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Language and age: Studying linguistic change in real and apparent time. LIN120: Sociolinguistics Instructor: Marjorie Pak February 27, 2008. We know that language changes over time… Great Vowel Shift in Middle English: /mu:s/  /maws/ Do- support: I know not  I do n’t know

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language and age studying linguistic change in real and apparent time

Language and age:Studying linguistic change in real and apparent time

LIN120: Sociolinguistics

Instructor: Marjorie Pak

February 27, 2008

We know that language changes over time…
    • Great Vowel Shift in Middle English:/mu:s/  /maws/
    • Do-support:I know not  I don’t know
  • These changes have all been observed through diachronic studies of historical texts.
But can we also see language change happening in real time, through synchronicmethods of study?
  • How do we know when we’re looking at a change in progress?
In the ideal world, linguists would have access to recorded speech…
  • spanning several generations
  • representing speakers of various ages within each sample
  • maintaining consistency over other factors (style, sex, ethnicity, formality…)
We’re not living in an ideal world…
  • Linguistics is a young science
  • Recording and archiving technology is also young
But we can make a lot of progress by looking at the role of speakers’ age in synchronic studies of linguistic variation.

We start with cases where…

  • Young people sound different from old people.
  • The older you are, the more/less likely you are to do X.
Example: Bailey et al. 1991 looked at 14 features of Texas speech, including:
    • i  I before /l/ (field, real)
    • e  ε before /l/ (sale, jail)
    • y  Ø after alveolar (Tuesday, student)
All three slopes are monotonic(they don’t change direction)
  • The older the speakers, the less likely they were to say /fIld/, /sεl/, /tuzdi/instead of /fild/, /sel/, /tyuzdi/
  • When we see a pattern like this, we can at least entertain the hypothesis that we’re looking at a linguistic change in progress.
Apparent-time method (Labov 1963, 1966; following Gauchat 1905)
  • We can view synchronic age patterns as a window on what has happened in a community over the last few generations
  • Basic assumption: Adults speak the language they learned as children.
Critical period: humans have a period when they’re ‘primed’ to acquire language
    • once we’re past this age (early teens?) it’s impossible to acquire native-like competence in a new language
  • The way you talk won’t change once you hit a certain age – even if the language changes
  • So we can listen to the speech of a 55-year-old and get a sense of what the community norms were when s/he was a child (50 years ago)
Sound change advances from generation to

generation by incrementation (Labov 2007)

  • Child hears speakers of various ages and notices that the younger the speaker, the more advanced the change
  • Child positions him/herself at the end of the trajectory and advances the change a little more
Sound change advances from generation to

generation by incrementation (Labov 2007)

  • Short-a tensing:/æ/ is raised, fronted and diphthongized before nasals (other contexts depend on dialect)

mæǝn mɛǝn meǝn mIǝn miǝn

(grandma) (mom) (aunt) (sister) (me)

The apparent-time method has allowed linguists to make considerable advances in understanding language change in progress
  • But this method isn’t perfect! Why not?
  • There’s always another possible interpretation of a monotonic age slope: age grading
English t/d deletion(Guy 1980, Guy/Boyd 1990)
  • Alveolar stop  Ø after a consonant at the end of a syllable

best friend  /bεs frεn/

  • Conditioning factors:
    • Preceding/following segment
    • Style, speech rate
    • Morphological structure
t/d deletion is less likely to apply if the final t/d is a past-tense suffix

probabilityof deletion

Un-suffixed word (mist, past) .65

‘Semiweak’ past-tense word (lost) .55

Regular past-tense word (missed, passed) .31

‘Semiweak’ verbs have a vowel change as well as a suffix in the past tense…
    • keep, tell, sell, feel…
  • With semiweak verbs in particular, age plays an important role in t/d deletion
  • The older the speakers, the less likely they were to delete t/d in semiweak verbs

