In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Variationist Sociolinguistics

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Foundational Works
  • Monographs
  • Methods
  • Internal (Non-Social) Constraints on Variation
  • Variation in Sign Languages
  • Bi-/Multilingualism and Language Contact
  • Community Engagement

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Linguistics Variationist Sociolinguistics
Robert Bayley, Richard Cameron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0243


Researchers in language variation seek to understand how linguistic, social, and individual factors influence speakers’ choices within sets of related variable forms as in, for example, the alternation between working and workin’ in English. A central premise in this approach is that the variation observed at all linguistic levels is not random. Rather, provided that one has sufficient information about speakers’ backgrounds and the linguistic contexts in which a variable form occurs (e.g., whether a final /t/ or /d/ in English followed by a consonant or a vowel), one can predict, in a probabilistic sense, which speakers will be more likely to choose one variant or another. Further, variationists maintain that variation is an essential characteristic of language change. By applying rigorous multivariate statistical analysis to a wide range of variable forms at all linguistic levels, ranging from phonetic detail to language choice, variationists have demonstrated conclusively that most of the variation that is observed in language is highly systematic. The demonstration of systematic variability has been particularly important for minority languages and dialects, which, until the development of sociolinguistics, were often regarded as imperfect copies of the standard languages or dialects with which they co-existed. In recent decades, variationists have expanded the scope of their work and shown that systematic variation is characteristic of all human languages regardless of modality or stage of development. Research on variation in sign languages, for example, has shown that they are subject to many of the same linguistic and social influences as spoken languages. Moreover, language learners, whether first, second, or nth, have been shown to vary systematically in their use of forms that are usually considered obligatory in the target language as well as in their use of forms that vary in the target language. Finally, variationists have sought to use the findings from their research to improve conditions in the communities from which they draw their data, particularly in education for children who speak a minority language or dialect.


A substantial number of textbooks covering language variation and change have appeared in recent years. This section provides a list of textbooks written for different levels, with somewhat different areas of interest. Van Herk 2018 is perhaps the most accessible of the volumes listed here and assumes the least knowledge of linguistics. Meyerhoff 2018 is also quite accessible for undergraduates. Importantly, Meyerhoff includes numerous examples from studies conducted outside of North America and Europe, as well as examples from studies of variation in sign languages. Kiesling 2011 provides a useful overview that should be suitable for a second- or third-year course. Díaz-Campos 2014 and Silva-Corvalán and Enrique-Arias 2017, both intended for students in Hispanic linguistics, focus on studies in the Spanish speaking world. Wolfram and Schilling 2016, a thorough treatment of variation and change in American English, is suitable for more advanced courses on American dialects. Among the works considered here, Chambers 2009 and Tagliamonte 2012 are most suitable for more advanced students. Both focus on the theoretical foundations of studies of language variation and change, while Tagliamonte has a very useful section on innovative statistical methods.

  • Chambers, J. K. 2009. Linguistic variation and its social significance. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Chambers provides a clear overview of the theoretical basis of the variationist enterprise.

  • Díaz-Campos, Manuel. 2014. Introducción a la sociolingüística Hispánica. Malden, MA: John Wiley.

    Variationist sociolinguists working on Spanish have made major contributions to the field. Díaz-Campos provides a wide-ranging and influential textbook treatment of variationist research into Latin American and US Spanish, including issues of languages in contact, bilingualism, heritage Spanish, language attitudes, and language and the law.

  • Kiesling, Scott F. 2011. Language variation and change. Edinburgh: Univ. of Edinburgh Press.

    An overview of the major topics in the study of language variation and change, intended for undergraduates with some background in basic linguistics.

  • Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2018. Introducing sociolinguistics. 3d ed. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780429507922

    A clear introduction to sociolinguistics that is suitable for first-year students. The third edition includes substantial data from sign languages and Asia-Pacific sociolinguistics.

  • Silva-Corvalán, Carmen, and Andrés Enrique-Arias. 2017. Sociolingüística y pragmática del español: Segunda edición. Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ. Press.

    Silva-Corvalán, a distinguished variationist, and her colleague Enrique-Arias, update Silva-Corvalán’s influential textbook on the sociolinguistics and pragmatics of Spanish. Chapters on variationist methodology, phonological and syntactic variation, variation and change, as well as pragmatics, language contact, and bilingualism, make this a go-to textbook for students in the field of Hispanic sociolinguistics.

  • Tagliamonte, Sali A. 2012. Variationist sociolinguistics: Change, observation, interpretation. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    The most advanced of current textbooks. Tagliamonte not only reviews the literature, but provides a step by step guide to research. The chapter on quantitative analysis introduces students to new tools of statistical analysis. Tagliamonte also includes chapters on variables at all different linguistic levels, with abundant examples.

  • Van Herk, Gerard. 2018. What is sociolinguistics? 2d ed. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

    A clear introduction to the field that assumes little previous knowledge of linguistics.

  • Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling. 2016. American English: Dialects and variation. 3d ed. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

    A collaboration between one of the founders of the discipline and a major contemporary scholar, this volume offers a clear overview of variation in American English dialects. The third edition includes expanded sections on ethnic minority dialects, particularly Chicano English.

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