The curse of the elevator speech

Yesterday I was involved in an innocent watercooler chat in which I was asked what Sociolinguistics is. This should be an easy enough question, because I just got a master’s degree in it. But it’s not. Sociolinguistics is a large field that means different things to different people. For every way of studying language, there are social and behavioral correlates that can also be studied. So a sociolinguist could focus on any number of linguistic areas, including phonology, syntax, semantics, or, in my case, discourse. My studies focus on the ways in which people use language, and the units of analysis in my studies are above the sentence level. Because Linguistics is such a large and siloed field, explaining Sociolinguistics through the lens of discourse analysis feels a bit like explaining vegetarianism through a pescatarian lens. The real vegetarians and the real linguists would balk.

There was a follow up question at the water cooler about y’all. “Is it a Southern thing?” My answer to this was so admittedly lame that I’ve been trying to think of a better one (sometimes even the most casual conversations linger, don’t they?).

My favorite quote of this past semester was from Jan Blommaert: “Language reflects a life, and not just a birth, and it is a life that is lived in a real sociocultural, historical and political space” Y’all has long been considered a southernism, but when I think back to my own experience with it, it was never about southern language or southern identity. One big clue to this is that I do sometimes use y’all, but I don’t use other southern language features along with it.

If I wanted to further investigate y’all from a sociolinguistic perspective, I would take language samples, either from one or a variety of speakers (and this sampling would have clear, meaningful consequences) and track the uses of y’all to see when it was invoked and what function it serves when invoked. My best, uninformed guess is that it does relational work and invokes registers that are more casual and nonthreatening. But without data, that is nothing but an uninformed guess.

This work has likely been done before. It would be interesting to see.
(ETA: Here is an example of this kind of work in action, by Barbara Johnstone)

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2 thoughts on “The curse of the elevator speech

  1. Thomas Luckman’s The Sociology of Language is my favorite overview of how to study language sociologically. However, for an elevator pitch I’d tip my hat to Peter Trudgill’s Sociolinguistics: An Introduction from Penguin Press back in 1970.

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