Sex-related variability

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  • Today
  • Sex-related variability: Differentiation of speech behavior between males and females related to physiological, neurological and biological factors.
  • Gender-related variability: Differentiation of speech behavior between males and females related to gender roles.
  • Key terms
  • Speaker Variable: Gender
    • Articles:
      • Eckert, 1998: “Gender and Sociolinguistic Variation
      • Eckert, 1988: “Adolescent social structure and the spread of linguistic change”
      • Gal, 1997: “Peasant men can’t get wives”
  • Today


  • Traditional generalization regarding gender differences in speech:
  • “Women use fewer stigmatized and non-standard variants than do men of the same social group in the same circumstances. “ Chambers, p. 102
  • Traditional explanations for the generalization
  • On what basis do authors relate women to “standard variants”?
    • Data
    • Studies

The last word?

  • Studies of Language Variation:
  • Men and women in different cultures stand in different relations to linguistic markets.
    • Exclusion from workplace
    • Obtain jobs where required to be “technicians of language”
    • Given responsibilities for representing an organization
  • A clear delineation of gender roles in society becomes associated with clear distinctions in male and female use of sociolinguistic markers
  • Where gender roles also signal differences in social mobility, we may expect other factors to interact with gender: e.g., education, social class


  • Theoretical Goal:
  • --explain the mechanisms whereby phonological change spreads outward from urban areas and upward through the socioeconomic hierarchy
  • Research Goal:
  • --in a social network study, examine adolescent’s use of innovatory and conservative linguistic forms
  • Eckert 1988: Belten High Study
  • vowels show flux in this dialect:
    • (ae) bad [Q] to raised variant [e]
    • (uh) cut ranges from to backed [ç]
    • (ay) right monopthongizes to [a˘]
  • advances with proximity to Detroit
  • advances with proximity to Detroit
  • advances with distance from Detroit
  • [√]

Sociolinguistic Competence

  • A fluent speaker’s knowledge (largely tacit) of admissible variation in language, the types of social meaning that may be embedded in language, and the rules governing alternative structural choices.
  • Language forms index social categories (genders, social classes, ages, regional origins, social networks) and stylistic registers
  • e.g., post-vocalic /r/. Variants: {[®], ø} ”transmitter to receiver
  • e.g., (ae)-tensing. Variants: {[iQ], [e´], [Q]} ”cat”
  • e.g., (-ing)-alternation. Variants: {[IN], [In]} ”singin’”
  • A comprehensive theory of language accounts for speakers’ knowledge of:
  • systemic potential (Is Alternation X part of my system?)
  • appropriateness (Is Alternation X effective or suitable in this context?)
  • occurrence (Is Alternation X done, and likely to be understood by another speaker?)
  • feasibility (Is Alternation X possible, given means of implementation available?)
  • region
  • region/class
  • register

Milestones in Linguistic Development

  • 3 months: Linguistic Precursors
  • Child’s physiology gets ready for speech (lowering of larynx,articulatory control)
  • 5 months: Babbling
  • Early babbling (5-6 mos) “aaaaa”, “bababababa,” “pppppppp”
  • Canonical babbling (7-10 mos) “mada,” “dele”
  • 12 months: One-Word Stage
  • Protowords: consistent phonetic form used to refer to something (e.g., “yaya” juice)
  • Holophrastic speech: A single word used to convey an entire utterance, e.g. “allgone”
  • 18-24 months: Two-Word Stage
  • Emergence of syntax, e.g. “Give ball”
  • >18 months: There’s no Three-Word stage!

Categorical vs. Variable Features

  • Linguistic forms may occur categorically, or show fluctuation
  • Fluctuating forms occur with a likelihood or probability value (non-random, learnable)
  • (largely) Categorical feature:
    • In right-branching languages, determiners will appear to the left of the nouns they modify (“the snowstorm”)
    • Tensing of short-a (Northern Midwest dialects) ”cat”
  • (largely) Variable feature:
    • Postvocalic /r/ deletion in informal settings “Park the car in Harvard yard.”
    • Double-modal constructions “She might could want to come.”
    • Can occur at any level of the grammar

The issue

  • Acquisition of variation
    • child learners expect language to contain and employ socially meaningful variation
    • Adults, not children, have been subject of sociolinguistic studies of variation
    • But, how does systematic variability develop? What does it look like?

Variation in Adult Input to Children

  • Foulkes, Docherty and Watt (1999) note that variation in the input to young speakers can “enhance the movement from the holistic word level of representation to segmental awareness by producing allophonic examples, which “may serve to highlight the location of permutable components of words.”
  • Wassink, Wright and Franklin (2005)
  • Sound elements used contrastively in the [Jamaican Creole] language system were manipulated to the greatest extent in child-directed speech, while non-contrastive elements were used to enhance understanding in speech directed to adults.

