Introducing Sociolinguistics
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Introducing Sociolinguistics

Miriam Meyerhoff

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eBook - ePub

Introducing Sociolinguistics

Miriam Meyerhoff

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This third edition of Miriam Meyerhoff's highly successful textbook provides a solid, up-to-date appreciation of the interdisciplinary nature of the field and covers foundation issues, recent advances and current debates. It presents familiar or classic data in new ways, and supplements the familiar with fresh examples from a wide range of languages and social settings. It clearly explains the patterns and systems that underlie language variation in use, as well as the ways in which alternations between different language varieties index personal style, social power and national identity.

New features of the third edition:

  • Every chapter has been revised and updated with current research in the field, including material on sexuality, polylanguaging and lifespan change;

  • Additional Connections with theory and Facts: No, really? are included throughout;

  • Data from sign languages, historical linguistics and Asia-Pacific sociolinguistics have been revised and expanded;

  • A brand new companion website featuring more examples and exercises can be found at

Chapters include exercises that enable readers to engage critically with the text, break-out boxes making connections between sociolinguistics and linguistic or social theory, and brief, lively add-ons guaranteed to make the book a memorable and enjoyable read. With a full glossary of terms and suggestions for further reading, this text gives students all the tools they need for an excellent command of sociolinguistics. It can also be used in conjunction with The Routledge Sociolinguistics Reader, Doing Sociolinguistics and the online resources shared by all three books.

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Chapter 1


What is sociolinguistics?

Sociolinguistics is a little bit of absolutely everything you already know about language. ‘Why do I need a textbook on it then?’ I can hear you ask. Well, that’s because knowing something and being able to talk about what you know are slightly different things.
Sociolinguistics is a very broad field, and it can be used to describe many different ways of studying language. A lot of linguists might describe themselves as sociolinguists, but the people who call themselves sociolinguists sometimes have rather different interests from each other and they may use very different methods for collecting and analysing data. This can be confusing if you are coming new to the field. Is sociolinguistics about how individual speakers use language? Is it about how people use language differently in different towns or regions? Is it about how a nation decides what languages will be used in classrooms or given status in a court?
The answer is: yes, yes and yes. Sociolinguists conduct research on any of those topics. Sociolinguistics pays attention to differences in how individuals say things, and the differences in how people from different places say things, and they try to relate what they have noticed to Big Picture problems like the fact that people think that speakers who say things one way are smarter or more attractive or more trustworthy than speakers who say the same thing in a different way. Pretty much everything I read about linguistics, I find interesting. But I am less sure that everything I read about linguistics matters. Some of it definitely matters – when you are talking about how people pigeonhole speakers of a language as talking ‘baby talk’ (a common stereotype about creole languages, Chapter 11), or how they treat speakers with a particular accent as being uneducated (even when they know nothing else about them, Chapter 4), those kinds of things really matter to real people.
For example, if a speaker describes a funny or amusing situation as ‘kicksin’, I know they are from, or have spent a good deal of time in, the English-speaking Caribbean. I am drawing on sociolinguistic (social and linguistic) knowledge to draw this inference. The linguistic knowledge is that this is an actual word; the social knowledge is that it originates in a certain place. I probably also know a few other things too once they say that things were ‘kicksin’. I interpret the conversation as being pretty informal (it’s a word you use with close friends in casual conversation) and I figure that they are addressing their speech to someone who they think also knows what ‘kicksin’ means (apparently, it doesn’t need a translation into Standard English, like I gave you). In Chapters 3 and 9 of this book, we talk more about this kind of information.


The people who are talking together are each other’s interlocutors.
Or as another example, let’s take Jennifer. Jennifer grew up in a village in the north-east of Scotland, but spent many years teaching English in Greece. Jennifer can draw on a number of different styles or ways of speaking, depending on who she is talking to. If her interlocutor is a member of her family, she still uses a variety of Scots which is virtually incomprehensible to other native speakers of English. She says ‘fit’ instead of ‘what’; ‘na’ instead of ‘don’t’; ‘doon’ instead of ‘down’; ‘be’er’ instead of ‘better’, and so forth. But in Greece she quickly learnt that she needed to adopt a less regionally marked way of speaking if her students were going to understand her, and when she later began attending professional conferences with an international audience, she had the same experience. Everyone can modify the way they speak depending on who they are with or what the situation is. When they do this, they are drawing on their sociolinguistic knowledge. And every time they change the way they speak, depending on their interlocutor or situation, they provide more sociolinguistic information that builds up the sociolinguistic knowledge in the community.

