Language in and out of society: converging critiques of the Labovian paradigm
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date29/11/2020
In this thesis, I discuss, from a metatheoretical perspective, how variationist sociolinguistics seems to be undergoing a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense. Roughly around the turn of the millennium, sociolinguists interested in the study of phonological change have shifted their focus from sociological macro-categories like social class or gender to social performativity and indexical meaningfulness in language variation. While some have theorised this development as a methodological extension of already existent work (Eckert, 2012), I locate here a radical theory change – an ontological breach with important consequences. What seems to be at stake is not the reliance on monolithic social categories but the ‘narrow interface between language and society’ (Labov, 2001, p. 28) from the early days. In other words, the orthodox conception of language change as language-internal factors ‘unfolding’ themselves in a speech community is being overthrown. The main body of this thesis comprises three papers, two of which have already been published (Woschitz, 2019; Woschitz & Yağlı, 2019), one of which is currently under review (Woschitz, under review). In Woschitz and Yağlı (2019), my colleague and I provide a case study of lexical meaning change in the course of the run-up to the Turkish constitutional referendum 2017. We argue that language change, be it lexical or phonological, cannot be separated from the sociocultural surroundings in which it takes place. Woschitz (2019) surveys how Labov himself has quarrelled with this fact in his own work, and how, in an oeuvre that spans 50 years, he has adjusted his theoretical framework to rise to the challenge. Part of the described reorientations have been initiated by so-called third-wave variationism, with Eckert (2012) leading the way, but epistemological tensions in Labov’s treatment of language and society have been present from the start. Third-wave variationism, in turn, is still sorting out the consequences of the radical reorientations it proposes. Woschitz (under review) zooms out for the big picture. In this paper, I draw a parallel between the history of Labovian sociolinguistics and Chomskyan syntax. Even though these two linguistic subdisciplines are rather different in nature, I argue that their theoretical reorientations over the past 60 years share certain philosophical similarities. Here, I turn to the philosophy of science, particularly to the scientific realism debate, to assess whether one can identify in their developments a common denominator that warrants talking about scientific progress in the broad sense. I argue that linguists turning away from Universal Grammar and internal factors in their explanations of language-related phenomena is indicative of a broader trend within linguistics – a reverse trend that problematises linguistic autonomy that was envisaged by linguists in the past 200 years (Joseph, 2002, chapter 3).