Labov: A Guide for the Perplexed

November 8, 2012

Author: Matthew J. Gordon

Edition: First

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Continuum

Pages: 264

Price: £45.00 and £14.99

ISBN: 9781441192509 and 58529

"Have you ever been in a situation where you thought there was a serious danger of your being killed?" If you are being asked this question, you are probably a participant in a sociolinguistic interview that aims to elicit speech typical of informal, spontaneous interactions (which is inevitably triggered by the emotionally weighty task of retelling a near-death experience). Employed as the primary data-collection technique in variationist sociolinguistics, the sociolinguistic interview was devised by William Labov, widely regarded as the founder and principal exponent of modern sociolinguistics. Labov thus makes an apt subject for a volume in Continuum's series Guides for the Perplexed, which seeks to provide concise, undergraduate-level introductions to writers and subjects often perceived to be dauntingly complex. Matthew Gordon's book fulfils the remit admirably, offering an instructive and accessible companion to Labov's work and the variationist approach to language description and change.

In Labov's conception, the central question in sociolinguistics is to understand "why anyone says anything", and his life's work has been to show that a "socially realistic linguistics" must recognise language as a fundamentally social phenomenon that is characterised by "orderly heterogeneity". Language is heterogeneous because linguistic variation exists in all language communities and in the speech of all individual speakers. This heterogeneity is revealed as orderly by quantitative study, showing clear patterns that reflect the influence of social factors such as class and gender.

A core strength of Gordon's book is its contextualisation of the framework established by Labov. Various strands of the "academic ancestry" of variationist sociolinguistics are discussed, as well as its positioning vis-a-vis Chomsky's theory of language and current approaches to variation study. As concerns the latter, Gordon may be criticised for giving short shrift to current developments in formal linguistics that seek to obtain a broad empirical base for theory construction and/or to integrate a probabilistic perspective into models of speakers' linguistic knowledge. He similarly devotes relatively little space to post-positivist critiques of the Labovian model and exposition of contemporary "third-wave" sociolinguistics, which understands variation not as a reflection of social factors but as a resource for the construction of social meaning. Gordon's suggestion that Labov's own justification for using predefined social categories in variationist analysis will prove "impenetrable" to many readers is a rare criticism in a book whose tone can border on the reverential.

However, minor quibbles aside, this guide is a clear success: in keeping a narrow focus on Labov's own research (from his renowned Martha's Vineyard and New York City studies to his engagement with African American Vernacular English and the mapping of current North American dialects), Gordon manages to tell the "life story" of sociolinguistics in a compact and coherent manner.

Who is it for? Any student of linguistics eager to move beyond the standard undergraduate textbook fare of Labov's renowned New York City department-store survey in pursuit of a comprehensive, historically grounded understanding of the place of sociolinguistics in the field of language study.

Presentation: Commendably clear and straightforward.

Would you recommend it? The book would be useful in an upper-level undergraduate general linguistics course or beginning a sociolinguistics course.


A History of German

Author: Joseph Salmons

Edition: First

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 416

Price: £70.00 and £19.99

ISBN: 9780199697939 and 7946

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