Monica Heller, curator of Items’ “Sociolinguistic Frontiers,” concludes the series with a reflection on the ways in which the field has both advanced and obscured understandings of how linguistic inequality is related to broader hierarchies of power. The great accomplishment of sociolinguistics—its liberal and scientific claims that all languages are equal in value—did little to engage how inequalities between different groups of speakers were reproduced. Heller argues that the scholarly techniques for measurement and commensuration that allowed the formal comparison of language has neglected to ask how language “continues to serve as a terrain for the making of social difference and social inequality.” She concludes with thoughts for how future sociolinguistics agendas might address this gap.
Starting in the early 1950s, the SSRC cultivated interdisciplinary research into the role of language in culture and thought through its Committees on Psycholinguistics and Sociolinguistics. Here, Monica Heller examines how the latter committee (1963–1979) helped establish sociolinguistics in the United States, investigating the tensions between language, culture, and inequality. In exploring how the committee shifted focus from the developing world to marginalized groups in the United States, Heller addresses how the research agendas of these scholarly structures are influenced by the political dynamics or ideologies of their time, in this case the Cold War and decolonization.