Multilingualism, Sociolinguistics, and Theories of Linguistic Form

Subject: Linguistics
Pages: 6
Words: 1662
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: PhD


In this article, Rajeendra Singh looks at multilingualism and sociolinguistics keenly in an effort to prescribe a new theory of linguistic form. The author begins with a critique of various arguments for monolingualism and finds it a ‘fallacy’ of sorts. Instead he calls for the development of a theory of linguistic form that is appreciative of multilingualism which is as he states, “the unmarked case”. He finds that mere celebration of multilingualism is not enough and in the stead, theoreticians must use these multilingual concepts as a concrete base for construction of a new theory of linguistic form.

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In this review, I attempt to summarize and where possible elucidate on the various key points that Singh (2010) makes on the use of multilingual contexts in the moulding of a new theory of linguistic form. The review shall also attempt to relate the article to contemporary linguistic applications.

Article Summary

Singh starts by criticizing the various weaknesses that the study of grammar or linguistics and sociolinguistics especially on the unwarranted focus on monolingualism at the expense of multilingualism. He states that the excuse that the concepts of multilingualism are amorphous and abstract thus lacking basis is not ground in itself to deny multilingualism its rightful place in linguistics. He instead finds that the basis of theories of linguistic form on monolingualism is in itself flawed and he purposes to expose some of the serious limitations of what are perceived as the dominant ways of doing grammar and sociolinguistics.

Singh finds that multilingual contexts in actual fact offer what he terms as “crucial evidence even for monolingual grammar or competence.” Competence here is construed as an underlying and explanatory factor of distributional regularities often described by theoreticians of linguistic form and not a reification of the sane regularities as suggested by Harris (1941, p. 345). He further finds that the context presents various situations that allow the linguist to understand constitutive rules. Singh relates these constitutive rules in grammar to Kant’s (1929) rules of correlation where the solution of one factor gives an understanding of the other. He finds multilingual contexts to be the factor that has to be solved for linguists to understand linguistic form (Kant, 1929).

As a consequence of grounding their work on monolingual contexts, Singh finds that the generative rules of language and grammar are flawed in their assumptions. For instance, he finds that the so called phonological rules of monolingual theorists are “a mockery of man’s linguisticality and a ridicule his sociality.” He states that real situations of contact reveal that second-language learners can tap into what is referred to as Universal grammar (UG) and second-language speakers can do things that do not fall within the set rules of linguistic capacity; something which theoreticians erroneously dismiss as unreliable ‘external evidence’.

Singh gives further evidence of unrealistic linguistic models that monolingual theoreticians construct by presenting the phenomena of svarabhakti or epenthesis as a good example of such a deviation. Here, a language has to deal with unacceptable consonantal clusters either in diachrony or its contact. The devoicing of what are known as the final voiced stops of languages that have them by their speakers e.g. Mandarin which does not even have voiceless final stops is also cited as one of the best examples of this phenomena in phonology.

In his critique of grammatical competence, Singh states that the so called phonological rules cannot be inclusive of the speaker’s phonology since it is the latter that is responsible for the speaker’s epenthetic vowel and power to change language. He adds that characterizations of this competence should be reflective of the language and not the native speaker himself since he has power to carry and change language as he so wishes and also decide if the change in language is to be carried into the future (Chomsky, 1986).

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Singh also finds fault with sociolinguistics especially with the views of Chomsky (2000) that acknowledges that monolingualism is “almost unimaginable” yet base his arguments and allow construction of competences based on it without due regard to multilingual contexts. Chomsky’s ontologization of linguistic form is also flawed by its oversimplification of intra-lingual diversity as being as dramatic as inter-lingual diversity. On the other hand, Singh finds that a totally epistemological linguistic form is also not right since the ontological part cannot be ignored entirely. In summary, Singh states that there are no prevalent theories on linguistic form that are adequate since all are reitificational based on the monolingual model that looks at language institutions and not language itself. He also finds that most theoreticians do not link the ‘right’ part of sociology to linguistics.

Singh subsequently analyzes phonology and finds that enthesis is in itself is not a mandatory rule for any language and even those languages that possess the enthetic vowel are not limited by it. Imposing a mandatory rule would in it itself be an imposition of a monolingual perspective to the multilingual ability of human speakers. He further finds that multilingual contexts provide evidence that a child is usually born with phonological capacity and thus cannot ‘learn’ phonology. Therefore, the natural assumption would be that acquiring phonology is based on the suppression of certain innate processes and not on the proposition by monolingual theoreticians that purport that certain rules of structure have to be obtained first.

