Home   |   Lg & Gender   |   Lg & Adolescence   |   Gascon   |   Courses   |   3rd Wave   |   Vowels for NPR   |   Communities of Practice

Third Wave Variation Studies

I view social studies of linguistic variation as coming in three loosely-ordered waves, all of which are essential to the understanding of variation and change.

First Wave

William Labov initiated the first wave of quantitative studies of variation with his monumental work, The Social Stratification of English in New York City. The studies in this tradition use survey and quantitative methods to examine the relation between linguistic variability and major demographic categories (class, age, sex class, ethnicity). The results of these studies have combined to develop the "big picture" of the social spread of sound change, in which the socioeconomic hierarchy figures as a map of social space and change spreads outward from the locally-based upper working class.

Second Wave

The second wave of variation studies employs ethnographic methods to seek out the relation between variation and local, participant-designed categories and configurations. These commonly give local meaning to the more abstract demographic categories outlined in the first wave. Both first and second wave studies focus on some kind of speech community, and examine linguistic features by and large as a function of their defining role as local/regional dialect features. These studies view the meanings of variants as identity markers related directly to the groups that most use them.
Third Wave
Building on the findings of the First and Second Waves of variation studies, the Third Wave focuses on the social meaning of variables. It views styles, rather than variables, as directly associated with identity categories, and explores the contributions of variables to styles. Since it takes social meaning as primary, it examines not just variables that are of prior interest to linguists (e.g. changes in progress) but any linguistic material that serves an expressive purpose. And in extending the focus from dialects to styles, it explores the relation between speaker categories and personae. Finally, it examines variation as part of the wider performative system of language and its meaning as part of the wider meaning system.

Eckert, Penelope (2012). Three waves of variation study: The emergence of meaning in the study of variation. Annual Review of Anthropology, 41.87-100.
Eckert, Penelope (2019). The limits of meaning: Social indexicality, variation, and the cline of interiority. Language 95(4). 751-76.