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The Speech Community

Peter L. Patrick
Dept. of Language and Linguistics University of Essex Wivenhoe Park Colchester CO4 3SQ United Kingdom Email: patrickp@essex.ac.uk http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~patrickp/

This article will appear in JK Chambers, P Trudgill & N Schilling-Estes (eds.), Handbook of language variation and change. Oxford: Blackwell.

ABSTRACT:

empirical linguistics, is at the intersection of many principal problems in sociolinguistic theory and method. This paper traces its history of development contemporary and notions, divergence, and discusses surveys links general to problems key issues with in

The speech community (SpCom), a core concept in

investigating language variation and change. It neither offers a new and correct definition nor rejects the concept (both are seen as misguided efforts), nor does it exhaustively survey the applications in the field (an impossibly large task).

The Speech Community

General Problems with the Speech Community Every branch of linguistics that is concerned with representative samples of a population; that takes individual speakers or

experimental subjects as typical members of a group; that studies

langue as attributable to a socially coherent body (whether or not it professes interest in the social nature of that body); or that takes as primitive such notions as ‘native speaker’, ‘competence/performance’, ‘acceptability’, etc., which manifestly refer to collective behavior, rests partially on a concept equivalent to the SpCom. Linguistic systems are exercised by speakers, in social space: there they are acquired, change, are manipulated for expressive or communicative purposes, undergo attrition, etc. Whether linguists prefer to focus on speakers, varieties or grammars, the problem of relating a linguistic system to its speakers is not trivial. In studying language change and variation (geographical or social) it is inescapable, yet there is remarkably little agreement or theoretical discussion of the concept in sociolinguistics, though it is much defined. Some examples from research reports suggest the degree of its (over-)extension (Williams 1992, p.71). The term ‘SpCom’ has been used for geographically bounded urban communities large (Philadelphia; Labov 1989) and small (Anniston, Alabama; Feagin 1996); for urban neighborhoods (‘Veeton’ in Kingston, Jamaica; Patrick 1999) and subgroups: Belfast vernacular

Peter L. Patrick

speakers (Milroy & Margrain 1980 – but see Macaulay 1997, p.15) and “the French-speaking minority of Ontario, Canada” (Mougeon & Beniak 1996, p.69). It has been denied to other cities (London; Wardhaugh 1998, p.123), but used for Anglo-Saxon England (Labov 1982, p.35); for urban immigrants, as distinct from both their source and target groups (Kerswill 1994); and for the “national unity of a people” (Dittmar 1976, p.106). Cutting across geographic and class lines, it has been used of very general assemblages such as children (Romaine 1982, p.7) and women (Coates 1993, p.140), as well as specific and temporary ones such as members of a jury (Durant 1999). For rural populations, it has been used to pick out named settlements of Warlpiri speakers (Bavin 1989), but for both individual locality and a discontinuous, larger region – the Gaeltacht – in Ireland (Watson 1989), where speakers do not define their communities in linguistic terms. Joly (1981) calls the Afro-Hispanic population of Panama’s Costa Abajo both a SpCom and a ‘ritual community’. Dimmendaal uses SpCom for the Turkana in Kenya, who have absorbed a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups (with consequent language loss) and undergone significant dialect differentiation (1989). The famously complex case of Eastern Tukanoan language speakers in the Vaupés region of Amazonia, where each patrilineal exogamic group is ideally identified by language but “one does not marry someone who speaks one’s own language” (Gomez-Imbert 1996, p.442), is analyzed as a...
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