2 - Linguistic Society of America

Language Culture and Society: 1924-2014
Roger W Shuy, LSA January 2014
As LSA was founded in 1924, the interrelationships of language, culture and society
were already evident. Saussure had declared language to be a social fact, foreshadowing
future evolving perspectives about language use, change, and variability. There were also
others who viewed language as an autonomous, self-contained structure, independent of any
social context. In the past 90 years, contrasting views of language as social fact versus
language independent of social fact have endured, although not totally in the same ways
and still not always in harmony.
The inheritance: Standing on the shoulders of giants
Before Saussure, manifestations of the study of language in social context were very
different from those of the modern era. But the early developments of the comparative
method eventually led to the notion of Indo-European in the 19th Century (Grimm,
Humbolt, Leibniz, Jones), at which point the study of language, culture and society not only
became apparent but also produced those who disagreed. The Neogrammarians rejected
language variation and espoused the slogan, “sound laws suffer no exceptions.” In response,
dialectologists of that era came up with their own opposing slogan: “every word has its own
A half-century before LSA was founded William Dwight Whitney had proposed a
close relationship of language, culture and society and wrote:
Speech is not a personal possession but a social: it belongs, not to the individual, but
to the member of society. No item of existing language is the work of an individual;
for what we may severally choose to say is not language until it is accepted and
employed by our fellows. The whole development of speech, though initiated by the
acts of individuals, is wrought out by the community (1867, 404).
Whitney’s concept was echoed nine years after LSA began, when Bloomfield’s
monumental Language echoed Whitney’s concept and devoted an entire chapter to speech
communities and presaged later studies of social dialect, gender differences, and age
grading by linguists such as Meillet, Martinet, Weinreich, and eventually lead up to
creative refinements of Labov and others. By the end of WWII, while descriptive linguists
were eliciting information directly from speakers and producing phonological and
grammatical descriptions of languages as unitary, homogeneous wholes, it was becoming
clear that some research traditions were evolving in the area of language, culture, and
(1) the dialectology tradition, in which native speakers were interviewed in a variety
of communities with the purpose of discovering the regional diffusion of selected linguistic
(2) the language contact tradition, which analyzed and compared what happens to
languages when they bump up against each other; and
(3) the anthropological linguistics tradition, which included ethnographic analyses of
the relationship of cultural variability and language use.
These three traditions were later joined by
(4) the sociology tradition, even though to that point sociologists had dealt only
marginally with language as a critical social factor in group interaction and stratification,
and by
(5) the psychological tradition that had begun to deal with language and cognition.
These five research traditions focused on face-to-face interaction using the linguistic
analysis of tapes and transcripts. Some were differentiated as “macro-sociolinguistics,” the
concern with larger social units, and others as “micro-sociolinguistics,” the concern with
smaller language units.
1. The dialectology tradition
Despite its emphasis on only regional dialect variation, the early twentieth century
dialectologists in Europe had kept the study of language variation alive before the broader
and more sophisticated relationships of language and society emerged. Whitney’searlier
ideas about the how language and society were intimately connected were taken seriously
by linguistic geographers in Germany, France and other European countries. Questionnaires
were developed and field workers were sent out (some on bicycles) to describe the speech
of large numbers of people who represented their geographical areas. The goal the
American Dialect Society (founded in 1899) was to produce a dialect dictionary of
American speech, but up to the time of the LSA was created, dialectologists had made little
or no progress in producing such a dictionary. Many dialectologists, following the
descriptive linguistic tradition of the time, had already turned their attention away from
creating a dialect dictionary to carrying out field research for a mammoth regional dialect
atlas of the US and Canada. Although the unfinished dialect dictionary had produced some
26,000 dialect terms, it provided little or no information about the regional distribution in
which these terms existed. To address this missing information, in 1931 Hans Kurath was
appointed the director of The Linguistic Atlas of The United States and Canada, leading a
very ambitious effort to associate many of these already collected terms by geographical
region and employed an unsophisticated measure of their social status. It is noteworthy,
however, that social indicators were collected without concern for the social variability
related to age, gender, ethnicity, or race of the informants and with an unsophisticated
assessments of the informants’ social status.
