"Social Linguist": Eggcorn or Road Not Taken?

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Arnold's post on linguistic(s) put me in mind of something I never got around to blogging last year. The hook was Richard Zoglin's appreciation of George Carlin in Time:

Most famously, Carlin talked about the "seven words you can never say on television," foisting the verboten few into his audience's face with the glee of a classroom cutup and the scrupulousness of a social linguist.

"Social linguist" — I had an image of Geoff Pullum at a cocktail party, with one hand in his blazer pocket and the other wrapped around a martini glass. But on reflection I figured the phrase was what the writer had made of hearing sociolinguist. In fact social linguist gets 700+ Google hits, most of them almost certainly the products of mishearings:

"Language is never about language," said social linguist Walt Wolfram. (Associated Press)

Barbara Kannapell, a social linguist based in Washington, said the shortage of sign-language interpreters is a national problem. (New York Times)

In a popular book of that name, social linguist Deborah Tannen has documented just how much our culture is dominated by an "adversarial frame of mind." Kenneth Plummer, Intimate Citizenship (U of Washington Press)

You'd have to say, then, that these are eggcorns in the technical sense. But does it really matter? I mean, "social linguist" could have been the standard term, right?

Sociolinguistics has been around since the early 1950's as the name of a field (excluding a 1939 outlier). But social linguistics was also used for a while in what seems to be a pretty much synonymous fashion, and by linguists of considerable eminence:

Just as pure synchronic and diachronic linguistics have methods of dealing with language without reference to the speaker or speech community, so does pure areal and social linguistics — an aspect of linguistic research more widely known as linguistic geography or dialectology. (Hans Kurath, "Phonemics and Phonics in Historical Phonology, American Speech, May, 1961)

Social linguistics, often called ethnolinguistics, involves in its synchronic aspect, a whole series of significant problems regarding correlations between population groupings as determined by linguistic criteria and those based on biologic, economic, political, geographical, and other non-linguistic factors. (Joseph H. Greenberg, "Linguistics and Ethnology, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Summer 1948)

And JSTOR turns up a few later examples of linguists using social linguist as a job description (though they're outnumbered by sociolinguist by 1702 to 12). A number of these come from writers who also use the term sociolinguistics and hence must have made a deliberate choice to use the two-word form:

The corrective of the social linguists may be overdone; they seem occasionally to see ghetto blacks as the brightest, most verbal folks on earth. (Ronald Butters, "A Comment on Sociolinguistics and Teaching Black-Dialect Writers," College English, October 1991)

Complementing and enriching such dialectical understandings of society and culture is the work of cognitive anthropologists, social lingusits, and students of situated cognition. These scholars take on the whole a sociocognitive perspective… (Dwight Atkinson, "TESOL and Culture," TESOL Quarterly, Winter, 1999)

Based on Peirce's early insights, this theory was espoused and further elaborated by the symbolic interactionist philosophers, social psychologists, and anthropologists, as well as by some anthropological and social linguists. (Milton Singer, "Comments on Semiotic Anthropology," American Ethnologist, Aug., 1985)

(The two-word form in this last is probably motivated in part by the fact that social but not socio– can be conjoined with a preceding adjective — as might have been Kurath's "areal and social linguistics.")

It's hard to see any compelling reason why social linguistics and social linguists wouldn't have been appropriate names for the subfield and its practitioners. After all, there were already fields or subfields like social anthropology, where social is opposed to physical, and social psychology, where social is opposed, presumably, to "individual." (In fact there are occasional JSTOR citations for the forms socioanthropology and socioanthropologist and sociopsychology and sociopsychologist as well.)

So why did socio– win out? I can think of several contributing factors. For one thing, names formed with Latin or Greek combining forms (they're not really prefixes) like socio– or psycho– often have a more "scientific" ring than names derived with the equivalent adjectives. Then too, while social linguistics unambiguously implies a kind of linguistics, sociolinguistics can suggest a dvandva interpretation (like, e.g., fighter-bomber) that is, as a Grenzwissenschaft that straddles the boundary between sociology and linguistics. Or maybe the triumph of sociolinguistics owes something to a morphological accident: unlike psychology and anthropology, linguistic doesn't have a commonly used adjectival form in –-ical, which would make the adjectival use of social linguistics awkward: contrast social psychological research and *social linguistic research.

Or maybe it's because a one-word form like sociolinguistics was more amenable to lexical specialization. The fact is that while linguists have been studying most of the social aspects of language since the 19th century, we don't usually think of sociolinguistics as including research published before the 1950's or 1960's, even when it deals with topics like social dialects, language and nationality, or language and culture. In a 2003 one-stop-shopping essay called "A Brief History of American Sociolinguistics, 1949-1989" Roger Shuy suggests that while the work of linguists like Whitney, Meillet and Sapir clearly anticipated themes in modern sociolinguistics, the field proper was a postwar development. My guess is that most linguists would agree with that. So sociolinguistics implies something more specific, and usually, more technical, than simply the intersection of the social and the linguistic. Which is why, eggcorn or no, social linguistics is probably a better description of what George Carlin was playing with than sociolinguistics would be.


