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The sociolinguistic city

Barbara Johnstone

(Carnegie Mellon University)

Variationist sociolinguists have long been associated with cities: Labov with New York, Trudgill with Norwich, for example. But their research is actually about a subset of a city’s population: New Yorkers from the Lower East Side, long-time residents of Norwich, and so on. Contemporary urban sociolinguistics likewise typically takes a subset of a city’s population as its object of study: inner-city youth in London and elsewhere; heritage-language speakers in Toronto. The city is the context for the research, but the research is not about the city as such.

 What if sociolinguists’ object of study actually were cities? What could a sociolinguistic description of New York or Berlin look like? One possibility would be a blind-men-and-elephant account, resulting, say, in an edited volume with chapters about various aspects of the urban sociolinguistic world, each written by someone working on a different project with different goals and methods. What if, instead, we all started out with the same set of goals and methods, asking the same questions about as many sociolinguistic subsets of a city’s population as possible?

 First, we would be forced to confront heterogeneity. We would have to pay attention to the fact that different people have different semiotic resources, different worlds of experience, and different ways of evaluating speech. How and when do disparate resources, worlds, and ideas bump up against each other, and how do they impinge on each other? Second, we would have to consider mobility of all kinds. What could we learn by studying newcomers as well as old-timers, the downwardly mobile as well as the upwardly mobile? Third, we would need to rethink how sociolinguistic practices circulate. Traditional speech-community- or community-of-practice-based sociolinguistics locates circulation primarily in face-to-face interaction. In a city, people may come to share ideas and habits in other ways, including via material artifacts and broadcast media.