The Reading Matrix
Vol. 3, No. 2, September 2003

Introducing Sociolinguistics (2000)
Mesthrie, Rajend; Swann, Joan; Deumert, Andrea; William L. Leap
John Benjamins Publishing Company: Philadelphia, USA
Pp. xxv-501
ISBN 1-55619-206-1
Reviewed by Alex Poole
Western Kentucky University

Most basic sociolinguistics readers cover a broad range of topics, present opposing viewpoints on key issues, and contain up-to-date research from leading scholars. Introducing Sociolinguistics by Rajend Mesthrie, Joan Swann, Andrea Deumert and William L. Leap, does all of this and more. It manages to go beyond the confines of what is traditionally seen in such texts by addressing issues in a more in-depth fashion. In addition, it covers topics that usually receive minimal attention, and cites research that takes place in infrequently studied European countries, the Caribbean , and Africa . Moreover, the authors illustrate the research methods used in several of the subdivisions of sociolinguistics.

Many of the key areas of sociolinguistics, such as linguistic variation, gender and language, and language planning and policy, are addressed in the text. However, the book goes further by devoting the first chapter to familiarizing students with basic sociolinguistic concepts such as standard vs. non-standard varieties of languages, language standardization, and bilingualism. This is beneficial because, unfortunately, even educated individuals often hold erroneous beliefs about the quality of specific speech varieties, the historical foundations of Standard English, and the cognitive aspects of bilingualism.

Another topic the authors address concerns language and power, an issue that is seldom discussed in sociolinguistics texts. Specifically, they demonstrate the symbolic relationship between language and power, the manner in which people use language to gain and maintain power, and the various ways in which groups and individuals manipulate speech and writing in order to resist oppressive political and social regimens.

Even more unique than their presentation of language and power is their chapter on sign language. Not only does it present readers with the structural elements of American Sign Language, but it also shows how users of ASL function as a linguistic community, engage in code switching, and exhibit variation. While most sociolinguistics readers touch upon sign language—usually in discussions of bilingualism—very few have devoted a separate chapter to the topic.

In addition to devoting separate chapters to sign language and language and power, the authors also divide some topics into two different chapters, thereby simultaneously increasing the quantity and quality of material to which readers are exposed. Language contact, for example, is typically covered in one chapter; here, it is contained in two, the first of which concerns maintenance, shift, death, and related concepts. The second chapter, in contrast, exclusively concerns pidgins, creoles, and world Englishes, with a special emphasis on Africa , the Caribbean , and India .

A further unique feature of this book is that the examples and studies featured in each chapter are diverse and express a global perspective on sociolinguistics. In the introductory chapter, for example, there is a discussion of Panini, the ancient Indian grammarian; in Chapter 10, which concerns language and power, there is an extensive discussion of Hitler's use of propaganda; and in the chapter pertaining to sign language, interesting examples of gay sign language are featured, as are instances of black/white variation in ASL. Moreover, studies carried out in African, Asian, and Caribbean countries are frequently highlighted, such as those that focus on the Eastern Hindi Diaspora in Fiji , Suriname , and South Africa . Likewise, Norway-- which exemplifies the original definition of diglossia, but is rarely mentioned—is given extensive consideration. Nevertheless, classic studies are still highlighted in the text. Deborah Tannon's studies on the differences between men and women's speech, Basil Bernstein's work on restricted and non-restricted codes, and William Labov's early research on Ebonics and the speech of New York City are just a few of the groundbreaking studies featured here. Notable is the detail in which the authors describe how data were collected and analyzed in such studies.

In spite of the benefits of the text, it still contains some problematic elements. First of all, the text assumes too much of a linguistics background from non-specialists, even though the authors say in the preface that they tried to avoid being overly technical. Particularly in sections concerning social and regional dialects, phonological signs and symbols are used that will most likely be unfamiliar to students without previous training. Even though a list of symbols is provided at the beginning of the book and occasional explanations and examples are contained within selected chapters, teachers would still have to give newcomers to the field extra instruction in phonology in order to make most of the classic studies understandable. In addition, the authors' inclusion of linguistic philosophy seems questionable, for it is vaguely related to most areas of sociolinguistics. While thinkers such as Bourdieu and Focault are engaging and relevant to discussions of language and power, it seems doubtful that any coverage of them beyond a basic introduction would be pertinent to those entering into certain applied language professions, such as language teaching.

In terms of its use in the classroom, general linguistics courses for undergraduate non-linguistics majors would do well not to incorporate this text, not only due to its inclusion of seemingly peripheral issues and frequent use of technical terms, but also because its sheer volume is too much for undergraduates to cover in a one-semester course. Given these problems, the text would still be valuable in a number of different venues. Undergraduate linguistics majors would benefit from it due to its comprehensive nature and ability to spark readers' interest in a variety of subspecialties of sociolinguistics. In addition, such students will most likely have had the background to enable them to successfully deal with its more technical aspects.

Likewise, students in MA-TESOL programs or related fields will also probably have had the necessary background to manage its mechanical features. Similarly, the book is beneficial for this population because it gets into many issues that will affect their future students. More specifically, it will give them linguistic and cultural sensitivity as regards the relationship between English and their students' languages, imparting in them an awareness of the identity, power, and educational issues that are associated with English and other languages. It will also help them understand the scientific bases for code switching, code mixing, and other normal phenomenon that are all too often misunderstood and judged in negative terms.

Finally, specialists in linguistics-related fields such as communication, psychology, and speech pathology who have some linguistics study can benefit from the text's linguistics perspective on many of the areas also studied in their respective fields.

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Alex Poole is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Kentucky University , USA . His interests include focus on form instruction, world Englishes, and learner awareness.