In the linguistic literature, the term theme has several interpretations, one of which relates to discourse analysis and two others to sentence structure. In a more general (or global) sense, one may speak about the theme or topic (or topics) of a text (or discourse), that is, to analyze relations going beyond the sentence boundary and try to identify some characteristic subject(s) for the text (discourse) as a whole. This analysis is mostly a matter of the domain of information retrieval and only partially takes into account linguistically based considerations. The main linguistically based usage of the term theme concerns relations within the sentence. Theme is understood to be one of the (syntactico-) semantic relations and is used as the label of one of the arguments of the verb; the whole network of these relations is called thematic relations or roles (or, in the terminology of Chomskyan generative theory, theta roles and theta grids). Alternatively, from the point of view of the communicative function of the language reflected in the information structure of the sentence, the theme (or topic) of a sentence is distinguished from the rest of it (rheme, or focus, as the case may be) and attention is paid to the semantic consequences of the dichotomy (especially in relation to presuppositions and negation) and its realization (morphological, syntactic, prosodic) in the surface shape of the sentence. In some approaches to morphosyntactic analysis the term theme is also used referring to the part of the word to which inflections are added, especially composed of the root and an added vowel.
Even though the concept of multilingualism is well established in linguistics, it is problematic, especially in light of the actual ways in which repertoires are composed and used. The term “multilingualism” bears in itself the notion of several clearly discernable languages and suggests that regardless of the sociolinguistic setting, language ideologies, social history and context, a multilingual individual will be able to separate the various codes that constitute his or her communicative repertoire and use them deliberately in a reflected way. Such a perspective on language isn’t helpful in understanding any sociolinguistic setting and linguistic practice that is not a European one and that doesn’t correlate with ideologies and practices of a standardized, national language. This applies to the majority of people living on the planet and to most people who speak African languages. These speakers differ from the ideological concept of the “Western monolingual,” as they employ diverse practices and linguistic features on a daily basis and do so in a very flexible way. Which linguistic features a person uses thereby depends on factors such as socialization, placement, and personal interest, desires and preferences, which are all likely to change several times during a person’s life. Therefore, communicative repertoires are never stable, neither in their composition nor in the ways they are ideologically framed and evaluated. A more productive perspective on the phenomenon of complex communicative repertoires puts the concept of languaging in the center, which refers to communicative practices, dynamically operating between different practices and (multimodal) linguistic features. Individual speakers thereby perceive and evaluate ways of speaking according to the social meaning, emotional investment, and identity-constituting functions they can attribute to them. The fact that linguistic reflexivity to African speakers might almost always involve the negotiation of the self in a (post)colonial world invites us to consider a critical evaluation, based on approaches such as Southern Theory, of established concepts of “language” and “multilingualism”: languaging is also a postcolonial experience, and this experience often translates into how speakers single out specific ways of speaking as “more prestigious” or “more developed” than others. The inclusion of African metalinguistics and indigenuous knowledge consequently is an important task of linguists studying communicative repertoires in Africa or its diaspora.
Gender is a grammatical feature, in a family with person, number, and case. In the languages that have grammatical gender—according to a representative typological sample, almost half of the languages in the world—it is a property that separates nouns into classes. These classes are often meaningful and often linked to biological sex, which is why many languages are said to have a “masculine” and a “feminine” gender. A typical example is Italian, which has masculine words for male persons (il bambino “the.
Across the languages of the world, gender systems vary widely. They differ in the number of classes, in the underlying assignment rules, and in how and where gender is marked. Since agreement is a definitional property, gender is generally absent in isolating languages as well as in young languages with little bound morphology, including sign languages. Therefore, gender is considered a mature phenomenon in language.
Gender interacts in various ways with other grammatical features. For example, it may be limited to the singular number or the third person, and it may be crosscut by case distinctions. These and other interrelations can complicate the task of figuring out a gender system in first or second language acquisition. Yet, children master gender early, making use of a broad variety of cues. By contrast, gender is famously difficult for second-language learners. This is especially true for adults and for learners whose first language does not have a gender system. Nevertheless, tests show that even for this group, native-like competence is possible to attain.
Conversation analysis is an approach to the study of social interaction and talk-in-interaction that, although rooted in the sociological study of everyday life, has exerted significant influence across the humanities and social sciences including linguistics. Drawing on recordings (both audio and video) naturalistic interaction (unscripted, non-elicited, etc.) conversation analysts attempt to describe the stable practices and underlying normative organizations of interaction by moving back and forth between the close study of singular instances and the analysis of patterns exhibited across collections of cases. Four important domains of research within conversation analysis are turn-taking, repair, action formation and ascription, and action sequencing.
