In order to understand how language variation descriptors are used, we first must understand what language
variation is. We can say that the U.S. is linguistically diverse because of the multitude of languages spoken here,
but we can also find diversity within these languages. All languages have both dialectical variations and registral
variations. These variations, or dialects, can differ in lexicon, phonology, and/or syntax from the Standard
Language that we often think of as correct Language, although they are not necessarily less proper than, say,
Standard English. It depends on where, by whom, and in what situation the dialect is used as to whether or not it
Most people are familiar with regional dialects, such as Boston, Brooklyn, or Southern. These types of
variations usually occur because of immigration and settlement patterns. People tend to seek out others like
themselves. Regional variations tend to become more pronounced as the speech community is more isolated by
physical geography, i.e. mountain ranges, rivers. Linguists have done extensive studies on regional dialects,
producing detailed Linguistic Atlases. Many linguists can tell where a person is from just by knowing whether a
person carries groceries home from the supermarket in a paper bag or from the grocery store in a paper sack (Yule
184). And the person who comes home from the supermarket with a paper sack serves to remind us that
language variation is not a discrete, but rather a continuous variable. Characteristics of the dialect are more
pronounced in the center of the speech community and tend to be less discernible at the outer boundaries, where
they often overlap other regional dialects.
Within, and between, these regional variations we find the social dialects. The primary social factors that
influence dialects are class, education, occupation, ethnicity, sex, and age (Ferguson 52, Yule 191). And social
dialects can vary on any or all three descriptor levels; syntax or grammar, lexicon or vocabulary, and phonetics or
pronunciation. Social dialects are also where the described differences are often defined as stigmatized or
nonstigmatized (Ferguson 52). Stigmatized items include use of the double negative (grammar), substituting the d
sound for the leading th and losing sounds like the middle r and the final g in ing (pronunciation), and stylistic
choices such as puke for vomit (vocabulary).
There are three main types of reactions to these socially significant items.
1. Social indicators – the speaker, and often the listener, is not aware that these items are socially
significant in revealing ones social status, so the speaker makes no attempt to avoid them when speaking in a
more formal style. This would be someone who wants to take your picture, rather than your photograph.
2. Social markers – the speaker is sensitive to these items and will avoid them in a more formal style of
speech, although the speaker may not be fully aware of why. Examples would be avoiding contractions, and
phrases like gonna or didja. Social markers are much more prevalent in American English than social indicators.
3. Social stereotypes – even speakers who regularly use these types of dialects are fully aware of the stigma
attached to them. Social stereotypes would include the copula deletion in Black English, and the loosing of sounds
a la Joe Pesci that produce phrases such as doze tree guys.
Closely related to these social class factors are education and occupation. While occupations often
produce their own jargons, a persons occupation will also determine what style of speech is used. A lawyer and a
laborer would not be likely to use the same dialect on the job. Likewise, a person with little education is not likely
to use the same style of speech as a college professor. This does not imply that the lawyer and college professor
speak a better variety of English, but because of more exposure to, and familiarity with written English, which is
usually Standard English, they tend to speak that way, also. And because many people think of Standard English
as the norm, they also think of it as the more perfect English.
Ethnicity often produces language variation, particularly among recent immigrants. But this would not
explain the endurance of Black English and Chicano English. The rather widespread survival of these dialects
seems to stem from the social isolation of the speakers (discrimination, segregation), which tends to make the
variations more obvious. Because the group itself is stigmatized its dialect is stigmatized by association. Thus, the
deletion of the copula is considered bad speech, although Arabic and Russian also have structures that leave out
the copula and they are not bad (Yule 192).
The sex, or gender, of the speaker has an impact on the selection of vocabulary. Dialect surveys have
concluded that women are more apt to use prestigious forms of speech, while males tend to use more stigmatized
variants. Females are often the first to adopt new prestige variants and introduce them into a speech community,
also (Ferguson 158).
Age factors in language variation in two ways. First, there is the generational differences. As the younger
members of a speech community adopt new variants, the older members may not be affected, opting instead to
use their traditional dialects. To compare the differences between the old and the new variations is to compare
changes from one time period to another. The second way that age produces change is over time, to correspond
with various stages of an individuals life. This is particularly evident in teen slang. While this kind of slang does
not generally hold over from one generation to the next, the teens that used it generally do not carry it into middle
age, either. Far out and groovy were perfectly acceptable vocabulary for a young adult in the 1960s, but no one
wants to hear their grandparents use those terms.
Styles of speech, as shown above, cut across all the other factors, thereby further increasing language
diversity. Style ranges from formal to informal with gradient variation in between. Formal speech is used when we
are paying close attention to our speech. The more attention paid, the more formal the style. Style effects speech
throughout a persons lifetime, but there is less style variation found among young people and older people. Young
people, particularly adolescents, tend to use informal speech; probably because they are not comfortable with more
formal styles. Older people tend to use the style they have become accustomed to, be it formal or informal, with
less variation in style than their adult children (Ferguson 59).
Another variable that is similar to style is register. This is a situational factor. Registers vary in vocabulary,
grammar, and pronunciation. The legal register is quite formal, the scholarly journal register can be quite formal
(and boring), but other registers, such as the way we talk to babies or animals are quite informal. Registers tend to
be more rigid than stylistic variations. After all, in what other situation would a person use vocabulary and
sentences like, Coocheecoo! I got your little toe, or, Youre just the cutest little thing,. Oh, yes you are. You’re
just the cutest little thing I ever did see! except when talking to a very small baby? Register variations are
qualitative, qualitative being when the linguistic forms are not found in other variations. Differences between other
dialects are often quantitative. Certain elements of one dialect are found in other dialects, to a greater or lesser
degree or frequency. Using in for ing, as in goin is universal across status groups, but it is found almost twice as
often in the lower working class than in the lower middle class, and almost four times more than in the upper
middle class (Ferguson 61).
With all these different variables that intersect and overlap with the different dialect variations is is a wonder
that any sense can be made of American English at all. But there two other important point to remember.
Language universals such as displacement, arbitrariness, productivity, cultural transmission, discreteness and
duality are unique to human language (Yule 22) and provides a base or norm for measuring variations. Implicational
relationships provide a way of measuring relative distance between the different variations and also serve as a
means to predict changes in individual dialects (Ferguson 66).
Ferguson, Charles A., and Shirley Brice Heath, eds. Language in the USA. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,
Piatt, Bill. Only English? Law and Language Policy in the United States. Albuquerque:U of New Mexico
Yule, George. The Study of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.
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