Book Review: Sociolinguistic Variation: Critical Reflections

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jul 18 14:16:50 UTC 2005

Forwarded from Linguist-List,
Sun Jul 17 2005

Fought, Carmen
Sociolinguistic Variation Critical Reflections
Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics
Oxford University Press 2004
Announced at

Susan Tamasi, Program in Linguistics, Emory University


Sociolinguistic Variation: Critical Reflections is a thought-provoking
work for researchers as well as advanced students of sociolinguistic
methods and theory. Edited by Carmen Fought, this is a collection of
papers first presented at the 1999 Claremont College sociolinguistic
methods conference held in honor of sociolinguistic pioneer, Ronald

Fought brings together a diverse body of work from several of the top
contemporary sociolinguists. In her introduction, she states the book's
common theme: "the critique of conventional wisdom in the sociolinguistic
study of variation and the extension of important concepts in variationist
research to new areas" (3). All of the authors pull from a variety of
important sociolinguistic studies to introduce discussions that not only
question traditional ideas, theories, and terminology, but also reanalyze
older studies through new perspectives and promote underutilized methods
of analysis.

The book is organized into several sections. The front material includes a
Series Editors' Preface by Nikolas Coupland and Adam Jaworski, an Editor's
Preface, a list of contributors, and a table of contents. After an
introductory chapter, there are ten chapters, divided into four parts:
"Sociolinguistic Methods," "The Exploration of Place," "Influences on
Adult Speech," and "Attitudes and Ideologies." Each chapter includes its
own notes and reference sections.


Part I: "Sociolinguistic Methods"  In Chapter 1, "Some Sources of
Divergent Data in Sociolinguistics," Guy Bailey and Jan Tillery give an
intriguing, well-organized critique of traditional analytical methods in
sociolinguistics. The authors claim that the early focus on methodology in
quantitative sociolinguistics has fallen off in the last 20 years and
argue that divergent data in sociolinguistic studies can be traced back to
methodological differences. Using a variety of well-documented studies,
Bailey and Tillery give several specific examples of such methodological
differences, focusing their discussion on interviewer effects (including
interviewer characteristics such as race, as well as the "Rutledge
Effect"), sampling effects (including both sampling procedures and
populations), and the effects of analytical strategies (by comparing
studies of habitual and invariant BE in African American English). The
authors call for a more stringent, focused approach to data collection and
analysis in order to conduct significant research that is reliable and
generalizable. They conclude that "disentangling the effects of our
methods from the effects of social and linguistic factors with some
certainty is perhaps the most important thing we can do to build upon the
solid foundation laid by first generation sociolinguists" (28).

Chapter 2, "Ordinary Events" by William Labov, is an interesting reminder
that there are more analytical methods available to sociolinguists than
the usual, more traditional quantitative techniques. Using data from
Macaulay (1987), Labov looks into the analysis of narratives, with a
specific focus on quoted exchanges and reconstructed conversation. Labov
seems especially interested in the reporting of "ordinary events," those
events not reportable themselves and not required to explain key events.
He also asks, "If a narrative is an account of what actually happened, why
do we find clauses dealing with what did not happen?" (41). Labov
concludes that the focus on ordinary events actually slows down the
narrative, thus presenting the story more as a film than literature. In
reading this chapter, one can easily see how such a technique would give a
new perspective to the examination of a sociolinguistic interview.

In Chapter 3, Natalie Schilling-Estes argues for "Exploring
Intertextuality in the Sociolinguistic Interview." She defines
"intertextuality" as "the interweaving of remembered utterances"  and
gives a quick, yet detailed background into its use in linguistic analysis
(44). Shilling-Estes then shows that it is a natural progression to
incorporate an exploration of intertextuality within the analysis of a
sociolinguistic interview, as it has been used effectively in discourse
analysis for some time. She also discusses that an examination of
intertextuality in language variation studies actually forces one to
question even the most basic assumptions of sociolinguistic research. For
example, she points out that intertextuality is most likely to occur at
the times in an interview when the focus is on the most vernacular forms;
therefore, making the researcher question whether or not the speaker's
voice is actually his own. Like Labov's chapter, I find Shilling-Estes'
work motivating in that it promotes the adoption of techniques utilized by
other disciplines into variationist research.

