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Review of  Linguistic Variation and Change

Reviewer: Memoria C James
Book Title: Linguistic Variation and Change
Book Author: Scott Fabius Kiesling
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 22.3980

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AUTHOR: Kiesling, Scott F.
TITLE: Linguistic Variation and Change
SERIES: Edinburgh Sociolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Edinburgh University Press
YEAR: 2011

Memoria C. James, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Texas at


''Linguistic Variation and Change,'' by Scott F. Kiesling, explains how the
findings of various variationist linguistic studies have explained linguistic
behaviors in speech communities and how social meaning is embedded in these
communities. The book's main purpose is to forego a detailed discussion on
variationist linguistic methodology by providing an indispensible, comprehensive
resource for students on the theoretical background of linguistic variation.

This book assumes no prior knowledge of linguistic variation and statistics. It
is written with three different addressees in mind: 1) beginning graduate
students who are looking for an overview of linguistic variation research and
how to conduct linguistic variation studies; 2) advanced undergraduate students,
especially those planning to study applied linguistics in graduate school; and
3) experienced researchers from other related disciplines who need to apply
variationist linguistic analyses to the theoretical models in their own
research. Since the focus is on English dialects, this book could not be the
only source for students studying linguistic variation of non-English languages.

The book is organized into four parts, which are comprised of a total of ten
chapters. The book includes a terminology and notation conventions page, a
phonetic notation page for English vowels, an International Phonetic Alphabet
(IPA) chart, references, and an index. The first part of the book, which is
comprised of Chapters 1-3, addresses questions about language and linguistic
variationist methodology. The first chapter serves as a general introduction to
the history of linguistic variation, with a focus on the seminal, early
programmatic article by Weinreich, Labov, and Herzog (1968). Chapter 1 also
provides the goal of this book, which is guided by the set of problems and
principles from the 1968 article in order to frame the goals and premises of
linguistic variation. In Chapter, 1 the term 'linguistic variable' and phonetic
and syntactic terms in relation to linguistic variation are presented.

Kiesling diverges from the notion of looking at a linguistic variable as one
that can be used in complimentary distribution with another to say or mean the
same (or similar) things. Instead, he defines a linguistic variable as a feature
with semantic weight that is linguistically represented differently within
and/or between communities. Some examples mentioned are the variation between
the [ɪn]/[ɪŋ] variants in –ing-final words in U.S. English (Labov 1963) and the
alternation of first personal plural pronouns ‘nós’ (‘we’) and ‘a gente’ (lit.
‘the people’ = ‘we’) in Brazilian Portuguese (Zilles 2005).

Chapters 2 and 3 address the term 'linguistic variable' and variationist
linguistic methodology, respectively. Chapter 2 outlines the notion of the
linguistic variable, the fading concept of variable rules (i.e. ordered
generative representations of all possible variants of a linguistic variable to
determine probabilities and constraints based on various (extra)linguistic
factors), logistic regression, statistic programs such as VARBRUL and GOLDVARB,
criticisms with the traditional definition of 'linguistic variable' and
criticisms of incorrectly interpreting results of variationist linguistic
analyses (e.g. tyranny of correlation (narrow attributional interpretation of
data results) and atomization of category (failure to acknowledge the
interaction between all possible factor groups and a linguistic variable)).
Chapter 3 focuses on variationist linguistic methodology by explaining the
guiding questions for a research project, ethical issues (e.g. informed
consent), identification of the linguistic variable(s) and speech communities to
be studied, recording of interviews, codification of variables, description of
patterns via statistical testing, and the practice of testing for significance
via programs such as VARBRUL.

Part II (Chapters 4-7) discusses social patterns and variation. Chapter 4
describes the overall social patterns found in variationist linguistic studies –
stratification (i.e. variation based on social prestige levels), accommodation
(i.e. adaptation to the speech of other(s)), and differentiation (i.e. variation
based on demographic factors) -- and shares studies related to each pattern as
well as studies that challenge these patterns. Chapter 5 presents intraspeaker
variation (IV) patterns, motivations, and related studies along with definitions
of IV-related terms such as register, speech activities and events, genres,
frames, voicing, stance, and identity. Chapter 6 examines the function of social
meaning by introducing terms to discuss it (e.g. indexicality (a sign category
intrinsically linked to its referent)), symbol (i.e. arbitrary, denotational, or
referential meaning), and signifier/sign (i.e. a word). This chapter also
dedicates itself to social meaning by considering theories about how indexical
meanings (i.e. symbolic connotations) are created, changed, and become embedded
in speech communities, by revisiting studies related to the application of
indexical meanings and by sharing how identity is used. Chapter 7 describes how
variation is acquired through all developmental stages from early childhood to
adulthood and old age. Essentially, Kiesling states that young children first
acquire language variation from their caregivers, and later on in life, their
speech is influenced more by their peers. As adults, linguistic changes continue
to occur, but to a lesser degree, and may change based on new life experiences
and roles. Hence, transmission (i.e. linguistic changes through generations) and
incrementation (i.e. changes that move forward by the next generation) are two
language variation processes that arise in a speaker’s lifespan.