  1. Tim of Angle said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    I've always assumed that "social linguist" was analogous to "social drinker".

  2. Jason F. Siegel said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    When I studied abroad in Chile, we used Humberto López-Morales (2001) Sociolingüística as our textbook. In it he distinguishes between: the sociology of language, sociolinguistics, and social linguistics. The first deals with issues of language in society: planning, policy, maintenance. The second is variationist sociolinguistics, code-switching, contact, etc. The third was for people who used linguistic methods for social commentary, critique, or change. Social linguists would be people like Norman Fairclough, Ruth Wodak, Teun van Dijk (though Critical Discourse Analysis is not the only subfield of social linguistics).

    I have never seen anyone else make this distinction, but it seems like a neat one, and one that perhaps ought to be given more consideration.

  3. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    Is Joseph Greenberg accurate in his statement that social linguistics (and by extension sociolinguistics, or maybe not) and ethnolinguistics are the same thing? If so, why didn't ethnolinguistics stick around? (Sure, it mixes Greek and Latin forms, but it seems a more focused area of study than "socio-" something does.)

  4. Chris said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    Maybe it was pressed upon them by the rest of the field of linguistics, who didn't appreciate the implication that if *those* were the social linguists, the rest must be the antisocial linguists. (Cf. O'Brien's The Ionian Mission, in which a moral philosopher joins the ship as a passenger, prompting wordplay when Jack contrasts him with Stephen, a natural philosopher.)

  5. Mr Punch said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

    physical therapist (US) = physiotherapist (UK)

  6. James C. said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    @Andy Hollandbeck:
    I’ve always thought of “ethnolinguistics” as having a meaning similar to ethnoscience, ethnopsychology, ethnobiology, etc., in that it refers to a particular culture’s analytical and synthetic description of language. The ethno- prefix means something like “emic” in this case. An ethnolinguistic description of a language would thus be a particular cultural group’s description of a language, how it works, how it’s used, where it comes from, and so forth.

  7. mollymooly said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 5:18 pm


    1. antibiotics
    2. astrionics
    3. avionics
    4. bibliotics
    5. bioacoustics
    6. bioastronautics
    7. biocybernetics
    8. biodynamics
    9. bioelectronics
    10. bioenergetics
    11. bioethics
    12. biogenetics
    13. bioinformatics
    14. biokinetics
    15. biolinguistics
    16. biolistics
    17. biologics
    18. biomathematics
    19. biomechanics
    20. biometrics
    21. biomimetics
    22. bionics
    23. bionomics
    24. bionucleonics
    25. biopharmaceutics
    26. biophysics
    27. biopics
    28. biostatics
    29. biostatistics
    30. biosystematics
    31. biotics
    32. cardiodynamics
    33. catadioptrics
    34. cliometrics
    35. dioptrics
    36. gnotobiotics
    37. histrionics
    38. macrobiotics
    39. periodontics
    40. probiotics
    41. radionics
    42. radiotherapeutics
    43. scioptics
    44. semeiotics
    45. semiotics
    46. socioeconomics
    47. sociolinguistics
    48. thermionics
    49. zoosemiotics

    *ial *ics:

    1. celestial mechanics
    2. inferential statistics
    3. social statics
    4. special olympics

  8. Lazar said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

    Is a social linguist sort of like a social democrat? I would gladly vote for the Language Log List in the next general election.

  9. Sky Onosson said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    Mr Punch said "physical therapist (US) = physiotherapist (UK)".

    We have both(!) in Canada – I have no idea what the distinction is, if any.

  10. Merri said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 8:21 am

    I'm firmly in the favor of the 'dvandva' ewplanation. Mollymooly's examples show that *ial would mean a restriction, while sociolinguistics ir a compound, not restricted, subject.

  11. Merri said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 8:24 am

    May I had that, in French, nobody hazarded 'linguistique sociale', which would be the equivalent of 'social linguistics' and imply that longuistics should apply to social facts, not the other way round.

  12. ajay said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    Or, for that matter, a material witness, which gives the impression of one who has yet to transcend, Star Trek-style, into a numinous being of pure intellect.

  13. Fritz said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 12:52 am

    I had an image of Geoff Pullum at a cocktail party, with one hand in his blazer pocket and the other wrapped around a martini glass.

    Surely this image deserves to be materialized in a photograph posted to Language Log!

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