Seminar Paper, 2002
14 Pages, Grade: 2- (B-)
II. THE SOCIOLINGUIST'S INTEREST IN THE FIELD OF SOCIAL VARIATION
II. 1. Linguistic Variables
II. 2. Social Variables
II. 2. 1. The Speaker's Socio-Economic Status
II. 2. 2. The Speaker's Sex
II. 2. 3. The Factor of Race
III. THE COLLECTION OF DATA
LIST OF REFERENCES
Variation in language, as a sociolinguistic phenomenon, may depend on different factors. On the one hand, language can vary according to the situation in which the speech act takes place and according to the relation between the speakers (style 1). Varieties may also be associated with specific functions in particular situations (register 2). On the other hand, language varieties may be characterized by the geographical and the social background of the speaker. A variety associated with the geographical location in which it is used is called regional variety or regional dialect , whereas variation in language due to social factors is referred to as social variation or social dialect.
Social variation studies developed from traditional dialectology when scientists understood the complexity of language variation. In the late 18th century, dialectologists treated variation in language as a result of the geographical origin of the speaker. In the 1950s, sociolinguists started to concentrate on social factors‘ relevance to language variation. They agreed that the dialectologists´ point of view was too restricted, and that geographical location was not enough to account for linguistic variation. Firstly they pointed out that a language is subject to constant change, i.e. the mobility of the speakers of different dialects of one specific language, and the resulting interaction between these dialects cause modification or substitution of linguistic features. Secondly they started to investigate differences in society which proved to be relevant to variation in language. It becomes obvious that the current sociolinguistic approach to language variation is in two ways more complex than the dialectologists' view, as not only the aspect of constant change is taken into consideration but also the influence social factors have on language varieties.
In the first chapter, tise paper will begin by explaining what is meant by a variety of a language . In addition, the paper will give the reader a general idea of what is the focus in this field of scientific investigation. The first subsection will be dealing with the concept of the linguistic variable , describing its function in sociolinguistic studies, followed by a range of examples illustrating variation on all linguistic levels. After having introduced the term social variable in the second subsection, the paper will give a few concrete examples, in order to illustrate social factors' relation to linguistic variation and to shortly discuss the problem of social stratification. The paper will also touch upon the relation between linguistic variation and the individual's act of identification.
The second chapter will describe the sociolinguistic research work. Here, the different stages of the procedure will be explained, discussing the main problems and difficulties that may emerge during sociolinguistic investigation.
Every single language has a repertoire 3 of varieties, including a standard variety which is the result of deliberate intervention by society. A language undergoes standardization4 in order to create a standard language which serves as an orientation for linguistic norms. A non- standard variety of a particular language may differ from the standard language on all linguistic levels. It may be characterized by differences in pronunciation, grammar and in vocabulary. A variety differing from the standard variety in pronunciation only is often called accent, whereas variation in grammar and vocabulary may be referred to as dialect. A linguistic variety differs from the standard variety on at least one of these levels. It is shared by a speech community which is defined by the use of certain linguistic features and by a common attitude towards the variety 5. The members of a particular speech community may not all know nor use the entire repertoire of "their language", but they are aware of the norms about the selection of varieties,
" [...] so we may define a variety of a language as a set of linguistic items with similar [regional or] social distribution." (Hudson 21996, p.22)
The sociolinguist concerned with the relation between social and linguistic features confines himself to the investigation of a restricted number of variables. He concentrates on a certain social variable and identifies its variants which appear to promote the usage of a certain variant of a linguistic variable instead of another. "The choices among the variants of a linguistic variable are influenced by both social and linguistic forces" (Fasold 1990, p.272). The fieldworker has to deliminate the speech community which he will be focusing on from other communities, and it is necessary to know who is using the relevant features in which context. He will then prepare a procedure in order to elicit relevant data confirming his hypothesis about the relation between linguistic and social variables in this particular speech community.
