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Review of  Variationist Sociolinguistics

Reviewer: Elizabeth Latimer
Book Title: Variationist Sociolinguistics
Book Author: Sali A Tagliamonte
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.2333

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AUTHOR: Sali. A. Tagliamonte
TITLE: Variationist Sociolinguistics
SUBTITLE: Change, Observation, Interpretation
SERIES TITLE: Language in Society
YEAR: 2011
PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell

Elizabeth Latimer, College of Humanities, Department of Modern Languages,
University of Exeter

The preface explains the focus of the book, specifically language variation and
change (LVC), and situates this subfield within the larger field of

Chapter 1 gives a background of the field of sociolinguistics, which is helpful
in contextualising the subject area of the book, and the reasons why language is
studied in a variationist fashion. A useful overview of the essential theories
and paradigms used in variationist sociolinguistics is also included, combined
with practical examples that enable the student to see the study of linguistic
variables in action. It also demonstrates how sociolinguistics lacks certain
factors and explains why these can be accomplished by variationist
sociolinguistic studies, such as the interpretive component of LVC. The subject
of the linguistic variable, delimiting its study and its evolution, are areas
well addressed in this chapter and numerous examples are given to the reader to
enable an interactive approach to understanding the central elements of a
variationist study.

The subject of the second chapter is the social patterns that affect linguistic
variation and change. This is approached in a systematic fashion and lays out
the fundamental considerations taken into account when looking at linguistic
variables, i.e. sex, age, style, register, and mobility in space and time.
Linguistic change and its importance to variationist sociolinguistics along with
the factors that influence it are also briefly covered here. Additionally
important topics such as the principle of accountability and its importance are
both clarified albeit separately, which is perplexing.

Chapter 3 sets out how linguistic patterns are treated in the study of language
variation and change. The identification of these patterns and their connection
to the social structure of the community is shown to be key to understanding and
interpreting language data, which gives the researcher the tools to determine
where and how language change is taking place. The product of these processes
i.e. language variation is kept relevant to this chapter by the inclusion of
summarized presentations of language variation work from Labov (1963, 1969) and
subsequent studies of the same variables by Pope et al. (2007) and Blake and
Josy (2003). By including more recent work the author is showing how the field
of variationist sociolinguistics is ever evolving. This has the added advantage
of giving students a more inclusive view of studies conducted on specific variables.

Quantitative analysis methods used in LVC are tackled in chapter 5 and this part
of the book is solely devoted to the use of logistic regression as a tool for
language variation research. This type of analysis, although seen by some
sociolinguists to be indispensable, is not the only type of statistical analysis
that can be conducted. This chapter’s subject matter is daunting for the
inexperienced researcher, and could be considered too technical for a student
textbook, yet, the inclusion of the possibility to conduct a working analysis of
data which is made available via the author’s website is a motivating addition
that goes some way to dispelling concerns. Space is devoted to discussing the
recent debates of the appropriateness of these programs (Varbrul, Goldvarb);
however the overall impression is that they are still an important part of the
variationist domain. This subject is vast but the author is able to give a
balanced view of the advantages and disadvantages of using such tools.

Chapter 6 builds closely on the previous chapter devoted to statistical models
by describing how and when the information that is obtained from statistical
analysis is compared and contrasted. Comparative linguistics (CL) is explained
as having its origins and foundations in three divisions of linguistics,
dialectology, sociolinguistics and historical linguistics. This definition of CL
helps the reader understand the origins of this subfield. The author covers the
importance and use of comparative methods in historical linguistics research and
sets out some of the theories developed directly from this work such as the
notion of ‘structured heterogeneity’ introduced by Weinreich et al. (1968) that
was later developed by Labov which established the underpinnings for the
quantitative variationist approach. Many aspects of comparative linguistics are
presented here including the usefulness of its framework to the study of
language in contact and the standards for comparison (Montgomery 1989).

The foundations of variationist sociolinguistics are rooted in the study of
phonological variables and this is discussed in chapter 7. In this chapter the
reader is made aware of the vast domain of phonological variation, briefed
succinctly on pioneering studies (Labov 1963) and the author’s work on (t, d)
variation in York English (Tagliamonte 2005) is described in more empirical
detail. This hands-on exposition of a phonological study is undeniably useful to
any students envisaging empirical work themselves because the procedures are all
given in detail with the addition of tips for doing such work and exercises to
check understanding and methods.

In chapter 8 morphosyntactic variation or grammatical variation is set out in
direct contrast to phonological variation and situated as being an important
element of LVC investigations.
This contrast is explained by exposing their dissimilarities and the added
element in the study of morphosyntactic variation of the form/function
dichotomy. The author covers this division of LVC work comprehensibly and
includes many examples. Work on variable(s) in the study of African American
Vernacular English (AAVE), the Ex-Slave recordings (Bailey et al 1991a) and
Samanà English studies (Poplack and Sankoff 1987) and others all offer the
reader a good overview of the type of study that can be conducted in this
domain. This chapter also describes additional elements that can be juxtaposed
with the more traditional social links, i.e. historical features that have been
preserved in some sectors of the population or grammaticalization processes that
were first discussed in chapter 3 and again in the previous chapter.

Discourse/Pragmatic features are the topic for chapter 9, which is exposed as a
‘thorny problem’ (Tagliamonte 2012) for quantitative analysis. The statement
“These features straddle the boundaries of syntax and pragmatics” p. 247 leaves
the reader with a whetted appetite that is not totally satiated with more
clarification, as no precise definition is given of what a discourse/pragmatic
feature is. Nevertheless, examples populate this chapter and very useful and
detailed accounts of important features such as the quotative (be like) that
began in North America in the early 80s and general extenders (GEs) such as ‘and
things’ or ‘and stuff’ are included. These prove to be particularly interesting
phenomena. Aspects of these features for example -- the possibility of
addressing the interface between apparent and real time analysis or determining
whether age grading is involved -- present attractive discussions that lend
themselves to further investigation.

