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Review of  The Handbook of Language Variation and Change

Reviewer: Gerard Van Herk
Book Title: The Handbook of Language Variation and Change
Book Author: J. K. Chambers Peter Trudgill Natalie Schilling-Estes
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 14.391

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Date: Thu, 06 Feb 2003 10:06:24 -0500
From: Gerard Van Herk
Subject: Review: Handbook of Language Variation and Change

Chambers, J.K., Peter Trudgill, and Natalie Schilling-Estes, eds. (2002) The
Handbook of Language Variation and Change. Blackwell Publishers, ISBN
0-631-21803-3, xii+807pp, USD 124.95/GBP 85.00.

Reviewer: Gerard Van Herk, University of Ottawa

The Handbook of Language Variation and Change joins Blackwell’s previous
handbooks on child language, phonology, semantics, sociolinguistics,
phonetics, morphology, Japanese linguistics, syntax, discourse, and general
linguistics. The authors see the present volume as "a convenient, hand-held
repository of the essential knowledge about the study of language variation
and change" (introduction, p. 2). The volume strains the boundaries of
"hand-held" – it treats 29 different subjects in 807 pages, and is
considerably longer than the earlier Blackwell Handbook of Sociolinguistics,
which itself houses a substantial variationist component.

Following a brief introduction and "An Informal Epistemology" (J.K.
Chambers), the book is divided into five parts: methodologies, linguistic
structure, social factors, contact, and language and societies.

As the search for large amounts of vernacular data is both the goal and, in
some senses, the main distinguishing characteristic of variationist work, it
is appropriate that the handbook begin with discussions of methodology. The
"Field Methods" section includes chapters on fieldwork, focussing on the
sociolinguistic interview and advance preparation (Crawford Feagin);
language attitudes, dealing more with the types of information obtained than
with strictly methodological issues (Dennis R. Preston); the advantages and
pitfalls of written materials (Edgar W. Schneider); and the use of large,
electronically searchable text databases (Laurie Bauer). The "Evaluation"
section is made up of chapters on the quantitative paradigm, particularly
multivariate analysis with VARBRUL and related computer programmes (Robert
Bayley); implicational scales, whose use in variationist work has declined
in recent years (John R. Rickford); and an overview of the use of
instrumental phonetics in sociolinguistics (Erik R. Thomas).

Part two of the handbook deals with linguistic structure, with chapters on
the links between variationist work and current theoretical phonology,
especially Optimality Theory (Arto Anttila); the role of chain shifts and
mergers in sound change (Matthew J. Gordon); the relationship of variation
to (Chomskyan) syntactic theory (Alison Henry); and a critical analysis of
the relatively young field of variationist discourse analysis (Ronald

Part three, by far the longest section of the book, is concerned with social
factors, divided into subsections on time, social differentiation, and
domains. The "Time" section includes chapters on the relative value of real-
and apparent-time studies, with the advantages of apparent-time work
stressed (Guy Bailey); the fairly new focus on speech produced by, or
directed toward, children (Julie Roberts); and the social situation of
language change (J.K. Chambers). The "Social Differentiation" section deals
with the social factors that "have figured in our research from the very
beginning" (373), with chapters on various approaches to the analysis of
stylistic variation (Natalie Schilling-Estes); the components and treatments
of social class (Sharon Ash); approaches to, and the role of, sex and gender
in variation and change (Jenny Cheshire); and the definition and expression
of ethnicity (Carmen Fought). A section on "Domains" links a disparate group
of concepts as "relational arenas within which variable linguistic behavior
takes place" (473), with chapters on a non-essentialist approach toward
language and identity (Norma Mendoza-Denton); the family as a locus of
change (Kirk Hazen); and the relative utility and applicability to
variationist analysis of the sometimes overlapping concepts of communities
of practice (Miriam Meyerhoff), social networks (Lesley Milroy), and the
speech community (Peter Patrick).

Part four of the handbook deals with the study of language varieties in
contact, with chapters on the potential contributions of human geography
research to the analysis of variation (David Britain); the relative effect
of language contact on different linguistic domains (Gillian Sankoff); and
how koineization affects language change (Paul Kerswill).

