Chapter 10: Language Variation and Change

10.10 Three waves of sociolinguistics

Recent work in variationist sociolinguistics seeks not just to understand patterns of variation by appealing to social factors but seeks to understand how language and linguistic variation work to express and construct socially-meaningful demarcations. In a 2012 paper, sociolinguist Penelope Eckert identified three ‘waves’ in the history of the field. In the first wave, variationists sought to find correlations between linguistic variation and macro-sociodemographic facts about the participants in their study. In this wave, patterns of linguistic variation were understood as simply falling out from social structures and pre-existing social stratification. In the second wave, variationists recognized that locally-relevant facts about their participants also played an important (if not more important) role in understanding patterns of linguistic variation. For example, the social clique that high school students belong to might be a better predictor of the linguistic behaviour than a student’s social class. In the third (and current) wave of sociolinguistics, the paradigm has shifted and people’s agency with respect to their language use is emphasized, as is the social meaning of variation. Variationist questions today are less, “what social factors correlate with an individual’s linguistic behaviour” but rather, are more like, “how do individuals make use of linguistic variation to express and construct their position in society?”, “how does the use of a particular variant alter the formality/context?” and “how do multiple variables combine to form linguistic styles that signal a wide array of social meanings?”

Scott Kiesling’s (1998) study of frat boys is a great example of a third wave approach to linguistic variation. In the mid 90s, he spent time with a English-speaking members of a fraternity at an American university.  He recorded them in two different contexts: socializing and during fraternity meetings where the members discuss business matters. These meetings followed a set format and were governed by a parliamentary process (e.g., calls to order, one person holding the floor at a time etc.).  Seating at these meetings was also arranged by seniority and power with executive members sitting at the front, and other members arranged in terms of seniority, with the powerless new members to the left and more powerful and more senior members to the right. This context was decidedly more formal than when socializing and this is reflected in the frat boys use of variable -ing: they used way more of the non-standard [ɪn] variant while socializing than during the meetings. Well, most of them at least.  Three of the frat boys showed the opposite pattern and used more of the non-standard variant during the meetings. Kiesling looked closely at the interactional contexts where these guys were using [ɪn] and found that they were using [ɪn] while expressing certain stances and identities. In (8), we can see an excerpt from one of these frat boys. He is making a pitch to be elected to the fraternity’s executive council.

Um I’m not gonna um put a load of shit in you guys whatever.
You guys know I’m a fuckin’ hard worker. I work my ass off for everything. …
And if you nominate me for this position, I’ll put a hundred percent effort towards it.
I mean I have nothin’ else to do ‘cept fuckin’ school work and the fraternity.

The speaker in (8) expresses a hard working persona that links him with the working class. He’s know for telling it like it is without ‘bullshitting’ folks. His high rate of the non-standard variant in this formal context not only expresses this working class persona, but also works to reframe the context, breaking down the formality and turning the event into one of camaraderie, humour, and friendliness.

A second speaker who uses more [ɪn] during the formal context is the president of the fraternity. In this context, He is at the top of the hierarchy; he is the one with the most structural power. He uses an increased rate of the non-standard in the formal meetings as a means of expressing a confrontational stance when he is in opposition to, or as we can see in example (9), when he is frustrated with the membership.

Every semester all we do is sit around and argue about money money money money
And I’m not gonna pay this fuckin’ money. All right?
You, you guys sittin’ back I know you guys are thinkin’ I’m gonna pay this fuckin’ money just ’cause I have money.
I’ll tell you what, I ain’t gonna pay a fuckin’ thing. All right?
What other linguistic features in (9) can be connected with working class toughness?


Kiesling argues that this all connects with the cultural discourse of dominance – the idea that to be a man is to be strong and authoritative. Dominance is most readily expressed through real authority and power. However, working class men, who tend to lack real authority and power, must resort to the expression of dominance through physical means. Men of all stripes, truly powerful or not, draw on this connection when using non-standard variants (remember the idea of covert prestige discussed in section 10.8). Non-standard speech indexes working class physical toughness and this indexes dominance. We see this clearly with the fraternity president in (9). But what about the speaker in (8)? His use of non-standard speech isn’t about dominance but about signalling solidarity, informality, and camaraderie. Dominance still comes through here though in a subtle way. He is actively recreating the speech context for everyone… this is a powerful interactional move.

To help you to understand the differences between the three waves of sociolinguistics, let’s use a concrete example. Let’s think about how each of these waves might interpret how Maisie, a Canadian English speaking person, uses variable -ing.

  • First wave interpretation: Maisie uses a high rate of the standardized [ɪŋ] variant because she is a young, white, middle class, woman.
  • Second wave interpretation:  Maisie belongs to a certain locally-relevant social group: she’s a ‘jock’ in Eckert’s sense and her high use of standardized [ɪŋ] aligns with that group’s general conformity with authority and normative behaviour.
  • Third wave interpretation: Maisie makes frequent use of [ɪŋ] in her speech to construct her identity as an articulate and educated woman.



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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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