questioning of the overall value of terminological innovations in the field.

Chapter 7 challenges long-held beliefs concerning the collective nature of language, particularly as it applies to migration and diasporic communities. The primary argument, which is outlined clearly, is that the ''linguistic attributes of immigrants have been, and continue to be, couched in terms that view both language and culture in monolithic and reifying terms'' (141). Next, general background is provided on the use of the terms “diaspora” and “multiculturalism” before turning to the fallacies often associated with (mono/multi)lingualism and suggesting ways in which the interconnectedness of language usage, immigrants, and diasporas can be envisioned.

Chapter 8 begins with a tongue-in-cheek remark about how contemporary scholarship often highlights buzzwords at the expense of genuine commentary. Next, a broad overview of historical perspectives on bilingualism and “multilingual languaging” is provided. Finally, an in-depth discussion of the concept of “superdiversity” and its possible implications for sociolinguistics more generally is undertaken, calling specific attention to the origins of the term and the ways in which societal changes, human mobility, and the “work in progress” nature of language necessarily impacts and should inform sociolinguistic studies.

Chapter 9 opens by defining the etymological origin of the term “diglossia” before describing how it was reappropriated in sociolinguistics. Then a substantial explication of the work of Ferguson (1959) and Fishman (1967) is undertaken in order to characterize the abstract relationship between the linguistic varieties found in diglossic contexts, notably by introducing five erstwhile characteristics of that relationship. Despite calling these findings into question, the chapter concludes by stating that, ''even if diglossia's make-up may be flaking, it is not undeserving of its fame for accentuating the basic fact that people systematically distinguish, and are attached to, different semiotic styles, registers, or ways of speaking'' (193).

Chapter 10 initiates a conversation about language shift and sustainability by prompting the reader to consider a list of questions: ''Why are some languages lost and others sustained? What does it mean for a community to 'lose' its language(s)? How, when, and why might a language be reclaimed, sustained, and revitalized?'' (197) These questions frame the entire chapter, which foregrounds issues related to language maintenance, loss and endangerment, and revitalization. These three are then trifurcated according to the added factors of indigeneity, immigration, and marginalization/minority status. Finally, all of these perspectives are examined under a broad historical lens that highlights modernist, critical, fear-driven (“language panic” in the words of the authors), and poststructuralist approaches to the debate surrounding the sustainability of linguistic varieties.

Chapter 11 offers an investigation of the ways in which discourses manifest ideas and assumptions about language endangerment and begins by referencing the seminal article by Hale et. al (1992) and a representative description of the situation from the Endangered Languages Project, both of which serve(d) as a “call to arms” for linguists and often present analogues to the natural environment. Next, a general description of the format, objectives, and history of SIL's Ethnologue is introduced, as this is perhaps the most widely consulted reference on global linguistic diversity. This is followed by a discussion of the role of information technology in preserving linguistic data and criticism for the ways in which these data are organized, viz. on the Electronic Metastructure for Endangered Languages Data. Finally, before presenting additional unresolved questions, the author urges readers to view language “death” as more than an acute incident but, rather, as the longitudinal culmination of patterns of language shift.

Chapter 12 tackles the long-standing misunderstanding that sign languages are impressionistically less rule-governed than their spoken counterparts by sketching the history of early research in this field (viz. Stokoe 1978), by criticizing Derrida's (1976) description of the ''primacy of voice over other forms of communication” (244), and by noting that even Plato, among others mentioned thereafter, issued a remark concerning the viability of sign languages in 360 BCE in Cratylus. Ultimately, the conversation shifts to salient topics concerning signing communities and cultures, including the expansion of ASL courses, rights for and legislation on behalf of sign language users, and future areas for research.

Chapter 13 contests earlier understandings of the connections among language, literacy, and culture and argues that they can ''become attached to new epistemologies and socio-historic contexts in new, perhaps hybrid, configurations, and as a result, acquire new meanings'' (261). To this end, the relationship of literacy to processes of knowing is investigated, particularly through understandings of transculturality and conceptualizations of cultural diversity in opposition to an ''imagined homogeneous cultural totality.'' The latter is a theme that continues throughout the chapter, as the authors note that an inherent conflict exists between epistemologies and underlying, unequal power relations, specifically those that concern educational issues.

Chapter 14 focuses on the use of so-called “urban languages” in Africa, noting from the onset that, although these are often associated with those who refuse to conform and/or engage in criminal activity, these linguistic varieties are simply the result of language contact, which indubitably preceded colonialism. Next, examples are provided of well-known cases of the result of language contact, including Sheng (Kenya), GaPlashele (Ghana), Flaaitaal (South Africa), and Camfranglais (Cameroon), inter alia. Finally, six images are provided to illustrate the role of such linguistic varieties in contemporaneous life.

Chapter 15 emphasizes implicitly that early language documentation by colonial authorities and religious missionaries have often caused irreparable harm to the perception of indigenous peoples, as they have become represented as seemingly fixed, unchanging, exoticized objects of study. In order to combat such beliefs, the authors offer a four-page explanation of the transnational term “indigenous” for informed and uninformed readers alike. Next, they endeavor to provide a more detailed explication of the history of missionary, colonial, structuralist, and ethnographically-informed approaches to the documentation of indigenous languages, before ultimately shifting to a discussion of sociopolitical action, language rights, education, and standardization.

