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The Concept Of Linguistic Variation

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1263 words Published: 3rd May 2017

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The ability of spoken language is believed (by many) to be attributed uniquely to humanity. Despite this evidently phenomenal existence the exact date of language’s birth remains unknown and yet it continues to evolve. (Klein, 2009)

The study of this ever mutable method of communication has come to be known as linguistics. However due to the communal and social nature of the human race the study of sociolinguistics could be said to more accurately represent language within human societies. Furthermore Linguists have known for some time that differences in language are tied to social class (Ross, 1954)

Sociolinguistics is the study of the way in which language varies and changes in social groups (communities) of speakers, focusing primarily on the impacts of linguistic structures (such as sounds, grammatical forms, intonation features, words, etc) and social factors (such as a speaker’s gender, ethnicity, age, degree of integration into their community, etc). (Reference)

The study of sociolinguistics has ancestry in dialectology, beginning in the 1960s (reference) partly due to the existence of inadequate methods associated with previous approaches to the study of dialect. Sociolinguistics uses recordings of informal conversations as its data; taking a significantly more scientific approach relying on quantitative analysis to highlighting dialect differences.

How language changes (meme Theory)

One possible reason for this change and transition of language through social groups may be attributed to a unit of cultural evolution, the Meme. A meme is defined as “an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” (Dawkins,) By this definition a Meme acts as an ‘evolutionary/replicatory’ unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, allowing transmission from one mind to another through an act of imitation such as writing, speech, gestures or rituals.

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This description of the Meme and its transmission can be applied to the Learning of language. Such learning requires, at its foundation, the ability to imitate sounds (Tomasello, Kruger, & Ratner, 1993). One may be uncomfortable in describing something as complex as language as “imitation,” however, language clearly fit the evolutionary theory in regards to Memes. Information is copied from person to person, variation is introduced both by degradation (due to failures of human memory and communication) and by the creative recombination of different memes. Selection of this variation is then a potential result of limitations on time, memory, transmission rates and other kinds of storage space.

Variation between Social Classes

As described sociolinguistics is built on the foundations the presence dialect variation is from random, but are determined by what Weinreich, Labov and Herzog (1968) defined as ‘orderly heterogeneity’ – structured variation. This ‘structure’ can be shown in a number of ways, particularly interesting from the sociolinguist perspective is the correlation often exhibited between linguistic structure and social status.

Varieties of English can be identified into two groups referring to the changes of the variable (Figure 1). The variable (t) refers to the use of a glottal stop instead of [t], such as in the word bottle, which can be written bot’le to represent the changed pronunciation of the medial (middle) [t]. Most English speakers appear to glottalise final [t] in words such as cat, with no/little correlation to social class. This is not the case however for the use of glottal stops in the medial position, e.g., bottle (bot’le), butter (but’er). This variant is associated with a social stigma. Table 1 shows the occurrence of glottal stops corresponding to social class in Glasgow for all positions within a word (including the final [t]) compared with that occurring only in medial position (Macaulay 1977). Upper class (Professionals) is represented by Class I whilst the working class is represented by Class III (unskilled workers). When considering the glottal stop in the medial position, the highest social class show zero occurrences, while the lowest class uses 68.8%.

The above linguistic variation is not isolated in its relation to social classes; there are of course many other variables in English which show similar sociolinguistically significant distributions. Trudgill (1974) showed the relationship for variables (ing) and (h) in a Norwich based urban dialect study (Table 2). Once gain the values show the percentage of variant forms used by different classes. The variable (ing) refers to variations of alveolar [n] and a velar nasal [ng] in words ending with -ing for example breeding and cooling. Once again a lower social status is associated a higher percentage of nonstandard variation (alveolar) rather than standard (velar nasal) endings. In common terms this variants is known as `dropping one’s g’s,’ and is a commonly recognised marker of social status over the English-speaking world.

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The variable (h) refers to the presence between [h] and lack of [h] at the beginning of for example heart (‘eart) and hand (‘and). This particular variation is slightly more complicated as most urban accents in England do not have initial [h]and as such no variable of it. However in regions that do represent both variants (present of and lack of initial [h]) a similar pattern is shown. The lower the individual’s social status, the more likely he/she is to drop h’s.

As shown in all the examples above a common pattern appears to form (these cases have dealt with stable linguistic features) this can be plotted affectively as an s-shape curve. Figure 2 shows the correlation for the absence of present tense markers (‘she play’ rather than ‘she plays’) with social classes (Trudgill 1974) once again the ‘lower’ the social class, the higher the variation from standard.

As shown in figure 2 the data represents a continuum (s-shaped curve) despite differences between classes, this can be consider once again in a broadly ‘evolutionary’ sense. Just as the transmission of linguistic features (memes) may be stopped by physical geographical barriers (i.e. mountain ranges, oceans), it may also be hindered by social class. This limitation results in boundaries between social dialects that tend not to be perfect. As such sociolinguistics has should be considered a quantitative approach not a qualitative method.

Future Developments

The above approach outlined for analysing language variation has been popular, being used across many speaking communities worldwide. However, whilst these studies have accepted the basic guidance (the linguistic variable), some have suggested (reference) that sociolinguistic studies have been naive by correlating social facts about the subject in isolation (gender, ethnicity and social class), rather than observing how social groups come to be and change over time, and subsequently analysing the variants that emerge as a result. As a result some studies have become to approach studies form a bottom up perspective, examining self-forming social groups and see linguistic structure reflect these grouping rather than starting with a broad social category, and look at the language use within it (a top-down approach).

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