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Sociolinguistics: A New Approach to Language

Author(s): Joseph Keller


Source: Improving College and University Teaching, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Winter, 1979), pp. 15-18
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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change in his vital role. This pressing need to implement


and cooperative change plus the profitable
knowledgeable
results of the in-service program brought into focus the
a two-credit-hour

of

idea

campus

on

workshop

of

The

1973.

an attempt

represents

workshop

to further extend the competency-based


approach to the
initial and continuing preparation of the cooperating

Role

"The

Teacher," which was conducted

of the Cooperating

summer

the

teacher.

during

Sociolinguistics:
A New

to

Approach

Language

JOSEPH KELLER

The

one of my thirty students, all English teachers,


have had undergraduate courses in linguistics. All of

Every
them

studied

transformational

at

grammar,

in one

least

in their

point

of

ican

to

exposed
for

dialects

or

Three

four

studied

some

taught
in the

encountered

concepts

stimulating

were

students

my

of

scien

tific study of language. They were confronted with the


fact that a language is a collection of dialects, regional and
social, all of them changing. Certainly they were exposed
to the historical observation that a too rigid adherence to
has

"correctness"

in an arid

resulted

usually

of our

verbal

as well

ability

as our

gestural

have

been

dence
most

catalytic,

and

could

have

been

communicabil

put

of

catalytic
these

ideas

Clearly,
something
was
last year,
and

transformation.
proved
seems
the

years

Nor,

very
to be

useful
as wrong

I am
in the
this

On

to practical

told,

have

semester

the

as it

we

not

Vol.

27, No.

teaching,

first

randomness

postulated

the most

constitute

self-conscious

have

to alter

had

her

of

theory

nature.

chimpanzee

But when senseless slaying became statistically significant,


then Dr. Goodall reluctantly altered her concept of our
closest

simian

of

relations.

(For

this

sad

see Science

story,

April 29, 1978.)


is abstract.

Science

to consider

the

three

functions

and

semantic

grammatical,

phonological,

as if each could be separated from other func

analytically,
of

need

In university

it is analytic.

Further,

we

courses,

language?the

course,

cannot

they

really

be

thus

isolated.

Analy

sis is an efficient but seemingly artificial way of getting at


things, especially scientific things.
But it is not inevitably or even usually the nature of
For

teaching.

nomena

of Indiana

the

level,

humans

the

the

act

but

of

aim

of

rather

their

of

teaching,

is not the discovery

On the human
The author teaches in the English department
University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.

of
cure.

the

entity, is scientifically meaningful only when it is general


and not individual. Ifmerely one chimpanzee had com
mitted a wanton and brutal murder, Jane Goodall would

Its purpose

before.

and

hand,
does

so, paradoxically,

sub-atomic

tions;

classroom.

But

one

the

by Heisenberg in 1927 actually prevents any sort of com


plete particular observation. The study of the biosphere,

linguistics

in the daily task of teaching. Alas, there is little evi


of

other.

on

science,

Science is the annunciation of theory into fact. Its facts


tend to be statistical and not particular; they have to be.

that much

ity (e.g., smiling, staring) is inherited as well as learned.


So one would think that any of these suggestions would
work

the

News,

formality.

They must have been excited at the probability

on

of

modes

of which

Amer

a semester.

therefore,

Inevitably,
the most

semantics.

all of

and many of them were

these teachers studied phonology


briefly

almost

careers,

undergraduate

and the fault lies in the dif

There is something wrong,


ferent

its atavisms. Most of them took some kind of introductory


course in the language, a "History of the English Lan
guage" or an "Introduction to English linguistics." At
some

vs. Teaching

Science

Problem

course,

clarification

and

comprehension.

level, the level of interpersonal

teaching

is never

its redeeming quality,

is particular.

and rationalizing of phe

analytic.

Its most

relationships,
important,

is that it brings together teacher and

15

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the verbal instrumentality by means of which human be


ings of the same or different speech communities achieve

Student in what ultimately is amutually creative develop


ment of personality. And it is the inherent nature of teach
ing that it synthesize varied dimensions of the same sub
ject. We don't teach a growing child the sounds of English
one semester and the morphology of the language the
we

next?as

must

when

the

analyzing

rapport.

Much of what
as humanity,

in linguistics

language

afresh,

The theories of linguistics are

Here is the difficulty.


to

taught

future

best

which

teachers

If it is categorically

poses

to conceive

current

for

other

to

sci

pur
be

as a multifold

as a subject of histori
then

research,

is how

that

sure

in a situation

which

of

The Good

to encourage

exists

the

continuing

News

men,

women,

communicate.
of

them.

