This seminar offers a general introduction to the different dimensions along which language tends to vary in everyday life, as well as a more specific introduction to the concept of ‘speech communities’, used to study language variation within the framework of sociolinguistics (Gumperz; Labov). Throughout the term, we will look at different speech communities – in more recent years also called ‘communities of practice’ (Lave and Wenger; Eckert), i.e. groups of people who through frequent interaction start sharing linguistic norms and ideals. We will look at how these groups – ranging from groups of friends to entire countries, and encompassing different ethnicities, ages and social backgrounds – use language to construct social and group identity, how speakers can be members of different groups, how dialect features spread through space and society, and how the concept of speech community can be applied to language use in the newly emerging social networks found online. In addition to various studies that we will read and discuss in this course, we will also look at models used to describe the mechanisms of variation, methods of data collection, and what the analysis of real language data implies. Students choosing this course should be avid readers and share an interest in variational linguistics. The course is open to all students who have successfully completed Modules A/II and C/III.

Preparatory readings:

William Labov (1963) “The social motivation of a sound change.” Word 19:3, 273–309.