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  • Sociolinguistic typology: Social determinants of linguistic complexity by Peter Trudgill
  • Sali A. Tagliamonte
Sociolinguistic typology: Social determinants of linguistic complexity. By Peter Trudgill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 288. ISBN 9780199604357. $35.

In this book Peter Trudgill tells the story of what he has been wondering about most of his academic career: to what extent do 'different types of human society produce different types of language and, if this is the case, what [does] this mean for the future typology of human languages' (viii)? T is a master linguist and a consummate storyteller, making this book not only a culminating piece of scholarship but also a page-turner. You get a hint at the magnitude of the story he wants to tell when you see that his book is dedicated to William Labov and the sheer number of famous researchers that are thanked for contributing to its telling (xii-xiii). T has synthesized a linguistic treasure trove-data from all over the globe and an amalgamation of insights from sociolinguistics, dialectology, historical linguistics, and typology.

T's story begins with an overview of innumerable 'Social correlates of linguistic structures' (xv). From the thirty Sami words for types of snow through the honorifics of Korean, the directional prefixes of Tibeto-Burman and the lexicon of British carpenters, readers are led through a dizzying array of correlations between language phenomena and climate, geography, and culture. The relationship between a language's lexis and grammar and its social circumstances is strong.\ But curiously, there are also many examples where there is no correlation at all. T proposes to 'get a grip' on this dilemma by looking at other aspects of human societies that may offer insight. Here begins the exploration of what factors 'might be promising to look at in our search for explanations for why certain languages select certain structures and not others' (1).

T naturally turns to the sociolinguistic literature where it is well known that sociocultural phenomena are critically linked to linguistic change, transmission, diffusion, incrementation, and lifespan change (Labov 1972, 2007). Cataclysmic events and economic upheavals accelerate the rate of linguistic change. Different levels of language structure change at different rates. Change in phonology and in features that are pragmatically sensitive proceed relatively rapidly. In contrast, grammatical features can remain stable for centuries. Yet some languages and dialects change faster than others. Why? In fact, there is good evidence to argue that linguistic change is strongly influenced by: (i) the relative degree of contact vs. isolation of a speech community, and (ii) the relative social stability vs. instability of a community. In low-contact, socially stable circumstances, change proceeds slowly, in fact very slowly. Language change is also influenced by contact, which leads to simplification in linguistic phenomena and processes such as regularization, increasing lexical and morphological transparency, and loss of redundancy. Yet complexification [End Page 378] may also occur under the same circumstances, such as when there is transfer of features from one language to another, borrowing, and the like. This leads to a conundrum: 'what are the circumstances in which contact leads to simplification, and what are the circumstances when it leads to complexification' (33)? T argues that there is a solution to this paradox because there are different types of contact, which in turn impact the way language learning and acquisition evolve within the speech community; that is, who are the people in contact with each other, adults or children (see e.g. Kerswill 1996)? Complexification develops in low-contact situations where there is long-term transmission from parent to child, there are shared norms, and change proceeds down an uninterrupted path. Simplification arises in high-contact situations where there is a significant history of the language having been acquired by adult nonnative speakers, and individuals may not have much in common. There is yet another factor implicated in language change-community size. When a population is relatively small, tight social networks can 'push through, enforce, and sustain linguistic changes which would have a much smaller chance of success in larger, more fluid communities' (103). In high-contact communities, leveling and the loss of arbitrary distinctions develop in order to accommodate communication among...


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pp. 378-380
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