3.

their

through

the

control

are

use,

and modifi

thus

sociolinguistics
as other
behavior

conceive

cannot
than

our

verbal

(The Anatomy
Conn.:
wich,
us can rejoice
too have had
realize

simply because
and

on what

speech

and me

to you

happens

in a one-to-one

What

situation.

and

other

first

cries

began

ferent

to our

attention

is an infant whose
not

much

more

than

tions it is taking.
More

and more,
we

understand

sociolinguists
one

terms

are becoming

another?interested,

the

discus

like

"house

in an

se
feminine
exclusively
as once
associated
words)

belong

of
(clump
the case.

there

is reached,

has

occurred

in
equivalents
verbal
calibration

of

experiential
a concurrent

of Human

Destructiveness

[Green
most
of
we
because

Thus

1973]
p. 51).
Fawcett,
in another's
happiness
experiences.
different

happy
that our
have

similar

Realizing
verbal ways

this,
of

we

express

bases.

psychological

different

languages,

interested
that

is, in

even

perhaps

enables

languages

of their dif

as in other

In English,

them.

see

dialects,

Indo

European languages, one is happy: that is, one is identified


as happy. This is perhaps because Western thought is based

quantifiable

it is difficult at this enthusiastic


decade ago. Accordingly,
stage in its development to outline concisely what it has
accomplished. Let me instead focus on one of the direc

in how

of

that

on

identity,

there

is no

verb,

because

verb

"to

Chinese

be"

to

guage

in conversation,

ensures

the

emphasizes

not the identical. But a psychological


realized

on

to be happy. That is,

comparable
thought

In Chinese,

pattern.

subject-predicate

the other hand, it is not possible

go, sociolinguistics
to attract

course

the world to a great extent as the patternment

and Implications

As disciplines

of

speakers

on

Directions

In the

It is this verbal accomodation which overcomes the dif


ficulty posed by linguistic relativity, which asserts that

of analysis could be closer to the teaching situation?

mode

also

ing happiness

In fact, some of the insights about how individuals de


velop language and speak their dialects in their several
speech communities are being focused (in "conversation
analysis")

con

and

generation.

nonverbal

or as interacting.

correlated

by which
enhanced

"I understand
the other's
place.
experiences,"
Fromm
those within
writes,
"by mobilizing
are similar
to his"
the same,
if not
which,

Erich

as

analyzed

this

an
way

its lifestyle
partly
our func

realizes
like

lives.

marshalling
course
of which

myself

mechan

to en

and
community
of our group.
Example:
whose
characteristic

to understand

If understanding

the

don't

various

selection,

mechanisms

These

their

comes

presumably

takes

in

communicate?or

realize
modally
en
in them

shaping

in the

mutual

or modes

ways

gestural

together, clearly or ambiguously,

working

of

field

was

is sociolinguistics.

children

modes

These

language
of

cation

and
and

our

hopes,
a succeeding

unto

do not

mantic

kinesthetic,

verbal,

channels

and

two people
talk to one another,
especially
are
in a way which
is not
both
personalities
trivial,
so are their
altered?and
idolects
(their
personal
a young
agree on the
couple
dialects).
Example:

Of course sociolinguistics is abstract. And it is analytic.


But it is abstract and analytic with a difference. It studies
which

very

approaches

2. When

work"

This

These

or

even

purpose
sion, he

situation.

Here,
recent

several

are shaped
in
personalities
and nonverbal
verbal
channels

in essays
as teachers
is, one

tinued

personality.

teaching

of

it

in the past

in its altered

understanding.

community
is expository

language
in lectures
tion

seen

and born witness

continuation

of

The good news is that there is a branch of linguistics


whose abstract aim can be immediately applicable to the
concrete

the

to examine

rarely

our

with,

intellectual

that is precisely
pieces of linguistics together?although
what they must do if linguistics is to be made meaningful
discovery

begin

community
lifestyle,
ables us to function

lan

naive

understanding:

interpersonal

community-specific
of communication.

struc

was

language

interpersonal
is a crude
summary

1. To

of human

guage should be taught. Of course. But the unfortunate


truth is that many future teachers will be unable to syn
thesize in future classrooms what they are taught in their
separate semesters of phonology, history of the language,
or grammar. They are seldom taught how to bring the

isms

necessarily

to

baldly,

the

descriptive

dimensions,

as contemporary

as well

of

as a dimension

ture of systems realized dialectally,

the

since

especially

structures

categories

conceptions

necessary
language

from

isolable

havior

of

to those

according

our

represent

ence.

cal

it is not

to have itself contributed

courses.

is of course as old

is being "discovered"

but

Indo-European
the

relational,

equivalence,

a bridging

of

such

once
lan

barriers.

