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Contribution to Book
Language theory in contemporary sociolinguistics: Beyond Dell Hymes?
Sociolinguistics: Theoretical debates (2016)
  • Barbara Johnstone

Language in Society was founded, in 1972, specifically to publish research related to “all the interrelations of language and social life” (Hymes 1972: 2). The journal’s founding editor, Dell Hymes, hoped that the journal would help lead to “a reconstruction of social theory in the light of linguistic methods and findings, and of linguistic theory on a social basis” (p. 2). When it came to the latter of these goals, Hymes hoped for a “broad conception of language and its relevance” (p. 3), broader than that of the “central thread” of twentieth-century linguistic theory, with its focus on reference at the expense of other kinds of meaning, its insistence on the autonomy of levels of language (phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics) and on the autonomy of language as an object of study, and its lack of attention to what people do with language (p. 3). Hymes hoped for an “integrative” theory of language that would question the very notions of “language” and “dialect” and that would start from the assumption that structure follows function rather than the other way around, as “the significance of features of language cannot be assessed without knowledge of their social matrix” (p. 5). This was not a modest set of aims. For Hymes, the goal of sociolinguistics, “if such research is to be more than a novel name for a hodge-podge of pre-existing activities, pursued helterskelter,” was “to change the terms of reference for scientific, and informed public discussion, of ‘language’ . . . to put an end to theory and research in terms of ‘language’ and ‘languages’, and to replace it by theory and research in terms of the true forms in which linguistic resources are organized, change and are changed, in human lives” (p. 10). In this chapter I focus on the second of Hymes’s hopes, the hope that LiS would lead to a reconstruction of “linguistic theory on a social basis.” What is the linguistic theory that underlies the work published in LiS in the twenty-first century, and is it the sort of theory that Hymes hoped for in 1972? Has the journal devolved into a forum for “a hodge-podge of pre-existing activities,” or has it resulted in a new way of understanding language? To answer these questions, I explore how shifting theories of speech and language have informed research published in LiS during the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century.

  • Language in Society (journal),
  • Dell Hymes,
  • linguistic theory,
  • sociolinguistics,
  • anthropological linguistics,
  • practice theory,
  • language ideology,
  • multimodality
Publication Date
Coupland, Nikolas
Cambridge University Press
Publisher Statement
These are the corrected proofs. To cite this chapter correctly, please refer to the final published text, as page numbers and other details may change.
Citation Information
Barbara Johnstone. "Language theory in contemporary sociolinguistics: Beyond Dell Hymes?" CambridgeSociolinguistics: Theoretical debates (2016)
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