Chapter 10 is concerned with tense and aspect variables and notably the
difficulties that a researcher may encounter when studying them, for example
possible ambiguities of variable context or the different methods available for
analysing them. Once again the subject of grammaticalization is brought into
this chapter as the author explains why tense and aspect variables present a
privileged site for this type of variation, which are incidentally the most
studied. In addition to the studies illustrating this form of variation a
step-by-step summary of the methodology for working on tense and aspect
variation from a grammaticalization angle is included here, which helps the
reader get a good idea of the considerations to be taken into account.

Out of all the chapters, chapter 11 regarding other variables that are difficult
to classify under any of the previous headings will pique early researchers’
interest the most. This is due to the description of a multitude of linguistic
variables that present emerging fields of study such as the new enthusiasm being
generated by the variation found in the use of intensifiers (adverbs used to
intensify a phrase) for example, “really”, “very” or “so”. The author is careful
to highlight the necessity of dealing with these emerging forms of variation
from various perspectives including the social, historical and synchronic angles
in order for studies to be truly effective. An ever-increasing realm of language
variation that has been included in this chapter is ‘language and the internet’.
This is a section where the student will find examples of new forms of LVC known
as computer-mediated communication (CMC) that will undoubtedly become the basis
for many future studies e.g. instant messaging and teen language.

Chapter 12 serves as a concise summary of the overall premise of
sociolinguistics contextualising the questions and answers the author has
discussed and elaborated on in this volume. It asks the reader to reflect on
what they have discovered from reading this book and then gives the five
problems in the study of linguistic change (Weinreich 1953/1968) as a framework
for finding the fundamental answers.

In the realm of sociolinguistics, the last few years have witnessed an increase
in the number of publications concerned with methodological issues especially
textbooks. These books treat many aspects of research in linguistics including
general areas (Litosseliti 2010) or more specifically particular categories such
as gender research (Harrington et al, 2008). Variationist Sociolinguistics,
Change, Observation, Interpretation fits into this literature as a reference
volume for all students wishing to familiarize themselves with the intricacies
of variationist sociolinguistics and has a pleasantly specific title and
pedagogical approach. For instructors teaching final year undergraduate or
masters courses this textbook makes the idea of embarking on a variationist
study much more accessible to students. The hands-on style in many of the
chapters and its comprehensive and specific subject matter (with the added bonus
of the abundance of extra tasks and material) are all characteristics that
render this book very useful for teaching and contribute to making this volume a
valuable tool. Examples of variationist work undertaken by scholars on other
languages other than English would have been appreciated, particularly when many
students even in the English-speaking world combine linguistic studies with
foreign language (FL) studies.

Variationist Sociolinguistics, Change, Observation, Interpretation is a welcome
contribution to the set of textbooks on LVC and includes many of the
prerequisites for this subject matter and many more helpful additions. The wide
ranging collection of topics included give the impression of ‘no stone left
unturned’ and enable the reader to gain access to a unification of more than 40
years of methodology and findings of this interesting sub-field of
Sociolinguistics. With the addition of mini-quizzes, questionnaires and data
orientated tasks integrated throughout each chapter it is an up-to-date manual
that serves as a perfect springboard for students to broaden their knowledge and
discover more about this field. The author’s aims of introducing the field of
LVC to learners, discussing its principle goals and achievements, and opening up
discussion for advances in the field have been successfully achieved in this volume.

Bailey, G., Wilke, T., Tillery, J., and Sand, L.(1991) The Emergence of Black
English: Texts and Commentary. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Blake, R. and Josey, M. (2003) The /ay/ diphthong in a Martha’s Vineyard
community: What can we say 40 years later? Language in society 32 (4): 451-485.

Harrington, K., Litosseliti, L., Stauntson, H., and Sunderland, J.(2008) Gender
and Language Research Methodologies. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Labov, W. (1963) The social motivation of sound change. Word 19:273-309.

Labov, W. (1969) Contraction, deletion, and inherent variability of the English
copula. Language 45 (4): 715-762.

Litolessiti, L. (2010) Research Methods in Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Montgomery, M.B. (1989) Exploring the roots of Appalachian English. English
World-Wide 10(2): 227-278.

Pope, J., Meyerhoff, M., and Ladd, D.R. (2007) Forty years of language change on
Martha’s Vineyard. Language 83: 615-627.

Poplack, S. and Sankoff, D. (1987) The Philadelphia story in the Spanish
Caribbean. American Speech 62(4): 291-314.

Tagliamonte, S.A. and Temple, R. (2005) New perspectives on an ol’ variable:
(t,d) in British English. Language Variation and Change 17(3): 281-302.

Weinreich, U. (1953/1968) Languages in Contact. The Hague: Mouton.

Weinreich, U., Labov, W., and Herzog, M. (1968) Empirical foundations for a
theory of language change, in W.P. Lehmann and Y. Malkiel (eds), Directions for
Historical Linguistics. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp.95-188.

Elizabeth Latimer is a PhD student at the University of Exeter. Her thesis is a variationist sociolinguistic study of French prepositions incorporating a cognitive sociolinguistic investigation. Her primary interests include grammatical variation, semantic variation and variation across speech styles in both 'hexagonal' and Canadian French.

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