Real-time sociolinguistics

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Real-time sociolinguistics is a sociolinguistic research method concerned with observing linguistic variation and change in progress via longitudinal studies. Real-time studies track linguistic variables over time by collecting data from a speech community at multiple points in a given period. As a result, it provides empirical evidence for either stability or linguistic change.[1]

Real-time sociolinguistics contrast with apparent-time sociolinguistics, which surveys different generations of a population at one point in time. A theoretical model of language change in apparent time is built based on the distribution of the linguistic variable across age groups in a speech community.[1] Although apparent-time studies are more numerous than real-time studies, real-time studies have seen an increase in number since 1995, often in the form of re-studies of 1960s and 1970s research.[2]

Advantages and disadvantages[edit]


Real-time methods address and resolve problematic assumptions of the apparent-time hypothesis.

Adult lifespan changes[edit]

The apparent-time hypothesis assumes that an individual's speech is relatively stable over his or her adult lifetime, so that each generation of speakers reflects the state of the language when the individuals first acquired language as children. Generational comparisons can then be made to study linguistic change. However, this assumption is undermined by the observation of the occurrence of lifespan change in many cases. Individual speakers "change over their lifespans in the direction of a change in progress in the rest of the community."[3] Because older speakers may have changes in language, apparent-time studies systematically underestimate the rate of change.[3] Real-time methods do not make assumptions about the stability of older speakers' speech; rather, data about the speakers' speech over time is gathered directly. Therefore, real-time studies do not have the problem of underestimation.

Age-graded variation[edit]

An entire speech community may exhibit age-graded variation, linguistic differences that emerge among different generations as the result of age rather than actual language change.[4] Therefore, apparent-time sociolinguistics studies do not definitively indicate that linguistic change is underway in a given speech community.[1]

In real-time analyses, one may test for age-grading by comparing the speech habits of participants at multiple points in time. If the speech habits have not changed, then the apparent-time hypothesis is supported. If the speech habits correlate with certain ages rather than speakers, then the speech exhibits age-graded variation.

Rate of language change[edit]

Real-time studies are crucial because changes do not necessarily occur in stable, progressive increments that can be documented synchronically, as assumed in the apparent-time hypothesis. Language change may occur quickly as a result of social changes. This was the case in the dialects of some island communities, such as Smith Island. Language change occurred rapidly on the island, completing within one or two generations. Apparent-time studies, which only document data from one point in time, would not have been able to capture this change. In this case of rapid change, real-time study methods are more favorable over apparent-time methods because the change is more easily detected and is documented in smaller, discrete increments.[5]

Effects of social changes[edit]

Real-time studies can also capture subtle language changes that result from social shifts within the community. While apparent-time studies can only assume correlations between linguistic changes and social factors, such changes can be directly witnessed in real-time studies.[5]


Constraints on time[edit]

Since sociolinguistics is a relatively new field, in many cases, not enough time has elapsed to gather adequate information on the same speech community over an extended period of time.[5] Similarly, researchers do not favor real-time sociolinguistics studies because of the time commitment to one project and delayed gratification. Because of the nature of the studies, researchers must wait many years before they can collect enough data for analysis. Often, researchers will not even get to see the results of their data.[5] Due to this lack of fulfillment, linguists often opt for apparent-time studies instead. They may also motivated by the common university practice of rewarding "more quickly achieved publications rather than 'research in progress'".[6]

Changes in population[edit]

While a study is in progress, changes may occur in the group of participants being surveyed. A speech community may change over time because of speakers passing or relocating, or social conditions changing.[5] Dramatic change in the demographics of a community would likely have a significant effect on linguistic patterns, so a study may end up reflecting a change in demographic population rather than linguistic change.[7] The continued participation of the subjects is also not guaranteed.[6] If the researchers were to add new speakers to replace speakers who are no longer in the speech community, then they would be altering the original speech community. Such alterations would undermine the basis of the real-time study approach, since the approach depends on the use of the same speech community over time to collect reliable and representative data.[5]

Issues with comparability[edit]

Old and new studies may not be able to be directly compared. Different research projects will have different interview conditions, instrumental measurements, data-extraction methodologies, and research aims.[6] For example, if the more recent study uses data collection technology that had not yet been developed during the time of the older study, then there will be a discrepancy between the two sets of data.

