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Sociolinguistics, Power and Identity

Niloofar Haeri

American sociolinguists have been concerned with issues related to power and identity at least since the 1950s. According to Niloofar Haeri, a linguist in the Anthropology Department at Johns Hopkins, topics involving power and identity have long been the object of linguistic scrutiny. Among others, one may mention the influential work of Charles Ferguson on diglossia (1959), which touched crucially on the status of classical or standard languages co-existing in a variety of communities; and that of Uriel Weinreich on the linguistic and sociolinguistic consequences of languages in contact (1954). In the 1960s, Joshua Fishman, William Labov and Dell Hymes pioneered studies which focused on linguistic variation in relation to a multiplicity of social and cultural factors. Ethnicity, for example, which plays a central role these days in discussions of identity, was the focus of Labov's 1966 study of New York City English among Italian, Jewish, Irish and Black Americans, and also the topic of Gumperz's extensive work on cross-cultural (mis)communication. Fishman's research over a forty year career in the field has addressed ethnicity, language and education, Jewish languages, and nationalism. Bilingualism and the relations between standard and non-standard varieties and dialects, particularly in multi-ethnic societies, have been central topics in the field. In the mid-'60s the status of Black English fueled a highly publicized controversy between educational psychologists and linguists. The former saw a direct link between language and cognitive ability. Using notions such as cultural and linguistic deprivation, they claimed that the language of inner city Black children was proof of their inferior cognitive abilities. This issue was first raised because of the failure of Headstart programs to help such children in their academic achievements. Linguists successfully countered the putative relation between language and cognitive ability and in a number of publications argued that Black English is, in fact, a legitimate dialect of English with its own patterns and rules. Such a position was used in court cases against educational boards that did not take the particularities of the Black English Vernacular into account. Despite the significant number of studies on linguistic variation (read Difference in today's jargon) and gender, class, and ethnicity, Haeri believes that sociolinguists have rarely attempted to articulate their findings in terms of concerns and theories in related fields. At the same time, many working in related fields have tended to keep away from the

technical and quantitative aspects of some sociolinguistic work. Furthermore, in the U.S., as compared to say France, the division between "formal" linguists and those who take social context into account to varying degrees is rather sharp. Here, "formal linguists have been extremely successful...and they are very intimidating with their abstractions and theories. They consider other linguists soft -- not real linguists. Given the dominance of Chomskyan formalists in American linguistics, some sociolinguists respond to this tension by, on the one hand, showing their capabilities in their works, and on the other hand, by not delving too deeply into the social constructs they use to shed light on the interactions of language, culture, and social structure." Haeri believes that this division in linguistics echoes various other fields in the U.S. "I do not know anyone who would be, say, the counterpart of Julia Kristeva in linguistics here. Chomsky, who is the foremost proponent of formal linguistics, does spend half of his time on questions of power, politics, and so on. But the two sides of his intellectual engagement seem never to meet on the question of language." Sociolinguistics' lack of engagement with wider theoretical concerns in the social sciences has now reached a crucial juncture. According to Haeri, quite a few linguists acknowledge the present lack of direction in the field. In fact, a number of recent publications on language and gender specifically address this shortcoming and offer ways of moving further ahead with this topic. In general, Haeri is optimistic that the field is becoming more aware of its own shortcomings. Critically engaged analyses have recently emerged from both within and outside the field. Several linguists have worked on more integrative analyses which utilize sociolinguistic methods and techniques, but attend equally to theoretical issues raised in other fields, such as anthropology and sociology. Among these Haeri includes the works of Katherine Woolard, Penny Eckert, Bambi Schiffelin and Judith Irvine. From outside the field, she mentions the sociological critiques of Pierre Bourdieu and Glyn Williams. She notes, however, that one is from France, and the other from Wales.


Sociolinguistics, Power and Identity

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Sociolinguistics, Power and Identity