Language variability: pin vs pen and beyond

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I'm not at all surprised that Mark's posts on regional variation in American English (here) and (here) have stirred up such reader interest, because speech variability seems to be one of the first things people notice, even if they can't pinpoint exactly what it is. It's not as well understood that there is a long tradition of studying variation in the languages of the world, even in the United States. But there was a time when the study of linguistic geography was an important part of most linguistics departments. In the 1950s and 1960s you could study with nationally prominent linguists at universities in Ann Arbor, Chicago, New York, Washington, Providence, Berkeley, Cleveland, Madison, Seattle, Austin, and other places. The BIG names in linguistics back then included dialectologists such as Hans Kurath, Raven McDavid, Fred Cassidy, Albert Marckwardt, Harold Allen, Carroll Reed, E. Bagby Atwood, W. Nelson Francis, Uriel Weinreich, David Reed, James Sledd, and others. Their papers about regional dialects were prominent features at annual meetings of the Linguistic Society of America.

The impact of these giants (and those in Europe as well) was strongly felt by the entire field of linguistics, which in those days was primarily descriptive. In fact, language variability was what attracted me to linguistics in the first place. I had begun my PhD studies in English literature until I took a grad seminar on Chaucer, during which I got excited (not "interested," but "excited") about the dialects of that period. I am deeply indebted to that professor, Morton Bloomfield, for encouraging me to change the focus of my grad studies to study with McDavid, who also taught me the joys of doing fieldwork, first in Illinois and later in Michigan and Washington DC. In the late 1950s he started me off by doing Linguistic Atlas interviews in all the rural counties of Illinois, an experience that changed my life in many ways.

Thanks primarily to the tremendous and enduring influence of Bill Labov in the 1960s, the older focus on regional dialectology expanded to language variability that went far beyond the older, rural, relatively uneducated white male subjects to the exciting language variation of people of all ages, races, localities, education level, social status, and gender. Labov opened the door to the linguistic reality that individual pronunciations and grammatical features are used variably even by the same speaker, explaining for example, why I, a native North Midland dialect speaker, sometimes use the /ih/ vowel before nasal consonants and sometimes the /eh/ vowel. Today, the field is now called sociolinguistics. The same rigorous descriptive work continues today, but much more broadly than before and with much more useful applications to social issues in the real world.

The multitude of comments to Mark's posts on "pin/pen" variation are illustrative of the deep interest people have on language variability of all types, as well as language change in progress.  We seem to want to talk like each other in order to be understood, but different enough from each other to maintain our individual and social identities.

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