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Theories of Language Change?

June 6, 2016

The research task was to find out about ‘theories’ of language change. For child language development there are clear approaches with named theorists — Chomsky’s Innateness idea, Skinner’s behaviourism, Cognitive approaches and Interactionists — but the territory is less clearly mapped out when it comes to language change. So what will earn marks for AO2 when writing about variation and change in Section A of the exam?

People’s research led to an array of theorists and theories, and some names and notions came up more than once. A summary of some follows:

Giles’ Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) was something that came up in the first year. You’ll remember that this focuses on how people tend to talk like those they talk with — a key idea for language variation and change. One will normally converge to speak more like your addressee — and this may be upward convergence, moving more like a formal or standard language, the ‘acrolect’; or downward convergence, speaking on a more informal level or approaching dialect forms. Two speakers may adjust their talk in both ways, approaching each other in the middle.

This may lead to dialect levelling, the tendency of dialects to ‘even out’ over time so that an intermediate form spreads outward from its originating area. This has been observed by many writers, including Trudgill and Bloomfield, and in more recent publications in the news. This movement outward from a source is like ripples in a pond, or waves, and that has led to what some students found referred to as ‘wave theory’ or the ‘wave model’ of dialect spread. It’s possible also, as Trudgill points out, for divergence to happen, and create isolated areas where people choose to speak differently to assert their identity.

William Labov’s research showed both things happening, though he considered class variation as well as region. In his famous New York study, he noted how speakers would move toward Standard GenAm pronunciations when ‘speaking clearly’ (adding rhoticity to pronunciation of ‘fourth floor’), but that the social class of the department stores where he studied this phenomenon had a bearing on how marked the change was. (Lower classes might not converge upward; higher classes might already be using GenAm standard.) By contrast, in Martha’s Vineyard he found that local residents were deliberately distancing themselves from visiting tourists by adopting features of traditional fishermen, diverging to assert their own identity (by adopting others’!).

We have already noted some theory of creoles and pidgins; that their forms reflect those of children’s language in part because the first generation of children growing up in a pidgin environment settle a language into a rule-governed creole. We saw that in and around creoles there were stratifications of language, levels of talk: the basilect (lowest, broadest) form; at the top end, most like the prestige standard form of the intruding language is the acrolect; and between these extremes the mesolect. This pattern is spoken of as the post-creole continuum (continuum because these aren’t distinct languages but extremes of variation), and one can see convergence, levelling, divergence and so on occurring here. Continuing contact with the intruding language is a factor in this stratification.

Others came across patterns of how language changes are adopted. One striking pattern is the ‘S-curve’ — gradual emergence is followed by rapid adoption, and then a slowing as the word, phrase or pronunciation hits its limits of usage. This is more useful in versions of the course that present language data — but skim the article linked to and look at the charts for a good sense of how this might operate with a number of specific changes.

We turned later in the lesson to the idea of prescriptivism vs descriptivism, and noted that our job, as linguists, is to describe language — not to make moral judgements about what’s right or wrong. This is a modern approach — past linguists have been strongly prescriptivist, and we have seen complaints about faults, problems and corruptions in language throughout our reading. But just as we need to avoid a ‘deficit model’ in our descriptions of children’s usage of language, so we shouldn’t be looking for ‘right’ usage and condemning ‘wrong’ usage in our study of dialects and variations. We might well refer to standardisation — the tendency historically for prestige forms to be more consistent and settled — but should bear in mind that different times have different standards, and just because a language is not like ours, does not make it non-standard. A creole is rule-governed, not just unstandardized or ‘incorrect’ English. (A pidgin, however, would be chaotic!). U/V variation in early modern texts is consistent and rule-governed; the settling of these graphemes by their link to phonemes is a later rule, but just a different rule.

We read Jean Aitchison on language change. (You can listen here if you prefer.) She usefully brings together a number of images that capture prescriptivist attitudes to language change, and offers cogent critiques of these ideas. She asks whether language change is ‘progress or decay’, and suggests that neither is quite right. Her later metaphors for language change show how beliefs about language change have themselves developed over time: that change is not gradual, but may be abrupt, and a product of competition between forms.  (Aitchison Images)

Most important for AO2 marks in this section of the exam, then, is not so much named theorists, though you might find reference to these useful, especially Giles; but rather taking a descriptivist view, and looking for rules in the texts you find, speculating about variations, their patterns, their causes and meanings, and keeping open-minded and critical about your own understanding of the text.



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