[lg policy] Book notice: Social Lives in Language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jul 1 13:59:42 UTC 2009

Social Lives in Language

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/19/19-3151.html
EDITORS: Meyerhoff, Miriam; Nagy, Naomi
TITLE: Social Lives in Language
SUBTITLE: Sociolinguistics and Multilingual Speech Communities. Celebrating the
Work of Gillian Sankoff
SERIES: IMPACT Studies in Language and Society 24
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2008

Ronald I. Kim, Institute of English Philology, Wroclaw University

For almost four decades, Gillian Sankoff has been a leading figure in
the fields
of anthropological linguistics, sociolinguistics, language contact, and pidgin
and creole studies. From her pioneering fieldwork in Papua New Guinea to her
studies of Montreal French, and more recently her research on language change
across the lifespan, Sankoff has endeavored to understand language within its
proper social and cultural context. _The Social Life of Language_, a collection
of her earlier papers (Sankoff 1980), is still widely cited for its many
groundbreaking descriptions and analyses of multilingual speech communities,
which sought to relate variation and change in languages to ongoing
in the lives of their speakers.

The present _Festschrift_ is a worthy tribute to Sankoff's achievements, and
contains articles by a representative cross-sample of her colleagues,
collaborators, and students. Not surprisingly given the honorand's research
interests, many of them address aspects of variation and change in Canadian
French (in contact with English) and the Melanesian pidgins of the southwest
Pacific -- respectively six and three, out of a total of 13 -- but
South Africa,
Australia, France, and the United States are represented as well. This
geographic and linguistic diversity is highlighted by the editors in their
introduction (1-16), which summarizes Sankoff's career and significant role in
the development of modern sociolinguistics.

Below I summarize the book, followed by critical evaluation. Where warranted, I
follow a chapter summary with specific evaluative remarks about the chapter.

The contributions are organized into three sections, which move along a rough
spectrum from more ''socially'' to more ''linguistically'' focused approaches.

Section 1, ''Language Ideology'', begins with Michelle Daveluy's discussion of
Francophone Canadian language use and identity (27-42). Although the great
majority of Canadian French varieties (excluding Acadian) share common
origins and linguistic histories, Daveluy claims that what unites and divides
Francophones in Canada today is their linguistic attitudes toward each other,
and that they are best seen as ''a set of multilingual speech
communities'' (28).

Daveluy's observations about the linguistic insecurity of certain French
speakers in the Atlantic Provinces toward Québécois, or the friction between
local and outside Francophones in Alberta, are well taken, but I fail
to see how
these situations differ significantly from other such identity conflicts among
speakers of the same language elsewhere around the globe.

Christine Jourdan (43-67) explores the changing linguistic repertoires of
middle-class Solomon Islanders living in the capital Honiara, in relation to
their extended family in different parts of the Solomon Islands
archipelago. Her
ethnographic study demonstrates that the earlier dichotomy between (multiple)
local languages and Solomon Islands Pijin is shifting toward one between Pijin
and English for younger Honiarans, a process which resembles that taking place
in neighboring Pacific societies (e.g. Papua New Guinea, as studied by Sankoff
in the 1970s) and much of the postcolonial world.

Felicity Meakins (69-94) reviews the history of the Gurindji people in
Australia's Northern Territory and convincingly argues that their struggle for
land rights in the 1960s-70s and strong sense of group identity are intimately
linked to the creation of Gurindji Kriol, a mixed language
intertwining elements
of Gurindji and Kriol, the English-lexifier creole now spoken by most Northern
Territory Aborigines. The social history of the Gurindji explains why they
acquired knowledge of Kriol to communicate with other Aborigines, both before
and especially after the onset of the land struggle and political activism in
the 1960s; but also why, unlike most other Aboriginal groups, they have not
(yet) abandoned their traditional language in favor of Kriol. From the brief
discussion on pages 73-5 and 84-5, this mixed language bears interesting
parallels to the neighboring Light Warlpiri, in that the NP is mainly
taken from
Gurindji, the VP from Kriol, and the vocabulary in roughly equal measure from
both sources. There are some signs, however, that the situation is not stable,
and that younger speakers are moving towards a language that is increasingly
Kriol in structure and content.