Among the original leaders closely associated with the Atlas project were Kurath,
McDavid, Allen, Cassidy and Marckwardt, who carried out some of the fieldwork
themselves and enrolled their graduate students to do the same. For example, as one of
McDavid’s students, my assignment was to carry out five or six hour Atlas interviews in
every county of Illinois except in highly-urbanized Cook County, which McDavid assigned
to my fellow student, Lee Pederson. Following Atlas protocol, in each county I used the
lengthy Atlas interview to tape-recorded only the oldest, mostly male, mostly rural
inhabitants who had not lived anywhere else in their lives. This provided some useful
historical data, for it gave an indication of how English was spoken in those areas during the
past hundred years, but it showed little or nothing about current variability related to age,
gender, ethnicity, and race. And the only indicator of social status was the number of years
the informants attended school.
By the 1960s a great deal of the Atlas fieldwork had been done but relatively little
was published except for the work on the dialects of New England and the Upper Midwest.
The Atlas project suffered from the slow pace at which the data were gathered, so by the
time the first publications came out, the Atlas methodology had already come under serious
review. Today, regional variability is still studied, but with vastly different methods and
linguistic analysis.
2. The language contact tradition
In the 1940s Einer Haugen was producing exciting evidence about what happens
when languages come in contact with each other, especially about bilingualism and
loanwords. Linguistic interest in multilingualism increased in the 1960s and 70s,
spearheaded by the work of Fishman, who examined the role of language in distinguishing
between nationalism (government and education) and nationism (language, culture, history,
religion). He concluded that multilingualism tends to work against nationalism unless one
of the languages is chosen as the national or official language. He also discovered that
different languages were assigned different tasks in multilingual societies. This association
of language form with language function was developed and elaborated by Ferguson, who
named this phenomenon diglossia, a label that combined function, prestige, literary
heritage, acquisition, standardization, and stability, with the conventional linguistic tools of
grammar, lexicon, and phonology. Up to that time, bilingualism had been considered the
territory of psychology, but diglossia went beyond this to what was beginning to be known
as sociolinguistics.
3. The anthropological linguistics tradition
Boas, Sapir, Malinowski, and Firth provided a tradition of anthropological linguistics
presaging the studies of language, culture and society by later scholars such as Bright,
Hymes, and Gumperz. We owe to Gumperz the unit of analysis called “speech
communities,” much of the early research on “code switching,” and eventually the
methodology of “interactional sociolinguistics,” all of which stress that social relationships
underpin the language forms of discourse. Reacting to Chomsky’s ideas about language
competence, Hymes created the concept of “communicative competence,” specifying what
speakers needed in order to operate as a full member of a language community. This
included knowledge of all the appropriate ways to use the language, as identified in his now
famous SPEAKING model, which accounted for the speech situation, setting and scene (S),
the participants (P), the speaker (S), the speech event’s outcome, purpose and goals (E), the
act sequence of message form and content (A), the key, meaning the manner and spirit of
the communication, instrumentality and channel (K), the norms of interaction and
interpretation(N), and the genre, which included categories like lectures, poems,
advertisement, etc(G). These features were central to what came to be called the
ethnography of communication.
4. The sociological tradition
Sociologists discover the orderly phenomena of groups that emerge out of aggregate
behavior. Fishman was an early leader in what he called the sociology of language. He
studied sociological divisions such as small group interaction, sociocultureal factors, and
stratification to address issues of bilingualism, language maintenance, and language
planning. At about the same time the ethnomethodology studies of Sacks, Shegloff,
Garfinkel, Heritage, and others took as their goal the systematic analysis of conversational
structure and focused on the social organization associated with smaller units of spoken
language interaction. The ethnomethodologists discovered diverse particulars of everyday
speech, such as turn taking behavior, adjacency pair organization, repair activities, opening
and closing activities, and evidence of preferred and dispreferred language.
