LANGUAGE VERSUS A LANGUAGE VERSUS THE LANGUAGE

In 1968 Weinreich, Labov and Herzog published a long contribution to a book edited by Lehmann and Malkiel titled Directions for Historical Linguistics: A Symposium. The title of their contribution was “Empirical foundations for a theory of language change”, and it was an extended rewrite of a lecture given at the symposium referred to in the title of the book. It has since become one of the most significant sets of statements on how we should go about researching the problems of language change, and it contains the recognition of an archetypal language myth that sociolinguists seriously need to acknowledge, the linguistic homogeneity myth.

In a nutshell, Weinreich et al.’s argument starts from the following premise: Trying to develop theories of how language change occurs is hampered if those theories are based on structuralist and generative approaches to language. They state quite explicitly at one point in the article that “structural theories of language, so fruitful in synchronic investigation, have saddled historical linguistics with [four basic paradoxes] which have not been fully overcome” (1968: 98). The first three of these paradoxes are listed below. All will be important for the argument I now wish to develop:

  • 1. the “language as a homogeneous system” paradox,
  • 2. the paradox that language change always involves a changefrom one homogeneous synchronic state of the language in question to another,
  • 3. the paradox that looking at language as a homogeneous system and taking change to be change from one homogeneous state to another does not allow the researcher to consider what Weinreich et al. call the “orderly differentiation” displayed in all language.
 
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