In the study of language variation linguistic, variables function as scientists´ tools, enabling them to investigate, recognize and analyse particular speech patterns. A variable can be seen as a set of alternative features, called variants, which can be substituted for one another without changing the meaning of the word. It was William Labov who introduced this concept to sociolinguistic studies:
"[...] a linguistic variable is a [linguistic] item [...] that has alternate realizations, as one speaker realizes it one way and another a different way [...]" (Wardhaugh 1997, p.140). It is the scientist’s aim to find a sociolinguistic explanation of the preferred use of one variant instead of another, and to relate the variation in language to certain social factors. A linguistic variable can have a number of variants which differ from one another on a phono- logical level. There is, for example, the present progressive form of verbs where the -ing- suffix is realized differently by different speakers. The variable (-ing) has the two identifiable variants [-ing] and [-in´]. Some linguists might argue that the difference between the two realizations of the -ing-variable is a morphological difference. (Hudson 1996, p.43) There are other phonological features like the (h) variable at the beginning of words which may be realized in two clearly distinct ways. The word home, for example, does either begin with an audible [h] or it is pronounced [h=Ø]. The non-occurrence of this phoneme is called zero- pronunciation. (Wardhaugh 1997, p.138) Other phonological features may show quantative variation (ibid.), i.e. the scientist has to distinguish between different degrees of, for example, frontness or backness in the realization of a vowel. A clear-cut distinction between the variants is not possible and the identification of the relatively differing variants is much more complicated. This is also the case when a variable shows multi-dimensional variation, that is when more than one characteristic of the pronunciation of a vowel has to be taken into consideration. The variants of a particular vowel-variable may not only differ in their degree of frontness or backness but at the same time in their degree of lip-rounding or -unrounding and tenseness or laxness. The scientist has to decide which pronunciation features are taken into account when graduating the variants.
As I have already indicated, morphological variation can also be relevant to studies of linguistic variation. Investigators have looked at the presence or absence of morphemes, for instance, at the third person singular -s in the present tense form of verbs. The variable (thinks) ,for example, may be realized as either [thinks] or [think] . The non-occurence of the -s-suffix would be regarded as a non-standard realization of the variable. Again one could argue that this is rather a phonological difference. "[...] differences in either pronunciation or in morphology [...] are in any case hard to keep seperate [...]" (Hudson 21996, p.43). Variation on the level of syntax has been investigated for negated sentences, among other things. The sentence (He hasn´t got any money either) is a syntactic variable which has the possible variants [He hasn´t got no money either] (double negation 6) and [He hasn´t got no money neither] (multiple negation 7). It is rare for differences in syntax to be investigated by sociolinguists because syntactical features seem rather unsensitive to variation and are difficult to recognize in ordinary speech.
Sociolinguists have also looked at the varying usage of lexical items. Investigating the social distribution of certain synonyms, however, is very rare as significant data is most difficult to elicit. Lexical variation is rather relevant in investigating different registers. As has been elaborated throughout this section, linguistic variation is investigated on all linguistic levels. Though scientists mainly concentrate on the realization of phonemes as, for one thing, pronunciation features do occur most frequently when natural language is being investigated. Secondly, pronunciation is most sensitive to variation; an individual speaker never pronounces one word twice in exactly the same way. Thirdly, pronunciation is, in contrast to the grammar and the vocabulary of a language, less liable to standardization and at the same time individually marked. Moreover, phonological features are more quickly adopted than changes in grammar or vocabulary8.
A social variable can be defined as a social factor with an influence on language variation which, analogous to the linguistic variable, can occur in various ways. If the choice of one particular variant of a linguistic variable instead of another is not attributed to regional differences or differences in style or register, sociolinguists try to explain the variation by quantifiable factors in society which are known or expected to be influencing language. There is a wide range of social differences between speakers which have been found to relate to linguistic variation. The following remarks will be confined to three very influential social variables: socio-economic status, sex and race.