Part III (Chapters 8-9) marks the penultimate section of the book, which
provides an overview of structural patterns in different linguistic domains --
phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon, suprasegmentals, pragmatics and
discourse -- in linguistic variation with a focus on how change progresses due
to functional changes, such as assimilation or constraints on place of
articulation, and how these changes stabilize (this stability occurs primarily
as an adult when there is little variation in speech even while being exposed to
other varieties over an extended period of time). Chapter 8 focuses on
phonological and morphological changes and patterns, such as chain shifts,
mergers, and was/were alternations. Chapter 9 considers language variability in
syntactic, lexical, and suprasegmental domains, including studies concerning
word order alternations, language contact and word formations, discourse
markers, politeness strategies, address terms, and speech rate.

Part IV (Chapter 10) concludes and summarizes major points presented in the
book. By employing previously mentioned theories, findings, and notions, Chapter
10 discusses how a variant originates, emerges, develops, and spreads through
small to larger speech communities.


This book is written in an engaging, straightforward style appropriate for
advanced undergraduate and graduate students and professionals in the field who
are interested in understanding the theories behind variationist linguistic
research. Although the text's focus is not on variationist linguistic
methodology, its heavily theory-based content, numerous references to more
methodological texts and related studies, and carefully defined terms and
explanations allow the reader to have a solid foundation in linguistic variation.

Kiesling uses many related studies and adaptations of these studies' tables,
graphs, and figures to exemplify his explanations and main points. Providing
these tables and graphs proves to be particularly useful for students because
they are provided with a condensed, yet detailed picture of various studies that
fall under the discipline of linguistic variation. Moreover, most of the
chapters are 13 pages or shorter, which makes this book an easy read for
advanced undergraduate and beginning graduate students alike. The author
provides useful information on how to theorize and think critically about one's
own study before coding data or running statistical tests.

Unlike other recent books on linguistic variation, this text provides
theoretical information by way of examples from actual variationist studies,
many of which may already be familiar to the reader (e.g. Labov's (1966) study
of /r/ deletion in New York City department stores or Eckert's (2000) study of
communities of practice among Detroit high school students). Studies such as
these may serve as likely models for students and may guide them in the
formation of their own explorations of linguistic variables.

Regrettably, this book focuses primarily on English dialects, such as American,
British, or Canadian, and Western culture and ideas. Therefore, this book would
have to be accompanied by non-English resources if used in a non-English-focused
department (e.g. a linguistics course in a Romance Linguistics Department).
Chapter 9 contains the most studies about non-English languages and momentarily
talks about language contact. However, the mention of these non-English
languages and accompanying studies is quite brief compared to the content about
English dialects. Nevertheless, Kiesling succeeds in beginning most chapters
with guiding, thought-provoking questions, outlining topics discussed in
previous sections or chapters, presenting what will be discussed subsequently,
and linking the previous and forthcoming theories or concepts together. He also
explains findings and conclusions in technical and plain language and buttresses
complex ideas with helpful examples that are sometimes related to personal
hypothetical situations.

The book provides complete references for all works cited. The index is
comprehensive; however, the book would have benefited from the inclusion of a
glossary of terms. A glossary of terms would have been especially helpful to
students unfamiliar with grammatical or linguistic jargon. Furthermore, a
chapter focusing more on linguistic variationist methodology in relation to
previous studies and how to present the results of such data would have been
particularly useful, especially for undergraduate and graduate students not sure
about how to set up a study and what information, such as tables and figures,
should be included in a results section.

''Linguistic Variation and Change'' exposes the reader to a plethora of
theoretical information, based on various studies, to guide the reader to not
only understand and be more knowledgeable about the underpinnings of
variationist linguistic analysis, but also to help the reader yield a
well-researched, comprehensive foundation for a study of his or her own. This
book will be particularly fitting as a textbook for introducing graduate
students to linguistic variation for the first time.


Eckert, Penelope. 2000. Linguistic variation as social practice. Oxford: Blackwell.

Labov, William. 1963. The social motivation of a sound change. Word, 19, 273-309.

Labov, William. 1966. The social stratification of English in New York City.
Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Weinreich, Uriel, William Labov & Marvin Herzog. 1968. Empirical foundations for
a theory of language change. In Winfred P. Lehmann & Yakov Malkiel (eds.),
Directions for historical linguistics, 95-195. Austin, TX: University of Texas

Zilles, Ana. 2005. The development of a new pronoun: The linguistic and social
embedding of a gente in Brazilian Portuguese. Language Variation and Change, 17,

Memoria C. James is Assistant Instructor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently conducting research on Brazilian Portuguese register variation in spoken and written modes.

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