Sociolinguistics

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Lecture 2: Linguistic Variation

TOWER OF BABEL STORY:
***PUT UP PICTURE OF THE TOWER OF BABEL
Engraving The Confusion of Tongues by Gustave Doré (1865),

There is a famous story in the Bible (Gen. Ch. 11) called the Tower of Babel where a united humanity speaking only one language decided to build a giant tower to reach God in the heavens. God viewed this as an act of definance and scattered the people across the world, giving them all many different languages so that they could never again work together to build a tower to heaven. I’ve mentioned this story because it is part of our shared culture, we all know it, and because it is interesting to see how people even in the ancient past viewed the many differences in languages. Even then, they wondered why the world speaks so many strange and different languages.

Today’s topic is linguistic variation.

Language has changed over time and some language change has led to new languages being created. For example, Latin was the original source language for many of the modern romance languages including Italian, French, and Spanish.

Language change is the manner in which the phonetic, morphological, semantic, syntactic, and other features of a language are modified over time. All languages are continually changing. All languages have internal variation. At any given moment the English language, for example, has a huge variety within itself. And since it is the language you have been studying, I will try to draw most of our examples from the English language in this and the remaining lectures.

Sociolinguists are interested in the origins of language change and want to explain how society and changes in society influence language.

Most linguists distinguish between linguistic change and linguistic variation as follows: Linguistic change occurs over time; for example, the differences in spelling and pronunciation between Middle English niht and Modern English night represent linguistic changes that developed between (roughly) the fourteenth and the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.

***WRITE ON BOARD NIHT and NIGHT

In contrast, linguistic variation exists at one given time.

For example, one variety is represented by the different pronunciations of a word like barn. An Eastern New England American English speaker might say bearn and while a speaker of the Great Lakes Northern dialect of American English who might say something more like, born.

Another example is the difference between the chief British and American meanings of the noun vest.

vest / B vest / noun [count]
1BRITISH a piece of underwear for the top half of your body. American undershirt
2AMERICAN a WAISTCOAT
2a. a piece of clothing with no sleeves or collar worn over other clothes, for example for protection: a bulletproof vest

Or for that matter, we might take for example the different British and American words for the same meaning such as:

|American |British | |Appetizer |Starter | |Ground meat |Mince | |French fries |Chips | |Potato chips |Crisps |

One last example is simply the slang a Californian surfer might use:

Yo, what’s up dude! You just got a new board? Way cool! Let’s hit the waves! Hang-ten!

In fact all of the following are language variations: Standard English, Cockney, London English, the English of football commentators, lower-class New York speech, Oxford English,...
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