Chris Rogers and Lyle Campbell
The reduction of the world’s linguistic diversity has accelerated over the last century and correlates to a loss of knowledge, collective and individual identity, and social value. Often a language is pushed out of use before scholars and language communities have a chance to document or preserve this linguistic heritage. Many are concerned for this loss, believing it to be one of the most serious issues facing humanity today. To address the issues concomitant with an endangered language, we must know how to define “endangerment,” how different situations of endangerment can be compared, and how each language fits into the cultural practices of individuals. The discussion about endangered languages focuses on addressing the needs, causes, and consequences of this loss.
Concern over endangered languages is not just an academic catch phrase. It involves real people and communities struggling with real social, political, and economic issues. To understand the causes and consequence of language endangerment for these individuals and communities requires a multifaceted perspective on the place of each language in the lives of their users. The loss of a language affects not only the world’s linguistic diversity but also an individual’s social identity, and a community’s sense of itself and its history.
The study of sociolinguistics constitutes a vast and complex topic that has yielded an extensive and multifaceted body of scholarship. Language is fundamentally at work in how we operate as individuals, as members of various communities, and within cultures and societies. As speakers, we learn not only the structure of a given language; we also learn cultural and social norms about how to use language and what content to communicate. We use language to navigate expectations, to engage in interpersonal interaction, and to go along with or to speak out against social structures and systems.
Sociolinguistics aims to study the effects of language use within and upon societies and the reciprocal effects of social organization and social contexts on language use. In contemporary theoretical perspectives, sociolinguists view language and society as being mutually constitutive: each influences the other in ways that are inseparable and complex. Language is imbued with and carries social, cultural, and personal meaning. Through the use of linguistic markers, speakers symbolically define self and society. Simply put, language is not merely content; rather, it is something that we do, and it affects how we act and interact as social beings in the world.
Language is a social product with rich variation along individual, community, cultural, and societal lines. For this reason, context matters in sociolinguistic research. Social categories such as gender, race/ethnicity, social class, nationality, etc., are socially constructed, with considerable variation within and among categories. Attributes such as “female” or “upper class” do not have universal effects on linguistic behavior, and sociolinguists cannot assume that the most interesting linguistic differences will be between groups of speakers in any simple, binary fashion. Sociolinguistic research thus aims to explore social and linguistic diversity in order to better understand how we, as speakers, use language to inhabit and negotiate our many personal, cultural, and social identities and roles.
Jeff Good and Pierpaolo Di Carlo
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.
The pervasiveness of multilingualism throughout the African continent has led it to be viewed as Africa’s “lingua franca.” Sociolinguistic research on this topic has concentrated mostly on urbanized areas where, as a norm, individual language repertoires are dominated by the interplay between European ex-colonial languages, African lingua francas, and local languages, and where language ideologies emphasize the ordering of languages in a hierarchy that is tied to social status. Similar situations are also found also in rural areas of Africa. However, recent research suggests that the dynamics of multilingualism in some rural regions, in particular those characterized by high linguistic diversity, can be of quite different character than urban ones and that the methods required to study them are distinct from those that have been used to examine urban domains.
In particular, case studies drawn from rural areas of West and Central Africa document the presence of individuals possessing linguistic repertoires that are primarily oriented around local languages, ideologies, and practices that do not clearly fit with what is known from urban environments. One feature that is shared by all of the available case studies is the relatively negligible role played by prestige and prestige-related notions in the local systems of language valorization. What has been observed, instead, suggests that motivations to learn different local languages, and to use them in interaction, stem from ideologies in which language is the primary means for representing one’s relationship with land or membership in a given village community or kin group, rather than serving to construct traits associated with essentialist identities. Further features of these language ideologies—and their ramifications—are still being researched, but they are already revealing hitherto unnoticed systems of indexicality, indicating that they are likely to lead to important theoretical refinements for the sociolinguistic investigation of language and identity.
The most important theme that emerges from the existing literature is the extent to which rural multilingualism is linked to the specific dynamics holding among communities that are near to each other rather than being a reflection of a more general, externally imposed value system. While this result makes it difficult to characterize rural multilingualism as a single, coherent phenomenon, it does point to the need for a shared toolkit of research strategies, for exploring and analyzing it in more detail. In particular, ethnographic methods are required to ascertain the major local social meanings that language choice both reflects and constructs; micro-ethnographic research is additionally important as a means to focus on how individual repertoires are tied to specific life histories rather than assuming that groupings that are salient to the outside researcher (e.g., villages or speech communities) are the relevant units of analysis.
These diverse local patterns, however, do often align with certain broad, persistent cultural features of Sub-Saharan Africa that interact with language choice. This includes, for instance, a common linkage of language, secrecy, and beliefs in the supernatural, which likely influences not only multilingual practices but also the use of language-like codes such as special registers. Such cultural features can also be seen to structure aspects of language use in urban domains, indicating that a full understanding of African multilingualism requires careful consideration of contexts like linguistically diverse rural areas that maximize opportunities for observing the kinds of language dynamics that were mostly likely to have characterized the continent before the beginning of colonialism.