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Autumn 2003

Apparent and real time in studies of linguistic change and variation, by Maria Teresa Turell

This article sets out to develop theoretical and methodological aspects surrounding the treatment of the notions of apparent time and real time in studies of sociolinguistic variation. These two notions are located in the change of linguistic paradigm represented by a) the adoption of theoretical aspects such as the concept of function, stylistic and social meaning, variation and linguistic change, bi-directional relations between the synchronic and the diachronic, on the one hand, and internal and external variation, on the other, and b) the formulating of various principles (stability, change from above, change from below) which have guided research in this field. The body of this article deals with the relationship between apparent time and real time, and replication or "sampling"real time study research perspectives applied to the different Catalan speech communities.


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1. Introduction

2. A change of paradigm

3. The relationship between synchronic and diachronic
3.1. Synchronic versus diachronic
3.2. Diachronic versus synchronic

4. Internal and external variation

5. Change in apparent time and change in real time
5.1 Change in apparent time
5.2 Change in real time versus change in apparent time
5.3 Change in real time
5.3.1 Reviewing the past
5.3.2. Repeating the past and returning to the scene Replica studies "Sampling studies"

6. The relationship between linguistic change in apparent time and change in real time

7. Research prospects for language variation and change in Catalan in real time

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The notions of apparent time and real time are not specific to the more recent studies on sociolinguistic variation and of change in progress. In fact, they have been present in the linguistics literature since the early days of the structuralists (Bloomfield 1933, Hockett 1950) and especially since the restructuring known as the Change of Paradigm: Weinreich (1953); Herzog, Labov and Weinreich (1968). For Hockett (1950), for example, differential distribution of use of a given variable across different age groups might not represent any change in the variety of a particular speech community, and instead might represent a pattern typical of age grading, repeated generation after generation.

In fact, sociolinguistic research into variation has shown that many sociolinguistic variables exhibit this graded behaviour, whereby adolescents and young people in a given speech community will employ, if they are observed, stigmatised forms with much more unselfconscious freedom than for example middle aged speakers. However, the question to be addressed here is, whether we can simply note the distribution of linguistic variables in different age groups, from young to old, in a given community, observing them at the same instant or the same synchronic point of time – thus collecting data in apparent time – and then on that basis alone deduce that there is a linguistic change in progress in the speech community.

This article sets out to develop theorectical and methodological aspects that surround the treatment of notions of apparent time and real time in studies of sociolinguistic variation. However, before beginning that exercise, it is essential that we situate this treatment within the framework of the Change of Linguistic Paradigm in which it becomes meaningful to specify a bi-directional relationship between synchronic and diachronic aspects, and internal and external variation.

2. A change of paradigm

If we had to place the change of linguistic paradigm we have just mentioned from the point of view of the history of linguistics, the most relevant reference points that would allow us to take account of this change would be found in various articles which I see as fundamental, as laying the foundations: Weinreich, Labov, and Herzog (1968) "Empi rical foundations for a theory of language change", in W. Lehmann and Y. Malkiel (eds.), Directions in Historical Linguistics I, Hymes (1970). "Introduction", Language in Society, no. 1; Labov (1975) "What is a linguistic fact?"; and Labov (1981) "Building on empirical foundations", in W. Lehmann and Y. Malkiel, Directions in Historical Linguistics, II.

Let us be clear that this new movement had as its aim to look anew at the relationship between language and speech, but not to ignore or supplant the work in linguistics that had come before. Instead it set out to give support to the results of such previous work and to develop it further. The justification for this epistemological proposal, which began to take shape at the end of the sixties, necessarily arose out of the realisation that the intuitions of native speakers of a language –the basis for linguistic descriptions carried out between 1925 and 1975 and even later, and the intuitive data arising from them– were found to be increasingly limited and erroneous. This especially when it came to giving support to the theoretical constructs of linguists of that time.

According to Labov (1975), all linguists of the time (the nineteen seventies) were interested in the empirical foundations of linguistics and considered linguistics to be an empirical science, even though some of these same linguists, the heirs of the purest rationalism, were intent on differentiating themselves from it. In other words, all took linguistic phenomena as their point of departure: some took them as items that had to be explained by their theories and others as means of explaining theories that had already been formulated.

Naturally, the methods used differ greatly: the structralists based their work on unknown languages and on intuitions and conclusions, or introspective generalisations – not their own but those of others, that is to say, of the speakers of these languages. Generativists on the other hand took themselves as informants and proposed generalisations based on the generalisations drawn from other languages; lastly, the American dialectologists structured this introspective evidence on the basis of their own personal dialect.

In point of fact, at this juncture in the development of lingüistic thought, the operative modus operandi and the raison d'être of linguistics, could be summarised as the attempt to resolve the apparent contradicton that some linguistic differences apparently do not make any difference, and therefore, constitute free variation. This attempt arose out of certain postulates from the Structuralists that led to the search for invariance ("some sentences are the same" (Bloomfield 1933)) and from Phonology, based on the recognition of variance, such that "no two sentences are the same".