5. The psychological tradition
By the 1950s various psychologists had come to understand George Miller’s belief that
verbal behavior permeates much of human psychology and that a strong link to linguistics
was necessary. The development of cognitive psychology was a good match for generative
linguistics and thus cross-disciplinary work grew, particularly with the work of Bellugi,
Berko-Gleason, Bever, Ervin-Tripp, and others who also associated their work with
bilingualism and language style. The 1960 ground breaking paper by Brown and Gillman,
“The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity,” aptly illustrated the connection of psychology to
linguistics, culture and society. And psychological work on language attitudes by Fred
Williams and others began to attract linguists, as illustrated by Labov’s early studies and
Preston’s more recent work on perceptual dialects.
The defining moments of 1964
In the history of disciplines, sometimes there is a single pivotal point, one series of
events that brings unity and clarity to diverse strands of thought. In my opinion, 1964 was
the critical year for the current synthesis of language, culture and society. Early in that year
the Social Science Research Council held a special meeting that brought linguists and social
scientists together, Bright did the same at a meeting at UCLA, and a similar event took
place at the LSA summer institute at Indiana U that same year. Among the participants at
some or all of these meetings were Hymes, Gumperz, Bright, Ferguson, Haugen, Goffman,
McDavid, Marckwardt, Francis, Fishman, and the rising star, Bill Labov, who at that point
was finishing his PhD at Columbia. I was fortunate enough to have a post doc grant to that
LSA institute to try to help figure out how to computerize Linguistic Atlas records, but
hearing, meeting, and associating with this group of giants was a game changer. It was then
that the term, “sociolinguistics,” began to be used to describe the discussions and
publications growing out of these meetings, even though Labov and some others said that
there was no real need for this term because linguistics cannot be isolated from culture and
society. Instead, he believed, linguistics should embrace and include all three.
After a few years of continuing development of this synthesis, the 1972 Georgetown
Round Table brought together the then major recognized leaders to try to outline the
principles of what Hymes called “socially constituted linguistics.” Topics of the symposium
ranged from optional rules in grammar and polylectal grammars, to conversational analysis,
the sociology of language, language planning, and survey methodology. Fillmore stressed
that although armchair linguistics also had much to tell us, sentences were not the maximal
units of linguistic analysis, indicating that the functions of language noted by Hymes must
surely be included.
Methodological development in language variability
Almost single-handedly, Labov altered the direction of methods in dialect study and
at the same time the influences of anthropology, sociology and psychology have had
profound effects on the methodology of what has come to be called sociolinguistics.
Sociologists like Fishman and others had criticized the simplistic nature of the social
structures used by dialectologists to describe language variation. Labov provided useful
answers to this criticism, as evidenced first by his earlier New York City study and
throughout his career ever since. He brought sophistication to sampling techniques, social
categorization, and statistical measurements that have endured in his more recent research
on phonological change in progress.
All of this took place during the height of the generative grammar revolution and
descriptivists were not deaf to this. Some, including traditional dialectologists, fought a
rear-guard battle, rejecting the new theoretical positions. Others tried to keep the best of the
old ways while at the same time accommodating them with what they considered the best of
the new ideas. Various attempts to accommodate generative grammar with language
variability in social contexts were devised during the 1960s and 1970s, such as DeCamp’s
introduction of implicational scales, Stewart’s concepts of “acrolect” and “basilect,” and
Bailey’s “wave theory.”
Improvements in sampling techniques and statistical analyses were first introduce by
Labov in his stratified sample of New York City speakers, a technique later used by Shuy
and Wolfram in their study of Detroit speech and by Trudgill in his Norwich research.
Labov created the concept of variable rules. Cedegren and Sankoff developed statistical
models to fit rule probabilities into the competence and frequency rules of performance.
