The New Journal of Linguistic Geography from Cambridge University Press

Sep 27, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in December 2013]

Journal of Linguistic GeographyIt is not very often that my attention is captured by a title of an academic journal, but the newly established Journal of Linguistic Geography did just that. Published by Cambridge University Press, this journal “focuses on dialect geography and the spatial distribution of language relative to questions of variation and change”, according to the publisher’s description. Submissions in the areas of dialectology, sociolinguistics, historical linguistics, language in its sociocultural environment, and linguistic typology are expected to appear in the journal. The inaugural issue includes articles on settlement patterns and the eastern boundary of the Northern Cities Shift (by Aaron J. Dinkin); vowel formants in American English (by Jack Grieve, Dirk Speelman, and Dirk Geeraerts); Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and perceptual dialectology (by Chris Montgomery and Philipp Stoeckle); as well as a review of Areal Features of the Anglophone World (edited by Raymond Hickey. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 2012) written by a renowned authority on English dialectology, Peter Trudgill. The foreword to the inaugural issue is written by the journal’s editors, William Labov and Dennis R. Preston, both world-leading experts in sociolinguistics.

As Labov and Preston note in the foreword, “the spatial differentiation of linguistic forms … is a matter of remarkable interest”—and we at GeoCurrents wholeheartedly agree. Many laymen find geographical variation in word choice fascinating; the well-known North American dialectal “Pop vs. Soda” issue has been a successful discussion starter in many of my undergraduate and continuing studies classes. Examining “the use of a form against the background of competing and complimentary forms” is one of the main goals of this new journal, as the editors encourage authors “to mobilize those facts in pursuit of the better understanding of the nature of language structure and language change”. But studies of the lexicon are not the sole interest of this journal; the editors also hope to see submissions that examine structural relationships of phonological, morphological, and syntactic nature, although papers that deal with sound-related topics, both in terms of production and perception, dominate the first issue.

The most important feature of this new journal is not its content—numerous academic journals in sociolinguistics, historical linguistics, and typology are already being published worldwide—but rather its format. The journal is published electronically, which allows it to avoid many of the pitfalls of the traditional print media. Labov and Preston describe the current state of linguistic geography as follows:

“In no other field is the gap between the gathering of data and the analysis so great. The stacks of our libraries are filled with magnificently conceived and executed atlases of linguistic geography. File cabinets throughout the world are filled with papers that have never appeared in print, faced with the problem of reducing maps to miniature black-and-white versions that convey only a small part of the information in the original.”

Four advantages of using digital rather than print medium become apparent when reading the inaugural issue. First, there is no limit on the size of maps submitted to Journal of Linguistic Geography. Traditional paper journals publish compressed versions of maps that in their original form typically extend across dozens, if not hundreds, of inches of the printed page. Naturally, much detailed information is lost in the process of compression. Readers of Journal of Linguistic Geography are able to view the meticulously created original maps in their entirety “by panning and zooming operations that are second nature to users of the internet”. The unlimited space of a digital medium also means that authors will be able to include substantial appendices containing data, methods, statistical analysis, and the like.

The second important feature of the Journal of Linguistic Geography is their use color, which is also fundamental in cartography, yet prohibitively expensive in conventional publishing. “For reasons that are not yet clear to us,” note Labov and Preston, “the eye recognizes patterns of color far more readily than patterns of shapes. A red square isolated in a field of blue squares will be perceived instantly, while an isolated black square in a field of black circles on a white page may not be recognized at all”. In a digital publication, however, color is as easy and cheap to reproduce as black-and-white.

A third innovation of this digital journal is the possibility of floating maps and figures over the text which allows the reader to immediately compare images and their descriptions. In print journals, the impossibility of juxtaposing text and figures in a simple way forces the readers to page back and forth in order to make a point-by-point inspection. Many readers give up on this tedious activity and accept (or reject!) the author’s statements unquestioningly. Readers of digital media such as the Journal of Linguistic Geography can easily make a “direct comparison between what is said about the map and what it shows”.

Finally, the newly established digital journal will feature not only text and graphic images, but sound files as well, which will allow readers to gain a more precise sense of the sound structures involved in a given study and even to challenge the authors’ conclusions. Making various types of data—not only transcriptions, but also sound files, maps, and GIS information—available to other scholars in the field will encourage more productive discussion in various subfields of linguistics, as replication and confirmation studies will be more easily conducted.

It is, however, unfortunate that the technical advantages of a digital journal are outweighed by the fact the journal is buried behind a substantial paywall. Electronic subscription to the journal is no less expensive than to a print journal in linguistics; organizational subscription costs $250 a year. Individual articles can be bought for $30 a piece or “rented” for 24 hours at a cost of $5.99. Given that authors are not paid for the articles submitted or published, these fees are seen by some as prohibitively high. The issue is, of course, not limited to Journal of Linguistic Geography, and hopefully a productive discussion of the benefits and the costs of digital publication will emerge among linguists and specialists in other fields.




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