As a sociolinguist and linguistic anthropologist, I hold that grammar is social at all levels. Language is more than an elegant formal system; it’s a system of meaning that is closely linked to other types of social practice. Because people use language as a way of expressing cultural and pragmatic concepts and to create and manage relationships with others, there is no clear boundary between formal elements of language and the social system in which they are embedded. The social and cultural meaning of sociolinguistic variables participates in the formal language system; it “tugs” at structure. For this reason, I believe that it is impossible to study the structural features of language without taking into account their embedded-ness in social systems. In my work, I aim to show in detail just how this social-grammatical relationship plays out in particular communicative situations.
(1) Context plays an important role in constructing the meaning of language and linguistic signs.
Speakers learn language not in context, but as context. Because language comes to us fully articulated with a web of signs and symbols, we must take very seriously the relationship between particular grammatical features of language and context of use—the social and linguistic patterns that any given grammatical feature participates in.
(2) Language is only one part of a broader system of social markers.
Language is only one of a system of features that also extends to other aspects of life, such as dress, politics, religion, and gender and sexuality. I use the term semiotic field to describe the complex patterns of signs in which language participates. The semiotic field is linked to particular geographical, social, and even individual experiences with language and requires an ethnographic approach to research.
How does our understanding of language affect they way that language is structured and how we use it? We have only a very tenuous grasp on how people understand language, though we do know that the understanding plays out at various levels. Because of this, I’m interested in awareness and control of linguistic signs and how this affects people’s use and interpretation of language.
I take my data from the study of Quechua-Spanish contact and linguistic practices in a small town in the rural Santa Cruz valleys (Valles Cruceños) of central Bolivia. Because of this fact, I participate in scholarly communities around language contact in general and Spanish language contact (especially with indigenous languages) in particular. I’m also an active participant in an international research group on Andean Spanish.