The Importance of the Sociohistorical Context in Sociolinguistics: The Case of Black ASL

By Hill, Joseph C. | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

The Importance of the Sociohistorical Context in Sociolinguistics: The Case of Black ASL


Hill, Joseph C., Sign Language Studies


THE FOUNDATION of variationist sociolinguistics is the sociohistorical context in which people use language.1 Linguistic factors can contribute to variation in language, but geographical boundaries and social factors also play a role (Wolfam and Schilling-Estes 2006). External factors (e.g., age, location, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, identity) have been examined since the seminal variation studies done by trailblazing figures such as William Labov, Roger Shuy, and Walt Wolfram. However, the term sociolinguistics was not originally accepted as descriptive of the discipline: "I have resisted the term sociolinguistics for many years, since it implies that there can be a successful linguistic theory or practice which is not social" (Labov 1972, xii). In other words, social and geographical factors do not invalidate a linguistic theory as a scientific explanation of language variation. It is also true that a linguistic theory cannot be adequately explained without a social component. As a tool of communication, language is shaped and regulated by the respective social conventions of a community.

Formation and Analysis of Language Varieties

Dialects can be found in all languages if "they have enough speakers, have dialects-regional or social varieties that develop when people are separated by geographic or social barriers" (Rickford 1999, 320). In a linguistic sense, dialects are structurally related varieties that carry certain phonological, lexical, morphological, and syntactic markers (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 2006; Edwards 2009). Dialects involve both highly favored standard language varieties and nonstandard language varieties with stigmatized linguistic markers, but this is not always the case in the popular perception of dialects. From the general perspective, "dialect" has two basic meanings: one refers to a variety of speech that differs from the language used by the local, native community; another refers to a language variety that is socially stigmatized (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 2006; Milroy 1987). The first meaning can apply to any language variety that differs from that typically used in a community. However, the second meaning excludes standard language varieties because they are perceived to contain no socially disfavored linguistic features. Thus it is not just linguistic differences that distinguish varieties. The marked features of varieties can carry social stigmas that are strongly associated with groups of people who have an unfavorable social status with respect to geographical region, race, ethnicity, class, religion, and even generation.

Dialects are shaped by factors such as geographic isolation, settlement patterns, migration, language contact, economic ecology, social stratification, social interaction, and group and individual identity. For example, geographic isolation leads to the emergence of divergent language forms, some of which may be found in one variety but not in others. "The most effective kind of communication is face-to-face, and when groups of speakers do not interact on a personal level with one another, the likelihood of dialect divergence is heightened" (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 2006, 28). Geographic isolation also explains the number of dialects found in different regions of the United States (e.g., Northeast American English, Southern American English, the dialect of the Pacific Northwest, Appalachian English, NewYork City English, Pittsburghese) (ibid., 105-118).

The geographic distribution of dialects can also be explained by the settlement patterns of the earliest inhabitants of a region. Dialect boundaries may reflect migration from the original settlements, and the contours of migration routes are often defined by natural geographic barriers such as mountains, rivers, and lakes. Settlement patterns may be reflected in the distribution of dialects in areas of the United States where English settlers made their new homes. Other patterns harken back to people who were brought in as slaves (ibid. …

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