Variation, Change and the Usage-based Approach
The potential for synthesis between variationist sociolinguistics and theoretical linguistics has been recognised by researchers in both sub-disciplines (e.g. Henry 1995; Adger and Smith 2005) but it has been difficult to move beyond a description of this unified approach towards an account of variation that can explain both ‘social’ and ‘linguistic’ phenomena in the same theoretical framework. Chambers (2005: 217) suggests that such a synthesis is currently “well beyond our reach and hardly even foreseeable”. I argue that this is partly because most of the theories on which attempts to address this issue are modelled are fundamentally asocial in their design and in order to improve the synthesis between sociolinguistics and theoretical linguistics, it is necessary to first begin with a theory in which social and linguistic knowledge are inherently and inextricably linked in cognition. The aim of this thesis is therefore to consider to what extent it is possible to synthesise variationist sociolinguistic methods of data collection and analysis with usage-based models of interpretation. Using the ethnographic technique of participant observation, the data for this thesis were collected over a 2 year period from a group of 54 speakers who play together in West Fife High Pipe Band (WFHPB). These data form a corpus of 38 hours of conversation (roughly 360,000 words). Two different phonological variables are discussed in this thesis: th-fronting, which is a consonantal change in progress in this community, and variation in the BIT vowel, which is reported to be a stable variable in this variety. Using quantitative methods that are typically considered appropriate in variationist sociolinguistics (i.e. varbrul and multiple regression), this thesis correlates variation in both of these variables with a number of different ‘social’, ‘linguistic’ and ‘cognitive’ factors and shows that this is one way to explore the potential for synthesis. However, it is vital not only to incorporate these factors into a quantitative analysis of variation; it is also necessary to be able to explain the outcome of the quantitative analysis by invoking principles of the theoretical framework. By adding the theoretical assumptions of the usage-based approach to an analysis of variation that is already grounded in current sociolinguistic practices of data collection and interpretation, I suggest that it is possible to reach a more unified and insightful explanation of linguistic variation and change in this community and a more unified and insightful approach to linguistic theory; one in which “everything fits, and everything fits together” (Langacker 1987: 32).