The gradual ousting of one of two or more expressions of the “same thing” is the most straightforward and intuitive scenario for change. But resulting shifts in rates of occurrence of competing variants may stem from a variety of other sources as well (Poplack & Tagliamonte 2001). Even where they do signal change, rarely is it confined to the rise or decline of a variant, and even more rarely will it go to completion, especially in the time spans typically available to linguistic inquiry. These facts highlight the importance of focusing more systematically on the transition period between endpoints of change. What transpires in this interval? How do changes spread across grammatical sectors and communities of speakers, and what does their trajectory reveal about the productivity, dispersion and potential for survival of the variants involved?
Drawing on the Comparative Variationist framework (Poplack & Meechan 1998; Tagliamonte 2002), we address these questions through analysis of three corpora of spoken Quebec French (QF; Poplack 1989; 2015; Poplack & St-Amand 2009), which together cover an apparent-time span of a century and half, offering a virtually unprecedented amount of time to trace the existence and progression of slow-moving changes in speech. QF lends itself particularly well to this endeavour, since it is widely assumed to have changed profoundly, whether through isolation from metropolitan French or contact with English in Canada.
Sustained analyses of a number of morphosyntactic variables in these materials did in fact turn up some spectacular changes in the distribution of alternating variants, but the configuration of environmental factors affecting their selection is more revealing. Such conditioning can be construed as the grammar of the variability, and its varying dispositions may be marshalled at different points in time to identify and classify types and pathways of change. This exercise uncovered remarkable stability at the core grammatical level. But a recent deep dive (Poplack & Dion 2021) into these competing trajectories revealed alterations of many more subtle types that throw the standard enterprise of relying on rates to infer change into doubt. Among the most potentially misleading are rising rates with loss of productivity, stable rates with change of function, and mismatches in rates and conditioning. Importantly, only some of these qualify as structural changes, others are more accurately viewed as changes in the “textual habitat” (Szmrecsanyi 2016). Indeed, the vagaries of the linguistic contexts hosting the variants (whether receding, expanding, or serving as “last bastions”) play a crucial role in these and other previously undocumented developments. The same is true of extra-linguistic contexts, since some variants may be totally absent from the speech of some community members, while increasing or waning in that of others.
In this paper we review these developments, largely invisible to any but quantitative variationist analysis over the longue durée, and propose a more holistic approach to the identification and assessment of change. This would incorporate not only rates, but also conditioning and context, while simultaneously taking account of productivity and dispersion. We argue that only once the various types of change have been apprehended in the stream of spontaneous speech and accurately identified, can we begin to address questions about where they occur (if at all), when and under what conditions.
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Poplack, S. 2015. Norme prescriptive, norme communautaire et variation diaphasique. In Kragh K. & J.Lindschouw (eds.), Les variations diasystématiques dans les langues romanes et leurs Interdépendances. Série TraLiRo, Strasbourg, Société de linguistique romane : 293-319.
Poplack, S. & N. Dion. 2021. Cartographie de la variation et du changement morphosyntaxique en français : leçons à retenir. Cahiers internationaux de sociolinguistique 18: 83-115
Poplack, S. & M. Meechan. 1998. How languages fit together in codemixing. International Journal of Bilingualism 2.2:127-138
Poplack, S. & A. St-Amand. 2009. Les Récits du français québécois d’autrefois: reflet du parler vernaculaire du XIXe siècle. Canadian Journal of Linguistics 54(3): 511-546
Poplack, S. & S. Tagliamonte. 2001. African American English in the Diaspora. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Szmrecsanyi, B. 2016. About text frequencies in historical linguistics: Disentangling environmental and grammatical change. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 12(1): 153–171.
Tagliamonte, S. 2002. Comparative sociolinguistics. In Chambers. J. et al. (eds.). Handbook of language variation and change. Malden/Oxford: Blackwell.