Part five, "Linguistic and Social Typology," includes chapters on
(speculated) possible links between societal types and degree and type of
linguistic change (Peter Trudgill); the value of a variationist reworking of
the comparative method of historical linguistics (Sali Tagliamonte); and a
typology and comparison of models of language death (Walt Wolfram).

The handbook can be seen as a stock-taking of variationist sociolinguistics
as it enters a period of self-examination typical of any thirty-something.
In fact, chapter titles mirror major discussion topics at NWAVE, the
flagship conference for variationists. The editors describe their desire to
strike a balance between generations of sociolinguists ("the founders" and
"their intellectual offspring") and topics ("the relatively mature and the
relatively recent") (introduction, p. 1). In this, they clearly succeed.

This balance, however, raises problems of its own. Assigning equal weight to
each topic considered chapter-worthy leads to short-changing of some areas
critical to an understanding of variationist work, and over-coverage of some
areas of specialist interest. This is particularly clear in part I,
methodologies (which as a whole could be proportionally longer, especially
in a discipline so driven by the search for empirical evidence). The
sociolinguistic interview is central to variationist methodology; to treat
it as part of a single 20-page chapter seems short shrift. This
short-changing is even more evident when a full 30 pages of the section are
devoted to written documents; although I use such documents and I am
convinced of their value in historical work, I acknowledge that their
analysis remains peripheral to the variationist mainstream. The same
imbalance is found between variable rule analysis, given only part of a
chapter, and implicational scales, marginal to the field, which are assigned
a full chapter of their own. Elsewhere in the book, the distribution of
chapter topics results in far more weight being assigned to social than to
linguistic factors. Although this may address previous criticisms of
variationist sociolinguistics as too much linguistics and not enough socio,
it probably does not reflect the majority tendency of the discipline. In
each of these cases, the problem is not with the treatment of each topic;
rather, it is that the "third generation" of sociolinguists at whom the book
is aimed deserve a (proportionally) more detailed treatment of the topics
central to variationist work.

As is expected in a work of this type, authors choose a range of strategies
in approaching their assigned topic. Among the most successful chapters are
those whose authors are the obvious (first or second) choices for the topic.
In these cases, the engagement of the authors is evident, and illustrations
and examples are drawn from their own research, resulting in chapters that
are highly readable and that function as effective teaching tools.
Particularly notable in this respect are the chapters on language attitude,
ethnicity, social networks, space, koineization, and comparative
sociolinguistics. The cases of topic-author mismatch rarely result from
inappropriate author choice; rather, they seem to fall out from the nature
of the topics involved. Many topics are by their nature not the kind of
thing that any one author is closely associated with, or would work on
throughout a career. This results in some very careful chapters, consisting
largely of literature reviews of other people’s work, the kind of chapters
that could have been safely assigned to less experienced (or even less
skilled) authors. The chapters in question are all more than competent, but
prevent the reader from fully benefiting from their authors’ talent and

And although academic book reviews that smugly list typographical and
proofreading errors may make readers cringe, I must point out that some
errors here interfere with understanding, or actually create
misunderstanding. For example, the material at the top of p. 235, an
apparent continuation of a table from the previous page, seems to require a
separate table, titled "6-syllable stems." Likewise, it is clear from the
table on p. 751 that the sentence at the bottom of the previous page, "In
this table non-significant factors are in bold," should read "In this table
SIGNIFICANT factors are in bold." Presumably such errors result from copy
conversion associated with the publisher’s standardization of tables, and
can easily be corrected in future editions.

One hopes for frequent future editions, especially given the editors’ bold
decision to assign equal weight to "the tried-and-probably-true and the
potentially productive" (p. 1). In a field as (relatively) young as
variationist sociolinguistics, ideas develop quickly, and can in many cases
be empirically tested just as quickly. It is natural that the concerns of
the field should change over time, and the discipline is well-served by a
handbook that is willing to stay at the leading edge of such change. It is
equally true, though, that over time certain methods and approaches will be
more frequently tested than others, and will become yet more central to work
on variation and change. It is hoped that future editions will reflect these
core concerns by devoting proportionally more space to them.u

Gerard Van Herk is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa and visiting scholar at York University. His research interests include linguistic prescriptivism and the sociolinguistics and history of African American, Barbadian, and Canadian varieties of English.