Connection with theory

I spend a lot of time when I am not at home travelling for conferences and it seems to me that there is a super-articulate, highly enunciated style of speaking emerging among (younger) academics. They hit their ‘t’s with force, and pronounce with a full vowel syllables that in conversation get reduced or deleted. Presumably, it’s partly about trying to be clear when your audience speaks different native languages or dialects. But as we’ll see later (e.g., in Chapters 6, 8 and 10), we are very good at bootstrapping information. ‘Clear’ or ‘articulate’ speech can quickly get (re-)interpreted in many different ways – educated, feminine, posh, gay, serious, etc. If you’re thinking this is a pretty weird and disparate bunch of meanings to be linked together, you’re right, so hold that thought.

How do sociolinguists study sociolinguistics?

Sociolinguists use a range of methods to analyse patterns of language in use and attitudes towards language in use. Some sociolinguistic patterns can only be observed systematically through close examination of lots of recorded speech and a good understanding about the speaker’s background or place in a community.
On the other hand, sociolinguists who are interested in investigating national language policies might never need to use any audio or video recordings at all. A lot of relevant information on language planning can be gleaned from library and archive materials, or from more free-form discussions with members of the communities being studied. For example, official newspaper reports, letters to the editor and those blog posts that your uncle in California likes to send you provide the researcher with a range of perspectives just in one medium.
A major challenge that sociolinguists face is that a lot of the time speakers are completely unaware of the ways in which language is used differently in different contexts. Or if they are aware, they can only talk about it in very general terms. For example, when dialectologists want to find out where one traditional local dialect begins and ends, they can often ask people directly. It’s not unheard of for people to be able to identify (correctly) the village – or even the house! – where people stop using one pronunciation of the word for ‘child’ and start using another pronunciation. But when sociolinguists try to get people to discuss the different ways they use language, the answers they get are typically more vague: ‘Of course I change the way I speak. How? I don’t know, lots of ways… ’ So sociolinguists have devised a number of different methods for getting at these semi-conscious or subconscious norms. We will examine a number of such methods in this book.

Making broader connections

As well as differing in the kinds of methods they use, different kinds of sociolinguists may have different goals – what they want their research to shed light on, or how they hope it might change the field. This book also tries to make these kinds of issues clear to readers. In order to do this, it stops at various points to comment explicitly on relevant theoretical issues raised by the data or methods being discussed at that point. I feel this is very important for a number of reasons. The first is that students often have the opportunity to take only one sociolinguistics course in an undergraduate linguistics degree. This means it is particularly helpful if they can see quickly – as the subject unfolds – where and how sociolinguists might have something to contribute to or learn from descriptive or theoretical linguists.
The second reason is that many people take sociolinguistics as an ‘outside’ subject while they are pursuing a degree in another field, e.g., languages, social anthropology, sociology, media studies or communication. For these students, it is even more imperative that an introduction to sociolinguistics provides them with both the basic findings and linguistic insights of the field, and also an immediate sense of how and where sociolinguistic research intersects with and can inform research in their major subject.
A third reason is more pragmatic. In a sense, each of the boxes in the text that offer a ‘Connection with Theory’ represents one attempt to answer the question I started this chapter out with: ‘What is sociolinguistics?’

Sociolinguistic questions

Even though sociolinguistics wears many caps, one thing linking all of the practitioners in the field is that they are all interested in how people use language and what they use it for. In other words, sociolinguists are not only interested in documenting the different forms of language – what it looks like and how it is structured – but also want to answer questions like:
  • Who uses those different forms or language varieties?
  • Who do they use them with?
  • Are they aware of their choice?
  • Why do some forms or languages ‘win out’ over others? (And is it always the same ones?)
  • Is there any relationship between the forms in flux in a community of speakers?
  • What kind of social information do we ascribe to different forms in a language or different language varieties?
  • How much can we change or control the language we use?
This is what we mean when we say that sociolinguists are interested in both ‘social’ questions and ‘linguistic’ questions. Inevitably, some sociolinguistics research has more to say about social issues, and some sociolinguistics research has more to say about linguistic matters, but what makes someone’s work distinctively sociolinguistic will be the fact that, regardless of its emphasis, it has something to say about both linguistic structure and social structure.

