25 January 2013

The Meaning of ‘Language Evolution’ (3): Microevolution, or the Variation and Change Around Us


Do you pronounce often with the vowel of lot or that of sauce? (or do you speak an accent in which lot and sauce contain the same vowel?). Do you say off’n with no /t/ even when speaking slowly and distinctly? Which syllable of controversy do you stress? Which plural form of fungus do you prefer: fungi or funguses? and if the former, do you pronounce it with /ŋɡ/ (as in anger) or /nʤ/ (as in angel)? with final /iː/ or /aɪ/?¹ Would you say different from others, different than others, or perhaps different to others? A toilet at a petrol station or a restroom at a gas station? A frying-pan or a skillet? Let’s not argue or don’t let’s argue? Do inflammable things burn or not? And if they aren’t inflammable, would you call them flammable or non-inflammable?

Some vowels on the move
There’s clearly a high level of variation within English, and the same is true of any language with a substantial number of speakers. People may use different pronunciations, different inflected forms, different grammatical constructions, different words for the same concept, and the same words with different meanings. English has several national varieties and a large number of local dialects. What is the source of that enormous diversity? How do new variants come into existence? What happens to variants that co-occur in the same dialect? Do their relative frequencies of use change in the course of time or reach an equilibrium? How is variation related to language change?  Are all variants equal or are some of them preferable to others?

The emergence of variation inside speech communities and the way variation changes over time are fundamental processes making large-scale language change possible. Let’s call those processes linguistic microevolution
¹ This is a linguistic blog, so some special symbols will be used from time to time. Please make sure that the fonts in your browser support the International Phonetic Alphabet. Phonetic characters may not be visible in older versions of commonly used fonts, in which case it is preferable to select e.g. Arial Unicode MS rather than Arial as the default sans-serif font.

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