Chapter 10: Language Variation and Change

10.4 Language conveys more than semantic meaning

All kinds of information about people are revealed through the ways they express themselves linguistically. Much of that information goes beyond the semantic and even pragmatic meaning of the sentences they sign/speak. All kinds of social meanings are revealed through language! Some of this social meaning relates to how language functions in relation to social structures and power. We’ve talked a bit about this in Chapter 2. For example, different forms of address – that is, labels we use to refer to our interlocutor – in many different languages reflect the social ranks of those involved in the interaction or the social circumstances of the interlocutor.  For example, in Canadian English, referring to someone as sir or buddy reveals several sociological facts including how the speaker perceives the addressee’s gender, how the speaker perceives the power dynamic between themself and the addressee, and how the speaker perceives the formality of the interaction. In fact, language doesn’t just reflect these things but also works to enact this kind of sociocultural significance. Imagine you’re at a café and you witness a dispute between a male-presenting customer and a barista. At first, the barista refers to the customer as sir and says “sir, I know you’re upset but generally we don’t add steamed milk to iced coffees.” But, after a few minutes of being yelled at and insulted by the unruly customer, the barista exclaims “listen buddy, it’s time for you to leave!”. This change in form of address, from sir to buddy, signals a change to the interactional context. The barista signals that they will no longer tolerate being treated poorly and along with that they abandon the general expectation of politeness and formality that comes along with the ‘customer is always right’ mandate of most service work.

Beyond forms of address, many languages encode information about social structure into pronominal reference. Many Indo-European languages make a distinction between familial/informal/lower rank and formal/polite/higher rank second person, singular pronouns. This is often referred to as a T/V distinction on the model of French’s distinction between familial tu and formal vous. Romance languages like French, Slavic languages like Russian, and Germanic languages like German (and even Old and Middle English!) mark this distinction. If you do not know a language that marks this kind of distinction, its social significance may not seem particularly… significant! But for people who do use languages with such distinctions, the real life consequences of language as it relates to social power is clear. Consider this quote from a French woman of Algerian immigrant roots, speaking about her experience growing up with racist policing in France:

“I encountered racism with the police every time I went out at night. They controlled our identity with tommy guns, speaking with lots of racial insults, and using tu instead of vous. I understand now why young people hate the police, because those controls are very degrading.” (D. Tazdait, quoted in Olson 2002: 177)

Ms. Tazdait places the use of tu rather than vous on the same level as the symbolic violence of racial insults and the physical violence of being threatened at gunpoint.

Language can also tell us something about the cultural values of its users. For example, both what we discuss and with who is culturally-determined. What counts as a taboo subject (i.e., an inappropriate topic of discussion) differs by culture and context. In Euro-American culture, it is often considered taboo to talk about sexuality and death around children for example. Connected with this is how we interact: conversational styles (including the amount of interactional overlap, tolerance for interruptions, eye-contact expectations, etc.) are also culturally variable. It’s critical for linguists and language-pathologists to be aware of the culturally-specific nature of interactional norms because too often English and Euro-American norms are interpreted as universals and thus, differences from those norms can be misinterpreted as deficiencies. For example, in their exploratory study of First Nations English, language-pathologists Jessica Ball and B. May Bernhardt (2008) note that where silence from a child is often interpreted as an indication of a lack of knowledge, rudeness, or shyness in Euro-American interactional norms, for many First Nations children, their silence is a sign of respect to elders. As one of Ball and Bernhardt’s participants says:

“I think in general, if I’m talking to someone who’s older than I am, if they come to visit me or I go to visit them, I tend to listen a lot. I value what they have to share with me, I listen to their stories.” (Ball and Bernhardt 2008: 581)

A teacher or language-pathologist who trains a child in accordance with Euro-American norms might unwittingly be harming the child’s connection with their family’s culture.