At this point we part with sociolinguistics,


since we are
now concerned with what understanding has wrought in
us: its spiritual effect, if you like?a psychic alteration fall
ing outside the domains of social science or the study of

!CUT

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like Fromm and philosophers

language. Psychiatrists
like Roman

language

themselves with
to us,

are

self

created

reduces

always
increases

egoism.

can

lower

we

ing

them

in the

away

alter

fields,

our

equivalences,

we

creating.
out

ity,

and

less

become

extent

our

lexical

and

in our

engrossed
as Fromm

narcissism,"

cannot

the

To

says.

an empathetic,

become

and

Logic,

tology,

111.:Northwestern

[Evanston,
p. 392).

1973],

an aborted

Even

trans.

of Literature,

Theory

University

at understanding

attempt

Press,

students

the

for

one

here,"

seem

may

"to

of

such

a serious

of my

as

situation,

learning

one

conversation?even
as we

nowhere,"

get

or communities.

community

It moves

say?starts
ways

through

with
of

speaking which are realizations of community lifestyles


to the linguistic features themselves, like semantic fields
and

linguistic features in order to

It does not start with


analyze

them

from

separately

each

other

cial bases of speech, as does descriptive


it start with

does
and

lexical

abstract

basic

transformations,

linguistics.

such

phrase

through
as does

shapes,

It takes

from

and

the

Followed

markers

Vol.

27, No.

sentences.

call

dialects
a problem

a somewhat

that

in communication

takes

contour?

intonation

equivalent

and written
spoken
as
the logical
prior

My
nizes

on

dialect,

as we

thus making,

them,

the

of

hand,
some

recog

clauses

I put commas in front


to

used

say,

the logical ismore

thoughts." To me,

other

subordination

and most phrases, and that's why


of

"complete

important than the

and WH

We talk about this, and of course it isn't long (about a


month) before we acknowledge the community bases of
our dialects and agree that different values and lifestyles
somehow govern the ways people use the features of the
language. At this point, my student has begun to listen to
the logically biased intonation patterns of my rather liter

recent

features

into

of

by an Illustration

transformations.

largely

reason

the

for

the

he

hearing,

oral

dialect.

commas.

changes

most part correctly,

transfor
account,

of his

derstand my dialect better, with

ternal

grammatical

Once the nonspecialist comprehends the dynamics of


language in this way, the details become meaningful. The
student retains them for application later in the classroom,
or the student can without too much difficulty pull them
out of that limbo in which are stored such things as pho
alphabets

spelling,

a result,

As

he

un

can

its logical bent. He can


reading

Upon

his

papers

second time, listening to them with his newly acquired in

course; but it begins with what


munity within which speech is generated.

nemic

have

phrase,

see

is naturally prior: the com

The Moral,

even

contours
so

linguistics. Nor

structures,

moving

to phonic

transformations
mational

consensus

his

about

as I am that he understand what

among other difficulties,


we

so concerned

am not

hand,

impor

ate dialect just as I had listened to the affectively-related

transformations.

syntactic

other

very

fragments

about his inability to spell. I,

concerned

affective.
of

Analysis

an analysis

example

which

situation

observed.
summarize:

To

a teaching

about

talking

the

the

consider

doesn't

of mine

in writing. One is sentence

and that's why he puts periods after them. In his dialect,


the affective axis of speech is as important as the logical.

ego threshold to the degree to which the non-understand


ing person becomes aware of the limitations of his verbal
repertoire and the possibilities for its expansion and altera
tion. As we know, this happens routinely in teaching?
"We're

He

ismore

a student

consider

dialects differently express thoughts. His dialect (Southern


Black English; he spent the first eighteen years of his life
in a small city inMississippi) assigns each significant clause,

G.

lowers

social

priority over any exercises Iwill assign him, any lecturing


Imight give him on coordination, subordination, and
phrases. Both of us must understand how our different

with

George

let us

classroom,

tant?he

Thus

out just this symbolic centrifugal rapport achieved by a


specific verbal instrumentality, writes Ingarden (The Liter
ary Work of Art, an Investigation on the Borderline of On
Grabowicz

in the

literate

one

person

the

of understanding.

achievement

fragments.

"insecur

Indeed,

loving

be

grammatical

own

to

reference

To see how this approach to language can be put to

on

that we

a generous

by

who has many basic problems

this inevitable.

semantic

discovering

in working

differences
greed,

are

we

absorbed

simply

the
it

with

work

itself makes
different

of

process

categories

come

or do

humanized

guistics

bases of speech and in particular to its primary purpose,

in the

is directed away from ourselves and onto the

attention
verbal

our

calibrate

un

writes

of a nonjudgemental

aggressiveness

altogether
The linguistic mechanism
when

through

Conversely,

Fromm

As

selflessness.

passage just cited, "The attainment

For

largely

in a classroom.