Rajend Mesthrie (95-109) proposes that Tsotsitaal/Flaaitaal and comparable
varieties spoken in urban South Africa, which he refers to collectively as
''tsotsitaals'' and whose origin and status have long been debated (pidgin-like
contact languages? antilanguages? fossilized code-switching?), have mainly
borrowed lexical items associated with male-oriented youth culture,
from prisons
and gangs to everyday street life. As supporting evidence, he adduces the
previously undescribed English-based tsotsitaal spoken by young Indian and
Coloured men in KwaZulu-Natal province since the 1960s, which contains many
words and elements from Afrikaans (and Zulu) whose meaning would have been
obscure to the Indian community at large. Mesthrie concludes that tsotsitaals
are marked by ''a lexical code...that has the permeable, areal quality of
penetrating just about any prior-existing variety in certain gender-specific
sub-cultures, domains and semantic fields'' (97), and offers a list of features
common to them (107-8).

Bambi Schieffelin (111-34) examines Christian evangelization and social and
cultural transformation among the Bosavi in southern Papua New Guinea
through an
analysis of translations for the Christian concept of ''parable''.
This term was
first translated into Tok Pisin in 1969 as _tok bokis_ 'secret language', but
the lack of literacy among the Bosavi, the great differences between their
traditional narrative styles and those of Christian preaching, and the omission
of three crucial verses in the _Parable of the Sower_ left most Bosavi in the
dark as to its deeper meaning; furthermore, the Bosavi rendering of _tok bokis_
referred to traditional styles of indirect speaking, e.g. circumlocution of
taboo topics or secret languages, and so was ill suited to describing the new
knowledge of the Christian Gospel. After the revised 1978 Tok Pisin Bible
replaced _tok bokis_ with _tok piksa_ 'simile', Bosavi preachers began to
present parable as a kind of 'explanation', but Schieffelin argues
that this too
has had only limited success in communicating the full meaning of parable, and
hence of Christian theology in general, to the Bosavi.

Part II, ''Bridging Macro- and Micro-sociolinguistics'', contains studies that
focus more or less equally on the social and political contexts of speech
communities and the quantitative analysis of linguistic variation. Ruth King's
contribution (137-78), the longest in the volume, provides a detailed analysis
of _chiac_, the form of Acadian French spoken in southeastern New Brunswick in
and around the city of Moncton. _Chiac_ has long been in intensive contact with
local varieties of English, and all speakers today are bilingual. King presents
the major contact-induced features of _chiac_, comparing them with similar
phenomena in other Acadian varieties of the Atlantic Provinces. In
line with her
analysis of Prince Edward Island French (King 2000), she argues that the
appearance of English discourse markers (e.g. _I guess_, _whatever_) and
phrase-final prepositions is not due to syntactic borrowing, but reflects
semantic and syntactic reanalysis on the part of _chiac_ speakers, such as has
clearly taken place with English _back_ 'again, re-' in e.g. _Il m'a back
frappé_ 'He hit me again'.

David Sankoff (179-94) presents a computational model for predicting the number
of speakers of a language in the process of revival (e.g. Catalan), which may
also be applied to the growth of literacy in a language undergoing
expansion and
nativization (e.g. Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, where Sankoff was briefly
employed as a demographer in the 1960s). The model, which takes into account
ongoing language shift and transmission, school-age acquisition, and later
decline in usage, appears to correspond well with literacy data from Papua New
Guinea census statistics.

Pierrette Thibault (195-219) reports on fieldwork conducted in 2001-3 in the
border community of Stanstead in Quebec's Eastern Townships, where young people
are fully bilingual in French and English. Her research has not yet
answered the question in the title, whether the local variety of French signals
a border identity distinct from that of the rest of Quebec: the neutralization
of the singular-plural distinction in present third-singular verbs is well
attested elsewhere in Canadian French minority communities, and the
pronunciation of /r/ (now almost universally dorsal) reveals influence from
American English only in loanwords. However, the aspiration of /p/ does show a
correlation with use of English in the home. Aside from this and perhaps some
other phonetic features, Thibault plausibly conjectures that stable
and widespread code-switching may be the most salient linguistic markers of
local identity for Stanstead and similar border towns.

Part III, ''Quantitative Sociolinguistics'', features five chapters from the
cutting edge of contemporary variationist linguistic research. Julie Auger and
Anne-José Villeneuve (223-47) examine the distribution of _ne_ deletion in
spoken Picard and French of the Vimeu region in northern France. Her research
demonstrates the contrast between the grammars of Picard and French for this
feature, related _inter alia_ to the differences in negative adverbs (French
_pas_ vs. Picard _point_, _mie_) and expletive subjects.

