The Reading Matrix
Vol. 2, No. 1, April 2002

Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics
Suzanne Romaine (2000). Second Edition.
New York: Oxford University Press
Pp.xi + 268
ISBN 0-19-873192-2
U.S. $14.95
Reviewed by Ronald Gray
Beijing Language and Culture University

In the preface to the new second edition of her book, Language in Society, Suzanne Romaine readily admits that the first edition had inspired some strong criticism. "The old adage about not being able to please all of the people all of the time, let alone some of the people some of the time, very much applies to authors and their audiences. What one reviewer loved about the book, another hated" (p. xi). Readers of this revisited edition will not find it less controversial. But before going into a critical analysis of it, I will present a summary of the book's contents.

The title of the book comes from Romaine's position that current trends in linguistics have usually tended to neglect the study of the social function of language.

Modern linguistics has generally taken for granted that grammars are unrelated to the social lives of their speakers. Thus, linguists have usually treated language as an abstract object which can be accounted for without reference to social concerns of any kind. Sociologists, for their part, have tended to treat society as if it could be constituted without language. I have called this book Language in Society, which is what sociolinguistics is all about. (p. viii)

The book is divided into seven chapters. Chapter one, "Language in Society/Society in Language," is an explanation of "why the notions of language and dialect are fundamentally social and not linguistic constructs"(p.1). In this chapter, Romaine discusses standard sociolinguistic topics like language vs. dialect, accents and dialects, registers and styles, and uses examples taken from Papua New Guinea, Europe, and English to illustrate important distinctions. She also writes about speech communities and communicative competence. Her broad conclusion is

that no particular language has a privileged view of the world as it 'really' is. The world is not simply the way it is, but what we make of it through language. The domains of experience which are important to cultures get grammaticalized into languages. Grammaticalized concepts are more fundamental than concepts associated with lexical items. Our understanding of these concepts contributes to our view of cognitive categories. These multiple points of view are not just simply products of speaking different languages with different categories, but are constantly available to all of us. There is then a sense in which all communication is cross-cultural. (p. 29)

Chapter two, "Language Choice," is concerned with the subject of language diversity. Specifically, she looks at the topics of multilingualism and monolingualism, bilingualism, diglossia, code-switching, and language shift and death and states, "Language choice is not arbitrary. Through the selection of one language over another or one variety of the same language over another speakers display what may be called 'acts of identity,' choosing the group with whom they wish to identify" (p. 35). The purpose of this chapter is to describe what motivates people to make these linguistic choices of identity.

The next chapter, "Sociolinguistic Patterns," takes on the subject of how differences in language are related to social class, age, and sex. In it, she examines the relationship between language and style, gender, and social networks. Most of the examples she produces for these concepts come from research that has been done in Western industrialized societies on patterns of urban speech. But in the final section of the chapter, Romaine writes about standardization and the process by which languages become standardized, relying upon studies that have been conducted (by her and others) on less industrialized nations like Papua New Guinea.

Chapter four, "Language and Gender," explores the contentious topic of the relationship between gender and language. Her concern is examine how "linguistic differences reflect social differences, and how male-dominated patterns of communication have excluded from equal access to society's institutions" (p. 99). She calls the chapter 'language and gender' rather than 'language and sex' to

draw attention to the fact that what concerns me here is the socio-cultural dimension of the division of humans into male and female persons (i.e. gender), rather than its biological determinants (i.e. sex). While the distinction between sex and gender is well established in usage, it presupposes that we can distinguish between innate and environmental differences, and that is far from the case at present. Again, part of the problem is that even in biology, society's views about the cultural position of women dictate that men should be regarded as genetically superior to men. (p. 104)

Romaine is especially interested in naming practices and how this activity impacts upon gender. "Who names, has power…. These are but a few of the linguistic ways in which women are constructed as Other" (p. 105). Because of this interest, the chapter abounds with numerous examples of how language influences the way individuals perceive women. Romaine also describes the process of "Learning to talk like a lady" (p. 122), gossip and shop talk, and "Language reform: a misguided attempt to change herstory?" (p. 128).

