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Review of  An Introduction to Sociolinguistics

Reviewer: Brian Chan
Book Title: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics
Book Author: Ronald Wardhaugh
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 17.1512

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AUTHOR: Wardhaugh, Ronald
TITLE: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics
SUBTITLE: Fifth Edition
SERIES: Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics
YEAR: 2005
PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publishing

Brian Chan, Department of English, University of Macau


In its fifth edition, this textbook has proved itself to be a popular one in
a competitive field (with alternatives including Holmes 2nd edition
(2001), Mesthrie et al. (2000), Romaine (2000), among others). As in
the fourth edition, the main content is divided into four parts plus an
introductory chapter (chapter 1) and a brief conclusion (chapter 16).
[The fourth edition is reviewed in -- Eds.]

The introductory chapter 1 sets the scene by outlining the two major
approaches to linguistics--- the Chomskyan one in which language is
seen as an autonomous system of knowledge---and the sociolinguists'
view---which sees language as intertwined with society to the extent
that any explanation of the former would be virtually incomplete
without some reference to the latter. The scope and the methodology
of sociolinguistics are briefly introduced.

Part I (''Languages and Communities'') covers chapters 2 to 5, dealing
with core concepts that are related to ''language'' in one way or the
other. Chapter 2 (''Languages, Dialects and Varieties'') reviews
definitions of ''language'' alongside with those of similar concepts
including ''dialects'' (social and regional), ''varieties'' (mainly
standardized), ''styles'' and ''register''. Chapter 3 (''Pidgins and
creoles'') describes the origins, areal occurrences and linguistic
properties of these ''languages'' which have been marginalized in
mainstream linguistics. Chapter 4 (''Codes'') is actually about
bilingualism. Bilingual and multilingual communities are exemplified
and portrayed. Diglossia in Ferguson's classical sense is discussed,
and code-switching is treated essentially as a result of different ''code-
choice'' which signals accommodation, change of communicative
situation (e.g. topic change) or social identity. Chapter 5 (''Speech
Communities'') reports definitions of ''speech community'' and their
problems, followed by an introduction of more recent notions
of ''community of practice'', ''social network'' and ''speech repertoire''.

Part II (''Inherent Variety'') deals with the ''core'' topic of sociolinguistics-
--language variation. Chapter 6 (''Language Variation'') elaborates on
regional variation with examples including the Rhenish Fan and
isoglosses in Southern Britain. This is followed by an introduction to
the ''linguistic variable'' and other techniques and methodologies used
in variationist studies. Chapter 7 (''Some Findings and Issues'')
reviews the key findings of classic papers by Labov (the New York
City studies), Trudgill (on Norwich and Reading), Wolfram (on Detroit),
the Milroys (on Belfast) and others. Chapter 8 (''Change'') discusses
various case studies of language change (e.g. Northern Cities Shift of
vowels, The Martha's Vineyard, etc.) in the light of Labov's ideas
(change from above vs change from below) and the lexical
diffusion/wave theory of change.

Part III (''Words at Work'') covers chapter 9 to chapter 12, looking at
how culture and context may affect language. Chapter 9 (''Words and
Culture'') introduces The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (Or The Whorfian
Hypothesis/Language Relativity Hypothesis) and the arguments that
have been put forward to support or refute it. Examples are then given
to illustrate areas in which languages reflect (and are possibly
conditioned by) different cultures in imposing different classifications
of objects or experience, namely, kinship terms and color terms. The
key idea in Chapter 10 (''Ethnolographies'') is that people
communicate in different ways in different cultures; for instance, they
may have different uses and meanings for silence. The SPEAKING
framework of Hymes is then discussed as a systematic way to analyze
contextual factors which shape different varieties of talk. In addition,
there are rules or conventions on how people understand and interact
with each other in everyday life, and yet they are not always
conscious of them. These rules are the object of study
under ''ethnomethodology''. Chapter 11 (''Solidarity and Politeness'')
focuses on how a message, in the same situation, may have been
packaged in different ways in relation to the hearer. The idea is
illustrated by examples such as the T/V distinction in French pronouns
and, the Javanese honorifics and the address terms in different
languages. Brown and Levinson's theory of politeness is then
introduced. Chapter 12 (''Talk and Action'') surveys central topics in
pragmatics including ''speech acts'' and Grice's ''co-operative
principle'' and ''conversational maxims''. The structure of conversation
is then discussed in the light of Conversation Analysis (Sacks,
Schegloff, etc.).

