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.
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.
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.
A 1964 summer seminar hosted by the SSRC’s Committee on Sociolinguistics highlighted tensions between sociology and linguistics when scholars gathered to address how their disciplines can deepen research on language’s impact on society. For example, sociologists questioned linguistics’ lack of definition for language or dialect while linguists raised concerns about sociology’s reliance on large quantified data. However, by the end of the seminar, the scholars agreed the encounter had raised important questions and opened new paths of investigation through both sociological and linguistic approaches, including the study of language and social stratification, multilingualism, and language standardization.
In this contribution to “Sociolinguistic Frontiers,” Christopher Hutton discusses how states have historically taken an interest in, and funded, linguistics research. For a range of political purposes—including colonial rule and military strategy—knowing about and learning the language of “others” has been part of the projection and use of power. The specific purposes and forms of state support for research on language, argues Hutton, does vary depending on whether states have authoritarian or liberal democratic regimes.
As part of the SSRC’s Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People's Republic of China, a delegation of US linguistics scholars traveled to various Chinese cities in late 1974 to learn about China’s language policy and linguistic research. This report by Charles Ferguson, a member of the delegation and a major figure in the Council’s earlier work on sociolinguistics, summarizes the group’s observations, which center on China’s approach to linguistics and language research. The delegation expressed particular interest in China’s ongoing strategy to standardize its language, linguistic research on language teaching and minority languages, and the growth of English language education.
Deborah Cameron traces how issues related to gender (and sexuality), largely ignored in the early development of sociolinguistics, have emerged as a cornerstone of the field. Spurred on by the feminist movement and new generations of engaged scholars addressing how language use both reveals and embeds gender inequalities, scholarship on such questions is now “mainstream” across a range of disciplines. Cameron argues that the primary focus in recent decades on social identity and performance, while path-breaking in many ways, has had the unintended consequence of drawing attention away from core issues of power and patriarchy in terms of gender relations.