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Review of  Language and Space - An International Handbook of Linguistic Variation

Reviewer: Matthew J. Gordon
Book Title: Language and Space - An International Handbook of Linguistic Variation
Book Author: Peter Auer Jürgen Erich Schmidt
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 22.2882

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EDITORS: Auer, Peter and Schmidt, Jürgen Erich
TITLE: Language and Space -- An International Handbook of Linguistic Variation
SUBTITLE: Volume 1: Theories and Methods
SERIES TITLE: Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2010

Matthew J. Gordon, Department of English, University of Missouri -- Columbia


This book appears in De Gruyter Mouton's long-running and well-respected series
of handbooks. As with others in this series, the overarching goal of this title
is to offer a comprehensive survey of the state of the art for the topic under
investigation. The present book stands as the first volume of two on the topic
of language and space and covers a broad range of theoretical and methodological
issues while the second volume focuses on ''language mapping.''

As the editors note in their introduction, research in the area of language and
space has a long history in linguistics though its relationship to the field's
mainstream has at times been strained. Nineteenth-century pioneers Georg Wenker
(in Germany) and Jules Gilliéron (in France) founded the study of dialect
geography, which produced a valuable pool of data on spoken language. Over time,
however, dialect geographers' commitment to thoroughly documenting their
findings in, for example, linguistic atlases led to caricatures of this research
as ''butterfly collecting.'' Interest in dialect variation grew with the
development of modern sociolinguistics in the 1960s, but this new paradigm, led
by William Labov, separated itself from traditional dialect geography with its
methods as well as its focus. While the traditional approach generally explored
variation in geographical space by surveying a socially homogenous population
(mostly older, uneducated, rural speakers), sociolinguists tended to concentrate
on variation in the social dimension by surveying a more heterogeneous range of
speakers within a particular, usually urban, location. Recent decades have
witnessed a weakening of these disciplinary divisions as both dialect geography
and sociolinguistics have expanded their scopes of interest. Indeed, Auer and
Schmidt see this as helping to spur a ''methodological and theoretical
reinvigoration of language and space research'' and the emergence of a field
''which reaches far beyond classical dialectology and sociolinguistics to also
encompass language contact studies, linguistic and areal typology, theoretical
linguistics and cognitive sciences and which draws in and adapts impulses from
geography and anthropology'' (ix).

To represent the state of this vibrant field, Auer and Schmidt have assembled 47
chapters into a massive volume of around 900 pages. The contributions are
organized thematically into eight sections. I describe the general orientation
of each of these sections and highlight particular chapters, but in the interest
of space I do not discuss every contribution.

The first section, ''Introduction: Language and space,'' offers four papers
exploring the notion of space in various domains. These chapters underscore a
theme carried throughout the volume: space is much more than geography, and
spatial research in linguistics can be fruitfully approached from various
perspectives. Thus, in addition to Barbara Johnstone's discussion of space and
related concepts (e.g. region, culture) in the field of geography, this first
section includes chapters examining social spaces (Brit Mæhlum), transnational
spaces (Marco Jacquemet), and political spaces (Susan Gal). Gal's contribution
is one of many in the collection that examines the ''vertical'' relationship of
standard ''languages'' with non-standard ''dialects,'' and the incisive framework
she lays out draws back the curtain on the ideologies that frame this
relationship in terms of correct vs. incorrect, modern vs. traditional, etc.

