When most people meet a linguist, they wonder how many languages they speak. While one sense of the term linguist is someone proficient in a multitude of languages, most people who study linguistics are instead focused on the cognitive and physiological architecture that underlies all languages, rather than being linguistic savants.
Linguists, in the quest to understand how and in what ways languages differ, examine things like why some languages (e.g., Inuktitut) have a legion of word endings while others, like Chinese, have none. Such questions are crucial to understanding the larger question of what our internal wiring for language is like and how it gave birth to so many distinct types over time.
But, as the field of language research began to take hold as a scientific field of inquiry, it was only a matter of time until it became obvious that to really understand language, one had to look to how it was embedded not just in our brains but also in our societies.
For instance, why do younger speakers and older speakers say things so differently? How could American and Australian English come from the same source dialects but yet turn out bros, gals, mates, and sheilas that sound nothing alike? And, a question very relevant to modern discussions of gender and race discrimination, how is it that we make assumptions about things like someone’s sex or ethnicity from just hearing their voice?
Answering such questions required a better understanding of how language gives us clues to the identities of the speakers that use it. Previous accounts of language focused on reconstructing earlier forms of language, assuming that all changes could be accounted for by regular linguistic principles.
However, while over time changes might appear orderly and structured, living speakers used variable forms at different times and places, in what often appeared as a chaotic or random fashion. Explaining real speakers’ everyday language use was a very different matter than looking at patterns of language development over time.
But three linguists working at Columbia in New York in the 1960s, Uriel Weinreich, William Labov, and Marvin Herzog, saw promise in looking more deeply at how social motivations interact with linguistic ones.
They suggested that language change grew out of not just language contact, such as that between French and English after the Norman conquest, or natural processes such as changing stress patterns leading to the loss of word final endings, but as a result of how these factors are influenced by the social structures, groups and sociohistorical events within which they are embedded.
The Island Life
As an example, Bill Labov, one of the study’s authors and the founder of the field of sociolinguistics, pointed to his findings in his 1961 research on the small island of Martha’s Vineyard, off the northeast coast of the U.S., where some very distinctive vowel variants could be heard.
Source: Kate Honish/Pixabay
Martha’s Vineyard had long been built on an economy of farming and fishing, but, starting in the 50s and 60s, the island became an increasingly popular vacation destination for wealthy tourists. As tourism began to take over their local economy, this influx from mainlanders was viewed, particularly by those who had made their living as fishmongers, as an incursion and a threat to their traditional way of life.
Labov interviewed many of the original families on the island, finding that the fisherman who lived up-island, where a more rural and traditional lifestyle still dominated, tended to use an older form of a vowel sound in words like “sound” or “about,” so that they were pronounced more like “seund” or “aboot.” This was opposite the pattern on the mainland and among the youngest speakers who planned to move off the island, where the more typical modern pronunciation had become the norm.
Middle-aged speakers who lived on the island, especially those who shared the view that the tourists were impacting their traditional livelihood and lifestyle, had also started to adopt this unique vowel pronunciation as a marker of what it means to be a true “Islander.”
In short, by using older, more traditional vowels, these speakers showed verbal resistance to the incursion of outsiders and the loss of traditional occupations and values. Use of this local norm aligned with speakers’ attitudes toward the social and economic shifts taking place in their community.
What this study showed is that language contact, physiology, and historical developments alone could not explain why speech on Martha’s Vineyard had developed as it had. Though the seeds for the signature pronunciations in words like “toide” (tide) and “heus” (house) might have been planted by earlier settlers, the resurgence of these forms, particularly only among one specific set of speakers, was deeply engaged with the lifestyles of those on the island and the threat they perceived from outside forces.
A Deep Bond Between the Linguistic and the Social
In other words, only by understanding language in its social context could the sound changes on the island be understood. This study proved foundational to the field of modern sociolinguistics and to illuminating how deeply language change is tied to social triggers.
While it is perhaps not surprising that catastrophic events like colonization, wars, and resettlement might change the course of language, sociolinguistic studies such as that in Martha’s Vineyard illustrate that much more subtle differences—things like what we do for a living or our ethnic background—can be equally impactful on shaping our linguistic choices and influencing how others perceive us. And, in fact, much sociolinguistic work since has even further proved that social meaning is a crucial part of what drives not just what we say, but, importantly, the way we say it.