Sociolinguistics and Variationism are not the same thing

Of courser I would lie, and my first meaningful post of 2016 is neither about PRAAT or micro variation, but about the definition/scope of sociolinguistics (again) and variationism. But I guess if I’m going to talk about microvariation, it’s kind of necessary to clear this ground about what is generally meant by variation and variationism in linguistics, and the close relationship it has with sociolinguistics (read: Labov. If you don’t know what Labov is, he’s a godfather of linguistics, and we’ll do a proper post about him later. I guess it’s kind of inevitable).

So what is the relationship between sociolinguistics and variationism? From the title you can tell that they are not the same thing. But their origins come from (essentially) the same place, so they can be confounded.

20150719_on canon-5.JPG
Me being confounded by the Nmbo language of Papua New Guinea. Ok, that’s a stretch, I know, but we need a picture to break up the text here, ok? 😛

In my last meaningful post I tried pulling apart the difference between Linguistic Anthropology, Anthropological Linguistics, and Sociolinguistics. One of the things that makes sociolinguistics stand out from other areas of linguistics is that it is interested in social meaning, but also in seeking patterns and correlates between how language is used by groups of people (and to varying extents, how language is used by individuals) (1).

When I started off in my PhD two years ago (argh!) I began by reading a book by Sali Tagliamonte titled Variationist Sociolinguistics: Change, Observation, Interpretation (2012). Since my topic is about studying “variation” within a population of speakers, this made sense. What I mean by variation is something like “how do people talk about the same thing in different ways”. A famous example often used in text books is the alternation between word final [n] or [ŋ] in English speakers: for example pronouncing a word laughin’ for the first case, laughing for the second case. (2) Is there a reason why some people, sometimes, pronounce words with the  [n], not the “proper” [ŋ]? Studying this kind of alternation in speech is what “studying variation” means.

So why do some people say the same thing differently? The big break through in the twentieth century for the science of language was that these differences are in part due to where the speaker is from, their background, identity and other ‘social things’ (what in the field is called “socially conditioned variation”). The [ŋ] vs [n] is a well-known dialect difference in England, which is also sensitive to speech style (e.g. polite and careful vs. rapid and casual) (see Trudgill 1974).

The copy of Sali Tagliamonte’s Variationist Sociolinguistics that’s prettily sitting on my desk’s perpetual book pile.

I loved reading Tagliamonte’s textbook. I had taken a subject in my undergraduate level degree called Introduction to Sociolinguistics or something like that, so I was vaguely familiar with the things Tagliamonte was talking about.. but not in this kind of depth. But it took me a while after reading this text book’s methods section, and reading papers such as the one provided by a member of my supervisory panel, that variationism and sociolinguistics are not the same thing. I had, somehow, conflated variationism as a theory and method with frameworks and approaches inherent in sociolinguistics. There is plenty of overlap, but actually, this is another one of those things where the origins and history of sociolinguistics as a field have (probably) helped conflate the two things.

Let’s articulate this here:

  • Variationism: Research into what patterns and correlations can be found in regard to how people vary their speech.
  • Sociolinguistics: Research into the social meaning of language use, with an emphasis on seeking patterns and correlations from a largish data sample.

Tagliamonte’s book is titled Variationist Sociolinguistics. That is, she is talking about sociolinguistic research that uses the variationist framework and method. But variation doesn’t have to be socially conditioned. In fact, it’s very often conditioned by the grammar of a language. Going back to that [ŋ] vs [n] difference from before, it turns out that there are grammatical reasons why people vary their pronunciation between [ŋ] vs [n]. According to  Houston (1985) nouns are much more likely to be pronounced with the [ŋ] rather than [n], while verbs are more likely to be pronounced with [n].


This conflation was a real n00b mistake, I’m aware. Somehow I had thought that variationism and sociolinguistics were the same thing because, you know, Labov.

Photograph of Martha’s Vineyard map from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Centre at the Boston Public Library photo stream, distributed under a  CC-BY.2.0 licence.

I think my next post is going to have to be about William Labov, and how much his work has shaped the field of sociolinguistics, both theoretically, but also methodologically. There are plenty of things out there that talk about his theoretical contributions to linguistics, but I find that very few have explicitly highlighted his methodological contribution (probably because it’s so self evident). This is the second post I’ve had to shove aside the history of sociolinguistics and Labov, so I guess we’ll cross that bridge next post.

(1) Walker and Meyerhoff (2014) have recently writtenabout how it may be that the variable of “individual” is very often the most important factor in explaining the pattern of variation found within speech. That is, a person’s personal language history and their individual quirks are able to best explain patterns of variation found in their speech, rather than things like class, ethnicity, etc., especially when looking at small language’s communities.

:: EDIT ::

If you want to see an example of a non-sociolinguistic but variationist study, have a look at this one by Rena Torres Cacoullos and Catherine Travis:  Prosody, priming and particular constructions: The patterning of English first-person singular subject expression in conversation. You can download a pdf from Rena’s website here.


Houston, A.C. (1985). Continuity and Change

Tagliamonte, S. A. (2012). Variationist Sociolinguistics: Change, Observation, Interpretation. West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell.

Trudgill, P. (1974). The Social Differentiation of English in Norwich. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Walker, J. A., & Meyerhoff, M. (2014). Studies of the Community and the Individual (pp. 175–194).


2 thoughts on “Sociolinguistics and Variationism are not the same thing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s