Blog Post: Sociolinguistics and Writing

The readings this week all revolved around the primary focus of writing as a form of language and discussed the different ways to investigate writing through a sociolinguistic lens. Each article approached writing from a different perspective, Lillis and McKinney (2013) as an untapped area for sociolinguistic research and the present flaws with how writing is analyzed and regarded, Androutsopoulos (2000) as how orthographic choices can convey a sense of identity and belonging to communities of practice, and Sebba (2012) as a multimodal practice, specifically when looking at posters, advertisements, and media, and the ways in which written languages interact with each other when they share space.

Lillis and McKinney’s article introduces the history and context of writing as it has been discussed thus far in sociolinguistics. They argue that linguists have ignored writing thus far, citing various reasons for this lack of research including a lack of interest based on assumptions that written language is fixed, inauthentic (compared to spoken), and engrained in the “standard/deviant” dichotomy. While Lillis and McKinney acknowledge that these historical problems in the contextualization of writing, they also introduce the various ways in which writing is beginning to be utilized and valued as a source of research.

Writing studies are framed by one of three imperatives, according to Lillis and McKinney: ethnography, education, and digital. Lillis and McKinney argue that examining writing from any of the three imperatives is valuable as the varied perspectives emphasize the fact that writing, perhaps now more than ever, is “an ‘everyday’ activity, that is as nested in a myriad of ways in people’s lives” (p. 423) and, like spoken language, is something that is continuously read and reread and thus indexed and reindexed. While encouraging the increased examination of writing, Lillis and McKinney acknowledge that there are challenges facing this research, namely escaping the aforementioned dichotomy of standard and deviant language use, determining the best way to describe writing and written language use, and the idea that writing is fixed in singular moments and sites.

While Lillis and McKinney introduce the examination of writing, Androutsopoulos and Sebba are both excellent places to show how researchers are treating written language in their work. Androutsopoulos (2000) examines the use of orthography in German fanzines to convey social meaning and membership to communities. He explores the ways in which fanzine authors are utilizing non-standard spellings to convey an attitude of “anti-establishment” and authenticity. Androutsopoulos outlines six ways that orthography is non-standard in the fanzines: phonetic spellings, colloquial spellings, regiolectal spellings, prosodic spellings, interlingual spellings, and homophone spellings. He also notes a difference between types of fanzines, namely the A5 (smaller, more independent, less circulated, and perhaps for these reasons more authentic) and the A4 fanzines (more established, created by well-known individuals in the field, more expensive, and less non-standard in layout of content). Androutsopoulos notes that the A5 fanzines are more likely to utilize the non-standard spellings, further conveying them as more authentic.

Androutsopoulos posits that there are different goals that language users seek to achieve with their use of non-standard orthography. Specifically, non-standard spellings can be interpreted as denoting membership to a community of practice, in this case a specific music scene, and also to portray someone else as less authentic by utilizing non-standard spellings in a negative aspect to mock them as appropriating the counterculture style. Androutsopoulos notes that fanzines are an excellent place for this sort of research, as the goal of the authors is to denote a local and intimate relationship with its readers through the use of both non-standard spelling and content layout, and like spoken language, is constantly reread and reindexed.

Though Androutsopoulos briefly notes that both the design of the fanzine and the content inside is valuable for informing the research, he does not explore how to analyze content layout. This is where the work of Sebba (2012) and his theories on the multimodality of signs becomes important. Drawing on theories that fall in line with Linguistic Landscapes studies, Sebba argues that looking at what languages are used in written text is not sufficient for understanding it. Rather, he argues that we need to analyze the signs from a multimodal perspective, wherein we discuss the text not only through what languages are used but the layout in which they are displayed. This analysis can draw on theories from typography, the spatial relations between the languages, the content of the languages and the design of the overall media. Sebba also spends time analyzing how we should describe the language use on signs, whether as multilingual or monolingual, depending on what information is conveyed in each of the languages and why a specific language is chosen to convey the information that it does.

The readings from this week all discuss the various perspectives from which we can analyze written language. I thought it was most important to challenge the historical idea that written language is fixed and not re-contextualized as time goes on and that language use and ideologies change, especially with the new technology that is ever shifting the ways that we communicate with each other. While reading I had several questions that I wished the articles had addressed and that I hope future works can explore. One is I’m curious if people would still agree that, in an online discourse, standard spelling and syntax are still the norm? It seems to me that in an online community standard writing would be more marked especially as our technologies allow cross-culture, cross-linguistic exchanges and practices to occur at a much more rapid pace than in the past. I wonder, if those that engage with communication online more frequently (and so typically utilize online speech more), rather than those who do not, are those that define the “standards” for online communication.  As opposed to analyzing online discourse as a comparison to those standards that define academic or professional writing. In using non-standard language online, I’m also curious how much of it is a conscious choice to align oneself with a community of practice or to convey something about oneself as opposed to an unconscious adaptation of new online languaging norms. I also believe that these analyses of written language would benefit extensively from theories in other fields such as translation and graphic design, as these theories could help enlighten us to other ideas for the goals and success of what we are analyzing based on the inherent interdisciplinary nature of it.

1 thought on “Blog Post: Sociolinguistics and Writing

  1. Meredith Hilliard

    Questions for Sebba (2012)
    1. One of the main features distinguishing written texts from spoken language is their permanence, more specifically their ability to have a potentially very large number of readers across a number of cultural and historical contexts, or at least a wider audience than the author originally imagined. Does Sebba’s insistence on the importance of historical context confine the interpretation of these texts to single-purpose linguistic interactions between an author and a fixed number of interlocutors at a fixed point in time?
    2. Should linguists only concern themselves with a historically specific analysis of multilingual written texts, just as we do with spoken language? If so, does this reflect the tendency to study writing as a derivation of spoken language rather than a separate variation of language in its own right?
    3. Certain memes (“you’ll read this first”) have developed a sort of metadiscourse around language-spatial relationships that plays on the idea that there is a very fixed and predictable language-spatial hierarchy. Do you agree with Scollon & Scollon’s claim that certain locations in/on a text are necessarily privileged (top/center/etc.)? Does this vary too much according to other variables (font size, etc.) to be predicted? How culturally specific is this hierarchy?

    Questions for Lillis & McKinney (2013)
    1. Lillis & McKinney critiques the speech/writing binary, among other binaries such as formal/informal, official/unofficial, etc. In what contexts do we see a gray area between speech and writing, and what impact does this have on how we study it?
    2. How does conceptualizing writing as a finished product limit the ways in which we study it and “skew conceptualisations of the nature of what the object is–as something rigid rather than dynamic”?

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