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.
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 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.
The SSRC’s Committee on Sociolinguistics (1963–1979) was formed to explore how the nascent interdisciplinary field of sociolinguistics could deepen scholarly understanding of the intersection of language with social, cultural, and political questions. In this 1963 piece, John Useem, a committee member, explains how “developing the sociological study of language” would advance social science. He emphasizes the potential contribution to social knowledge through research on how language is used across cultural contexts and social divides of class, geography, race, and ethnicity. As Deborah Cameron highlights in her essay for our “Sociolinguistic Frontiers” series, gender was largely ignored in the early development of the field.
To launch our new series on sociolinguistics, David Karlander examines what happens when concepts developed by scholars of language circulate and become embedded in policies and law. In exploring how the distinction between a “language” and a “dialect” became encoded in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML), Karlander examines the consequences when applied to the status and state support of minority languages in Sweden. What counts as a language, he demonstrates, is not simply an “academic” matter. When sociolinguistics enters the public arena, it has the potential to affect the political and social standing of real communities.