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Variation Theory

  Variation theory, in linguistics, as pioneered by William Labov in the late 1960s, is concerned with the fact that languages possess a whole range of resources for producing a given linguistic expression. The spectrum of variation exists at every level of the linguistic system, from the way we pronounce certain words to the syntactic forms we choose. Geographical variation is apparent, even in monolingual countries, from the various dialects which characterize particular regions. And social variation is evident when the particular forms of language used are influenced by the social class of the speaker.

Linguistic variation between groups of people is compounded by the variation which exists within the speech of each individual. For example, English speakers in New York sometimes pronounce the r sound in words like ‘car’, ‘floor’ and ‘fourth’, and at other times they omit it. Beyond the finding that all speakers fluctuate between the inclusion and omission of r, Labov showed that speakers from a high socioeconomic level tend to pronounce r relatively often. However, r inclusion is more frequent in the speech of all speakers when they are paying careful attention to their speech in a formal setting. Evidently, the influence of social class interacts with the particular setting to determine which speech variant is chosen. In this way, Labov provided the crucial insight that linguistic variation is not at all random, but is in fact both predictable and systematic. MS

See also sociolinguistics.



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