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Linguistic variation and sociological consciousness

by Dodsworth, Robin M

Abstract (Summary)
Much current thinking in the field of linguistic variation assumes that speakers actively manipulate linguistic variables for local social purposes. While broad social structures such as class, ethnicity, and gender continue to shape the basic questions that variationists ask, attention to speakers’ context-driven uses of variables is gaining prominence. Eckert (2002) addresses this shift in her description of the three “waves” of linguistic variation studies. Critically, third-wave studies assume that speakers (consciously or not) use linguistic variables to construct identities situated within local social contexts. The claim that particular uses of linguistic variants index dynamic and ultimately supra-local social meanings entails that speakers recognize links among different levels of social organization. Despite the upsurge of ethnographic work in sociolinguistics, the latter claim has yet to be fully supported or even well investigated, partly, I argue, for lack of an adequate theoretical framework for speakers' perceptions. This study explores sociological consciousness – the recognition of links among the levels of social structure – as a factor conditioning linguistic variation. The sociologist C. Wright Mills’ (1959) notion of the “sociological imagination” is used as a framework. The sociological imagination is the quality of mind that allows one to conceptualize daily life in terms of society-wide social forces. According to Mills, those who possess well-developed sociological imaginations manage to understand personal troubles and public issues as the products of historical events, social structures, and biography—the three “coordinate points.” The speech community under investigation is Worthington, Ohio, a mostly white, upper-middle class community lying immediately to the north of Columbus. Worthington was founded in 1803 by well-educated, Episcopalian settlers from Massachusetts and Connecticut, and some of the current residents work vigorously to maintain the city’s “traditional” New England identity with its religious and educational values intact. This task has become all the more relevant and challenging as Columbus has expanded; in fact, Worthington is now completely surrounded by annexed Columbus land, much of which has been stuffed with residential developments. A preliminary analysis of the sociolinguistic distribution of /l/ vocalization with respect to locally-relevant social categories (Dodsworth 2005a) reveals a significant linguistic distinction between living within the Worthington city boundaries and living in the surrounding areas of Columbus. Building on that conclusion, the present study considers the ways in which Worthingtonites understand and react to the forces that promote urban sprawl and urbanization. Following much recent variationist work, this study employs the qualitative and quantitative paradigms simultaneously, using both ethnographic and traditional quantitative methods to investigate three phonetic variables previously documented in central Ohio: /l/ vocalization (Ash 1982, Durian 2004, Fix 2004), /o/ fronting (Thomas 1989[1993]), and movement of /æ/ toward /a/ (Dodsworth, ms). The linguistic data are extracted from one-on-one ethnographic interviews with 17 speakers. Speakers are divided into four rough 'social consciousness' categories with respect to the local urban sprawl situation: individual-focused, social structure-focused, integrated (i.e. a relatively balanced view of the individual with respect to social structures and history), and little or no critical awareness. These four types constituted a factor group in logistic regression analyses of the three linguistic variables. The results show sociological consciousness, when combined with attitude toward urban sprawl in the Worthington area, to be a significant factor group for all three variables. The proposed explanations for the patterns of linguistic variation are rooted to some extent in familiar notions such as 'persona', but they are claimed to ultimately descend from differences in sociological consciousness, particularly for /æ/ backing and /o/ fronting. The importation of sociological consciousness as a factor in variationist analysis, as well as the quantitative results derived from it, are argued to have potentially serious implications for sociolinguistic theory, particularly the notions of persona and style. It is argued further that greater use of social-theoretic concepts within variation studies promises fruitful results for both sociolinguistics and other areas of social science.
Bibliographical Information:

Advisor:

School:The Ohio State University

School Location:USA - Ohio

Source Type:Master's Thesis

Keywords:sociolinguistic variation sociological consciousness worthington ohio

ISBN:

Date of Publication:01/01/2005

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