Probability of t/d deletion in semiweak verbs

Age >.75 .60-.75 <.60

0-18 7 1 0

19-44 0 9 3

45+ 0 4 10

Observed speech in a ~4-year-old girl:

and then I started /startId/ crying… and then I screamed /skrimd/… and then daddy yelled /yεld/ at me.. but I kept /kεp/ on crying…

So is t/d deletion in the semiweak verb class a change in progress?
  • Guy & Boyd: No! t/d deletion is a stablevariable, but there’s an age gradingeffect:
  • Age grading: Each generation of speakers modifies its linguistic behavior at a particular stage in life – sometimes well into adulthood. But the language itself does not change across generations.
t/d deletion is a case of late acquisition:
  • Kids don’t realize that there’s a past-tense -ed on semiweak verbs at all – they think the past tense of keep is just /kεp/
  • Much later in life – perhaps well past the critical period – speakers learn that semiweak verbs do have a -ed suffix.
  • Speakers then apply t/d deletion at the same (low) rates as with the regular past-tense -ed.
Support: t/d deletion doesn’t have the characteristic features of change in progress
  • Changes in progress are usually…
    • led by working/middle classes and women
    • differentiated ethnically and geographically
    • socially evaluated, with ‘prestige’ forms increasing in more formal speech
  • None of these are true of semiweak-verb t/d deletion in particular
Another way to tease apart generational change-in-progress and age-grading interpretations: Real-time studies!
    • Go back and re-study a community after some time has passed.
    • Trend study (resample a community with comparable speakers)
    • Panel study(locate and re-interview the same speakers)

Real-time trend study 1: Fowler’s (1986) restudy of Labov’s (1963) ‘department store’ study

  • Fowler replicated the NYC department store study in exact detail (23 years later)
  • All results were reproduced, with rates of /r/-pronunciation 10-20% higher
Real-time trend study #2:Bailey et al. (1990) compared their results with an older survey (Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (LAGS), data collected 15-20 years earlier)
  • For all the innovative features studied in Bailey et al., the percentage of respondents who used the feature was higher than the percentage of LAGS respondents who did
Panel studies: track down the same speakers and re-study them after an interval of time
  • Cukor-Avila (2000) interviewed 4 speakers of African-American Vernacular English in a small Texas town in 1988, 1992, and 1998
    • Older speakers (b. 1913, 1961) change very little in the 10-year interval
    • Younger speakers (b. 1979, 1982) show increase in AAVE features – even in late adolescence – as they spend more time in a nearby city
Other panel studies:
    • Development of uvular /r/ in Montreal (Blondeau et al. 2003)
    • Yiddish folksinger Sara Gorby (Prince 1987)
    • Trudgill’s study of /r/ pronunciation in British pop singers (Beatles, etc.)
Panel study results have largely vindicated the apparent-time method
  • People generally remain stable – and when they do change, it’s in the direction of the community change
Summary: If a synchronic observation of a community shows a steady increase/ decrease in the frequency of a variable with age, there are at least two interpretations:
  • Generational change in progress(apparent-time interpretation)
  • Age grading

Real-time studies (trend or panel) can help disentangle these two interpretations, as can understanding fundamental principles of language change.

The apparent-time construct has proven to be an excellent surrogate for real-time evidence.

As with all linguistic research…the more data, the better.

But considerable progress can be made with limited data, as long as the underlying issues are understood.

  • Bailey, Guy. 2002. Real and apparent time. In Chambers et al. (eds.), Handbook of language variation and change (pp. 312-332). Blackwell.
  • Guy, Gregory R. and Boyd, Sally. 1990. The development of a morphological class. Language Variation and Change 2, 1-18.
  • Labov, William. 2007. Transmission and diffusion. Language 83, 344-387.
  • Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2006. Introducing sociolinguistics [ch.7]. Routledge.
  • Sankoff, Gillian. (to appear). Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies in sociolinguistics. In Ammon U, Dittmar N, Mattheier K & Trudgill P (eds.) Handbook of sociolinguistics, vol. II. Berlin: De Gruyter.