Chapter 16 questions the way in which literal and metaphorical borders are defined, especially those in which linguistic boundaries ''signal personhood, identity, asymmetries of power, and socioeconomic class and position within and across national contexts'' (322). This is followed by an engagement of the definitions offered for ideologies and the means through which language usage and linguistic competence can influence our perceptions of and/or willingness to collaborate with others, can be manipulated in the process of nation-building, can affect the granting of language visas, etc. Finally, these topics are related to the symbolic borders established in educational environments, particularly as it concerns “academic” English.

Chapter 17 presents an examination of class-, race-, and age-based linguistic discrimination and begins with references to literary works, realizations of such discrimination, and early dialectal research. In particular, the sociolinguistic scholarship of Labov and the advancement of perceptual dialectology by Preston are considered before turning to the (now) heavily documented case of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in educational, social, and judicial contexts.

Chapter 18 approaches the less commonly discussed topic of gerontolinguistics, considering both the interaction of age and language usage/perception and also the ways in which the individualized experience of aging is discussed in African contexts. This is first introduced through some terms in Twi (“aging” as ‘manyin’; “older, prestigious men” as ‘opanyin’; “older, accomplished women” as ‘aberewa’) and then traditional western understandings of the age-based demarcation of people is considered. For instance, the Ashanti distinguish the elderly according to whether one is ''an adult, respectable person'' or a ''frail old individual,'' thus indicating that the simple bifurcation between young/old is insufficient in non-western sociocultural and linguistic contexts. Ultimately, the importance of the grandmother is identified before the conversation shifts to elderly care.

Chapter 19 engages the salience of racialization in any investigation of language and society and opens with the powerful statement that ''[t]he concept of race has been integral to how languages have been defined over time and how the study of language has developed as a research area'' (381). This conversation is approached through the formulation of definitions of internalized racism, institutional racism, personally-mediated racism, microaggressions, and race-based discrimination. Next, the history of research in these areas is presented, after which contemporaneous issues of such intersections are considered.

Chapter 20 negotiates the complexity of the relationship between language and sexuality, paying close attention to the problematic conflation of sexuality and sexual identity. The specific development of nomenclature is also addressed, e.g. 'homo/hetero,' 'queer,' and even what constitutes 'sex.' The last of these is directly related to the infamous words of former President Clinton. Next, the contextually-bound analytical and theoretical focus areas of research in this domain are analyzed through an extensive, twenty-year literature review. Finally, after arguing that ''sexuality is not and cannot be reducible to sexual identity only'' (410), the chapter considers the manner in which such identities, both social and linguistic, are discursively created and reproduced.

Chapter 21 introduces the increasingly expanding field of linguistic landscape studies: first, by citing the seminal work of Landry and Bourhis (1997); second, by contextualizing the significant, historical developments of the field; and third, by presenting the major factors that contribute to studies in this field, including multilingualism, translingual mixing, language policy, minority languages, commodification, and the ''scaled mobility of linguistic resources'' (427). Each of these is situated within illustrative case studies, after which a critical look at methodological issues is undertaken.

Chapter 22 opens with a definition of criteria for multimodality, emphasizing the growing role and impact of digital technologies and calling attention to our ability to recognize ''meaning through the combined use of color, writing, sound, images, and layout'' (452). It explains that the fundamental genesis of multimodal analyses is found through the work of Halliday (1978) and later applications of the ideas therein. Next, the merit of social semiotic perspectives to multimodality is extolled, arguing that factors as seemingly innocuous as a font type or a color carry socially constructed meaning.

Chapter 23 begins by comparing the constantly changing nature of electronic environments to communication in otherwise traditional face-to-face environments, remarking that the internet itself has become an important avenue for scholars from many fields who analyze various forms of mediated discourse. Moreover, the relationship between the “online” and “offline” worlds are considered, after which the ethical concerns of data collection and analysis are addressed. Finally, some areas for future research are introduced, notably including the way in which online interactions impact, influence, or change language usage more generally.

Chapter 24 embarks on an analysis of the ways in which journalism and access to news mediate our social lives. The most striking passage in this chapter, which is found halfway through the introduction, could actually stand alone as a separate chapter, as it foregrounds ''how digital technologies have changed the production and consumption of news'' (490). Throughout the remainder of this chapter, the nature of journalism and expectations for the truthfulness of the resulting news are considered, with particular reference to less formal sources of news ('the vernacular' in their words) and less serious sources of news ('satire' in their words).

Chapter 25 is perhaps the most innovative of the entire volume, as it forces readers to consider how language usage is shaped or influenced by work, traditionally understood ''as an activity, but also as a site or location where persons are employed to undertake an assigned task'' (506). The literature review provides references to case studies primarily within Conversation Analysis that investigate ''[w]orkplace talk,'' after which interactional, educational, and descriptive approaches are considered. Specific attention is paid to power-, agency-, and language-based ideologies, especially those that concern employees in service-based positions of the “informal economy.”

