Strange bedfellows or natural friends? Sociolinguistics and historical linguistics

Here’s a quite interesting and quite recent “thought piece” by Brian Joseph, one which I think all readers of this blog should give a serious read and consideration. And also hopefully one readers will choose to comment on…

Why you ask? Because it raises  a number of thought provoking questions and offers an intriguing series of thoughts on a number of issues that tend to be of concern to sociolinguists who focus on language change which differ from the views we so often take as “a given” in the year 2010 in our field.

As the author himself states: “In what follows, I aim to see what points of similarity and difference there are between these two commonly paired concerns [sociolinguistics and historical linguistics]– note the very terms “socio-historical linguistics” / “historical sociolinguistics”, after all – with an ultimate goal of determining if the coupling of the two is, as the title suggests, the result of joint membership in a natural class or is instead a forced marriage.

In the course of so doing, I re-examine and to some extent debunk, or at least attempt to debunk, a number of concepts that both historical linguistics and sociolinguistics hold dear. In many instances, I pose questions about notions and practices without necessarily offering answers. In the spirit of Socrates’ adage about the unexamined life, my hope is that asking the right questions is helpful even if clear answers are not offered.

Some of what follows may seem obvious and maybe even trivial to the intended audience of sociolinguists, historical linguists, and social historians, but my intent is in part to call attention here to some shortcuts that practicing socio-historical linguists routinely use. In this way, we can be sure that we are aware of what we are doing when we employ them. I see two important reasons for doing this. First, it is sometimes the case that practitioners can be deluded or deceived in the worst case or just even distracted by their own terminology and their own practices, so that raising questions can be a way of heightening awareness. Second, there is always a risk that others outside our subfield might adopt (and then alter or misconstrue) our practices without fully understanding why we do what we do, and being explicit about the practices can thus be a safeguard against that.”

Having hopefully interested you in wanting to read more, I present a link to the entirety of Joseph’s piece, below…

Joseph, Brian D. To appear (2011). Historical linguistics and sociolinguistics: Strange bedfellows or natural friends? In Langer, Nils, Steffan Davies, and Wim Vandenbussche (Eds.), Language and history, linguistics and historiography. Proceedings from the 3rd Summer School in Historical Sociolinguistics, as Organized by the Historical Sociolinguistics Network (HiSoN) with the support of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, University of Adger and the University of Bristol.

http://www.ling.osu.edu/~ddurian/AWAC/Joseph_2011.pdf

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About daviddurian
I am a sociolinguist with a Ph D in Linguistics from The Ohio State University. Currently, I work as the Lecturer at Rice University, where I teach undergraduate courses in both sociolinguistics and general linguistics. I also work on research projects investing language variation and change in US English a variety of cities. Specifically, at the moment, this includes Houston, Chicago, and Columbus, OH.

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