IV: New Methodological Approaches for Lifespan Studies

Exploring the Effect of Linguistic Architecture and Heuristic Method in Panel Analysis

Isabelle Bucbstaller, Anne Krause-Lercbe, and Johanna Mechler


The relative stability in linguistic abilities across the adult lifespan is one of the most fiercely contested issues in linguistic research. Introduced by Penfield and Roberts in 1959 and refined by Lenneberg in 1967, the critical-period hypothesis states that speakers’ ‘susceptibility’ or ‘sensitivity’ to language input varies as a function of age, with adult L2 learners being less susceptible to input than child L2 learners’ (Vanhove 2013: 1). The original version of the critical-period hypothesis thus relies on two assumptions, namely that age-susceptibility in language learning (i) is non-linear and (ii) that it decreases with advancing age. The hypothesis has since been modified and is currently conceptualised in a plethora of ways (Elman et al. 1997; Hakuta et al. 2003, inter alia). Formal schools of linguistics tend to apply a strict interpretation of the critical-period hypothesis, relegating linguistic elasticity uniquely to child language acquisition and interpreting malleability in later life as situation-specific performance effects with no repercussions for the stability of the speaker’s internal grammar (Chomsky 1964; Anderson 2016). For variationists, the assumption of post-adolescent stability has given rise to the apparent-time hypothesis, whereby age-stratified variation is interpreted as diagnostic of ongoing language change (Fabov 1972). While this hypothesis remains one of the cornerstones of the variationist toolkit, observed post-adolescent linguistic malleability has provided grounds for questioning the strong interpretation of the critical-age hypothesis and thus the applicability of the apparent-time construct (Sankoff 2005, 2018; Buchstaller and Wagner 2018, inter alia). To date, the jury is still out on the limits and determinants of linguistic malleability within the individual speaker (Bowie and Yaeger- Dror 2016).

On the basis of this “lack of scholarly consensus” (Vanhove 2013: 1, see also MacKenzie 2017), our chapter addresses two epistemological points of contention in linguistic research exploring the limits of postadolescent intra-speaker malleability: i. The effect of linguistic architecture on (in)stability in later life (in our case phonology versus morphosyntax) and

ii. The heuristic techniques used to examine speaker-internal lability (i.e., testing for changes in inventory, in proportional frequency or in the constraint system).

To this aim, we present a small pilot study which explores the contribution of different methods that are currently used across the linguistic sub-disciplines to an analysis of the same three variables situated at different levels of language structure:

  • • the variable but diachronically stable realisation of (ing), as in I’m just talk[m/vjordinary
  • • the change-in-progress in the realisation of (t), as in His attiy/tll7]ude
  • • the change-in-progress in choices in the quotative system, as in She said/was like/thought, etc. “Yow lost your front teeth?”

Our analysis relies on a panel sample comprising of six speakers from the North East of England. We show that linguistic architecture matters in terms of a speaker’s propensity to change across the lifespan, a phenomenon that relates to questions of accessibility (Labov 1993; Sankoff and Blondeau 2007; Buchstaller 2016). We also discuss our finding that the relative (in)stability of post-adolescent speakers’ language use is fundamentally dependent on the heuristics employed for investigating this malleability, which, while not surprising, calls for great care in comparing the findings of panel research. The following sections briefly describe the theoretical background for our investigation, followed by a description of the variables analysed and the statistical procedures employed.

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