Wednesday, March 27, 2013

No sociolinguistics of writing?

I'm amazed that it is only literally just now that the first major consideration of writing through the lens of sociolinguistics is being done -- Theresa Lillis' book The Sociolinguistics of Writing having just been published this month. The written/spoken divide is wider than I thought, I guess!

Let me try to trace this.

Old-school structural linguistics is all about language as a system, a mental abstraction in your head. Not actually that interested in 'usage' per se.  Interested in the 'ideal speaker/hearer' (after Chomsky) -- the abstracted native speaker whose brain has in it the standard native language he/she acquired from birth.

Standard, idealized language, of course, is something that people rarely produce. (Hence the distinction between competence and performance in theoretical linguistics.) But it is something we can codify -- NB, write down -- and it's here that a weird paradox emerges, which Per Linell calls "the written bias in linguistics." Even though writing is a technology, a cultural innovation that allows us to represent language (that is, speech) in an abstract way, there is somehow a deep connection assumed between standard language, written language, and (crucially) that idealized NS speaker/hearer language deep in our brains. Linell's book points out that "language" is essentially conceptualized as a "structured set of forms, used to represent things in the world" in linguistics, and that this has led to an equation of written language with language, period.

Sociolinguistics, on the other hand, is not interested in 'pure language,' and though this might muddy the waters a bit, many social approaches that could be vaguely subsumed under sociolinguistics are not. Sociolinguistics is the natural result of years of thinking toward a conceptualization of language as a social practice rather than (or in addition to, to be more charitable) a set of forms.

 Sociolinguistics concerns itself with language usage -- data from real people using language, usually in the form of speech. So I'm wondering if it's because of the huge gulf in focus between language as a social practice people and language as forms people that sociolinguists don't ever seem to have considered written texts worth examining when it comes to to the central concern(s) of sociolinguisitics:  language variation and language change.

Is it really only in 2013 that this is seen as a reasonable thing to study, or is this something that disciplinary boundaries hath wrought? In other words, is it that texts are seen as the property of rhetoricians, philologists, literary theory people, or even structural linguists (stylistics?)? Is it that applied linguistics has come up with its own ways of analyzing written texts that doesn't really care about why certain groups of people use language differently in writing than others, or why writing practices change?

Is this a brand new field that is wide open, or has it just been taken for granted that the work is already being done by different people under different names?

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Paul Brians on Common Errors in English

The following is a section from Paul Brians' retirement address. Brians is best known for his website "Common Errors in English Usage."Emphasis is mine.

I want to conclude by making a few remarks about the work that I’m best known for outside the university, my Web site Common Errors in English and the various publications derived from it. A standard objection to this sort of thing is that correctness in English usage is a social construction, and that the proper role of the professionals should be confined to tracking changing usage and celebrating diversity. Yet English professors are not the gatekeepers of usage, and their permission to stray from traditional usage goes unheard by the general public. Instead, people want to know how they can make themselves clear, impress their readers, communicate effectively.

It is precisely because language usage is an artificial social construction that one needs a lot of information to navigate the dangerous waters of modern English to avoid embarrassment and disdain. We can tell bosses that they should ignore the tendency of their job applicants to write “for all intensive purposes” and “one in the same.” They are not listening. The pronunciation by eastern newscasters of our neighbor state’s name as “Oregawn” alienates listeners. The tendency to call a slash a “backslash” confuses computer users. Mistakes are essentially social, but that does not make them unreal: we need to know the social reality which our words encounter when others read or hear them. Some English teachers are happy to critique the obfuscatory jargon and and cliches of bureaucrats but not to address the verbal gaffes of the downtrodden: but who needs more help? Who is more endangered by linguistic patterns that arouse contempt?

Alot (ha!) of this is very well put. I think Brians overstates it a little, though. The first part I've bolded may be a sort of objection, but it's not one that, if pressed, most professional applied linguists or others will make. I'm in a department with many well-known critical and socioculturally oriented scholars, and I frequently get comments on my papers which could be construed as "nit-picky" and as pointing out the very sorts of things that Brians lists on his site.

I'm inclined to push back a little and to say that some of the things he views as errors are very unlikely to be stigmatized (for example, in passing, he suggests that "firstly" isn't OK), and some things are very difficult to me to imagine anyone ever saying ("soup du jour of the day," "volumptuous"), but what I'd like to see is some empirical research about whether these are indeed common. Somebody should be able to do some pretty efficient corpus studies, no? That would be an interesting MA project.

And what I'd really like to know who these people are, the ones making these errors. I'm an overeducated, hyperliterate English teacher, so it's hard for me to imagine a world in which lots of people think "fowl swoop" is a thing.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Recent publications (by me) (with links!)

Heng Hartse, J. & Shi, L. (2012). Investigating acceptability of Chinese English in academic writing. Contemporary Foreign Languages 384(12), 110-122. Download here.

Heng Hartse, J. (2013). Foreign teachers, Chinese students, and 'English for Different Purposes.' English Teaching in China 2, 52-55. View or download the whole issue here.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Language attitude vs Language ideology

Sociolinguistic research has long used concepts such as stereotypes or attitudes to characterize sociocultural beliefs about languages and their speakers. Yet these notions emphasize individual psychology at the expense of the sociocultural level at which belief systems contribute to the structuring logics of power. 

(Bucholz & Hall, "Language and Identity")

...language ideologies are defined as explicit metalinguistic discourse or talk about language. From a traditional sociolinguistic view, language ideologies, for instance under the label of attitudes and beliefs, have been treated as representation fo internal mental processes and phenomena...attitudes and beliefs are subjective, stable experiences located in the individual. However, this notion is rather limited. Instead, the focus is is now turning to the variable nature of beliefs and attitudes and their discursive construction as well as their real-life contexts.... statements containing beliefs or attitudes are often produced among others, in particular recurrent interactional contexts to resist a certain view or a possible counter-argument. 
Gal (2006)...defines the field as a form of discourse analysis exploring the cultural, metapragmatic assumptions of how language is connected to its speakers and to the social world.

(Laihonen, "language ideologies in interviews: a conversation analysis approach" 2008)

...the observation of language attitudes in discourse - and more specifically language attitudes in interaction -- can provide the researcher (with things) that quantitative, statistics-based methods cannot.

(Liebscher and Dailey-O'Cain "language attitudes in interaction" 2009)


'Language ideology' is primarily a term that comes out of the tradition of linguistic anthropology, while 'language attitudes' is from sociolinguistics. There is very little overlap between the two in terms of keeping to their separate academic silos. They are also likely to use each other's terms interchangeably. You can see that the third quoted article here is basically arguing what the first two are, but is more solidly locating itself in sociolinguistics by sticking with the term 'attitude'. (The article also mentions that this discourse approach can be used in conjunction with matched-guise technique, which is a quantitative sociolinguistics method.)

It also seems as if 'ideology' has a more explicit connection to larger social discourses (hence the emphasis on various kinds of DA for studying this stuff), which 'attitude' seems to be pretty limited to individual expressions -- but this might not be true for everyone using these terms.

What is clear is that social constructionist theory is making inroads with people who study 'beliefs' about language (whether they call those attitudes or ideologies), as are the methodological tools of discourse analysis.