Table of Contents:

The Hypotheses

The central hypothesis for this study is thus, rather than lose dialect as a result of myriad experiences throughout their lifetime, speakers actually gain a massive amount of new lexical knowledge that is not dialect (i.e., the expanding of the diamond). The standard language is the medium par excellence for diversification in all fields of specialisation, an aspect of human language development that is particularly acute during mid-life. Thus, it follows that, so long as speakers continue to participate in those situations where speaking dialect is appropriate, the dialect will remain strong. As more experiences accumulate outside the sphere in which the dialect is the primary mode of communication, we expect to see an increase in the use of the standard language and a relative decrease in the use of dialect. As the breadth of experiences begin to subside in later life and as speakers’ worlds become smaller (i.e., the contracting of the diamond), we expect the trend to reverse, revealing a decrease in standard language usage and an increase in dialect (with an exception, of course, for individuals who have moved outside of the dialect sphere, such as to other localities or with non-dialect-speaking partners.

How broadly or narrowly individuals’ dialect and standard vocabularies expand or contract over the course of their lifetime will also be heavily dependent, amongst other things, on their personal orientation and identity with the local dialect and community. Studies have shown that individuals who identify more with the local community and place high value on their culture and traditions are more likely to retain more dialect forms, while individuals who orient themselves beyond the local community and manifest broader and more diverse world views are more likely to use more standard language forms (Beaman 2020; Beaman and Tomaschek 2021). Hence, our second hypothesis predicts that the degree of dialect loss or maintenance is modulated by speakers’ local orientation and identity with their homeland.

Related to the supposition that speakers lose dialect forms as they age is whether dialect forms are used with the same intensity (i.e., frequency) as standard language forms across the lifespan. Prior research has shown that the encroachment of the standard language on the dialect is most successful for the lowest frequency words (drawn from the CELEX lexical database) (Wieling et al. 2011). Lower-frequency words tend to occur in contexts that are ever-more specific, in which they are used far more frequently than their average probabilities would otherwise predict (Katz 1996). An empirical consequence of this is that the lower average frequency any given word has, the harder it will become to disentangle its loss from its not having been relevant to any given context observed. This problem is further confounded by an inevitable consequence of our first hypothesis, simply because any growth in knowledge and use of standard language vocabulary items must inevitably lead to a decrease in the frequency at which dialect items are used. That is, when Swabians add gemelli and ravioli to their vocabularies, and when they eat gemelli and ravioli on days when they might previously have eaten Spatzle and Maultaschen, the average frequencies at which they the words Spatzle and Maultaschen must inevitably decrease, along with the number of contexts in which they are used. Given that, these changes will not reflect an individual’s loss of Spatzle and Maultaschen so much as an increase in the breadth and specialization of their vocabulary as a result of their extra experiences, our third hypothesis predicts that where dialect vocabulary items do appear to be lost across the lifespan, these apparent losses will actually reflect reduced intensity of use and not the loss of the knowledge of individual word types, which we expect to be most prominent in the lowest-frequency words.

The Current Study

This study investigates lexical richness in dialect and standard language word usage across the lifespan. Our investigation is positioned at the intersection of the fields of dialectology (dialect contact and attrition studies), sociolinguistics (longitudinal variationist and identity studies), psycholinguistics (lexical frequency studies), and psychology (aging and cognition studies). We first describe the corpus we used and explain the methodology we employed, followed by a presentation of the analysis and results. We conclude with a discussion on the importance of considering lexical distributions and the nature of lifetime learning in studies of language change across the lifespan.

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