Welcome to Language Lore, a blog by Michael Shapiro.

Un nouveau blog––sans blague!

This blog aims at the explanation of social variation in language, otherwise the meaning and motivation of language change in its social aspect. It is directly concerned with the rational explication of linguistic variety as evidenced by spontaneous innovations in present-day American English. For the most part, I examine the ascription of social value to novel linguistic entities, as one of the areas in which the effects of spontaneous innovations are most notable. A special feature of the data is the plethora of examples drawn from media and colloquial language.

In fact, what I present here is an exploration of the ideological value of a whole list of changes-in-progress in American English. To a certain extent, I am continuing the older tradition of books like Mencken (1957), Pyles (1952), and Marckwardt (1980), while also investigating an important area of contemporary sociolinguistics not illuminated by books like Wolfram (1974), McDavid (1980), Dillard (1992), Wolfram and Schilling-Estes (1998), or even Labov (1973).

The research question posed here (following Andersen 1989) is informed by the idea of linguistic change as a form of communication––the title of a study by Labov, who concluded that members of a speech community use innovations to signal a variety of messages, such as “stronger meaning,” “group solidarity,” “greater intimacy,” or their opposites (1974: 253 ff.). Labov’s study clarifies some of the reasons why innovations are adopted and is significant for its key assumption alone that any novel expression, apart from the content invested in it by grammar and pragmatics, has a specific value by virtue of being different from a traditional expression with the same grammatical and pragmatic content.

It is this “connotative content” (Hjelmslev 1960: 114 ff.) of novel linguistic expressions that is the object here. But whereas, for instance, Labov’s study refers the specific values carried by the innovations to such established categories of connotative content as those mentioned above, my investigation concentrates on uncovering the purport of innovations before their definite, collectively understood connotative content has been widely adopted; and before the stage of consolidation of their values has been reached.

The supposed dichotomy between language and society is non-existent in two respects. For one thing, language is an entirely social phenomenon and cannot be separated from its social functions. For another, when linguistic rules make reference to social categories such as age, gender, or class, these categories are also themselves linguistic categories. They can and should be strictly distinguished from such parameters as chronological age, biological sex, or socioeconomic status, which can be defined prior to––and without regard to––the investigation of any language. What linguistic expressions index are culture-specific categories such as ‘youthfulness’, ‘femininity’, or ‘upper class’, not as defined in universal, naturalistic terms, but as conventionally encoded and understood by speakers of the language in question at the given time. Far from being “sociological factors” or “social factors bear[ing] upon linguistic features” (Weinreich et al. 1968: 186), these are in fact linguistic features. They are language-particular categories of content, indexed by linguistic elements of expression, that are selected for expression in discourse by speakers in accordance with their communicative intentions and with the same degree of freedom (and responsibility) as other categories of linguistic content. While it is a commonplace that language is totally embedded in society (linguistic facts are social facts), what is important to understand is that through the sociolinguistic categories of content indexed by linguistic expressions, the categories of a society are embedded in its language “unevenly” (Weinreich et al.: 185)––that is, selectively.

Any theory of language that wishes to explain language use must come to grips with the phenomenon of change and its causes. All linguistic variety, including social and dialectal differentiation within a given language, is necessarily the product of historical changes, some of which are still in progress at a given point in that language’s development. Representative of much modern theorizing about the causes of language change is Coseriu’s position (1958), according to which change in a language, as well as the absence of change, is produced by its speakers as part of that exercise of their free will which speaking constitutes. In speaking, they may be motivated by the diverse circumstances under which to speak is to deviate from the usage that is traditional in their community. But such a motivation is not a cause in the sense in which linguists (like Bloomfield 1935) understand the word, for individual speakers are free to let themselves be moved––or not moved––by the given circumstance(s). In Coseriu’s view, the only true “cause” of change are the speakers, who use their language, and in doing so observe or neglect their linguistic traditions as they see fit.

This way of looking at language is fairly realistic, not only because it assumes that any change may be conditioned by a number of coexisting circumstances, but also because it acknowledges the intentional character of speaking, whether it follows or breaks with tradition, and hence, by implication, an element of intention in both stability and change. In accordance with this latter aspect of Coseriu’s theory, the language historian’s task is not one of causal explanation but of rational explication.

What gives my approach its special stamp is a method whose main assumption is that linguistic change has a directionality defined by a parallelism between form and meaning. A simple example: “knowledges”––’knowledge’ used in what would be considered a deviant, if not outright ungrammatical, plural form. Why? Because it bears a contemporary ideological message that cannot easily be sustained in straightforward argument, the message, namely, that there are incompatible modes of thought that are equally valid. Thus “Western” science is only one (type of) knowledge to which such alternatives as Pawnee creation myths, “Wicca” witchcraft, etc., etc. are just as valid––so many distinct “knowledges.”

In many of the posts on this blog, there are series of examples like the one just given that are analyzed in terms of the parallelism between the relational value of linguistic forms and the cultural (ideological) content they signify.