The social variable of socio-economic status was found to influence the realization of, for example, the (-ing) variable at the end of present progressive verb-forms. In his 1974- Norwich-study, Peter Trudgill investigated the occurrence of either [-ing] or [-in‘] with a number of speakers. Dividing the group of speakers into social classes, he found out that the higher the socio-economic status of the speaker (and the more formal the style), the more probable the occurrence of the standard variant [-ing]. In casual style, the least formal speech style, the speakers who were related to the lowest class did use the non-standard variant [- in‘] in virtually one hundred percent of the cases.
Trudgill's procedure was designed to find evidence for how speakers' social status and the degree of formality in their speech relate to the use of the (-ing) variable. Before starting to conduct this investigation, Trudgill had to divide his selection of speakers into groups which were to represent five differerent social classes. According to their occupation, income, education, place of residence and their father's occupation he assigned the participants either to the middlemiddleclass, the lowermiddleclass, the upperworkingclass, the middleworkingclass or to the lowerworkingclass. The question often raised in this context is, if it is appropriate to stratify society in this way, reducing various social factors to a single scale and assuming that the resulting concept of socio-economic status is universally valid. It is obviously difficult to define groups of people on the basis of their social background in general. William Labov who established social stratification in his New York study argued that different social factors are relevant to different linguistic variables.9 Scientists agree that the criteria taken into consideration to provide a representative stratification of society must be chosen with regard to the variable under investigation.10 The second complex of Trudgill's study was the aspect of speech style. As he was looking for evidence for the relation between formality in speech and the use of the (-ing) variable, he had to elicit different degrees of formality. The participants used the most formal style while reading prepared wordlists paying most attention to their pronunciation. The most casual speech was produced in natural conversation, talking to, for example, family members or friends. The two intermediate speech styles were produced while reading out a reading-passage respectively while talking to the interviewer. This style stratification, too is one of the methods developed by William Labov.
One of the first quantative studies of social variation which was carried out by John Fischer in 1958 in New England, is concerned with the (-ing) variable, relating the choice of variants not only to social class but also to the speaker’s sex. He carried out this investigation among school children, forming two seperate groups, one group of girls and another of boys. These two groups were again divided according to social status. Fischer found out that the lower class boys used the most the non-standard variant [-in‘] while the middle class girls clearly preferred the RP- standard variant [-ing]. The choice between the two variants did not only depend on the speaker's sex and their location on the social scale, but also on the degree of formality of the situation. In other words, the children adjusted their pronunciation of the variable in question to the situation in which the speech act took place. They payed least attention to the use of the RP-variant in casual speech while talking to their class mates, for instance. One could speculate that girls rather aspire to be associated with higher social status than boys do. What is obvious, though, is that the (-ing) variable has social significace not only for the fieldworker, but for the speakers as well.
The (-ing) variable is generally regarded as a social marker in the English speaking world, i.e. it carries social information about the speaker. People are aware of markers which show class- and style stratification. Using the variant [-in'], which is stigmatized in parts of the English speaking world, associates one's pronunciation with lower-class speech. A social marker can become a stereotype as soon as it is conciously varied in order to identify oneself with a certain group of speakers.
William Labov’s New York City study, which was carried out in 1972, illustrates the factor of race and its relation to the use of a certain linguistic features. Together with other scientists, Labov investigated the speech of Afro-American adolescents which proved to be different from the speech of "white" Americans and others by various features. Labov found out that the variable (is), i.e. any present tense form of the verb to be, with its variants [is] and [is=∅] is the most distinctive feature, and that "white" speakers prefer [is] in most of the cases whatever their social status. For the "black" speakers it appeared that the more they identified with the "black community", the more frequent was the use of the variant [is=∅]. This manner of identification with a certain group of people by means of a specific linguistic feature was investigated by Labov among Afro-American teenagers in Harlem. He divided his selection of speakers into four groups, identifying "core members" of a gang called "the Jets", "secondary members", "peripheral members" and "non-members" (Hudson ²1996, p.185). He found out that the closer the speaker's relation to the gang, the more often occurred the socially marked variant [is=∅]. Even the non-members occasionally used this stereotype identifying themselves with the "black community", but at the same time they distanced themselves from the gang, using it less often than any of the members. This study illustrated that linguistic variables may be employed for the purpose of identification with a particular group or speech community which is defined by a particular social variable.
