Chapter 8 – The Process of Change
Wolfram and Fasold, distinguished between speakers of Standard English (SE), white nonstandard
English (WNS), and Vernacular Black English (VBE).
Labov suggested that we should attempt to state what we know by writing variable rule— (a
modified version of the kind of rule found in grammars modeled on Chomsky's ideas.)
o It states the probabilities: do this or that at a certain frequency or frequencies according to
the presence or absence of factors a,b,c...n. (these factors can be social class, level of
formality, age, gender, and race)
In practice it is quite difficult to try to write even a single variable rule.
o One variable rule is supposed to cover all speakers; either that, or there are two variable
rules which interact.
Criticism—While the concept of probability is useful in life in explaining the chances of certain things
happening, it offers no guide to conduct in specific instances.
o Categorical rules ( if X then Y) do offer a guide to, and therefore an explanation of conduct
but variable rules do not.
o Variable rules just generalize general trends or probabilities found within groups. Variable
rules are statistical generalizations based on surveys of language use and they indicate
trends or norms in populations.
Additionally, "variability" has been criticized as some kind of rule-governed behavior that can also be
ascribed to individuals.
Bailey and Bickerton have been particularly critical of such attempts to use variable rule.
o Individual speech behavior is called an isolect and group behavior is a sociolect.
o They propose that each individual controls an isolect of the language, an individual array of
linguistic usages which others may or may not share. Each isolect is a lect. The lects of a
language differ from one another along a continuum, which forms a polylectal or panlectal
grid such that there is an implicated relationship among the various lects.
According to the theory, this dynamic view of language structure is valid both
synchronically (as a description of the structure of a language at any specific
moment in its history, and diachronically (over an extended period of time))
Labov and others have argued that the kinds of grammars preferred by Chomsky must be modified
to recognize variation and the competence-performance distinction made in such grammars must be
reformulated, weakened, or abandoned.
Variation is a linguistic fact and not haphazard and random.
We are aware, sometimes consciously and sometimes not that certain variants have more or less
prestige than others. We are also able to modify our speech to reflect changing circumstances, and do so systematically.
We know the direction of change from experiments indicated above, but we can even guess as to its
Can linguistic change be observed while it is actually occurring?
Most linguists have maintained that changed itself cannot be observed.
The consequences of changes however may be observable.
The Traditional View
→Only changes that are important in a language are those that can be demonstrated to have structural
→It also favors a “family tree” account of change and of the relationships among languages. Linguists
tend to reconstruct the histories of related languages or varieties of a language in such a way that sharp
differentiations are made btw those languages or varieties, so that at one point in time one thing
(language itself) splits into two or more, or is lost. – The “family tree” view focuses on the consequences
of change—more specially internal change.
→Internal change in a language is observed through its consequences.
Distinction btw two distinctive sounds may be lost in a language.
o E.g., In most varieties of English in the vowel of meet and meat or horse and hoarse.
Variation is either controlled by circumstances (e.g., allophonic—as when the p in pin is aspired but
the p in spin it not) or it is free (e.g., random).
→This is change brought about through borrowing from other dialects or languages—it is often quite
Some Changes in Progress
Variation and change (for not all variation is a sign of, or leads to, change)
“Long-term stable variation”—e.g., the distribution of the (ng), (th), (dh) variables previously
discussed and such alternatives as the ask-ask alternation, the latter as old as the language.
The primary determinant of the stable sociolinguistics variables is social class—the higher the
position of a speaker in the social scale, the smaller the frequency of the nonstandard forms. Labov points out that language change can be readily observed today. –The problem is one of
identifying changes that are occurring and then trying to account for them. (what sets them in
motion, how they spreads, and how they are maintained)
Chambers and Trudgill (1998)
What they consider to be changes in progress—the spread of uvular r in western and northern
Europe. (the main importance in its spread is cities)
The strong internal links in the uvular r area are those between cities, which form a kind of network.
→ These are instances of change diffusing through space. – the density of population and the influence
of large population centers are important factors. E.g., City > Town > Village. – a physical barrier (such as
a river or a range of hills) can prevent diffusion.
Age as a Factor
→ Age differences are quite misleading.
E.g., The use of Like (I’m like—give me a break!) –Result= the greatest use and range uses among
adolescent girls but both men and women up to the age of 40 also provided instances. – Indeed like
was adopted by people that were now in their 30s.
o This is an instance of a language change in progress rather than just merely one of age-
The good methods to answer this question:
1) Survey the same younger people twenty to thirty years later when they become
middle-aged to see if they maintain the innovations and really stay quite unlike the
present older people. (real-time panel study)
2) Survey carefully chosen samples drawn from the same population at periods of twenty
to thirty years to see if comparable groups have changed their behaviour. (real-time
Labov’s study was able to make use of roughly comparable sets of data from two periods of time. –
o He concentrated is attention on the way native Vineyarders pronounced the vowels in the
two sets of words: out, house, trout and while, pie, night.
o He called the variation in the 1 set the (aw) variable and the variable in the 2 set the (ay)
o The change was more advanced in people in their thirties and early forties who were
fishermen living in the Up-island area.
o Explanation: the change was merely an exaggeration of an existing tendency to centralize
the first part of the diphthong. This exaggeration is particularly characteristics of those of
identified most closely with the island. – Indeed we can clearly see the social motivation of a sound change; the change is one motivated by a desire to show loyalty to a particular place
and solidarity with the people who live there.
Trudgill (1972)—Norwich England
He found that the distribution of the variants of the (ng) variable showed that there were very clear