I must emphasize, however, that these and other divergences do not
''prove'' that
Picard is a language in its own right. The status of Picard, or any other
minority regional variety in the world today, rests on political developments
which are often wholly unrelated to the _Abstand_ of the linguistic varieties
involved: witness the violent disintegration of Serbo-Croatian into several
still evolving, fully mutually intelligible state languages, in contrast to the
so far limited success of regional languages in most of western Europe or
eastern Asia, from Scots to Sicilian to Shanghainese.

Hélène Blondeau (249-71) analyzes data from 19th-century Quebec and modern
sociolinguistic studies of French- and English-speaking Montrealers to
trace the
changes in the Québécois French system of personal pronouns. Despite the
divergent nature of the corpora, her results clearly show that _on_ for _nous_
'we' is an old feature of Québécois French, almost categorical already in the
19th century. The use of second-person _tu_ and _vous_ for indefinite _on_ (cf.
English _you_) and of simple nonclitic plural pronouns for compound _nous
autres_, _vous autres_, _eux autres_ has increased during the 20th century, but
Blondeau questions the assumption that contact with English is responsible,
stressing that changes in interactional patterns, as well as social and
stylistic factors, have surely played a role. For all three variables, the L2
French of Anglophone Montrealers (especially the more proficient speakers)
closely follows the usage of native speakers, a pattern also confirmed by other

Blondeau and Naomi Nagy (273-313) examine variation in the use of full vs. null
complementizers in the French and English of Anglophone Montrealers,
and compare
their usage to that of L1 Québécois French and Quebec City English speakers.
Multivariate analysis reveals that lexical identity/frequency of the main verb
and subject of the matrix clause are significant in both languages, while the
following phonological environment is unsurprisingly more significant in French
(a following obstruent favors deletion of _que_). The results for Anglophone
Montreal French accord well with those for the L1 French speakers, and likewise
for the two English corpora. The authors conclude with a syntactic analysis of
English _like_ and French _comme_, and persuasively argue that _like_ in the
speech of Montreal (and other) Anglophones functions as a
complementizer as well
as a verb of quotation, whereas _comme_ is only now beginning to take on the
latter role in the French of native speakers.

William Labov's paper (315-26) investigates several American English variables
associated with ethnicity, and points out that none of them is a
instance of transfer from the language of the immigrant generation. Some, such
as the confusion of _let_ and _make_ among Italian Americans or the use of
_later_ for 'earlier' among Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia, remain completely
mysterious. On the other hand, the _r_-less pronunciation of Italian Americans
in rhotic (white) Philadelphia may be a ''reverse ethnic effect'', a
reaction to
the stigmatized, frequently stereotyped rolled _r_ of central and southern
Italian dialects and Italian-accented English

However, I would not discount the importance of family and social ties to the
Italian community of _r_-vocalizing New York City. The _Don_-_Dawn_ merger in
the northeastern Pennsylvania coal country is also only indirectly related to
transfer. I suggest that, because the contrast of /o/ and /oh/ was not
phonetically salient and carried a low functional load, the
predominantly Polish
and other Slavic-speaking immigrants did not acquire it, and this merger was
then adopted by their children. Other ethnic patterns are not related to
substrate effects at all, e.g. the advance of ingliding /oh/ among speakers of
East European Jewish background in New York City; pace Labov, I take this to
reflect an association of particular phonetic variants with membership in an
ethnically defined subgroup of the local community of native U.S.
English speakers.

Miriam Meyerhoff (327-55) addresses the recent debate over the alleged
simplicity of creole grammars and their constituting a typological class of
languages, definable independently of their social history and evolution. Based
on her years of research on Bislama, she argues that seemingly ''simple''
morphosyntactic features may conceal a wide range of categorical distinctions,
which frequently correspond to those of local substrate languages and are best
grasped by considering different levels of linguistic structure together
(phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics). Thus the use of null vs. pronominal
objects is correlated with alienable vs. inalienable possession; null subject
pronouns are more common in the 3rd person and when the subject NP was
previously mentioned (i.e. contains given information); and the distribution of
_se_ and _olsem_ offers ''very limited support for an emergent complementiser
system'' based on evidentiality (350). In a fourth example from Tayo, the
French-lexifier creole of New Caledonia, a complicated form of substrate
transfer likewise underlies the three-way contrast in possessive marking.

