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.
How has the field of sociolinguistics—for our purposes, the study of the relationship between communicative and social processes—developed in the last half century? What questions is it asking now that were relatively ignored in the past? What intellectual and political currents have shaped it in past decades and, in turn, how has the field resonated in broader public arenas?
“Sociolinguistic Frontiers” aims to take up these questions. This series was inspired by a September 2018 Items essay by Monica Heller that reflected on the history, influence, and limits of the SSRC’s Committee on Sociolinguistics in the 1960s and 1970s, based in part on her research in the SSRC archives. The essay argued that the Committee, a product of its time and place during the Cold War and the growth of US global power, privileged some key topics, questions, and approaches to the relationship between language and culture while downplaying others. Notably, less attention was paid to questions of power and conflict than might have been the case for a discipline focused on social variation in communicative form and practice.
With Prof. Heller on board to help curate this new series with the Items editorial team, we are publishing a series of essays in “Sociolinguistic Frontiers” by a variety of scholars of different generations and areas of interest. In this series, they reflect on the trajectory of the field of sociolinguistics from the end of Committee’s work to today, drawing on new research approaches and questions not addressed by the Committee or not even conceived at the time, as well as ongoing debates within the field. These essays reflect on the present state and possible futures of sociolinguistics both in the United States and beyond.
The SSRC’s Committee on Sociolinguistics was committed to furthering attention to language, and linguistic difference, as an “unexploited kind of sociological data” in ethnographic and survey research. The committee convened a conference in 1968 to better understand the intersection of social and linguistic factors, summarized here by Allen D. Grimshaw. The group focused on four topics: the ethnography of asking questions; the meaning of words; the ways in which interviews themselves are “a part of the data” and “don’t know” responses are revealing answers to questions; and improving scholars’ training in framing questions and eliciting answers related to language and communication.
Sociolinguistic debates around the definitions and significance of “pidgin” and “creole” languages were increasing in the 1960s and the SSRC’s Committee on Sociolinguistics played a role in cultivating these discussions. This 1968 report by Dell Hymes summarizes issues raised at a conference convened by the Council at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, to better understand the historical development, the grammatical and lexical evolutions, and the social uses of pidgin and creole languages. Though he highlights how social science can better inform research on pidginization and creolization, Hymes identifies knowledge gaps, among them the nature of the relationship between these languages and national identity, and more broadly the lack of historical and social scientific knowledge of this topic.
Alexander Duchêne’s contribution to the “Sociolinguistics Frontiers” series traces the ways in which multilingualism has been understood and valued by scholars and beyond. Duchêne shows how the work of sociolinguistics dramatically shifted the image of multilingual speakers and societies as a problem for nation-states to something to be celebrated, even as an indicator and contributor to social justice for minority language speakers. He then goes on to argue that this validation and recognition of multiple languages can divert attention away from broader inequalities, especially socioeconomic ones, that multilingualism is unable to address.
Wesley Leonard’s contribution to the “Sociolinguistics Frontiers” series argues that sociolinguistic approaches to Native American languages are best conducted as part of a project of “language reclamation.” Leonard discusses how past framings of Indigenous languages as “endangered,” while in some ways well-intentioned, replicated the distance of language communities from scholarly research. An emphasis on reclamation—“efforts by Indigenous communities to claim the right to speak their heritage languages”—highlights the role of the community members in the production of knowledge on and the revival of Native American languages.
In her contribution to the “Sociolinguistic Frontiers” series, Adrienne Lo reflects on how scholars of language use have engaged with issues of race and racialization in the United States since the 1970s. She traces how scholars’ emphases have shifted between a focus on the “real” and authentic productions of language varieties by racialized groups and the ways political, economic and cultural forces shape how that language use is represented and (de)legitimized. Lo concludes with a discussion of the stakes of sociolinguistic study of race given the contestations around “race” as a concept, and argues that research in this space should seek to engage broader publics.
As sociolinguistics continued to develop in the 1970s, members of the Council’s Committee on Sociolinguistics (1963–1979) reflected on the direction and intellectual impact of this emergent discipline. In this 1972 article, Dell Hymes, cochairman of the committee, describes several orientations toward the field among its practitioners, and argues for what he regarded as the most ambitious: a “socially constituted linguistics.” By this, Hymes meant a sociolinguistics that challenges linguistics’ core theoretical starting points of linguistic structure and grammar with a focus on the social meaning and functions of language in context. In relation to our “Sociolinguistic Frontiers” series, Hymes presciently argues that ultimately the field must address how inequality and language intersect, going “beyond means of speech and types of speech community to a concern with persons and social structure.”
In this new contribution to “Sociolinguistic Frontiers,” John Baugh provides an analytical overview of how the field has addressed issues of power and inequality. Baugh addresses how both social hierarchies and the legal system affect the standing of different languages and their users. He then especially focuses on language use in relation to racial and gender dynamics, highlighting influential work that revealed and analyzed how language is used to make and deepen inequality. He concludes with a call for the promotion of “linguistic human rights” that would protect minority language speakers.
Jillian Cavanaugh’s contribution to “Sociolinguistic Frontiers” tells the story of the emergence of the concept of “language ideologies” that mediate “between the social practice of language and the socioeconomic and political structures within which it occurs.” The concept became an embedded component in analyzing the treatment of minority languages and dialects, and how power relations can be revealed through everyday language use. Today, rather than an overarching framework, language ideology has evolved into a critical point of departure for understanding the intersection between language and various forms of inequality that also require other intellectual tools to fully grasp.
José del Valle, in his contribution to our “Sociolinguistic Frontiers” series, looks at the intersection of the sociolinguistic study of Spanish in the US and the transformations of Spanish language departments in higher education. Del Valle traces the history of the institutionalization of Spanish teaching and study and its effects on linguistic research’s position within Spanish departments. Shifts in approaches to the use of language in social practice, and the growing demands on language units to act as service departments for language learners, has isolated scholars in those institutional homes from broader integration into sociolinguistic research.