Chapter 26 confronts the pervasive underpinnings of bilingual education as informed by many of the same ideas in Chapter 2, viz. the rise of the nation-state, idealized monolingual models for interpersonal communication, and the creation of the “native speaker” using Christopher Columbus as an exemplar. Two educational initiatives are shared to illustrate how bilingual education ''has been a tool that language-minoritized communities have used as part of a larger process of empowerment'' (537). Additionally, a remark is issued about the increase of scholarship in this field that acknowledges that bilingual education is necessarily impacted by existing language ideologies.

The conclusion begins by reiterating the shared, longitudinal goal of “social justice” in sociolinguistics. To this end, eleven general guidelines are shared to describe the obligations of those investigating the interaction of language and society, most notably that ''[a]ll understandings of language are ideological'' (546). Finally, an injunction is offered to all scholars to collaborate with one another, particularly on behalf of marginalized communities, and to recognize how language usage can reflect, reify, or indicate one's identity; and, conversely, how language usage must be considered within a poststructuralist framework.


The editors and the individual authors of “The Oxford Handbook of Language and Society” should be celebrated for their contribution of such a truly monumental, timely volume on a wide range of interdisciplinary approaches and discussions of the complex reality of the keywords in the title: language and society. This collection of chapters revolutionizes the field not only through difficult conversations, but also by “leveling the playing field” by including contributions from established scholars, post-doctoral scholars, and advanced graduate students alike. Additionally, this work never allows the reader to forget about the inherent interrelatedness of people and their language usage, something often lost in otherwise more abstract linguistic texts. Finally, as each chapter follows a roughly equal outline, one is consistently reminded of the objective to move from the early findings of the 1960s to a more contemporaneous context. As a result, there are genuinely only three ways (to me) in which this otherwise phenomenal volume could be expanded in future editions.

First, although there are many common themes among the chapters, there does not seem to be an attempt to organize them according to shared smaller topics of importance. Understandably, the field of sociolinguistics requires an emphasis upon an expansive collection of interrelated linguistic, cultural, and sociological factors, though a clear indication of the most salient topics could result in a clearer delineation of the chapters. For instance, straightforwardly demarcated sections on education, discrimination, language ideologies, etc. would have been welcome. Additionally, although numerous references are made throughout the chapters to a “post-Fishmanian” era of sociolinguistics, it might be worthwhile to include a reprinted piece by Fishman toward the beginning of the volume, so that a reader unfamiliar with the specifics of this paradigmatic shift has additional context from the primary source itself.

Second, although this volume is quite accessible to advanced graduate students and established scholars alike, it is perhaps less approachable for those without extensive training in a related field. To this end, the inclusion of ancillary resources to frame the topics and history more broadly would facilitate this, such as a one- or two-page timeline of seminal scholarship, particularly for early scholars in the field whose work is cited but not quoted; a glossary of key terms (cf. van Herk 2012); or a section on key thinkers and/or theories (see e.g. Duranti 2003 for language and culture, Baker and Ellece 2011 for discourse analysis, etc.).

Third, although the editors note that ''[t]he purpose is not to develop a definitive list or 'how to' guide [...] nor is the list meant to be completely new [...]'' (545), more emphasis upon the interaction of online and offline worlds would have greatly expanded the goal of bringing sociolinguistics into the twenty-first century. Much research has been conducted in this area during the last two decades that could broaden understanding, particularly for up-and-coming scholars who may not recall life before the internet, social media, online commerce, etc. For instance, remote/virtual education, gender performativity, indigenous language use, racialized identities, etc. are all deeply impacted and shaped by the use of the internet and electronic media.


Baker, Paul and Sibonile Ellece. 2011. Key Terms in Discourse Analysis. London, UK: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Derrida, J. 1976. Of Grammatology, trans. G. Spivak. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Duranti, Alessandro. 2001. Key Terms in Language and Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Ferguson, C. 1959. ''Diglossia.'' Word, 15: 325-340.

Fishman, J. 1967. ''Bilingualism with and without Diglossia; Diglossia with and without Bilingualism.'' Journal of Social Issues, 23(2): 29-38.

Hale et. al. 1992. ''Endangered Languages.'' Language, 68(1): 1-42.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1978. Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning. London: Arnold.

Landry, R. and R.Y. Bourhis. 1997. ''Linguistic Landscape and Ethnolinguistic Vitality: An Empirical Study.'' Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 16(1): 23-49.

Stokoe, W.C. 1978. Sign Language Structure: The First Linguistic Analysis of American Sign Language. Silver Spring, MD: Linstok Press.

van Herk, Gerard. 2012. What Is Sociolinguistics? Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Troy E. Spier is a full-time professor of English and Linguistics at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. He earned his Ph.D. and M.A. in Linguistics at Tulane University, and he previously earned a B.S.Ed. in English/Secondary Education at Kutztown University. His research interests include language documentation and description, discourse analysis, corpus linguistics, and linguistic landscapes.

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