Approaches and methodologies[edit]

Diagram showing different research options in sociolinguistics, including real-time (Tillery and Bailey 2003). Real-time studies encompass several subcategories.

Use of existing evidence[edit]

The methodology of using existing evidence involves the comparison of a new study to a previous one or to some other form of evidence. While this approach to real-time sociolinguistics is more efficient and cost-effective than resurveys, it does have weaknesses which mostly consist of issues with comparability.[7]


Resurveys can solve the limitations that may arise from using existing evidence but can be affected by changes in population. The two primary types of resurveys are trend surveys and panel surveys.

In a trend survey, or replication study, the same population is resurveyed at a later point in time using the same data collection methods and analysis techniques as in the original survey.[7] However, a large population could pose potential problems, such as demographic change.[1]

A panel survey, on the other hand, follows the same group of individuals throughout the whole study, re-interviewing them over the period of the study. These studies are not affected by demographic change because they examine change in the speech of individuals. However, they are affected by age-grading, as well as the relocation or passing of individuals in the sample.[7]

Example studies[edit]

A pair of graphs illustrating the age distribution of r-fulness in the speech of sales personnel at Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's in the 1962 and 1986 studies. Note how, in both stores, the general age pattern remains the same in both years.

Martha's Vineyard[edit]

William Labov's 1963 study of /ay/ and /aw/ diphthong centralization in Martha's Vineyard has been revisited by other researchers in the following decades.[8] One such study was Renée Blake and Meredith Josey's 2003 study, in which they performed an analysis of the variable (ay) by utilizing more recent acoustic and social techniques. Upon comparing their data to the existing evidence from Labov, the authors found no more presence of /ay/ centralization, suggesting a possible reversal of the change cited by Labov.[9]

In 2002, Jennifer Pope conducted a trend study that more faithfully reproduced Labov's original survey methods and sampling procedure. Contrary to Blake and Josey's findings, Jennifer Pope found that the change was in fact continuing, with signs of recession showing only among the youngest speakers. Pope, Myerhoff, and Ladd concluded from their real-time evidence that Labov's apparent-time construct provides a valid representation of linguistic change.[10]

New York City department store trend survey[edit]

In 1962, Labov conducted a study on the stratification of the linguistic variable (r) in New York City. Labov surveyed sales personnel of three different department stores of varying prestige rankings: Saks Fifth Avenue (high-end), Macy's (mid-range), and S. Klein (low-end). He found a correlation between the speakers in higher-ranked stores and higher rates of constricted /r/. Labov concluded from this survey that the age distribution of constricted /r/ reflected a linguistic shift toward the prestige variant.[11]

Joy Fowler replicated the study more than two decades later in 1986 by resampling the population, following Labov's methodology as closely as possible (while substituting Mays for S. Klein, which had gone out of business). Fowler's results demonstrated an increased rate of r-fulness in the 1986 sample for all three stores, supporting Labov's hypothesis that there was a linguistic shift toward the adoption of the prestige variant. Furthermore, Fowler found similar age-based patterns in her findings, lending evidence to the influence of age-graded variation in the distribution of the variable.[12]

Another scholar, Patrick-André Mather, replicated Labov's original study in 2009. Although the distribution patterns of /r/ remain the same as for the two previous studies in terms of stylistic, social, and phonological variables (word-final vs. preobstruent), Mather (2012) noted significant increases in the overall percentages by some 10 to 20 percent, as well as important differences in terms of the age distribution: the 2009 study suggests that lower-middle-class younger speakers use the [r]-less variant considerably less than older speakers, contrary to Labov's original survey. In addition, Mather (2012) found that, although African American informants use less word-final /r/ than whites, especially in preobstruent position, they nevertheless follow the general pattern of stylistic and social differentiation according to the store, suggesting that African Americans are moving toward greater integration within the New York City speech community.