Part IV (''Understanding and Intervening'') ranges from chapter 13 to
chapter 15. Chapter 13 (''Gender'') addresses language and gender,
reporting research findings which suggest different ways the genders
may talk and objections to these findings. Chapter 14
(''Disadvantage'') is really about language and education, outlining
Basil Bernstein's theory of Elaborate Code/Restricted Code, and
introducing the debate about the use of African American Vernacular
English (AAVE) in schools. Chapter 15, (''Planning'') introduces
various goals, methods and underlying ideologies of language
planning. Again, there is no shortage of case studies ranging from the
revival of Catalan in Spain to the simplification of Chinese characters
across the continent. It is then noted that some languages (e.g.
English, Mandarin Chinese, etc.) became more dominant as a result of
language planning and other factors at the expense of other minority
languages, against the wishes of most linguists who would prefer to
see more linguistic diversity or linguistic pluralism maintained in our

The conclusion (chapter 16) does not exactly summarize the huge
content of the book but highlights the importance of ''pluralism'' in
sociolinguistics. The author sees no need to establish a doctrine in
sociolinguistics; rather, he thinks that various theories, methodologies
and approaches would only do justice to the complexity of issues and
data that are involved.


These are the two (related) areas I would like to address in this part;
firstly, how well the book fares as a textbook for students and
instructors, and secondly, how far the book succeeds as an update of
sociolinguistics for an average reader, most probably (socio-)linguists.

This book targets itself as a first-level textbook for students with little
previous knowledge of linguistics, sociolinguistics or anthropology
(preface). Obviously, this is no easy task, since, as the author
suggests in the conclusion, sociolinguistics involves many complex
issues that have been studied in different approaches with various
methodologies. There does not seem to be a unified theory which
accounts for the full range of data, nor is it desirable to have
a ''sociolinguistic doctrine''. In fact, the sociolinguistic approach,
namely, the consideration of society, culture and context in the study
of language, is shared with pragmatics, discourse analysis and
anthropological linguistics, subjects which overlap with sociolinguistics
but which can be seen as branches of linguistics in their own right.
What's worse, many topics cut across each other; for instance, the
issue of gender comes up in the more macro variationist studies and
the micro conversation analysis as well. One could easily imagine how
daunting it would be to write an informative and yet lucid, easy-to-
follow introductory textbook on this enormous subject. How does an
author select the materials? How could he organize the topics? How
could he strike a balance between detail and conciseness or between
depth and width? These are all formidable challenges.

In this connection, the main strength of the book lies in its
comprehensive coverage of sociolinguistic literature in discussion. The
book is also resourceful. As in previous editions, each chapter is
wrapped up with a wealth of discussion questions and a section of
further readings. While the former provides the instructor with
excellent materials for brainstorming, class discussion or follow-up
assignments (of course, there is not always enough time covering all
of these questions), the latter encourages the serious reader
(instructor or student) to explore the issues further on his/her own.
The selection of materials is laudable: there is a fair representation of
studies---old and new---which discuss sociolinguistic phenomena
drawn from different parts of the world and which involve a wide range
of typologically different languages. It is noteworthy that the author
has brought in a number of studies in 2000's. Despite the abundance
of examples and illustrations, the discussion is never too long. The
depth of explanation just right for students or those unfamiliar with the
subject, often sprinkled with insights, and the language is very clear.
All these are hallmarks of a good textbook written by an expert and
fruits of an experienced teacher. The book most probably carries the
teaching materials that the author has used, enriched and updated
throughout the years (preface).

Whereas I find this textbook suitable for advanced undergraduates
and postgraduates in a one-year (two-semester) course, I have
reservations about using it in a one-semester BA or MA course. There
is perhaps too much material to cover, as a trade-off to its
comprehensiveness. In such circumstances, while I would still ask my
students to read relevant chapters in this book or Holmes (2001) as
supplements, I may well prefer Romaine (2001) for undergraduates
and Mesthrie et al. (2000) for beginning postgraduates (e.g. MA).
Alternatively, I would select chapters 1 and 2, Part II (''Inherent
Variety'') and Part IV (Understanding and Intervening) in the
curriculum. Chapter 3 (''Pidgins and Creoles'') and chapter 4 (''Codes'')
are perhaps covered in another course focusing on language contact
or bilingualism, while Part III (''Words at Work'') may well be used (as
background reference) in another course on pragmatics and
discourse, or language and culture. As for chapter 5 (''Speech
Communities''), its key ideas may well be incorporated in the
discussion of language variation (Part III).

