Downes, William. (1998), Language and Society, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 502p.
Reviewed by: Jim Walker, Universite Lumiere Lyon 2, France
This book belongs to a series, Cambridge Approaches to Linguistics,
whose avowed aim is to give "newcomers" to linguistics a
"non-technical" introduction to the subject. Downes divides this
study into 11 chapters, the first of which, entitled "Linguistics
and sociolinguistics", introduces a number of key notions in general
linguistics from a number of domains (phonetics, semantics, syntax?)
and links them to more particularly sociolinguistic concepts. Chapter 2,
"A tapestry in space and time" develops the question of variability in
language, both diachronically and synchronically, and looks at issues
such as language death, pidgins and language standardisation, among
Once these introductory chapters have been completed, the reader is
treated in Chapter 3 "Language varieties" to a more detailed analysis
of just how languages can be said to vary, an analysis based on case
studies of bilingualism in Canada for variability at a social level,
and code-switching for variability at a more individual level. Chapter
4 has a self-explanatory title, "Discovering the structure in variation",
and introduces the notions of linguistic variable, style, social class
and so on. The following chapter, "Rhoticity", offers a detailed case
study of one particular linguistic variable, post-vocalic /r/, which
has been used in numerous sociolinguistic studies.
Chapter 6 "At the intersection of social factors" shows that it is
insufficient to think of language variation as being dependent on social
class, and looks at variation as a factor of age, sex, ethnicity and
other factors. Downes also explores other methodologies, such as networks.
The following chapter explores reasons for linguistic variation,
particularly the idea that language is an "act of identity".
Chapter 8 marks a definite change of direction. As the author says
(p. 275), "in this chapter we switch gears." This and the following
chapters are dedicated to discourse: conversation analysis and ethnography
of communication in Ch.8, pragmatics and relevance theory in Ch.9,
discourse and speech acts in Ch.10 while Ch.11 is entitled "Language
and social explanation".
I mentioned above that this book is intended as an introduction to its field.
It is with that in mind that much of what follows has been written. The
author's intention is not to defend his own conception of the subject, his
own theoretical leanings, as to present the "state of play" of the subject
without too much reference to its history. In that he has undoubtedly been
successful. Where the doubts lie, I feel, is in whether he has made it
accessible to the "newcomer".
Let us begin with the gripes. The first chapter I feel is unsatisfactory.
There is either too much here, or too little. The author's intent seems
to be to arm the reader with all the terminological and theoretical
ammunition s/he will need to face the whole field of linguistics.
Unfortunately, the result is a battering. Within a few short pages, we
learn about syntax, inferential relationships and truth conditions in
semantics, voicing and the glottal stop in phonetics, the modularity
of the mind theory and the concept of linguistic performance, to name
but a few. I cannot help feeling that these notions might have been
introduced either much more gradually, or even not at all, given, in
some case, their lack of relevance for the forthcoming discussion. Key
words and expressions are written in bold type, and on one occasion,
there are 11 of these on a single page. It is not always clear, in
this and other chapters, what justification there is for using bold
type. It might seem that this is a minor consideration, and compared
to the positive things I shall have to say below, indeed it is, but
remember that this is a book for newcomers to the discipline.
The second chapter avoids the slightly unwieldy nature of the first,
though the reader does still feel s/he is on a roller coaster of terminology.
Other complaints concern form rather than content. Downes does not always write
as clearly as he might, and the effects are at times puzzling. Take for instance
the discussion of performance/competence (p. 11): "Chomsky calls such use of
language, linguistic performance, in contrast to competence. These are the
places where non-language modules interact with language itself." It's not
clear what Downes means by 'places' here. The author also has a rather
frustrating habit of leaving discussion in mid-flow and returning to it
in a later section, or chapter, without providing any form of cross-referencing
so we might link the parts into a coherent whole. The book also suffers from a
lack of exemplification in some parts; For example, the distinction between
dialect and accent (p. 17) might have benefited from an example, and on p.20,
we are asked to "consider the linguistic data. It appears very messy indeed."