Section II, ''Linguistic approaches to space,'' surveys how the spatial dimensions
of language have been pursued in several traditions and subfields within
linguistics. The papers provide a useful historical perspective as they move
from neogrammarian (Robert W. Murray) to cultural morphologist (Clemens
Knobloch) to structuralist and generative (Sjef Barbiers) approaches. Of course,
the dialect geography tradition is covered as well in a chapter by Renate
Schrambke. The section also considers more recent approaches, including work in
the variationist mode, which is examined by David Britain. Britain offers
insightful critiques of work in this paradigm, noting that variationists have
generally shown little interest in ''geolinguistics,'' and when they have delved
into this area, they have often relied on theories clumsily borrowed from other
fields. Nevertheless, in a more hopeful vein Britain notes that geolinguistic
research has recently become more prominent in the field. His discussion
dovetails nicely with Penelope Eckert's, who presents the perspectives of social
anthropology and interactional sociolinguistics. Eckert reviews work
illustrating the value of ethnographic methods and offers one of the clearest
statements of a central theme of the volume: ''space is imbued with social
meaning, and the distribution of linguistic forms across space is key to the
construction of meaning in variation'' (163). Dennis Preston's chapter on
perceptual dialectology demonstrates the insights into the social meaning of
linguistic variation that can be gained by examining folk beliefs. The section
concludes with Jürgen Erich Schmidt's chapter on the ''linguistic dynamics
approach,'' which explores the root causes of spatial variation in terms of
linguistic ''synchronization'' between speakers in everyday interactions.

The theme of dynamic processes shaping linguistic variation in space is expanded
in the third section on ''Structure and dynamics of a language space.'' Many of
these chapters deal with issues of dialect and language contact and its
consequences. Thus, we find discussions of divergence and convergence in both
the horizontal (e.g. toward a neighboring regional variety) and the vertical
(e.g. toward the standard variety) dimensions. The mechanisms at work in such
change processes are given special attention in chapters on attitudinal effects
such as reevaluation (Alexandra N. Lenz) and on patterns of diffusion and other
issues related to the urban/rural dichotomy (Reinhild Vandekerckhove). Contact
between languages is at issue in the chapters on language islands (e.g.
Pennsylvania German) and on ''old'' minorities (e.g. Swedish in Finland) by
Claudia Maria Riehl and Claus D. Pusch, respectively. Given the prevalence of
such patterns of change, especially in Europe, it can be instructive to consider
the rarer situations of linguistic stability as Johan Taeldeman does in a
chapter that posits a range of structural and extralinguistic factors that have
a stabilizing effect.

Section IV, ''Structure and dynamics across language spaces,'' includes several
chapters on ''the consequences of migration and colonialism.'' Christian Mair
discusses pidgins and creoles, Daniel Schreier explores overseas varieties (e.g.
New Zealand English), and Thomas Krefeld looks at ''new'' minorities (e.g. Turkish
speakers in Germany). In a chapter aptly subtitled ''A cautionary tale,'' Shana
Poplack and Stephen Levey examine reported cases of contact-induced grammatical
change and argue that these studies fail to prove either that the change is due
to language contact or that there is change at all or both. Their chapter
highlights the value of variationist methods in teasing apart competing
hypotheses and distinguishing stable variation from change in progress. The
section concludes with something of a parallel to Taeldeman chapter in the
previous section as Göz Kaufmann discusses factors promoting non-convergence in
situations of language contact.

The second half of the volume adopts more of a methodological focus beginning
with Section V, ''Data collection and corpus-building.'' General standards of
quality (e.g. reliability, validity, etc.) are discussed by Werner König in
considering a range of key methodological decisions faced by researchers. Guido
Seiler considers the two most common techniques of data collection in
dialectology: questionnaires and interviews (direct elicitation). A much wider
range of approaches is reviewed by Tore Kristiansen under the category of
''experimental techniques.'' Kristiansen offers a thorough and balanced assessment
of techniques as seemingly distinct as matched guise tests and the rapid and
anonymous survey (e.g. Labov's department store study (2006)).

Following naturally from discussions of data collection is Section VI, ''Data
analysis and the presentation of results.'' John Nerbonne and Wilbert Heeringa
survey work in dialectometry, a statistical modeling of variation relying on
mass comparisons of formal differences, while Alfred Lameli and Claudine Moulin
review work on linguistic atlases and dialect dictionaries, respectively. The
focus shifts from regional dialects in the section's final chapter on
''community-based investigations'' where Juan Andrés Villena-Ponsoda traces the
historical roots of social dialectology, offering powerful critiques of the
theory and methods of the variationist paradigm.

