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Analyzing Variation in Sign Languages: Theoretical and Methodological Issues Rob Hoopes, Mary Rose, Robert Bayley, Ceil Lucas, Alyssa Wulf, Karen Petronio, and Steven Collins Sociolinguistic inquiry examines the complex relationship between language and its social context. Language is much more than a means of communication ; it is also a social object that both reflects and helps constitute the social context in which it is embedded. One of the ways that language accomplishes this social function is through the variable use of linguistic forms. If a language provides speakers with more than one way to say the same thing, speakers will use the variants to mark group identity, group solidarity, and social distance as well as to define the social environment (Fasold 1984). Sociolinguistic theory holds that the understanding of such variation is crucial to an understanding of language itself. Unlike traditional linguistic inquiry, which might ignore or attempt to minimize the importance of linguistic variation, sociolinguistic research makes variation the primary object of inquiry, explains the variable use of a linguistic form based on sociolinguistic factors, and reveals linguistic forms that may be in the process of change. Sociolinguistic inquiry is especially suited to describing the differences between standard and nonstandard language varieties. By delineating the linguistic differences between two language varieties and then correlating each with the linguistic and social contexts in which they occur, the patterning of the nonstandard variety emerges. In fact, demonstrating that vernacular dialects consist of linguistic patterns that are just as systematic as the patterns that characterize standard varieties is one of the great contributions of sociolinguistic research (Wolfram 1993). Finally, sociolinguistic analysis of how an individual signer uses a particular variable can reveal the unconscious but highly complex patterning and functioning of a variable within the lect of an individual. 135 We are grateful to Lois Lehman-Lenderman for the sign drawings and MJ Bienvenu for serving as the sign model. 09 (133-162) Chapter 9 5/21/01 3:44 PM Page 135 LINGUISTIC VARIATION The complex relationships among language, social structure, and the context of use comprise the object of sociolinguistic inquiry. Although sociolinguists have taken a number of approaches to the study of the relationship between linguistic form and social structure, including the ethnography of speaking (e.g., Bauman and Sherzer 1974), interactional sociolinguistics (e.g., Gumperz 1982), and discourse analysis (e.g., Tannen 1984), the variationist paradigm developed by Labov (1972) has proven to be most productive. The relationship between language and social context is most apparent in the variable use of a particular linguistic form, be it phonological, morphological, lexical, or syntactic. Since Labov’s study in 1966 of variable deletion of [r] by residents of the Lower East Side of New York City, sociolinguistic research has repeatedly confirmed that nonlinguistic facets of an interaction strongly influence the particular linguistic form a speaker will use at any given moment in the interaction. These include the personal , social, sociocultural, and socioeconomic characteristics of the participants as well as the characteristics of the interaction itself (e.g., formal vs. informal). In other words, factors outside the language influence which particular linguistic forms a speaker will use. The socioeconomic factors that influence how often a variable will occur are referred to as social constraints . Linguistic factors may also influence how often a variable will occur and are referred to as linguistic constraints.1 Typically, the frequency at which a particular variant occurs is influenced by both types of constraints . For example, in his study of the phonological variable known as pinky extension, Hoopes (1998) found that the occurrence of pinky extension was strongly influenced by three linguistic constraints: the phonological structure of the sign, the syntactic category of the sign, and the prosodic function of the sign. But its occurrence was also influenced somewhat by the degree of social distance between the subject and the interlocutor in the interaction (i.e., a social constraint). The closer the relationship, the more likely pinky extension was to occur. Thus, the frequency of pinky extension was influenced by the linguistic and the social constraints working in concert. The influence of contextual factors on language use was originally postulated by Labov and others on the basis of spoken language research. It is now beyond dispute that sociolinguistic phenomena also obtain in sign languages. Careful studies over the past 20 years have shown correlations between sociolinguistic factors and linguistic variables on every linguistic level. For example, Lucas and Valli (1992) demonstrated that signers 136 Hoopes, Rose...


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