Variationist sociolinguistics: NWAV 47

Coming in a few days (October 18th-21st), NWAV 47 at NYU:

Already noted on this blog, in my 10/2 posting “The Rickford plenary address”, with the abstract for my Stanford colleague John Rickford’s plenary address (on the 20th), “Class and Race in the Analysis of Language Variation and the Struggle for Social Justice: Sankofa”. To come below, the abstract for the other plenary address (on the 18th), “The Systematicity of Emergent Meaning” by Erez Levon (Queen Mary University of London); and details about a virtual Issue of the Journal of Sociolinguistics, “Innovations in Variationist Sociolinguistics” (ed. by Levon & Natalie Schilling), assembled on the occasion of the conference.

“The Systematicity of Emergent Meaning”: the abstract:

It has become common over the past 15 years to identify two contrasting approaches to the study of language variation and change. The first, associated primarily with examinations of large-scale patterns of change at the level of the community, tends to view variation as reflecting a system of stable social contrasts at the macro-group level, i.e., along axes of social class, ethnicity, age, or gender (Labov 2001, 2007). The second approach focuses instead on variation as a system of emergent indexical meanings, which, while originally grounded in larger-scale demographic categories, can be recruited by individuals to serve more micro-level goals, such as stance-taking and the construction of culturally relevant personae in interaction (Eckert 2008, 2012). Because of their different emphases, the two approaches have often been characterized in opposing terms, such as automatic vs. agentive or systematic vs. idiosyncratic (e.g., Guy 2013; Guy & Hinskins 2016). In this talk, I argue against this type of simple binary classification. Instead, I draw on recent discussions in the literature (Labov 2012, 2018; Eckert 2016, 2017) to make the point that all processes of variation and change involve an agentive component and, at the same time, that all acts of emergent meaning-making respond to systematic constraints.

I support my arguments with a discussion of the different factors that influence how variation is perceived by listeners. Perception plays a central role in so-called third wave approaches to variation, since it is hypothesized that it is in the in-the-moment interpretation of a variant in context (i.e., construal) that variables can take on new meanings. In the talk, I present results from three experiments designed to test listeners’ perceptual reactions to three different variables in Southern British English: /s/-fronting and TH-fronting (i.e., fink for ‘think’) (Levon 2014, 2016a), and the use of final rising intonation contours on declarative utterances (‘uptalk’) (Levon 2016b, 2018). My findings demonstrate that while there exists perceptual variability in how listeners interpret these variables, the meanings that emerge are reliably and consistently correlated with specific components of listeners’ attitudes and social histories, the cognitive demands of the tasks in question, and the contexts in which variation occurs. This is important because it illustrates that, far from being unsystematic, emergent meaning is subject to orderly heterogeneity (cf. Preston 2011). By extension, the novel and agentive uses of variation that arise from these meanings are, similarly, systematic and predictable, as I also briefly illustrate. Ultimately, my goals in this talk are twofold. First, I aim to demonstrate that assuming a distinction between systematic versus idiosyncratic approaches to variation and change perpetuates a false dichotomy, and that all forms of variation – whether established or emergent – are systematic in nature. Second, I hope to show that the key to revealing this systematicity lies in the detailed study of sociolinguistic perception. For it is only by understanding how listeners interpret variation that we can hope to model the transmission and diffusion of change.

Sociolinguistics journals. Among the major journals in English, two from Cambridge, one from Wylie, and two from De Gruyter:

Language Variation and Change (Cambridge)
Language in Society (Cambridge)
Journal of Sociolinguistics (Wiley)
International Journal of the Sociology of Language (De Gruyter)
Journal of Historical Sociolinguistcs (De Gruyter)

LVC is the official journal of NWAV. I take Wiley’s assembling a virtual issue of  JSociolx for NWAV 47 to be a bid for greater significance at the conference, and I view that as a good thing; there’s certainly room for several excellent journals in the field.

The virtual issue. A statement of purpose and a table of contents for the 12 articles in the issue. (Papers and authors with Stanford connections are boldfaced. I am at Stanford, you know.)

The theme of this virtual issue – innovations in variationist sociolinguistics – is inspired by the theme of this year’s New Ways of Analyzing Variation (NWAV) conference. NWAV 47 celebrates “methodological innovations” in the study of variation, as well as a “passing of the torch” from the first generations of variationist scholarship to a new generation that is broadening the field in novel and exciting ways.

The selection of articles assembled here highlights the Journal of Sociolinguistics’ aim of fostering and supporting theoretical and methodological innovation in variationist sociolinguistics since the journal’s founding in 1997. The articles in the virtual issue include a number of studies that at the time of their publication developed cutting-edge analytical approaches and theoretical insights, and have since become classics in the field. We pair this with a number of articles published in the journal in the last two years, which, likewise, push the boundaries of variationist theory and methods. We showcase these more recent studies to reaffirm the journal’s continued support of variationist research, and its commitment to promoting advances in sociolinguistic scholarship from a wide range of theoretical and methodological perspectives.

Isolation Within Isolation: A Solitary Century of African‐American Vernacular English, by Walt Wolfram, Kirk Hazen, & Jennifer Ruff Tamburro (1997). Volume 1(1): 7–38. DOI

Dynamics of Dialect Convergence, by J.K. Chambers (2002). Volume 6(1): 117–130. DOI

Constructing Ethnicity in Interaction, by Natalie Schilling (2004). Volume 8(2): 163–195. DOI

Phonation Type as a Stylistic Variable: The Use of Falsetto in Constructing a Persona, by Robert J. Podesva (2007).Volume 11(4): 478–504. DOI

Variation and the Indexical Field, by Penelope Eckert (2008). Volume 12(4): 453–476. DOI

‘Nobody wants to sound like a provinciano’: The recession of unstressed vowel devoicing in the Spanish of Cusco, Perú, by Ann Marie Delforge (2012). Volume 16(3): 311–355. DOI

What’s a stigmatized variant doing in the word list? Authenticity in reading styles and Hebrew pharyngeals, by Roey Gafter (2016). Volume 20(1): 31–58. DOI

Identity, accent aim, and motivation in second language users: New Scottish Gaelic speakers’ use of phonetic variation, by Claire Nance, Wilson McLeod, Bernadette O’Rourke, & Stuart Dunmore (2016). Volume 20(2): 164-191. DOI

Sociophonetic variation in a long‐term language contact situation: /l/‐darkening in Welsh‐English bilingual speech, by Jonathan Morris (2017). Volume 21(2): 183–207. DOI

Displacement and local linguistic practices: R‐lessness in post‐Katrina Greater New Orleans, by Katie Carmichael (2017). Volume 21(5): 696–719. DOI

Phonetics, Phonology and Social Meaning, by Penelope Eckert & William Labov (2017). Volume 21(4): 467–496. DOI

Copula variation in Asturian Spanish and the multidimensionality of stancetaking in interaction, by Sonia Barnes (2018). Volume 22(1): 29–54. DOI

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