[lg policy] book notice: The Dynamics of Linguistic Variation

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jan 5 18:41:48 UTC 2010

The Dynamics of Linguistic Variation

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/20/20-243.html

EDITORS: Nevalainen, Terttu; Taavitsainen, Irma; Patha, Päiva; Korhonen, Minna
TITLE: The Dynamics of Linguistic Variation
SUBTITLE: Corpus evidence on English past and present
SERIES: Studies in Language Variation 2
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2008

Heike Pichler, the University of Reading, UK

This volume, the second in the new John Benjamins book series 'Studies in
Language Variation', resulted from the ICAME 27 conference at Helsinki in May
2006. The 15 chapters are based on papers given at the conference which had as
its theme "Language variation, contact and change." They present the results of
carefully conducted corpus-based studies of a wide range of linguistic
leading to linguistic change. The contributions were selected for inclusion in
the volume on the basis of their methodological diversity and complementarity
which, according to the editors, is essential "in order to obtain a maximally
comprehensive view of linguistic variation" (p. 4). The volume brings together
methodological approaches to the study of language variation and change from
corpus linguistics, pragmatics and comparative sociolinguistics. Adding to its
comprehensiveness is the fact that the volume contains analyses of diverse
synchronic and diachronic corpora representing a range of regional,
national and
stylistic varieties of English. In addition, the volume features a broad
spectrum of different types of linguistic features: discourse-pragmatic,
morphosyntactic and phonological features all receive attention. Most papers
consider language-internal and -external factors as potential constraints on
linguistic variation. Its breadth makes the volume a welcome and unique
contribution to the growing literature on linguistic variation and change.

The book begins with a short introduction by the editors in which they
the need for multiple and complementary methodologies in describing what they
call the 'life cycle' of linguistic variability, i.e., "the increase
or decrease
in linguistic variability in a language or variety of language over time" (p.
4). The chapters that follow document a range of processes of linguistic change
and their outcomes. They are organised in three parts "which highlight
stages in the dynamics of linguistic variability in English across time and
space" (p. 4). Part I focuses on processes of language change that trigger
increasing variability in discourse. Within the theoretical frameworks of
pragmaticalization and grammaticalization, the contributors to this part of the
volume examine the newly emerging functions and meanings of selected discourse
items and grammatical resources in an attempt to illustrate their pivotal roles
in interaction. Part II investigates the diffusion of morphosyntactic features
and discourse patterns within and across inner- and outer-circle varieties of
English. These contributions fall within the realm of comparative
sociolinguistics. The authors address language-external and -internal
constraints on observed variation, and discuss processes such as
supralocalization (i.e., speakers' reduced usage of local dialect
features), new
dialect formation, Americanization and angloversals (i.e., features shared by
contact varieties of English). Part III examines processes of linguistic change
that lead to decreasing variability and increasing homogeneity across social,
regional and stylistic varieties of English. The processes of change discussed
in this part of the volume include dialect levelling, standardization and
colloquialization of written language.

The four chapters in Part I of the volume focus on processes of change whereby
pragmatic markers, modal adverbs, repetition and phrasal constructions acquire
textual and/or interpersonal meanings in discourse. In the first chapter of the
volume, Defour examines the diachronic development of the adverb 'now' in three
speech-based historical corpora. She convincingly argues that the
semantic-pragmatic changes of 'now' from a temporal adverb to a multifunctional
pragmatic marker were triggered by the deictic nature and 'propulsive' force of
the temporal meaning inherent in 'now'. Defour further posits that speakers'
desire to express personal opinions played a role in the marker's
development. In the second chapter, Kjellmer investigates the role of
intra-utterance self-repetition in present-day British English. He provides
numerous illustrative examples from the 'ukspok', a subsection of the
CobuildDirect Corpus representative of UK informal speech, to demonstrate that
repetition serves a number of interpersonal functions which help speakers and
hearers to deliver and process long and complex contributions. He
concludes from
his detailed functional analysis that "far from being an obstacle [repetition]
is a helpful and sometimes even necessary ingredient for everyday conversation
to be successful" (p. 37). Aijmer's contribution draws on the
London-Lund Corpus
(LLC), recorded in the 1970s, and the Bergen Corpus of London Teenage Language
(COLT), recorded in the 1990s, to investigate semantic-pragmatic changes in the
usage and distribution of adverbs of certainty in present-day English.
She notes
that while 'certainly' and 'surely' are more frequent in the LLC, the adverbs
'obviously' and 'definitely' are more frequent in COLT. She attributes the
increasing frequency of these adverbs to two processes associated with
grammaticalization: pragmatic strengthening and syntactic extension.
Aijmer also
emphasizes the role of adolescents as innovators in pragmatic change. In the
final chapter of Part I, Wherrity & Granath examine the variation between the
phrasal construction 'want' [NP V'ing'] and the construction 'want' [NP 'to' V]
in a corpus of recent British newspapers (1990-2004). They attribute the
increasing preference for the 'want' [NP Ving] construction to the
meanings conveyed by this structure. The 'want' [NP Ving] construction is more
forceful and emphatic than the alternative 'want' [NP 'to' V] construction. It
serves to strengthen mostly negative utterances which perform imperative,
proclamatory or exhortatory functions.

