A few months ago a few of us Wellspringers and CoEDL students at the Australian National University were having lunch, and talking about the topic of my last blog post: the overlaps and differences between sociolinguistics and variationism. I was somewhat glad to see that quite a few of us had conflated the two, or were still unsure about how the two are different (this was particularly the case if you didn’t deal with variationism in your research directly). I tried to throw in my two-cents about why we have this conflation of the two things, and mumbled something about Labov. So I think it’s time to tick off that “Write About Labov in relation to Sociolinguistics and Variationism” box on my to-do list.
I struggled a little bit on how to start this section, because introductory textbooks to sociolinguistics all talk about, in-depth, the famous Martha’s Vineyard study by William Labov (1). (If you want a really quick and dirty overview, checkout here.) As for the man himself, Wikipedia already has a pretty good overview, so it’ll be a bit redundant for me to write out more again… Having said that, there’s no way around extrapolating on the Martha’s Vineyard study if we’re to understand how sociolinguistics and variationism get conflated. So even if you know the Martha’s Vineyard story, bear with me, I’ll try and make it worth your while.
Once upon a time, there was a concept called “free variation”. I think this term is still in use, still with the original meaning of “speakers freely alternate between various forms” (you definitely see it used in descriptive grammars). Along comes Bill Labov and shows, empirically, that there are sometimes social motivations for why speakers alternate between forms. Why do some speakers on Martha’s Vineyard pronounce their vowels one way, and others another way? That’s because those speakers who are more oriented towards main land American culture pronounce their vowels more main-landy, while those who are more island oriented tend to pronounce their vowels like the vernacular dialect.
Drawing on social motivations to explain variation was a break through at this time in modern linguistic history. But another thing that was revolutionary about Labov’s study was that it used quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis.
These quantitative methods that Labov started, and were further developed by linguists such as David Sankoff, Gregory Guy, Shana Poplack etc etc did NOT necessarily look at the social dimensions of language. In fact, the Labovian method was used to study variation in a numeric and systematic way. So to simplify it:
- Assumption of variation + Quantitative method part = variationism
- Assumption of variation + social explanations + social dimensions of language = sociolinguistics
As I talked about in this post, sociolinguistics is a pretty broad term with a range of interests that cross-over with anthropological linguistics and linguistic anthropology. But “Labovian sociolinguistics” (which is what I meant in said post when I said “sociolinguistics”) has that emphasis on quantitative methods, which sets it apart from the other socio-culturally oriented linguistic things.
- People say the same thing in different ways.
- The theory was that there was free variation if the grammar couldn’t give an explanation for the variation.
- Labov said that was rubbish, and that social and cultural factors can explain variation.
- Labov used a method that sought patterns and correlations between who and when these variations occurred.
- Boom, variationism.
- The explanation of why variation occurred, was a social reason.
- Boom, sociolinguistics.
So this conflation of “sociolinguistics” and “variationism” makes sense historically, so to speak. It’s kind of an interesting case of how meaning drift can happen, if you aren’t paying attention to the particulars of how things develop, I guess.
Speaking of Labov…
It was a real privilege to hear a living legend.