Quantitative Sociolinguistics = Labov?


The Engma Room at the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL), Canberra Node.

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.

William Labov

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.

  1. People say the same thing in different ways.
  2. The theory was that there was free variation if the grammar couldn’t give an explanation for the variation.
  3. Labov said that was rubbish, and that social and cultural factors can explain variation.
  4. Labov used a method that sought patterns and correlations between who and when these variations occurred.
  5. Boom, variationism.
  6. The explanation of why variation occurred, was a social reason.
  7. 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…

Labov and Gillian Sankoff at the recently held NWAV AP4 at National Chun Chen University, Chiayi, Taiwan (国立中正大学、嘉義、台湾)

Labov and Gillian Sankoff at the recently held NWAV AP4 at National Chun Chen University, Chiayi, Taiwan (国立中正大学、嘉義、台湾)

It was a real privilege to hear a living legend.

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.

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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 regards 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).

Anthropological Linguistics vs Sociolinguistics vs Linguistic Anthropology (ARGH!)

Academic introductions are awkward, especially if you’re a PhD student who’s still sussing out the nooks and crannies of their field – I only have the vaguest of ideas how to describe what kind of linguist I am*. I was at a morning tea a few weeks ago and we had to go around and introduce ourselves to new people in the department. I had to quickly compose a ready-made response and managed to fumble something out about working in Papua New Guinea and looking at social-y cultural-y things and how people speak differently even though they speak the same language. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to introduce myself, but the activity doesn’t get any easier.

Yours truly being anthropology-ish. That’s Towal giving me a tour of her father-in-law’s garden.

I kind of see myself as a sociolinguist, but then since I work in “exotic” locations does that make my linguistics more anthropology-ish? There also happens to be (of course), a distinction between “anthropological linguistics”, and “linguistic anthropology”. This is confusing, because you wonder what exactly the difference is between the three.
So let’s walk through this and highlight the confusing parts, and I’ll come up with a simple answer that works (for me) for the time being (I think).

Anthropological Linguistics

 A sub-field of linguistics.
“Anthropological linguistics is that sub-field of linguistics which is concerned with the place of language in its wide social and cultural context, its role in forging and sustaining cultural practice and social structures….[it] views language through the prism of the core anthropological concept, culture, and, as such, seeks to uncover the meaning behind the use, misuse or non-use of languages, its different forms, register and styles…”  (Foley 1997: 3)
So according to Foley, anthropological linguistics is interested in the cultural and social meaning of language (as opposed to linguistic meaning in the sense Semanticists mean. I might talk about this some other time). A really simple example: what do we actually mean when we say the phrase “Yeah, right”? It could have a genuine or sarcastic meaning depending on the tone of voice you use, or the context. And what kind of a person do you imagine would use this phrase? Or when would you use it, if you are the kind of person to use this phrase? These are the kinds of things that are meant by “cultural and social meaning”.

But then you have…

Linguistic Anthropology

Funnily enough, a sub-field of anthropology. As we mentioned at the very beginning, anthropologists are interested in holistic approaches. Anthropologists have various theories on what culture is, or what human nature is, and these things frame the way language is understood and studied.

“Linguistic anthropologists view language in its cultural framework and are concerned with with the rules of its social use.” (Salzmann 1998:16)

Which is, unfortunately for us, really close to what Foley said above.
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Languages, like armies, have rules (I’m going to have to work on my pictures-matching-with-text thing…)

Ok, so if linguistic anthropology is a subfield of anthropology, what makes anthropology different from linguistics? My really simple overview looks something like the following:

  • Privileges a holistic approach, i.e. “concern with a systems as a whole rather than with only some of its parts.” (Salzmann 1998:2) – In other words, it’s an interest in how specific things fit into the grand scheme of things. For example, and anthropologist might be interested in marriage ceremonies, but they are interested in this ceremony and how it relates to ideas of family ties, or how gender norms are reinforced, or something like that. The interest is in the ceremony, but how it relates to other parts of a people’s culture.
  • A strong fieldwork component in contrast to other disciplines interested in the human condition (Salzmann 1998) – An interest in what it is that makes us human, and the many things that we humans do which may or may not be unique to us as a species.
  • The scientific study of language structure. (Salzmann 1998: 4) – In regular speech, it’s the kind of stuff people call “grammar”: verb conjugations, word order, case etc, for those of you who may have studied foreign languages before.
So maybe you can say something really simplistic like “an anthropological linguist is like a linguistic anthropologist in that they are interested in the social meaning of language, but the former being a linguist would place a fair bit of emphasis on linguistic structure (e.g. grammar).” Basically, a grammar nerd is still a grammar nerd even if they are interested in the human condition and social meaning.

Melsy being a champ and being recorded in the name of data collection. She’s also a ripper of a story teller.

