The Strenght of Weak Ties. How Linguistic Change Happens in Social Networks

Term Paper, 2011

12 Pages, Grade: 2.3



1. Introduction

2. The Concept of Social Network
2.1 Relationship, social class & social network
2.2 Social network as a tool in the sociolinguistics

3. Labov´s approach
3.1 Network as a reaction to Labov

4. Weak ties in late medieval and early modern London

5. Conclusions towards an integrated model


1. Introduction

The following pages will take a deeper look on the Social Network Theory as part of the sociolinguistics. It will further be discussed, to what extend social networks are bound to concepts of social class. Since the Social Network Theory was primarily build to function as tool within the sociolinguistics, a short summary of two studies will be discussed. Furthermore, oppositions and similarities of Milroy´s and Labov´s theories according to main factors of linguistic change shall be shown. A historical perspective of weak ties will be given at the example of late medieval and early modern London, before the last chapter will not only try to summarize the most important results, but also hint at the importance of an integrated model of the network theory and social factors.

2. The Concept of Social Network

The foundations of the Social Network Theory (SNT) are simply social contacts of individuals with other individuals (Milroy J. 1992: 85). Generally, social networks are boundless (Milroy 2002: 550). According to Milroy, these social contacts consist of “interpersonal ties of different types of strength, and structural relationships between links can vary” - “ego being the person who […] forms the `anchor´ of the network” (Milroy 2002: 550). Milroy differentiates between “first-order ties”, which link ego directly and “second-order ties”, which link ego indirectly (Milroy 2002: 550). According to Granovetter, the strength of a tie, the linear differentiation between weak and strong, is described by “a combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding) and the reciprocal services which characterise a tie” (Granovetter 1973: 1361). Furthermore, Granovetter assumes that weak ties, in its very basis, function as linguistic bridges between personal communities. Strong ties do not (Granovetter 1982: 202). This is based on the fact that weak ties are more numerous and require less effort (Granovetter 1982: 201). As a result, more personal relations consist of weak ties. Ergo, any ego should reach more people, if his or her network consists mainly of weak ties.

In accordance with Granovetter, information passed on weak ties has a tendency to be innovatory, since people linked by strong ties tend to share contacts and therefore same information (Granovetter 1982: 202-3). Therefore, weak tie individuals carry new information/language across social boundaries. On the other hand, as already suggested by Granovetter, strong ties hinder the exchange of new information and thus linguistic change: “In a maximally dense and multiplex network, everyone would know everyone else (density), and the actors would know one another in a rage of capacities (multiplexity)” (Milroy 1992: 6). Milroy adds that this construction is an “idealization which predicts that in a community bound by maximally dense and multiplex network ties linguistic change would not take place at all” (Milroy J. 1992: 176).

Weak ties on the other hand are “more open to external influences” (Milroy J. 1992: 176). Speech communities can resist external factors and maintain “consensus norms” within their dialect or the external factors can succeed and change the dialect towards an “out-group” form, which will be focused on within the next few lines (Milroy J. 1992: 95). Milroy is of the opinion that “close socializing patterns have the effect of maintaining traditional norms, and resisting change from outside” (Milroy J. 1992: 89). The already mentioned out-group form is, according to Milroy, used when speakers are connected by a weak tie, which usually differs from a speaker´s community dialect. The “in-group” variant on the opposite encodes “degrees of social distance” or nearness within a speaker´s local community (Milroy J. 1992: 99).

An actual example could be a first semester student who has to use out-group forms because of the availability of only weak ties in a new city at the beginning of his/her first university semester. A change in language is likely and the student might even build the bridge to his or her hometown community, transport the newly adapted language variants to various groups and succeed to change the language by means of the now weakened ties to his former local community.

“The SNT approach asserts that in some speech communities complex patterns of social network relations often develop among subgroups to demarcate them from other subgroups and that these intracultural variations will often be reflected in linguistic variations within the general language norms of the communities” (Edwards 1992: 94).”

Weak ties lead to linguistic uniformity. Strong ties lead to fragmentations within society (Milroy 2002: 567-8).

2.1 Relationship, social class & social network

The following chapter will try to give an “understanding [of] the role of class and network in patterns of linguistic variation and mechanisms of linguistic change” (Milroy J. 1992: 1). Milroy explains social class as “a concept designed to elucidate large-scale social, political, and economical structures and processes, whereas social network relates to the community and interpersonal level of social organization” (Milroy 1992: 2).

James Milroy makes aware of the fact that “all speakers [of all classes] at all time have had ties of some kind … with other speakers [from other classes]”, which is probably true in most cases (Milroy J. 1992: 85).