The fifth chapter, "Language Change in Social Perspective," looks at the phenomenon of linguistic change and its social sources. The purpose is to "show how the influence of gender will differ from culture to culture and it may interact with many other social characteristics of speakers such as social class, age, content, to varying extents in language change" (p. 133). Romaine also discusses linguistic change in real and apparent time, and the connection between language change and social ideology.

Chapter six is "Pidgin and Creole Languages." She describes how creoles and pidgins have generally been banned from use in schools, even though research has shown that children learn best in their own language. She also writes about the origin, structure, syntax, morphology, phonology, and lexicon of creoles and pidgins. In addition, there is a comprehensive map showing some of the world's most popular pidgins and creoles.

The next chapter is titled "Linguistic Problems as Societal Problems." In it, Romaine focuses on the kinds of language related problems that occur in schools. These include issues involving Standard English, testing, bilingual education, and immersion and submersion language programs.

The final chapter is a summary of the book. While she believes there is a justified need for the field of sociolinguistics, she also acknowledges that it "lacks a convincing theoretical model within which to situate and explain its findings…. It is equally clear to me that there is little point in trying to formulate a satisfying social theory of language by attempting to graft a sociolinguistic methodology onto a mainstream linguistics which seems determined to remain basically asocial with its fundamental distinction between knowledge of language (i.e. competence) and its use (i.e. performance)" (pp. 240, 247).

The virtue of Language in Society is that Romaine writes extremely clearly and concisely, she can simplify complex issues nicely and topics and explain them in easy to understand terms, and she obviously has a great knowledge of her subject. But as an introductory guide to sociolinguistics, the book is ultimately marred by the limited choice of topics that were covered, and what I believe is Romaine's excessive focus on the subject of language and gender.

Romaine's choice of topics to be covered in this introductory textbook is problematic because it is extremely limited. There is very little discussion of discourse, the phenomenon of language borrowing, loan words, and linguistic purism, virtually nothing on speech as social action (that is, rule-related behavior), and nothing on qualitative and quantitative methods in sociolinguistics, and the important topics of speech act and speech event theory, conversation analysis, and pragmatics. In short, while she generally adequately covers the field of macro-sociolinguistics, she is quite deficient in the area of micro-sociolinguistics.

One reason why micro-sociolinguistic issues were not discussed in depth is that Romaine spends a considerable part of the book (a total of almost two long chapters, along with comments in several other chapters) discussing the topic of language and gender. Obviously this is an important sociolinguistic topic, the problem I have is that this purports to be an introductory book in sociolinguistics. By devoting so much attention to the issue of language and gender, the value of the book as a beginner's overview of the field of sociolinguistics is greatly diminished, for ultimately Romaine neglects many of the basic subjects requisite for an introductory sociolinguistic text. (She has written a book specifically on language and gender - Communicating Gender (1999) and it would have been better if she had simply referred readers to this text in regards to some of the issues discussed in Language in Society, instead of devoting so much time to discussing them in this introductory work). In addition, she also has, on occasion, an annoying habit of interjecting personal anecdotes about how language has influenced the way she has been perceived as a woman. And some of the examples are unfortunately rather trivial and not terribly informative. Finally, there are no in-text citations in the book (although there are annotated bibliographies at the end of each chapter). I found this to be quite frustrating because I was constantly returning to the end of the chapters to find the sources her statements were based on and occasionally, the source for a particular remark was not even listed.

In conclusion, for a good, comprehensive, and balanced introduction to sociolinguistics, the reader is recommended to go elsewhere. There are simply much better standard works (for example, see William Downes' Language and Society, Bernard's Spolsky's compact Sociolinguistics, or Ralph Fasold's older, but still highly informative two-volume work, The Sociolinguistics of Society and The Sociolinguistics of Language).



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Ronald Gray teaches EFL at Beijing Language and Culture University in Beijing, China. He has also taught in South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia. He has lived and worked in Asia for over 12 years. His main area of interest is the topic of social factors and second language acquistion theory.