Usually teaching a one-semester course and with other
colleagues/courses dealing with pragmatics, discourse and
bilingualism, I have been wondering whether there is a more direct or
succinct way to organize the diverse topics under sociolinguistics. It
appears to me that one such way is to focus on language variation,
and have each chapter pinpoint one factor that may have caused or
that is correlated with variation (language and class, language and
time (i.e. language change), language and place (i.e. dialects),
language and power, language and identity, language and gender,
language and ethnicity, and so forth), to be followed by broader
or ''applied'' issues such as language and education, language
planning and bilingualism, a scheme that has been followed roughly in
Mesthrie et al. (2000) and Thomas and Wareing (2003). Pragmatics,
discourse and language and culture may be covered in three separate
introductory chapters, since they are now considered to be ''full-
fledged'' fields on their own. Of course, in doing so, the
interconnections of various factors (age, gender, class, etc.) attested
in variation studies may be blurred, but I guess this problem can be
solved by more explanation in different chapters. An additional
advantage of this scheme, I think, is that some recently popular topics
can be covered in a rather straightforward way, such as language and
power (Critical Discourse Analysis) and perhaps language and the
media. Now, it seems that these topics can hardly find their
appropriate place under the present framework.

This is not to say the book is not well-organized: It is clear that the
author somehow proceeds from the ''macro'' issues (Part I and Part II)
to ''micro'' ones (Part III), to be followed by more ''applied'' issues (Part
IV). One may be a bit surprised to find Gender (chapter 13) located in
Part IV. The author's rationale seems to be that many people think of
language as ''sexist'' and call for ''intervention'' to get rid of these
elements. It seems to me, however, that these calls have somewhat
diminished in the past few years.

This fifth edition (2006) appears only four years after the fourth
(2002). It is understandable that the author would like to update the
materials so as to reflect the current developments in the field in the
past few years (preface), and the readers (students or instructors)
would reasonably expect that. How far does the book succeed in this

As suggested above, there is a clear attempt to incorporate new
references (i.e. after 2000's) into the existing framework, which is
welcome. It is also commendable that some more recent developments
are introduced, for instance, Estuary English (chapter 1) and queer
linguistics (chapter 13). Nonetheless, some topics which are touched
on briefly could have received more detailed treatment owing to their
emerging popularity in the past few years, for instance, World
Englishes (chapter 15), conversational code-switching (in which
bilinguals switch codes frequently in the same situation) and the
conversation-analytic approach of it (chapter 4) and language and
power (chapter 14 -- although Fairclough is quoted here and there).
Perhaps some readers would like to find mention that
many ''sociolinguistic'' topics have more recently been studied in a
more ''formal'', ''Chomskyan'' perspective, such as language change,
language variation, pidgins and creoles and code-switching.

The author emphasized the significance of identity in understanding
sociolinguistics (preface, also see the blurb), but, after reading the
book, it does not seem obvious to me how identity (or various
identities) may have shaped one's language behaviour or language
attitudes, or how identity is a crucial explanation of sociolinguistic facts
or data. Some discussion of identity can be found in chapter 4 and
chapter 5, though.

To conclude, I think the book has done a fairly good job in meeting the
serious challenge of writing a sociolinguistics textbook, though it may
not have covered everything that has become popular in recent
literature. In any case, I find this book comprehensive and well-written
on the whole, and I believe it will continue to be a very useful
reference in the field.


Holmes, Janet (2001) An introduction to Sociolinguistics. Pearson
Education Limited. Second edition.

Mesthrie, Rajand, Joan Swann, Andrea Deumert, and William L. Leap
(2000) Introducing Sociolinguistics. Edinburgh University Press.

Romaine, Suzanne (2001) Language in Society. Oxford University
Press. Second edition.

Thomas, Linda et al. (2003) Language, Society and Power: An
Introduction. Routledge. Second edition.

Wardhaugh, Ronald (2002) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics.
Blackwell. Fourth edition.

Brian Chan is an Assistant Professor in Department of English, Faculty
of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Macau. He has been
teaching linguistics and bilingualism, and his research interest is in all
aspects of code-switching (i.e. sociolinguistic, pragmatic and syntactic).

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