Dr. Anne-Sophie Ghyselen, PDF department Dutch Linguistics, Ghent University

Seeking systematicity in variation: theoretical and methodological considerations on the ‘variety’ concept

23June2017 15:15 - 16:30


Anne Sophie Ghyselen is the guest speaker at this ACLC seminar. Title and abstract are now available.


Language production is the act of combining linguistic elements into larger units meaningful to a target audience. As all language is subject to variability (cf. Hall 1964: 298), this process assumes selection: while creating syntagmatic structures, language users select elements from a pool of referentially equivalent structures. Much controversy exists over the question how this selection process proceeds exactly. In the 1960s, both Bright (1966) and Labov (1969) criticized the canonical classification of intralingual variation as ‘free’ variation; the selection of variants was shown to be constrained by both language internal factors (such as phonetic environment) and language external factors (such as region, age, gender and identity). This idea is by now generally acknowledged within usage-based approaches to language, but the cognitive mechanisms underpinning selection processes remain unclear (cf. Geeraerts and Kristiansen 2015: 379).  A crucial question in this context is how much structure can be found in the variability: do speakers select elements from different systems or ‘grammars’ of language features or do they rather dispose of one ‘variation space’ comprising a whole array of features (cf. Geeraerts 2010)? In my presentation I will address this question (henceforth called the ‘structure question’) by critically reviewing the variety concept within (socio-)linguistics and the way in which it is methodologically implemented. First, the theoretical importance of the structure question in linguistics will be highlighted, after which the variety concept is scrutinized and a way is proposed in which it can be insighfully operationalised. The presented ideas will finally be illustrated by means of a case study in Dutch-speaking Belgium.



Published by  ACLC