Contextual information is another kind of social meaning that is revealed through language and linguistic variation. Contextual style is intimately connected with the formality of the interactional context. This formality relates to 1) the familiarity of two interlocutors with one another, 2) the social similarity/difference and power relations between them, and 3) the context of the interaction. Conversations between friends who share common experiences and identities are more likely to have a casual style whereas conversations between strangers of unequal social rank and who share little common ground are more likely to be formal. This varies on a continuum. But what do we mean by formal and casual language? There are several aspects of conversation that are linked with formality including the frequency of use of different variants of linguistic variables. Variants that are standardized tend to be more frequent in formal contexts and variants that are not standardized tend to be more frequent in casual contexts.

A 1958 study by the anthropologist John Fischer was one of the first demonstrations of this correlation. His analysis, which was part of a larger study of child-rearing in semi-rural New England (co-investigated with Ann Fischer), examined the frequency of use of the two variants of the -ing variable in English (standardized [ɪŋ] and non-standardized [ɪn]) among 24 children under age 10. Fischer recorded some of these children speaking in three contexts: during a formal psychological test, during a semi-formal, structured interview, and during an informal, unstructured interview. Fischer reports on the use of the variants of -ing by one boy in these three contexts. In the most formal context, the psychological test, the boy used the standardized variant [ɪŋ] 97% of the time, in the formal interview, his use of [ɪŋ] dropped to 49%, and in the most casual context, the informal interview, he used [ɪŋ] only 37% of the time. Fischer even speculates that among his friends, the boy’s rate of the standard variant would be even lower. This adjustment to the frequency of use of variants in different contexts is called style shifting.

Since Fischer’s study, style shifting has been found across different social cohorts, different places, and different languages. Contextual style, as a sociolinguistic factor, was further refined and theorized by William Labov in his 1966 book The social stratification of English in New York City, a foundational text for variationist sociolinguistics. Labov’s idea was that the formal-casual continuum correlates with the standardized-non-standardized continuum because both of these more directly correlate with the amount of self-monitoring that takes place while speaking/signing. In more formal situations, we pay more attention to the details of the language we use and when we are paying more attention to the language we use, we are more likely to avoid features of our language that are stigmatized. In other words, we’re more likely to speak/sign the way we have been socialized to think we should be speaking/signing when we are paying attention to our language. In casual contexts, we pay less attention and are less likely to conform to the standard.

Different styles. The understanding of style described by Labov is called the attention-paid-to-speech model but there are other motivations for style shifting too. We might style shift in response to our interlocutor (more formal with a stranger and more casual with friend) or even in response to people who might be eavesdropping on our conversation. This is called the audience design model. We might also shift to a more or less casual style or we may use a higher or lower frequency of variants of a variable associated with different social factors to achieve certain interactional goals or to express and highlight different aspects of our identity. This is called the speaker design model

Finally, sociodemographic information is also revealed in language use and linguistic variation. By sociodemographic information, we mean the traits that we share with the social cohorts that we belong to. The language we use, just like the clothes we wear, the activities to do, the places we go, and the things we own, marks our social identity. The use and frequency of use of linguistic variables correlates with a huge array of social factors including age, social class/status, race, ethnicity, gender, education, place, caste, sexuality, social network, and local communities of practice, among other aspects of our identities, both macrosociological and microsociological. Later in this chapter, we’ll look at four of these factors in detail: place, social status, gender, and ethnicity.

Our language use and variation within our languages reveals aspects of the social structures and sociocultural norms that those languages are embedded within as well as sociodemographic information about the interlocutors and facts about the interactional context.


Ball, J., & Bernhardt, B. M. (2008). First Nations English dialects in Canada: Implications for speech‐language pathology. Clinical linguistics & phonetics22(8), 570-588.

Fischer, J. L. (1958). Social influences on the choice of a linguistic variant. Word14(1), 47-56.

Labov, W. (1966). The social stratification of English in New York city. Cambridge University Press.

Olson, S. (2002). Mapping human history. Genes, races, and our common origins.


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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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