Before beginning with the actual research work and the collection of data about a particular sociolinguistic phenomenon, the fieldworker propounds a hypothesis, i.e. he defines an assumption of the relation between a particular social and a linguistic variable. He has to choose a social variable which he expects to be relevant to the variation of a linguistic feature. Usually the linguist chooses a linguistic variable which has been previously observed by other scientists and which is therefore likely to be socially significant. Some scientists even fall back upon predetermined lists of variables which have been made by dialectologists or other linguists. The fieldworker also has to decide in what way he expects the two variables to relate to each other. This initial decision already contains the problematic aspect of social stratification as the variable needs to be appropriately graduated. He then has to settle which variants of the linguistic variable carry social information at all, and to which social variant they will probably relate to.
The first step in collecting sociolinguistic data is the preparation of a questionnaire which is necessary for the performance of the interviews. It is designed with regard to the hypothesis. It is important to elicit sociolinguistic information as definite as possible, either confirming or refuting the scientist's assumptions. Creating this questionnaire, the scientist has to deliberate on the best way of bringing about representative data without which the interview becomes subject to unnatural conditions. This might turn out to fatally influence the results of the interviews. Formulating the questions, the fieldworker has to think over which words or grammatical constructions are suitable for the interviews. He has to bear in mind that the linguistic environment around the varied feature "[...] systematically influences the frequency with which each variant could be expected to appear" (Trudgill, 1984, p.246). It was again William Labov who found out that neighbouring phonemes have an effect on the pronunciation of the varying feature. If the linguist is interested in variation of linguistic features according to different degrees of formality, he might use William Labov's concept of style stratification which is generally regarded as a sensible method to elicit different speech styles.
The second step in this procedure is the selection of speakers that will be participating in the interviews. The sociolinguist has to formulate a set of qualifications with regard to the expected results. In other words, the participants have to fit the social variable(s) under investigation. This rather subjective method of selecting speakers is called judgement sample and it has been criticized for leading to misinterpretation. The alternative method, the random sample, provides an equal chance to be selected for everyone in the population to be sampled. The choice of participants is arbitrary and, on the one hand, this makes the method much more objective. On the other hand, though, a randomly selected group of speakers will have to consist of a much greater number of individuals as only a few of them will be relevant to the study. Consequently, most of the recorded material will be identified irrelevant. Therefore, judgement sample is generally preferred in sociolinguistic studies and scientists try to avoid misleading subjectivity at this early stage of investigation. Obviously, this part of the research work is rather lenghthy as a large number of speakers is required to guarantee a representative amount of data. Moreover, it is important to ensure that the selected speakers are all willing to be interviewed and recorded. This is the basic requirement for consistency in speech. As soon as the fieldworker is satisfied with the sample of speakers and their grouping, and as soon as he knows what he will be looking for during the interviews, he will start to make recordings. The presence of a tape-recorder during the interview, however, represents a problem which is referred to as the observer's paradox . It is obvious that the situation of a recorded interview with a linguist is a rather formal one: "Won't speakers become self- conscious, and try to make their speech more standard in the presence of a tape-recorder?" (Spolsky, 1998, p.10). Although people's speech is more formal under such conditions than it would be if they were talking to friends or family members, the apparatus is the most important tool in the sociolinguistic interview. Some scientists have tried to alleviate this problem. Lesley Milroy, for example, carried out a study in Belfast being part of the social network of the speakers. She was accepted as a friend, consequently her presence did not increase the formality of the speech. This is, of course, an exceptional case as usually the fieldworker comes into the participant's homes as a stranger, and the problem of the observer's paradox cannot be overcome because everyday language cannot be analysed without making tape-recordings first.