The six chapters contained in Part II are comparative in nature. They examine
the distribution and diffusion of morphosyntactic features and discourse
patterns across varieties of English. Tagliamonte examines six morphosyntactic
variables in a corpus of conversational data collected from communities in
north-west England, south-west Scotland and Northern Ireland. The varieties
represented in the corpus often favour different variants, with the Northern
Irish varieties retaining conservative features more than the other varieties.
These differential patterns are indicative of varieties representing different
stages of language change. However, the language-internal factors constraining
the occurrence of morphosyntactic variants are generally the same in all
varieties represented in the corpus. Tagliamonte attributes these similarities
to the varieties' shared historical development. In the next chapter, Collins'
cross-variety comparison of modals and semi-modals in three parallel corpora of
contemporary British, American and Australian English confirms that the English
modal system is undergoing rapid change. For example, while the modals 'ought
to' and 'need' are vanishing, the semi-modals 'be going to' and 'want to' are
rapidly increasing in frequency across the three national varieties. Collins
attributes these and other changes in the modal system to the
macro-processes of
Americanization, colloquialization and democratization. Next, Peters examines
the variation between 'no' and 'not' negation in British, American, Australian
and New Zealand English. Regional and stylistic factors strongly constrain the
linguistic variation. Interestingly, 'no' negation has high rates of occurrence
in the New Zealand data and low rates of occurrence in the Australian and
American data where 'no' has reached more advanced stages of lexicalization.
These findings demonstrate that geographical proximity must not be equated with
linguistic similarity. Peters proposes that it is socio-cultural factors and
speaker attitudes that contribute to the differential frequency of
'no' negation
in New Zealand and Australian English. In their cross-variety comparison of
British and Indian English newspaper corpora, Mukherjee & Schilk examine
complementation patterns of verbs associated with 'transfer-caused-motion'
construction (e.g. 'convey, submit, supply'). The divergent trends across the
two varieties as regards verb complementation patterns lead the authors to
tentatively conclude that individual verbs and semantically-defined
verb classes
have different degrees of transitivity in different varieties of English. Like
Peters, they suggest that cultural factors might cause the observed divergence.
In order to investigate the role of substrate influence and other language
contact phenomena, Sand explores patterns of variation in subject-verb concord
and 'wh'-interrogatives in five contact and two benchmark varieties of English
(Indian, Kenyan, Jamaican, Singapore and Northern Irish English vs. British and
New Zealand English). The similarities of non-standard forms and constructions
across the investigated corpora leads Sand to question the primacy of substrate
influences in the formation of contact varieties. She posits that
other factors,
namely superstrate retention, language typology and processes of
second language
acquisition, contribute to the presence of non-standard linguistic features in
contact varieties. Finally, Biewer examines the usage of the present perfect in
three South Pacific varieties of English: Fiji, Samoa and Cook Islands English.
Biewer argues that the similarities and differences between the three varieties
are not caused solely by substrate influences from Melanesian and Polynesian
languages. Because some patterns of variation are not unique to South Pacific
Englishes but occur in many, if not all, New Englishes, the typology of English
and second language acquisition might also have a unifying effect on South
Pacific Englishes. According to Biewer, the unifying effect is further enhanced
by the increasing influence of New Zealand English as a regional model for
contact varieties in the South Pacific.