I would note simply that both Bislama and Tayo have been spoken natively for at
least two generations now, and alongside numerous local languages, so that even
if one accepts a restricted version of the ''simplicity'' hypothesis
-- e.g., one
confined to surface morphosyntactic simplicity and derivational transparency --
the kinds of incipient grammaticalization and semantic-pragmatic
reported by Meyerhoff are fully expected outcomes of natural language change
and/or transfer in multilingual contact situations.

The book is beautifully produced and well edited, and most of the
relatively few
errors involve phrasing and are self-correcting. Diagram 1b on p. 55 is not
entirely clear: if I have understood Jourdan's discussion correctly, Mrs. 1 and
Mrs. 4 spoke two vernaculars as well as their later acquired Pijin; Mrs. 8 has
apparently learned Pijin as well, though this is not mentioned; and children
16-18 should be shaded ''1V+P''. On p. 65, the first sentence of the last
paragraph should read ''the shift to the dyad Pijin/English''. At the
bottom of p.
172, King's quote from her 2000 book should end ''to the whole set of Prince
Edward Island [French -- RIK] prepositions''. In David Sankoff's article, the
first summation in the formula on p. 182 should read ''a=3,...,9''
underneath; in
the formula for C(0) in section 2.4 (p. 186), the denominator should read
''(t2-t1)+1''. In Blondeau and Nagy's Table 11 (p. 297), ''Overall
rate of COMP''
should be gray-shaded for Quebec City English and Anglophone Montreal English,
which have similar percentages; perhaps different shades could have been used
for the English resp. French data sets. In light of Table 8, I am also not sure
why ''Subordinate clause subject'' is given as ''not sig.'' for AME.

The appearance of this volume is an important event in sociolinguistics and
variationist linguistics, and many of the studies in it will be of
interest to a
wider audience. Thus Meakins's article is a major contribution to the growing
literature over mixed languages as the products of peculiar identity-formation
processes (see e.g. the papers in Matras and Bakker 2003); and Mesthrie's
analysis of South Africa's tsotsitaals naturally raises the possibility of a
similar interpretation for such ''slanguages and ganguages''
elsewhere, especially
among young urban males. King's study of _chiac_ adds to the arguments from her
2000 monograph that what appears at first glance to be syntactic borrowing in
reality stems from speakers' reinterpretation of borrowed lexical
material, here
English discourse markers and verb + preposition combinations. Finally, Labov's
article forces scholars of American English dialectology, and of language
contact more generally, to rethink some of their assumptions about substrate
effects; and Meyerhoff's Bislama and Tayo case studies illustrate how seemingly
simple surface morphosyntax may mask considerable complexity on other levels of
creole grammar. The remaining studies, although containing a wealth of data and
insightful analyses of linguistic and social variation, are likely to appeal
primarily to those working on the languages concerned.

The papers collected here also demonstrate that quantitative variationist
methods and anthropologically grounded paradigms are not only
indispensable, but
mutually complementary approaches to the study of language and society. In
recent years, a number of younger sociolinguists have lamented the trend toward
growing polarization in the field, between statistical studies of linguistic
variation (including, but hardly limited to, sociophonetics) which pay little
attention to the larger historical and social contexts of the speech
concerned, and ethnographic studies of language use, in which linguistic
features themselves take a distinct back seat to the construction and
negotiation of individual and/or group identities. Every scholar will of course
have her/his own perspectives and research priorities, but the best and most
satisfying results in my opinion will continue to arise from the sort of
integrated approach that characterizes most of the studies in this
_Festschrift_, i.e. one which seeks to describe and explain linguistic
structure, variation, and change in all their real-life complexity _and_ relate
language use to the social and political lives of the users.

In all, _Social Lives in Language_ bears elegant witness to the robust state of
sociolinguistics today, 40 years after Gillian Sankoff entered what was then
uncharted intellectual territory. One wishes her and all of the contributors
many more productive years of health, collaboration, and exciting new

King, Ruth Elizabeth. 2000. _The Grammatical Basis of Lexical Borrowing: A
Prince Edward Island French Case Study_. (Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and
History of Linguistic Science. Series IV: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory,
Vol. 209.) Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Matras, Yaron and Peter Bakker, eds. 2003. _The Mixed Language Debate:
Theoretical and Empirical Advances_. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Sankoff, Gillian. 1980. _The Social Life of Language_. Philadelphia/London:
University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ronald I. Kim is currently Visiting Professor in the Institute of English
Philology, Wroclaw University, where he teaches English and general
His research interests include historical linguistics, primarily of the
Indo-European languages, as well as sociolinguistics, dialectology,
and language

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