Understanding

understanding

The implications of this conclusion are obvious: the


teaching of English will be benefited when future teachers
are trained to view the mechanisms of their language from
the standpoint of the total function of these mechanisms
in human interaction. This calls for the teaching of a lin

of

concerned

it is of primary significance

of

concepts

interaction?e.g.,

derstanding

however,

Ingarden,

it. Certainly

our

since

such

have

also,

of

periods

Imight

into

the

commas?for

add. (Exercises were assigned

course.)

Nor has he lost his spoken dialect. He has naturally


modified and enriched it?which is what we all do when
he has begun to ac
we join a different community?and
a
standard.
written
of
the
rudiments
(This will even
quire
tually
and

a new

require
reports

are

foreign

period

of

genres

orientation,

since

essays

to him.)

It will be objected that this procedure is precisely what


intelligent students more or less guided by teachers have
been doing for centuries. Abelard taught his students the
logic of written Latin sentences in somewhat this way

17

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he was

when

a beginning

at Mont-Ste-Genevi?ve

teacher

starts

at community

and

community

differences

rather

than with the ABCs (in a phonemic alphabet) makes sense


to teachers because it ends where teachers hope to begin:
in interpersonal

rapport.

RECOMMENDED READING
Bauman,

Richard

and Sherzer,

Joel

in the
(eds.). Explorations
University,
Cambridge
with so
fundamentally
in actual
of language

Cambridge:
of Speaking.
Ethnography
1974. Twenty-one
papers concerned
of the organization
cially based modes
ite., in speaking.
performance,

to community-language

as essential
to an understanding
of linguistic variation.
The Verbal Dimen
Keller,
Joseph. Intercommunity
Understanding:
sion. Washington,
D.C.: University
Press, 1977. The linguistic
of understanding
is examined.
mechanism
in the Black
in the Inner City: Studies
Labov, William.
Language
of Pennsylvania,
Vernacular,
University
Philadelphia:
English
the patterned
of speech to
varieties
1972. Essays demonstrating
a single speech community.
be found within
Patterns.
Univeristy
_r__ . Sociolinguistic
Philadelphia:
of Pennsylvania,
can be understood

1972.
only

Speech variation
if the complex

a community
within
can be un
social matrix

derstood.
R. Wayne,

Brent D., and Radcliffe,


Terrence
R.
Peterson,
a Reader.
New York:
Inter personally,
(eds.). Communicating
influ
1974. Practical
essays on the kind of behaviors
Merrill,
for personal
relationships
improvement.
encing effective
E. (eds.). Intercultural
Samovar,
Larry A. and Porter, Richard
A Reader.
California:
Communication:
Belmont,
Wadsworth,
of essays dealing
to
with barriers
1976. A selection
specifically
those bar
intercultural
and ways of overcoming
understanding
riers.
Communication.
Lee. Transracial
Smith, Arthur
Cliffs,
Englewood
New Jersey: Prentice
ethnic
Hall, 1973. Styles in language,

Pace,

and Usage in the United


Its History
J.L. Black English:
Dillard,
1972. Chapter VI, "Who
States. New York: Random
House,
of those who
the community
examines
Speaks Black English,"
speak this dialect.
in Sociocultural
Joshua A. Language
Fishman,
Change. New York:
of Eth
and Winston,
1972. Part IV, "Varieties
Holt, Rinehart
is pertinent
of Language
Consciousness,"
nicity and Varieties
to the study of community-language
relationships.
in Sociolin
Dell (eds.). Directions
John J. and Hymes,
Gumperz,
New York: Holt,
The Ethnography
of Communication.
guistics:
in this anthology
1972. Several articles
and Winston,
Rinehart
are devoted

to Mean-Explorations
in the
M.A.K.
Learning How
London:
1975. Culture,
Elsevier,
Development
of Language.
"the specifically
human environment,"
produces
language; at
to culture.
the same time, language
is our means
DelL Foundations
in Sociolinguistics:
An Ethnographic
Hymes,
of Pennsylvania,
1974c
University
Philadelphia:
Approach.
the necessity
of a newer emphasis
in linguistics,
Essays asserting
one that "accepts
the social contribution
of its subject matter"

Halliday,

outside the walls of Paris in 1112. He had to, since his


students spoke a variety of dialects in which logical subor
dination was not syntactically indicated. But this is, of
course, exactly my point. The approach to language which

relationships.

and community
perspectives,
communication.

symbols

affect

basic

ICUT

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processes

of