12 February 2008

TRUDGILL, Peter - Sociolinguistics

Penguin 1983

Re-read December 2007

The aim of this book, as its title suggests, is to place language in its social context. While Chomsky is undoubtedly correct in arguing that humans have an in-built ‘Language Acquisition Device’, which is hard wired to structure in any language (thus displacing B. F. Skinner’s behaviouralism), it is nonetheless true that that language is tied to social context in several ways.

Trudgill has written a clear and very readable book on his subject, which retains one’s interest in the same way as a novel. The book does not shun technical vocabulary, but nonetheless is written for the layman.

The type of language we speak is tied to the social groups of which we are members; be it our social class, our region, our ethnic group or our sex. Though language may change according to these categories, and different language use may be awarded a higher or lower status, it does not mean that any language is less intricate or less able to express reality and ideas than any other. This point is especially relevant for rejecting the view prominent in the US that Black American English is merely a corrupted and less sophisticated form of Standard English.

While language and language use reflect the social environment, it does not mean than any particular language leads to any particular behaviour pattern. In other words, Romanians, for instance, don’t behave like Spaniards because they both speak a Latin language. The view that there is any connection other than socialisation between an ethnic group and a language is also shown to be false.

While literary languages are distinct, the boundaries between two colloquial languages may not be. For instance in places on the border between the Netherlands and Germany the language spoken either side of the border may resemble each other more than either do to literary Dutch or German. Any number of situations may exist with bi- or multilingualism in countries and with different literary languages functioning as state languages.

Trudgill also considers pidgins, a language created when a lingua franca (e.g. English, French or Portuguese), used by slaves or primitive people, has moved so far from the literary language that it is no longer comprehensible to native speakers. Pidgins become creoles when they acquire native speakers.

This book is beautifully and interestingly written, and Trudgill, with no axe to grind, gives a interesting introduction to his subject.

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