Linguistic Variation

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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"Variation is an inherent characteristic of all languages at all times," say Wardhaugh and Fuller, "and the patterns exhibited in this variation carry social meanings" (An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 2015). Dimitri Otis/Getty Images

The term linguistic variation (or simply variation) refers to regional, social, or contextual differences in the ways that a particular language is used.

Variation between languages, dialects, and speakers is known as interspeaker variation. Variation within the language of a single speaker is called intraspeaker variation.

Since the rise of sociolinguistics in the 1960s, interest in linguistic variation (also called linguistic variability) has developed rapidly. R.L. Trask notes that "variation, far from being peripheral and inconsequential, is a vital part of ordinary linguistic behavior" (Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics, 2007). The formal study of variation is known as variationist (socio)linguistics.

All aspects of language (including phonemes, morphemes, syntactic structures, and meanings) are subject to variation.

Examples and Observations

  • "Linguistic variation is central to the study of language use. In fact it is impossible to study the language forms used in natural texts without being confronted with the issue of linguistic variability. Variability is inherent in human language: a single speaker will use different linguistic forms on different occasions, and different speakers of a language will express the same meanings using different forms. Most of this variation is highly systematic: speakers of a language make choices in pronunciation, morphology, word choice, and grammar depending on a number of non-linguistic factors. These factors include the speaker's purpose in communication, the relationship between speaker and hearer, the production circumstances, and various demographic affiliations that a speaker can have."
    (Randi Reppen et al., Using Corpora to Explore Linguistic Variation. John Benjamins, 2002)
  • Linguistic Variation and Sociolinguistic Variation
    "There are two types of language variation: linguistic and sociolinguistic. With linguistic variation, the alternation between elements is categorically constrained by the linguistic context in which they occur. With sociolinguistic variation, speakers can choose between elements in the same linguistic context and, hence the alternation is probabilistic. Furthermore, the probability of one form being chosen over another is also affected in a probabilistic way by a range of extra-linguistic factors [e.g. the degree of (in)formality of the topic under discussion, the social status of the speaker and of the interlocutor, the setting in which communication takes place, etc.]"
    (Raymond Mougeon et al., The Sociolinguistic Competence of Immersion Students. Multilingual Matters, 2010)
  • Dialectal Variation
    "A dialect is variation in grammar and vocabulary in addition to sound variations. For example, if one person utters the sentence 'John is a farmer' and another says the same thing except pronounces the word farmer as 'fahmuh,' then the difference is one of accent. But if one person says something like 'You should not do that' and another says 'Ya hadn't oughta do that,' then this is a dialect difference because the variation is greater. The extent of dialect differences is a continuum. Some dialects are extremely different and others less so."
    (Donald G. Ellis, From Language to Communication. Routledge, 1999)
  • Types of Variation
    "[R]egional variation is only one of many possible types of differences among speakers of the same language. For example, there are occupational dialects (the word bugs means something quite different to a computer programmer and an exterminator), sexual dialects (women are far more likely than men to call a new house adorable), and educational dialects (the more education people have, the less likely they are to use double negatives). There are dialects of age (teenagers have their own slang, and even the phonology of older speakers is likely to differ from that of young speakers in the same geographical region) and dialects of social context (we do not talk the same way to our intimate friends as we do to new acquaintances, to the paperboy, or to our employer). . . . [R]egional dialects are only one of many types of linguistic variation."
    (C. M. Millward and Mary Hayes, A Biography of the English Language, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 2012)
  • Linguistic Variables
    - "[T]he introduction of the quantitative approach to language description has revealed important patterns of linguistic behaviour which were previously invisible. The concept of a sociolinguistic variable has become central to the description of speech. A variable is some point of usage for which two or more competing forms are available in a community, with speakers showing interesting and significant differences in the frequency with which they use one or another of these competing forms.
    "Furthermore, it has been discovered that variation is typically the vehicle of language change."
    (R.L. Trask, Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics. Routledge, 1999/2005)
    - "Lexical variables are fairly straightforward, as long as we can show that the two variants--such as the choice between soda and pop for a carbonated beverage in American English--refer to the same entity. Thus, in the case of soda and pop, we need to take into account that for many U.S. southerners, Coke (when used to refer to a beverage and not the steel-making fuel or the illicit narcotic) has the same referent as soda, whereas in other parts of the U.S., Coke refers to a single brand/flavour of the beverage . . .."
    (Scott F. Kiesling, Linguistic Variation and Change. Edinburgh University Press, 2011)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Linguistic Variation." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Linguistic Variation. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Linguistic Variation." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).

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