Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What variationist sociolinguistics is, and whether it has anything to do with writing

According to Gordon’s (2013) book on Labov, there are three tenets of the “Labovian paradigm,” aka “a variationist approach” to language:

1. Variation is inherent to linguistic structure.
2. A socially realistic linguistics offers valuable insights to the study of language.
3. Quantitative methods can reveal patterns where casual observation sees only chaos.

This is useful to me for a couple of reasons. First of all, when I started the project I am working on (both the dissertation project and the larger ‘project’ of conceptualizing deviation from SWE in writing), I had absorbed a little sociolinguistic theory by osmosis and wanted to call what I was doing “a variationist approach” to L2 writing. While I am very interested in variation, it isn't appropriate to call what I'm doing “variationist” because a) I am not a linguist, so strictly speaking I am not studying linguistic structure, even though I might be interested in contributing methodological tools for people whose interest is in studying features of ‘new’ varieties of English and b) I am not using quantitative methods to look for patterns in usage based on social variables.

As I have read Coulmas and Lillis, I have been wondering where variation fits into their work. I wonder the same about Milroy and Milroy. “Variation” to most sociolinguists has to do with differences in pronunciation across social contexts, and also sometimes words, grammar, etc.

I'm increasingly convinced that Horner et al’s ‘translingual approach’ to writing, which collapses all variation/deviation from SWE into the category of ‘language difference,’ is extremely fruitful for studying readers’ reactions. Making everything fair game for acceptability is a really good way to go, since ‘acceptability’ is actually in large part what underwrites social and institutional concepts of good writing, standard English, and even to some extent the very notion of “a language.”

Yet I do think Labov’s theory, or variationist sociolinguistics,  has something to offer a program of research that is (as mine is) primarily interested in writing. Gordon says that for Labov, “the fundamental question driving sociolinguistics” is “understanding why anyone says anything.” I appreciate how open-ended this leaves things in terms of methodology and what to focus on, even if Labov ultimately went a very specific direction. Coulmas, too, calls sociolinguistics “the study of language choice”.

Gordon points out that the “third wave” of sociolinguistic variationist research focuses more on “what language does” and “its social and cultural functioning” as well as “how social meaning is constructed from linguistic resources.” The focus of this ‘wave’ tends to be, according to Gordon, on what was called “style” by early sociolinguists -- that is, “intra-speaker variation.”

I need to back up a little here. If we're looking still at how sociolinguistic theory/approaches can influence the study of writing, the  introduction of style looks scary at first, because it sounds like something that is already included in ‘register,’ or ‘genre' -- pretty well-covered territory in traditional studies of writing. But remember, ‘style’ here is referring to individual choices that individual language users make.

Even though ultimately my own study is more in the realm of attitude (or really, ‘ideology’), I think we finally arrive at a very robust and worthwhile place here. The sociolinguistics of writing, whatever else it comprises, is going to be a place where we look carefully at the choices writers make, and their reasons for making those choices (whether they be related to traditional sociolinguistic variables like class, race, gender, etc, or not), in terms of social and cultural factors and meanings. It will be about "understanding why anyone writes anything." And of course, for my purposes, the ‘uptake’ of lexicogrammatical features of texts by readers (i.e. teachers, editors, etc) is a prime site for examining these sociocultural factors and meanings.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Writing is Language

Language is a natural faculty, writing is an artefact. That is the reason why children acquire language, but not writing, without guidance. The difficult art of writing requires skills that must be taught, memorized, and laboriously practised. The place to do this is the school. The school is the institution that most obviously depends on writing and serves its dissemination. No writing, no school; no school, no writing. These equations are basically valid. (Writing & Society, Florian Coulmas)
No no no.

No. Mostly.

I get that linguistics and sociolinguistics had valid reasons for wanting to approach language as speech. Coulmas explains how Sausseure & Bloomfield successfully banished writing from the study of language in the field of linguistics, and addresses the paradox between the alleged "tyranny" of writing in how language is conceived in the popular imagination, and what I would call the opposite "tyranny of speech" in (socio)linguistics: the idea that only speech is authentic language, and that writing is just the recording of language. It is impossible for me to agree with this, and Coulmas seems to be wanting to move in that direction too, in his first chapter, but then the above passage occurs in a chapter on writing and institutions.

I will just say this now, and probably many times later: Writing is language. It just is. It isn't (just) putting little marks on paper to represent things we say or would say. It is a way of languaging, just like speech is. Language use -- all language use -- is cultural. Our use of writing and speech for language is always already embedded in sociocultural context. That is just how we humans do. There is no reason for us to demand that writing is so fundamentally different from speech that one is language and the other is not, or that speech is more authentic than writing, or that because speech is more "natural" than writing it is more representative of "real" language than writing is.

We absolutely have to start with writing if we are going to get anywhere in the sociolinguistics of writing. This is why I find it easier to go along with Lillis (whose book I finally finished last week) than Coulmas: Lillis is primarily a writing specialist arguing for greater engagement with sociolinguistics; Coulmas is (more or less) primarily a (socio)linguist arguing for more engagement with writing.

I think it would be very hard for a person of my background, training, and generation not to take writing as a starting point in this discussion. I don't carry the disciplinary baggage of linguistics, for a start, but I also come from a time and place where communication in writing is just a simple, obvious, everyday fact of communication. People of my generation (and social class), and younger, constantly write. We write all the time. We write to each other to make plans for the times that we are going to speak to each other. We switch between writing and speaking all the time, and in some domains we do most of our communication in writing.

