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Inferring social meaning from language variation: liminality and gender

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posted on 2023-06-09, 18:57 authored by Evan Hazenberg
The variationist sociolinguistic enterprise has long been interested in the systematicities of language variation. While tensions between internal (structural) and external (social) factors have been productively explored within the variationist paradigm, there has been relatively little work addressing which factors drive change, and which merely condition it (e.g. Kristiansen 2011). The role of social meaning in shaping the trajectory of language change is being increasingly recognised, but the degree to which social interpretation of linguistic cues is subconscious (e.g. Campbell-Kibler 2010) complicates the matter from a methodological perspective. Beyond those variables that are easily articulable to members of a speech community (stereotypes in the Labovian sense), inferring social meaning from distribution alone is liable to underestimate the complexity of the social-structural interface. Multivariate analysis identifies factors that constrain variation, but cannot give any insight into the interpretability of those social constraints from the perspective of the speaker or the hearer. Perception studies provide a more socially-oriented analysis of the salience of variation (e.g. Niedzielski 1999, Strand 1999), but this experimental approach relies on already having identified relevant linguistic variables and social factors. By exploring a novel method for teasing apart social and structural variation, this paper presents a first step towards modelling these two types of variation independently, which will allow future research to more closely interrogate the processes by which synchronic variation accrues enough momentum to tip over into diachronic language change (e.g. Weinreich, Labov & Herzog 1968; Meyerhoff & Klaere 2017). This paper focuses on the linguistic production of people who have crossed a socially reified category boundary and who are invested in presenting an authentic identity once across. A comparison of the linguistic variation in the speech of these ‘liminal’ people with that observed in members of the broader speech communities on either side of the boundary allows us to not only note where there are linguistic differences with respect to that boundary, but also to see which of these differences carry enough social meaning for liminal speakers to make use of them. This approach is explored with two data sets: one in New Zealand using transsexual participants (considered liminal with respect to gender), and an ongoing pilot project examining regional variation in the UK using actors as professionally liminal performers. The New Zealand project, with its small (n=46) purpose-built corpus of sociolinguistic interviews, finds that young trans men’s vowels are sometimes aligned with those of young men and sometimes those of young women. Given that NZE vowels are known to be undergoing change (e.g. Hay, Maclagan & Gordon 2008) and that gender is generally implicated in phonological change (Labov 1990, 2001), it seems that these trans men are highly attuned to which vowels are gendered, and selectively manipulate those variables to present a socially interpretable gendered identity. The UK pilot tests two related questions: Is the liminality construct extendable beyond the narrow scope of gender? And is liminality as productive in differentiating the social from the structural within relatively stable systems?


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  • Published

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QMUL, London

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2-5 September 2019

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  • English Publications

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  • No

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