Difficulties Obtaining Child Speech

  • Chevrot, et al. (2000), Roberts (2002)
  • Developmental variation due to differences in physiological and cognitive maturation
  • Patterns reflecting imitation
  • Distinguishing word-by-word (“lexical”) learning from rule-based learning
  • Testing difficulties: attentional fluctuation (often resulting in insufficient amounts of data to be representative of the speaker)
  • Low intelligibility of utterances (less so for preschool age)
  • Possibility of DIFFERENT stylistic or social goals (different form-meaning mapping than in adults)

Early Perspectives

  • Labov (1964)
  • Categorical features first
  • Vernacular (=dialectal) forms predicted to be acquired LATE in adolescence (10-12)
  • Standard forms acquired later (around age 14) under contact with other members of the linguistic community outside of their friends and family.
  • “By the age of six a child exposed to English will have constructed the grammar of his language. This does not mean that no further development of his knowledge of language is possible. ...We also learn certain less usual constructions of the language. These exceptional or marked patterns of the language are not taken to be part of the core grammar of the language, they belong to the marked periphery of the grammar and may be acquired later. The native speaker will also have to learn all of the social or cultural conventions associated with his language, for instance, that certain words belong to a very high style whereas others are informal. These conventions are not part of the grammar, they belong to the more general domain of human behavior.” (Haegeman 2005, p. 17)

Crosslinguistic Evidence: studies of acquisition of variability in children

  • For what ages has systematic variation been found?
  • Fischer (1958) British English (t,d), (-ing): social variation ages 3-10
  • Roberts (1994, 1996, 1997) American English (Philadelphia variety), (t,d): both, ages 3-4
  • Díaz-Campos (2005) Venezuelan Spanish, intervocalic-d deletion: both, ages 3-5
  • Sankoff and Blondeau (2006) Montreal French trilled /r/ vs. uvular /R/: both, ages 3;6-4;11
  • Purcell (1984) Hawaiian Creole English, various variables: both, 5-12
  • Chevrot, Beaud & Varga (2000) Southeastern French /R/: both, ages 6-7
  • Romaine (1978) Scottish English trilled /r/: social and stylistic, ages 6-8
  • Fischer (1958) British English (t,d): stylistic variation ages 10-11
  • Reid (1978) Scottish English glottal stop, (-ing) alternation: stylistic, age 11

Roberts (1994,6,7)

  • 16 children ages 3;2-4;11
  • obtained large amounts of data; a range of styles (6-13 sessions/child)
  • deletion of final (-t,d) in consonant clusters
  • adult’s patterns: (most deletion to least deletion):
  • Grammatical constraint:
    • monomorphemes, e.g., next [nEks]
    • semi-weak verbs, e.g., lost, slept [las] [slEp]
    • regular past tense forms missed [mIs]
  • Phonological constraint:
    • delete more for a following consonant>vowel>pause
    • “past tense”>”past us”> “ran past.”
  • American English (Philadelphia area)
  • Findings:
  • Preschoolers similar to adults:
    • phonological constraints mastered
  • Rule-based not word-based pattern:
    • semiweak verbs treated differently from adult semiweak forms
  • Social constraints less-well mastered

Díaz-Campos (2005)

  • 36 children in 2 cohorts: ages 42-53 mos (3;6 - 4;5) and 54-71 mos (4;6 - 5;11)
  • Working (WC) and middle (MC) social classes
  • Targeted 2 speech styles
  • Do children's productions fluctuate in a manner showing sensitivity to formality?
  • Examined interaction between socioeconomic class and age (to tease apart developmental effects)
  • intervocalic /d/-spirantization
    • e.g., boda [boDa]
  • Findings:
  • Again, preschoolers similar to adults
  • Both social classes deleted more in informal than formal styles
  • Venezuelan Spanish
  • Deletion levels in younger cohort suggest this is not a maturational, but a sociolinguistic effect:
    • WC=28% MC=10%
  • Concludes that preschoolers are showing adult-like command of a variable linguistic feature.

Chevrot, Beaud & Varga (2000)

  • 60 children ages 6-7, 10-12
  • Exp. 1: Studied deletion of post-consonantal, word-final /R/ (e.g., sucre, vinaigre, coffre)
  • Exp. 2: Pseudoword experiment tests rule- vs. lexical-based learning
    • “bydeincre,” “maullopre”
  • Factors tested: age, formality of situation, phonological environment
  • Findings (Exp. 1):
  • 6-7 yr olds deleted more than 10-12 yr olds
  • more deletions in informal than in formal style
  • Following phonological environment is most crucial predictor of deletion
  • Older children show a stronger stylistic “adaptation”
  • Southeastern French
  • Findings (Exp. 2):
  • written prompts lead to conservation of /R/, whereas oral learning associated with style-based deletions commensurate with Exp. 1
  • Conclusions: phonological constraint emerges prior to age 6;
  • sociolinguistic constraint emerges around age 6-7
  • lexical learning ruled out


  • Descriptive coverage (Romance and Germanic)
  • Phonological variation only
  • Lexical learning not completely ruled out

Insights from Rohan

  • home environment: English/Sinhalese/Jamaican Creole
  • first words 10-12 mos (“mama,” “dada,” “amma”)
  • 68 words, 14 mos
  • earliest signs of phonological variation, 17 mos
  • (17 mos.)

Insights from Rohan

  • (1) postvocalic-r
  • heart, harbor, mirror*, shark
  • “Amma says /ha˘t/; you [Mommy] say /ha®t/” (23 mos.)
  • “Trevor is at the ‘[ha˘ b´]’ Is it ‘/ha®˘b´®/’, Mommy?” (23 mos.)
  • “mirror”  [mi®´]
  • “shark”  [Sa˘k] (“babytalk style”, 26 mos. to present)
  • (2) tensing of short-(i) (Eastern US)
  • “locomotive” [tv]
  • generalized to “detective”
  • *deletion in syllable-initial contexts prohibited (mi-ROR)
  • (36 mos.)

Current Perspective

  • Children do acquire socially-influenced variable patterns prior to adolescence
  • Children become socially competent language users early--as they acquire language
  • Simultaneity of acquisition of variable and categorical features makes it difficult to defend a view that sociolinguistic competence vis a vis acquisition of variation is layered on top of or follows “basic acquisition.”
  • Adult-modeled variation may be instructive for learning styles

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