Another difference that should really be pointed out is that of research method (i.e. how the research collects data). 20th century cultural anthropology is famous for its method of “participant observation“. For a good summary, I direct you to Kawulich’s paper over at Qualitative Social Research. The best summary can be found in Kawulich’s conclusion:
“Participant observation involves the researcher’s involvement in a variety of activities over an extended period of time that enable him/her to observe the cultural members in their daily lives and to participate in their activities to facilitate a better understanding of those behaviors and activities. The process of conducting this type of field work involves gaining entry into the community, selecting gatekeepers and key informants, participating in as many different activities as are allowable by the community members, clarifying one’s findings through member checks, formal interviews, and informal conversations, and keeping organized, structured field notes to facilitate the development of a narrative that explains various cultural aspects to the reader.” (Kawulich 2005)

 Again, anthropological linguists do this too. I know for a fact that Foley of the Anthropological Linguistics section above has done years of fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. But I would hazard a guess that anthropological linguists, being grammar nerds and interested in linguistic structure, are more inclined to focus on specifics of grammar while using participant observation as a method as well. What do I mean by specifics of grammar? For example, a linguist might ask a question like  “what is the social meaning of using the progressive suffix /-ɪn/  in contrast to /-ɪŋ/?”. This is just a fancy way of saying “why do some groups of people say walkin’ as opposed to walking?” While I won’t speak for them, I hazard a guess that linguistic anthropologists might be more interested in something like “when and why do some groups of people speak the way they do, and what does that tell us about how this group of people view themselves and others?”.


A subfield of linguistics. Confusing, because as the name of this subfield implies, people who work in this field are also interested in social-y things, culture, and language:
“Is sociolinguistics about how individual speakers use language? Is it about how peoples language differently in different towns or regions? Is it about how a nation decides what languages will be recognised in courts or education? The answer is: yes, yes, and yes. Sociolinguists conduct research on any of these topics.” (Meyerhoff 2011: 1)
So what’s the difference between anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics? Both are linguistics, so the practitioners are interested in grammar, right?
“Sociolinguistics…views language as a social institution, one of those institutions within which individuals and groups carry out social interaction. It seeks to discover how linguistic behaviour patters with respect to social groupings and correlates differences in linguistic behaviour with the variables defining social groups, such as age, sex, class, race, etc.” (Foley 1997: 3)

Women doing women-y things? Alice on the left and Kristina on the right preparing leaf parcels to bake dampa in.

In other words, sociolinguists have a particular view and approach to language use, and what “social meaning” means. I think in the broadest sense Foely is accurate enough, but I have a problem with his choice of word “social institution”. This is because of how the field of sociolinguistics arose in the first place, but sociolinguistics has gone through a few different phases since Foley’s quote… but I’ll write about this some other time.

Notice that Foley emphasises the patterns and correlates where he doesn’t really attribute these kinds of things to anthropological linguistics. Sociolinguists emphasise collecting data in a certain way and running statistical analyses, seeking correlations and doing other number-y things.
So is it research method that makes sociolinguistics distinct from the other subfields? For now, let’s say yes.

Temporary Conclusion

  • Anthropological Linguistics is a subfield of linguistics, while Linguistic Anthropology is a subfield of anthropology.
  • Anthropological linguists, being linguists, tend to focus on specific linguistic structures (e.g. parts of “grammar”) despite sharing a lot in terms of interest, framework, and method with anthropologists.
  • Anthropological Linguistics and Sociolinguistics are interested in the cultural and social aspects of language, but differ mainly in their signature research methods.
    • Anther Ling – more like anthropology, and emphasises fieldwork (ideally, long term) and participant observation.
    • Socio Ling – more like sociology, and collecting survey responses, running stats, and seeking correlations systematically.
For sure, there are plenty of people out there who borrow bits across the various subfields. For now I’m happy to settle on the understanding that the approaches and methods of the subfields are slightly different from each other, but the things that they are interested in studying are very similar. A difference in approach and method probably entails some difference in assumptions of the phenomena of language, culture, etc… but that’s a topic for another day.

So, does it matter?

I understand that labelling yourself isn’t necessary, and sometimes it’s a bad thing to pigeon-hole yourself by labels. Having said that, I kind of like that I can contextually myself in the field of linguistics and the social sciences I guess. Maybe in the future I’ll be more sure of what it is that I do and what questions I’m pursuing, but for the time being, labels help me!

P.S. I was submitting an abstract for a conference paper recently and had to choose which category my talk would fall into. Lo and behold, there were the dreaded categories of “Linguistic Anthropology” and “Sociolinguistics” among others. In short, these labels do actually appear as something you have to deal with in a practical sense argh.

Foley, W. (1997). Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Massachusettes, USA: Blackwell Publishing.

Kawulich, Barbara B. (2005). Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method [81 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research6(2), Art. 43, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0502430.

Meyerhoff, M. (2011). Introducing Sociolinguistics (2 ed.). USA and Canada: Routledge

Salzmann, Z. (1998). Language, Culture and Society: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology (2nd ed.). Colorado, USA: Westview Press.