Thursday, September 07, 2006

Socio or Ling?

Am having an interesting discussion with a friend about whether Sociolinguistics is really "Linguistics" or not.

I think it's an interesting question. My personal bias is that it's not - not completely. I prefer to think of it as a branch of Sociology that happens to need to know a lot about Linguistics. Linguistics proper, however, doesn't really need to know all that much about Sociology. It's sort of like someone in History and Philosophy of Science that specializes in Physics. To be good at his job, this person will naturally need to know a lot about past and current work in Physics - but that doesn't make him a real Physicist. True, he may know as much or more about Physics than some given "Physicists," but insofar as he doesn't make actual contributions to Physics, I don't think he qualifies as a "Physicist" himself.

Something like that is true of Sociolinguistics. Sociolinguists quantify things about the way people use language. So, for example, they notice that women tend to use tag questions more often than men and do studies to determine to what extent this is true. And that's definitely a useful thing to study - from a Sociology point of view. But it's not clear that it has any bearing on capital-L LANGUAGE. Linguistics proper would be interested in things like how tag questions are formed, what the presence of a certain syntactic pattern for tag questions might say about other syntactic structures present in the language, what syntactic knowledge people have to have to form them, etc. etc. Noting that women use them more often than men has no bearing on this. Oh, it's possible, I suppose, that language will turn out to be entirely innate, and that there is something about having a second X-chromosome floating around that is genetically correlated with the part of UG that forms tag questions or some such - but this doesn't seem very likely. In any event, the going explanation is that it's a social phenomenon - women, either by social training or "nature" (whatever that means), tend to be more "cooperative" about their conversation than men (who are supposedly conversationally competitive). This is an interesting finding, to be sure, but it is not a linguistic finding. It doesn't change the way we look at language in any way - just the way we look at society. Linguistic choices of this kind reflect social norms, not deep truths about Language.

That said, I think it's something of an 80-20 situation: 80% "socio" and 20% "ling." Sociolinguistics has interesting clarificational things to say about language. So, for example, I think a fruitful and "linguistic" thing for Sociolinguists to do is attempting to quantify language distance. What is the difference between a "language" and a "dialect?" Are we right to call Norwegian a "language," or is it really just a "dialect" of Swedish that happens to have an army? Is Macedonian just Bulgarian by another name? Is there any basis for the Moldovan government's claim that their language is not Romanian? Etc. Probably there are also some things related to language acquisition that fall under Sociolinguistics that are more "Ling" than "Socio."

But for the most part, I guess I think the Sociolinguists belong in the Sociology Department. Just because langauge is heavily involved in something doesn't automatically mean that it is "Linguistics." Linguistics is a bit more specific than just the "study of any and all things related to language." I don't, for example, consider the study of Law to be "Linguistics" in any sense, though clearly artful use of language both to specify and obscure meaning is a heavy component of the that field. For me, "Linguistics" should mostly study components of langauge itself.

This is worth writing about because it is the source of the Syntax/Semantics bias in Linguistics as well, I think. People like me, though we accept that Phonetics is also Linguistics, would insist that Phonetics is more concerned with the interface than the subject proper. Language is competence. Studies of articulatory motor functions and sound processing are valuable (especially in practical industry terms, for things like speech processing on those annoying telephone menus that have you say "one" rather than press the button), no doubt about it, but mostly as a way to explain how useable information gets to the language module and back out again. I do not seriously believe that Phonetics has any bearing on meaning or grammar (though there are certainly those that do) - though there are bound to be certain mathematical artefacts of the way articulators are arranged that sometimes cause a speaker to prefer one possible form over another, etc.

I remember being at a party once and saying something to this effect, and I got the indignant response from a "sound person" that "you can't have language without sound." Which is bollocks - you can and do. It's true that sound is the default for language - but the connection between sound and language is not as fundamental as, say, the connection between Chemistry and Nutrition.


At 4:40 AM, Blogger TLTB said...

While I agree with most of you sentiments, it isn't a foregone conclusion that the social use of language doesn't require specialized knowledge. Sociolinguistics could address competence issues, too, though few in the field do it (some of the work on code-switching seems to fit the bill, though).

Don't forget, work on syntax and phonology was all pretty much descriptive (like socio is now) before the 60s. Maybe Socio just needs someone like Chomsky to come along and revolutionize the field, changing its direction.


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