As I am preparing for my fieldwork, which I will be conducting in early 2014 in and around London, I am looking into ways of investigating language variation and usage attitudes in general. Usage attitudes in particular are a very delicate issue which needs to be addressed carefully. Whether you believe it or not, asking someone directly for his or her opinion, belief or attitude may not result in an honest answer. That is why, you have to be creative and find ways of how you can ‘deceive’ people and more or less trick them into giving you their true attitudes, without any ‘social-desireablity’ strings attached.
Folk linguistics, a field of sociolinguistics, has made use of dialect maps in order to identify dialect boundaries. Even though I am not going to investigate dialects, I think that this method allows you a glimpse into actual language use and beliefs about languages.
In 2003 professor Bert Vaux and Scott Golder conducted the Harvard Dialect Survey and investigated American dialects. The original questions and dialect maps can be found here. The survey proved to be popular and it now has been partially recreated by The Atlantic, which shows how linguistic research can easily be made availablet to and understandable for the general public.
Although the dialect survey was completed a decade ago, Vaux has now started to collect data for his new study on World Englishes, in which you can still participate.
Asking questions such as “What is your generic term for a sweetened carbonated beverage?” is most probably not getting your informants in the dilemma of giving an answer which they think is the socially acceptable or desired one. Issues such as social desirability need to be borne in mind when conducting research. Yet, you will never know what people really think and use, if you don’t dare to ask.
Oh, and for me it would be a coke please!