Citizen Sociolinguistics is not Folk Linguistics

Over the last few years, since I’ve been writing about Citizen Sociolinguistics, several people have conflated it with a field called “Folk Linguistics.”  Now it is time to disambiguate those two.  Citizen Sociolinguistics is *very different* from Folk Linguistics.  Here is how:

First, review: What is Citizen Sociolinguistics?

Citizen Sociolinguistics is the work people do to make sense of everyday communication and share their sense-making with others.  Like any people inquiring into their world, Citizen Sociolinguists have certain research questions, methods for investigating those questions, an accumulation of findings, and typical ways of disseminating those findings.

What questions do Citizen Sociolinguists ask?

Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 1.26.31 PMCitizen Sociolinguists’ questions are constantly changing. One day, an important question to a particular citizen sociolinguist might be, “What is Natty Light and who drinks it?”  Another day, or to someone else, an important question may be, “What is a fake news and who uses that expression? What would it mean if I Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 1.01.59 PMused it?”  

How do Citizen Sociolinguists investigate those questions?

Citizen Sociolinguists use just about any means available to explore (and expound on) language and communication:

  • YouTube Performances (e.g., “Typical Natty Light Night”)
  • Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat/and other micro-blogging and social media
  • Urban Dictionary entries and examples
  • Asking questions about language on-line and in real life
  • Blogging and Responding to Blogs
  • Comments/Likes/Dislikes on any of these and on any Comments/Likes/Dislikes and so on recursively…

Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 1.21.50 PMOften Citizen Sociolinguistic work involves using Social Media and the Internet, which means that Citizen Sociolinguists’ questions and findings constantly and speedily renew, change, and snowball with accumulated features of social context.

What are Citizen Sociolinguistic “findings”?

Like Citizen Sociolinguistic questions, Citizen Sociolinguistic findings are ephemeral.  Yet, in a given fleeting moment, the answers are highly relevant to a specific someone at a specific point in time.  Inevitably, answers involve more than language:  Component parts of a “Natty Light” definition, for example, might include hints of the race/class/gender/age of people who drink it, a history of various infamous encounters with Natty Light, the typical situation that includes Natty Light (e.g.,  frat house/college/TV/sports).  These distinctions my be the subject of extended on-line dialogue, or blogs like “11 things you didn’t know about Natty Light”. Similar distinctions would emerge for a phrase like “fake news,”  because Citizen Sociolinguistic meaning does not inhere in the words themselves, but in the experience of using that expression.  

Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 1.11.59 PM
Infamous Coach, Larry Eustachy, parties with Natty Light.

How are Citizen Sociolinguistic findings disseminated?

Generally, any findings or performances by Citizen Sociolinguists are spread by other Citizen Sociolinguists in real life or via social media in a recursive and never-ending process.

HOWEVER, citizen sociolinguistic findings may also be coöpted for other interests.  Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 11.18.46 AM

For example, advertisers often try to use knowledge from Citizen Sociolinguists to promote their products (see “natt-a-pult” ad).  

What makes Citizen Sociolinguistics different from Folk Linguistics?

Folk Linguistics differs from Citizen Sociolinguistics in its research questions, methods for investigating those questions, in its findings, and in ways of disseminating those findings. Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 1.31.42 PM
While Citizen Sociolinguistic questions are constantly changing and different for everyone, Folk Linguistics asks questions that serve the interests of professional 
sociolinguists and dialectologists, and perhaps by extension, applied linguists working with teachers or language policy makers. Most generally, Folk Linguists ask, “What are the  the subconscious cultural models with which folk (defined as all non-linguists) are operating?”

Folk Linguistics has a range of methods for getting at these subconscious models: Comparing folk-drawn dialect maps with those produced by linguists; “matched guise” experiments in which people are asked to listen to ways of speaking (without seeing the speaker) and attribute a range of personality traits to the speaker; and even discourse analysis, in which the linguist identifies tacit folk assumptions as they emerge in interviews or conversation.    For example, if a folk person says, “I don’t have a dialect.  I happen not to be from the South,” the Folk Linguist notes this person’s “folk” cultural model for “dialect”–namely, that a “dialect” is something that only people in the South have (Preston, 2011).

Findings from Folk Linguistics illuminate assumptions “folk” have about language thatScreen Shot 2018-03-04 at 1.38.55 PM may or may not match with professional linguistic findings.  These “folk” understandings about language may be disseminated to professional communities involved in teaching language or policy and planning.  If, for example, Folk Linguistic studies reveal contradictory local impressions about certain dialect features, policy makers may need to know this before designing any specific curricula or rules about how those features should be discussed, mandated, or taught.

Ultimately, Folk Linguistics has its own (subconscious?) cultural model, not shared by Citizen Sociolinguistics.  That model presupposes that Professional Linguists alone can identify the cultural models of the “folk” and that these cultural models may, in the hands of linguists, serve the needs of other linguistics-related professional fields. Citizen Sociolinguists, in contrast, are in the business of sharing their own cultural models around language and communication–models that are ephemeral, constantly changing, often controversial, and always swathed in (entertaining) situation-specific social cues. 

Folk Linguists are primarily Linguists.  Citizen Sociolinguists are Citizens of the world–and often highly insightful, funny, and outrageous. This blog is about sharing findings from the inquiry work they do!  

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