Despite the growing sophistication of methodology, some critics complained that
sociolectal grammars are merely abstractions derived from a group of idiolects and a
potential weakness of the new efforts to describe language variability came from what
Labov himself identified as “the observer’s paradox,” referring to the difficulty of observing
behavior without affecting it. The alternative to this, of course, would be to surreptitiously
record speakers representing various social categories. This idea was quickly rejected by
academic researchers on ethical grounds.
Although the ethics of academic research prohibited our gathering data
surreptitiously, law enforcement agencies had begun to carry out undercover sting
operations in which there were no such ethical restrictions. Thanks to technological
developments in recording equipment in the late 1970s and continuing to this day, various
police departments and government agencies like the FBI began to record suspects in many
sting operations. This has produced a treasure trove of naturalistic language that usually
avoids the observer’s paradox. Unfortunately, the language research field has not yet found
ways to make use of it. Although the makers of these tapes did not control for the usual
social, regional, or ethnic categories, it is possible to discover them after the natural
language recordings had been made. The storage area of my home contains thousands of
hours of such recordings made by law enforcement, waiting for researchers to make some
kind of use of them if and when some way can be discovered to do so. Unfortunately, to
this point I have been unable to find an academic home for them where scholars can make
use of them.
Today, the willingness of the formerly separated disciplines of linguistics,
anthropology, sociology, and psychology to share their interests, information, methods, and
goals has led to the current closer relationship of these fields in what can be called the area
of language, culture, and society.
From the dialectology tradition we preserved the long held focus on individual and
group variability of language, and thanks to Labov and others, many changes have taken
place in terms of sampling, statistical measures, and other matters. From the anthropology
tradition we can now identify the macro features of language variation in terms of the
speech events in which the language occurs, for as Gumperz pointed out, speech events are
“tacitly understood rules of preference, unspoken conventions as to what counts as valid
and what information may or may not be introduced (1990, 9). Hymes’s units of channel,
code, topic, and setting provide additional measures of the social and cultural aspects of
language. From sociology’s tradition of micro analysis tradition we can now identify the
regularities of conversational structure, including mechanisms of repair, opening and
closing routines, adjacency pairs, and turn taking behaviors. From the language contact and
psychological traditions we can now better understand the process of bilingualism, pidgins
and creoles, sign language, stylistic variability, and the power structures of language use.
But it is not just the advances of these interdisciplinary traditions that distinguish
language, culture and society today from the linguistics of 1924. Linguistics itself continues
to expand its tools. Recent years have seen the development of a rich tradition of discourse
analysis, which discovers structure and variability in language units larger than a sentence.
The analysis of discourse topic and response is only one example of this. Likewise, recent
developments of pragmatic meaning and speech acts provide more tools by which the study
of language, culture and society is important and relevant in today’s LSA.
Over the past 90 years the study of language culture and society has moved
far beyond the simple geographical distribution of words and
pronunciations, as studied by the early dialectologists, to ever increasingly
macro linguistic units introduced by ethnographic research and the micro
analytic studies of narrowly defined texts enabled by ethnomethodological
research. And, as Labov’s contributions continue to illustrate, we also use
the core linguistic tools to discover language change in progress, perhaps
one of the most important contributions to both linguistics and society. More
recent advances in the analysis of texts larger than a sentence have created
the vibrant field of discourse analysis, which combines knowledge of
linguistics, ethnography, and ethnomethodology with developments in
pragmatics and speech acts that had their origins in still another discipline,
Perhaps as important as anything else, these developments are having
a strong impact outside of linguistics proper in areas such as education,
where advances in knowledge have impacted language teaching,
bilingualism, sign language, and pedagogy. And now that we have tools and
methods to deal with larger texts, such as medical, counseling, and
employment interviews, diplomatic discourse, and others, the relationship of
language to culture and society has taken on new vibrancy and wider use.
But in no area is this more evident than in the uses of linguistics in various
areas of law, including analysis of spoken and written evidence in criminal
and civil law cases, as well as in the study of statutes and the language used
in the courtroom.
In short, the continuing advances in language, culture, and society
have been robust during the ninety years of LSA’s existence.