American English, like all national languages, abounds in variety. Differences in age, sex, education, and psychosocial habits are typically correlated with differences in language use, so that there are always some discontinuities between the grammars of individual speakers. At the same time, similarities in speech and writing also tend to be mirrored by similarities in personalia. One way to understand what these correlations mean is to adopt a historical perspective on both the differences and the similarities of speech/writing. When analyzed with respect to their positions on a continuum, in terms of both the immediately preceding system from which they are departures and the new system of which they are manifestations, linguistic innovations can provide clues to the meaning of social and cultural changes in contemporary American society.

General usage in America is understandably far from monolithic. Beside the variety in language use associated with geographical and social dialects, there are numerous linguistic variants that are part of American English in the round, so to speak. Differences in pronunciation such as that of broad and flat /a/in words like rather or aunt can cross dialectal lines and constitute indicators of speakers’ attitudes, i.e., as linguistic clues to their value systems. This kind of evidence can differ from the  features that are traditionally labeled as stylistic or social. When applied to individuals that cannot otherwise easily be grouped socioeconomically, a microanalysis of linguistic habits shifts the focus productively from describing sociolects along traditional lines to identifying nascent groups of speakers by the value systems that account for their departures from received patterns.

There is a set of dialectally and socially unlocalized innovations in contemporary American English that are correlated with cultural changes. For instance, failure to apply the traditional laxing rule in forming the plural of house can be seen not merely as the imposition of regularity on the paradigm but as a sign of the speaker’s evidently unconscious rejection of the received pattern and adherence to the spreading new one. When phonological and morphological variants such as this occur in clusters in the language of a growing group of speakers, they can provide evidence of new attitudes, not only toward what constitutes acceptable general usage but toward aspects of the “ideological” make-up of such groups.

Syntax and semantics represent relatively higher nodes of ascent along the linguistic hierarchy from constraint to freedom but are still areas of language structure that provide evidence of variation that can be correlated with “ideological” differences.

In the last thirty years, for instance, there has been a change in the government of the verb commit whereby the reflexive complement tends to be omitted. This syntactic innovation can be analyzed as an indicator of a change in the core meaning of the verb from that of ‘bind/pledge oneself’ to something more equivocal (’non-binding/non-commital’). Speakers who habitually use the verb without the reflexive may be said to have a different attitude––and therefore, a different value system––from those speakers of American English who follow the older norm.

Semantics is the most fluid of linguistic subsystems and furnishes the richest evidence of the correlation between language use and value systems. An example is that of pleonasm or redundancy. Locutions like equally as (for equally) or also . . . as well abound in contemporary American speech (and even in writing). In some cases pleonasms become part of general usage (past experience, advance warning, safe haven, etc.), but there are many others that arise spontaneously. An “ideological” analysis of pleonastic constructions––and of redundancy in general––will seek to explore how such usage coheres with a particular attitudinal set toward the relation between form and content that crosses strictly linguistic boundaries to embrace modes of cognition correlated with beliefs and the predispositions toward action they account for.

“Wherever the human mind has worked collectively and unconsciously, it has striven for and attained unique form. The important point is that the evolution of form has a drift in one direction, that it seeks poise, and that it rests, relatively speaking, when it has found this poise.” This is how Sapir (1949: 382) famously characterizes the principle of final causation in language. Present possibilities with greater or lesser powers of actualization exist at any given historical stage of a language. Innovations that come to be full-fledged social facts, i. e., changes, must have something about their form that enables them to survive. The aggregate of such innovations-become-changes is what constitutes the drift of a language.


Andersen, Henning. 1989.”Understanding Linguistic Innovations.” In L. E. Breivik & E. H. Jahr (eds.), Language Change: Contributions to the Study of Its Causes. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 5-28.

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1935. Language. New York: Holt.

Coseriu, Eugenio. 1958. Sincronía, diacronía e historia: el problema del cambio lingüístico. Montevideo: Universidad. Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias.

Dillard, J. L. 1992. A History of American English. London: Longman.

Hjelmslev, Louis. 1960. Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. Trans. F. Whitfield. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Labov, William. 1973. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

_______. 1974. “Linguistic Change as a Form of Communication.” In A. Silverstein (ed.), Human Communication: Theoretical Explorations. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 221-256.

Marckwardt, Albert H. 1980. American English. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP.

McDavid, Raven I. 1980. Dialects in Culture: Essays in General Dialectology. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Mencken, H. L. 1957. The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States. 4th ed. New York: Knopf.

Pyles, Thomas. 1952. Words and Ways of American English. New York: Random House.

Sapir, Edward. 1949. Selected Writings in Language, Culture and Personality. Ed. D. G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weinreich, Uriel, William Labov, and Marvin Herzog. 1968. “Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change.” In W. Lehmann and Y. Malkiel (eds.), Directions for Historical Linguistics. Austin: University of Texas Press, 95-188.

Wolfram, Walter A. 1974. The Study of Social Dialects in American English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

_______ and Natalie Schilling-Estes. 1998. American English: Dialects and Variation. Oxford: Blackwell.