After the data collection has been completed, the investigator starts with the identification of the variants by listening to the recordings. This is a rather difficult stage of the study so far as the linguist's subjective expectations might influence the recognition of the occurrences. This problem mainly applies to studies concerned with phonological variation. Pronunciation features may differ in several phonetic dimensions. It is not always possible to reduce the analysis of a linguistic variable to one distinct feature. The fieldworker has to count the occurrences of each variant for each text separately to be able to compare different figures for different texts. He starts, for instance, by counting the occurrences of variant a) in the casual speech of group 1), he continues by counting the occurrences of variant b) in casual speech of group 1) and so on, until he reaches the last group 4) to count the occurrences of variant c) in most formal style. To make the comparison easier, the occurring figures are reduced to percentages. It matters then to discover the differences between the texts and their relevance to the hypothesis. Some differences might not be statistically relevant at all, but if they are they require sociolinguistic explanation.
The scientist can then start to interpret the data, bearing in mind that the phonetic environment can make speakers favour one variant instead of another and that his hypothesis is not fully confirmed. The stage of interpreting the data is certainly the most difficult one, as it involves some important decisions. First of all, the speech patterns need to be precisely described and explained. The study is regarded as succesful when the findings can be generalized and applied to a level outside the actual investigation.
In the course of my work at this paper, I realized that the field of sociolinguistics is very extensive and difficult to survey. When I was looking for relevant literature on my topic, I found it hard to decide which aspects I should take into consideration and which to leave out. I noticed that many different topics in this field of linguistics are closely related to one another and it was difficult to keep them separate. As this field seems to be subject to constant controversial discussion among sociolinguists, it is difficult to find a central theory which would help to find one's way through the range of opinions, experiences and approaches of the experts.
I decided to shortly discuss language variation in general in my introduction in order to help the reader locate the level of Social Variation. There are of course many aspects of this topic which, in this paper, have only been touched upon as I have confined myself to a general introduction. There is, for example, a wide range of investigations which were carried out under very different circumstances. I think it would be interesting to directly compare a selection of studies and to evaluate the different proceedings. I used a few sociolinguistic studies to illustrate the general procedure but did not go into detail about one particular research work as this would have been beyond the scope of an "Einführungsseminar"- termpaper.
- Cheshire, Jenny. 1982. Variation in an English Dialect. Cambridge: University Press.
- Fasold, Ralph. 1990. The Sociolinguistics of Language. Cambridge: Blackwell.
- Hudson, R.A. ²1996. Sociolinguistics. Cambridge: University Press.
- Hughes, Arthur et al. ³1996. English Accents and Dialects. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Labov, William. 1966. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington D.C.: -
- Milroy, James. 1992. Linguistic Variation and Change. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Spolsky, Bernard. 1998. Sociolinguistics. New York City: Oxford University Press.
- Stork, Hartmann. 1972. Dictionnary of Language and Linguistics. London: -
- Trudgill, Peter. 1974. The Social Differentiation of English in Norwich. Cambridge: University Press.
- --- (ed.). 1984. Applied Sociolinguistics. London: Academic Press.
- Wardhaugh, Ronald. ²1997. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.
1 The term „style“ refers to the individual use of language with a varying degree of formality according to occasion. See Stork (1972), p.247
2 The term „register“ refers to a variety associated with a specific set of linguistic items used within a particular group of people. Ibid.
3 See Spolsky (1998), p.25
4 See Hudson (²1996), p.32
5 The term „speech community“ is used to refer to a community based on language [...] to which varieties or items may be related. The definition is subject of disagreement among linguistits (See Hudson 1996, p.24ff).
6 See Wardhaugh (1997), p.140
8 In his section on types of linguistic items, Hudson touches upon the question if the individual’s pronunciation has a different social function than other linguistic features. He speculates upon the role that pronunciation features play for the „individual’s act of identity“.See Hudson (²1996), p.43.
9 See Hudson (²1996), pp.186f
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