Thus, the issue of the signifié, which subsequently was to generate so much literature (Lavandera 1981; Romaine 1981) in sociolinguistic variation, emerged as a crucial consideration in the arguments of the linguists in the sixties and seventies. In this respect, it was argued that the linguistic signifié of a variable is not the equivalent of any signifié from the point of view of its social meaning or emphasis. No one had yet shown that the difference in formality between specific variants was a difference of meaning in the linguistic sense.

Accordingly, following the analysis by Labov (1975) of the linguistic research scene of those years, this consensus of concept and method among the linguists of the time, regarding the notion that linguistic phenomena are invariant (in the sense that there is an equivalence among variants) made it possible to optimise the Saussurian paradox. This in turn made it possible to study the social aspects of language, (langue), using the intuitions of one or two individuals in the context of a homogenous speech community. To be sure, this approach made it possible to collect linguistic data from a great variety of languages. In fact, interest in the search for general principles of language or universals came into being thanks to this approach.

On the other hand, as Labov also points out, if each linguistic fact were to be examined by means of representative samples, with an established research design for the observation and linguistic description, it would never go beyond the simplest of structures of the most known and described languages. Or, to put it another way, it seems that this general agreement on method and lack of interest in empirical the basis resulted from the simple uniformity of the phenomena studied by many linguists in those days

Additionally, given the prevailing logic of that time, it was almost as if linguists set out to solve problems caused by disagreements by going out of their way to avoid obscure or unclear cases and concentrating on the clear cases: the invariant phenomena or facts, which fitted into the categorical view of language. The latter included discrete, invariant categories that were common to the whole speech community. It was against this background that Bloomfield’s disciples gradually developed the notion of idiolect, in order to exclude variable phenomena, and established a reduction of the scope of analysis to one informant, one topic, over a short period of time. Moreover, for many years the Generativists ignored the problems posed by variation, and excluded from their analysis any data that might be in competition with their "dialect", because they considered variation as an interference with the consensus alluded to above.

Nonetheless, what emerges most clearly is that resorting to the study of the idiolect, in order to avoid the contradictions that might derive from competing data, has even more serious consequences and that is that each scholar of the general structure of the language might end up with a different set of linguistic phenomena and facts, which would constitute an implicit attack on the Saussurian notion of langue as a general property of the speech community and on Chomsky’s principle of constructing a theory of the language based on "clear phenomena".

According to Labov, studies carried out based on the analysis of introspective generalisations demonstrate that linguistic variation is extensive, uncontrollable and "chaotic", and therefore, given that this is demonstrably so, it would seem a) that there should be a sweeping rejection of linguists’ generalisations – when paradoxically what linguistics sets out to do is generalise, and b) that "idiolectal" dialects would have to be rejected for their instability, while the results that derive from another type of evidence – the study of dialects with a social and geographical basis – were going in the opposite direction of the research into idiolects. All this indicates that the members of a speech community have access to the same set of norms of interpretation even though they may not use certain forms.

Perhaps the conceptual and epistemological concept that will allow us to best capture the change of paradigm that began to be discerned around the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies is the question of the theoretical (and thus methodological) focus which emerged as a result. The dominant thinking implied on the one hand, that the proposed linguistic model should correspond point by with each element of the structure, and, on the other, that the rules formulated should make it possible to relate parts of the model among themselves and with the empirical phenomena under consideration.

The focus inherent in the New Paradigm, as established in one of its founding articles, What is a linguistic fact? (Labov 1975), situated itself nearer the evolutionary sciences such as geology and biology than to logic or information science. And it was structured around the following points:

a) Communities are selected that exhibit progressive change, observations are made of a representative sample and inferences are drawn on what is happening to the community as a whole.

b) Other communities are selected that seem suited to confirming or otherwise the general conclusions or inferences already made.

c) The result of this expansion of our knowledge will be a small number of generalisations, or principles, which it seems reasonable to suppose are true. This set of related principles would logically deserve the name of theory. The fundamental value of such a theory is, above all, to serve to establish the most important aspects of linguistics.

d) Later it would become possible to deduce what patterns of linguistic change other. communities might be undergoing. Such deductions are actually strategies for finding contexts for an evaluation and refinement of such principles.

e) The global or overall objective here is to proceed from that which is known to that which is not known, increasing the pool of knowledge by means of observation and experimentation in an accumulative way.

f) It was hoped that these linguistic generalisations or principles would form a series of interrelations in such a way that they could be combined in more simple and more general formulations. These simplifications are often called synchronic and diachronic explanations.

It is important to note that these formulations, which were produced (in the words of Labov) as a desideratum in 1975, have been exhaustively described in two works by Labov published recently: one on internal factors, Principles of Linguistic Change. Internal Factors (1994) and another on internal/external factors (Principles of Linguistic Change. Social Factors (2001). Now a third is about to see the light, on cognitive factors. These exhaustive works review the research on internal linguistic variation, internal / external sociolinguistic variation, and linguistic change over the last 30 years, and will certainly lay the foundations for the historiography of linguistics for the twenty-first century, despite the more exclusive attitudes of some schools which do not look beyond their own models. As Peter Trudgill, the editor of the Blackwell series that publishes these works, stated (1994), "the study of the language of real people, based on the speech used over the course of their lives may perhaps not be the only way, and certainly not the easiest way, of doing linguistics, but it is the most essential and the most gratifying".

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