Text and Language Technology Group

Text and Language Technology Group
William A. Kretzschmar, Jr.

What is Language Variation?

Even though language-arts training has traditionally emphasized standards, like Standard English, linguists have known for a long time that language variation is common and normal in all languages and in all places. When you think about it, why else would English teachers (for example) have to work so hard, often with such little success, to teach Standard English at all levels in American schools? We all learn different habits in our communities than the ones taught in school, and it is hard for us to keep up with how what we learn at home is different from what we learn at school. Moreover, different communities have different sets of habits, whether in different regions (such as the American North vs. the American South) or in different social situations (such as working-class vs. middle-class groups, or women vs. men). In recent years, because computers have made possible new kinds of language analysis, linguists have learned that different sets of language habits can be associated not only with big regions or broad social grups, but with much smaller groups such as the cliques in a high school. Linguists have also been able to document in considerable detail the different sets of habits that can be associated with different kinds of writing or speaking, for example those characteristics that make a formal speech different from normal conversation, or a romance novel different from a business report.

The improved study of different sets of habits relies on empirical investigation. Before modern recording technology and computers, linguists used to be forced to rely on their own experience to describe patterns of language. Linguists today can gather and store large quantities of text or speech that they want to study. Another tool that linguists now have available is modern survey research and statistical methods, so that it is now possible to crunch numbers and describe probabilistic patterns in language use as well as to make traditional descriptions of "grammar."

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