Springville panel survey[edit]

There had been ongoing linguistic fieldwork for over a decade from 1984 to 1995 in Springville, a rural Texas community with a majority African American and Hispanic population and a minority white population. In an effort to track the progression of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) features in the region, more than 100 residents had their speech recorded throughout this period in various interview contexts.[13] These interview contexts included individual, group, site study, and diary study; approximately two-thirds of the subjects were interviewed at least twice.[14][15] This effectively generated documentation of 100 years of Springville speech in apparent time.[13] The real-time surveying of the subjects revealed many linguistic changes, such as an increasing divergence of features in AAVE and Southern White Vernacular English (SWVE), another local dialect.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Turell, Maria Teresa (2003). "Apparent and real time in studies of linguistic change and variation" (PDF). Noves SL. Revista de Sociolingüística: 1–10. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  2. ^ Sankoff, Gillian (2006). Brown, Keith, ed. "Age: Apparent time and real time." (PDF). Elsevier Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (2 ed.). Elsevier Ltd. 
  3. ^ a b Sankoff, Gillian; Blondeau, Helene (2006), "Language Change Across the Lifespan: /r/ in Montreal French" (PDF), Project MUSE, retrieved 11 November 2013 
  4. ^ Boberg, Charles (2004). "Real and Apparent Time in Language Change: Late Adoption of Changes in Montreal English" (PDF). American Speech. Duke University Press Journals Online. 79 (3): 250–269. doi:10.1215/00031283-79-3-250. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Dannenberg, Clare J. (2000). "Sociolinguistics in Real Time". American Speech. 75 (3): 254–257. doi:10.1215/00031283-75-3-254. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  6. ^ a b c Gordan, Elizabeth; Maclagan, Margaret (2010). "'Capturing a Sound Change': A Real Time Study Over 15 Years of the NEAR/SQUARE Diphthong Merger in New Zealand English". Australian Journal of Linguistics. 21 (2): 215–238. doi:10.1080/07268600120080578. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  7. ^ a b c d Tillery, Jan; Bailey, Guy (2003). "Approaches to real time in dialectology and sociolinguistics". World Englishes. 22 (4): 351–365. doi:10.1111/j.1467-971x.2003.00305.x. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  8. ^ Labov, William (May 8, 2009). A Life of Learning: Six People I Have Learned From (Speech). 2009 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture, 2009 ACLS Annual Meeting. Philadelphia, PA. Retrieved October 27, 2013. 
  9. ^ Blake, Renée; Josey, Meredith (October 2003). "The /ay/ diphthong in a Martha's Vineyard community: What can we say 40 years after Labov?". Language in Society. Cambridge University Press. 32 (4): 451–485. doi:10.1017/S0047404503324017. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  10. ^ Pope, Jennifer; Meyerhoff, Miriam; Ladd, D. Robert (September 2007). "Forty Years of Language Change on Martha's Vineyard". Language. Linguistic Society of America. 83 (3): 615–627. JSTOR 40070904. doi:10.1353/lan.2007.0117. 
  11. ^ Labov, William (1972). Sociolinguistic Patterns (PDF). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 9780812210521. 
  12. ^ Mather, Patrick-André (November 2012). "The Social Stratification of /r/ in New York City: Labov's Department Store Study Revisited". Journal of English Linguistics. 40 (4): 338–356. doi:10.1177/0075424211431265. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  13. ^ a b Lanehart, Sonja L. (2001). Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 9781588110466. 
  14. ^ Chambers, J.K.; Schilling, Natalie (2013). The Handbook of Language Variation and Change. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781405116923. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  15. ^ a b Nagle, Stephen J.; Sanders, Sara L. (2003). English in the Southern United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521822640. Retrieved 23 October 2013.