Introducing sociolinguistics

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1 CLEARING THE GROUND: BASIC ISSUES, CONCEPTS AND APPROACHES 1.1 INTRODUCTION This book is intended to introduce you to an important branch of language study, generally known as sociolinguistics. We assume that readers of this book are currently taking or are about to take an introductory course in linguistics. Accordingly, we start with a brief characterisation of the place of sociolinguistics within the overall discipline of linguistics. ‘Language’ and Linguistics Linguistics may be somewhat blandly defi ned as the study of language. Such a characterisation leaves out the all-important formulation of how such study is to be conducted, and where exactly the boundaries of the term ‘language’ itself lie. Edward Sapir (1921: 7) in his infl uential book Language, which is still in print after 80 years, defi ned his subject matter as follows: Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols. These symbols are, in the fi rst instance, auditory and they are produced by the so-called ‘organs of speech’. Drawing on this characterisation, modern linguists (e.g. Ronald Wardhaugh, 1978: 3) conceive of language as a system of arbitrary vocal symbols used for human communication. This defi nition stresses that the basic building blocks of language are spoken words which combine sounds with meanings. The symbols are arbitrary in the sense that the link between the sound and the meaning system varies from language to language. There is no necessary connection between the form of a word and its meaning. For example, the term ‘cat’ in English refers to a particular animal by convention, not by a special connection between the sequence c-a-t and the animal. Of course, cats are referred to by other sound (or words) in other languages, for example billıˉ in Hindi. An exception is formed by words which do refl ect M1730 - MESTHRIE TEXT.indd 1 21/4/09 16:16:27 Mesthrie, R., Swann, J., Deumert, A., & Leap, W. (2009). Introducing sociolinguistics. ProQuest Ebook Central Created from hud on 2020-10-05 12:50:28. Copyright © 2009. Edinburgh University Press. All rights reserved. 2 Introducing Sociolinguistics some property of the concept which they denote. In literary analysis, these are described as onomatopoeic, as in the word buzz, which to some extent mimics the sound made by bees (see the term ‘icon’ in the box below). The arbitrariness of linguistic symbols was stressed by the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, who differentiated between the ‘signifi er’ (the word for a concept) and the ‘signifi ed’ (the concept denoted by the word). These were two indistinguishable aspects of what he called the ‘linguistic sign’. At the time that Sapir was writing, not many linguists were familiar with the structure of sign languages used by hearing- and speech-impaired people. Rather than insisting that language has to be based on speech, linguists would today distinguish different modes of language: sign, speech, writing. Finally, the emphasis in the defi nition of language on human communication draws attention to differences…


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