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Sociolinguistics in Real Time
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American Speech 75.3 (2000) 254-257

Rethinking Established Notions


After almost four decades of detailed analysis and description of systematic language variation, sociolinguistic researchers have made significant progress in understanding the actuation, embedding, and transition of language change. We have observed, for example, that many language innovations are initiated within particular social classes, that gender intersects with other variables in essential ways in the advancement of language change, and that social network structure and social identities constrain the rate and direction of changes in progress.

As progressive and generalizable as these observations of changes in progress may be, however, they are predicated on theoretical assumptions about change over time. The widely utilized construct of apparent time, for example, predicts that, all other things being equal, generational differences among a particular group of speakers represent stages of language change at different points in time. In other words, it may be assumed that the heightened or reduced incidence of a particular language feature by young speakers vis-à-vis older speakers in a speech community at a particular point in time hypothetically signals a movement towards the eventual replacement of one language variant over another.

Apparent time in its ideal sense is dependent on the validity of the research hypothesis at hand in a particular language study and the "immutability" of the "linguistic and social circumstances under which the measurements were made" (Chambers 1995, 200). The construct of apparent time is also, at its core, necessarily reliant on real-time studies to reinforce its validity. Therein lies the potential problem. Real-time, longitudinal studies of synchronic language change are still far too scarce to justify some of the assumptions of the apparent-time construct. Change may stall, reverse itself, or be age-graded within the life cycle of speakers within a speech community.

Why are longitudinal studies still in such infancy? First, real-time studies are somewhat impractical. Because sociolinguistics is such a young subfield within the linguistics discipline, there has arguably not been enough time to study individual speech communities over periodic increments and map notable changes. Second, real-time studies can be logistically difficult. Speech communities and social conditions change in real time. Speakers move away or die and community politics may suddenly shift, making it difficult to field the same population with the same extralinguistic situations over time. Third, real-time studies are not as attractive to some researchers because of the time commitment and deferred research gratification. In variationist study, there is a strong tendency to find the "latest and greatest," the unique and most distinctive vernacular language variety. Real-time studies obviously conflict with that sentiment.

At the same time that impracticality, logistical difficulty, and lack of attractiveness are obstacles for real-time studies, none of them are insurmountable. Four decades of data may not be enough to evidence some real-time change, but we cannot simply assume that all change occurs in stable, progressive increments. Indeed, some extreme extralinguistic circumstances may reveal accelerated rates of change. Consider, for example, the status of Native American languages or the dialects of certain island communities, like Smith Island (Schilling-Estes and Wolfram 1999), where change can be rapid and progress geometrically, possibly completing its cycle in just a generation or two. Even if researchers are not working with such acute cases of change and cannot confirm a complete cycle of change within the relatively short time span of sociolinguistic study, documenting and verifying points of change along a continuum of language change does lend crucial supportive data to the sociolinguistic community.

With respect to the logistic difficulties a researcher can expect to encounter when performing real-time studies, none seem so dire as when a community does a sociocultural about-face. However, such change in social circumstance is in reality a positive, not a negative. In apparent-time studies, sociolinguists correlate extralinguistic factors with linguistic change, but they may only make inferences about the social correlates at each particular point on that continuum of change. Thus, they could miss subtle social shifts within communities that might better inform the overall pattern of language change. With real-time studies, such social change can be directly witnessed, so even...