Academic journal article Composition Studies

Writing as Language in Use: On the Growing Engagement between Sociolinguistics and Writing Studies

Academic journal article Composition Studies

Writing as Language in Use: On the Growing Engagement between Sociolinguistics and Writing Studies

Article excerpt

Writing as Language in Use: On the Growing Engagement between Sociolinguistics and Writing Studies

The Sociolinguistics of Writing, by Theresa Lillis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2013. 200 pp.

Writing and Society, by Florian Coulmas. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. 192 pp.

Several years ago, while searching for a quote from a Singaporean film, I came across a blog that astounded me. The author wrote in a mixed code the likes of which I had never seen in actual use, though I am trained in approaches to writing as a socially situated, multimodal, and even potentially multilingual practice. The author wrote her blog in a flowing, florid mixture of standard written English, Singlish, Mandarin, and other Chinese dialects, represented by both the Latin alphabet and Chinese characters; her registers moved between more or less formal written English and informal registers used in personal diaries, social media, texting, and face-to-face communication; her blog made meaningful use of pictures, video, music, and changes in font style, color, and size. As a text, it was a researcher's dream.

I was equally astounded, then, when I met a Singaporean linguist at a conference not long after I discovered the blog. In his presentation, he discussed the use of mixed codes, registers, and varieties of English in the Singaporean context. I asked him about multilingual writing in Singapore and he replied that this was something Singaporeans never did, since writing was always for formal purposes. I brought up the blog and told him I had recently seen a Singaporean write in a creative mix of English, Chinese, and other varieties on a blog.

"But blogging is not really writing," he said.

When is writing not writing? This puzzling question goes back to some fundamental assumptions of linguistics and sociolinguistics regarding the differences between form and function in written and spoken language. And while many of the arguments for these differences have been carefully made-Walter Ong's reasoned distinction between literacy and orality springs to mind-they have also shut down many potentially revelatory avenues of research.

Two important new books highlight this paradox. Theresa Lillis's The Sociolinguistics of Writing and Florian Coulmas's Writing and Society make persuasive arguments that writing, like speech, is an everyday language practice whose use can be studied in its social context just as speech has traditionally been, from a sociolinguistic perspective. These books compellingly point the way toward the need for greater engagement between sociolinguistics and writing research, particularly when it comes to what Lillis calls "uptake" (which she defines as how writing will be read; that is, how readers react to texts) and its social consequences. Writing is said to be a highly standardized form of language, but variation in both usage and uptake surrounds us. Even at the sentence or word level, enormous variation can be seen online and in print, in formal and informal spaces, and in how people react to a range of variation, from acceptance to tolerance to hostility. There is, for example, little agreement among editors, readers, and teachers about what constitutes error and what is merely an acceptable variation.

The ideas expressed in these books are complementary, though they do not directly address each other. Lillis and Coulmas both recognize the need for more engagement between sociolinguistics and writing, but Lillis is primarily a writing specialist calling for greater engagement with sociolinguistics, while Coulmas is a (socio)linguist arguing for more engagement with writing. Taken together, the two books make a convincing argument for cross-pollination between the two approaches: a sociolinguistics of writing, or a writing-influence approach to sociolinguistics. Both should be of interest to composition scholars who are attuned to social and linguistic issues in writing.

The primary goal of Lilllis' book is to show that although sociolinguistic theory has been biased toward the study of speech, writing-an everyday language practice-is a worthy and indeed necessary object of sociolinguistic study. …

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