Variation (linguistics)

Variation is a characteristic of language: there is more than one way of saying the same thing. Speakers may vary pronunciation (accent), word choice (lexicon), or morphology and syntax (sometimes called "grammar").[1] But while the diversity of variation is great, there seem to be boundaries on variation – speakers do not generally make drastic alterations in sentence word order or use novel sounds that are completely foreign to the language being spoken.[2] Language variation does not equate with language ungrammaticality, but speakers are still (often unconsciously) sensitive to what is and is not possible in their native tongue. Language variation is a core concept in sociolinguistics. Sociolinguists investigate whether this linguistic variation can be attributed to differences in the social characteristics of the speakers using the language, but also investigate whether elements of the surrounding linguistic context promote or inhibit the usage of certain structures.

Studies of language variation and its correlation with sociological categories, such as William Labov's 1963 paper "The social motivation of a sound change," led to the foundation of sociolinguistics as a subfield of linguistics.[3][4] Although contemporary sociolinguistics includes other topics, language variation and change remains an important issue at the heart of the field.

Sociolinguistic variables

Studies in the field of sociolinguistics typically take a sample population and interview them, assessing the realisation of certain sociolinguistic variables. Labov specifies the ideal sociolinguistic variable to

Phonetic variables tend to meet these criteria and are often used, as are morphosyntactic variables, morphophonological variables, and, more rarely, lexical variables. Examples for phonetic variables are: the frequency of the glottal stop, the height or backness of a vowel or the realisation of word-endings. An example of a morphosyntactic variable is the frequency of negative concord (known colloquially as a double negative). Two well-known and frequently studied morphophonological variables are T/D deletion, the optional deletion of the sound /t/ or /d/ at the end of a word, as in "I kep' walking" (Wolfram 1969;[6] Labov et al. 1968[7]); and the ING variable, the optional pronunciation of -ing at the end of a word as -in', as in "I kept walkin'" (e.g. Fisher 1958;[8] Labov 1966/1982;[9] Trudgill 1974[10]).

Analysis and methodology

Analyzing sociolinguistic variation often involves the use of statistical programs to handle its multi-variable nature. One essential part of the methodology is to count up the number of tokens of a particular variant and compare it to the number of times the variant could have occurred. This is called the "Principle of Accountability" in Tagliamonte (2012). Comparing the tokens to the total number of words in a corpus or comparing one corpus to another leads to erroneous results.[11]:19–21 This count of the possible occurrences can be difficult at times because some variants alternate with zero (such as relative pronouns that, who, and zero).[11]:11–12

Association with age

There are several different types of age-based variation one may see within a population. They are: vernacular of a subgroup with membership typically characterized by a specific age range, age-graded variation, and indications of linguistic change in progress.

One example of subgroup vernacular is the speech of street youth. Just as street youth dress differently from the "norm", they also often have their own "language". The reasons for this are the following: (1) To enhance their own cultural identity (2) To identify with each other, (3) To exclude others, and (4) To invoke feelings of fear or admiration from the outside world. Strictly speaking, this is not truly age-based, since it does not apply to all individuals of that age bracket within the community.

Age-graded variation is a stable variation which varies within a population based on age. That is, speakers of a particular age will use a specific linguistic form in successive generations. This is relatively rare. J.K. Chambers cites an example from southern Ontario, Canada where the name of the letter 'Z' varies.[12] Most of the English-speaking world pronounces it 'zed'; however, in the United States, it is pronounced 'zee'. A linguistic survey found that in 1979 two-thirds of the 12-year-olds in Toronto ended the recitation of the alphabet with the letter 'zee' where only 8% of the adults did so. Then in 1991, (when those 12-year-olds were in their mid-20s) a survey showed only 39% of the 20- to 25-year-olds used 'zee'. In fact, the survey showed that only 12% of those over 30 used the form 'zee'. This seems to be tied to an American children's song frequently used to teach the alphabet. In this song, the rhyme scheme matches the letter Z with V 'vee', prompting the use of the American pronunciation. As the individual grows older, this marked form 'zee' is dropped in favor of the standard form 'zed'.[12]

People tend to use linguistic forms that were prevalent when they reached adulthood. So, in the case of linguistic change in progress, one would expect to see variation over a broader range of ages. William Bright provides an example taken from American English, where in certain parts of the country there is an ongoing merger of the vowel sounds in such pairs of words as 'caught' and 'cot'.[13][lower-alpha 1] Examining the speech across several generations of a single family, one would find the grandparents' generation would never or rarely merge these two vowel sounds; their children's generation may on occasion, particularly in quick or informal speech; while their grandchildren's generation would merge these two vowels uniformly. This is the basis of the apparent-time hypothesis where age-based variation is taken as an indication of linguistic change in progress.