without it being clear to the reader WHICH data to consider, and without
One or two mistakes have slipped through: 'butter' transcribed as /bVt@/ rather
than /bVd@/ despite explaining how /t/ devoices in this position (p.7), and
Speaker D, who should be Speaker F, on page 21. There is also an extremely
curious opening to the section "How rhoticity is entering New York City",
which starts: "Yes! The norm but not the practice." This, I stress, would
not be mentioned if it were not for the fact that they are illustrative of
a general problem with presentation, which is most serious, in my view,
in the use of diagrams. Some of the diagrams used, and there are many,
are extremely useful and serve their purpose, which is to illustrate and
clarify the text. Some, however, do quite the opposite. In at least two
cases, diagrams which go unnumbered appear in the text, but are not referred
to (examples page 150,167), and many other diagrams are either extremely
unclear and therefore unhelpful (examples pp. 18, 119)
Let us finish the gripes section with a mention of the fact that twice Downes
uses technical terms in the course of his discussion, before he has defined
them for the reader. On p. 247, there is a mention of implicature before it
is discussed more fully on p. 386, and the same happens with covert norm
(first mentioned on p. 149, defined p; 186)
These flaws are a shame, because the book on the whole is extremely useful.
Downes' use of detailed case studies is enlightening, and makes a change
from a more frequent textbook treatment of phenomena such as societal
bilingualism, which has a tendency towards listing, in a rather superficial
manner, the different examples. Here, Downes takes a long, in-depth look
at the language situation in Canada, reflecting on demography, educational
policy and politics, giving his reader a huge amount of relevant detail.
The same can be said of the chapter on rhoticity, which is excellent.
Downes takes us through the phonetic and phonological technicalities
before explaining how and why rhoticity has so important to sociolinguistic
studies. How refreshing also to see an introductory textbook take us beyond
the classic Labovian supermarket study and show us a number of less
well-known and recounted studies.
On the subject of Labov, Downes provides what I think is one of the clearest
accounts (beginning chapter 4) I have read of what Labov was setting out to
do with his linguistic variable. His study of language standardisation in a
previous chapter is also of the finest quality. On the whole, the chapters
devoted to what might be called, by this author at any rate, as
'sociolinguistics proper' (a term to be taken fairly lightly) are solid and
clear, and useful, I believe, to the curious newcomer.
Downes' previous publication,as shown in the bibliography (which is
extremely rich and helpful, incidentally)has been in discourse
and pragmatics. The result is that the four chapters
devoted to the use of language in society and between individuals are
extremely well written, scholarly, and bursting with information. The reader
is treated to a veritable minefield of information on all the aspects of
conversation and discourse analysis, pragmatics and so on, all extremely
well covered. It is in the course of these chapters that Downes seems to
take an active theoretical role in the discussion - previously he
presented the theories, here he analyses them more critically. Witness,
for example, his rejection of Searle's Speech Act Theory in favour of
Sperber and Wilson's Relevance Theory, and the absence of space given
to Politeness Theory (some readers may be irritated at the example of
discourse which runs through these chapters, based on a conversation
regarding a potential pregnancy - it is rather repetitive). My reservation
is this: the very wealth of detail here is likely to be a handicap,
once again, to our famous newcomer, who may feel a little bombarded.
Downes, throughout the book, is somewhere between a textbook for the
layperson, and the detailed historiography which would appeal to a
specialist. A book to be highly recommended for its chapters on
sociolinguistics, to be handled with a little more care for its
chapters on language in social interaction.
The reviewer is Jim Walker, Lecturer at the Universit� Lumi�re Lyon 2
in France. Recently awarded a PhD for a study of language attitudes,
with particular regard to the resentment felt against foreign vocabulary
in French. Research interests: language attitudes, French-speaking Africa,
French & English sociolinguistics, traductology.