So here is some talking back to the passage above.

1. Of course writing and speaking are different in many ways. But I'm not convinced that the 'learning vs. acquisition' argument is all that helpful. My son is 1 1/2 years old and I would argue that he is laboriously learning to use speech. We know that people who grow up without anyone to talk to -- that is, anyone to learn from -- do not develop language. You cannot possibly develop language without observing/hearing how other people do it. We can argue that people have a "language instinct" and not a "writing instinct," but that doesn't really change the fact that in a conventional understanding of human society, almost any symbolic behavior that people do has to be learned from other people.

2. "No writing, no school; no school, no writing" strikes me as untrue for many, many people. Certainly people learn how to read and write (or do it better, or a certain way) in school. But certainly not everyone. I could read before I went to school, and most of the reading and even a lot of the writing I did when I was a child and teenager was done outside the auspices of school -- and this is much, much more common now than it was 20-25 years ago. I am sure there are scores of young people who write much more on the internet than they ever do in school. 
Where I really want to see the relationship between writing and sociolinguistics expand, though, is the area of variation. I need to read some more sociolinguistics stuff before I can really make this argument, but the problem is that it's too easy for sociolinguists to say "well, writing is highly standardized, just because, so let's just focus on variation in speech, which isn't very standardized." There are a lot of problems with this, especially when you think about language varieties across cultural and geographical differences. Which, of course, is what world Englishes is all about.


More on this soon.

Friday, November 15, 2013

"After all, what is condemned actually exists" - Ge Chuangui

Another excerpt from Ge, this time from 21st Century. Emphases mine.

24 June 1982 Dear Comrade Deng, 
Though I can produce no evidence, I feel that the "Yes" as a reply to your "It's not bad" is correct. "Not bad" is almost a fixed phrase = "quite good" or "fairly good" and is different from "not clever", "not happy", "not a boy" etc, all of which are semantically opposed to "clever", "happy", "boy".  
"... So what did it matter if she was married or not?" Is now very common, if still condemned by some people. After all, what is condemned actually exists. 
Incidentally, "so what did it matter if or not she was married" would sound worse, though it is not impossible in informal style. Certainly it is more condemned than" if ... or not ". You might say I seem to be non-committal. But usage is something that one often has to be non-committal about. 

With best wishes, Yours sincerely, Ge Chuangui 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Chinese Books wish list (books hard to get outside of China) Updated 2013

1. OUYANG HUHUA, Remaking of Face and Community of Practice: An Ethnography 
of Local and Expatriate Teachers’ Reform Stories in Today’s China. Beijing: Beijing 
University Press, 2004. ISBN 7–3010–7729–7

2. Any books by Ge Chuangui except for his dictionary.
(I already have The Writing of English)

(see here for some info

3. Zhangxian Pan (2005). Linguistic and Cultural Identities in Chinese
Varieties of English. Beijing: Peking University Press. 280 pp. 
ISBN 7-301-10261-5. 

4.  Contrastive Discourse in Chinese and English 

5. Review of Applied Linguistics in China Volume 1 only中国应用语言学评论(Vol.1 Vol.1)


I am also interested in these, but they are a low priority:

 Zhang Haidi - Beautiful English
张海迪 - 美林的英语

"A word deserves attention because it is common" - Ge Chuangui

A wonderful short essay from Ge Chuangui, whose work I would love to make more well known someday. I do not know where it was originally published and found it on a Chinese internet forum (here). Empahses mine.

Once a teacher of English asked me to correct some of his pupils’ papers. Commenting on my work he said he was sorry he had not thought of telling me to use one or two uncommon words in each paper. “My pupils wouldn’t like your way of correcting,” he said. “I always see that in each paper I use one or two words that the pupil will have to look up in his dictionary for the meaning. This is the only way to show that I have a good knowledge of English.” 
On another occasion an editor of a grammar asked me to write a few simple sentences as illustrative examples. I wrote “I am a boy”, “He has a book”, and some other easy and short sentences. He complained that those sentences did not look good enough though they were perfect simple sentences. Not good enough simply because there were no uncommon words in them. 
Neither of these two men knew—I say “knew” instead of “know” because the teacher is dead and because I do not know whether the editor has yet come round to my view of the choice of words—that perfect English does not consist in the uncommon words. One cannot master English till one realizes this. It is a pity that there are many persons who realize it only after years of groping—if they realize it then.  
Strange as it may appear, the mastery of common words is much more difficult than committing uncommon words to memory. And the trouble is that one is apt to neglect common words—perhaps not because they are difficult to master but because they are common. 
“A word deserves attention because it is common” I hope you will always say to yourself.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I Have A Relationship ( with my Data)

Just to say this: Probably a lot of the people who I interviewed, now a full two years ago, have totally forgotten me and that they even participated in this project. But I listen to these interviews that we did all the time, so I feel like these people are, like, my friends, even though we only had an hourlong conversation two years ago.

The experience is probably something like when I came back to visit the first Chinese university I ever worked at. I was all excited to see my former colleagues (even though we barely if ever communicated when I first worked there), but a lot of them only had a vague sense of who I was or that I had even ever worked with them.

Sunday, November 03, 2013


Today was a HUGE turning point in data analysis, mostly based on PivotTables and sketches I made on a napkin about a month ago.

It helps that I worked on it for 10 hours today.

"give a problem the attention it deserves."

Saturday, November 02, 2013

My research/productivity/work arsenal

Gmail Offline
Pomodoro app (well, sometimes)