Association with geography

Main article: Dialectology

A commonly studied source of variation is regional dialects. Dialectology studies variations in language based primarily on geographic distribution and their associated features. Sociolinguists concerned with grammatical and phonological features that correspond to regional areas are often called dialectologists.

Association with gender

Main article: Language and gender

Men and women, on average, tend to use slightly different language styles. These differences tend to be quantitative rather than qualitative. That is, to say that women use a particular speaking style more than men do is akin to saying that men are taller than women (i.e., men are on average taller than women, but some women are taller than some men).

The initial identification of a women's register was by Robin Lakoff in 1975, who argued that the style of language served to maintain women's (inferior) role in society ("female deficit approach").[15] A later refinement of this argument was that gender differences in language reflected a power difference ("dominance theory").[16] However, both these perspectives have the language style of men as normative, implying that women's style is inferior.

More recently, Deborah Tannen has compared gender differences in language as more similar to 'cultural' differences ("cultural difference approach"). Comparing conversational goals, she argued that men have a report style, aiming to communicate factual information, whereas women have a rapport style, more concerned with building and maintaining relationships.[17] Such differences are pervasive across media, including face-to-face conversation,[18][19] written essays of primary school children,[20] email,[21] and even toilet graffiti (Green, 2003).[22]

Communication styles are always a product of context, and as such, gender differences tend to be most pronounced in single-gender groups. One explanation for this, is that people accommodate their language towards the style of the person they are interacting with. Thus, in a mixed-gender group, gender differences tend to be less pronounced. A similarly important observation is that this accommodation is usually towards the language style, not the gender of the person . That is, a polite and empathic male will tend to be accommodated to on the basis of their being polite and empathic, rather than their being male.[23]

See also

Explanatory notes

  1. This merger used to be distinctive of the western United States, but since World War II, it has developed independently in two other regions: western Pennsylvania and southwestward, and the New England coast from Boston north.[14]


  1. Meecham, Marjory; Rees-Miller, Janie (2001). "Language in social contexts". In O'Grady, William; Archibald, John; Aronoff, Mark; Rees-Miller, Janie. Contemporary Linguistics (Fourth ed.). Bedford/St. Martin's. ISBN 0-312-24738-9.
  2. Wardhaugh, Ronald (2006). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Wiley Blackwell. p. 5. ISBN 978-1-4051-3559-7.
  3. Labov, William (1963). "The social motivation of a sound change". Word. 19: 273–309.
  4. Chambers, J.K. (2003). Sociolinguistic Theory: Linguistic Variation and its Social Significance. Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-22882-9.
  5. Labov, William (1966), The Social Stratification of English in New York City, Diss. Washington.
  6. Wolfram, Walt. 1969. A Sociolinguistic Description of Detroit Negro Speech. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
  7. Labov, William, Cohen, Paul, Robins, Clarence, & Lewis, John. 1968. A Study of the Non-standard English of Negro and Puerto Rican Speakers in New York City. Co-operative Research Report 3288, Vol. 1. Philadelphia: U.S. Regional Survey.
  8. Fisher, J. L. 1958. Social influences on the choice of a linguistic variant. Word 14(1): 47-56.
  9. Labov, William. 1966 [1982]. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
  10. Trudgill, Peter. 1974. The social differentiation of English in Norwich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  11. 1 2 Tagliamonte, Sali A. (2012). Variationist Sociolinguistics: Change, observation, interpretation. UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
  12. 1 2 Chambers, J.K. (1995). Sociolinguistic Theory, Oxford: Blackwell.
  13. Bright, William (1997). "Social Factors in Language Change." In Coulmas, Florian (ed) The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.
  14. Phonological atlas of North America, Map 1
  15. Lakoff, R. (1975). Language and Women’s Place. New York: Harper & Row.
  16. O’Barr, William and Bowman Atkins. (1980) "'Women’s Language' or 'powerless language'?" In McConnell-Ginet et al. (eds) Women and languages in Literature and Society. pp. 93-110. New York: Praeger.
  17. Tannen, Deborah. (1991). You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. London: Virago.
  18. Fitzpatrick, M. A., Mulac, A., & Dindia, K. (1995). Gender-preferential language use in spouse and stranger interaction. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 14, 18-39.
  19. Hannah, Annette, and Tamar Murachver (1999). Gender and conversational style as predictors of conversational behavior. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 18, 153-174.
  20. Mulac, A., Studley, L.B., & Blau, S. (1990). "The gender-linked language effect in primary and secondary students’ impromptu essays." Sex Roles 23, 439-469.
  21. Thomson, R., & Murachver, T. (2001). "Predicting gender from electronic discourse." British Journal of Social Psychology 40, 193-208.
  22. Green, J. (2003). "The writing on the stall: Gender and graffiti." Journal of Language and Social Psychology 22, 282-296.
  23. Thomson, R., Murachver, T., & Green, J. (2001). "Where is the gender in gendered language?" Psychological Science 12, 171-175.

Works consulted

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