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Labov’s Analysis of Language Variation and Language Change

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The study of language variation emerged from a simple observation that language varies among individuals, social groups, and communities. Earlier theories regarded natural language as homogeneous, and language was referred to as a system that is administrated by abstract rules. Language variation was also thought to be random and chaotic (Hubbell 1950). An individual speaker of a language was seen as the accepted locus of language investigation. If speech communities were considered, they would be viewed as ‘idiolects’ of individuals.

By recognizing the dynamic nature of a language, any change is inevitable. From this standpoint, there appears the most fundamental question concerning the causes of the language change. This essay reports some aspects of Labov’s work on language variation and change referencing to other works that use a similar methodology.

Labov’s Framework

Stimulated by his conception of ‘structured heterogeneity,’ Labov (1963) was the first to demonstrate that language is not fixed, but it is erratic and that the erratic nature of a language can be quantified empirically. His pioneering study in Martha’s Vineyard epitomizes the shift between previous studies on language variation and the advancement of current variationist research. While not withdrawing totally from dialectology, Labov rejected a number of traditional dialectological techniques. The scientist postulated that variation should be characterized as a part of the language structure and cannot be separated from it. He also posited that this structured heterogeneity must be something that speakers ‘know’ when it comes to the language knowledge.

Labov (1972) conducted the first quantitative communal study of variation. He tried to find scientific techniques to develop a quantitative linguistic angle in which societal and contextual aspects can be used to predict, define, and explicate patterns of language variation and change. His research survey was created to elicit large-scale sampling of naturally occurring speech. It also prompted a variety of styles ranging from casual to formal ones which were used by speakers in different speech communities with the aim of examining language variation and change. The scientist’s goal was to know the orientation of the change and the causes of its occurrence.

Generally, the speech community has been the hub of the language variation study. Even though variation and change are observed in relation to linguistic systems, these occurrences can be traced not on the level of a language, but rather on the level of a speech community (Milroy & Milroy 1997). Similar to defining human language, defining the ‘speech community’ still remains a complex task. Various hypothetical definitions have been suggested, even if speakers know innately which speech community they belong to. Labov (1966, p. 125) contends that a speech community is something that is ‘integrated by a mutual evaluation of the same variables by which the speaker can be recognized.’ As regarded by Labov (1972), a speech community is the setting where language variation and change happen. In a speech community, variability in the language use and individual changes ensue prior to becoming part of the linguistic system (Milroy 1987).

Labov’s analytic methods were based on the idea of linguistic variables. He showed that there are particular extra-linguistic variables that impact on variation and the process of change in language. Milroy (1987, p. 10) defines a sociolinguistic variable as a linguistic component which co-varies with other linguistic components and with a number of extra-linguistic autonomous variables such as age, class, sex, ethnicity, and style. In his study, Labov (1972) explicitly examined how social factors, for example social class and gender, are related to the variation in the use of certain linguistic variables.

Labov exhibited the variation shown by this method in the form of graphs in order to demonstrate consistent social patterns. This was then explicated in terms of variable rules. An irregularity in the pattern may be seen as the detection of a sound change shifting in a certain direction. Results show distinct class stratification in the pronunciation of post-vocalic /r/, which endorses its prestigious significance; there is more frequency of /r/ in the higher-class store than in the lower-class store. He also found that there was a greater /r/ stress when the speaker was somewhat aware. Also, in the middle store, the stress on the final /r/ in both occurrences of ‘floor’ was much more profound than it would have been expected on a class scale from low to high. This group showed a substantial stress on /r/-pronunciation when they were conscious of how they used it. Labov called this behaviour ‘hypercorrection.’ Labov also observed that linguistic patterns related to class seemed to vary by gender.

Labov’s Methodology with Reference to Similar Studies

Following the pioneering work of Labov (1966), a number of large scale studies using a similar methodology have tried to explain patterns of language variation within speech communities. These studies tried to support, criticize, and modify Labov’s methodology. Many studies have described a specific pattern of correlation between socioeconomic class and linguistic variables. It has been found out that a certain phonological sociolinguistic variable shows an analogous pattern of behaviour in speech styles. Formal styles are linked to standard variants, whereas casual styles are linked to non-standard variants.

For example, Wolfram’s (1969) study shows similar trends in social patterning of linguistic variables in Detroit. His study revealed that women used a more prestigious form of the language than men. Trudgill Norwich’s (1974) study shows that speakers shift toward the standard language as the formality of the conditions intensified. However, the Labovian paradigm was criticized on many levels. One of the problems is the concept of a speech community. According to Baker and Prys Jones (1998), no definition has been extensive enough to describe the intricacy and changing aspects of the speech community. In the light of this, it may be pointless to seek associations between a speech community and language variation.

As with the concept of a speech community, the concept of a social class is also challenging. Trudgill (1974) points out the difficulties that result from trying to place individuals into abstract groups such as an upper or lower class. Milroy (1987) objected to class-based studies because she thought that large groups which resulted from index calculation did not essentially have any kind of reality. Milroy contended that Labov’s modification of traditional dialectology was not broad enough to precisely document the social effects on linguistic variation patterns. She questioned how people are able to preserve and maintain vernacular customs when it seems desirable to adapt to the standard language. Milroy decided to use a different framework for the examination of the language variation and change. She incorporated the concept of social networks to show the correlation between network quality and vernacular language variation patterns. Because of the social class constraint, Milroy and Gordon (2003) emphasized the idea of social networks. Labov (2001) later incorporated these social network analyses into his account of the effects of social factors on linguistic variation.

Eckert (2000) studied vocalic variables in a Detroit High School to observe how they are influenced. This was used to index identities within the school and at the same time associate the indexation with the development of a vowel shift. Later, Eckert (2005) introduced a more recent approach to the study of the language variation and change. In this study, Eckert used the social network method and also tried a more personal approach while interviewing the participants, for example talking about childhood games and others. The language change was not the focus of his other studies. Johnstone and Kiesling Pittsburgh’s (2008) study focused not on the vocalic variable /aw/ in ‘mouth’ using interviews to observe the differences in the way the vowel indexed the identity, but on its orientation towards becoming a stereotype. Moore’s (2006) study of adolescent peer groups in a secondary school in Bolton did not connect the use of variables to continuing change, in contrast to Johnstone and Kiesling.


It is clear that there is an emerging divergence in the study of language variation and change. Although most of the studies relate their findings to the language structure and change, many of them are still associated with explanatory, interactional, and practical methodologies. However, Labov’s methods of language variation and change continue to be persistent, but the central focus is amplified by norms and coherent models of the language change. The methods used by Labov set the standard for the study of language variation and change. What is so important about Labov’s study is that he rightly proved that language speakers tend to link certain linguistic forms with specific types of speakers or contexts of speaking. Without this pioneering study, the position of variables in relation to change in progress or social issues pertaining to community language use would not be recognized. Regardless of the many criticisms directed towards Labov’s study, his work is still effective in language variation studies of language variation and change today.

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