When you utter a proposition (something that can be true or false), you always also provide some information about how certain you are of it, and also how arrived at that level of certainty. For example, when Tweety Bird says “I thought I saw a pussycat”, he is making a claim that there is a cat around, and that he learned of the cat by seeing it, but he also hedges this claim by saying that he only thought he saw it. The whole sentence, then, expresses Tweety Bird’s epistemic stance towards the proposition that there is a pussycat.
Epistemic stance is a discourse-level phenomenon. Unlike other variables such as phonetic variables (e.g. whether you say “hospital” or “hospiddle”) or morphosyntactic variables (e.g. whether you say “that was rubbish” or “that were rubbish”), discourse-level variables can take many different forms, and this makes them difficult to study.
Epistemology in Sociolinguistics
My research looks at variability in epistemic stance. I have found, for example, that if two people hold different beliefs about how to find things out (say, a physicist and a literary theorist), then they will exhibit systematic differences in the language they use to express epistemic stances. In other words, your beliefs about what kind of thing knowledge is affect how you communicate your own knowledge.
Having established this connection between epistemic beliefs and epistemic language in the discourse of academics in different disciplines, the next step is to see whether similar patterns obtain in the general population.
This research is important to sociolinguists because it offers a way of analysing discourse-level variation using a new social variable. More importantly, epistemic beliefs are foundational for other beliefs of interest to sociolinguists and others (such as beliefs about one’s language and identity, or about the structure of society, or about what counts as a coherent narrative). This means that variability in epistemic beliefs, and its relationship to variable language use, may have ramifications throughout sociolinguistics and beyond.
Sociolinguistics in Epistemology
Variability in epistemic beliefs is of interest too to epistemologists. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that asks “What is knowledge?” and “Can we know anything?” (or “How can we be sure that we are not living in The Matrix?”) Philosophers have worked from the armchair for hundreds of years, but they have recently begun doing experiments and also considering that knowledge might be better studied in terms of how it is produced rather than what it is in the abstract. My research raises questions and possibilities for these approaches.
Experimental philosophy presents people with survey questions and then interprets their responses to find out what people believe about the nature of knowledge. If there is a general link between people’s beliefs about knowledge and their use of language however, how can we be sure that they are all interpreting the question in the same way? The same problem arises for the so-called “ordinary language” approach to philosophy generally.
Social epistemology has so far been a mainly theoretical subject, with a few notable ethnographic studies. My research offers a way to develop a quantitative social epistemology by using a linguistic measure of epistemic belief (i.e. doing reverse-sociolinguistics).