chapter  18
Sociolinguistics in and for the Media
Pages 25

Language, Media, and Social Awareness My first introduction to sociolinguistics came not in a college classroom but in my home as a child, where I was constantly reprimanded by my mother for not pronouncing my “r”s. I remember being confused by her scolding; why did everyone else in my suburban Boston neighborhood – including my father, an English teacher! – seem to drop this sound left and right? “People will think you’re stupid if you talk like that,” my mother would explain to me. One day, I asked my father why he dropped his “r”s. “I’m a product of my environment, not my education!” was his retort. He would later invoke this response in reaction to so many of my smart-aleck comments about his vernacular grammar over the years. (“You says to her, Dad? Do you teach your students that?” or “ ‘I should have gone,’ not ‘I should of went.’ I’m glad you’re not the one taking the SATs next week!”) Years after these formative conversations in my family, I read William Labov’s (1972a) seminal studies on the sociolinguistics of Martha’s Vineyard and New York City department stores. Aside from being astounded by the ingenuity of these studies that empirically presented what I had intuited over the years, these foundational works also made me realize that although my parents’ views on language had always seemed to be diametrically opposed to each other, they were actually in a sense both “right.” One might say that, in a dialogical manner, my parents taught me what I now believe to be the two most important principles of sociolinguistics: (1) We are judged by others on the basis of the way we talk, and (2) We are linguistic products of our environments. When I left my hometown as a young adult and began to experience new linguistic norms and the social consequences of speaking differently from those in my new geographic and social environments, a third and equally important principle presented itself to me: (3) Through the language we use, we have the power to enact social change. My research has been driven by these three principles, which have directed me toward the study of language use in a variety of media contexts, from newspaper discourse and televised talk shows to news-sharing websites and online discussion forums. Because of the immediacy, ubiquity, and ever-increasing number of channels through which we interact with the media on a daily basis, these outlets are a powerful source not only for directly informing us about what

is happening in the world (or at least for providing a particular interpretation of it), but also for indirectly informing us about the appropriate discourses through which we articulate “facts” and come to understand the “natural order” of things. The media also play a significant role in influencing the ways in which we conceptualize our relationships with other individuals and social groups. In sum, the ideological potential of the media to reinforce or reconstrue the sociolinguistic lessons we learn at home, along with their capacity for enacting social change, has led me to focus my interest in language variation on this particular context of use.