Concerning social class, Edwards asks two critical questions:

1. What is the Relationship between use of variants of linguistic variables and demographic and attitudinal characteristics like? (Edwards 1992: 94)
2. What is the relationship between choice of variants and person´s VCI, sex, and age group? (Edwards 1992: 94)

During his studies in the inner-city of Detroit 95% of the population in the studied area was black and 60% of adults did not graduate from high school (Edwards 1992: 97). The median income and employment rate were below average (Edwards 1992: 97). All participants had a very high tendency to use the vernacular, the “in-group” form of their neighborhood or block. Their Vernacular Culture Index, which was determined by attitudes towards their neighborhood and by the population´s overall situation in their neighborhood, as well as by their geographical mobility and personal relationships, correlated highly with the use of the vernacular. Edward´s analysis will be discussed in more detail in the following chapter.

However, the excerpt already hints that the means and outcomes of any SNT are highly related to social factors. In accordance with Milroy, social network structure is in various ways depending on a broader social framework (Milroy 1992: 2). On a political, institutional, and economic level powerful networks can even impose their norms on other networks (Milroy 1992: 19). Milroy adds that “class stratification is accompanied by varying degrees of mobility” (Milroy 2002: 566). She further argues that “the socially and geographically mobile middle class” consists mainly of loose-knit networks, whereas close-knit networks are mainly related to the working- and upper-class (Milroy 2002: 566-7).

In means of linguistic change middle-class networks occupy an important niche since “[m]iddle-class groups will tend to be internally connected with a higher proportion of weak ties than working-class groups” and upper-class groups because “middle-class networks […] are larger, less kin- and territory-orientated and perceived as more supportive”, as argued by Milroy (Milroy 1992: 16-7).

“The success, persistence, and precise form of the symbolic opposition enacted by small-scale networks will depend not upon community-internal linguistic or interactional factors, but upon the relation of the resisting group to the national economy and to like groups in other cities or states. The level of integration of any given group into the wider society is likely to be inversely related to the extent to which it maintains a distinctive vernacular” (Milroy 1992: 4)

According to Milroy the high usage of vernacular in the inner-city black community in Detroit is first of all founded in a low level of integration into the national economy and in some sort of resistance against existing disproportions in the social sector.

In contrast to this sort of linguistic rebellion, Milroy further argues that the weak ties of middle-, upper-middle-, and upper-class would “ensure that the dominant linguistic market – as embodied in some form of legitimized or standard language – holds sway without hindrance from […] alternative vernacular markets” (Milroy 1992: 22). Thus, weak ties also function as a protection for dominant dialects against the differing dialects of small-scale strong tie communities.

Milroy concludes that a “two-level sociolinguistic theory would be helpful. Such a theory should link the small-scale networks where individuals are embedded and act purposively in their daily lives with larger-scale structures which determine relationships of power at the institutional level” (Milroy 2002: 567).

2.2 Social network as a tool in the sociolinguistics

As explained so far, the social network analysis does primarily focus on “the structural and content properties of the ties which constitute egocentric personal networks” (Milroy 2002: 552). The central question still is:

“Why do changes in a structural feature take place in a particular language at a given time, but not in other languages with the same feature, or in the same language at other times?” (Milroy J. 1992: 164)

In this context it should be remembered that “no real language is a perfectly balanced and stable structure, linguistic change is always in progress, and all dialects are transitional dialects. Synchronic states, as we observe them at a given time, are therefore changing states, and stable states of language of the kind postulated in Saussurean theory are idealizations” (Milroy J. 1992: 3).

It was argued so far that weak ties are more open to external influences. Therefore, Milroy believes that “the weakening of the language/network relationship with respect to a group of speakers may be necessary precondition of that group fulfilling of the role linguistic innovator” (Milroy 1992: 13). The problem is that it is rather difficult to analyze speakers who are “socially and geographically mobile” and whose network ties are therefore rather weak (Milroy 2002: 562). Close-knit communities simply offer more controllable variables since their populations have fewer personal connections and also tend to be less geographically mobile (Milroy 2002: 562).

Several questions arise from this assumption:

1. Does a weak tie orientated individual that functions as a linguistic innovator really exist?
2. In which ways is he/she tied to his/her community, neighborhood or block?
3. Is he / she the true innovator of some sort of language change or only the reason for an

expansion of a language innovation?

To give an answer to the question which persons are responsible for linguistic change, does not answer whether they are actually the inventors or brokers, as Labov calls those who extend the influence of a language change (Labov 2001: 364). In many cases it is furthermore almost impossible to identify the specific characteristic of a personal tie. Even the personal involved in certain ties could misjudge their relationships to others. Does data like local nearness, same workspace or family membership really qualify the analyst to identify weak or strong ties between groups and individuals?


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The Strenght of Weak Ties. How Linguistic Change Happens in Social Networks
University of Cologne
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ISBN (Book)
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Labov, Edwards, social network theory, linguistic change, weak ties, strong ties, Milroy
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Jens Stuhlemer (Author), 2011, The Strenght of Weak Ties. How Linguistic Change Happens in Social Networks, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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