Part II: "The Exploration of 'Place'"  In Chapter 4, "Place,
Globalization, and Linguistic Variation," Barbara Johnstone argues that
"sociolinguists may have not always been sufficiently attuned to the
social theory implicit in our uses of terms such as 'region', 'rurality,'
'local,' and 'place'" (78). She begins by discussing place as location as
well as place as meaning, and argues that place can (and should) be viewed
as a socially constructed category in sociolinguistic research. She also
asserts that "individuals ground their identities in socially constructed
regions" (70). Therefore, according to Johnstone, sociolinguists must
study place and region from the local point of view in order to discover
how an area is culturally defined, as well as to elicit what linguistic
features are meaningful within that particular locale. As place "is one of
the most frequently adduced correlates of linguistic variation," including
a study of these self- defined, "vernacular" dialects is therefore a
necessary component to any complete sociolinguistic study (70).

A "remnant dialect" is defined as "a variety of language that retains
vestiges of earlier language varieties that have receded among speakers in
the more widespread population" (84). In Chapter 5, "The Sociolinguistic
Construction of Remnant Dialects," Walt Wolfram discusses the history,
development, and significance of remnant dialects and historically
isolated speech communities. He points out that even so-called relic
dialects go through change and warns that "the real methodological and
descriptive challenge for the study of remnant dialects is, in fact,
sorting out the layers of founder effects and distinguishing instances of
conservatism from innovation" (94). He ends the chapter by delineating the
sociolinguistic principles present in the configuration of isolated
dialects: dialect exclusion, selective change, regionalization, social
marginalization, vernacular congruity, peripheral community heterogeneity,
and localized identity. Overall, Wolfram presents some very compelling
ideas which ask the reader to rethink and reconsider several questions
about dialects and communities which have often been disregarded or taken
for granted.

The discussion of place is continued through Chapter 6, "Variation and a
Sense of Place," by Penelope Eckert. In this chapter, Eckert argues that
"linguists should be focusing not on centers but on borders - that we
should move from a linguistics of community to a linguistics of contact"
(108). She reminds the reader that boundaries are artificial, and she
states that "more things are happening that are inseparable from what
happens on either side" of an area's borders (108). I find this chapter
(along with Johnstone's piece) to be a much-needed discussion on the
nature of place, as it is often assumed in sociolinguistic studies that
places (especially regions) and their boundaries are concrete entities
that can be defined by those on the outside. Eckert ends the chapter on a
general methodological note (after all, this was first presented at a
methods conference), calling for a continued discussion and critique of
sociolinguistic methodology.

Part III: "Influences on Adult Speech"  In Chapter 7, "Adolescents, Young
Adults, and the Critical Period: Two Case Studies from 'Seven Up,'"
Gillian Sankoff presents a discussion of apparent time versus age grading.
Using Macaulay's 1977 study as an example, she argues that apparent time
does not always work as a valid analysis. She then turns to present a
detailed look at a real-time study of two phonological variables (broad A
and short U) using data from two speakers (Neil and Nicholas) from the
film series "Seven Up." Sankoff presents an unique dataset in that the
films show interviews of the boys every seven years between ages 7 and 35.
She gives a detailed discussion of the use and disuse of the two variables
between the two speakers, as well as the social factors that influence
their linguistic decisions.  However, her conclusion focuses on the
study's methodological implications, stating that apparent time research,
while not always reliable on its own, is able to guide longitudinal

Dennis Preston, in "Three Kinds of Sociolinguistics: A Psycholinguistic
Perspective" (Chapter 8), presents to the reader his interpretation of the
three levels of variationist sociolinguistics. He defines Level I as that
research which only correlates linguistic and social factors, and he
claims that this type of sociolinguistic study is very rare. Level II
studies, which he states are quite common, seek "influencing factors among
(not outside) the components of a grammar" (147). Finally, Level III
studies "relate patterns of linguistic change to both the sociocultural
forces studied in Level I and the linguistic forces of Level II" (151). I
especially like Preston's presentation of the term "postvernacular" in
reference to the language or linguistic features one learns after his or
her initially-acquired linguistic form. Preston goes on to argue that no
one will be as fluent in their postvernacular, a thought that, as he
states, brings up interesting implications for the Chomskian view of an
ideal speaker-hearer.

