Linguistic variation

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Linguistic variation refers to the range of differences between varieties of language. This variation can be sociolinguistic in nature, i.e. it occurs as a consequence of the way people distinguish themselves from each other, such as by accent and vocabulary. The study of such variation is a major branch of linguistics. Variation is also important in the study of the system of language itself.

Sociolinguistic variation

All varieties of all languages vary from each other in terms of words used and their meanings, pronunciation and syntax. This variation may follow predictable patterns over time, or it may be the result of groups of people distinguishing themselves from others. In linguistics, variationists specialise in documenting and accounting for these differences. One of the most famous examples is a study conducted by William Labov, who focused on how New Yorkers varied in their use of the r segment in phrases such as fourth floor, finding that the presence or absence of r correlated with social context - in this case, the prestige of department stores where different speakers worked.[1]

Linguistic variation and the nature of language

The nature of variation is very important to an understanding of human linguistic ability in general: if human linguistic ability restricts itself narrowly constrained by biological properties of humans, then languages must be very similar. If human linguistic ability has no such constraints, then languages might vary greatly in many aspects.

In principle, if two languages share some property, that property might reflect descent with modification from a precursor language or some inherent property of the human language faculty. For example, the Latin language spoken by the Romans developed into Spain in Spain and Italian in Italy. Similarities between Spanish and Italian in many cases reflect both having descended from Roman Latin.

Often, linguists dismiss the likelihood common inheritance. Presumably humans have spoken languages at least from the time biologically modern humans emerged, perhaps more than a hundred thousand years ago.[2] Independent measures of language change (for example, comparing the language of ancient texts to the daughter languages spoken today) suggest that change is rapid enough to make it extremely difficult to reconstruct a language that was spoken so long ago. As a consequence, linguists cannot with confidence always attribute common features of languages spoken in different parts of the world as evidence for common ancestry. (But see [3])

Even more striking, there are documented cases of sign languages being developed in communities of congenitally deaf people who could not have been exposed to spoken language. The properties of these sign languages have been shown to conform generally to many of the properties of spoken languages, strengthening the hypothesis that those properties are not due to common ancestry but to more general characteristics of the way languages are.

Universal grammar

For more information, see: Universal grammar.

The principles which are thought to underlie all possible languages, which are biologically-based and which are specific to language as opposed to other forms of cognition, can be referred to as "universal grammar" (or UG): this theory associated with Noam Chomsky. However, there is much debate around this topic and the term is used in several different ways.

Universal properties of language may be partly due to universal aspects of human experience; for example all humans experience water, and the fact that all human languages have a word for water is probably not unrelated to this fact. The challenging questions regarding universal grammar generally require one to control this factor. Clearly, experience is part of the process by which individuals learn languages. But experience by itself is not enough, since animals raised around people learn extremely little human language, if any at all.

A more interesting example is this: suppose that all human languages distinguish nouns from verbs (this is generally believed to be true). This would require a more sophisticated explanation, since nouns and verbs do not exist in the world, apart from languages that make use of them.

In general, a property of UG could be due to general properties of human cognition, or due to some property of human cognition that is specific to language. Too little is understood about human cognition in general to allow a meaningful distinction to be made. As a result, generalizations are often stated in theoretical linguistics without a stand being taken on whether the generalization could have some bearing on other aspects of cognition.

In an interview for New Scientist, Noam Chomsky, pioneer of the concept of universal grammar, said:

There are people who misunderstand the term ['universal grammar'] but I can't deal with that. It's perfectly obvious that there is some genetic factor that distinguishes humans from other animals and that it is language-specific. The theory of that genetic component, whatever it turns out to be, is what is called universal grammar.[4]


  1. Labov (1969; 1972).
  2. Bolles, Edmund Blair (2011-09-01). Babel's Dawn: A Natural History of the Origins of Speech. (p. 108). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
    • Yet as far as brain-imaging studies are concerned, the answer is in. Language uses the same sensory areas used for other operations when we are not producing language. Syntax and semantics are not generated in special brain areas that go unused during periods without language. There may be specialized circuits that connect the separate words, but the foundations of these circuits are the sensory and motor areas that are used for more routine tasks. And many of these circuits do not appear to be inborn. People speaking different languages show vastly different patterns of brain activity.
  3. Dediu D, Levinson SC (2012) Abstract Profiles of Structural Stability Point to Universal Tendencies, Family-Specific Factors, and Ancient Connections between Languages. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45198.
    • Here we report an extensive Bayesian phylogenetic investigation of the structural stability of numerous features across many language families and we introduce a novel method for analyzing the relationships between the “stability profiles” of language families. We found that there is a strong universal component across language families, suggesting the existence of universal linguistic, cognitive and genetic constraints.
  4. Lawton G, Chomsky N. (2012) Noam Chomsky: Meet the universal man. An interview with Noam Chomsky. 19 March 2012 by Graham Lawton. New Scientist Magazine issue 2856.

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