Structure of this book

This book introduces some of the different ways in which sociolinguists research language in use. It looks at the ways in which people use language and how these are related to larger issues of social structure. You will find that it is structured rather differently from other introductions to sociolinguistics, and sometimes discusses ‘classic’ sociolinguistic studies from a novel perspective. However, its structure reflects what I have found works best after over 20 years of devising sociolinguistics courses for undergraduate and (post-)graduate classes. It also directly reflects the extremely helpful feedback and advice about structuring a one-semester course in sociolinguistics that I have received from students and my incredibly generous colleagues.
One of its more radical departures from most sociolinguistics texts is that it starts by providing the reader with a very firm grounding in research showing how speakers use language to present themselves to others and how they identify or differentiate themselves from others. This includes variation in the form of an individual’s choice of language as well as their use of different styles, or repertoires, in a language. In my experience, starting with the individual, and then working through other sociolinguistic topics, has a number of teaching advantages. First, it makes the subject matter directly accessible and relevant to students. As I have noted, people are generally aware that they have the potential to use language differently in different social contexts, but they lack a means of articulating this sociolinguistic knowledge. The first half of this book provides you with the means to articulate what you already know through personal experience.
Second, I feel that by gradually expanding the focus from the way individuals use language to the way groups of individuals use language, it’s possible to see more clearly what the connections are between sociolinguistics and contact between dialects and languages. Most introductory sociolinguistics texts either finesse this link or add it in as a chapter that is only minimally connected to the larger picture of language in use. The goal of this book is to provide readers with a sense of the seamless connections between individual speakers and varieties of languages. When readers subsequently choose to specialise or focus their attention on one part of the continuum (as we all must), they will nevertheless do so with a clear sense of how their work fits into a broader social and/or linguistic picture.
In addition to the connections with theory, readers will find two other forms of ‘digression’ in this text. Exercises are provided in order to consolidate through practice the information that has just been discussed in the text. These are not intended as test questions; I have interleaved them with the text because they are designed to take the reader a little further (sometimes anticipating material which follows later). The text also includes what journalists call ‘brights’. These are short, sometimes quirky, comments which (I hope) remind us that, when all is said and done, we study sociolinguistics because it is fun.
Finally, this edition of Introducing Sociolinguistics offers direct connections with primary literature in The Routledge Sociolinguistics Reader (RSR, Meyerhoff and Schleef 2010). RSR is a collection of thirty-two excerpted articles (some classic, and some more recent ones) covering basic issues and concepts in sociolinguistics that complement the topics covered in this text. Where a reading in RSR is complementary or relevant to a discussion in this book, it is indicated with an icon and chapter number in the margin (see left). The RSR readings offer students a chance to engage directly with primary research similar to the research being discussed in this introductory framework. However, since the readings in RSR have been (for the most part) extensively edited with introductory readers in mind, they should be less daunting than an original journal article or chapter in a specialist book might be. (I say some more about connections between RSR and this book at the end of this chapter.)

The chapters

Chapter 2 starts with a historical perspective and discusses how both the methodological and theoretical roots of sociolinguistics lie in traditional regional dialect studies. It discusses how researchers were able to show that there are social dialects, just as there are regional dialects, and how the methods associated with traditional regional dialectology have been adapted to sociolinguists’ interests. The kinds of differences between the ways different speakers use language can be used to define not only regional but also social dialects.
These methods continue to be very influential in the study of language in society, so they provide an important backdrop to interpreting the research that is discussed in subsequent chapters. This is especially true for the kinds of research identified as variationist sociolinguistics. However, I believe it is just as true for any study of the relationship between society and language use, and that is why I devote a good deal of space to establishing some of these principles and theoretical tools early in the book. Even qualitative studies, and even studies of language and politics, are improved if researchers understand that their work is concerned with (i) establishing social patterns and (ii) understanding the systematicity of social beliefs underlying apparently unconstrained variation.
Chapter 3 then looks at how we all alter the way we speak depending on where we are, who we are talking to and what our attitude is towards the people we are talking with. In other words, this chapter focuses on the speech of individual speakers. This kind of variability in language use is highly salient, which means that...

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