The five chapters in Part III focus on processes of change that lead to a
reduction of linguistic variability. Hickey's contribution treats the loss of
phonological variation in nineteenth century Irish English. At the beginning of
the nineteenth century, Irish English contained many dialectal phonological
features which entered the variety through input varieties of English and
transfer from Irish. As a result of external developments such as the rise of
prescriptivism and the rise of an Irish middle class, a supra-regional variety
of Irish English began to emerge in the course of the nineteenth century which
led to the loss of many dialect features along multiple paths: some disappeared
completely, others became confined to low-salience environments, while yet
others were demoted to vernacular status. Next, Fritz examines the degree of
gendered linguistic variation in early Australian English writing. He
notes that
the distribution of some of the selected variables (e.g. mean length of words,
type/token ratios) is not affected by gender, while the distribution of others
(e.g. mean length of sentences, expression of evidentiality, use of
is strongly constrained by the gender of the writer. In the next contribution,
Smitterberg contrasts the use of two characteristic features of spoken rather
than written English, i.e., the progressive and phrasal verbs, in
texts from the
first and last thirty years of the nineteenth century. Informal genres
(comedies, private letters) demonstrate increasing frequencies of these
features, while formal genres (scientific writing) display stability. In his
very detailed and thorough discussion, Smitterberg attributes the increasing
frequency of these variables to the process of colloquialization. Szmrecsanyi &
Hinrichs examine the variation between s-genitives and 'of'-genitives in late
twentieth century American and British English newspaper genres. Their thorough
multivariate analysis of the contribution of seven conditioning factors on the
observed variation reveals that although the s-genitive has become almost as
frequent in press English as it is in spoken English, newspaper language in the
1990s has not converged towards speech. According to the authors, the
frequency of s-genitives in journalism is not due to a colloquialization of
written genres but to register-internal dynamics, i.e., an econonomization
typical of press English. In the final chapter of the volume, Lyne examines the
variation between genitive and common-case noun phrases as subjects of verbal
gerunds in present-day British English. The genitive form is very infrequent in
contemporary British English, particularly in speech. The variation is also
constrained by linguistic factors: phonological conditioning, animacy of the
possessor, and length of the noun phrase. Lyne's findings suggest that
is under way in contemporary British English of genitive noun phrase in verbal
gerund construction to common-case noun phrases.

Collectively, the contributions in Part I convincingly demonstrate the
value and
benefits of qualitative data analyses in accounting for patterns of variation
and change in discourse and morphosyntax. They also provide evidence that
variation in these components of grammar is not random and that the occurrence
of discourse-level and morphosyntactic features is constrained by
language-internal factors. What is noticeably absent from this part of the
volume are in-depth discussions of the contribution of social factors to the
linguistic variation and changes observed. It would have been interesting to
see, for example, whether the changes discussed in the chapters by Defour,
Aijmer, and Wherrity & Granath were initiated by one gender or socio-economic
class. Kjellmer does address social factors in his contribution. He
notes higher
rates of repetition-introduced turns in male compared to female speech but does
not address potential causes for these differences. Consequently, the
significance of the gender pattern remains unclear.

The contributions to Part II illustrate the profound insights that can
be gained
from comparative variationist studies, and demonstrate the value of synchronic
dialect data in studying the dynamics of linguistic variation and change. They
reveal previously undocumented findings which point to the complexity of
linguistic variation and change within and across inner- and outer-circle
varieties of English, such as the intricate development of New Englishes, the
impact of cultural factors on patterns of variation in morphosyntax, and the
varying rates of change across regional or national varieties. One wonders,
though, which additional insights the inclusion of multivariate analyses which
test the combined impact of multiple contextual factors on the observed
variation could have offered.

The investigations presented in Part III of the volume are convincing and
illuminating. They provide interesting insights into diachronic linguistic
change and raise many new research questions. Hickey's chapter, in particular,
is worth referring to as it demonstrates the great value of diachronic corpora
in the investigation of historical sound changes. The one somewhat analytically
flawed contribution is Fritz's. He reports the total number of variables across
male and female speech rather than normalized frequency counts; he reports the
frequency of tag questions across male and female speech without considering
their function. As a result, this chapter lacks explanatory power.

This book offers a broad range of perspectives on the dynamics of linguistic
variation. The selection and order of contributions results in a coherent and
comprehensive volume of cutting-edge research. The range of methodologies
employed and spectrum of linguistic features and varieties of English
investigated make this volume a valuable resource for anybody interested in the
English language and in linguistic variation. The only quibble I have of this
volume is that it would benefit from somewhat more careful editing. The English
is not uniformly idiomatic throughout; the numbering in Kjellmer's chapter is
not right and hence somewhat confusing; and there is a lack of consistency in
the abbreviations used throughout the book (e.g. American English and British
English are variously abbreviated as AmE or AE and BrE or BE). Such
minor issues
do not detract from the volume as a whole, which is a most valuable
to the field and a must-read for corpus linguists, variationist sociolinguists
and historical linguists.


Heike Pichler is a lecturer at the University of Reading, UK. Her research
focuses on discourse-pragmatic and morpo-syntactic variation in
contemporary varieties of English.


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