Part IV: "Attitudes and Ideologies"  Chapter 9, "Language Ideologies and
Linguistic Change" by Lesley Milroy, is an intriguing chapter that
presents "a framework for incorporating into mainstream variationist work
an account of language attitudes" (161).  Milroy argues that
sociolinguists should be concerned with how ideologies interact with
internal linguistic constraints, and she focuses her discussions
specifically on the ideology of a Standard English. She points out that
most variationist work uses a standard as a default reference point, which
she problematizes by saying, "scholars imbue their sociolinguistic
analyses with unintended ideological significance when they focus on the
characteristics of some variety by comparing it with a supposedly neutral
standard" (165). Furthermore, Milroy claims that "an ideologically
oriented account of language variation and change treats members of speech
communities as agents, rather than as automatons caught up ineluctably in
an abstract sociolinguistic system" (167).

In Chapter 10, "The Radical Conservatism of Scots," Ronald Macaulay
asserts that "the differences between Scottish English and English English
are great enough to play a key role in the sense of Scottish identity, " a
claim contrary to the findings of other researchers (178). Working with
data from approximately 200 interviews, Macaulay argues that "Scots
speakers are more or less unanimous in the belief that what distinguishes
the Scots from the English is the way they speak" (179). He concludes that
the Scots, through their speech and stories (i.e. in message as well as
form) show themselves to be independent and secure and therefore do not
see a need to switch to a more dominant form of speech.

Chapter 11, "Spoken Soul: The Beloved, Belittled Language of Black
America" by John R. Rickford is an adapted version of the first chapter of
his co-authored book Spoken Soul (Rickford and Rickford 2000). Rickford
claims that this is the way he really wanted the first chapter to read and
has included here passages the editor took out as well as new insights
(198). Having read Spoken Soul, I found it interesting to read the
numerous quotations that this version includes and to be able to compare
both versions. For those who have not read the other version, this chapter
works as a good introduction to Rickford's views on a variety of issues
surrounding African American English. While I find the chapter quite
interesting and useful, it does stand out from the rest of the book as
something altogether different. Simply, it appears to be added as an
afterthought to a series of papers that are more theoretically and
methodologically driven.


Overall, I found Sociolinguistic Variation: Critical Reflections to be an
intelligent discussion of many of the overlooked issues and questions that
have developed in contemporary sociolinguistics. As Fought states in the
introduction, this is a book that "engages the reader in dialogue,
challenges assumptions, and unveils new perspectives" (3). While some of
the chapters are stronger than others, each author does a good job
reaching this objective. The book covers a wide variety of specific
topics, and each reader will take from it something different, depending
on his or her own research interests.

This book allows (or at times even forces) one to question many of the
assumptions and traditions of variationist sociolinguistics. As such, it
would be especially useful for initiating conversation and debate among
graduate students and colleagues.

The main critique I have of this book is with its organization. While the
variety of topics is intriguing, in many ways the considerable differences
in focus of the individual chapters made the book as a whole seem less
cohesive and somewhat disorganized. Some of the four internal sections
were more unified than others, and the titles of the sections were not
always the best fit for categorizing the chapters within. I think one
valuable addition would have been a concluding chapter to wrap up the core
issues and end on a more cohesive note. However, this does not take away
from the usefulness of the book, which I know I will refer back to often.


Macaulay, Ronald K. (1977). Language, Social Class, and Education.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Macaulay, Ronald K. (1987). "Polyphonic Monologues: Quoted Direct Speech
in Oral Narratives." IPRA Papers in Pragmatics. 1:1-34.

Rickford, John R. and Russell J. Rickford. (2000). Spoken Soul: the story
of black English. New York: Wiley.


Susan Tamasi is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Emory
University. Her primary research is in language variation, investigating
issues of linguistic security and non-expert perceptions of American

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