Singh proceeds to formulate a theory for morphology where he states that a language borrows whole words from a ‘donor’ language. He finds that word structure is based on certain instantiations known as word formation strategies that help in the production and understanding of new words. Singh further states that the Paninian view that affixes can be independent of words is in itself fraught. He finds that the body of the so called borrowed ‘affixes’ such as ‘ity’ in English which is borrowed from French is actually a consequence of word formation strategies. He finds that these affixes were derived from the borrowing of verbs from the ‘donor’ language and further subjecting them to their morphological rules for infinitives thus resulting in the notable new affixes to words in the borrowing language.

As a summary, Singh finds that contemporary attempts at sociolinguistics are a weak-kneed effort at political sociology of language institutions. He avers that these attempts add up to well informed journalism disguised as sociolinguistics. Instead he reiterates the importance of providing multilingual contexts as a proper basis for knowing what makes up a language compared to looking at its use as a basis for construction of linguistic form.

Critical Reflections

Singh basis his arguments on the purely logical notion that one cannot purport to make material inferences from very abstract sources and then hold out such inferences to be ‘rules of competence’. By so stating, Singh attacks the very foundation of contemporary sociolinguistic study which more or less grounded on the multilingual perception. His analysis of the basics of language; semantics, phonology, grammar and morphology is superb and well researched. He looks at the various theories that have been formulated by monolingual theoreticians on these linguistic basics.

Singh’s analysis of Le Page and Tabouret-Keller’s (1985) theory of sociolinguistics brings out the real questions in sociolinguistics as to what should truly constitute its study. He finds that Le Page and Tabouret-Keller fail to link the analysis of the native speaker’s society to the linguistic form that forms part of the speaker’s universe. This as he rightly finds is irrelevant in the study of knowledge of a language, instead Singh credits Labov (1971) for admitting that the study of language is in itself probabilistic in nature. I fully concur with this analysis based on the simple fact that the study of language in itself cannot be said to be an exact science and thus elements of probability come into play. In addition, linguistic scholars should not reify those elements that are abstract and purport to formulate rules based on this.

The theory on morphology that Singh lays down is a more accurate view of linguistic form. He gives a credible example of morphemes and affixes in borrowing languages as an indication of the rule that morphology must in itself be based on whole words and not parts of words. It of course makes perfect sense that words should be borrowed in their whole from ‘donor’ languages since even in ordinary language use e.g. in contemporary ‘urban’ slang words that are borrowed from donor languages are in their complete form but are then subjected to the word formation strategies of the slang itself to become acceptable in common parlance.

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I credit Singh with bringing out the fact that multilingual contexts are conveniently ignored in contemporary linguistic forms. The interesting fact is that theoreticians supporting monolingualism realize that multilingualism plays a bigger role in linguistic form than they care to admit. One reason for this is the fact that multilingualism is in itself an abstract and inconvenient study theme and so these theoreticians prefer to assume that it does not play a significant role in linguistics. Singh concedes that only a new theory of linguistic form can do justice to multilingualism. He avers that, “it is not accidental in my view that a substantive and sustainable and, hopefully, valid theory of linguistic form, a conceptually minimalist theory of linguistic form, emerges from looking at matters of form in multilingual contexts (p.13).”

In conclusion, Singh’s article is a major contributor to the field of sociolinguistics and in general, the study of linguistics. He calls for a paradigm shift from the past way of perceiving linguistic form to a new dimension that appreciates multilingualism and its contexts as major contributors of linguistics. Singh also calls for a complete break from the past in terms of developing algebras that properly describe phonology and morphology of language. It remains to be seen whether linguistic theoreticians will heed Singh’s call for a clean break from the past and develop new theories that inculcate multilingual contexts as the norm rather than the exception.


Chomsky, N., (1986). Knowledge of Language. Its Nature, Origin and Use. New York: Praeger.

Chomsky, N., (2000). The Architecture of Language. New Delhi.

Harris, Z., (1941). Review of Grundzuge der phonologie. Language (17), 345–349.

Kant, I. (1929). The Critique of Pure Reason. London: Sage.

Labov, W., 1971. Methodology. In: Dingwall, W.O. (Ed.), A Survey of Linguistic Science. College Park: University of Maryland.

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Le Page, R., &Tabouret-Keller, A., (1985). Acts of Identity. CUP: Cambridge. Oxford University Press.