Section VII comprises seven chapters presented as ''exemplary studies.'' These
contributions complement the emphasis in most of the rest of the volume by
offering more extensive considerations of particular language spaces. The range
and variety of spaces examined is considerable and reflective of the broad scope
of the discussion elsewhere in the collection. Included in this section are
investigations into fairly traditional topics such as Joachim Herrgen's chapter
on ''The Linguistic Atlas of the Middle Rhine'' as well as studies of less
commonly explored conceptions of space such as Jannis Androutsopoulos's
treatment of media discourse. Issues of language contact, especially that
related to migration and globalization, are also raised in many of these papers,
including Pia Quist's work on young people in Copenhagen and Sally Boyd and Kari
Fraurud's chapter on multilingual urban spaces in Sweden.

The final section examines ''Methodological problems'' in several structural
domains. Each of these chapters presents a comprehensive review of work in its
domain, and thus the section serves as a tour through the state of the art
structured in terms of language subsystems. This tour reveals that innovative
researchers continue to build on work in well-trodden domains such as phonetics
and phonology (discussed by Peter Gilles and Beat Siebenhaar) and morphology
(discussed by Stefan Rabanus). We also see growth in domains that were not much
explored in traditional dialectology such as prosody (discussed by Peter Gilles
and Beat Siebenhaar) and discourse (discussed by Norbert Dittmar). In Dirk
Geeraerts's chapter on lexical variation, a domain that was often investigated
by traditional methods, we see how recent work can reveal formal and semantic
complexities that were often glossed over in previous approaches. Finally, in
Bernd Kortmann's discussion of syntax, we have the best example of research that
bridges the gap separating dialectology and sociolinguistics from (generative)
theoretical linguistics.


The editors have certainly succeeded in their goal of portraying the
''reinvigoration of language and space research'' (ix). The book demonstrates that
scholars working in this area are engaged in innovative approaches to both sides
of the language and space conjunction. Throughout the collection we see numerous
examples of investigations into linguistic domains that were largely unexplored
in traditional approaches. We also find widespread recognition of and engagement
with the complexities of the concept of space. For readers who work outside this
field or in only one corner of it, the book will serve as an eye-opening,
comprehensive survey of the vast range of research being done under the language
and space banner.

The quality of the assembled contributions is consistently strong. It seems
unlikely that anyone other than the book's editors or a reviewer would read
through the entire volume from cover to cover, but any reader inclined to do so
will find something of value in every chapter. In some cases the value comes in
the form of a convenient review of literature on a key topic. In other cases,
the authors pursue a theoretical issue debated in the field. In still others,
the chapters stand as data-oriented case studies exploring central themes. This
mix is ideal for a handbook and serves specialists in language and space
research as well as non-specialist linguists and scholars from adjacent fields.
Also valuable in this regard are the extensive bibliographies that accompany
every chapter.

One criticism that might fairly be leveled against the editors is the
geographical bias of the volume. The overwhelming majority of papers discuss
European language spaces and many focus on German. Perhaps this accurately
reflects the state of research for many of the topics explored, but readers may
wonder how the spatial dynamics seen in Europe operate elsewhere in the world.
On the other hand, for researchers less familiar with the European scholarship,
such as this American reviewer, the emphasis on that research tradition proved
very enlightening. For example, in American scholarship, dialect geography is
often seen as a distinct research tradition, one that has been overshadowed,
perhaps even supplanted by (variationist) sociolinguistics. In Europe, however,
dialect geography has continued to thrive and evolve with input from other
fields but without having been incorporated into those fields. Reading about the
ongoing advances in that field by European scholars gave me new appreciation for
the dialect geography tradition.

In sum, this volume offers a comprehensive assessment of language and space
research. It casts a wide net in tracing the historical development of
scholarship in this area and in portraying the current state of the art. As a
result, a picture emerges of an exciting body of work that explores an expanding
range of questions relevant to linguists of various stripes.


Labov, William. 2006. The Social Stratification of English in New York City, 2nd
edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Matthew J. Gordon is Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri -- Columbia. His research interests include variation and change in American English with a particular emphasis on sound changes in progress.