Sociolinguistics: The study of speakers’ choices.

Sociolinguistics: The study of speakers’ choices. By Florian Coulmas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. 263. ISBN 0521543932. $28.50.

Reviewed by Rotimi Badejo, University of Maiduguri

How can the study of language in society be viewed from the perspective of choice? This is Florian Coulmas’s primary objective in Sociolinguistics: The study of speakers’ choices, where he develops the theme that what, where, and how we speak are all ultimately dependent on the choices we make. The book consists of thirteen chapters: an introductory chapter followed by twelve others in two evenly distributed parts. Ch. 1, ‘Introduction: Notions of language’, isolates sociolinguistics from all other language sciences and considers all of the choices we make as either micro or macro. Opening up the micro choices, Ch. 2, ‘Standard and dialect: Social stratification as a factor of linguistic choice’, shows how language varies along a social dimension. Such concepts as dialect variation, social stratification, and accommodation are presented as factors influencing our choices.

Ch. 3, ‘Gendered speech: Sex as a factor of linguistic choice’, takes the argument further to the sphere of gender. Is gendered speech a sign of sex-difference or one of domination? C presents both ideologies and takes an eclectic position, positing that network and culture may eventually lead to language reform. In Ch. 4, ‘Communicating across generations: Age as a factor of linguistic choice’, C deals with the variable linguistic choices of coexisting generations of speakers, showing how beliefs and attitudes about age divisions and notions of age-specific suitability determine speakers’ choices.

Ch. 5, ‘Choice and change’, shows how languages may change over time, driven by the needs of standardization, promoted more often by women than by men. In Ch. 6, ‘Politeness: Cultural dimensions of linguistic choice’, C differentiates between common-sense and theory-bound definitions of politeness as a factor shaping interpersonal relationships, but advocates the interplay of both in conducting research into how politeness is encoded in a language, the strategies employed, and the demands of culture that come into play in shaping politeness.

Ch. 7, ‘Code-switching: Linguistic choices across language boundaries’, kicks off the ‘macro-choices’ part of the book by examining the why, the who, the how, and the when of code-switching. C highlights the critical role of choice in code-switching in view of the fact that the speaker chooses how much and in what proportion he or she wants to use the different linguistic codes at his or her disposal. And Ch. 8, ‘Diglossia and bilingualism: Functional restrictions on language choice’, continues the discussion by bringing out language-contact situations in which switching may be restricted: with diglossia, writing may promote the high variety of a language at the expense of the low and at the same time engineer standardization in order to demonstrate its linguistic ideology, while (societal) bilingualism exercises controls through (i) status and function of language, (ii) domains of language use, (iii) context of use, (vi) language accommodation, and (v) networks of individuals as well as their cooperation (which may produce pidgins and creoles).

In Ch. 9, ‘Language spread, shift and maintenance: How groups choose their language’, C considers language spread as involving situations in which a language spills over beyond its primary speech community. The opposing notions of language shift and maintenance are discussed via the concepts of language loyalty, ethnolinguistic vitality, and demographic factors, as well as perceived utility. Ch. 10, ‘Language and identity—Individual, social, national’, brings out how language is used in constructing individual, social, and national identities of people according to ‘a multilayered dynamic process’.

In Ch. 11, ‘Language planning: Communication demands, public choice, utility’, C sets language planning apart from the other subfields of sociolinguistics because of its prescriptive nature and shows its low success rate in complex multilingual settings. Ch. 12, ‘Select letters: A major divide’, presents a writing system as the outcome of choices in terms of language variety, writing system, and spelling conventions, which users usually cling to. In Ch. 13, ‘The language of choice’, C presents Global English as the premier choice of those who use it.

C’s central theme, choice, which is greatly enriched by citations from literary works and propelled by his and others’ findings (such as those of Neville Alexander, David Crystal, and Lachman Khubchandani), ensures a coherent presentation of the basic preoccupations of this fascinating branch of linguistic enquiry. The work, apart from its appeal to both specialists and nonspecialists (there are questions for discussion, notes, and further reading sections at the end of most chapters), therefore plays a tripartite role of extensively covering topics, raising key issues, and indicating future trends in the complex relationship between language and society.